The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xiii.

The Fashion of the Great Kaan’s Table at His High Feasts.

And when the Great Kaan sits at table on any great court occasion, it is in this fashion. His table is elevated a good deal above the others, and he sits at the north end of the hall, looking towards the south, with his chief wife beside him on the left. On his right sit his sons and his nephews, and other kinsmen of the Blood Imperial, but lower, so that their heads are on a level with the Emperor’s feet. And then the other Barons sit at other tables lower still. So also with the women; for all the wives of the Lord’s sons, and of his nephews and other kinsmen, sit at the lower table to his right; and below them again the ladies of the other Barons and Knights, each in the place assigned by the Lord’s orders. The tables are so disposed that the Emperor can see the whole of them from end to end, many as they are.1 [Further, you are not to suppose that everybody sits at table; on the contrary, the greater part of the soldiers and their officers sit at their meal in the hall on the carpets.] Outside the hall will be found more than 40,000 people; for there is a great concourse of folk bringing presents to the Lord, or come from foreign countries with curiosities.

In a certain part of the hall near where the Great Kaan holds his table, there [is set a large and very beautiful piece of workmanship in the form of a square coffer, or buffet, about three paces each way, exquisitely wrought with figures of animals, finely carved and gilt. The middle is hollow, and in it] stands a great vessel of pure gold, holding as much as an ordinary butt; and at each corner of the great vessel is one of smaller size [of the capacity of a firkin], and from the former the wine or beverage flavoured with fine and costly spices is drawn off into the latter. [And on the buffet aforesaid are set all the Lord’s drinking vessels, among which are certain pitchers of the finest gold,] which are called verniques,2 and are big enough to hold drink for eight or ten persons. And one of these is put between every two persons, besides a couple of golden cups with handles, so that every man helps himself from the pitcher that stands between him and his neighbour. And the ladies are supplied in the same way. The value of these pitchers and cups is something immense; in fact, the Great Kaan has such a quantity of this kind of plate, and of gold and silver in other shapes, as no one ever before saw or heard tell of, or could believe.3

[There are certain Barons specially deputed to see that foreigners, who do not know the customs of the Court, are provided with places suited to their rank; and these Barons are continually moving to and fro in the hall, looking to the wants of the guests at table, and causing the servants to supply them promptly with wine, milk, meat, or whatever they lack. At every door of the hall (or, indeed, wherever the Emperor may be) there stand a couple of big men like giants, one on each side, armed with staves. Their business is to see that no one steps upon the threshold in entering, and if this does happen, they strip the offender of his clothes, and he must pay a forfeit to have them back again; or in lieu of taking his clothes, they give him a certain number of blows. If they are foreigners ignorant of the order, then there are Barons appointed to introduce them, and explain it to them. They think, in fact, that it brings bad luck if any one touches the threshold. Howbeit, they are not expected to stick at this in going forth again, for at that time some are like to be the worse for liquor, and incapable of looking to their steps.4]

And you must know that those who wait upon the Great Kaan with his dishes and his drink are some of the great Barons. They have the mouth and nose muffled with fine napkins of silk and gold, so that no breath nor odour from their persons should taint the dish or the goblet presented to the Lord. And when the Emperor is going to drink, all the musical instruments, of which he has vast store of every kind, begin to play. And when he takes the cup all the Barons and the rest of the company drop on their knees and make the deepest obeisance before him, and then the Emperor doth drink. But each time that he does so the whole ceremony is repeated.5

I will say nought about the dishes, as you may easily conceive that there is a great plenty of every possible kind. But you should know that in every case where a Baron or Knight dines at those tables, their wives also dine there with the other ladies. And when all have dined and the tables have been removed, then come in a great number of players and jugglers, adepts at all sorts of wonderful feats,6 and perform before the Emperor and the rest of the company, creating great diversion and mirth, so that everybody is full of laughter and enjoyment. And when the performance is over, the company breaks up and every one goes to his quarters.

NOTE 1. — We are to conceive of rows of small tables, at each of which were set probably but two guests. This seems to be the modern Chinese practice, and to go back to some very old accounts of the Tartar nations. Such tables we find in use in the tenth century, at the court of the King of Bolghar (see Prologue, note 2, ch. ii.), and at the Chinese entertainments to Shah Rukh’s embassy in the fifteenth century. Megasthenes described the guests at an Indian banquet as having a table set before each individual. (Athenaeus, IV. 39, Yonge’s Transl.)

[Compare Rubruck’s account, Rockhill’s ed., p. 210: “The Chan sits in a high place to the north, so that he can be seen by all. . . . ” (See also Friar Odoric, Cathay, p. 141.)— H. C.]

NOTE 2. — This word (G. T. and Ram.) is in the Crusca Italian transformed into an adjective, “vaselle vernicate d’oro,” and both Marsden and Pauthier have substantially adopted the same interpretation, which seems to me in contradiction with the text. In Pauthier’s text the word is vernigal, pl. vernigaux, which he explains, I know not on what authority, as “coupes sans anses vernies ou laquées d’or.” There is, indeed, a Venetian sea-term, Vernegal, applied to a wooden bowl in which the food of a mess is put, and it seems possible that this word may have been substituted for the unknown Vernique. I suspect the latter was some Oriental term, but I can find nothing nearer than the Persian Barni, Ar. Al–Barníya, “vas fictile in quo quid recondunt,” whence the Spanish word Albornia, “a great glazed vessel in the shape of a bowl, with handles.” So far as regards the form, the change of Barniya into Vernique would be quite analogous to that change of Hundwáníy into Ondanique, which we have already met with. (See Dozy et Engelmann, Glos. des Mots Espagnols, etc., 2nd ed., 1867, p. 73; and Boerio, Diz. del. Dial. Venez.)

[F. Godefroy, Dict., s.v. Vernigal, writes: “Coupe sans anse, vernie ou laquée d’or,” and quotes, besides Marco Polo, the Regle du Temple, p. 214, éd. Soc. Hist. de France:

“Les vernigaus et les escuelles.”

About vernegal, cf. Rockhill, Rubruck, p. 86, note. Rubruck says (Soc. de Géog. p. 241): “Implevimus unum veringal de biscocto et platellum unum de pomis et aliis fructibus.” Mr. Rockhill translates veringal by basket.

Dr. Bretschneider (Peking, 28) mentions “a large jar made of wood and varnished, the inside lined with silver,” and he adds in a note “perhaps this statement may serve to explain Marco Polo’s verniques or vaselle vernicate d’oro, big enough to hold drink for eight or ten persons.”— H. C.]

A few lines above we have “of the capacity of a firkin.” The word is bigoncio, which is explained in the Vocab. Univ. Ital. as a kind of tub used in the vintage, and containing 3 mine, each of half a stajo. This seems to point to the Tuscan mina, or half stajo, which is = 1/3 of a bushel. Hence the bigoncio would = a bushel, or, in old liquid measure, about a firkin.

NOTE 3. — A buffet, with flagons of liquor and goblets, was an essential feature in the public halls or tents of the Mongols and other Asiatic races of kindred manners. The ambassadors of the Emperor Justin relate that in the middle of the pavilion of Dizabulus, the Khan of the Turks, there were set out drinking-vessels, and flagons and great jars, all of gold; corresponding to the coupes (or hanas à mances), the verniques, and the grant peitere and petietes peiteres of Polo’s account. Rubruquis describes in Batu Khan’s tent a buffet near the entrance, where Kumiz was set forth, with great goblets of gold and silver, etc., and the like at the tent of the Great Kaan. At a festival at the court of Oljaitu, we are told, “Before the throne stood golden buffets . . . set out with full flagons and goblets.” Even in the private huts of the Mongols there was a buffet of a humbler kind exhibiting a skin of Kumiz, with other kinds of drink, and cups standing ready; and in a later age at the banquets of Shah Abbas we find the great buffet in a slightly different form, and the golden flagon still set to every two persons, though it no longer contained the liquor, which was handed round. (Cathay, clxiv., cci.; Rubr. 224, 268, 305; Ilch. II. 183; Della Valle, I. 654 and 750–751.)

[Referring to the “large and very beautiful piece of workmanship,” Mr. Rockhill, Rubruck, 208–209, writes: “Similar works of art and mechanical contrivances were often seen in Eastern courts. The earliest I know of is the golden plane-tree and grape vine with bunches of grapes in precious stones, which was given to Darius by Pythius the Lydian, and which shaded the king’s couch. (Herodotus, IV. 24.) The most celebrated, however, and that which may have inspired Mangu with the desire to have something like it at his court, was the famous Throne of Solomon ([Greek: Solomónteos Thrónos]) of the Emperor of Constantinople, Theophilus (A.D. 829–842). . . . Abulfeda states that in A.D. 917 the envoys of Constantine Porphyrogenitus to the Caliph el Moktader saw in the palace of Bagdad a tree with eighteen branches, some of gold, some of silver, and on them were gold and silver birds, and the leaves of the tree were of gold and silver. By means of machinery, the leaves were made to rustle and the birds to sing. Mirkhond speaks also of a tree of gold and precious stones in the city of Sultanieh, in the interior of which were conduits through which flowed drinks of different kinds. Clavijo describes a somewhat similar tree at the court of Timur.”

Dr. Bretschneider (Peking, 28, 29) mentions a clepsydra with a lantern. By means of machinery put in motion by water, at fixed times a little man comes forward exhibiting a tablet, which announces the hours. He speaks also of a musical instrument which is connected, by means of a tube, with two peacocks sitting on a cross-bar, and when it plays, the mechanism causes the peacocks to dance. — H. C.]

Odoric describes the great jar of liquor in the middle of the palace hall, but in his time it was made of a great mass of jade (p. 130).

NOTE 4. — This etiquette is specially noticed also by Odoric, as well as by Makrizi, by Rubruquis, and by Plano Carpini. According to the latter the breach of it was liable to be punished with death. The prohibition to tread on the threshold is also specially mentioned in a Mahomedan account of an embassy to the court of Barka Khan. And in regard to the tents, Rubruquis says he was warned not to touch the ropes, for these were regarded as representing the threshold. A Russo–Mongol author of our day says that the memory of this etiquette or superstition is still preserved by a Mongol proverb: “Step not on the threshold; it is a sin!” But among some of the Mongols more than this survives, as is evident from a passage in Mr. Michie’s narrative: “There is a right and a wrong way of approaching yourt also. Outside the door there are generally ropes lying on the ground, held down by stakes, for the purpose of tying up the animals when they want to keep them together. There is a way of getting over or round these ropes that I never learned, but on one occasion the ignorant breach of the rule on our part excluded us from the hospitality of the family.” The feeling or superstition was in full force in Persia in the 17th century, at least in regard to the threshold of the king’s palace. It was held a sin to tread upon it in entering. (Cathay, 132; Rubr. 255, 268, 319; Plan. Carp. 625, 741; Makrizi, I. 214; Mél. Asiat. Ac. St. Petersb. II. 660; The Siberian Overland Route, p. 97; P. Della Valle, II. 171.)

[Mr. Rockhill writes (Rubruck, p. 104): “The same custom existed among the Fijians, I believe. I may note that it also prevailed in ancient China. It is said of Confucius ‘when he was standing he did not occupy the middle of the gate-way; when he passed in or out, he did not tread on the threshold.’ (Lun-yü, Bk. X. ch. iv. 2.) In China, the bride’s feet must not touch the threshold of the bridegroom’s house, (Cf. Denny’s Folk-lore in China, p. 18.)

“The author of the Ch’ue keng lu mentions also the athletes with clubs standing at the door, at the time of the khan’s presence in the hall. He adds, that next to the Khan, two other life-guards used to stand, who held in their hands ‘natural’ axes of jade (axes found fortuitously in the ground, probably primitive weapons).” (Palladius, p. 43.)— H. C.]

NOTE 5. — Some of these etiquettes were probably rather Chinese than Mongol, for the regulations of the court of Kúblái apparently combined the two. In the visit of Shah Rukh’s ambassadors to the court of the Emperor Ch’êng Tsu of the Ming Dynasty in 1421, we are told that by the side of the throne, at an imperial banquet, “there stood two eunuchs, each having a band of thick paper over his mouth, and extending to the tips of his ears. . . . Every time that a dish, or a cup of darassun (rice-wine) was brought to the emperor, all the music sounded.” (N. et Ext. XIV. 408, 409.) In one of the Persepolitan sculptures, there stands behind the King an eunuch bearing a fan, and with his mouth covered; at least so says Heeren. (Asia, I. 178.)

NOTE 6. —“Jongleours et entregetours de maintes plusieurs manieres de granz experimenz” (P.); “de Giuculer et de Tregiteor” (G. T.). Ital. Tragettatore, a juggler; Romance, Trasjitar, Tragitar, to juggle. Thus Chaucer:—

“There saw I playing Jogelours,

Magiciens, and Tragetours,

And Phetonisses, Charmeresses,

Old Witches, Sorceresses,” etc.

House of Fame, III. 169.

And again:—

“For oft at festes have I wel herd say,

That Tregetoures, within an halle large,

Have made come in a water and a barge,

And in the halle rowen up and doun.

Somtime hath semed come a grim leoun;

* * * * *

Somtime a Castel al of lime and ston,

And whan hem liketh, voideth it anon.”

The Franklin’s Tale, II. 454.

Performances of this kind at Chinese festivities have already been spoken of in note 9 to ch. lxi. of Book I. Shah Rukh’s people, Odoric, Ysbrandt Ides, etc., describe them also. The practice of introducing such artistes into the dining-hall after dinner seems in that age to have been usual also in Europe. See, for example, Wright’s Domestic Manners, pp. 165–166, and the Court of the Emperor Frederic II., in Kington’s Life of that prince, I. 470. (See also N. et E. XIV. 410; Cathay, 143; Ysb. Ides, p. 95.)

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24