The Mongols and Europe

John Andrew Boyle describes how, for many years during the mid-thirteenth century, Mongol forces which had already driven deep into Central Europe, threatened to over-run and obliterate the Christian civilization of the West.

In the autumn of 1237 a Mongol army, under the supreme command of Prince Batu, a grandson of Genghis Khan and the future founder of the Golden Horde, crossed the Middle Volga and fell upon the principalities of Central Russia. Town after town was captured and destroyed, including the then comparatively unimportant Moscow, and by March 1238, the invaders had turned in a northerly direction and were advancing upon the great commercial city of Novgorod.

They had approached within sixty-five miles of their goal, when, apparently fearing that the spring thaw would render the roads impassable for their horses, they suddenly withdrew to the south. More than two years were to pass before the Russians saw them again.

In England these events produced a very curious result: they created a glut of herrings. The historian Matthew of Paris, writing in St. Albans, records that in the year 1238 the people of Gothland in the Baltic and the Frieslanders—that is, the Dutch—fearing the onslaught of the Tartars, did not come to Yarmouth for the herring fishery and herrings were in consequence so cheap that forty or fifty sold for a piece of silver even in places far away from the coast.

Since neither Gothland nor Holland can have been exposed to any immediate danger from the Mongol invasion of Russia, the ultimate reference must be to the people of Novgorod. The city’s whole resources in wealth and manpower must have been mobilized to meet the impending attack, and the merchants were therefore unable either to send their ships to the North Sea or to participate in the herring market.

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