Barefoot and on horseback to the Mongols, whom we call Tartars

The Mission of a Flemish monk

In terram alienigenarum gentium pertransiet, bona enim et mala in hominibus tentabit —
He shall go through the land of foreign peoples, and shall try the good and evil in all people.

(Ecclesiasticus, x x x i x, 5)

‘Vous êtes en Flandre’, announces the brown sign along the motorway. The Brussels-London Eurostar tears on through the landscape. I am on my way to Rubrouck, a forgotten village in French Flanders, Northern France, near Cassel. In 1566 Protestant marauders murdered both the pastor and the curate there. Their corpses were dumped in a muddy pond – or did they glide downstream along the IJzer to the North Sea? But I haven’t come for the Iconoclasm or a river that here is little more than a brook. At the Syndicat d’lnitiative Yser Houck they are proud of the village’s most famous son, the thirteenth-century Franciscan monk Willem, who swapped the IJzer for the Gobi Desert and saw the Great Khan of Mongolia, but did not convert him. Between 1253 and 1255 he covered sixteen thousand kilometres, sometimes on foot, but mainly on horseback. The story he brought back was forgotten for centuries, though it far surpasses that of Marco Polo, who followed in his footsteps (1271-1295).

On 14 July 1994, in Rubrouck, the town of Bulgan and this French-Flemish village signed the first French-Mongolian twinning agreement. France does nothing by halves – even in its farthest corners. Two years later the President of the Republic of Mongolia inaugurated the village museum, which is dedicated to Willem and Mongolia. The twinning was celebrated – noblesse oblige – with the induction of a new Flemish giant: Willem himself, of course. ‘Discover Mongolia in Flanders’ promises the leaflet that they push into my hand at the Syndicat. The round Mongolian tent, the yurt, keeps fraternal company with the three altar pieces in the church, Rubrouck’s other pride and joy. We’ve had city marketing, is it village marketing now? Every village does what it can.

Hordes that filled the surface of the earth

Willem, Willelmus, Gullielmus, Guillaume, William: this sturdy Fleming was born here around 1210-1215. After joining the Franciscan order he received his training in Paris, as one of the first generation that hadn’t known the saint personally. Around 1250 we find this lector flandricus, as a contemporary referred to him, in the Middle East. It is not clear whether he was already part of King Louis IX’s party when the latter embarked in Aigues-Mortes for Cyprus in 1248. Yet again Western Europe was raising men, money and energy for another crusade (the seventh so far). Yet again the men would dwindle, the money would be used up and the energy evaporate. Louis himself was taken prisoner in Egypt in 1250 and only released after a ransom was paid. Was Willem with him? In any case, he knew the Nile Delta and mentions the town of Damietta, which the French had captured.

In December 1248, whilst Louis was preparing for the crusade in Cyprus, envoys from the Mongol commander in Persia arrived, and offered the ‘Franks’ a perspective of religious freedom and an alliance with ‘Armenia, Persia and Tartary’. After the death of Genghis Khan in 1227 the Mongol kingdom had become a new and dreaded player on the chess board of world power. In the spring of 1241 Mongol hordes had conquered Hungary and delivered a crushing defeat to a coalition of Poles, Silesians, Moravians and Templars near the Polish town of Liegnitz. In the winter of 1242, Mongol cavalry crossed the frozen Danube and ‘filled the surface of the earth’, penetrating as far as Split on the coast of the Mediterranean. For Christian Europe this was a rude confrontation with Asian brutalities, carried out by a hundred thousand cavalry, each of whom had another five or so horses behind him. And this at a time when tension with the expansionist Islamic world was increasing.

In 1245, Pope Innocent IV sent a French Dominican, André de Longjumeau, with a letter to the Mongolian army’s advance guard in Greater Armenia. In the same year he also sent the Italian Franciscan Giovanni de Plano Carpini, who had known St Francis personally, to the Great Khan himself. Carpini set off from Hungary, where the Mongols had wreaked such havoc, through Russia to the Kingdom of the Mongols (‘quos nos Tartaros appellamus’; ‘whom we call Tartars’) where, in 1246, he witnessed the enthronement of Guyuk, the son of Ogadei.

When Carpini asked the Khan to convert, he retorted that the Pope and the kings of Europe should first come and swear allegiance to him. If they did not, the Khan would count them as enemies. Carpini was the first European since 900 AD to travel east of Baghdad and return to tell his story, Ystoria Mongalorum quos nos Tartaros appellamus (The Story of the Mongols whom we call the Tartars).

In Cyprus Louis IX took over the Pope’s diplomatic endeavours. The French King was speculating on an alliance with the Mongols against the Saracens and sent André de Longjumeau on a second journey to the Far East. When Longjumeau reached Mongolia, he heard that the Great Khan Guyuk had been dead for two years already. Guyuk’s widow gave him a message for his King that he and his subjects would be annihilated unless he paid an annual tribute. By 1251 Longjumeau was back in the Middle East. Given the failure of this embassy, there was no question of an official diplomatic mission when Willem set off in 1253, after a year of preparations in Constantinople. The French King did give him letters for Sartak, the war lord of the Mongol armies that were encamped closest to Europe, in southern Russia. There were rumours that he had converted to Christianity. It is not entirely clear what Willem’s exact intentions were. He himself always stressed that he wanted to preach the faith. He met Longjumeau, who may have talked to him about Germans, ‘qui sunt lingue nostre’ (‘who speak our language’), and who had been deported by the Mongols to the Far East. Perhaps, as a Fleming who spoke a Germanic tongue, he wanted to give moral support to his linguistic brethren.

The King had probably asked him to keep his eyes and ears open, to try to find out what the Mongols’ military intentions were. At any rate, he asked him to report on everything he saw. So on 7 May 1253 Willem set off from Constantinople on a journey to the end of the world – to another world, although he did not know it at the time – armed only with faith, inner strength, robust health, common sense, Franciscan ideals, and loyalty to God and his King. He was in the prime of life, between 35 and 45, and sturdily built. There can be no doubt about his faith, but it did not prevent him from observing the world around him and reporting on it candidly.

Hunger and cold as travelling companions

On 7 May 1253, then, Willem set sail from Constantinople across the Black Sea and landed in the Crimea. He went on from there with four carts, which he later regretted as he would have reached Sartak in half the time with only horses. He was accompanied by Bartolomeo, a Franciscan from Cremona; Gosset, a French cleric; Nicolas, a young slave whose freedom had been bought in Constantinople; an interpreter, who was supposed to speak the Mongols’ language but who later proved unreliable; and some drivers.

Having crossed the Don, the travellers reached Sartak’s encampment in South Russia (now Ukraine), on 30 June 1253. Louis IX’s letter was wrongly interpreted as a proposal to form a military alliance against the Saracens, so Sartak sent Willem further east to his father and hierarchical superior Batu. Batu had acted as king-maker for Mangu, Guyuk’s successor as Great Khan, and wielded de facto power as ruler of the western part of the vast Mongol Empire. Once he had reached Batu, Willem joined the nomads’ trek. On 14 September Batu in turn sent the Franciscan to the Great Khan Mangu. Willem left the French cleric and the young slave behind with Batu and continued south-eastwards with Bartolomeo and the interpreter, changing horses constantly. From there on, hunger and cold were their constant companions. Towards the end of 1253 they reached Mangu’s yurt encampment. Initially the Khan showed little interest in Willem, who was obliged to follow the nomads eastwards. On 5 April 1254 he and they reached Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire, located to the south of Irkutsk in the Gobi Desert. He discovered it was no bigger than Saint Denis, which in those days was just a village outside Paris. Nevertheless, during the brief period when it was at its peak (from 1220 to 1260, when Kublai Khan moved the capital to Beijing) it was the diplomatic centre of the world and received embassies from the Byzantine Emperor, the Khalif, sultans and emirs, the King of Delhi and princes from Russia.

‘There are two quarters in it; one of the Saracens in which are the markets, and where a great many merchants gather on account of the court, which is always near this city, and on account of the great number of ambassadors; the other is the quarter of the Cathayans, all of whom are artisans. Besides these quarters there are great palaces, which are for the secretaries of the court. There are there twelve idol temples of different nations, two mosques in which is cried the law of Machomet, and one church of Christians in the extreme end of the city. The city is surrounded by a mud wall and has four gates.’ The ‘church of the Christians’ is that of the Nestorians, who had been considered heretics since the Council of Ephesus (431) because they believed that Christ had not only two natures but was also two persons, one human and one divine. Nestorianism had penetrated as far as the Far East and many of the princesses, mothers and wives of the Khans, were Nestorians. Willem considered the Nestorian priests in general poorly trained and organised. He calls them ‘corrupti’ (‘degenerate’), profiteers and drunkards. In his opinion, they had strayed from the true teaching and adapted too much to their environment. He also informs us that they put no figures of Christ on their crosses because they were either ignorant of His Passion or ashamed of it.

A very special shaman

One of the highlights of Willem’s stay was a theological discussion with Muslims, Buddhists and Nestorians, organised by the Khan himself. The debate ended in a draw, the chess pieces were put away and the drinking began. As far as religion went, the Mongols were quite pragmatic. Revelation was alien to them. Their credo seemed to be ‘anything goes’. They were guided mainly by their soothsayers, as is clear from the last conversation that our Franciscan had with the Khan, at Pentecost, on 31 May 1254: ‘one of the most remarkable interviews in history’, according to Christopher Dawson (in: The Mission to Asia). Mangu said that, just as God created different fingers on one and the same hand, he also gave peoples different forms of belief and customs (‘ways’). Seventeen centuries after Herodotus gave the West the principles of relativism, this barbarian with a monkey face (‘homo simus’) expressed the idea – his own idea – that convention is the father of all things. But Willem is no relativist. He had received the training of his time, had Peter Lombard’s Liber sententiarum in his travelling bag, and the Bible. We should not expect this man to stand outside or above his own times. His faith knew no doubts. On the contrary, it provided him with an instinctive imperturbability and courage which enabled him to withstand all hardships. ‘Vexilla regis prodeunt’ he sang, undaunted, bearing the cross high in the air through the Mongols’ camp. Again and again, he patiently explained the creed: ‘Credo in unum Deum’. He is prudent and steadfast, and for that alone commands the Mongols’ respect. They must have seen in him a very special shaman.

At the end of May 1254 Willem finally received Mangu’s permission to return to Europe. The Great Khan gave him a letter for the French King, which said, amongst other things: ‘Whosoever we are, whether a Mo’al or a Naiman, or a Merkit or a Musteleman, wherever ears can hear, wherever horses can travel, there let it be heard and known. For the moment they hear my order and understand it but place no credence in it and wish to make war against us, you shall see that though they have eyes they shall be without sight; and when they shall want to hold anything they shall be without hands, and when they shall want to walk they shall be without feet: this is the eternal command of God. (…) And when you shall have heard and believed, if you will obey us, send your ambassadors to us; and so we shall have proof whether you want peace or war with us. When, by the virtue of the eternal God, from the rising of the Sun to the setting, all the world shall be in universal joy and peace, then shall be manifested what we are to be. But if you hear the commandment of the eternal God, and understand it, and shall not give heed to it, nor believe it, saying to yourselves: “Our country is far off, our mountains are strong, our sea is wide,” – and in this belief you make war against us, you shall find out what we can do. He who makes easy what is difficult, and brings close what is far off, the eternal God He knows.’

Willem had to leave Bartolomeo behind, as he was too weak to travel. On 18 August 1254 Willem took his leave of him ‘in tears’ and set off for the West along a more northerly route. The journey was difficult and exhausting. For two months and ten days he saw neither town nor village. Back in Batu’s camp on the Volga, he picked up Gosset and Nicolas, who had been treated as slaves by the Mongols. The journey continued. At Christmas 1254 they were near Mount Ararat, in what is now called Azerbaijan. A year later (1255), he reached Cyprus via Turkey. Louis IX had left for France a year earlier. The provincial of the Order directed Willem to a monastery in Acre, and gave him a teaching assignment. In Acre he wrote the story of his travels, in the form of a long letter to the King.

Post iter omne animal triste? – the post-travel blues

So what had he achieved with his travels? In diplomatic terms: nothing. And as a missionary: only six Mongols were eventually baptised. If one is charitable one might say that the good seed of faith had been planted, sacraments had been administered, one Nestorian converted.

If the objective was to preach the gospel to the unbelievers according to the rule of St Francis, then it had been achieved. When it comes to spreading the gospel, intentions always count for more than results. In the presence of the Great Khan, Willem must have felt like St Francis before the sultan. St Francis himself had said of those who go to the Saracens and other unbelievers that they could deal with them in two ways: ‘One manner is, that they cause neither arguments nor strife, but be subject “to every human creature for God’s sake” (1 Pt 2:13) and confess themselves to be Christians. The other manner is, that, when they have seen that it pleases God, they announce the word of God’, even when there are dangers involved: ‘And let all the friars, wherever they are, remember, that they have given themselves and surrendered their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. And on behalf of His love they ought to confront their enemies both visible and invisible; because the Lord says: He who will have lost his life for My sake, shall save it (cf. Lk 9:24) for eternal life (Mt 25:46).’ (Regula Non Bullata, 16)

Willem followed the rule to the letter. Besides, his belief in the faith is so great that he believes that the Khan would have converted, (‘forte humiliasset se’) if he himself had only had Moses’ power to perform signs. Quod non. He had not found the deported Germans but, as we know, the journey is always more important than the goal, the experience acquired more important than the quantifiable result. The opening lines of the Odyssey tell us that ‘Many cities did [Odysseus] visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted’ during his enforced wanderings. More or less the same message is in Ecclesiasticus (The Book of Sirach) (XXXIX, 5), quoted freely at the beginning of Willem’s report: ‘He shall go through the land of foreign peoples, and shall try the good and evil in all people.’

We travel, then, to learn and become wiser. That may not be our intention, but every journey brings us new knowledge and increases that we have already.

Willem was the first to realise that the Caspian was an inland sea, the first to identify Cathay (China) as Antiquity’s ‘Kingdom of the Seres’ and to give a detailed description of the capital, Karakorum. Although he never saw China himself, he discovered from a Tibetan lama that the Chinese used paper money and wrote ‘with a brush such as painters paint with, and they make in one figure the several letters containing a whole word.’ He provided a wealth of ethnographic information about the Mongols’ way of life. He told of kumiss (fermented mare’s milk), which ‘makes the inner man most joyful and also intoxicates weak heads, and greatly provokes urine’; women who didn’t lie on beds to give birth; clothes and dishes which were never washed; about a man who had to search for his bride, who was hiding, and abduct her to his house by force. He shared their nomadic existence, searching constantly for grazing land for their horses. (Had they, perhaps, left Europe in 1242 because their hundreds of thousands of horses had denuded the Hungarian plain of grass?) He described how they took their yurts everywhere with them on large carts.

‘Nusquam habent manentem civitatem sed futuram ignorant’ – ‘Nowhere have they any lasting city and of the one to come they have no knowledge’. In this he departs noticeably from the epistle to the Hebrews (XIII, 14): ‘Non enim habemus hic manentem civitatem, sed futuram inquirimus’ – Our city is certainly not lasting, on the contrary we look forward to the city that will come.’ He contributed to linguistics (seeing the link between the Slavic languages) and to comparative religion, in which field his descriptions of Buddhist priests and Mongolian shamans and soothsayers are of great value. He understood the importance of language and interpreters. Willem discovered what it meant to be lost in translation, dependent on bad interpreters, which made it impossible and downright dangerous to explain his faith properly.

Was Willem’s letter to Louis IX no more than the ashes of a fire that had died, like every travel story? Post iter omne animal triste – all creatures are sad when a journey is over? Did this stalwart Fleming, who had seen the almost endless expanse of the Steppes, the crushing skies above and the snow-covered roof of the world in the distance, manage to adapt again to Christianised Europe? Was his life over after Mongolia? Did he see his stream in Rubrouck again, and think back to the Euphrates? Did he make fun of the West European winters, having seen winter in Siberia? Did he not, for the rest of his life, see the poverty in Acre and Paris against the background of the true face of St Francis’ poverty that he had seen in the Far East? We don’t know.

In Paris he met the doctor mirabilis Roger Bacon, also a Franciscan, and discussed his book with him. Bacon quotes him frequently in his Opus Maius, he will have liked the Fleming’s empiricism. After his discussion with Bacon in Paris, Willem disappears from view. Did he ever see Louis IX again, or the Holy Land? Or Mongolia? He probably only made the one expedition. What else did his superiors have in store for him? Was he able to find his niche again? What was the last image imprinted on his retina before he died?

The story is copied

A century later, a monk in France (Normandy?) copied Willem’s Itinerarium. Leiden University Library owns the fourteenth-century manuscript. It is a copy of the best manuscript from the thirteenth century, which can be found at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge (181). The Leiden manuscript is part of the library of Paul and his son Alexandre Petau (Petavius), which Isaac Vossius bought in Paris in 1650 for the library of Queen Christina of Sweden. However, Vossius kept a lot of the books for himself and his books eventually ended up in the library in Leiden.

In the Dousa room of the university library (no walkmans, mobile phones, or cameras, only pencils and whispering), they give me a Plexiglas lectern and a soft cushion for the codex that contains a few historical works about Normandy and Giovanni de Plano Carpini’s Ystoria Mongalorum. The latter finishes at the bottom of folio 160 with ‘explicit ystoria mongalorum quos nos tartaros appellamus’, written in slightly larger letters. The address to Louis IX, with which the Itinerarium begins, follows without a break. Only the E of ‘excellentissimo, to the most venerable (King)’, is decorated with curlicues. There is no sign of a title in this manuscript.

The monk whose duty it was to copy the text did so in a firm, beautiful littera gothica. The handwriting is firm and regular. A forest of letters in neat lines completely covers the pages. Willem’s report on his travels has been reduced to a compact body of 30 recto verso folios of text. To copy the journey is to go over it again. Travelling in spirit. But it also means writing about the cold with the sweltering heat of a July day outside the scriptorium. What did this anonymous copyist think of as he worked? Or didn’t he think? Does copying mean turning the mind off? The copyist forgot just one sentence, or at least he added one sentence afterwards, in the margin at the beginning (f. 162). To write is to make mistakes; to travel is too.

Soon I will be back in the world of mobile phones, walkmans, cameras, noise and non-pencils. But in the meantime I read: ‘Scriptum est in Ecclesiastico de Sapiente: “in terram alienarum gentium transiet, bona et mala in omnibus temptabit.” Hoc opus, domine mi Rex, feci, sed utinam ut sapiens et non ut stultus: multi enim faciunt quod facit sapiens, sed non sapienter, sed magis stulte, de quorum numero timeo me esse’ – It is written in Ecclesiasticus of the wise man: “He shall go through the land of foreign peoples, and shall try the good and evil in all things.” This, my lord King, have I done, and may it have been as a wise man and not as a fool; for many do what the wise man doth, though not wisely, but most foolishly; of this number I fear I may be.’

Leafing further, I read about two wise men: After that he began confiding to me his creed: “We Mo ál,” he said, “believe that there is only one God, by whom we live and by whom we die, and for whom we have an upright heart.” Then I said: “May it be so, for without His grace this cannot be.” He asked what I had said; the interpreter told him. Then he added: “But as God gives us the different fingers of the hand, so he gives to men several paths. God gives you the Scriptures, and you Christians keep them not. You do not find (in them, for example) that one should find fault with another, do you?” “No, my lord,” I said; “but I told you from the first that I did not want to wrangle with anyone.” “I do not intend to say it,” he said, “for I am not referring to you. Likewise you do not find that a man should depart from justice for money” “No, my lord,” I said. “And truly I came not to these parts to obtain money; on the contrary I have refused what has been offered me.” And there was a secretary present, who bore witness that I refused an iascot (i.e. 120 francs in gold) and silken cloths. “I dare not say it,” he said, “for you. God gave you therefore the Scriptures, and you do not keep them; He gave us diviners, we do what they tell us, and we live in peace.” He drank four times, I believe, before he finished saying all this.’ The last lines of his manuscript deal with the bishop whom the Pope might perhaps send to the Great Khan, and prove the Fleming’s good sense and level-headedness: ‘(…) oporteret quod haberet bonum interpretem, immo plures interpretes et copiosas expensas’ – ‘but he must have a good interpreter – nay, several interpreters – abundant travelling funds, etc.’. The November evening descends on Leiden. The manuscript must be returned. I will get no closer to frater Willelmus de Rubruc in Ordine fratrum Minorum minimus, (‘the meanest in the order of Friars Minor’). But he was a great traveller, with his eyes wide open and a steadfast heart.

By Luc Devoldere
Translated by Lindsay Edwards

First published in The Low Countries, 2006

Text edition:
Itinerarium Willelmi de Rubruc. In: Sinica Franciscana, vol. 1, Itinera et relationes fratrum minorum saeculi mil et) (iv, collegit, ad fidem codicum redegit et adnotavit P. Anastasius Van Den Wyngaert O.F.M., Florence, 1929, pp. 145-332.

Further Reading

Ch. Dawson, The Journey of William of Rubruck. In: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the thirteenth and fourteenth Centuries. Translated by a Nun of Stanbrook Abbey. London / New York, 1955.
The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55 as narrated by himself. With two accounts of the earlier Journey of John of Pian de Carpine. Translated from the Latin by W.W. Rockhill. Reprint. First published in 1900. 1998, 304 P.
The mission of Friar William of Rubruck: his journey to the court of the Great Khan Möngke, 1253-1255, translated by Peter Jackson; introduction, notes and appendices by Peter Jackson with David Morgan, London, 1990.

The translation used is that of W. W. Rockhill. At times, however, Peter Jackson’s version has been adopted within that translation.