The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 4/Chapter 22
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by , translated by Henry Yule
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Description Of Rosia And Its People. Province Of Lac
Rosia is a very great province, lying towards the north. The people are Christians, and follow the Greek doctrine. There are several kings in the country, and they have a language of their own. They are a people of simple manners, but both men and women very handsome, being all very white and [tall, with long fair hair]. There are many strong defiles and passes in the country; and they pay tribute to nobody except to a certain Tartar king of the Ponent, whose name is TOCTAI; to him indeed they pay tribute, but only a trifle. It is not a land of trade, though to be sure they have many fine and valuable furs, such as Sables, in abundance, and Ermine, Vair, Ercolin, and Fox skins, the largest and finest in the world [and also much wax]. They also possess many Silver-mines, from which they derive a large amount of silver.
There is nothing else worth mentioning; so let us leave Rosia, and I will tell you about the Great Sea, and what provinces and nations lie round about it, all in detail; and we will begin with Constantinople.--First, however, I should tell you of a province that lies between north and north-west. You see in that region that I have been speaking of, there is a province called LAC, which is conterminous with Rosia, and has a king of its own. The people are partly Christians and partly Saracens. They have abundance of furs of good quality, which merchants export to many countries. They live by trade and handicrafts.
There is nothing more worth mentioning, so I will speak of other subjects; but there is one thing more to tell you about Rosia that I had forgotten. You see in Rosia there is the greatest cold that is to be found anywhere, so great as to be scarcely bearable. The country is so great that it reaches even to the shores of the Ocean Sea, and 'tis in that sea that there are certain islands in which are produced numbers of gerfalcons and peregrine falcons, which are carried in many directions. From Russia also to OROECH it is not very far, and the journey could be soon made, were it not for the tremendous cold; but this renders its accomplishment almost impossible.
Now then let us speak of the Great Sea, as I was about to do. To be sure many merchants and others have been there, but still there are many again who know nothing about it, so it will be well to include it in our Book. We will do so then, and let us begin first with the Strait of Constantinople.
- Ibn Fozlan, the oldest Arabic author who gives any detailed account of the Russians (and a very remarkable one it is), says he "never saw people of form more perfectly developed; they were tall as palm-trees, and ruddy of countenance," but at the same time "the most uncleanly people that God hath created," drunken, and frightfully gross in their manners. (Fraehn's Ibn Fozlan, p. 5 seqq.) Ibn Batuta is in some respects less flattering; he mentions the silver-mines noticed in our text: "At a day's distance from Ukak are the hills of the Russians, who are Christians. They have red hair and blue eyes; ugly to look at, and crafty to deal with. They have silver-mines, and it is from their country that are brought the saum or ingots of silver with which buying and selling is carried on in this country (Kipchak or the Ponent of Polo). The weight of each saumah is 5 ounces" (II. 414). Mas'udi also says: "The Russians have in their country a silver-mine similar to that which exists in Khorasan, at the mountain of Banjhir" (i.e. Panjshir; II. 15; and see supra, vol. i. p. 161). These positive and concurrent testimonies as to Russian silver-mines are remarkable, as modern accounts declare that no silver is found in Russia. And if we go back to the 16th century, Herberstein says the same. There was no silver, he says, except what was imported; silver money had been in use barely 100 years; previously they had used oblong ingots of the value of a ruble, without any figure or legend. (Ram. II. 159.)
But a welcome communication from Professor Bruun points out that the statement of Ibn Batuta identifies the silver-mines in question with certain mines of argentiferous lead-ore near the River Mious (a river falling into the sea of Azof, about 22 miles west of Taganrog); an ore which even in recent times has afforded 60 per cent. of lead, and 1/24 per cent. of silver. And it was these mines which furnished the ancient Russian rubles or ingots. Thus the original ruble was the saumah of Ibn Batuta, the sommo of Pegolotti. A ruble seems to be still called by some term like saumah in Central Asia; it is printed soom in the Appendix to Davies's Punjab Report, p. xi. And Professor Bruun tells me that the silver ruble is called Som by the Ossethi of Caucasus.
Franc.-Michel quotes from Fitz-Stephen's Desc. of London (temp. Henry II.):--
"Aurum mittit Arabs ...
Seres purpureas vestes; Galli sua vina;
Norwegi, Russi, varium, grysium, sabelinas."
Russia was overrun with fire and sword as far as Tver and Torshok by Batu Khan (1237-1238), some years before his invasion of Poland and Silesia. Tartar tax-gatherers were established in the Russian cities as far north as Rostov and Jaroslawl, and for many years Russian princes as far as Novgorod paid homage to the Mongol Khans in their court at Sarai. Their subjection to the Khans was not such a trifle as Polo seems to imply; and at least a dozen Russian princes met their death at the hands of the Mongol executioner.
- The Lac of this passage appears to be WALLACHIA. Abulfeda calls the Wallachs Aulak; Rubruquis Illac, which he says is the same word as Blac (the usual European form of those days being Blachi, Blachia), but the Tartars could not pronounce the B (p. 275). Abulghazi says the original inhabitants of Kipchak were the Urus, the Olaks, the Majars, and the Bashkirs.
Rubruquis is wrong in placing Illac or Wallachs in Asia; at least the people near the Ural, who he says were so-called by the Tartars, cannot have been Wallachs. Professor Bruun, who corrects my error in following Rubruquis, thinks those Asiatic Blac must have been Polovtzi, or Cumanians.
[Mr. Rockhill (Rubruck, p. 130, note) writes: "A branch of the Volga Bulgars occupied the Moldo-Vallach country in about A.D. 485, but it was not until the first years of the 6th century that a portion of them passed the Danube under the leadership of Asparuk, and established themselves in the present Bulgaria, Friar William's 'Land of Assan.'"--H.C.]
- Oroech is generally supposed to be a mistake for Noroech, NORWEGE or Norway, which is probable enough. But considering the Asiatic sources of most of our author's information, it is also possible that Oroech represents WAREG. The Waraegs or Warangs are celebrated in the oldest Russian history as a race of warlike immigrants, of whom came Rurik, the founder of the ancient royal dynasty, and whose name was long preserved in that of the Varangian guards at Constantinople. Many Eastern geographers, from Al Biruni downwards, speak of the Warag or Warang as a nation dwelling in the north, on the borders of the Slavonic countries, and on the shores of a great arm of the Western Ocean, called the Sea of Warang, evidently the Baltic. The Waraegers are generally considered to have been Danes or Northmen, and Erman mentions that in the bazaars of Tobolsk he found Danish goods known as Varaegian. Mr. Hyde Clark, as I learn from a review, has recently identified the Warangs or Warings with the Varini, whom Tacitus couples with the Angli, and has shown probable evidence for their having taken part in the invasion of Britain. He has also shown that many points of the laws which they established in Russia were purely Saxon in character. (Bayer in Comment. Acad. Petropol. IV. 276 seqq.; Fraehn in App. to Ibn Fozlan, p. 177 seqq.; Erman, I. 374; Sat. Review, 19th June, 1869; Gold. Horde, App. p. 428.)