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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jun 29, 2020

Especially in modern textbooks and broad historical surveys, the Mongol withdrawal from Europe in 1242 is presented as the Mongols ‘disappearing into the mists of the east,’ as far as the Europeans were concerned. But in the immediate wake of the 1242 withdrawal, Europeans needed to know more about this new foe. Rather than a ‘Mongol disappearance’ from the European mind, European diplomats and representatives made the trip to the Mongol Empire on behalf of Kings and Popes- even to distant Mongolia. A number of these travellers wrote down accounts of their journeys, providing us yet another viewpoint to events within the Mongol Empire. In this episode, we will discuss three of these accounts from the 1240s and 1250s- that of John de Plano Carpini, Simon of St. Quentin and William of Rubruck. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


Our first journey is that of John of Plano Carpini, or Giovanni da Pian del Carpine. Like today’s other accounts, Plano Carpini was a member of a religious order, in this case the Franciscans, an influential group of Christian mendicants founded in the early 13th century by St. Francis of Assisi. Known for their rejections of wealth, simple brown habits, or robes, and often going about barefoot, since the lifetime of St. Francis they had worked closely with the Catholic Church in Rome. John of Plano Carpini was a leading figure among the Franciscans, having been at the forefront of their expansion into Germany. The impetus for Plano Carpini’s journey could not have come from a higher authority, that of Pope Innocent IV. This Pope had in 1245 organized the First Council of Lyons, one of those great ecclesiatical gatherings held every few years in the High Middle Ages to determine church doctrine and how to react to temporal matters. At Lyons in 1245, the biggest topics on the menu were two great foes of the Pope: Frederick II Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Mongols. While Innocent’s main concern was the Kaiser, there was great worry over the mysterious horsemen. On the initiative to learn more about them and establish diplomatic ties to avert a repeat of the horrors in Hungary, Pope Innocent sent the 65 year old John of Plano Carpini on the long road east in late 1245.


Aided along the way by the King of Bohemia and the High Duke of Poland, Carpini soon reached the Prince of Volhynia, Vasilko. Vasilko and his brother, Daniel of Galicia, were

the westernmost princes of Rus’, and who escaped most of the destruction suffered by the other Rus’ principalities. With Vasilko, Carpini was provided the most up-to-date information on the Mongols one could have in Europe. Passing the ruins of Kiev and an emptied countryside, only at Kaniv did Carpini reach territory under direct Mongol rule. As official envoys of the monarch the Mongols dubbed “the great Pope,” Carpini and his small company were provided escorts and use of the yam system, the great continental messenger route.  


Once on the yam, Carpini’s route picked up speed. They rode day and night over the steppe, changing horses three or four times a day as they reached yam stations. By April 4th 1246, they were in the camp of Batu. Batu did not return to Mongolia after the invasion of Europe, instead setting up his camp in the great swath of grassland along the Volga River which made up the middle of his territory, where he held immense power.  Carpini saw that Batu used King Bela IV’s linen tents as his own, taken as booty after the victory at Mohi. At Batu’s camp their letters from the Pope were translated into Russian, Persian and Mongolian, and then they were sent on their way. This stage of the journey is one Carpini had little love for. They rode their horses day and night, sometimes eating nothing except millet with water and salt, or only drinking snow melted in kettles.  They passed the ruins of the cities of the Khwarezmian Empire, the names of which Carpini had no chance to learn before they had moved on. 


By July 1246, they were in Mongolia. The hard ride had a purpose, for Carpini arrived in in time for the election of the new Great Khan, Guyuk. As messengers of the Pope they were treated well, provided their own tent and provisions. Carpini gives a fantastic description of Guyuk’s enthronement and the accompanying ceremonies- one detail is a sudden hailstorm postponing Guyuk’s official enthronement until August 24th.  He noticed representatives of powers from across Asia: the Rus’ Prince Yaroslav of Suzdal’, Chinese and Korean representatives, princes from the Kingdom of Georgia and the ambassador of the Caliph of Baghdad, among many others. Carpini’s embassy spent little time with the new Great Khan, offering only a brief description of him: quote, “The present Emperor may be forty or forty-five years old or more; he is of medium height, very intelligent and extremely shrewd, and most serious and grave in his manner. He is never seen to laugh for a slight cause nor to indulge in any frivolity, so we were told by the Christians who are constantly with him.”


On the matter of Chrisitianity, Carpini shares rumours that Guyuk was on the verge of converting. Guyuk did have affinity for the religion, as some of his closest advisers were Christians of the Nestorian flavour. No such baptism for Guyuk was forthcoming, however. As for Carpini’s actual mission to Guyuk, it proved less successful. Guyuk explained that the slaughter wrought in Hungary and Poland was due to the failure of the Europeans to submit to Heaven’s will and Mongol authority. Further, more would come, and when Carpini departed Guyuk’s camp for Europe in November 1246, he left utterly convinced that Guyuk was intent on marching on Europe. 


With this fear in mind, Carpini tailored his work as a manual to prepare for the Mongol return. He wrote a very accurate description of the appearance of the Mongols, their culture and society, to detailed descriptions of their armour, tactics, and strategy. He follows this with recommendations on how they should be countered. His solution is that European armies needed to copy the organization of the Mongols and their discipline: literally, they should adopt the decimal organization system and instil the same punishment for desertion or failure to advance. The importance of crossbows were emphasized; the need to not allow themselves to be flanked and to watch for feigned retreats; maintain reserve units to assist the line and always have the army covered by scouts to alert to Mongol movements. If relying on fortifications, they needed to be built in places inaccessible to siege weapons. Care should be shown to captured prisoners: using the descriptions he provides, he argues that Europeans needed to learn to identify the Mongols from those subject peoples forced to fight for the Khan. These peoples, Carpini says, would fight against the Mongols if provided the chance.


When Carpini is describing things he did not directly observe, he falls easily into accepting myths and rumours. In his account Jesus Christ and the scriptures are honoured in China (which he never visited), there are literal monsters under Mongol control, and the Mongols were repulsed from Greater India by its Christian King, Prester John. However, he provides a keen eye at Mongol politics at the start of Guyuk’s reign, listing the top chiefs and mentions Mongke and his mother Sorqaqtani, who he says “among the Tartars this lady is the most renowned, with the exception of the Emperor’s mother [Torogene], and more powerful than anyone else except Batu.”  On his return journey, Carpini remet with Vasilko of Volhynia and Daniel of Galicia, who sent with Carpini letters and envoys to Pope Innocent for cooperation, leading to Pope Innocent crowning Daniel King of Ruthenia, or Galicia-Volhynia, a brief flirtation of Orthodox and Catholic unity. Innocent provided no support for the newly independent monarch beyond this, and Daniel saw his autonomy crushed at the end of the 1250s with a major Mongol attack.


Carpini’s account, written on his return to Europe, was hugely disseminated through Carpini’s own efforts and its inclusion in one of the most popular medieval encyclopedias, Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Historiale. It's clear, detailed descriptions of the Mongols, based entirely on observation, was hugely influential on the writings of other travellers. Some have even argued it spurned the beginnings to more analytic, scientific descriptions of the world, in part as it brought a detailed presentation on a world outside of Europe. It was not exactly a friendly world, mind you. Carpini returned with a letter from Guyuk demanding the submission of the Pope and all the monarchs of Europe, immediately, and in person- with the direct threat of horrific consequences if they failed to do so.


As Carpini returned from the Mongol Empire in 1247, another embassy reached the Mongols in what is now Armenia. Pope Innocent ordered a party of Dominican friars from the Crusader states to bear a letter to the Mongols, opening a second diplomatic front in the event Plano Carpini did not return. The Dominicans were another mendicant order founded in the 13th century, famous both as preachers and inquisitors, and visually distinctive in their black cloaks over white habits.  This group of Dominicans was led by a Friar Ascelin, but the account was written by another member of the embassy, Friar Simon of St. Quentin. An online translation has been made accessible online by our friend of the podcast Dr. Stephen Pow- check out to read the full account, with maps! 


The Dominican embassy arrived in the camp of the Mongol commander of the Caucasus- Baiju Noyan, on the 24th May, 1247. Learning of their arrival, Baiju sent a representative to enquire as to their purpose, and things immediately got off to a poor start. Upon being asked who they were the representatives of, Friar Ascelin replied, “I am the envoy of the Lord Pope, who among Christians is considered superior in dignity to all men and to whom they show reverence as to their father and lord.”


To which Baiju’s representative became immediately annoyed and responded, “How, speaking with such proud words, do you say that your lord pope is the greatest of all men? Does he not know that Khan is the son of God and that Baiju Noyan and Batu are his princes and thus their names are made known and exalted everywhere?” To which Friar Ascelin replied that the Pope knew none of these names, and that they were simply instructed to find the nearest Mongol army -wherever that might be- and to present a letter from the Pope urging a cessation to the slaughter of Christians.


From here, the meeting devolved. The representative returned to Baiju with the message, and returning in a new set of clothes, asked what gifts the Pope had sent for Baiju. The embassy had failed to provide any, stating that in fact, people sent gifts to the Pope! When he returned from Baiju, again in a new set of clothes, he scolded them for failing to show up with gifts- then inquired if they were at the head of any European armies being sent into Syria.  Before allowing the embassy to meet Baiju, they were then ordered to genuflect before him- which the Friars refused to do, fearing it was idolatry. One in their party who had some experience with Mongol customs informed them it wasn’t idolatry they were asking for- just a sign of the submission of the Pope and Catholic Church to the Khan. On this, the Friars proudly stated they’d rather be decapitated than imply the submission of the Church. They would genuflect and even kiss the soles of Baiju’s feet on the condition that he became a Christian. The response was… not ideal.


“You advise us that we become Christians and be dogs like you. Isn’t your pope a dog and aren’t all you Christians dogs?” the Mongols shouted at the party, and upon learning of this insolence Baiju ordered them all to be killed. Baiju’s advisers urged mercy- don’t kill all four of the friars, only two! Another suggested it would be better to skin the lead friar and send him back to Rome stuffed with straw. Or, have two of them beaten by sticks by the whole Mongol army! Another voice said the wisest course was to place them at the front of the army during a siege, and allow them to be killed by enemy missiles. Murder was only abandoned when one of Baiju’s wives talked him down from it- reminding him quite rightly it was poor conduct to kill envoys, and it would bring him into trouble with the imperial court. 


Brought back from the brink- and this was still only the first day, mind you- Baiju’s representative inquired what would be an appropriate way for them to worship Baiju. No solution could be reached. The Mongols could not understand the stubbornness of the Christians in this regard: from their point of view, the Christians worshipped wood crosses and stone churches, and could not comprehend why the same respect could not be shown to Baiju, chosen by the Great Khan who was chosen by Heaven itself! The Friars’ explanations turned to theology, how St. Peter granted the keys to the Pope and so on. Lost in translation, the arguments went nowhere, until it was decided that Acelin would hand over the Pope’s letters but not appear before Baiju. The letter then needed to be translated for Baiju, which required Friar Ascelin explaining it word by word to Greek and Turk translators, who then explained it to Persian translators, who then translated it into Mongol, who then read it out for Baiju.


Annoyed by the initial proceedings, Baiju showed them disrespect after that. Left waiting in the hot sun, they were initially told they would be allowed to leave on the 12th of June, 1247, but this was rescinded when Baiju learned of the approach of Eljigidei to be his new superior. Eljigidei was a close ally of Great Khan Guyuk, sent west to resume military operations in the region.  Given only minimal bread and water, they could only wait. And wait. And wait. With no sign of Eljigidei and Ascelin fretting over continued delay, he finally got a councillor to plead on their behalf with promises of gifts. Baiju prepared a letter to send to the Pope, and things looked just about ready for the Dominicans to depart… when Eljigidei finally arrived. Then followed 7 straight days of feasting, drinking and celebrating before finally, some nine weeks after their initial arrival, on the 25th of July 1247 the Friars left Baiju’s camp. 


Like Plano Carpini, Ascelin returned with a letter from the Mongols, this time from Baiju, and within it were only the strictest of demands. The Pope was to come himself, in person, and submit to the Mongols. Failure to do so meant he was an enemy to the Great Khan, and only one fate awaited the enemies of the Great Khan. By the end of the 1240s Pope Innocent IV had at least two letters from top Mongol leaders- one of them the Great Khan, Guyuk- demanding his immediate submission.  That’s a fairly strong indication that the Mongol high command was intent on the subjugation of Europe. Much like Carpini, Ascelin’s colleague Simon recorded considerable detail on the customs, habits and warfare of the Mongols, with information on the strategies and tactics they used in their expansion over Iran, the Caucasus and Anatolia- much of it from first hand sources. As much as they were failed conversion and diplomatic efforts, they were valuable sources of intelligence on a foe they had frustratingly little information on. The impression garnered over the 1240s was of an immensely antagonistic power interested in nothing less than mastery of the world.


Our final traveller for today is William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar who also made the long trip to Mongolia carrying a letter from the King of France Louis IX- though insisting the entire time he was not a diplomat, merely holding the letter for a friend.  Rubruck’s mission both in structure and situation differed from his predecessors. There is no indication he ever met John de Plano Carpini: he was familiar with his work, but not enough that he could get Carpini’s name correct in his own account, referring to him as John of Policarpo. Rubruck provides one detail about himself in his own account: that he was rather on the large side. Stationed in the Holy Land, he joined  the crusading King Louis IX in Cyprus in winter 1248, and went with him on his disastrous Egyptian campaign of 1250- the Seventh Crusade. This campaign was a catalyst to the usurpation of the Mamluks in Egypt over the Ayyubids, something to have major consequences for the Mongols in a few years. Rubruck’s accounts do not indicate he was among them during the debacles further down the Nile in 1250, during which Louis was captured by the Mamluks, held for ransom and released. The following years the French King spent restoring local fortifications in Palestine, humbled and penitent. It seems in this period Rubruck spent quite some time with the King and Queen. Louis had already been in contact with the Mongols, having sent the Dominican friar Andrew of Longjumeau to the Great Khan’s court in the 1240s, and received envoys from Eljigidei in early 1249. This led to nothing: Guyuk was dead before the Dominican reached his court, and Eljigidei, as a close ally of Guyuk, was soon to follow him on Mongke’s orders.


Rubruck, as a good Fransciscan, was keen to spread the word of God among the heathens and had learned from Andrew of Longjumeau’s report of German miners carried east as slaves by the Chagatai prince Buri during the invasion of Hungary.  Keen to bring salvation to the Mongols, and peace to these slaves, it was Rubruck’s own initiative to travel to the Mongol Empire in 1253. Before he left King Louis provided Rubruck a letter to the Khan, as a sort of “while you’re going that way,” rather than an official embassy.. Learning that a Jochid prince, Sartaq son of Batu, was a Christian, Rubruck decided to make a stop at his court first, perhaps hoping to seek his assistance for the long trek. Taking his leave of King Louis likely at Jaffa, Rubruck set out north and reached Constantinople in April 1253, there getting a chance to preach in St. Sophia, the modern Hagia Sofia; he spoke with other men who had gone as envoys to the Mongols; and there picked up a companion, another Franciscan named Bartholomew of Cremona. Sailing across the Black Sea to Crimea, he travelled north into the steppes to the camp of Sartaq. 


Sartaq was the first of many disappointments for Rubruck. His Chrisitanity Rubruck found lacking, and his secretaries admonished Rubruck for calling him a Christian, telling him “Do not say that our master is a Christian. He is not a Christian; he is a Mongol.” The customary gift giving resulted in much of his possessions being taken or outright stolen. In the four days they were there, they were not even provided food, only airag, fermented mare’s milk, though Rubruck took a liking to it. Rubruck stressed he was not an envoy, merely carrying a letter of friendly intent from King Louis. This made a real mess. This was not an area in Mongol diplomacy their world view accounted for. To quote historian Peter Jackson in his translation of Rubruck’s account, “the Mongols were in fact unable to comprehend why representatives of independent peoples should trouble to visit the imperial court if not to bring submission.” Sartaq, not understanding the purpose of Rubruck’s letter, decided this was a matter for his father Batu to settle. So Rubruck, at this time in his mid forties and trying to travel barefoot as in Franciscan tradition, was forced to follow Plano Carpini’s route over the Volga Steppe to the court of Batu.


He was amazed at the size of Batu’s camp, comparing it to a large city. Taken before the tent of Batu, he gazed upon the second most powerful man in Asia. Sitting upon a golden throne with a wife at his side, Rubruck provides us our only physical description of Batu Khan: “He regarded us with a keen gaze, as we did him. He struck me as being of the same build as the lord John of Beaumont, and his face was covered at this time with reddish blotches.” As numerous commentators have stated, it is a deep shame that we do not know what build John of Beaumont was. Through his interpreter, Rubruck spoke to Batu and the audience, in which he urged Batu to be baptized. Batu gave a slight smile, and the audience began laughing at Rubruck. 


Batu interrogated Rubruck, having learned through spies of King Louis’ military expedition to Egypt. Telling the Khan that the purpose was to recapture Jerusalem, Rubruck was given airag and sent to the side. Batu decided it was best to send this representative of the French King right to the highest authority: Mongke Khaan, quite without Rubruck’s consent and with no choice in the matter. “There is no counting the times we were famished, thirsty, frozen and exhausted,” Rubruck says of the lengthy voyage in winter 1253 over Central Asia to Mongolia. Rubruck’s account, unlike that of Carpini, is full of personal opinions on matters: mainly in the form of how much he hated everything. Their hygiene and personal habits, such as relieving themselves in the middle of the open steppe right beside him he found ‘excessively tiresome.’


By the end of December 1253 William of Rubruck was in the camp of Mongke Khaan, some ten days journey from Karakorum. Unlike with Ascelin and Baiju, Rubruck was asked how he would like to make his obeisance to the Khan, per European custom or Mongolian. Rubruck would sing praises to God, then do as Mongke wished. Inside a tent Rubruck describes as covered in gold, the friar provides a brief description of Mongke. The Khan was seated on a golden couch with a wife, dressed in spotted fur, snub nosed, of medium build and about 45 years old. One of Mongke’s daughters was seated on the steps before him: Rubruck says she was very ugly. The initial meeting did not go very far. Alcohol was offered, and Rubruck’s interpreter helped himself. After Mongke’s first statement, “Just as the sun spreads its rays in all directions, so my power and that of Batu are spread to every quarter,” Rubruck’s interpreter was too drunk to translate, and the friar was quickly pushed to the side.


Rubruck did not have a good time in the Mongol court. Provided lodging and food, he found himself interrogated and often mistreated. The Mongols sought information on Europe, on what and how many goods and animals the French possessed, and if the Pope was really 500 years old. Rubruck had gone to convert the heathens and bring salvation to the captured German miners: he succeeded in converting only six people during his stay and learned the Germans were beyond his reach in Central Asia. Rubruck was stuck with Nestorian and Greek Orthodox Christians which he did not take a great liking too, there only to enrich themselves. The priests, among many others, were convinced Mongke was on the verge of converting to their creed. Rubruck saw that the Khan didn’t care for any of them, content to utilize all their prayers. Spending several months in Mongke’s camp and Karakorum, the imperial capital, Rubruck met persons from all over Asia. From ambassadors from the Nicaean Empire, the Delhi Sultanate, Baghdad and China to Europeans brought as captives to Mongolia. He met Hungarians, Germans, Russians and French. One was William Buchier of Paris, a goldsmith highly prized by the Mongols. He designed and built the famous silver tree of Karakorum: literally, a tree made from silver with conduits running through it, at the base through four silver lions and higher up coming down as spouts shaped as snakes. From the lions came airag, fermented mare’s milk; from the gilded mouths of four snakes poured grape wine; qaraqumiss, refined mare’s milk; bal, a honey drink, and a rice wine. At the top of the tree was a silver angel with a trumpet. On command, a man inside the tree would sound the trumpet, alerting stewards in another room to feed the alcoholic beverages through their respectives conduits. Below each animal was a vessel to collect the drinks, and when filled they were carried to the cheery guests, applauding at the show. Aside from this and the Khan’s palace in Karakorum, Rubruck found the city terribly unimpressive, likening it to a small town in France but with a very diverse population. 


Rubruck endured a number of almost sitcom-like vignettes during his time there. On one occasion he joined with a Nestorian priest to ‘save’ one of Mongke’s sickly wives through a decoction of rhubarb and holy water. Most notable was a religious debate he took part in, sparked by a conflict between Rubruck and the Buddhist priests at Karakorum. While Rubruck gives a detailed and accurate description of the Buddhist customs he saw, he had little care for the Buddhists themselves. This spat turned into the Mongols hosting a religious debate- on one side, Rubruck representing the Catholic Church, with Nestorian Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians and Muslims, and on the other Buddhists lamas. Three umpires - a Buddhist, Christian and Muslim- judged. Mongke, in typical fashion, called for a respectful debate forbidding insulting remarks to opponents, on pain of death.


Rubruck’s version is that he was the star player, deftly disarming the arguments of the Buddhists while his own teammates proved incompetent. We lack any other accounts of this debate, so we should perhaps take it with a grain of salt. He does remark that even though his arguments were like, totally 100% awesome and really effective, no one was convinced to become a Christian because of it, and the debate ended with everyone drinking heavily with half his team singing loudly and presumably, off-key. 


The most interesting portion of Rubruck’s narrative is his brief interview with Mongke Khaan, albeit through an interpreter. In this discussion, Mongke provides a fascinating explanation for his religious view:


“We Mongols believe that there is only one God, through whom we have life and through whom we die, and towards him we direct our hearts. But just as God has given the hand several fingers, so he has given mankind several paths. To you God has given the Scriptures and you Christians do not observe them. You do not find in the scriptures, that one man ought to abuse another, do you? And likewise you do not find that a man ought to deviate from the path of justice for financial gain. So, then, God has given you the Scriptures, and you do not observe them; whereas to us he has given soothsayers, and we do as they tell us and live in peace.”


After this, Rubruck was instructed to return to the west with a letter for King Louis, upon which he lamented he had no chance to attempt to convert the Khan. Mongke’s letter to Louis is preserved in Rubruck’s account, and it’s somewhat more cordial compared to the demands of Guyuk. I mean, it still has demands that the Kings of Europe come and submit to him, and that it would be foolish to trust in distance and mountains to protect them.  But it offered something of an apology- well, not quite an apology-  for inconsistent messaging by the envoys of Eljigidei, and for Andrew of Longjumeau’s journey which met not Guyuk Khan, but his widow Oghul Qaimish. On Oghul Qaimish, Mongke stated his opinion on her rather bluntly in his letter: “But as for knowing the business of war and the affairs of peace, subduing the wide world and discerning how to act for the best- what could that worthless woman, lower than a bitch, have known of this?” That he would so openly write this in an official channel- a letter to another monarch- is indicative of the malice he felt to her, and partially explains some of the violence Mongke ordered against the house of Ogedai.


Alas for William of Rubruck, but well for us, was that he was unable to return to King Louis to deliver the message in person. Believing Louis had remained in the Crusader States, after reaching the court of Batu in the Volga steppe, Rubruck cut south through the Caucasus- briefly staying in Baiju Noyan’s camp, where he heard of the approach of Hulegu, Mongke’s younger brother, and a massive army marching through Iran. Learning that Louis had returned to France, Rubruck’s Franciscan superiors ordered him to remain in Acre, forced to send Mongke’s letters alongside a written account of his journey, which luckily for us survives. Unlike Carpini’s account, Rubruck writes little on the warfare of the Mongols, spending more time on their customs and character, with remarkably astute, though not compassionate, descriptions of the cultures and religions he saw throughout his journey. It’s also a detailed geographical and observational survey, challenging views set out by ancient writers. For instance, noting that the Caspian Sea was not an ocean but a lake;  noting the proper courses of the Don and Volga Rivers; connecting the Chinese to the Seres mentioned in antiquity; noted linguistic connections between various groups and, upon finding no evidence for popular medieval monsters like the dog-headed people, argued against their existence. One of the few people to read Rubruck’s account in the 13th century was the English Franciscan Roger Bacon, who met Rubruck in Paris in 1257. Bacon was the first European to record the mixture for gunpowder in 1267. It’s sometimes suggested that Rubruck provided it to Bacon, but as Rubruck mentions nothing of the sort in his account, this is unlikely. 


And that is a brief overview of three early European journeys to the Mongol Empire. Not as famous as the slightly later journey of one Messer Marco Polo, but fascinating nonetheless. Our next episode will be an overview of the reign of Great Khan Mongke, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!