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Escaping the Mongols: A Survivor’s Account from the 13th century

“Hearing this, my hair stood on end, my body shivered with fear, my tongue stuttered miserably, for I saw that the inevitable moment of dreadful death was menacing me.”

Mongol soldiers depicted in the early 14th century

In the year 1241, a Mongol army invaded eastern Europe, ravaging Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Romania. In battles they swept aside European forces and for over a year had little opposition as they plundered the conquered territories. Then the Mongols would withdraw back to Russia, taking with them thousands of captives.

There are several accounts of the Mongol invasion, all of which are filled with stories of death and destruction. One of the most vivid reports comes from an Italian named Master Roger, who was the archdeacon of the cathedral of Oradea in Hungary.

His letter to Giacomo di Pecorari, Bishop of Palestrina, begins by narrating the greater political events that surrounded the Mongol invasion – how the nomadic Cuman peoples came to Hungary and received protection from King Bela IV, the animosity between Bela and the Hungarian nobility, and how the Mongols invaded and defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi on April 11, 1241.

The second half of his letter then describes the personal experiences of Roger, who had decided to stay at Oradea even though the local bishop had already fled. In the following section, he explains how the Mongols (who he calls Tatars) reached his city:

“But when one day the Tatars suddenly arrived and my situation in the city was precarious, I did not want to go to the castle, but ran away into the forest and hid there as long as I could. They, however, suddenly took the city and burnt most of it and left nothing outside the walls of the castle. Having collected the booty, they killed men and women, commoners and nobles alike, on the streets houses, and fields. What more? They pardoned neither sex nor age. That done, they suddenly retreated, gathered up everything in the retreat, and settled at five miles away from the castle.”

The reprieve from the Mongol attack did not last long, and after they brought siege engines against the castle, it too fell. Master Roger, however, remained in hiding in the forests, and survived as he watched many others were captured or killed.

His story continues, as he moved from place to place, seeking somewhere to hide from the Mongols. When he heard that a strongly fortified island, which he had stayed at just a few days previously, was captured and its inhabitants beheaded, Roger writes despondently:

“Hearing this, my hair stood on end, my body shivered with fear, my tongue stuttered miserably, for I saw that the inevitable moment of dreadful death was menacing me. I already beheld my murderers in my mind’s eye; my body exuded the cold sweat of death. I also saw human beings, when earnestly expecting death, unable to grab weapons, raise their arms, move their steps to places of safety, or survey the land with their eyes. What more? I saw people half dead of fear.”

Roger writes how he had to hide in the forest, returning to the island and rummaging through the corpses to look for food. He writes, “I had to seek caves, excavate pits, or find hollow trees to have shelter, while the Tatars, like hounds tracking rabbits and boars, rushed through the thick of the thorn bushes, the shadows of the groves, the depths of the waters and the heart of the wasteland.”

The Mongols depicted by Matthew Paris

However, after weeks or months of hiding, eventually a Hungarian Roger befriended turned him over to the Mongols, and he was taken as a captive. He watched as other towns and monasteries were attacked and destroyed, and then saw the Mongols beginning to withdraw back east. Believing that he would be executed once they left Hungary, Master Roger and his servant decided to escape. He writes:

“Therefore, I left the highway as if following the call of nature, and rushed towards the dense forest with my only servant and hid in the hollow of a creek, covering myself with leaves and branches. My servant hid farther away, so that the chance detection of the one should not cause the unhappy capture of the other. We lay thus for two full days, as in graves, not raising our heads and heard the terrible voices of those who, following the footprints of erring beasts, passed close by in the forest and often shouted after the prisoners who were in hiding. And when we could no more repress in the deep silence of our hearts the very just demands of hunger and the troubling desire for food in the closed silence of our hearts, we lifted our heads and began to crawl like snakes, using arms and legs.”

Together they looked for food, and climbed up trees to see if they could spot any Mongols. They would walk through abandoned villages and towns, where “leeks, purslane, onions and garlic, left in the gardens of the peasants, were, when they could be found, brought to me as the choicest delicacies.”

After passing through more destroyed places, Master Roger and his servant met up with other survivors. Eventually they reached a mountain:

“On the peak of it was a rock, a looming crag, where a great number of men and women had taken refuge. They received us with joy among tears and inquired about the perils we had passed through, all of which we could not tell them in a few words. Finally they gave us black bread, baked of flour and ground bark of oak trees, and it tasted sweeter than any simnel-cake we had ever eaten.”

It would be another month before Master Roger would leave the mountain, as he and the others feared that Mongol scouts were still in the area. Once the King of Hungary returned with more troops, Roger felt it was safe enough to go back home. He ends his letter by noting “I have written all this to you, father, without adding in anything false, so that you, father, who knows about the felicitous turn of my fortune, may know as well the true nature of my misfortune and danger.”

You can read the full edition and translation, by Janos Bak and Martyn Rady, in Master Roger’s Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tatars, published in 2010 by Central European University Press.

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