The Look of Medieval Ethnography: William of Rubruck’s Mission to Mongolia

The Look of Medieval Ethnography: William of Rubruck’s Mission to Mongolia

By Shirin A. Khanmohamadi

New Medieval Literatures, Vol.10 (2018)

Abstract: Reads William of Rubruck’s mission to Asia as an instance of premodern ethnographic representation and the shape of the precolonial European ethnographic gaze upon Asia.

Introduction: The history of the reception of William of Rubruck’s Itinerarium or Journey, a report of his mission to Mongolia in 1253-5, has been marked by both relative neglect and high praise. The journey enjoyed scant contemporary attention and was unknown even to encyclopedists like Vincent de Beauvais, who recorded the earlier Mongolian mission of John de Plano Carpini, and who personally knew King Louis IX, at whose request William made the journey ‘.. to put in writing … everything I saw among the Tartars’.

Were it not for the great admiration of Roger Bacon, who copied much of the Journey in his Opus maius (c.1264), William’s fascination two-year mission, from the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem through the twin imperial courts of the ruler of the Golden Horde, Baatu (1242-55), and of the Great Khan, Mangu (1251-59), would probably not have come down to us; its low circulation is suggested, further, by its mere five extant manuscripts, four located in England.

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