Giovanni da Pian del Carpini Travels to Mongolia

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Giovanni da Pian del Carpini Travels to Mongolia


The Mongols are often remembered as ruthless and marauding nomads who would let nothing stand in their way during the height of their power. This characterization is due, at least in part, to hostile historical sources that exaggerated their cruelty in an attempt to discredit them. Some descriptions of this barbarian horde, however, reflect the true nature of these people. It is difficult to separate the historical facts from propaganda, but a Westerner named Giovanni da Pian del Carpini wrote an excellent firsthand account of the Mongols called History of the Mongols Whom We Call the Tartars (1247). This work has often been cited as the best reference on the subject from this time period.

The Mongols constitute one of the principal ethnic groups in Asia. Their traditional homeland is centered in Mongolia, which is divided into the two present-day regions of the People's Republic of China and Mongolia. Geographically, Mongolia lies within a traditional migration corridor between China and Hungary, which has influenced much of their history. The term Mongol is sometimes confusing because at one time it was erroneously used as a racial characterization. However, Mongols exhibit a vast range of physical characteristics and the term should be taken as a group of people bound together by a common language and history.

Western Europeans lived in great fear of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. At this time, the Mongols were at the height of their power and controlled much of Europe and Asia. The Mongol Empire stretched from the China Sea in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west. From north to south, it stretched from Siberia to central China. The Mongols were fearless warriors who utilized armies of mounted archers to their tactical advantage. Despite this, Pope Innocent IV dispatched the first formal delegation to meet the Mongols. This mission had multiple goals. First and foremost, the pope wanted to convert the Mongols to the Christian faith. Second, he wanted to gain reliable information regarding the size and condition of the Mongol armies in addition to finding out what they were planning in the future. Third, he hoped to form an alliance with the Mongols so that he could persuade them from invading Christian territory and to form a possible partnership against the Islamic people. Last, he had hoped that the meeting would help protect traders along the legendary "Silk Road" to and from China. Pope Innocent IV saw this as an important mission and selected Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, who was already more than 60 years of age, as its leader.

Giovanni da Pian del Carpini was a Franciscan friar who had been selected by the Pope largely based on his previous experience. In light of the hardships he had faced with his vow of poverty and his religious background, Carpini was well suited to the challenges that his journey would present. He had played a leading role in the establishment of the Franciscan order, and he had been a leading Franciscan teacher and held important offices in a variety of different countries. Carpini had also been in Spain at the time of the great Mongol invasion and witnessed the disastrous Battle of Liegnitz in 1241. Based on these experiences, the pope selected Carpini, despite his advancing age, to head the mission in 1245, and chose Willem van Ruysbroeck to direct a second mission in 1253. The pope gave them instructions to find out all they could about the Mongols and to persuade them to receive the Christian faith.


Carpini embarked on his journey on Easter Sunday in 1245. Initially, another friar accompanied Carpini, but that friar was eventually left in Kiev. Carpini also recruited a Franciscan interpreter named Benedict the Pole along the route. The group made their way to the Mongol posts at Kanev and then continued on to the Volga River where they met Batu Kahn. Batu was the supreme commander on the western frontiers of the Mongol Empire and the conqueror of Eastern Europe. Carpini gained an audience with Batu only after he had submitted to a Mongol purification ceremony, which involved passing between two fires. He then met with Batu and presented him with gifts. Batu ordered them to travel to see the supreme Kahn in Mongolia. The group fittingly set out on the second leg of their journey on Easter Sunday 1246.

In order to withstand the rigors of travel, Carpini's body was tightly bound for the long ride through Central Asia. Their group journeyed 3,000 miles (4,800 km) in a little over three months and arrived at the imperial camp of Sira Ordu near Karakorum in mid-July. The Franciscans arrived at Sira Ordu just as one supreme ruler was dying, and were present when that ruler's eldest son, Kuyuk, was elected to the throne. On August 24 they were presented to the supreme Khan. They were detained for some time and then allowed to return to Europe with a letter addressed to the Pope. This letter, written in three different languages, outlined the supreme Kahn's assertion that he was the "scourge of God" and the pope must swear allegiance to the Kahn. During the long journey back, the friars suffered great hardships, especially in the winter months. Finally, on June 9, 1247, the group reached Kiev, which was a Slavic Christian outpost. They were welcomed with open arms and the letter was eventually hand delivered to the Pope. In his report, Carpini seemed confident that they could convert the Mongols to Christianity despite the contents of the letter.


Not long after his return, Carpini was appointed archbishop of Antivari in Dalmatia where he recorded his observations from his trip in a large volume of work. Carpini was an astute observer of the tradition and customs of the Mongols while he was in their presence. He recorded his impressions in a manuscript containing various types of style and content, which he called, History of the Mongols Whom We Call the Tartars. He also wrote a second manuscript titled, Book of the Tartars. He had written various chapters concerning the Mongols' character, history, foreign policy, and military tactics, including a section on the best way to defeat or resist the Mongols in case of attack. He also included a travelogue of his journeys, factual evidence of the groups of people who had been conquered by the Mongols, groups of people who had successfully resisted invasion, a list of the Mongol rulers, and finally, a record of people who could corroborate his assertions. His book was the first Western account of the Mongol Empire written by someone who was relatively unbiased.

Carpini's book discredited much of the folklore associated with the Mongols at that time. It gave a clear account of the everyday lives of this group and showed that they were human, not an inhumane band of marauding barbarians. Much of his book was summarized into a widely distributed encyclopedia that served as the primary body of knowledge regarding the Mongol Empire.

The book also served as a model for other adventurers in its rigorous and detailed account of the history and events concerning a group of people. It is probably the best treatment of a cultural study done by any Christian writer of that era. It was vastly superior in most ways to the chronicle of Ruysbroeck, who wrote of the similar mission he had undertaken in the Mongol Empire in 1253. Ruysbroeck chronicled his travels in A Journey to the Eastern Parts of the World. He provided a more personalized account of his travels while providing confirmation for many of the facts Carpini reported. Ruysbroeck's account also provided much insight into the Mongol culture. Ruysbroeck had conversations with people who had been to China and gave the first Western accounts of paper money and other aspects of Chinese culture.

A consequence of Carpini's journey is that he proved that one could travel east and return without much harm. He was the first European in over 300 years to travel that far east and return safely. Certainly the journey was a hardship and Carpini had, at one point, been stricken very ill. However, by returning, he helped to open the door for other diplomats and adventurers to attempt to meet and study other cultures and societies. Carpini was the first in a long wave of explorers and certainly influenced many who came after him, although he is rarely thought of as such. The knowledge of the Mongol Empire unlocked a new pathway between East and West and brought stability to two continents. Though merchants and traders long traveled the Silk Road, never had so many traveled so far as during the Mongol era. For the first time, many Europeans sought out the promise of wealth in the cities of Asia. Carpini's accounts and those of others such as Ruysbroeck and Marco Polo aroused the European imagination and inspired the quest for new passages to the East, long after the Mongol Empire fell.


Further Reading

Giovanni da Pian del Carpini. Historia Mongalorum quos Nos Tartaros appellamus. (The story of the Mongols whom we call the Tartars). Translated by Erik Hildinger. Wellesley, M.A.: Branden Publishing Company, 1996.

Marshall, Robert. Storm from the East: From Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Morgan, D. The Mongols. Peoples of Europe Series. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990.

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Giovanni da Pian del Carpini Travels to Mongolia

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