The report of friar John of Plano Carpini: analysis of an intelligence gathering mission conducted on behalf of the Papacy in the mid thirteenth century
By Stephen Bennett
History Studies: University of Limerick History Society Journal, Volume 12 (2011)
Introduction: Intelligence can be defined as the product of analysis of refined and collated data. Ideally drawn from a variety of sources, intelligence should aim to answer the decision maker’s specific information requirements and unlock the deeper processes at work in the target system. The requirement for intelligence is clear in Vegetius’ De re militari. With some 260 surviving Latin manuscripts it has been presented as the principle work on military doctrine of the age. What evidence is there, however, of the ideas outlined in De re militari being applied in practice?
This paper will consider the reliability and value of a report on the Mongol Empire in the mid thirteenth century written by Franciscan Friar John of Plano Carpini for Pope Innocent IV. In doing so this paper will attempt to highlight that Carpini’s report was packed with meticulous and precise military data, even if at times it lacked insight into causality: This goes some way 10 demonstrating the advanced nature of intelligence gathering in the Middle Ages was in line with Vegetiusian doctrine.
Between 1237 and 1241 the Mongols had surged westwards, subjugating the Rus’ and defeating the forces of Poland, Moravia and Hungary before withdrawing. Analysing the nature of the Mongol threat was a priority for Pope Innocent IV at the First Council of Lyons in 1245. For this be required timely, accurate and cogent information. Although some twenty years had passed since the first Mongol raids into Georgia and Russia, little was known of the Mongols, their culture, religious beliefs or military intentions. During the course of the Council, Innocent IV sent three separate embassies to the Mongols: two Dominican missions under Andrew of Longjurneau and Friar Ascelin respectively, and a Franciscan mission under Carpini. Peter Jackson argues persuasively that the information required of them drew from the questioning of a Rus’ cleric at the Council in June. In addition, the routes assigned to each embassy matched routes threatened by Mongol armies, and that this can hardly have been a coincidence. Two information requirements were evidently paramount; the religious beliefs of the Mongols and the military threat they presented to Christendom. This paper will focus on the later.