Odoric of Pordenone

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Odoric of Pordenone


Italian Missionary

Odoric of Pordenone was a Franciscan missionary who traveled extensively throughout Asia. He was the first European traveler to describe distinctions between Oriental and Occidental culture accurately and in detail. While Marco Polo (1254-1324) is perhaps better known to the modern reader as the first European explorer to provide accounts of the Far East, Polo did not provide as many details regarding what Europeans viewed as the peculiarities of the Chinese people. Furthermore, Odoric was the first European to enter Lhasa, the capital of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists.

Before Odoric's death, a manuscript was prepared that detailed his travels. John Mandeville (c. 14th century) used this account and added extensive elaborations and fabrications in his own work. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, loosely based on Odoric's journeys, was particularly popular in the later Middle Ages and was used as a manual by other travelers and geographers of the period.

Odoric was born at Villanova, a village close to Pordenone, Italy, around 1286. He came from a Czech family by the name of Mattiussi. In his early teens, he entered the Franciscan Order at Udine. At that time the Franciscans were primarily responsible for conducting missionary work in central Asia, as directed by the Holy See during the middle of the thirteenth century. The missionaries followed trade routes that had been recently established between Europe and Asia. In 1318 Odoric was sent to follow in the footsteps of missionaries such as Willem van Ruysbroeck (1215?-1295?), Giovanni da Montecorvino (1247-1328), and Giovanni da Pian del Carpini (1180?-1252).

Odoric began in Padua and reached western India in 1321. From there he traveled to China. After visiting China, Odoric sailed in a junk to Sumatra. He also visited Java and the coast of Borneo before returning to China.

Odoric then remained for three years in Peking, where Montecorvino, archbishop of the city, provided hospitality for the weary traveler. Odoric returned to Italy in 1330, traveling by land through Tibet, Badachschan, and Armenia. Upon Odoric's return, Giudotto, his superior, requested that Odoric dictate his travels to a fellow Franciscan, Brother William of Solagna.

Odoric's account is viewed as mostly factual, though its credibility is damaged by the inclusion of many fantastic tales. However, his detailed recollections of the specifics of Chinese culture help to verify its truthfulness. Some of the details of Chinese life that Odoric documented, but were omitted by Marco Polo, include cormorant fishing, the extremely long fingernails of some of the natives, and the custom of binding the feet of women.

Odoric told his tale in a clear narrative style. He emphasized equally the variety of goods to be found in particular cities and his encounters with bizarre personages—for example, his recollection of the "Old Man of the Mountain." According to Odoric, the Old Man had "built a wall to enclose [two mountains]. Within this wall there were the fairest and most crystal fountains in the whole world: and about the fountains there were most beautiful virgins in great number, and goodly horses also, and in a word, everything that could be devised for bodily pleasure and delight, and therefore the inhabitants of the country call the same place by the name of Paradise." Odoric's narrative is filled with similarly fantastic characters and places.

Odoric's recollections have remained popular because of their clear evocation of both the everyday and the unusual. His account, along with those of his fellow Franciscans, Ruysbroek and Carpini, were plagiarized and combined in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. This book, which was extremely popular in medieval Europe, focused on the most extraordinary events and places that the Franciscans recounted. Despite its almost purely fantastic content, the book was used as a travel guide by medieval explorers and merchants.