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It’s fun, when reading about something that happened hundreds of years ago, to recognize gestures your relatives make. My husband’s family is Kalmyk, a tribe of Mongols who fled what is now Qinghai province in western China when their old enemies the Manchus took over in 1644. They now have an autonomous province in Russia, on the north side of the Caspian Sea.

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I’m reading the account of William of Rubruck, another Franciscan monk like our friend Giovanni from my post on June 28th. William was a Fleming in the service of Louis IX of France, who left Constantinople on a mission to Batu Khan on Louis’ orders in 1253. His account has been translated and digitized here.

William was considerably younger than Giovanni, in his 30s or early 40s when he left. He also possessed a more anthropological eye, and apparently a bit more of an ear for languages. By the time of his trip, the Europeans had learned that a number of west Asians had some familiarity with the Mongol language, so one of the people in his train was a Muslim translator, possibly Syrian. Later, William comments that after he himself had learned some of the Mongol language, he realized that what he said and what the translator told the Mongols were often two very different things.

As an aside, William also had with him a slave boy named Nicholas, “whom I had bought at Constantinople by means of [Louis IX’s] charity”. This is odd, not because slavery was unheard of (it was common throughout the world at the time), but because Nicholas is a Christian name, and the Catholic Church had already decreed, some 200 years earlier, that Christians should not keep other Christians–whether western or eastern–as slaves. (Enslaving anyone else was still completely cool, but if the slave converted to Christianity, they were supposed to be freed. This tradition was obviously not observed in the Protestant American South, but neither was it observed by the Spanish conquistadors, who took theoretically Christianized African slaves with them to the Americas.) There’s a well-written, if depressing, Wikipedia article on old-world slavery in medieval times which is well worth reading. Tl;dr, everybody was enslaving everyone else, quite profitably–just not their co-religionists.

Back to cultural continuity:

William remarks on the practice of making food offerings before beginning a meal: each house had images of the spiritual “brother” and “sister” of the master and mistress of the house as well as other minor deities. At the time, most Mongols were still shamanistic (even if they also personally accepted other religions to some degree). These days, most Mongols follow Tibetan Buddhism, and the shamanistic icons are replaced by a cabinet containing mandalas, statues of Buddha, and sometimes pictures of ancestors. In my husband’s family, offerings aren’t made before every meal, but at celebrations, the first slice of cake cut gets put in the borchen (altar cabinet).

William also comments on the Mongols’ great fondness for drinking and drinking games, still very much in evidence at any Mongol wedding. Drinking is also a ritual part of more solemn occasions, such as blessings said at New Year’s.

When they have come together to drink, they first sprinkle with liquor this image which is over the master’s head, then the other images in order. Then an attendant goes out of the dwelling with a cup and liquor, and sprinkles three times to the south, each time bending the knee, and that to do reverence to the fire; then to the east, and that to do reverence to the air; then to the west to do reverence to the water; to the north they sprinkle for the dead. When the master takes the cup in hand and is about to drink, he first pours a portion on the ground. If he were to drink seated on a horse, he first before he drinks pours a little on the neck or the mane of the horse.

In modern times, and lacking servants, the more abbreviated form is for the master of the house, and then in turn the mistress, to dip a finger into the alcohol and then flick it to either side before pronouncing their blessings and then drinking the shot.

Like Giovanni, William was rather scandalized by widows being married off to brothers-in-law or other wives’ sons when the man of a house dies. I was somewhat skeptical about this claim when I first read it in Giovanni’s account, since I’d been told that Mongols forbid consanguinity within seven degrees. (Interestingly, the Catholic Church also forbade marriage within seven degrees from the 9th century until 1215 — it had just been changed to a mere four degrees less than 40 years before William’s trip. Perhaps the Mongols would have been equally scandalized by such incestuous behavior among Europeans, had they known.)

My mother-in-law confirms that the seven-degree barrier is still in effect, but that it only recognizes blood kinship, not kinship by marriage. She also told me that the obligation for brothers and sons to look after a man’s wives and children after his death–by reformalizing the familial relationship with marriage–is still somewhat in effect: a priest she knew, living in the U.S., left the priesthood and returned to Mongolia when his brother died in order to assume the brother’s family obligations. And a distant relative–an old woman who was the voice of the Star Wars Ewoks (yes, the Ewoks speak Kalmyk!)*–had around 14 children by two brothers for the same reason. Fortunately for me, my husband has no brothers. 😉

*Despite the claims in the linked Ewok article that a Star Wars staffer “invented” a language “based on” Kalmyk, my mother-in-law is able to translate what the Ewoks say quite directly into English. In fact, they mostly repeat the same phrases over and over again, although the general gist of what they say is more or less correctly translated by C3PO.

Lead Ewok, with the type of head-covering worn daily by the woman who gave him his language.

Lead Ewok, with the type of head-covering worn daily by the woman who gave him his language.

The foods that William describes–with the exception of koumiss–are also entirely familiar. The salted broth with bits of lamb that the Mongols speared with forks is called hernamuchen (literally, sheep meat) soup. If you’re lucky, they’ll add chopped onions and salt to the broth, but very often it’s just boiled mutton. Butter is also a major part of the culture–blocks of butter are given as part of the traditional New Year’s offering to a hostess when you make the holiday rounds…along with sweets and alcohol. And finally, millet and dried curds. When in Inner Mongolia some 20 years ago, my group visited a family who served both with milk tea (black tea boiled to lye, then mixed with milk, butter, and salt…my in-laws sometimes add bay leaves). You could eat the millet and curds on the side, or just dunk them directly into the tea to soften and have a one-dish snack.

I’m not a fan of milk tea, but I can attest that it does stick to your ribs on cold, damp days on the steppe.

Nei menggu_yurt