I have completed the narrative I mentioned in my last post about the much-put-upon John of Plano Carpini (Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, really), a high-ranking Franciscan sent by the Pope (with a couple of colleagues and an entourage of servants and baggage train) in 1245 to open diplomatic relations with the Mongols who had terrorized Europe a mere four years earlier.
I’m not really being entirely fair to Giovanni. His account contains much complaining about the difficulties of travel–the shakedowns by corrupt local officials, the inhabitual climate and cuisine, the soreness from riding for hours without a break–pretty much the complaints of every traveler ever. He also recounts, with no apparent skepticism, tales of people with heads of dogs and others with a single large foot who lived along the route. However, he was also 65 years old when he started the journey, and he traveled 3000 miles over a few months in 1245, lived in the Mongol camp on the Volga through the Russian winter, and then rode another 3000 miles in 106 days the following spring. A bit of querulousness might be expected, really.
More: Giovanni was holding office in Cologne, Germany in 1241, the year that the Mongols largely wiped out the knighthood of Germany, Poland and Hungary, including much of the Teutonic order, in the space of TWO DAYS. As a senior church official, he probably knew personally many of the leaders who were killed. Being sent off into the heart of unknown enemy lands with only a few servants and the paltry protection of letters in a language unknown to said enemy, from an official (the Pope) whose authority they had no reason to respect, Giovanni had every reason to think that he might never come back, even if he survived the physical challenges of the trip.
Despite that, somewhat to my surprise, Giovanni doesn’t spend much time on expressions of disgust at the other side’s perceived depravity and barbarism–far less than you find in average Victorian-era travelogue. He mostly attempts to be straightforward and accurate in his descriptions of Mongol life, since he was trying to gain useful knowledge of the enemy to take back to Europe. His moral outrage is limited to two things: the swiftness and finality of punishments for what he sees as minor etiquette faux pas (though people are disposed of with much less creativity with regard to advance suffering than was typical in Europe at the same time). And the tendency for widows to be promptly married off to brothers-in-law, which violated Catholic law, but was a means of providing for the women and their families by Mongol lights.
When not being miserable due to lack of food (millet broth being their only sustenance for days at a time), cold and hard riding, Giovanni did manage to gain some sense–if occasionally garbled or at least suspect–of Mongol customs, and more importantly for his mission, of the political undercurrents within the Mongol empire both between Mongol leaders, and with regard to the Mongols’ Russian client princes. It seems there were a number of Russians, both envoys and slaves, in the Mongol camps, with whom he and his few companions were able to communicate, and since the Russians had already been dealing or unwillingly living with the Mongols for as much as a generation, they were able to fill the Europeans in on much.
The mission itself was a general failure. After all, the only reason the Mongols hadn’t proceeded with conquering the rest of Europe in 1241 was because Ogodai, then the Great Khan, had died and the generals were obligated to head back to Mongolia for the election of the new Khan. So they were not especially impressed with the Europeans. It also didn’t help that the Pope had taken it upon himself to speak on behalf of all Europeans, and being a religious leader rather than a secular/military one, focused on entirely the wrong things in his letter to the Khan. Instead of offering military alliances or discussions of commerce, the Pope demanded that they stop invading Christian countries and become Christian themselves, and moreover, Christian in the European fashion, to which the Khan replied, “You men of the West believe that you alone are Christians and despise others. But how can you know to whom God deigns to confer his grace?” (You might think that the Europeans, who had largely been failing to do much against their Muslim neighbors for 150 years and just missed wholesale invasion by pure luck, would have a more realistic grasp of their power and position in the world…but no.)
The Khan, in his reply, pointed out that “we worshipping God have destroyed the whole earth from East to West in the power of God. And if this were not the power of God, what could men have done?” And concluded that Europe should send tribute like everybody else. The Khan also appears to have understood the European kings to be directly subordinate to the Pope, since he was speaking for them, which may have made him think even less of the Europeans’ military strength.
He wouldn’t have been wrong…As Giovanni and his colleague were finally leaving Mongolia to return home, it was conveyed to them that the Great Khan wanted them to invite Mongol envoys to accompany them back to Europe. Giovanni didn’t dare to directly refuse being accompanied by envoys, but he also avoided inviting them:
We were afraid lest, seeing the dissensions and wars which are rife among us, they might be all the more encouraged to attack us…[and] we feared that their real purpose might be to spy out the land. We were apprehensive that they might be killed, for our people are for the most part arrogant and proud. When at the request of the Cardinal who is legate in Germany, the servants with us who went to him wearing Tartar costume, they were very nearly stoned by the Germans on the way and obliged to take off the costume. Now it is the custom of the Tartars never to make peace with men who kill their envoys, until they have taken vengeance on them.
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I had thought that velvet and brocade were Renaissance fabrics, invented in Italy. However, Giovanni makes several references to both being given as tribute and official gifts both by and to the representatives of conquered peoples.
The Googles give many different possible sources of velvet origins. At least two agree that it’s documented in Persia in the late 700s. Wikipedia claims that it was brought by Kashmiri merchants; a couple of other sources claim it originated in China, although velvet hasn’t been a Chinese thing at all in modern historical times. In any case, like many other things, production then spread via the Islamic trade network to the Balkans, Andalusia and Cyprus, the last of which became a major velvet-producing center until it was opportunistically conquered by Richard the Lionheart on his way to the Holy Land. Genoese, Pisan and Venetian traders all had their colonies on Cyprus, and many of the Cypriot weavers fled to those cities, so that Venice and Pisa/Lucca became major velvet producers. It turns out that after the Mamluks–many of Balkan origin–took over Egypt in 1250, Cairo also became a major global producer of velvets.
Brocade is very likely of Chinese origin, though when China fell apart in the late 800s and the eastern portion of Silk Road trade fell off, the Byzantines and Persians largely took over global brocade production.