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.

In the summer of 1240 the Mongols, from their bases in the Caucasus area, attacked what were then the southernmost regions of Russia in a campaign that culminated, on December 6th, in the fall of Kiev, the ancient capital. By now a great deal more was known in Western Europe about these strange horsemen from the East, and when Matthew of Paris makes his second reference to the Mongols—under this same year of 1240—it is no longer as the subject of a rumour affecting the price of fish but as a terrible menace to the whole of Christendom.

“That the joys of mortal man be not enduring,” says Matthew, “nor worldly happiness long lasting without lamentations, in this same year [i.e., 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.1 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 lands of the Saracens, they have razed cities, cut down forests, overthrown fortresses, pulled up vines, destroyed gardens, killed townspeople and peasants. If perchance they have spared any suppliants, they have forced them, reduced to the lowest condition of slavery, to fight in the foremost ranks against their own neighbours.

Those who have feigned to fight, or have hidden in the hope of escaping, have been followed up by the Tartars and butchered. If any fought bravely [for them] and conquered, they have got no thanks for reward; and so they have misused their captives as they have their mares. For they are inhuman and beastly, rather monsters than men, thirsting for and drinking blood, tearing and devouring the flesh of dogs and men, dressed in ox-hides, armed with plates of iron, short and stout, thickset, strong, invincible, indefatigable, their backs unprotected, their breast covered with armour; drinking with delight the pure blood of their flocks, with big, strong horses, which eat branches and even trees, and which they have to mount by the help of three steps on account of the shortness of their thighs.

They are without human laws, know no comforts, are more ferocious than lions or bears, have boats made of ox-hides, which ten or twelve of them own in common; they are able to swim or manage a boat, so that they can cross the largest and swiftest rivers without let or hindrance, drinking turbid or muddy water when blood fails them [as a beverage]. They have one-edged swords and daggers, are wonderful archers, spare neither age, nor sex, nor condition.

They know no other language than their own, which no one else knows; for until now there has been no access to them, nor did they go forth from their own country; so there could be no knowledge of their customs or persons through the common intercourse of men. They wander about with their flocks and their wives, who are taught to fight like men. And so they came with the swiftness of lightning to the confines of Christendom, ravaging and slaughtering, striking everyone with terror and incomparable horror.”

From the “confines of Christendom” the Mongols now plunged deep into Central Europe. The right flank of their army swept forward through Poland and on April 9th, 1241, inflicted a crushing defeat on a Polish-German army near Liegnitz in Silesia, then, turning southwards through Moravia, joined forces with the main army in Hungary. Here the advance had been equally rapid. Leading his forces over the Carpathians, Batu had engaged a Hungarian army under King Belá IV at the confluence of the Tisza and Szajó rivers; and the defeat of the Hungarians and the flight of their King into Croatia left the Mongols in complete control of Hungary east of the Danube.

The horrors of the Mongol conquest are vividly described by a contemporary and a victim, Roger, Archdeacon of Nagyvárad, in his Carmen Miserabile. He tells a grim story of how, in one region, the fleeing peasants were persuaded by the Mongols to return to their homes; how they were peaceably allowed to gather in the fruits of the harvest; and how they were then all butchered in cold blood and their villages occupied as winter-quarters.

In December, the Mongols crossed the frozen Danube, invaded Croatia and captured Zagreb. Belá fled to the Dalmatian coast and took refuge on an island in the Adriatic; and the detachment that was pursuing him penetrated as far south as Ragusa. Meanwhile the main army, encamped on the plains of Hungary, seemed poised in readiness for an assault on Western Europe. But, in the spring of 1242, there came news of the death of the Great Khan in distant Mongolia, and Batu withdrew through the Balkans to the lower reaches of the Volga, there to lay the foundations of the Golden Horde.

Whether the invaders would return was a question that weighed on men’s minds for many years to come. The Emperor Frederick II, with his access to Moslem sources of information, was convinced that the attack would be resumed; and in a letter ostensibly addressed to Henry II of England, but in effect an appeal to Christendom as a whole, he called for concerted action against the common foe. His views were fully shared by the man best qualified to give an opinion—the Franciscan John de Plano Carpini, who as the ambassador of Pope Innocent IV had undertaken a longer journey than any European before him, and had been present in the Mongolian capital at the enthronement of the new Great Khan.

The Mongols, so Carpini informed the West in his Historia Mongolorum, had come to Poland and Hungary prepared for a thirty years war; but their Emperor had been killed by poison and so they had rested from battle until the present time. Now, with the election of the new Khan, they had “raised the standard to proceed against the Church of God and the Roman Empire and against all Christian kingdoms and nations of the West.” One army was to penetrate by way of Hungary and another by way of Poland; and they would come prepared to fight without a break for eighteen years. It was their object to conquer the whole world and reduce it to slavery, such slavery as was “unbearable for men of our race.”

Why, in fact, the Mongols never did return may be gathered from the history of the Mongol Empire as recorded in the Eastern and, in particular, the Persian sources. The campaigns of 1237-42 were planned and executed while the unity of the Empire was still intact. Ögedei, the son and first successor (1229-1241) of Genghis Khan, at once an able and a tactful ruler, commanded the loyalty and obedience of all the Mongol princes; and Mongol generals and administrators, whether in Asia Minor or Manchuria, were under the strict control of the central authority in Karakorum.

After Ögedei’s death, however, nearly five years elapsed before the election of his successor, and during this period of uncertainty it was clearly impossible to organize a major military operation. That his son Güyük (1246-48) was contemplating a resumption of hostilities against Europe seems likely enough, although there is no mention of this in the Oriental authorities; but circumstances were against him. He reigned for less than two years and, at the time of his death, appears to have been on the verge of civil war with his cousin Batu.

Güyük had served under Batu in Russia and the Caucasus but, having quarrelled with him at a banquet held to celebrate the victory over the Ossetes, had withdrawn in dudgeon to Mongolia. Batu was now firmly established in the steppes of what is today Southern Russia; and no invasion of Europe would have been possible without his cooperation and good will. These are advantages that Güyük clearly would not have enjoyed, even if he had contrived to remain at peace with Batu.

Güyük’s death was followed by an interregnum of three years, during which the affairs of the Empire lapsed into chaos. Order was restored only with the election to the Khanate of Prince Möngke, who belonged to another branch of the royal house. Möngke owed his elevation to the throne to the good offices of Batu, under whom he too, like Güyük had served.

He had distinguished himself in a campaign against the Qipchaq Turks or Comans—the Polovtsi as the Russians called them, and as they are familiar to us from Borodin’s Prince Igor—in the forests of the Volga delta; and it was the troops under his command that had captured Kiev. The whole Empire was now harmoniously divided between these two able and energetic rulers. “As the sun sends its rays everywhere,” said the Great Khan to William of Rubruck, the emissary of Louis IX, “likewise my sway and that of Batu reach everywhere.” The invasion of Western Europe had again become a practical possibility.

That the idea had not been abandoned we know from the testimony of Rubruck. Speaking of the Mongol “diviners,” that is, their shamans or witch-doctors, he remarks—and here he is in agreement with the Persian historian Juvaini—that they predicted lucky and unlucky days for the undertaking of all affairs and that the Mongols never assembled an army nor began a war without their assent. They would long since have returned to Hungary, he adds, but the diviners would not allow it.

And, on one occasion, Rubruck had great difficulty in concealing his anger and indignation when questioned by Möngke’s secretaries and interpreter “about the kingdom of France, whether there were many sheep and cattle and horses there, and whether they had not better go there at once and take it all.” That Möngke was capable of organizing an expedition against Western Europe we know from his having organized two other comparable expeditions.

A younger brother, Qubilai, afterwards his successor and better known to the West as Kubla Khan, was sent to China on a campaign of which the ultimate consequence was the establishment of the Yuan or Mongol dynasty, which ruled the country for more than a hundred years. And another younger brother, Hülegü (the Alau of Marco Polo), performed with equal success the tasks allotted him in Western Asia.

Having extirpated the Ismailis or Assassins of Alamut—the ancestors of the Aga Khan—and overthrown the Abbasid Caliphate, he remained upon the scene of his victories as the first of the Il-Khans of Persia. Perhaps the continued veto of the shamans prevented a third expedition, against the peoples of Europe; a more likely reason was the shortness of Möngke’s reign. He died in 1259, in the midst of siege operations against a town in Southern China.

With Möngke’s death, the unity of the Empire was at an end. Qubilai, for all Marco Polo’s great and justified admiration of him, was Great Khan in name only. In fact, he was the first of a line of Chinese Emperors. All his victories were gained in China or in SouthEast Asia; and one of the first acts of his reign had been to transfer the capital of the Empire from Karakorum to Peking. His authority was challenged from the very beginning.

Simultaneously with his own elevation to the Khanate a younger brother, Arigh Böke, had proclaimed himself Great Khan in the old capital; and his claims had been recognized by the Golden Horde. And throughout the whole of Qubilai’s long reign (1260-94), he was at war with Prince Qaidu, a scion of the dispossessed House of Ögedei, who had carved himself a kingdom in the very heart of the Great Khan’s Central Asian domains.

In the West matters were worse still. Batu was dead and the Golden Horde was ruled by his brother Berke, a fanatical convert to Islam, the bitter opponent of his Buddhist, or heathen, cousins, the Il-Khans of Persia, and the staunch ally of the latter’s deadly enemies, the Mameluke Sultans of Egypt. A combined operation against Europe was no longer even conceivable. The Mongol danger had passed for ever.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened if Ögedei had not died in December 1241, and if Batu, instead of retreating eastwards in the spring of 1242, had advanced in a westerly direction. The quarrels that then divided the peoples of Europe rendered them particularly vulnerable to such an attack. This was fully recognized by Carpini. The Mongols had suggested the sending of ambassadors to accompany his party back to Europe; and he had opposed the idea, among other reasons, because of his fear “lest, seeing the wars and dissensions which are rife amongst us, they might be all the more encouraged to attack us.”

In his chapter on “How to Wage War Against the Tartars,” he explained in detail why united action was essential if the invader were to be repelled. Unless all stood together, the Mongols would attack and conquer one province and then advance against the next with their prisoners in the front line of their army; and so, with the inhabitants of one country, they would destroy another. Therefore, if Christendom was to be saved, it behoved “kings, princes, barons and rulers of countries” to meet together and send a single combined army against the enemy.

Such an army would have to join battle with the Mongols before they could adopt the tactics that we should now call infiltration, the mobility necessary for this type of warfare being provided by their horses, of which they had such quantities that, for three or four days running, they could ride each day a new mount, and so did not mind if they tired out their animals.

“Once they begin to be scattered throughout a country,” says Carpini, “it is impossible for anyone to give effective help to another, for troops of Tartars search out the inhabitants everywhere and slaughter them. If the latter shut themselves up in fortresses, the Tartars station three or four thousand men round the fort or city to besiege it, at the same time continuing to spread all over the country killing men.”

The force to be sent against the invader should be organized, so Carpini recommended, in the same way as the Mongol army, in units of ten, a hundred and a thousand. As for the commanders of the army, they “ought on no account to take part in the battle, just as the Tartar chiefs take no part, but they should watch the army and direct it.” The army should be subjected to the same strict discipline as the Mongols. A law should be made “that all advance together either to battle or elsewhere in the order appointed.”

Deserters on the field of battle ought to be severely punished, as also those who turned aside to plunder before the enemy had been completely defeated: “among the Tartars such a one is put to death without any mercy.” Even their weapons should be the same as the Mongols’, including “good strong” bows and lances “with a hook to drag the Tartars from their saddle,” though they were also to have cross-bows, of which the Mongols were said to be much afraid. “The heads of the arrows for both bows and cross-bows ought to be tempered after the Tartar fashion, in salt water when they are hot, to make them hard enough to pierce the Tartar armour.”

Thus, in order to repel the Mongol attack, it was necessary for the princes of Europe not only to act in unison but to adopt the enemy’s own methods of warfare. Carpini was of course thinking of a hypothetical invasion at some time in the future. In 1242, there was no possibility even of concerted action. The struggle between the Emperor and the Papacy continued unabated. In May of that year, when the Mongols can hardly have quitted Europe, the Emperor’s generals were operating against the States of the Church; and in July, when their whereabouts must still have been uncertain, Frederick appeared in person before Rome itself. Had Batu been able to advance westwards from his base in Hungary, there is little doubt that, sooner or later, he would have subdued the greater part of Western Europe, destroying one country, as Carpini puts it, with the inhabitants of another.

Five hundred years earlier, another invasion of Europe had been halted at the gates of Tours. It was suggested by Gibbon that, but for the victory of Charles Martel, “perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”

We can no longer believe that the Arab expedition led by Abd-ar-Rahman, which was little more than a large-scale raid, could have had any enduring consequences. Had the Mongols been victorious, on the other hand, not only mosques but Buddhist temples might well have stood for a time alongside our cathedrals and churches. The political consequences of such a victory may be deduced from what actually happened in Russia.

After the sacking and burning of many great and famous cities, the Mongols would probably have withdrawn, with their loot and their prisoners, to the plains of Hungary, where conditions were more favourable to their nomadic way of life. Batu would have built on the banks of the Danube the capital that in fact he was to build in the Volga delta; and here he would have received in audience the rulers of the West, when they came to pledge their allegiance or to be confirmed in their office.

Inside their own territories, now slowly recovering from the ravages of the invasion, they would have enjoyed comparative freedom of action save for the presence of the basqaq or darugha, the Mongol official responsible for the collection of tribute and the conscription of men for the Mongol forces.

Young Frenchmen and Germans might for a time have fought under the Great Khan’s banner against the cities of Southern China. Gradually the princes would have shaken off the yoke—sooner, probably, than in Russia, which was to remain under some degree of subjection for more than two hundred years. Perhaps the most permanent consequence of Mongol domination would have been its stultifying effect upon intellectual and material progress.

According to Carpini, Ögedei was poisoned by a woman who is probably to be identified with Fatima, the Persian favourite of his chief wife. This is not confirmed by the Eastern sources; and it seems more likely that, as in the case of his younger brother Tolui, the father of the Great Khans Möngke and Qubilai, his death was due to alcoholism. There is a portrait of him, by a Chinese painter, in a series of portraits of the Mongol Emperors in the Imperial Palace in Peking; and the features have been described as those of an habitual drunkard.

It is a strange thought that the political and scientific supremacy of the West might have been long delayed, and might perhaps never have been achieved, but for the inebriety of a 13th century Mongol Khan, who from his mud-walled capital in NorthEastern Asia ruled over the greater part of the Old World.

1 The native form was Tatar. Originally the name of a particular tribe it came to be applied to the Mongols in general, as was afterwards the name of the Mongols proper, the tribe of Genghis Khan.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email