THE TRAVELS OF FRIAR ODORIC:
A 14th-Century Journal of the Blessed Odoric of Pordenone
Introduction by Paolo Chiesa
(William B. Eerdmans, 2001, 173pp, $40.00. Available from AD Books)
Unlike Marco Polo, Friar Odoric is virtually unknown today. Yet this Franciscan monk from the Northern Italian village of Pordenone spent the early 14th century travelling throughout Asia.
His chronicle of that period provides us with, perhaps, one of the most important early eyewitness accounts of life and culture in what are today Iran, India, Indonesia, China, Nepal and Russia.
The present edition is translated by Sir Henry Yule, whose first translation enjoyed the title of Cathy and the Way Thither in 1866. Yule lived in India for more then twenty years and was familiar with the sites visited by Odoric.
However, Yule's 19th century translation does not make for heavy reading, while Paolo Chiesa of the University of Udine serves this edition well with an Introduction providing over 60 pages of background information.
Friar Odoric set out on his journey to the East only twenty years after Marco Polo. And while Marco Polo's adventures are well known, Odoric's travels to the East are the only ones of a religious figure of that period to be recorded.
Odoric was a small man whose saintliness was established, not so much by his ascetic habits as by his extraordinary journeys, which made him a hero to his contemporaries and gave him the aura of one enjoying divine protection.
His accounts of his adventures are full of fascinating details, both geographical and cultural, making real the people he describes, as he notes their customs with a combination of tolerance and curiosity - even if his own Catholic convictions remain to the fore.
Indeed, his travels seem a distant echo the words of Pope John Paul II: "Be not Afraid". Odoric certainly wasn't.
Anthony Cappello is a young Catholic writer who works from Melbourne.