Christian Europe and Mongol Asia: First Medieval Intercultural Contact Between East and West
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 2 (1985)
Between approximately 400 and 1000 A.D., Christian Europe was an isolated and inward looking civilization due to an almost continuing series of invasions by Germans, Huns, Muslims, Avars, Vikings, and Magyars. Western Europe represented a civilization on the defensive a civilization fighting for her life. But after a century or two of peace and prosperity, Christian Europe’s population and self-confidence grew; Europe was soon on the offensive in Spain, the Western Mediterranean, and the Crusades in the Middle East. Western Europe thus began to enter into the large Asian world of which she knew little or nothing at all.
Medieval Europe was especially ignorant of the Far East of Asia beyond the Muslim Middle East. The Christian West still accepted many old classical myths and legends about far off places and peoples and still tried to find a Biblical explanation and/or niche for everything and everyone. Muslim defeats in the East at the hands of the Kara-Khitans and later the Mongols were attributed to the legendary Christian priest-king, Prester John, and later to his son, King David. Thus Christian Europe was slowly becoming aware, in a vague and hazy way, of the peoples and activities of Central and East Asia. But in this early stage, the West was not receiving an entirely accurate view. At first Western Europe viewed the Mongols as enemies of Islam, and thus as friends of all Christians. However, this early Western hope and expected friendship soon changed to fear and terror, as the Mongols conquered all of Christian Russia by 1240. The Mongols were too cruel and too vicious to the Russian Christians to be either Prester John or his son, King David.