Saturday, June 23, 2012

Memory and Travellers' Tales

One debated issue in medieval Eurasian history is whether the 14th-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta actually made all the journeys recounted in his travel narratives.  David Morgan offered some thoughts on the matter in a memorial lecture for Charles Beckingham published as "Ibn Battuta and the Mongols" in the April 2001 issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society:
"In any case, I sometimes feel that modern scholars are excessively captious and critical of the apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in the accounts of such travellers as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. It seems to me that it is the absence of such difficulties that would be truly suspicious, when one bears in mind that the travellers were on the road for years, and that it is unlikely that they had much by way of notes to refer to when putting together the accounts of their travels. They were not researching Lonely Planet guides. Perhaps I may illustrate this by a personal anecdote. In 1974 I went on a journey through Persian Azerbaijan and eastern Turkey. A very few years later, I was talking about this trip to a friend. Subsequendy I recalled that I had kept a diary of the journey. I looked it up, and found that my recollection of the journey was clear, precise, and in a number of significant details, quite wrong. Dr Frances Wood, the author of Did Marco Polo go to China?, would perhaps conclude on this evidence that I was never actually in Azerbaijan, but that I had concocted my account from other travellers' tales without ever leaving Tehran. For myself, I have since that salutary experience been inclined to make much more allowance for travellers' lapses of memory, confusion in their recall of itineraries, and so forth. Above all, I do think it important not to jump to the conclusion, based on such evidence, that travellers whose accounts present problems must therefore have invented their travels."
Despite this, Morgan would not say he thought Ibn Battuta actually went to China, simply because a highlight of the visit was the funeral of a Great Khan, when no great Khan died during the period when Ibn Battuta could have visited.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home