The Mongol Conquests in World History
Although globalisation is not a phenomenon that is readily associated with the Middle Ages Timothy May makes a strong case for the emergence of a quasi-global system from the early 13th to the mid-14th century, the era in which the Eurasian continent was dominated by the Mongol Empire founded by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (who died in 1227). The Mongols did not, in the event, fulfil their supposed mandate to subjugate the whole world; but their empire extended from the China Sea to Anatolia and the Carpathians and from Siberia to the Hindu Kush and the Persian Gulf. In size it was accordingly unprecedented and unsurpassed prior to the British Empire.
Much of May’s book is concerned with the Mongol impact on the diffusion of ideas, technology, raw materials and manufactures, which he terms ‘the Chinggis Exchange’. The unification of much of Eurasia under a single imperial regime considerably eased long-distance communications across this vast region and reduced the costs and hazards of trade and travel. For a century or so after 1240 merchants, missionaries and adventurers from western Europe were able to reach the Far East and those who returned brought back new ideas and techniques. Far from exercising the passive role often imputed to the nomads Mongol rulers actively encouraged these exchanges and orchestrated the transfer of skilled personnel and material goods. This persisted even after the fragmentation of the united empire into four independent and often hostile states (c.1260).
Especially pivotal in this context were the close political ties between the Ilkhans (ruling Iran and Iraq) and the Great Khans (reigning over China as the Yüan dynasty), whose dominions together embraced the two culturally most advanced areas of the Old World – the Chinese and the Perso-Islamic. We thus find, for instance, Chinese medicine and cuisine betraying Middle Eastern influences and the motifs and techniques of Chinese art imported into Persian miniature painting. Symptomatic are the works composed under the aegis of the Ilkhans’ minister Rashid al-Din, who wrote treatises on agronomy and medicine that drew partly on Chinese expertise and whose universal chronicle, Jami‛ al-tawarikh (c.1303), comprised histories not only of the Mongols but also of China, India, the Jews, the Armenians and Catholic Europe (‘the Franks’). Without the Mongol conquests such a project would have been unthinkable.
This is a far cry from the popular image of the Mongols as merely the agents of depopulation and devastation. Yet the negative aspects of Mongol expansion are not played down. While the movement of bodies of skilled craftsmen and larger population groups across vast regions of Asia may have contributed to the ‘Chinggis Exchange’ it was usually involuntary and occasioned great suffering. May further endorses the view that the Mongols inadvertently made possible the emergence and spread of the Black Death, an event which perhaps did more than the collapse of the Ilkhanate and the Yüan to bring to an end the world system they had created. Their legacy in the military sphere also included the transmission of gunpowder technology from China to Europe and, in the much longer term, efforts to replicate the mobility and striking power of Mongol strategy during the 20th century.
Written with both clarity and zest and resting upon a wide range of recent scholarship, this book will be widely welcomed as a contribution to the study of world history.
Peter Jackson is author of The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410 (Pearson Education, 2005).
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