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I’ve lately been reading up on the Mongols again. First it was Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Weatherford). This is a very readable popular history, although the author plays a bit loose with a number of facts in his zest for improving the Great Khan’s reputation in the West. For example, a number of the innovations, especially in warfare, that he strongly suggests were Mongolian in fact originated with the Chinese.

Weatherford also implies that the Mongols single-handedly connected East Asia with the West, as if they had been entirely incommunicado before. (Western historians tend to write as if Europeans suddenly took it into their heads to go “discover” a route to China in the 1400s–it all depends on who your heroes are, I suppose.) In actuality, the Silk Road was at its peak in the 7th-9th centuries, which roughly correspond with the Tang Dynasty in China, a time of immense wealth and cosmopolitanism, and a high point of classical Chinese culture.

The Silk Road was actually several routes with multiple branches: south, through the Himalayas and into India (this was the route by which Buddhism came into China); more or less directly west through Persia to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean; and some northerly routes through Russia, in many cases following rivers, down to the Black Sea.

There were certainly a number of disruptions after the 9th century: both China and Tibet dissolved into civil war and spent a few hundred years as feuding principalities. Central Asia was conquered by Arab armies, and then by Turks.  On the other hand, Byzantium managed, in between the Arab and Turkish invasions, to convert most of eastern Europe and Russia to Orthodox Christianity while maintaining trade with the assorted Muslim powers to the East, making Byzantium, in the 10th and 11th centuries, very rich. Though Carolingians kept trying to forge alliances with the Byzantines for both political and religious reasons, very little of the trade traversing Asia in that period made it into Europe via the middle East–it mostly came by way of North Africa into Spain via Islamic trade networks. It was the entirely too successful Turkish push from Central Asia west, in the late 11th century, that realigned Byzantine and European interests sufficiently to start the Crusades.

So, back to the Mongols. Until reading Weatherford’s book, I was completely unaware of just how much contact they actually had with the West. For example:

  • Matthew Paris (c. 1200-1259), took time out from chronicling Henry III of England’s reign to write wild and panicked screeds about mysterious invaders from the east who wiped out most of the knights of Germany and Hungary in the space of a few days in 1241.
  • No one in Europe had any clue where they came from. Word came from Russia that the invaders were Tartars, which the Europeans first associated with the name of one of the Three Kings, and then subsequently they decided the Mongols must be one of the lost tribes of Israel. The Albigensian Crusade was in its final stages, there were still bubblings of other heresies in southern Europe, “Saint” Louis IX was holding the Disputation of Paris (which led him to burn a pile of Talmuds in the center of Paris), and Europe had failed at all of its Crusades that century, all of which left Europe, and especially the Church feeling very defensive. So they concocted the Mongol-Jewish plot of 1241, which provided an excuse for slaughtering thousands of Jews in various European cities.
  • Even so, Innocent IV sent a couple of Franciscans off to go treat with them and find out if they could be converted. Latin-rite missionaries continued to be welcomed at the Mongol court for another century. The Mongols were open to any and all forms of religion, and explicitly guaranteed freedom of conscience within their empire.
  • Many of the wives of the early khans between Genghis (animist) and Kublai (Confucian/Buddhist) were Syrian-rite or Nestorian Christians. (The wives were typically from allied/conquered tribes.) In fact, Nestorianism had quite a moment in the late 1200s, and played a rather interesting role in Mongol-European diplomacy.
  • While the men were off aconquering, the aforementioned chief wives ran the empire. And like their counterparts further west, they also spent a lot of time and money building monasteries and commissioning religious works.
  • The Mongols were much more effective than the Byzantines or Europeans against the Muslim world: they took Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus and the Assassin stronghold in a few years. They then made alliances with the Europeans to take the rest of Palestine and hold off the Egyptians. Both Louis IX of France and Edward I (“Longshanks”) of England corresponded with them. Their envoy, a Nestorian Mongol priest born in China, later spent a year visiting them (and the Pope) in Europe, where he gave Communion to Edward and took it from the Pope. Quite a change from 20 years earlier!
  • When the Black Death finally and in all senses fatally disrupted the trade routes between the 4 quarters of the Mongol Empires in the early 1300s, the respective rulers converted/married into the local aristocracy to preserve their power. Thus the southern and western Mongols became Muslim, and those in East Asia either returned to animism or converted to Tibetan Buddhism.

I’m now reading Mission to Asia, which contains the texts of several of the medieval European missionaries to the Mongol court. So far, John of Plano Carpini has done a great deal of complaining about the miserable food and difficult material conditions of getting to, and living in the Mongol court…

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