European travels to the Mongol Empire

The thirteenth century Mongol conquests connected much of Eurasia for the first time under the rule of one family. While the slaughter and destruction caused by this expansion are well known, Mongol hegemony allowed trade and people to move across the continent easier than ever before. Individuals could now make the arduous journey across the continent in both directions, the most famous being the European merchants, envoys and Franciscan friars who made the voyage to the Mongol capitals and provided us written accounts of their travels. The quintessential figure is, of course, Marco Polo, but he was neither the first nor the last of these travelers. Aside from Polo, the two most well known and highly utilized by historians of the Mongols are John de Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck, who both provide us with highly detailed accounts of their travels. Here, we will present a short introduction to each of them.

 

One of the first Europeans to willingly travel to Mongolia, John de Plano Carpini was a Franciscan friar sent to deliver a letter from Pope Innocent IV to Guyuk, the Great Khan and a grandson of mighty Chinggis Khan. Carpini’s mission began in 1245, only a few years after the devastating Mongol invasion of Hungary; fear over these foreigners was at its height in Europe. None knew where they had come from or why they had gone. Hungary, Poland, and the Rus’ states had suffered tremendously, and there was real fear over what could happen should the Mongols return. Carpini was not just to open diplomatic exchanges with the Mongols, but hopefully convert Guyuk to Christianity and collect what information he could on this alien people.

First stopping in the camp of Batu, founder of the Golden Horde, Carpini arrived in Mongolia in time to witness Guyuk’s enthronement in August 1246 but proved unable to convert the new Great Khan to Christianity. Instead, Guyuk sent Carpini back to Europe with an ultimatum for its Pope and Kings to submit to him. Nonetheless, after his return to Europe in 1247 Carpini’s account was copied quickly and popularized, read out loud to crowds at the Council of Lyons in 1247, and numerous abridged versions abounded, including one by Carpini’s companion to Mongolia, Benedict the Pole. While Carpini was unable to spread the Gospel to the Mongols, his account was remarkably descriptive, providing details on the Mongols’ dress and culture, the countries they ruled and their manner of fighting, even providing suggestions on methods to counter them, though falls victim to believing in stories of monsters inhabiting Asia, such as the Cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs.

William meets Mongke (European travels to the Mongol Empire)

William of Rubruck was another Franciscan friar who made a similar overland journey to Mongolia. While delivering a letter from King Louis IX of France, Rubruck maintains throughout his account that he was not acting as a diplomat, but as a friar trying to find German miners taken prisoner during the invasion of Europe and carried east. Rubruck hoped to be their priest, though carried Louis’ letter and recorded what information he could. Arriving in Constantinople in April 1253, Rubruck traveled to the camp of Batu’s son Sartaq, who Rubruck had heard to be Christian. The language barrier proved continually an issue in Rubruck’s journey, the Mongols misunderstanding Louis’ letter to be asking for their cooperation against the Muslims, and Rubruck was sent by Sartaq on to Batu, who in turn sent Rubruck to the new Great Khan, Mongke. After some months in the Mongol capital of Karakorum and meeting with Mongke several times, Rubruck was sent home having accomplished little.

While Rubruck’s work was little read in his own time, it is valuable for us. Buddhism, Mongolian shamanism and Nestorian Christianity, while looked down on by Rubruck, are all described with surprising accuracy. He gives us Karakorum’s first foreign description and describes his personal interviews with Mongke. Unlike Carpini, Rubruck is very opinionated, consistently providing his personal, and often disparaging, thoughts on the Mongols and other foreigners, though he did have a fondness for kumiss, fermented mare’s milk enjoyed by Mongols and Turks, and commended their loyalty.  As an observational study, it is highly regarded. Rubruck challenged ancient geographers, noting that the Caspian Sea was not an ocean but a lake, the proper courses of the Don and Volga Rivers, connected the Chinese to the Seres of antiquity, noted linguistic ties between various groups and argued against the existence of dog-headed people and other monsters, unable to find anyone who had seen them.

Rubruck’s journey was ultimately a failure: he never reached the Germans he set out for, baptized only six people and missed King Louis on his return to the Crusader Kingdoms in 1255. There is little evidence his account was much read in his time, except by the English Franciscan Roger Bacon, who met Rubruck in Paris around 1257. Bacon was the first European to record the mixture for gunpowder, and it is sometimes suggested that Rubruck carried this knowledge from the Mongol Empire to Europe, but the truth of the matter cannot be ascertained.

 

Perhaps the most famous, and controversial, of these travelers was Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant who accompanied his father and uncle overland to the court of Mongke’s brother and the new Great Khan, Kublai. Marco’s father and uncle, Niccolo, and Maffeo, had previously made the overland trip to Kublai’s court and returned with a message from Kublai asking the Pope to send 100 priests to China. On their return to Venice in the late 1260s, Niccolo Polo met his son Marco for the first time, a teen around 17 years of age. In 1271, Marco accompanied Niccolo and Maffeo on the long trek east, the Pope sending with them only two priests who soon turned back. The Polos arrived in the Yuan realm around 1275, and spent nearly twenty years there, Marco himself becoming a sort of emissary for the Khan.

Though his exact role has been the subject of debate, with suggestions from a position in the salt trade (a government monopoly) or a merchant partner to a Mongol prince, historian Stephen Haw has suggested that Marco was a part of the keshik, the ‘Mongol knights,’ the Khan’s bodyguards and high officials of the empire. Marco’s account perhaps reflects the reports he made for the Khan during his journeys, recording Kublai’s interests: the wealth of the newly conquered southern Chinese cities, wine, women, military affairs and hunting take prominent positions in Marco’s work. Likewise, Marco mentions little on mundane matters outside Kublai’s interests: tea, for instance, or Chinese writing. Those omissions, along with Marco not mentioning the Great Wall or foot-binding, were used by some modern authors to suggest that Marco never went to China, or if he did, saw little of it and fabricated much of his story.

The Polo brothers meant Kublai Khan (European travels to the Mongol Empire)

Historians like Stephen Haw and Hans Ulrich Vogel have shown conclusively and thoroughly that Marco is not only accurate in numerous ways (such as his descriptions of revenues, the salt trade, the state of the Grand Canal in the 1290s and linguistic matters, among other information, were impeccably up-to-date. As Haw said, “If Marco was a liar, then he must have been an implausibly meticulous one”. Many of the criticisms come from a poor understanding of thirteenth-century China. The Great Wall as we know it today would not exist until over 200 years after Marco, and the long-eroded walls of previous dynasties would have meant little to Marco, especially since the ‘northern barbarians’ the walls were built against now ruled China. Footbinding was then an uncommon practice among the Chinese upper classes. Spending most of his time with the Mongols, he had little access to the few Chinese women with bound feet.

The exaggerations and errors which show up in Marco’s Travels are often the results of the numerous translations which spread rapidly after its release: there is no single ‘original’ manuscript which survives, but many copies and editions in dozens of languages.  The Polos left China in 1292 when Kublai was reaching the end of his long life and they feared the uncertainty of his succession. By the time Marco returned to Venice in 1295, he has spent more of his life in the Mongol Empire than Italy and may have considered it as foreign to him as China had been upon his first arrival. Captured by Genoa a few years later, while imprisoned he would dictate his account to his ghost-writer, Rustichello, a writer of popular romances who likely changed some aspects to suit a Christian audience. Quickly popularized and influential to laters travelers like Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo became the single most famous historical European traveler.

 

Though more Europeans would make the trip to the Yuan Dynasty in the years after Polo, both by land and sea, the route became more dangerous over the fourteenth century. The Mongol Empire irrevocably broke into four independent Khanates in the 1260s, and though an empire-wide peace was established at the start of the 1300s, over the following decades the Khanates collapsed. In the 1330s the Ilkhanate in Persia disintegrated and the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia fragmented into internal warfare. The breakdown in Mongol authority over inner Asia made the overland route far too dangerous, and no one could anymore rely on an escort to the court of the Great Khan. The Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty were pushed from China in 1368, which Europeans would not learn of until the seventeenth century.

Jack Wilson

Jack Wilson is a researcher who has been interested in the Mongols for over 10 years and discusses their history on his Youtube account - The Jackmeister: Mongol History

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