Bodies, sexualities and gender identities in
the Divisament dou Monde
Marco Polo’s geography of Asia is a heavily gendered geography: bodies, sexualities and gender hierarchies loom large in the Divisament dou Monde. Usually labelled as a prototype of European literary exoticism, beneath the veneer of Orientalist clichés Polo's work records a complex array of cultural practices ranging from polyandry to infanticides, from tales of sexual licentiousness to rigorous ascetic practices. Far from being simplistically “Oriental”, as it has been frequently argued, Polo’s references to bodies and sexualities were entangled in a subtler political discourse aimed at altering medieval Europe’s perceptions of Asia by shifting attitudes towards a political object par excellence – the gendered body.
Physiognomic descriptions in the Divisament reveal a grid of color lines that call to attention a fairly intricate interplay of gender, race and ethnicity at work in one of the most famous travel narratives of medieval Europe. Most of all, in a cultural milieu where contacts with the East were primarily mediated by religious missionaries, Polo outlined Europe’s first narrative of Asia written by a lay traveler for an ideally lay readership: this undertheorized paradigm from a religious to a secular perspective suggests recontextualizing the Divisament dou Monde as a narrative of rupture, rather than continuity, in the context of medieval travel writing.
Polo inaugurated Europe’s secular tradition of travel writing about Asia and his narrative thus offers a privileged point of view to deconstruct the genealogy of a gendered, and secularized, gaze destined to deeply affect Europe’s problematic relation with the body of the “other”.