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The Franciscan Friar who went to the Mongol Empire

By Sophie Andrade

Miss travelling? Take a journey to thirteenth-century Asia with John of Plano Carpini.

At the somewhat advanced age of 65, John of Plano Carpini, an Italian Franciscan Friar, was one of the first Christian men to travel east on a religious and diplomatic mission. His journey was harrowing and lengthy, and his ability to travel such a distance without injury is made all the more impressive when one considers Christopher Dawson’s candid description of him as ‘an elderly clergyman who was extremely fat and in poor health.’ Sent by Pope Innocent IV, the goal of Carpini’s mission was to convince the Great Khan of the Tatars to convert to Catholicism and to encourage him to keep a peaceful relationship between his empire and the Church.

Carpini’s journey began in April 1245 and it would take him over two years to return home. Traveling from Lyon, France to Ukraine, Carpini reached the western edge of the Mongolian Empire in April 1246. He met with Batu, the regional Mongol commander, who allowed Carpini to continue on his journey into Mongolia.

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Past the Caspian Sea, Carpini trekked for miles throughout land completely unfamiliar to him. In July 1246, he finally reached Sira Orda, the Great Khan’s imperial camp located near Karakorum, then the capital of the Mongolian Empire. Carpini arrived in time to witness the election of the next Great Khan, Güyük, son of Ögedei Khan. Güyük refused Carpini’s offer of conversion and instead ordered Carpini to inform the Pope and all European leaders that they should be the ones swearing allegiance to him. Unsuccessful, yet with stories enough to last a lifetime, Carpini began his journey home in November 1246.

Stopping in Poland, Bohemia, Germany, Liège and Champagne along the way, Carpini told snippets of his story to eager scribes. Carpini perhaps did this reluctantly, or at least he didn’t completely trust the scribes’ versions of his travels, since he warns readers in his own version that his is the only one to be trusted.

Once back in Lyon in 1247, Carpini began to write down his account and share it with his fellow Franciscans, sometimes reading it aloud himself, or listening as it was read by someone else. During the readings Carpini would answer questions from the audience, and these sessions led him to write another revised edition of his story with the appropriate clarifications.

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The Ystoria Mongalorum is one text that is part of a much wider literary genre known as medieval travel literature. This genre began under religious influences and with a fascination for everything foreign. It slowly became dominated by ‘the hunger for information’ in the thirteenth century, from which John of Plano Carpini’s account emerged. Medieval travel literature is an interdisciplinary subject that is difficult to define, however in broad terms it is a genre that covers pilgrimage and crusade accounts from the Holy Land and across Europe, diplomatic and missionary journeys to Asia and the Far East, and even some fictitious narratives set all over the known world.

In 1253, excerpts from Carpini’s Ystoria made their way into the Speculum Historiale, an encyclopaedia of travel writings compiled by Vincent of Beauvais. The Speculum Historiale circulated widely throughout the next few centuries and was an extremely popular collection of reference works in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Ystoria survives today in thirteen manuscripts, nine of which contain the first edition and four of which contain the second, revised edition.

Richard Hakluyt composed the first English translation of the Ystoria Mongalorum in 1598. The only other known English version appears in The Mongol Mission, edited by Christopher Dawson in 1955. This translation is simply attributed to ‘a nun of Stanbrook Abbey.’ Unfortunately, little is known of the nun of Stanbrook Abbey, as there is no exact date or name associated with her.

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The manuscripts in which the text survive can be found in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, the Bibliothèques/Mediathèques de Metz in France, the Bodleian Library and the British Library in England, and in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Austria.

The manuscript has also been the subject of more recent scholarly work, such as Kathryn A. Montalbano’s 2015 article, ‘Misunderstanding the Mongols: Intercultural Communication in Three Thirteenth-Century Franciscan Travel Accounts.’ Montalbano uses the accounts of Carpini and William Rubruck, as well as the letters of John of Montecorvino, to analyse the first communications between the Eastern empires and the Catholic Church.

Montalbano concludes that the friars’ conviction of their faith and occupation, while tested on their journeys, ultimately became stronger upon their completion. Montalbano also notes that John of Plano Carpini’s account, out of the three texts, is the most tolerant of the Mongol’s foreign culture and religious practices. It was also written first, so Montalbano believes that as time went on, the Franciscans were less willing to approach the Mongols with an open mind and returned home with accounts written with increasing critique and personal bias.

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Even so, Carpini’s account of the Mongols is not exactly filled with glowing praise. Among other things, some of the topics covered in Carpini’s account are, ‘Their Worship of God, Those Things which They Consider to be Sins, Divinations and Purifications, Funeral Rites, etc.,’ ‘Their Character, Good and Bad, Their Customs, Food, etc.,’ ‘War, Their Battle Array, Arms, Their Cunning in Engagements, Cruelty to Captives, Assault on Fortifications, Their Bad Faith with those who Surrender to Them, etc.,’ and, ‘How to Wage War Against the Tartars; the Intentions of the Tartars; Arms and Army Organisations, How to Meet their Cunning in Battle, the Fortification of Camps and Cities, and What Should be Done with Tartar Prisoner.’

He does not hold back when describing what he believes to be their ‘bad’ qualities and behaviours. When looking at the adjectives chosen to describe the Mongols, it is clear that Carpini did not trust them at all. He also fears that the Mongols will soon invade Christendom, writing at the beginning of his text, ‘Timebamus enim ne per eos in proximo ecclesiae Dei periculum immineret’ (I fear that they are an imminent danger to the Church of God).

In addition to the entire chapters on Mongolian warfare and their treatment of captured states, in chapter four Carpini takes great care to describe the brutal punishments they inflict on each other, as well as their ruthlessness when it comes to slaughtering outsiders. This language would have justified his fears to readers and listeners of his story, therefore making his own concerns and the concerns of the Pope appear credible.

By describing the Mongols, a potential enemy, in terms that highlight their dishonesty and immorality, Carpini makes their values appear distinctly different from those of his Christian readers. This characterizes the Mongols as suitable enemies of the Church who do not share the same morals as Christians. In addition to calling them ‘ignobiles,’ ‘immundi,’ and, ‘cupidi et auari,’ meaning uncivilized, morally and physically unclean, and greedy and miserly, Carpini says they are ‘fraudulenti,’ that is, they are deceitful, and they have ‘nulla veritas’ and ‘nullum honorem,’ meaning no truth or honour.

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Although Carpini also lists the ‘good’ characteristics of the Mongols, he keeps that section brief while stating ‘omnes mali mores eorum propter prolixitatem in scripto redigi non possunt,’ meaning they have so many bad traits that it is not possible to write them all down.

Carpini also notes their apparent brutality, saying ‘Aliorum hominum occisio pro nihilo est apud illos,’ meaning the killing of other people is like nothing to them. He also describes at length how they punish each other for committing sins of adultery or treason. Death is often the penalty, as is a severe beating. In just one chapter, Carpini reinforces the idea that the Mongols and Tatars were terrifying enemies, giving credence to his warnings of their intention to attack.

At the end of his account, Carpini adds one final warning about the different, incomplete versions of his story, making sure readers understand that his edition is the only one that can be trusted, which is mentioned above. Eventually, he decided that the warning was not enough to ensure his authority, so in the second iteration of the text, he added a ninth chapter that deals entirely with sources and eyewitnesses that will back up his tale, which he called, ‘The Countries Through which we Passed, Their Position, the Witnesses we Came Across, and the Court of the Emperor of the Tartars and his Princes.’

With these words and the additional chapter, it is clear that John of Plano Carpini was a man dedicated to his own version of the truth. In his influential text, he used that dedication to reinforce his fears of an imminent Mongol attack and his own credibility as an author by repeatedly emphasising his own trustworthiness as he described the negative qualities of the Mongols. While the Mongols did not invade Christendom as Pope Innocent IV and Carpini had feared, Carpini’s work so impressed the Pope that Carpini was given the Archbishopric of Antivari in Dalmatia, which he held until his death in 1252.

Sophie Andrade is a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews with an MLitt in Medieval Studies. Her research focuses on medieval women, music, manuscripts, and castles. She lives in Nottingham, England.

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Further Reading:

Beazley, C. Raymond ed. The Texts and Versions of John de Plano Carpini and William de Rubruquis. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1903.

“The Travels of John de Plano Carpini, and other Friars, into Tartary, in the year 1246.” In A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels, vol. 4. London: Thomas Astley, 1745.

Dawson, Christopher, ed. The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, translated by a Nun of Stanbrook Abbey. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1955.

Jackson, Peter. “Medieval European Travellers in Asia.” Medieval Travel Writing, Adam Matthew Digital.

Montalbano, Kathryn A. “Misunderstanding the Mongols: Intercultural Communication in Three Thirteenth-Century Franciscan Travel Accounts.” Information & Culture 50, no. 4 (2015): 588-610.

Philipps, Kim. “Travel Writing and the Far East, c. 1245-1500.” Medieval Travel Writing, Adam Matthew Digital.

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