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This is my final post about William of Rubruck’s trip to Mongolia. You can read the first part here, and the post about his predecessor John of Plano Carpini is here.

The title of this post sounds like the start of a joke, and in many places, William’s narrative inadvertently comes across that way.

The Europeans had learned a few things since John of Plano Carpini’s trip. There was another embassy conducted between John and William’s trips by a Dominican friar, Andre de Longjumeau. Andre, who evidently spoke some Persian, had gone on behalf of both the Pope and Louis IX of France (two separate trips), reaching the Mongol capital of Karakorum sometime in 1250, two or three years after John’s visit. Andre had the brief from Louis to seek a military alliance against the Syrians, following an invitation by a pair of Mongol envoys/spies. Instead, the khan who had invited him was dead (possibly of foul play) by the time Andre arrived, and the queen regent reiterated the previous Mongol position of expecting Europe to submit and pay tribute as other nations were doing.

William seems to have met Andre upon the latter’s return to the Levant, and gotten instructions as to the route to follow from him. Louis IX permitted William to go provided that he did so in a purely religious capacity, not wanting the Mongols to make further assumptions about his acquiescence to their rule. And indeed, William comes across as devout and relatively learned about theology, but a bit naive about more worldly matters.

Upon his arrival in the new Great Khan (Mongke)’s camp, William encountered an Armenian monk, Sergius, wearing a hair shirt with chains bound around him. Sergius told William that he had been a hermit in Armenia before being charged (by God) with a mission to the Mongols. Sergius had already learned Mongolian and made some connections with Mongke and his family. William wound up being “assigned” to Sergius in a subordinate role.

William and Sergius proved to be a classic odd couple. Sergius was unkempt, didn’t observe no-meat days and cheated during fasts, and had a great fondness for alcohol. He was also very happy to take money and gifts offered him by the Mongols. He also claimed healing powers, which in his case meant giving the sick minced rhubarb in water, calling it holy water–which primarily gave them terrible stomach cramps. He may even have deliberately poisoned a Nestorian rival. William later found out that Sergius was illiterate, and moreover, was a clothmaker in Armenia with no religious training.

William himself was perhaps excessively fastidious for his day. He noted with distaste that the Mongols washed neither their dishes nor their clothes; the former were dipped in boiling broth, and the latter never. He was decidedly non-plussed by the copious drinking he was surrounded by in Mongolia. He constantly struggled with conflicts between Franciscan rules designed for European living and the necessities of survival on the steppe. He very often went without food, since frequently the only option was meat (no fish in a land with so little water). At one point he tried to go barefoot as at home, only to be laughed at for such obvious foolishness. Soon, it was simply too cold to sustain this affectation, and he sheepishly returned to wearing shoes. Bound by vows of poverty, he kept declining the gifts offered him, typically giving them instead to his Moslem Syrian interpreter to the bemusement of the Mongols. There was no shortage, however, of Hungarian captives among the Mongols, who were familiar with Franciscans and who took it upon themselves to explain William’s more baffling quirks to the Mongols.

The interpreter is almost a stock comedic character: first, it turns out he knows too little Mongolian to be of much use. He’s particularly deficient in theological vocabulary, it seems–he either makes things up or simply goes silent whenever William tries to engage in religious dialogue with anyone. However, he gets drunk at every opportunity (even causing a scene in the Great Khan’s tent at one point), and builds up quite a stash of goods from William with which to make his own fortune upon his return home.

Meanwhile, William and Sergius found themselves frequently at odds with the plethora of Nestorian priests who were well entrenched at the Mongol court. Several of the queens were Nestorian, and some of their priests occupied senior positions in the court bureaucracy. William’s account spends pages deploring all manner of Nestorian practices, from declaring all male children priests regardless of age, to illiteracy to bigamy to simony and on and on. He describes regular attempts to “correct” Nestorian theological errors (and Sergius’ as well–the Armenian mostly proved to be more receptive), being, in his mind, the only learned Christian theologian in Mongolia.

William had recognized early on that the khans in fact had no great interest in any particular religion, and found it useful to play them off against each other. Nonetheless, he still made efforts, since he was there, to instruct the Mongols in the “proper” way to perform Christianity when opportunities arose, and to minister to the European captives he encountered. The efforts at Mongol instruction wound up ensnaring William in Sergius’ battle for influence against the Nestorians. In the end, shortly before he was to head back to Europe, the khan decreed that there should be a theological debate, between the Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. William, with Scholastic training, took the lead for the Christians. He won the first round against the Buddhists. Then the Nestorians took over and challenged the Muslims, who pointed out that they shared the same foundational beliefs, and declined to debate. So the Nestorians explained their views to a Uighur priest in the audience. And no one was convinced of anything new.

When this was finished, the Nestorians and Saracens alike sang loudly while the Buddhists kept silence, and afterwards they all drank their fill.

In William’s final interview with the khan the next day, the khan observed, “God has given you Scriptures and you do not keep them; to us, on the other hand, He has given shamans, and we do what they tell us, and live in peace.” And as with William’s predecessor John, the khan requested he take along a Mongol envoy in his return, and William declined. Instead, the khan sent a letter to Louis that largely echoed the one sent a decade earlier to the Pope: in essence, send your envoys to us Mongols offering your submission, or we will declare war against you.

*     *     *     *     *

My favorite character in William’s account is a quiet, dignified man on the periphery of the story: another William, surnamed Buchier, a French goldsmith captured in Hungary. One internet source claims he had gone there to work on a cathedral, though Friar William provides no backstory other than that the smith’s father and brother were also goldsmiths, working on the Grand Pont in Paris. Master William the smith had an adoptive son who apparently was fluent in both French and Mongolian; after a while he became Friar William’s more usual interpreter, given the shortcomings of the Syrian one.

At the time of the two Williams’ meeting, the smith was just putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece, a fountain in the shape of a tree, all made of silver and gold, with an angel with a trumpet on top. The tree provided channels and basins for four different kinds of drink, and stood in the center of the (seldom used) palace in Karakorum. Master William received 1000 marks from the khan for this project–a very significant sum of money (approximately 500 lbs of silver) and no doubt far more than a craftsman in France would ever have seen.

The two men evidently became very good friends, the friar spending much of the winter in the smith’s house in Karakorum. The smith had had some education in France, which meant he could not only read and write, but also knew some scripture. He had made a crucifix and pyx, and some vestments, and had served the small community of captive Europeans as priest prior to Friar William’s arrival. Yet whatever Friar William may have learned of the smith’s life (or his unnamed son’s) prior to capture is never mentioned.

Reading between the lines, one gleans that the smith may have initially been thrilled to hear news from home and to pass over his religious efforts to a genuine priest. But in truth, Master William seemed to be well-established in Karakorum and almost as much a part of the Mongolian landscape as the rest of the court. At several times in the narrative, Master William or his son quietly arrange for the priest’s needs, school him with regard to the undercurrents at court, and advise him on how much he can push and when to stay silent. When Friar William departs, the smith gives him a Mongolian souvenir for his former king, Louis, but there’s no mention of the smith longing to be released, nor any message for the smith’s family in Paris.

I kept picturing the smith warmly bidding goodbye to this talkative, well-meaning priest, watching him ride out of town, and then turning back into his house and going on with his life. And why not? Despite being technically a slave, he had a comfortable home of his own, away from the crowding, stench and pollution of medieval Paris, and a lord who paid lavishly in ready cash instead of IOUs. More, he had a certain standing in a small but probably tight community of fellow captives with whom he had a significant shared experience. What more does one really need in life?

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