Generation 463, 1240-1260. A man who nearly changed the world

This generation began with one of the moments when the world could have taken a completely different turn – and then didn’t. This backwards history of the human race began with generation 500, now, with the western technology that allows me to write this blog and you to read it. In generation 463 the few who could read and write were from the privileged classes, or came to their attention. Now, in generation 500 I am one of the millions of people who have learned to read and write, and who thanks to the internet can explore huge banks of information that were unimaginable even a couple of generations ago. Who knows how different our story would have been if one man in east Asia hadn’t died after a heavy drinking session.

It is a mystery to me what motivated the Mongols. Genghis Khan had died in the previous generation and at the beginning of this one his successor, his son Ogedei, had been Great Khan for over ten years. He built the city of Karakorum in central Mongolia as a base from which to oversee his enormous empire, which was still expanding. He introduced a currency, tribute, tax collections, and an ambitious communications network. The armies were huge and carried what they needed. Each soldier had a string of horses. They brought their tents, their gers, which could be dismantled and reassembled. What was it that enabled the leaders of these armies to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homeland, probably never to see it again,  and travel to China, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, central Asia, Persia, Russia, Poland and Hungary? It can’t have been plunder. They were nomads, used to finding what they needed from the land, and moving for new pasture for their herds. Loot would slow them down, an encumbrance of the settled peoples they clearly despised. Whatever it was that drove them, it was a powerful incentive.

As each of the armies moved out they set up a way station every twenty-five miles, where horses would be kept ready if a message had to be carried. A rider arrived, changed horses and continued on to the next station and the next until he was exhausted. Then the message was transferred to another rider who would continue across the vast distances. One such message was carried in 1241 from Karakorum to the armies in Hungary, a distance of about 4000 miles. At an average of 100 miles a day, it probably took just over a month to arrive.

These armies were led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu and the most successful single general in history in terms of territory conquered, a man called Subutai. The armies were versatile, disciplined and fast. They used siege engines and gunpowder, learnt from the Chinese, and on their small fast ponies the riders could manoeuvre around the lumbering knights who confronted them, to aim their arrows at the weak points in their armour. They are the only army I know of that won a winter campaign in Russia. They were hard people, used to the cold and seemingly unafraid of dying. They were cruel to those who did not submit immediately, but were willing to work with those who did. A Russian hero from this time is Alexander Nevsky, who cooperated with them and saved many of his people as a consequence, to the disgust of some of the Russian nobility.

Batu Khan and Subutai’s armies destroyed a string of cities in Russia, Poland and the Caucasus, had just overrun Hungary and were poised to move on into the Holy Roman Empire, with the aim of stopping only when they reached the sea. Then the rider came with the message from Karakorum. The Great Khan Ogedei, who was fond of alcohol, had died after a drinking session. A new khan would have to be elected. General Subutai wanted to continue west but was overruled by Batu and the other members of Genghis Khan’s family. The entire army packed up and went back home. It took a few years for a successor to be agreed upon and in the following years the armies concentrated on moving south into Persia and east into China. Europe, despite the inability of its rulers to work together and present a united front against the horsemen, escaped that fate. Who knows what Europe would now be like if Ogedei hadn’t died at that point, leading to the withdrawal of the armies.

The Mongols were pragmatic rulers. As long as the tribute came in, they didn’t mind what belief system the subject peoples adhered to. In Karakorum there were christians, moslems and buddhists, all tolerated. This inspired the pope in Rome to see an opportunity for converts or collaboration against the moslems, as the crusades to the holy land were not going too well. It also led to opportunities for misunderstanding.

The pope sent an emissary, a franciscan friar called Giovanni da Pian del Carpini (known in English as John of Plano Carpini) with a message of peace. He wasn’t to know that the Mongol language had no word for ‘peace’. The nearest translation was ‘submission’. Ogedei’s successor Guyuk Khan sent a reply, which has been preserved in the Vatican Library.

letter from guyuk khan

Here it is, written in Persian, Turkish and Arabic. Guyuk Khan refuses to leave the territories the armies have conquered, refuses to convert to christianity and demands tribute from the pope and the other christian princes. Not likely to lead to a meeting of minds.

The focus of attention in this generation seems to have been about power. In the far west of Europe, away from the attentions of the Mongols, a different debate was taking place. A couple of generations previously the English barons had negotiated an agreement with king John. Known as the Magna Carta, it updated and codified the relationship between the three holders of power in England: the monarch, the church and the barons. The concept of separation of powers, which existed before the Norman conquest but had since lapsed, was revived and written down. In this generation king John’s son Henry had tried to evade the obligations of the Magna Carta and a new document was drawn up: the Provisions of Oxford. This was the birth of the English parliament. The Provisions of Oxford even included the idea of elected representatives. Further battles, sometimes physical, between the king and the barons continued over the following generation, but it was as if the idea once expressed would not go away.

Matthew paris's map of Britain.

Something was being born in the British Isles. Maybe because it was an island, there was even a sense of the nation state long before it emerged elsewhere. Here is a map of Britain from this period, drawn by the chronicler Matthew Paris.

The battle between the three power groups in the British Isles can be traced over the following centuries, through the Reformation three centuries later in which the power of the church was curbed, to the civil war in which the monarchy was restrained, on to the nineteenth century in which the franchise was extended.

Another power struggle was going on in mainland Europe. The church was attempting to stamp its authority. Anyone who did not submit to its structures was designated a heretic. The Albigensian Crusade in southwest France came to an end in this generation, with the siege of the last heretic stronghold at Montsegur in the Pyrenees. However the crusade had not achieved its stated objective of stamping out heresy. During this generation the entire adult population of the Lauragais, the area southwest of Toulouse, was summoned for interrogation by the inquisition. Also during this generation the pope sanctioned the use of torture by the inquisitors for the first time. It would seem that the Dominican friars who were entrusted with the interrogations felt that they needed more powers to achieve their objective. Clearly heresy had not been eradicated.

But maybe the Albigensian Crusade was successful in other ways. The king of France was nominally ruler of this region, but below the level of his overlordship it was a messy picture. The Count of Toulouse was subject to the king of England, and the kings of Aragon had claim to parts of  the east of the Languedoc. After the Albigensian Crusade this region was decisively part of France. I can’t help wondering if in fact this is what the whole venture was mainly about.


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