Post-classical history


A nomadic people of Altaic stock who first appear in Chinese texts of the eleventh century and who in the thirteenth came to rule an empire embracing most of Asia. For several decades after the 1230s, they were Latin Christendom’s most formidable eastern neighbor.

The Mongol Empire

At a tribal assembly around the year 1206, the Mongol leader Temüjin, who had reduced the neighboring tribes of the eastern Asian steppe, was proclaimed ruler of all the tent- dwelling peoples under the title of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (probably Mong. “hard ruler” or “stern ruler”). Chinggis Khan (d. 1227) began the conquest of North China (1211), then ruled by the Chin dynasty; reduced the seminomadic Qara-Khitan Empire in Central Asia (1215-1218); and in the course of a seven-year campaign (1218-1224) to the west accomplished the destruction of the Muslim Empire of Khwārazm in what is now Iran and Turkmenistan. Why the Mongols came to be known as Tatars (the name of an enemy tribe crushed by Chinggis Khan in 1202) is unclear; in Latin Europe the term was corrupted to Tartars, reinforcing the West’s association of the Mongols with the hell (Lat. Tartarus) of classical mythology. In any case, by the time they reached Europe the majority of the Mongols’ nomadic troops were of Turkic stock.

At both the administrative and the ideological level, the Mongol Empire represented a significant advance on earlier steppe confederacies. Their early conquests had brought the Mongols into contact with other tribes, such as the Naiman and the Kereyid, which had been in the process of attaining statehood, and with the semisedentary Turkic Uighurs, who had possessed literate traditions of government for some centuries and whose script Chinggis Khan adopted for the written Mongolian of his chancery. It was probably also through the Uighurs, and other Turks whom they incorporated in their war machine, that the Mongols had access to long-established notions of imperial rule. At what stage they developed the idea that Heaven (Mong. Tenggeri) had conferred on them rulership of the entire world, we cannot be sure. It may postdate the flight of certain of their nomadic enemies into sedentary territories; conceivably, it belongs to the era of Chinggis Khan’s successor. The notion is articulated in the ultimatums that the Mongols sent out to rulers who had not yet submitted: formulaic documents that demanded from those rulers acknowledgement of their place in the Mongol world-empire and threatened them with attack should they refuse. The earliest of such documents to survive dates from 1237.

Various reasons have been put forward to explain the phenomenal pace of the Mongol conquests. Like those of other steppe nomadic peoples, their forces were highly mobile and maneuverable, which gave them an advantage over the armies of their sedentary opponents: each Mongol warrior, whose main weapon was the composite bow, traveled with several spare horses. However, their decimal chain of command was not an innovation, and their proverbial discipline is unlikely to have exceeded that of the Chinese troops they encountered. What particularly distinguished them from their enemies was their cohesiveness. Chinggis Khan had eliminated the ruling elites of those peoples who resisted him, and divided them up into new military units under trusted officers; even tribes that cooperated, and were therefore permitted to remain intact, were entrusted to new commanders from different tribal backgrounds. The imperial guard, his own creation, numbering 10,000 men and drawn from a wide range of peoples, served as the nursery of an officer class that owed allegiance to Chinggis Khan and his dynasty alone. In this fashion the conqueror surmounted the centrifugal effects of the old clan and tribal affiliations, forging a more homogeneous structure than had been available to the Mongols’ precursors. This cohesiveness contrasted sharply with the disunity of many of their opponents. During the early stages of the war in northern China, the conquerors benefited from the assistance of several elements that resented Chin rule and saw the Mongols as a means of deliverance. In Central Asia, Chinggis Khan’s generals won the support of the Muslims, who had been persecuted by the last Qara-Khitan sovereign, and thereby incidentally undermined the ability of the shah of Khwārazm to portray his own struggle with them as a holy war.

Territorial expansion continued under Chinggis Khan’s immediate successors who, with the title of qaghan (great khan), reigned from their principal base at Qaraqorum in Mongolia. Chinggis Khan’s son Ogodei (1229-1241) presided over the final destruction of the Chin Empire (1234), inaugurated the long-drawn-out war against the Sung in South China (from 1235), and dispatched fresh forces to eliminate the vestiges of Khwārazmian resistance in Iran (1229); these troops reduced Georgia and Greater Armenia to tributary status (1236-1239) and shattered the Saljūq sultanate of Rūm at Kosedagh (1243).

From 1236 the great khan’s senior nephew Batu commanded a major expedition that completed the subjugation of the steppe and forest peoples of western Asia, notably the Volga Bulgars (1237) and the Cumans or Qipchaq (12371239), and overwhelmed the fragmented principalities of Russia (1237-1240). Batu’s campaigns mark the foundation of the Mongol power known as the Golden Horde in the southern Russian steppe. Following the enthronement of another of Chinggis Khan’s grandsons, Mongke (1251-1259), the conflict with the Sung was resumed in earnest, and the new sovereign’s brotherHülegü headed a campaign to southwest Asia, overthrowing in turn the Ismācīlī Assassins of northern Persia (1256) and the ‘Abbāsid caliphate at Baghdad (1258).

By 1260 the Mongol Empire extended from the Siberian forests to the western Punjab and from the Yellow Sea to the eastern Mediterranean coast. But Mongke’s death was followed by a civil war in Mongolia between his brothers Qubilai (Kublai) and Arigh Boke, in which members of the imperial dynasty took opposing sides. In the west, Hülegü favored Qubilai, while the ruler of the Golden Horde, Batu’s brother Berke, supported Arigh Boke. With the outbreak of conflict among Chinggis Khan’s descendants, the unitary empire dissolved into a number of independent, and usually hostile, khanates: the Golden Horde, with its center at Sarai on the lower Volga; a polity in Central Asia ruled by the descendants of Chinggis Khan’s second son Chaghadai; the Ilkhanate in Persia and Iraq, governed by Hülegü and his line; and the great khan’s own territory in the Far East. The Mongol dominions continued to expand only in the Far East, where the conquest of the Sung was completed in 1279, though seaborne invasions of Japan and Java failed. Qubilai reigned as a Chinese emperor rather than simply as a Mongol great khan: he abandoned Qaraqorum for Ta-tu (Mong. Khanbaligh, “the khan’s city”) close to modern Beijing, and adopted for his dynasty the Chinese name of Yüan (1271). The Yüan were expelled from China in 1368, and the Ilkhanate collapsed after 1335, but the other two Mongol states survived for significantly longer: the Golden Horde until 1502 (and its successor state in the Crimea until 1783) and the Chaghadayid khanate until 1678.

The Mongol world, c. 1260

The Mongol world, c. 1260

The First Mongol Attacks on the Latin West

The Mongols menaced Latin Christendom on two fronts: in Eastern Europe and in Outremer. The first reports of the attack on the Khwârazmian Empire, reaching Egypt in 1221, prompted the commanders of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) to identify the newcomers with the long-awaited forces of the great Eastern king Prester John, though news of the defeat of the Cumans and their Russian allies on the Kalka River (1223) was less encouraging. The Mongols attacked the Latin world only after the sack of Kiev (December 1240). While Batu himself and three separate armies entered Hungary, two divisions protected his flank by ravaging Poland, where they crushed Duke Henry II of Silesia and his allies near Liegnitz (mod. Legnica, Poland) on 9 April 1241; ravaging the borders of Saxony and Bohemia, they then passed through Moravia into Hungary. Here King Béla IV was overwhelmed at Mohi near the Sajô River on 11 April and fled toward the Adriatic coast while the Mongols devastated his kingdom east of the Danube. In January 1242 they crossed the frozen river and harassed the western provinces before retiring into the steppes north of the Black Sea. In the Near East, the general Baiju sent a division into northern Syria in the summer of 1244: various Ayyûbid Muslim rulers promised tribute, but Prince Bohemund V of Antioch defiantly rejected an ultimatum. One important consequence of this advance was that several thousand Khwârazmian horsemen, displaced from northern Iraq, moved south and sacked Jerusalem in August 1244 before joining forces with the Egyptian sultan and crushing the Franks and their Muslim allies at La Forbie in October.

The Mongol attacks of the 1240s threw into relief the disharmony and unpreparedness of the West, where the Mongol menace had perhaps not been taken sufficiently seriously. Pope Gregory IX and the Emperor Frederick II were unwilling to sink their differences in order to cooperate against the Mongols, and a crusade mustered in Germany in 1241 dissolved before it could make contact with the invaders. Not until the pontificate of Innocent IV (12431254) did the Curia endeavor to negotiate with the enemy. Innocent dispatched three separate embassies—two, comprising Dominican Friars, to the Near East and a third, composed of Franciscans, through the Russian steppes— with letters protesting at the attacks on Christian nations and urging the Mongols to accept the Christian faith. The reports submitted by these friars in 1247 furnished the papacy with its first full dossier of information on the enemy, and they are among our most important Western sources, particularly that of the Franciscan John of Piano Carpini, who visited the court of the Great Khan Güyüg. But this aside, they achieved little more than espionage, merely bringing back ultimatums that required the pope’s submission. When in 1248 the general Eljigidei, who had superseded Baiju in northwestern Persia, sent a cordial message to the French King Louis IX in Cyprus, its moderate tone occasioned great excitement in the West; but most probably its aim was merely to deflect Louis’s crusading army from territories on which the Mongols had immediate designs. At this time, the Mongols had no allies, only subjects—or enemies awaiting annihilation.

The Continuing Threat in Eastern Europe

Following the cataclysm of 1241-1242, King Béla IV of Hungary made efforts to prepare for the next assault, instigating the construction of stone castles on his eastern frontiers and entering into marriage alliances with several of his neighbors, including a Cuman chief whose daughter married his son and heir Stephen (later Stephen V); he also recruited Cumans as auxiliaries. In 1259 Berke’s forces attacked Poland, sacking Sandomir and Krakôw, but the splintering of the empire in 1261-1262 prevented the Mongols from following up this campaign. The Golden Horde remained content with exacting tribute and military assistance from the Russian princes and adjudicating their succession disputes. The khans were in any event probably more interested in operations south of the Caucasus at the expense of the Ilkhans than in either Russia or, by extension, Hungary and Poland.

Nevertheless, the Golden Horde remained a hostile power on the frontiers of Latin Christendom. In the Baltic region, the Mongols tended to act through their Russian satellites and the pagan Lithuanians, who paid them tribute intermittently, against external enemies such as the Teutonic Order. Further south the Golden Horde threatened for a time to draw into its orbit further non-Latin polities that might otherwise have succumbed to Latin pressure, such as Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire. During the heyday of Noghai (d. 1299), a member of the dynasty who was virtually co-ruler in the western regions of the Pontic steppe, Mongol influence extended deep into the Balkans. However, Noghai’s amicable relations with Byzantium did not outlast him, and in the early fourteenth century the khans launched a series of invasions of Thrace. As late as 1341, when the Emperor Andronikos III bought off a Mongol attack, the Golden Horde may still have constituted a greater menace than did the nascent Ottoman polity.

The Mongols dealt with Hungary and Poland more directly. Although there were no further campaigns on the scale of 1241-1242 or 1259, there were frequent raids and also substantial attacks on both countries in the 1280s. The extinction of the client Russian princes of Galicia and Vol- hynia in 1323 provoked fresh tensions, which were resolved when the new ruler, the Polish prince Boleslaw of Mazovia, maintained payment of tribute. But after his death (1340), the Mongols reacted sharply to the occupation of Galicia by Kazimierz III of Poland with a series of attacks, and during the middle decades of the fourteenth century, the khan appears to have recruited Lithuanian assistance against him. If Polish appeals to successive popes elicited little or no military aid, they did at least secure the grant of crusading tenths and twentieths rather more readily than did the simultaneous pleas of the Hungarian crown. Around 1360, however, the Golden Horde, already badly hit by the Black Death, succumbed to a prolonged phase of internecine conflict, and the attacks of the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) in the 1390s dealt its commercial centers a severe blow. The khans were powerless to impede the rise of Lithuania and its appropriation of Russian territory, and by the early fifteenth century they had sunk to being merely auxiliaries in the conflicts of their western neighbors: a Mongol contingent fought at the battle of Tannenberg (1410) alongside the Poles and Lithuanians against the Teutonic Order.

The Mongols in the Near East

When Hülegü entered Syria early in 1260, King Het‘um I of Cilicia, who had been subject to the Mongols since 1246, joined forces with him and induced his son-in-law Bohe- mund VI of Antioch to become tributary to the conquerors and accept a Mongol resident in Antioch, for which the prince was excommunicated by the papal legate at Acre. Hülegü left in March for Azerbaijan with the bulk of his army, leaving his general Kitbuqa, at the head of a rump force, to receive the surrender of Damascus and to confront the kingdom of Jerusalem. The government at Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) rejected demands for submission, and the Mongols sacked Sidon in August 1260 in reprisal for a Frankish raid on the interior. When the Mamlûk Sultan Qutuz advanced against the Mongols, the Franks gave the Egyptian army safe-conduct and furnished it with provisions. The Egyptian defeat of Kitbuqa at ‘Ayn Jâlût on 3 September relieved the kingdom of the Mongol threat, although Qutuz was murdered soon after and the new Mamlûk sultan, Baybars, who was not bound by any agreement with the Franks, embarked on the piecemeal reduction of the Latin states of Outremer.

Like the sudden retreat from Hungary in 1242, which has usually been linked with the death of the Great Khan Ogodei, Hülegü’s withdrawal from Syria in 1260 has been ascribed to the fortuitous demise of Mongke in the Far East, since both events would have required the Mongol princes and generals to assemble and elect a successor. It is at least as likely, however, that both the Hungarian and the Syrian campaigns were abandoned on logistical grounds, given the inadequacy of the available pasturage for the Mongols’ vast numbers of horses and livestock. The same circumstance perhaps underlay the Ilkhans’ efforts, from 1262 onward, to secure Western military collaboration against the Mamlûks. In part this was a response to the internecine conflictsfollowing Mongke’s death: menaced by the Golden Horde and other hostile kinsmen to their rear, and without access to the resources of the unitary Mongol Empire, the Ilkhans were compelled to seek external allies if they were to prosecute the dynasty’s traditional mission of expansion. But just as in China, where ecological problems obliged the nomadic Mongols to rely upon Chinese infantry in large numbers, so in Palestine they proposed to recruit the assistance of Frankish troops who were more accustomed to the terrain and the summer heat.

The Ilkhans corresponded with successive popes and the kings of France and England, sometimes also with those of Aragon and Sicily. The Mongol ambassadors, who stressed their masters’ favor toward Christians and Christianity, were frequently expatriate Italians who had entered the Ilkhans’ service; on occasion, the ambassadors were Nestorian Christians like the monk Rabban Sawma, who in 1287-1288 visited Naples, Rome, and Paris, and met King Edward I of England at Bordeaux. In the event, these exchanges, which persisted until 1307 (or possibly later), bore no fruit, despite the fact that the Mamlūks posed a growing threat to the Latin states and eliminated them in 1291. In his crusading treatise, written in 1307 at the behest of Pope Clement V, the Armenian prince Het‘um (a nephew of King Het‘um I), strongly advocated Latin-Mongol collaboration, which he saw as offering his native country the best hope of avoiding a Mamlūk conquest. Their past record, however, rendered the Mongols an object of widespread distrust, and the papacy was reluctant to enter into firm commitments until the Ilkhan had accepted baptism. On crusade in 1271, prior to his accession, Edward of England tried unsuccessfully to coordinate his activities with the forces of the Ilkhan Abaqa; but otherwise the few instances of military cooperation involved the Franks ofOutremer and Cyprus. Some Hospitallers from Margat may have reinforced Abaqa’s army when it invaded northern Syria in 1281; and after Abaqa’s grandson, the Ilkhan Ghazan (1295-1304), launched his first attack on the Mamlūks in 1299-1300, defeating the sultan and overrunning the whole of Syria and Palestine, King Henry II of Cyprus and the Templars tried to anticipate his return by occupying the island of Ruad (mod. Arwâd, Syria), off the coast near Tortosa. Ghazan’s later, and less impressive, Syrian campaigns, in 1301 and 1303, did without Frankish assistance altogether. Ghazan and his brother and successor, Oljeitü (1304-1316), the last Ilkhan to invade Syria, were both Muslim converts. Yet it was seemingly the obstacles to a successful war with Egypt, rather than religious considerations, that led Oljeitü’s young son Abū Said (1316-1335) to make peace with the Mamlūk regime (1323).

Trade and Mission

The union of much of Asia under a single government (until 1261) facilitated long-distance commerce; the Mongol sovereigns themselves, moreover, far from passively presiding over the growth of trade, actively fostered it. Western merchants who were already active in the eastern Mediterranean traveled east in quest of high-value, low- bulk commodities such as silk, spices, pepper, and precious stones. There was a Venetian presence in the Persian city of Tabriz by 1263, and within a few years the Genoese had bases at Caffa (mod. Feodosiya, Ukraine) in the Crimea and Tana on the Sea of Azov. The Italians did not always enjoy friendly relations with the Golden Horde khans, who resented Genoese attempts to assert their own sovereignty within Caffa: the Mongols attacked the town in 1298, in 1308, and in 1345-1346, when Pope Clement VI sought to launch a crusade in its defense. At what point Western traders penetrated as far as China is uncertain. Although Marco Polo and his father and uncle were in China from around 1275, Polo’s book suggests that all three were in Qubilai’s service; we do not know to what extent they engaged in commerce on their own account. The heyday of the Western mercantile presence in the Far East, for which physical evidence has survived in the form of two Latin tombstones in the city of Yang-chou (dated 1342 and 1344), was relatively shortlived, from 1300 to 1350. The Black Death probably dealt a severe blow to Latin residents in China and Central Asia, while further west the Mamlūks seized Ayas (mod. Yumurtalik, Turkey) in Cilicia (1337), one of the termini of the trans-Asiatic routes, and in Persia the turbulence that followed the collapse of the Ilkhanate made conditions for trade less propitious.

Latin missionaries frequently accompanied Latin traders. The Mongol Empire and the khanates that superseded it were characterized by religious pluralism; and although certain taboos in Mongol customary law fell particularly heavily on the adherents of one or another faith (e.g., the prohibition of the Islamic method of slaughtering animals for food), generally speaking each of the various confessional groups was permitted to practice its faith in its accustomed fashion. In return for praying for the imperial family, Christian and Buddhist monks and priests and Muslim scholars enjoyed exemption from certain taxes, military service, and forced labor. For Christians in lands that had formerly been subject to Islamic rule, the new regime represented a marked amelioration in their condition; Western missionaries too were now able to preach uninhibitedly. The earliest known Latin missionary in Mongol Asia was the Franciscan William of Rubruck (1253-1255), though the lack of an adequate interpreter and the fact that he was mistaken for an envoy of King Louis IX of France caused him considerable difficulty. By the 1280s, however, Franciscans and Dominicans were established in the territories of the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate. The Franciscan John of Montecorvino was the first Western missionary to enter China, in about 1294. Pope Clement V subsequently placed him at the head of a new archdiocese of Khanbaligh (1307), with jurisdiction over all the Mongol dominions, and sent out a group of friars to act as his suffragans. In 1318 Pope John XXII withdrew Persia and India from Khanbaligh’s authority, creating a second archiepiscopal see at Sultān- iyya, one of the Ilkhan’s residences. The Latin missionary effort flourished for a few decades, though in China the friars seem to have made no impact on the indigenous Han population; conversions for the most part involved Nesto- rians and other eastern Christians, like the Orthodox Alans, transported from their home in the Caucasus to form a corps of the imperial guard. Reports of high-ranking conversions, designed in part to secure reinforcements, were often also grounded in misapprehensions about the Mongol rulers’ attitude toward religious matters. With the definitive conversion to Islam of the Ilkhans (1295), the khans of the Golden Horde (1313), and the Chaghadayid khans (c. 1338), Christian proselytism grew increasingly hazardous, and several friars were martyred in the 1320s-1340s. The route to China seems to have been abandoned, and when the Jesuits entered China in 1583, the earlier missions had fallen completely into oblivion.

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