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I have read a lot of anecdotal accounts claiming that Marco Polo was "impressed" with fireworks he saw in Cathay, and other stories that he "brought back fire crackers" or "introduced gunpowder" to Europe. For example, on the page History of Fireworks, it says "Marco Polo is credited with bringing gunpowder to Europe in the 13th century." (without any reference). Yet, when I have read the Travels of Marco Polo (in English translation), I did not see any mentions of fireworks. At one point he says farmers heaped up bamboo stalks and set them on fire to frighten animals, but this seems to refer just to the normal crackling and popping noises bamboo makes when it is set afire in large quantities, not to actual fireworks (bamboo makes a very loud cracking sound when it is set on fire, check out this video: bamboo on fire or this one (at 5:55) bamboo popping in a fire pit).

So, did Marco Polo write about or bring back fireworks from his travels, or is that just a myth?

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Apparently, Europe was exposed to gunpowder prior to Marco Polo: the Wikipedia page references several sources speaking of Mongol usage of gunpowder at the Battle of Mohi (Hungary) in 1241; Marco Polo was not even born at that time.

This page ends with the following rather assertive sentence:

There is, however, no truth in the tradition that he brought back the secrets of gunpowder, the compass, printing or noodles.

Apparently, gunpowder and firecrackers were described in 1267 by Roger Bacon (Marco Polo was 13 at that time, and had not yet departed to, let alone returned from, China). Firecrackers and fireworks are not exactly the same thing, although they are both used for festive and ritual reasons. Fireworks properly said (i.e. the ones which go up and are meant visual rather than auditive usages) were common in Song's China, especially during imperial celebrations. Since the Mongols (Yuan) adopted the pomp of the Chinese court, it is highly probable that Marco Polo, during his 18 years presence at Khubilai's court (1274 to 1292), saw quite a lot of it.

It is hard to prove a negative, but chances are that Marco Polo bringing back gunpowder or any derivative (e.g. fireworks) to Europe is a myth. As all popular myths, it also includes variants; e.g. that page depicts Marco Polo bringing gunpowder to the Chinese, not the other way round.

  • The question is about Marco Polo. I already know the other stuff. – Tyler Durden Aug 23 '14 at 20:29
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    " it is highly probable that Marco Polo, during his 18 years presence at Khubilai's court (1274 to 1292), saw quite a lot of it." The fact that he does not mention fireworks anywhere in his very extensive book certainly speaks against this "highly probable" conclusion. – fdb Aug 23 '14 at 20:31
  • @fdb I kind of agree with fdb here. Marco Polo tended to report on anything he considered fantastical, so if he saw fireworks, you would expect he would have made a long description of it. – Tyler Durden Aug 23 '14 at 22:54
  • @fdb: Marco Polo's failure to describe fireworks is one of the pieces of evidence strongly suggesting that he never actually travelled to China, but wrote his books from tales heard from other travellers in the Near and Middle East. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 24 '14 at 12:13
  • Nice hatchet job on Frances Wood's nonsense by Professor Tim Barrett: lrb.co.uk/v17/n23/th-barrett/wall-i-saw-no-wall – fdb Aug 24 '14 at 12:20

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