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7.8.1 History of the Mongols

John of Plano Carpini
circa 1245 – 1252

John of Plano Carpini, "History Of The Mongols," in Mission to Asia: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, translated and edited by Christopher Dawson (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 8, 18, 35, 37.

This description of the Mongols' lifestyle was written by John of Plano Carpini, a Franciscan friar. He belonged to the same order of Latin or Roman Christians that later came into Spanish California to try to convert the Native Californians to Catholic Christianity. The Roman Pope Innocent IV sent John of Plano Carpini on a mission into the Eurasian steppe (grasslands) in 1245. The Pope thought that John and other missionaries could help convert the Mongols to Christianity. John of Plano Carpini was the first European person to visit the Mongols in their homeland. After he returned home to Europe he wrote about what he had seen and learned about the Mongols. The Mongols were nomads who lived on the steppe. These steppe nomads were not small groups of shepherds. They had huge herds of animals that they used in their large mobile army and its camp. They often invaded settled lands, conquered states and empires, and played a major role in connecting the settled regions of Afroeurasia. Based on what you learned from John, what do you think the Mongols ate? Did they grow their food? Why were their horses so important to them? What habits would make them powerful fighters?


Tartars: word used by Europeans to describe various Central Asian nomadic groups, including the Mongols


Tartars: word used by Europeans to describe various Central Asian nomadic groups, including the Mongols

Franciscan Friar John of Plano Carpini, who was sent in 1245 by Pope Innocent IV on a mission to find and convert the Mongols, was the first Westerner to visit the capital city Karakorum in Mongolia. The Mongols listened tolerantly to John, but his group was only one among several religious missions, including rival groups of Nestorian Christians. The Mongols were not impressed and did not convert to Christianity. The excerpts cited are John's observations about the role of horses in the life and culture of the Mongols, whose cavalry is unrivalled in the history of warfare. Mongol horses were small, but very hardy. Mongols prized their horses for their ability to run extremely fast during battle and to survive long treks across rugged terrain. Mongol troops could cover as much as 50 miles per day, a terrifying speed for that time period. Remind students of the previous invasions of nomads that had been so influential in Afroeurasian history. Mongols ate meat and dairy products and did not grow food. They lived off the meat, milk, and skins from their horses, and wool and milk from their sheep and goats. They were formidable fighters because they were fast and mobile and fought continuously. Avoid using the word tribe to refer to the Mongols.

They are extremely rich in animals, camels, oxen, sheep, goats; they have such a number of horses and mares that I do not believe there are so many in all the rest of the world; they do not have pigs or other farm animals. ...

The men ... hunt and practice archery, for they are all, big and little, excellent archers, and their children begin as soon as they are two or three years old to ride and manage horses and to gallop on them, and they are given bows to suit their stature and are taught to shoot. ...

Young girls and women ride and gallop on horseback with agility like the men. We even saw them carrying bows and arrows. Both the men and the women are able to endure long stretches of riding. ... They look after their horses very well, indeed they take the very greatest care of all their possessions. ...

When they are going to make war, they send ahead an advance guard and these carry nothing with them but their tents, horses and arms. They seize no plunder, burn no houses and slaughter no animals; they only wound and kill men or, if they can do nothing else, put them to flight. ... If they can avoid it, the Tartars (Mongols) do not like to fight hand to hand but they wound and kill men and horses with their arrows; they only come to close quarters when men and horses have been weakened by arrows.