Book of Ser Marco Polo


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Customs of the Tartars


The Tartar custom is to spend the winter in warm plains, where they find good pasture for their cattle, while in summer they betake themselves to a cool climate among the mountains and valleys, where water is to be found as well as woods and pastures.

Their houses are circular, and are made of wands covered with felts. These are carried along with them whithersoever they go; for the wands are so strongly bound together, and likewise so well combined, that the frame can be made very light. Whenever they erect these huts the door is always to the south. They also have wagons so tightly covered with black felt that no rain can get in. These are drawn by oxen and camels, and the women and children travel in them. The women do the buying and selling, and whatever is necessary to provide for the husband and household; for the men all lead the life of gentlemen, troubling themselves about nothing but hunting and hawking, unless it be the practice of warlike exercises.

They live on the milk and meat which their herds supply, and on the produce of the chase; and they eat all kinds of flesh, including that of horses and dogs. . . . Their drink is mare’s milk.1 . . . Ten or twenty of them will dwell together in charming peace and unity, nor shall you ever hear an ill word among them.

The marriage customs of Tartars are as follows. Any man may take a hundred wives if he pleases, and if he is able to keep them. But the first wife is ever held most in honor and as the most legitimate, and the same applies to the sons whom she may bear. The husband gives a marriage payment to his wife’s mother, and the wife brings nothing to her husband. They have more children than other people, because they have so many wives. They may marry their cousins, and if a father dies, his son may take any of the wives, his own mother always excepted; that is to say, the eldest son may do this, but no other. A man may also take the wife of his own brother after the latter’s death. Their weddings are celebrated with great ceremony.

All their military equipment is excellent and costly. Their arms are bows and arrows, sword and mace; but above all the bow, for they are capital archers, indeed the best that are known. On their backs they wear a strong armor prepared from buffalo and other hides. They are excellent soldiers and most valiant in battle. They are also more capable of hardships than other peoples; for many a time, if need be, they will go for a month without any supply of food, living only on the milk of their mares and on such game as their bows may win them. Their horses, also, will subsist entirely on the grass of the plains, so that there is no need to carry a store of barley or straw or oats; and they are very docile to their riders. A Tartar, in case of need, will abide on horseback the entire night, armed at all points, while his horse will be continually grazing.

Of all troops in the world these are they which endure the greatest hardships and fatigue and which cost the least; and they are the best of all for making wide conquests of country. And this you will perceive from what you have heard and shall hear in this book; and (as a fact) there can be no manner of doubt that now they are the masters of the greater part of the world. Their troops are admirably ordered in the manner that I shall now relate.

You see, when a Tartar prince goes forth to war, he takes with him, say, one hundred thousand horsemen. Well, he appoints an officer to every ten men, one to every hundred, one to every thousand, and one to every ten thousand, so that his own orders have to be given to ten persons only, and each of these ten persons has to pass the orders only to another ten, and so on; no one having to give orders to more than ten. And every one in turn is responsible only to the officer immediately over him; and the discipline and order that comes of this method is marvelous, for they are a people very obedient to their chiefs. . . .

When they are going on a distant expedition they take no equipment with them except two leather bottles for milk, a little earthenware pot to cook their meat in, and a little tent to shelter them from rain. And in case of great urgency they will ride ten days on end without lighting a fire or taking a meal. On such an occasion they will sustain themselves with the blood of their horses, opening a vein and letting the blood jet into their mouths, drinking till they have had enough, and then staunching the wound.

They also have milk dried into a kind of paste to carry with them; and when they need food they put this in water and beat it up till it dissolves, and then drink it. . . . When they go on an expedition, every man takes some ten pounds of this dried milk with him. And of a morning he will take a half pound of it and put it in his leather bottle, with as much water as he pleases. So, as he rides along, the milk-paste and the water in the bottle get well churned together into a kind of pap, and that makes his dinner.

When the Tartars come to an engagement with the enemy, they will gain the victory in this fashion. They never let themselves get into a regular medley, but keep perpetually riding round and shooting into the enemy. And as they do not count it any shame to run away in battle, they will sometimes pretend to do so, and in running away they turn in the saddle and shoot hard and strong at the foe and in this way make great havoc. Their horses are trained so perfectly that they will double hither and thither, like a dog, in a manner that is quite astonishing. Thus they fight to as good purpose in running away as if they stood and faced the enemy, because of the vast volleys of arrows that they shoot in this way, turning round upon their pursuers, who are fancying that they have won the battle. But when the Tartars see that they have killed and wounded a good many horses and men, they wheel round bodily, and return to the charge in perfect order and with loud cries; and in a very short time the enemy are routed. In truth they are stout and valiant soldiers and inured to war. And you perceive that it is just when the enemy sees them run and imagines that he has gained the battle, that he has in reality lost it; for the Tartars wheel round in a moment when they judge the right time has come. And after this fashion they have won many a fight.

1 , bk. i, chs. 52, 54.

1 Fermented mare’s milk, known as kumiss, is still the habitual drink of the nomads of central Asia. It is a remarkably nourishing liquor.


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Chicago: "Customs of the Tartars," Book of Ser Marco Polo in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 471–473. Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024,

MLA: . "Customs of the Tartars." Book of Ser Marco Polo, Vol. i, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 471–473. Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Customs of the Tartars' in Book of Ser Marco Polo. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.471–473. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from