Italian missionary Odoric of Pordenone (c. 1265–1331) made a remarkable journey in the early 14th century into Mongol-ruled China and parts of Indonesia. The Franciscan priest was not the first Westerner to venture that far across the Asian continent, but his 1330 travelogue became one of the earliest and most vividly detailed accounts of the treasures and customs of the Indian subcontinent and Pacific Rim ports and was widely read in Europe.
Born in the mid-1260s, Odoric of Pordenone is known by several other names. In his native Italian he is Fra Odorico da Pordenone, denoting his status as a Franciscan friar along with the place of his birth. In the earliest mentions of his achievement, the name is given in Latin as Odericus; in other sources, his family name is given as Mattiussi or Mattiuzzi. The Mattiussi were believed to be Bohemian settlers whose original forerunner entered northeastern Italy as part of a military detachment under the command of Ottokar II of Bohemia. Son of the illustrious King Wenceslaus, Ottokar conquered large parts of central Europe in his 25-year rule, uniting Prague and parts of Prussia and making conquests further south in Austria and the Balkans.
Odoric was born in Villanova, a suburb of the larger town of Pordenone on the River Noncello. Pordenone and the larger Friuli province were both part of the Patriarchate of Aquileia, a special administrative region that dated back several hundred years and refers to coastal lands at the head of the Adriatic Sea. Aquileian lands connected the Italian peninsula—including the powerful Republic of Venice—to fertile Alpine lowlands and Marche communities such as Pordenone to the major port of Trieste, out of which ships sailed down the coastlines of present-day Slovenia, Croatia, and other Balkan lands.
Odoric is thought to have entered the Order of St. Francis as a teenager. Founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209, the Order of Friars Minor (OFM or “Little Brothers”) were mendicant (begging) monks who served by providing hospice (a safe lodging) for travelers in Italy and nearby lands. By the time Odoric entered a Franciscan house in the Friulian city of Udine around 1280, the Order had expanded its reach as one of the emerging missionary armies of late-medieval Europe. Heeding the principles espoused by Christianity's founding apostles, Franciscan friars set off to evangelize the populations of lands to the south and east that had not yet converted to Christianity.
Scholars cite the year 1290 as the approximate date of Odoric's ordination as a priest of the OFM. Older sources written by devout Franciscans or other Roman Catholics assert that he lived as a hermit for some years, gained renown for his preaching, and around 1296 set off on a southeasterly route to convert communities in the Balkans. By the turn of the 14th century, parts of Serbia had come under control of the Golden Horde, an invading army from Central Asia that emerged as a major world power during these years. Some ruling descendants of the empire's founder, Genghis Khan, embraced Islam, and it was through their conquests that parts of southern Europe, including Balkan areas around the Black Sea, became Muslim. From Bulgaria, the Mongol khanate stretched some 4,400-plus miles to Beijing, China, a part of the world about which little was then known in the west.
The most exciting reports of vast and opulent civilizations to the east had come from Marco Polo, the son of a Venetian merchant family, who departed Italy in roughly 1271 and returned 24 years later to find Venice at war with its rival city, Genoa. Jailed as an enemy combatant, Polo told stories of his travels to entertain his fellow prisoners; that oral account was written down by another and disseminated in manuscript form as Livre des Merveilles du Monde (“Book of the Marvels of the World”). Polo's travelogue first appeared in 1300 and was almost certainly known to Odoric. Scholars later cast some doubt on Polo's claims to have traveled as far east as China, for the Venetian traveler's Livre fails to describe a few notable items that turn up in Odoric's account, including the practice of female foot-binding.
Odoric set off on his trip in April of 1318, leaving Padua for Venice, where he boarded a ship for the Mediterranean leg of the journey. He landed near Constantinople, at a Franciscan monastery in Pera. From there he sailed westward on the Black Sea to Trabzon on the Anatolian coast, trekked overland through Armenia and Iran, and finally reached the Persian Gulf port near the Strait of Hormuz, stopping at Bandar Abbas in roughly 1321. After a four-week crossing of the Arabian Sea to an area near Mumbai, Odoric was suitably dazzled by the exoticism and riches of the Indian subcontinent. Its fractious patchwork was governed by competing multiple kingdoms, each with their own religious and ethnic allegiances. Persian, Mongol, and South Asian dynasties controlled vast swaths of present-day India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia; the rest of continental East Asia was divided between the largely subjugated Chinese and their new Mongol overlords.
Odoric and his companion, fellow Franciscan missionary James of Ireland, made landfall at Thana, near Mumbai. Thana and other parts of coastal India were well-known to Christian missionaries and religious scholars of Odoric's era: in the first century C.E., St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas—two of the 12 apostles making up the core founding group of Christianity before the martydom of its founder Jesus of Nazareth in 33 C.E.—had visited India around 55 C.E. In the millennium-plus interim, these Indian communities—known as the St. Thomas Christians—were joined by others from Syria or Armenia. Franciscan missionaries who preceded Odoric had converted larger numbers and established mission houses before moving onward toward China.
In the months prior to Odoric's arrival, there had been a notorious incident in Thana in which three Italian Franciscans and one from the Armenian-Georgian region had run afoul of the local Muslim governor and been executed. Odoric arrived at Thana in 1321 or 1322, made a report of the circumstances surrounding their martyrdom, and collected the remains of Thomas of Tolentino and the other three for burial elsewhere. Local reaction to his determination to inter the Franciscans in a consecrated Christian burial ground at a monastery remains unrecorded, but Odoric did make the observation that “here they do not bury the dead, but carry them with great pomp to the fields, and cast them to the beasts and birds to be devoured,” according to an 1866 English translation published in Cathay and the Way Thither. On another sea voyage, his ship's captain voiced a superstition about having the remains of the Franciscan martyrs aboard his vessel.
Odoric and Friar James traveled further south along the Malabar coast toward the tip of India and Sri Lanka. He mentioned enormous tracts of timber and pepper and expressed puzzlement about Hindu customs and beliefs. In one passage, he described an immense golden idol that sat in a splendid shrine made also of gold and to which believers made arduous pilgrimage. He mentioned a well-attended religious rite in which a figure of the deity Jagannath was removed from the temple and installed in a specially built chariot for an annual procession. Some “who have come to this feast cast themselves under the char[iot], so that its wheels may go over them, saying that they desire to die for their god,” he reported, as recorded in Cathay and the Way Thither. “And the car passes over them, and crushes and cuts them in sunder, and so they perish on the spot.” It is likely that Odoric witnessed the Rath Yatra of Puri to celebrate the return of the Hindu deity Jagannath; the 500 deaths he mentioned were likely unwilling casualties of an accidental stampede. In other passages, he described “idolaters” cutting chunks of their own flesh and throwing them at statues in displays of piety.
Odoric and Friar James embarked upon another sea voyage that took them to the Andaman Islands, whose populace he described as practitioners of cannibalism. He mentioned this in passing, according to the Cathay and the Way Thither account, instead explaining the curious fact that “in that country all the women be in common; and no one there can say, this is my wife, or this is my husband!” Odoric also expressed incredulity at the customs and various states of undress he encountered in equatorial regions, including a kingdom he called Sumoltra (Sumatra) and several other places in the Indonesian archipelago. He mentioned a tree that produces flour—believed to be the sago tree, a plentiful source of starchy protein similar to tapioca—before another sea voyage brought the Franciscans to southern Vietnam. From there, they headed northward toward the great port cities of mainland China.
Odoric was not the first European to visit Asia's Pacific Rim. One of his destination points was Zaiton, or Quangzhou. This enormous metropolis was medieval China's largest ocean-facing port near the Strait of Taiwan and boasted a remarkably diverse population reflective of its status as the maritime point of the fabled Silk Road. In Quangzhou were Arab traders, along with Persian and Indian merchants and artisans, plus Armenian Christians, Syrian Jews, and even descendants of East Africans whose proximity to Indian Ocean trade routes had brought them there in previous centuries. Most significantly, Quangzhou had its own Italian-born bishop, Andrew of Perugia, who had been assigned to the newly created see in 1307 by Pope Clement V. Odoric and Friar James met with Andrew before traveling onward to meet another Franciscan from Italy, John of Montecorvino.
John of Montecorvino was the first Roman Catholic archbishop of Beijing, a city then known as Khanbaliq or Dadu. Odoric spent roughly three years with John, a period in which the elder Franciscan turned 80. Scholars are able to give an approximate end date to Odoric's travels based on John's death in 1328, of which Odoric made no mention. Once departed from Khanbaliq, he took a westerly route across mainland China, describing a novel form of long-distance postal stations staffed by skilled horse-riders who announced their impending arrival with trumpets so that the warden of the next station could make ready a new rider and keep the transit line moving. “And in this manner the emperor receiveth in the course of one natural day the news of matters from a distance of thirty days’ journey,” Odoric wrote.
Odoric mentioned just a handful of places he visited on his return trip to Italy. He spent some time in western China and described entering the remote Himalayan Mountain region, “where dwelleth the Pope of the Idolaters,” a reference to the Dalai Lama. Odoric is usually cited as the first European to visit Tibet, referring to his stop at Lhassa (Lhasa), the holy city of Tibetan Buddhism. Three centuries would pass before another European ventured into this remote northern kingdom.
Odoric arrived in Venice and was staying in Padua by the spring of 1330. At Padua's Franciscan convent, he dictated an account of his 12-year sojourn to the scribe Friar William of Solagna. Its Latin titles, Odorici Itinerarius and Relatio Odorici de Terris ignotis, were popular reads in 14th-century Europe, where people were already intrigued by Marco Polo's exotic tales. After completing this task, Odoric set off for Avignon in the south of France to request an audience with Pope John XXII; his intention was to request funding for further missionary work in Asia for his Franciscan brethren. He fell ill in Pisa, however, and was forced to turn back, dying in Udine on January 14, 1331. One of the city officials in Udine was said to have ties to Odoric's family and arranged a much grander send-off than was the Franciscan burial habit. The funeral was mobbed and a cult grew around Odoric's remains as an unofficial patron saint of Udine and the Friuli region. In 1755 he was beatified by Pope Benedict XIV and his feast day is celebrated on January 14.
Odorico, The Travels of Friar Odoric: A 14th-Century Journal of the Blessed Odoric of Pordenone, introduction by Paolo Chiesa, translation by Sir Henry Yule, William B. Eerdmans, 2001.
Yule, Sir Henry, editor and translator, Cathay and the Way Thither: A Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Hakluyt Society (London, England), 1866.
Phillips, Kim M., Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245–1510, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
Catholic Historical Review, January 2004.
Journal of World History, June 2011.❑