Willem van Ruysbroeck

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Willem van Ruysbroeck

c. 1200-1260?

French Missionary and Writer

Willem van Ruysbroeck made an extended missionary and diplomatic journey to see the Great Khan Möngkhe and attempt to deter the Mongols from invading Western Europe. During his travels, which encompassed Constantinople, Crimea and southern Russia to Mongolia, Willem wrote one of the most detailed travel accounts of the Middle Ages.

Born around 1200 in the Flemish town of Ruysbroeck in northern France, Willem was a Franciscan monk. He is mainly known for his travels as envoy of King Louis IX of France in response to a feared, major invasion from the Mongols. The king, also known as St. Louis, decided to send Willem to the great khan with the goal of learning about this leader and his people, and defusing the threat, perhaps by converting them to Christianity.

Willem set out in 1252 and headed for Constantinople, where he made a year-long stop and enlisted a traveling companion, Friar Bartholomew of Cremona, and a guide, who also served as a translator. These three and others in the crew set sail to Crimea, where they then traveled across southern Russia toward the Mongol domain.

Among the often-nomadic Mongols, Willem carefully recorded his observations. "As for their food and victuals," he wrote, "I must tell you they eat all dead animals indiscriminately, and with so many flocks and herds, you can be sure a great many animals do die.... They feed 50 or 100 men with the flesh of a single sheep, for they cut it up in little bits in a dish with salt and water, making no other sauce; then with the point of a knife or a fork especially made for this purpose—like those with which we are accustomed to eat pears and apples cooked in wine—they offer to each of those standing round one or two mouthfuls, according to the number of guests." He made similarly explicit observations about the Mongol's lifestyle, including their shelters, furnishings and clothing, as well as their customs.

Willem and his party eventually met up with the great general Batu, who granted Willem the opportunity to see the Great Khan. Along the way, Willem made unsuccessful attempts to convert the Mongols to Christianity.

After more than three months of travel, Willem arrived at his destination, only to wait another week before meeting the Great Khan. The initial meeting was unproductive for Willem, who was forced to remain rather tight-lipped as the Khan prodded him for information about France's military strengths and weaknesses. Later, Khan brought Willem and his men to Karakorum, the capital city, where Willem again initiated efforts to convert Mongols to Western Christianity.

About six months after meeting the Great Khan, Willem saw him for the last time on May 31, 1254. During this encounter, Willem tried to persuade the Khan to allow him to remain and promote his religion. Instead, the Great Khan insisted Willem return to France and deliver to the King Louis IX a correspondence threatening attack unless French ambassadors met with Mongol leaders. Willem left Karakorum without his traveling companion Friar Bartholomew, who had taken ill. The party returned via a northern route through Asia Minor and arrived in Tripoli in the spring of 1255.

Little is known of Willem van Ruysbroeck after his return trip, other than a visit with noted philosopher Roger Bacon in 1257. Willem did, however, leave behind the aforementioned detailed record of his Mongolian travels, including a geographical account that described the Caspian as an inland sea rather than a passage to the Arctic, as had been believed.


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