Was Marco Polo Really A Knight In Kublai Khan's Court? Netflix's Series Shows A Change In Dynamic
Season 1 of Marco Polo brought the famous Italian explorer into the court of emperor Kublai Khan, and wound up earning his respect over the course of the 10 episodes. But according to the Season 2 trailer, there's going to be a big shift in their relationship — Polo will become one of Kublai Khan's knights. But how historically accurate is this choice? Was Marco Polo in Kublai Khan's court? In reality, the relationship between the two men must have been close in proximity, since Polo's writing accounts for a lot of time spent in the emperor's presence. But Polo's writing doesn't make any note of an invitation to be a knight, nor do any other historical accounts of that period.
But, that raises another question: what does Kublai Khan mean when he calls Marco Polo one of his "knights"? The word knight calls to mind Game of Thrones' lance-wielding warriors or the knights of King Arthur's round table, not the ancient Chinese empire, but that impression isn't quite right. Kublai's knights weren't wearing chain mail or roaming the countryside looking for the Holy Grail. After all, when Khan offers Polo knighthood in the trailer, he seems to be preparing for war, continuing his expansion plans after taking the Great Wall in Season 1.
However, there is historical precedent to Khan's close attendants and warriors being called "knights." According to Laurence Bergeen's Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu , "a handful of European travelers, including missionaries and knights had preceded [Marco Polo] to the Mongol court," and were grilled by Khan over what their customs were. He may have even adopted the nomenclature of "knights" from them, or, that could be a quirk of European writers trying to express the concept to their audiences.
In The Travels of Marco Polo, the Italian traveler wrote, "the king retains about his person many knights, who are distinguished by an appellation signifying 'the devoted servants of his majesty, in this world and the next.'" Polo also wrote that these knights follow the great Khan everywhere, riding alongside him in processions, and that "upon the death of the king, when the ceremony of burning his body takes place, all these devoted servants throw themselves into the same fire, and are consumed with the royal corpse." So if Kublai Khan is inviting Marco Polo to join these "knights" on the Netflix series, that means he seriously trusts him, and may even expect Marco to put his life on the line in Season 2.
The Travels of Marco Polo never expressly says that Polo was invited to join the knights in real life, but the series is using that historical tweak to represent jut how close these two characters are — and maybe even suggesting that at some point, their relationship will be tested when Polo has to choose between protecting the emperor and his own goals.