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Thomas of Spalato and the Mongols: A Thirteenth-Century Dalmatian View of Mongol Customs

Thomas of Spalato and the Mongols: A Thirteenth-Century Dalmatian View of Mongol Customs

By James Ross Sweeney

Florilegium, Vol. 4 (1982)

Introduction: When Qadan grandson of Ghengis Khan, and his Mongol horsement arrived before the walls of Spaalto in the spring of 1242, the Adriatic Sea became the westernmost boundary of the Tartar Empire, Stretching eastward across the vast Eurasian landmass to the shores of the Sea of Japan.

Thomas, archdeacon of Spalato (1200-1268), was a witness and principal reporter of that historic moment. Four chapters of his Historia Pontificum Salonitanorum atque Spalatensium narrate the approach of the Mongols to Hungary, the conquest of the country, the flight of Bela IV to Dalmatia with the invading army in pursuit, the unexpected withdrawal of the Mongols, and the famine that followed their departure. This portion of Thomas’s work ranks as a major western narrative of the Mongol invasion of Europe. The value of his narrative lies in the fact that the author was a contemporary of the events described and that his sources included his own eyewitness observation and reports made to him by informed refugees. Moreover, although he embraced a traditional mediaeval Christian Historiographical outlook, his work is relatively free of the apocalyptic speculation found in other accounts of the Mongol invasion. His narrative is by no means a complete description of events in Hungary and Dalmatia during 1241-1242, but the information he provides can be shown, wherever corroberation exists, to be largely trustworthy.

Within the last decade or so, mediaeval scholars have devoted considerable attention to the re-examination of western sources on the Mongols. These efforts have been directed toward the critical examination of the historiographical techniques of particular writers, the exploration of the historical reliability of surviving accounts, and the development of a tentative synthesis of the western European view of the Mongols. Perhaps the best known European chronicler of the invasion is Mathew Paris, the monk of St. Albans, whose Chronica Majorca has been praised by modern critics for the author’s readiness–despite his geographical distance from the events described–to include full texts of documents hitherto assumed to be verbatim transcripts of original sources.

Without denying the general value of Mathew Paris’s narrative, scholars recently studying his historiographical techniques have pointed out how, in shaping his narrative, the chronicler exercised a keen editorial eye for those issues closest to him, and in so doing permitted his biases to guide the organisation of his material. It has also been shown thatsome, at least, of the primary documents are not in fact verbatim transcripts but have been edited and revised to suit the author’s purpose, as in the case of the letter of Ivo of Narbonne tothe archbishop of Bordeaux concerning an incursion into Austria.

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