Mongolia and Europe: Personal Accounts of Cultural Overlap and Collision

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Mongolia and Europe: Personal Accounts of Cultural Overlap and Collision


For European explorers, merchants, and adventurers, the Orient presented a considerable challenge and exerted a powerful draw. Many of the products that revolutionized late-medieval Europe were originally imported from Asia. Paper, stirrups, and gunpowder were all products that European merchants eagerly desired to distribute in their homelands. Indeed, acquisition of these products, combined with the mastery and control of trade routes necessary to secure them, played an important role in preparing Europe for the Renaissance.

However, despite the clear advantages gained by Europeans through the acquisition of Eastern products and technologies, early travelers and adventurers who traded with the East often encountered a world that seemed diametrically opposed to their own.


Though Western Europe gained much in terms of technological knowledge from interaction with Asia, the European view of Asian culture was frequently negative. In large part Europeans were terrified of the Mongols, who, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were engaged in a wholesale invasion of Asia and Eastern Europe. Indeed, Western Europe learned of the Mongols, whom they named the Tartars, after the second Mongol expedition of 1238 unleashed widespread destruction across a significant portion of Eastern Europe.

The following excerpt from the Chronica majora of Matthew Paris (?-1259) indicates the attitude with which many Europeans regarded those from eastern Asia:

That the joys of mortal men be not enduring, nor worldly happiness long lasting without lamentations, in this same year [1240] a detestable nation of Satan, to wit, the countless army of the Tartars, broke loose from its mountain-environed home, and piercing the solid rocks [of the Caucasus], poured forth like devils from the Tartarus, so that they are rightly called Tartari or Tartarians. Swarming like locusts over the face of the earth, they have brought terrible devastation to the eastern parts [of Europe], laying it waste with fire and carnage. After having passed through the land of the Saracens, they have razed cities, cut down forests, killed townspeople and peasants . . . . They are without human laws, know no comforts, are more ferocious than lions or bears, . . . [and] are rather monsters than men, thirsting for and drinking blood, [and] tearing and devouring the flesh of dogs and men.

Indeed, the Mongolians were both powerful and horrifying. Their disregard for the people whom they conquered threatened the future of a Europe that was, at that time, embroiled in wars and intrigues. The Crusades had by that point also weakened the stability of European nations. Quarrels between the pope and the princes of European countries prevented the unification of power necessary to defeat a foe already deeply entrenched in eastern Europe.


In 1241, even as the Mongolian hordes threatened to push into western Europe, the invasions suddenly stopped. Ogotay Khan, the son of Genghis Khan (1154?-1227), died. Upon his death, the leaders of the Mongol forces acted as they had after the deaths of all the Khans—they swept back across Europe and Asia. Once they had returned to Mongolia, the leaders met in council in order to elect a new leader.

In Europe, Innocent IV was elected pope in 1243. Unlike Pope Gregory IX, his predecessor, Innocent IV took action in order to prevent the further spread of Tartar dominance. Innocent believed that the invasion had halted because the Mongol menace was threatened by fear of Divine Wrath for threatening Christendom. In order to reinforce this point, and to learn the Mongol's true intentions, Innocent IV arranged for missionaries to be sent east to the Mongols.

Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpini (1180?-1252) was sent on such a mission and, after a long and arduous journey, returned with a letter for the pope that includes the following passage:

By the power of the eternal heaven, the order of the oceanic Khan of the people of the great Mongols. The conquered people must respect it and fear them. This is anorder sent to the great Pope so that he may know it and understand it . . . . The petition of submission that you sent to us we have received through your ambassadors. If you act according to your own words, you who are the great Pope, with the kings, will come all together in person to render us homage and we will then have you learn our orders.

In this letter, Kuyuk Khan, the son of Ogotay, denies Innocent's request that Kuyuk be baptized and discontinue the conquest of Europe.

However, the invasion did not spread further west. Indeed, Mongol chiefs in western Asia ruled without the aid of the Great Khan. Under Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the Mongol empire succeeded in conquering China and stretched to its greatest size. But, even though the empire was huge, it lacked a single unifying principle, such as that provided by religion.

The Franciscan Order was involved in a continuous evangelical mission during this time, which involved sending monks to Asia in order to exert a moralizing influence on the rulers of the Mongol empire. Odoric of Pordenone (1286?-1331) was one of these friars sent to the East. He journeyed through Asia roughly 20 years after Marco Polo (1254-1324) returned to Europe with his tales of the court of Kublai Khan. At that point the Mongol empire began to slip apart. The outlying regions were too far from Mongolia. The Mongol dynasty, on the other hand, was subject to the softening process engendered by easy living. Elaborate palaces of gold and jade filled the once-desolate plains.

Odoric traveled through an empire in decline and provided an intelligent, though sometimes fantastic, account of the people of Asia. His account provides many details that Marco Polo fails to mention. When Odoric returned to Italy in 1330, he recounted his travels to a fellow Franciscan. This account, combined with those of Carpini and Willem van Ruysbroeck (1215?-1295?), were combined in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a popular travel narrative in medieval Europe.

It may be surmised from Odoric's narrative that Pope Innocent IV's desire to inundate the Mongol court with missionaries was successful to some degree. When describing "The Glory and Magnificence of the Great Khan" at royal feasts, Odoric mentions his own role in the emperor's court:

I, Friar Odoric, was present in person for the space of three years, and was often at the banquets, for we Minor Friars have a place of abode appointed out for us in the Emperor's court, and are enjoined to go and bestow our blessing upon him.

Odoric's description of royal protocol indicates that he was both an observer and participant. Likewise, Odoric's elaborate depiction of objects, such as the Khan's two-wheeled chariot, "upon which a majestic throne is built of the wood of aloe, being adorned with gold and great pearls, and precious stones, and four elephants bravely furnished [t]o draw the chariot," suggests the majesty of the Mongol dynasty and reveals the extent to which outsiders had penetrated into the royal circle.

Odoric and his fellow friars were occasionally in contact with the Great Khan. Odoric recounts one occasion in which the Khan called him and several other friars to the Khan's chariot. When the friars approached, the Great Khan "veiled his hat, or bonnet, being of an inestimable price, doing reverence to the cross. And immediately I put incense into the censer, and our bishop, taking the censer, perfumed him, and gave him his benediction." Encounters such as this seem to have been fairly common.

Odoric's account in "Of the Honour and Reverence Done to the Great Khan" offers other details indicative of the influence of Odoric and his fellow friars in the Khan's court. In this chapter, Odoric and his friars present gifts to a group of Mongol barons, "which had been converted to the faith by friars of our order, being at the same time in the army." This passage suggests that at that time high-ranking officers of the Mongol army were Christian. The depiction of the Mongols presented by Matthew Paris in the Chronica majora was becoming increasingly inaccurate.

However, the fact that Odoric's journey was a religious quest cannot be forgotten. His narrative is filled with description of "idolatrous" customs perpetrated by unsavory infidels. Odoric is often considered the first European to enter the Tibetan city of Lhasa, the home of the Dalai Lama. His account highlights the social barriers that prevented cultural understanding between East and West. In one section, in which he discusses his journey to Lhasa, Odoric makes direct, but often inaccurate and biased, comparisons between Buddhism and Christianity.

In Lhasa, Odoric writes, "their Abassi, that is to say, their Pope, is resident, being the head and prince of all idolaters." Odoric presents even greater disdain in his description of a Tibetan burial ceremony. In order to reveal the true limitations of the flesh and the transcendence of the spirit, the Tibetans dismembered their dead and feed them to the vultures. While the transcendence of the spirit is also a component of the Christian religion, Odoric mocks the practice. He ends his discussion of Tibet by stating that "many other vile and abominable things does this nation commit, which I mean not to write, because men neither can nor will believe, except they should have sight of them." Odoric, a true citizen of the medieval world, was unable to view a different culture as equal, and provided an account of the East that emphasized its cultural distance from Europe.

Following centuries of relative isolation, encounters between East and West increased dramatically during the Middle Ages. The accounts provided by friars such as Odoric offer personal glimpses into the impacts and implications of this cultural collision.


Further Reading

Bartlett, Robert. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change: 950-1350. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Komroff, Manuel. Contemporaries of Marco Polo. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1928.

Mandeville, John. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. New York: Dover, 1964.

Phillips, J.R.S. The Medieval Expansion of Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Walsh, James J. These Splendid Priests. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.