Rabban Bar Sauma 1: The Monks of Kublai Khan

The Journey of Rabban Bar Sauma

In the 1280s, Arghun Khan, lord of the Ilkhanate, might well have given hard thought to his situation and to his family’s recent past. His father, Abaqa, Kublai Khan’s nephew, had died in 1282, the final years of his reign and life consumed with an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the Mamluks in Syria. Arghun’s uncle had been Abaqa’s successor, and had sought to deal with the Mamluks in a different way, reaching out to their Sultan as one Muslim ruler to another, asking for their submission. But after only 2 years, his uncle was gone, opposition to his Islamization of the khanate and the violent uprising of Arghun himself having led to his displacement and death. And Arghun Khan, great-great-grandson of Genghis Khan, stepped into power. His way was very much that of his father.

Like Abaqa before him, he seems to have viewed the Mamluks as a threat that might better be overcome with Latin Christian cooperation. Abaqa had been in communications with then-Prince Edward on crusade; his envoys had gone to Pope Gregory X’s Council of Lyons in 1274, and in 1276 and 77 to the court of Philip III in France and that of King Edward I in England. They’d been to see Pope John XXI before his brief papacy was cut short by a collapsing ceiling, then to Edmund again, and to the crusader states of Tripoli, Cyprus, and Acre ahead of the 1281 push against the Mamluks. But he’d had little to show for it in the end, perhaps only the aid of some Knights Hospitallers. If Arghun were now going to succeed against his rivals in Egypt, he would need to do better than that.

His first attempt in that direction was a 1285 message delivered by a Christian astronomer to Pope Honorius IV. The message referenced the khan’s mother’s Christianity, his family’s history as defenders of Christians, and his charge from Kublai to seize and hold “the land of Christians” under his protection. And it continued with something like this:

As the land of the Muslims, that is, Syria and Egypt, is placed between us and you, we will encircle and strangle it. We will send our messengers to ask you to send an army to Egypt, so that us on one side, and you on the other, we can, with good warriors, take it over. Let us know through secure messengers when you would like this to happen. We will drive out the Saracens, with the help of the Lord, the Pope, and the Great Khan.

And less than two years later, with nothing concrete to show for that first attempt, Arghun was again looking for an alliance. This time, he sent a man known as Rabban Bar Sauma.

Hello and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, following medieval travellers and the broader histories their stories wove through. Before we get going, I’d like to request that if it’s an option for you, if you are enjoying the podcast, appreciate the hilariously long hours that go into it each of these 50 minute episodes, and place some value on what you hear, that you consider signing up to my Patreon at, or through the website at There are $1, $3, and $5 options, and honestly, if I could get %10 of you to join in at the $1 option, it really would make a substantial difference in my life. 

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And now, to the story.

I’ve talked before on this podcast about the journey between Europe and eastern Asia, as far as China. I’ve followed the stories of friars and merchants going off to see the Mongols, and those have been some of my favourites so far. Today, I’m covering something related, but something a little bit different from those other travellers. 

I’d considered doing this story as part of the Marco Polo series, or right after, but at the time, I felt like a break from the Mongol world, felt like maybe if you’d been listening all the way through, you could use a bit of a palate-cleanser too. But it’s time to get back to the Mongols, only to follow a traveller going in the other direction from all those friars, to trace his steps from the Mongol Empire to the cities of Europe on imperial business, to tell the story of Rabban Bar Sauma and his protege Marcos.

In the preface to the 2010 edition of his book on our subject, historian Morris Rossabi mentions that his friends had urged him to use the title From Beijing to Paris: A Reverse Marco Polo, but he had resisted their suggestions. He recognized that the title might grab readers’ attention, but he said that the comparison to the much more famous Venetian, the framing of this story as that of a Turkic Marco Polo out of the east, would quote “slight Rabban Sauma’s mission,” that the Marco Polo reference would undersell the significance of Bar Sauma, for the latter’s voyage had “greater potential to change the course of Eurasian history.” As we’ll see, that wasn’t just the standard case of a writer setting out the colossal nature of their particular pet topic. Bar Sauma’s story is as important as it is fascinating.

Even the story of how the text comes to us is an interesting one. Bar Sauma’s account had been translated into Syriac, with some deletions, sometime soon after his death, but then both versions seem to have disappeared. There were brief references to his presence in the accounts of the Vatican, and in France and England, but nothing to draw much interest, and none in Chinese sources. 

Bar Sauma’s doings might have remained unnoticed for longer still were it not for a chance encounter between a Mr. Solomon of Northwestern Iran and a young Turkish man in the spring of 1887. The young man had a Syriac manuscript he invited Solomon to see, and Solomon saw it at once for what it was: a thing of interest. He had it copied and shared it with a specialist, and out of the publicity that followed that discovery, another manuscript was turned up. Rabban Bar Sauma, long sleeping, had resurfaced.  

The journey Bar Sauma undertook started as a pilgrimage, and then, after long years of delay, developed into something else: an embassy which revealed the changing nature of the quote/unquote Mongol Empire, and a fascinating look at medieval Europe from the outside in. So let’s get started. Let’s go back before the beginning of his travels, to his early life. Who was Rabban Bar Sauma? To answer that question, we shouldn’t look first to the western cities he visited such as Rome or Paris. We shouldn’t look to Baghdad or some other site within the Ilkhanate. We should look much further east, to China, to the region of what had been called Zhongdu, what would be known as Khanbaliq, Daidu or Dadu, what is now known to many, many more people as Beijing. That was where our protagonist is said to have been born and grown up, and that’s where we’ll find him. 

But first, his parents, because, pretty much uniquely among the texts I cover here, this one actually tells us a little about them.


There was a certain man who was a believer, and he was a nobleman and a fearer of God. He was rich in the things of this world, and he was well endowed with the qualities of nature; he belonged to a famous family and a well-known tribe. His name was Shiban, the [Inspector]. He dwelt in … the royal city in the country of the East. He married according to the law a woman whose name was Keyamta.

And you might be wondering, with this mention of believers and fearers of God, what belief and what God were being referred to. Shiban and Keyamta are sometimes identified as Uyghurs, sometimes as Ongguds, but always as Christians. In particular, they were what are commonly called Nestorians, though as I think I’ve mentioned in the Mongol or Marco Polo series, that is a term imposed from the outside, a name that refers back to one-time Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius and his teachings, which were deemed heretical at the 431 Council of Ephesus. We might instead use the Chinese term Jingjiao, “the luminous religion,” or call it East Syriac Christianity. We might say they were ärkägün, a Mongol term for Christians, though there’s not much then there to set them apart from Latin Christians, or that they were Yelikiwen, a term for Christians under the Yuan dynasty. 

The terminology I’ll be using here is to say that they were of the Church of the East, and I won’t covering this here and now, but that church had a long and interesting history in China, one which can be traced back at least to a monument erected in 781 for a patriarch of the religion of the Roman Empire. 

Now, some 450 years later, our Shiban and Keyamta wanted themselves a child, but none was forthcoming. However, they prayed constantly to God to provide for them, and, quote, “Everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds, and to him that knocks it is opened.” 

It’s written that God interceded, that a child miraculously was born around 1225. They named him Bar Sauma; the term Rabban would be applied later, like Rabbi a term for a teacher. His name meant “the son of the fast,” referring to self-imposed food-deprivation rather than speed, and a pious picture of his early days started to take shape, one of “strict chastity and humility,” and looking every bit as much a hagiography as anything else.

Bar Sauma’s parents saw him educated and, when the time was right, sent to a teacher and then betrothed to an appropriate match, all proceeding as they thought best for him. He became a priest and a keeper in the church, and all was going according to plan. But then at 20 years old his devotion took a turn which made his parents less happy. 


He cast away forthwith the shadow of the world, and renounced straightway the desirable things thereof. He esteemed dainty meats as things which had no existence, and he rejected wholly the drinks which make a man drunk.

It was, to be clear, not just charcuterie and artisanal liquors which Bar Sauma was turning from. It was the things of this world more generally, and among them, that marriage his parents had arranged for him, for unlike priests, a monk had to be celibate. And that really seems to be the main issue here. In the text, they mourn that their son was separating himself from them, but the primary worry that comes across is that there would be no one then to continue the family line and to inherit what was theirs. Who, they demanded, was then to be master of their toil’s results?    

Their arguments worked for a while, moving Bar Sauma sufficiently for him to remain living with them, but he was only outwardly convinced, and in that only for three years. That was when he divided up his things and gave them to the poor. His wedding was called off; he was welcomed as a monk, and for the next seven years, he took himself off to a cell, away from the family and community concerned with this world. But still, he felt himself too much of the world, too entangled in its shadowy distractions, and kept from his calling. 

He found a mountain cave, next to a spring and a day’s journey from his parents’ city, and he settled into a life of asceticism, removed from distraction, and, as you might be thinking, also very removed from any path you’d expect to  lead him to one day traverse the length of the Eurasian continent. But that was coming still. It was in 1260, while Bar Sauma was living his cave-bound life, that he met the man who seems to have diverted his life, the same man who would journey from the east to one day sit as Patriarch in the city of Baghdad. 

There had been others. As ever was the case when you just wanted to go off on your own and be a hermit, people heard of this wise man of the mountain, and they came to sit before him and hear him speak. They honoured him, so that the mountainside maybe became a bit of a busy place at times, or so I like to imagine it at least. But one particular visitor, born to the name Marcos and into the family of an archdeacon, was a little bit different from the rest.

From what the text tells us, Marcos had always been an eager student, surpassing his older brothers and then his teachers, and then looking ever further afield. He’d heard of this Bar Sauma too, but it was far, too far for a young man of about 15 years old who’d never travelled alone. It seems that his community and his family pressed him to give up on his idea; however, his mind was not changed by their pressing. For all their attempts, they felt they were speaking “to a statue rather than to a rational man,” and Marcos wasn’t discouraged. He travelled 15 hard days to Bar Sauma’s cave and declared himself there ready to live, to learn, and, as was his goal, to become a monk.

“My son, from where did you come,” asked Bar Sauma. “And how did it happen to you that you have come to this mountain? In what city do your kinsfolk dwell? Who is your father, and whose son are you?” The monk did his best to dissuade his young visitor, probably listing some of the reasons his parents had once given to him, but, perhaps seeing a little of himself in Marcos, he eventually allowed him to stay. He clothed him in wool, taught him, and, only three years of ascetic labour later, saw him take his monastic vows.

And there in the cave, their life may have remained, had it not been for one of them, probably Marcos, musing aloud: 

It would be exceedingly helpful to us if we were to leave this region and set out for the West, for we could then [visit] the tombs of the holy martyrs and Catholic Fathers and be blessed [by them]. And if Christ, the Lord of the Universe, prolonged our lives, and sustained us by His grace, we could go to Jerusalem, so that we might receive complete pardon for our offenses, and absolution for our sins of foolishness.

And after this quick break, we’ll find out what came of that proposal.

At first, Bar Sauma was very much against Marcos’ idea to go visiting abroad. He tried to impress upon him the difficulties of the journey, its great length, the dangers of transcontinental travel in the 13th-century, which Pax Mongolica or no Pax Mongolica, were many. But Marcos had a vision, specifically a vision of the west, and the spiritual treasures that waited for them there, and he persisted. The two of them agreed that whatever might come, they ought not to be separated, even if that meant that one must choose some evil for himself to keep them together. Finally, as you may have already guessed, Bar Sauma was the one to make that sacrifice. 

It was about 1275, sometime around the year that Marco Polo was said to have arrived in China. And to situate that on the Mongol timeline, that was 4 years after Kublai Khan had established the Yuan Dynasty in China, but a year before the surrender there of the Southern Song. It had been some 10 years since his brother Ariq Boke’s surrender had marked the conclusion of the Tuluid Civil War over control of the khanate, with Kublai the victor, but his cousin Kaidu of the house of Ogeidei still threatened, Kaidu’s long-running war on Kublai bursting again to the forefront in 1275 with new invasions. Such was the situation as our two monks began the move west. But first their resolve would be tested. Because of course it would. What kind of story would this be if it were not?

After giving away what possessions they had to the poor, they left their mountain cave for the city, looking to join up with a caravan, or find escorts, and to gather provisions for the long trip ahead. However, once the Christians there heard of their plan, they did not think it a good one. “Do you not know how far away your destination is?” they asked, gathering around in a kind of intervention. “Have you not heard, or have you just forgotten, the danger of the road, and the fact that you will never arrive? Why not instead stay where you are? And perform works here, where you have been called to do so.” But the monks replied that they had withdrawn from this world already, and neither toil nor death troubled them at all. They asked only for these peoples prayers that their desires to come to Jerusalem be fulfilled. Leaving in peace, they travelled on. 

In our text, the next recorded stop, though there must have been many others, was the one where Marcos’ family lived, Kosheng in our source, sometimes identified as Marco Polo’s Tenduc. It’s a fascinating place where excavations have uncovered a walled settlement with wooden houses and palaces, elaborate gardens, Chinese tile, and crosses, and here too, the monks’ plans were not happily received. They themselves were very welcome, as the Christians of the city and the monk’s parents came out to greet them with joy. But as it emerged that Marcos had not returned to be close to his family again and was instead departing for a horribly distant land from which he was never likely to return, they were deeply saddened and did not offer their encouragement. The trip was not proving to be a popular one.

Next up in the chorus of disapproval, in some versions of this story at least, was a pair of  more powerful voices. This time it wasn’t parents. It was the lords of the city, who’d heard of this odd pair passing through their territory and called them in to hear more about it. And these were not your average commanders of a regional outpost; they were members of Mongol royalty, sons by marriage to the great Kublai Khan. And they wanted to know why these two peculiar men would ever want to leave their wonderful homeland.

“Why are you going west?” they asked. “We have  taken very great trouble to draw hither monks and fathers from the West. How can  we allow you to go away?" It was an interesting question, especially as an indication of the deliberate effort to collect literate men from afar - remember Niccolo and Maffeo Polo being asked to bring back 100 Christian scholars as another example. But what could our monks give by way of an answer? 

Well this was what they said:

We have cast away the world. And as long as we live in the society of men there will be no peace to us. Therefore it is right that we should flee because of the love of Christ, Who gave Himself unto death for our redemption. Whatsoever is in the world we have cast behind us. Although your love moveth us not to depart, and your gracious goodness would hold us fast, and your alms are bestowed upon us lavishly; and although it is grateful to us to sojourn with you, we remember the Lord's word which saith, 'What shall it profit a man if he possess the whole world and lose his soul? And what shall a man give as a substitute for his soul?' We earnestly desire the separation, but wherever we shall be we shall always remember, according to our feebleness, both by night and by day, your kingdom in [our] prayers.

Seeing they would not be held unless by force, the two lords now offered gifts, of rugs, gold and silver, and animals for transport, and at first the monks would not accept the gifts, for what were they to do with worldly things of which they had no need? As the lords pointed out in response, they very clearly could and should use those worldly things. The two monks did not know what the two lords did, that the path ahead was a dangerous and expensive one. The climates they made to pas through would be extreme, the risk of natural disaster substantial, and the potential for a violent death considerable. There were levies to be paid, the traveller’s protection money, and there was food needed for 6 months or more, with every potential for the “or more” to extend pretty much indefinitely. 

They would need those gifts, and if they did not, well they could just distribute them among the monasteries they found at their destination. Unable to argue with all of that, Bar Sauma and Marcos took the gifts and took their leave, going then from the city and continuing the journey west. 

In some versions of this story there’s no mention of their being sponsored by Mongol royalty; in others, Kublai himself was the sponsor, giving them clothes which they were to baptize in the Jordan River and then place upon Jesus’ sepulchre. But whether it was he or his extended family members, it seems pretty clear that somebody subsidized the trip, and somebody who required no financial return too. And that sounds like royalty, like people who could afford the costs and be content with diplomatic or religious returns on their investment, and who could also supply them with letters of safe passage.

In his discussion of the travellers’ requirements, Morris Rossabi talks about what was needed to facilitate the journey: “camel grooms, interpreters, baggage handlers, cooks, and guards,” the pack animals themselves, and new escorts for each distinct leg of the journey. For all that the monks insist in our source that they are simple men who need for nothing of this world, some 12-40 other men might have been involved in getting them where they were going.

The monks and their party, whoever may have been included in it, travelled southwest along the Helan Mountains, south of the Gobi Desert. They met fellow Christians and finally found communities that were supportive of their quest, greeting them with warmth and then showering them with gifts to aid them.  

On they went, the next stretch taking them along what’s sometimes called the Southern Silk Road, south of the terrifying Taklamakan Desert, the “Sea of Death.” They avoided the worst of the desert, but still it was “a toilsome and fatiguing journey of 2 months; the region was a bare and barren desert and it was without inhabitants.” It was largely without water too, the text reporting that during those 2 months, there were only 8 days when, with some difficulty, they managed to find water to fill their skins. Sandstorms were frequently reported in the region, and heat-induced hallucinations which, in a place that allowed no margin for error, might easily lead to death. By good fortune or good guidance, our monks would not succumb to either one. They’d be travelling through to Hotan.

That oasis town had long traded on its rich resources in black and white jade, had traded with the Chinese as far back as 200 BCE, and had later developed into a major Buddhist center, and an important link in the spread of the religion. Over time, and after conquest by the Turkic Kara-Khanids and then the Mongols, it had become something else. Marco Polo had reported its population to be entirely Muslim, but the place the monks arrived at was home to a variety of languages and religions. And though the text makes no mention of it, they must have found some friendly faces they could stay with because they were stuck there for six months, a helpful reminder, if any were needed, of how little control you sometimes had over your own timetable, when regional conflicts got in the way. 

We read that the caravan routes were cut by war between Kublai’s forces and some local commander, that grain was scarce, and that many starved as a result. Fighting between Kaidu and Kublai had come to area, and Bar Sauma and Marcos were witness to some of the results when they went on to Kashgar.

Marco Polo had been to Kashgar himself and written of vibrant markets for trade and craft, beautiful gardens, vines, and fruit trees, and the monks would have known it as home to a metropolitan see of their church. But the city they found was emptied of inhabitants and had been picked over by plunderers. There was nothing and no one there for them. At least they themselves were not attacked though. And they would find some help on that front just up the road, in the camp of Kaidu.

They’d reached him by a somewhat circuitous route, adding further weeks to the journey and fording a river, but evading the violence that was all around them in the land. They found Kaidu in Talas, where forces of the Umayyad Caliphate had once clashed with the T’ang Chinese, and where they were now going to need to be a little bit clever in order to come away safely.

Kaidu Khan, just to review, was head of the house of Ogedei and for long stretches held sway over the Chagatayid Khanate too. He was something of Kublai Kublai’s personal nemesis during his reign, a tireless adversary, even outliving Kublai himself to carry on the war against the great khan’s son. 

That was who the monks appeared before to ask for assistance, an imposing figure, one who seems to have wished them no harm, but one was no friend to the rulers they left in their homeland or those of the Ilkanate where they were bound. They could not afford to appear to be too friendly to either, and they same to have done well for themselves. Having prayed for the khan and his khanate, they came away from the meeting with an order of safe passage through his realms. An order which it sounds like they badly needed. 

The text is not specific here, but there is mention of their travelling in “a state of exhaustion [to which] fear was added.” They would have traversed difficult mountain landscapes, where the cold, winds, altitude sickness, and avalanches all threatened, and then deserts and bandits too. They would have passed the skeletons of fellow travellers and their pack animals, and when they came to Khorasan, where present-day northeastern Iran spills into Afghanistan, they had somehow lost much of what they had with them on the road, though whether that was due bad weather or banditry, it doesn’t say. 

When Bar Sauma and Marcos arrived at Tus, something of a Khorasanian capital for the Ilkhanate, they would have found a town that was again thriving following its Mongol devastation. According to Juvaini, the 13th-century historian, Tus had been reduced to “nothing … but the name and there were not more than fifty habitable houses in the whole town and even these scattered, one here, one there, in odd corners.” The Mongol governors had not left the town in that state for long though. During the 1240s they’d worked to rebuild it, complete with gardens, parks, and a restored palace, but our monks indicate none of this, only that they stayed in a nearby monastery where they were welcomed by fellow-Christians, and that they were grateful to god for having delivered them from the worst of the journey’s dangers. There were, they hoped, much easier times ahead of them, with brigandry, inter-Mongol warfare, and some of the more perilous features of the Central Asian landscape now safely behind. We’ll be having a look at those times in just a moment, after this short break. 

Bar Sauma and Marcos were in Ilkhanate territory passing between the Dasht-e Kavir Desert and the Caspian Sea, heading for Azerbaijan. They had planned from there to travel south to Baghdad, and to meet the head of their church, Patriarch Mar Denha, but it turned out that they wouldn’t need to go that far to see him. In the spring of 1280, he was in the area. He was in Maragheh, the site of Hulagu’s capital and of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s magnificent observatory, where astronomers from as far afield as Spain and China studied and contributed to an immense library of knowledge. And when our monks came before him, quote: 

… at the sight of him their joy grew great, and their gladness was increased, and their minds were made to be at peace, and their anxious thoughts were set at rest. And they fell down on the ground before him, and they wept as they did homage to him and they behaved as if they saw our Lord JESUS CHRIST in the person of MAR DENHA, the Catholicus. May his memory be for blessing!

And when they had spoken, the patriarch looked and wondered, and he asked, where have you come from? From Khanbaliq, they answered,

… from the city of the King of Kings Kublai Khan. We have come to be blessed by you, and by the Fathers, and the monks, and the holy men of this quarter of the world. And if a road opens to us, and God has mercy upon us, we shall go to Jerusalem.

Over the next few days, I’m sure they rested themselves and recovered from their long journey, and they met regularly with Mar Denha. They asked permission from him to go on to Baghdad, to see its religious sites and receive blessings, and to visit the monasteries of the land, and they were given permission, letters of introduction, and a guide to take them that way. Baghdad, like Tus, had quite recently suffered under a Mongol invasion. The sack of the city in 1258 by the armies of Kublai’s brother, Hulagu, had been a horrifying affair. It’s written that the three days of pillage and general slaughter had perhaps been provoked by attacks on Mongol envoys and the caliph’s unwillingness to immediately surrender, though there is some disagreement over exactly how indiscriminate the killing had been. 

I’d love to have seen a little of Baghdad as it was just over two decades years later, through Bar Sauma’s eyes, but our monks don’t give us any idea of what they saw. They say that they went to the great church at nearby Ctesiphon, where the Patriarch, the Catholicus, of the Church of the East was consecrated, that they went on to the monastery of Saint Mari the apostle. They went to Beth Garmai, where Ezekial was said to be buried, to Sinjar, Nusaybin, and Mardin, Erbil and Mosul, to the shrines of saints, and everywhere they remarked on blessings received, relics visited, and the warm welcomes of their coreligionists. 

Rossabi has speculated that some degree of that warmth was due to mounting hostilities in the region between the Muslims and the Buddhist and Christian communities, hostilities which the Ilkhans seem to have managed in classic colonial fashion. He’s put forward the idea that these Mongol-favoured visitors from afar were seen as potentially being very useful tools in those hostilities. And maybe he’s right, because Bar Sauma and Marcos were not allowed to while away their time in the local monasteries for too long. They had arranged for a cell all to themselves but quickly received word from the patriarch that he wanted to see them, and when he saw them, he said that he had heard they had been received into a monastery and that the idea did not please him.

He was not just happy to see these pilgrims from the east. He wanted to make use of them, perhaps saw in their arrival the apparent blessings of the Mongol khan and wanted to take advantage of it. If you enter a monastery, he said, you shall only be furthering your own peace; whereas, if you stay, you can support the Door of the Kingdom with your hands and aid the entire community. He wanted them to go the Ilkan on his behalf and request a letter confirming his appointment as Catholicus. That business done, they would be permitted to continue on to Jerusalem, as they had wanted to. 

Well, this was perhaps more a case of aiding the patriarch than of aiding the community, but then the monks had at least managed to maneuver their own own goal onto the itinerary even if it meant that they did have to go some 7-800 km out of their way and ever further from Jerusalem. So off they went, from Baghdad to Tabriz for a meeting with Abaqa the Ilkhan, a meeting which is almost casually passed over in the text. 


And when the two monks went to the Blessed Camp, the Amirs brought them in before the King, and he asked them about the object of their coming, and what their native country was; and they made a reply to him which revealed unto him their object. And Abaqa Khan commanded the nobles of his kingdom to fulfil their petition, and to give them the written orders which they had asked for. And the two monks sent the written order which [the] Catholicus had demanded to him by the hands of his messenger, and they and their companions set out for Jerusalem.

And that was the full extent of their audience with one of the most powerful people in the world, within the perspective of the text only a diversion on the road to Jerusalem, only a delay, and not one of the most serious ones.

Their road took them next through Armenian Ani, “the city of a thousand and one churches” with so much to wonder at, and then on  with an eye to finding a safe route onward, but that safe route was not to be found. They heard from people of the region that the way forward was cut by murders and theft, and perhaps by Mamluks. They heard that it was impossible to go any further in safety, and I have to think that this was not a casual mention from a man coming the other way. There must have been a seriously escalating narrative of an absolute bloodbath on the road ahead. Because they’d travelled more than 6,000 km as the crow flies to put them where they where, well north of 7,000 when you start to take into account the actual on the ground movement. They’d come all that way to visit all the holy sites of the region but most especially, it seems from the text, to visit Jerusalem. And now they gave up. They listened to to the warning, very wisely I’m sure, and they turned back. They went back to the patriarch, and he was again very happy to see them, for he had another little job in mind.

But first Denha applied the butter. The two visitors from afar had “received blessings from all the Houses of God, and the shrines which [were] in them, and it [was his] opinion that when a man  visit[ed] them with a pure heart, the service thus paid to them [was] in no way less than that of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” Besides, it was no time at all to be going to Jerusalem; they had seen that for themselves. These niceties aside, he got down to what he really wanted. He wanted them to travel to China, so he could take advantage of their good standing there.

He wanted Marcos to be made metropolitan, a leader of the Church of the East in China, and Bar Sauma to be given his own office. High honours indeed, but though the monks wouldn’t have known it at the time, being appointed by this patriarch wouldn’t end happily for the last metropolitan in China. Simon had  been named just the year before but, even before departing, had not been thought loyal to the patriarch. Simon was said to have planned to make accusations against Denha to Kublai, and he would be ordered into a monastery in China. He’d escape, only to be recaptured, and then he and many of his followers would wind up dead in that monastery. 

It was a dangerous job, but Bar Sauma and Marcos didn’t need to know of Simon’s sad story to know they weren’t interested in the offer. However, they were going to need to go about their refusal gently, tactfully. His word was the same to them as the command of Christ, they assured their superior, but they had to give voice to what was in their hearts. They had come a very long, long way.

They had come a long way, and they had not done so only to turn back again now. They, quote: 

...[did] not intend to endure a repetition of the hardship which [they had] already suffered. For the man who is tripped up twice by the [same] stone is a fool. And moreover, [they] declared that [they were] unworthy of this gift, and for defective creatures [like themselves], a responsibility of this kind was too difficult.

But unfortunately or them, the patriarch did not agree. He saw the gift as an entirely suitable one, and he let them know it. The monks were out of excuses. Bar Sauma had spent years of his life in seclusion from wider society, but now he was very much involved in its politics, whether he liked it or not. He and Marcos could only agree. 

As luck with have it, however, the same issues that had plagued their attempt at the holy city now reared their head again, only this time in the monks’ service. It was only a few days after the decisions had been made that news arrived that their way home could not be managed at that time. They were wholly cut off from travelling that way for, quote, “the hearts of the kings of the two frontiers were changed.” 

Which was of course all a rather poetic way of saying that the fighting between Kaidu and Kublai, never far from the surface, had boiled over yet again. To go would be perilous, beyond the usual dangers even, and perhaps impossible. Bar Sauma and Marcos would be staying for the time being. But they would be doing so in new and interesting circumstances because before the trip had been called off, the ceremonies had gone ahead. 

A Syriac name had first been chosen for Marcos, the new metropolitan. Suitable candidates had been written down and placed face down before the altar, and then “pious divination” had been used to make the selection. Where Marcos had been now stood metropolitan Mar Yahballaha. Newly credentialed, and one of them newly named, they then retreated back to the monastery, and to the peace they’d been rudely yanked out of. There, the text tells us, “they sat down in their cell for two years, more or less.” They turned their thoughts inward, or at least, I think one of them did. 

It’s entirely fitting, and no accident, that Marcos would become metropolitan and not Bar Sauma. Remember it had been the younger Marcos that was said to have inspired their journey in the first place, and maybe it’s an invention of the text, but it’s worth wondering if Bar Sauma would ever stirred from his mountain retreat were it not for his more ambitious protege. Mar Yahballaha was a man with dreams. 

And this time that dream was again quite specific. He dreamed that he had entered a great church, and in it he saw images of the saints, and among them the cross. He reached out his hand towards it, to receive its blessing, but it receded from him, pulling away and up towards the roof, until he grasped and kissed the cross. And then he went outside, where there were high trees full of fruit, both hard and soft, and he plucked them and ate some, giving others to the people gathered all around. 

When he woke up, he shared his dream with Bar Sauma. What did his older colleague make of it? And I do in part wonder if he was not already very sure of what he’d make of it, if he knew that Bar Sauma would say that his arm outstretched for the blessings of Christ and the saints meant that he was attain a great stature, greater than metropolitan, and that his shared enjoyment of the fruit meant that he was to enjoy a heavenly gift and spread its joy to many people, or something of the sort. 

And the dreams returned. This time, Yahballaha dreamed that he was seated upon a high throne with students gathered before him, hearing his teachings. As he talked, his tongue grew from his mouth, longer and longer, and then dividing into three with fire on the tip of each. The people watching marvelled, and they glorified God. 

This time Bar Sauma told him it was not a dream at all; it was a sign and a revelation that surely the patriarchal throne would one day be given to him, so that he could complete his service. All he needed was an opportunity, and of course, in time it would come.

It occurred to Yahballaha that he ought to go again to Baghdad to receive his blessing, but as he neared his destination, news reached him. Denha was not yet buried, but he was dead. 

Yahballaha rushed on to the church to join the mourners. He tore at his clothes and wept in bitter anguish, falling to the ground in a manner which, though I don’t want to cast judgement at 700 years distance, may have been a trifle performative. The table was set for him to realize his dream, but we’ll get to that next episode, that and the adventures of his mentor Rabban Bar Sauma. 

Thanks for listening everybody. I very much appreciate you joining me on this journey, this one in particular, and on the podcast more generally. I will have another episode out around the end of the month, but this will be my last before Christmas, so merry Christmas, Christmas-y folk, and happy holidays to all of you.


  • The History of Yaballaha III Nestorian Patriarch and of his Vicar Bar Sauma Mongol Ambassador to the Frankish Courts at the End of the Thirteenth Century, translated by James A. Montgomery. Columbia University Press, 1927.

  • The Monks of Kublai Khan, translated by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. The Religious Tract Society, 1928.

  • Nestorian Tablet: Eulogizing the Propagation of the Illustrious Religion in China, with a Preface, composed by a priest of the Syriac Church, 781 A.D.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the Islamic World. Yale University Press, 2017.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410. Pearson Longman, 2005.

  • Keevak, Michael. The Story of a Stele: China's Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625-1916. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Khublai Khan: His Life and Times.University of California Press, 1988.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West. Kodansha International, 1992.

Halloween Special: Medieval Ghost Stories


Something a little different this time. It's my first seasonal special, and it's somewhat Halloween-y. It's all about ghost (or revenant) stories from the 11th and 12th centuries, featuring Orderic Vitalis, Thietmar of Merseburg, William of Newburgh, and, briefly representing the 6th-century, Gregory of Tours. Thanks for listening!

I’ll start with a story.

Of the prodigy of the dead man, who wandered about after burial. William of Newburgh. 12th century. Quote.

“In these days a wonderful event befell in the county of Buckingham, which I, in the first instance, partially heard from certain friends, and was afterwards more fully informed of by Stephen, the venerable archdeacon of that province. A certain man died, and, according to custom, by the honourable exertion of his wife and kindred, was laid in the tomb on the eve of the Lord's Ascension. On the following night, however, having entered the bed where his wife was reposing, he not only terrified her on awaking, but nearly crushed her by the insupportable weight of his body. The next night, also, he afflicted the astonished woman in the same manner. She, frightened at the danger, as the struggle of the third night drew near, took care to remain awake herself, and surround herself with watchful companions. Still he came; but being repulsed by the shouts of the watchers, and seeing that he was prevented from doing mischief, he departed.

Thus driven off from his wife, he harassed in a similar manner his own brothers, who were dwelling in the same street; but they, following the cautious example of the woman, passed the nights in wakefulness with their companions, ready to meet and repel the expected danger. He appeared [anyway], as if with the hope of surprising them should they be overcome with drowsiness; but being repelled by the carefulness and valour of the watchers, he rioted among the animals, both indoors and outdoors, as their wildness and [unusual] movements testified.

Having thus become a [similarly] serious nuisance to his friends and neighbours, he imposed upon all the same necessity for nocturnal watchfulness; and in that very street a general watch was kept in every house, each being fearful of his approach unawares. After having for some time [ran wild] in this manner during the night-time alone, he began to wander abroad in daylight, formidable indeed to all, but visible only to a few; for oftentimes, on his encountering a number of persons, he would appear to one or two only though at the same time his presence was not concealed from the rest.

At length the inhabitants, alarmed beyond measure, thought it advisable to seek counsel of the church; and they detailed the whole affair, with tearful lamentation, to the above-mentioned archdeacon, at a meeting of the clergy over which he was solemnly presiding… . he immediately intimated in writing the whole circumstances of the case to the venerable bishop of Lincoln ... whose opinion and judgment on so [extraordinary] a matter he was very properly of opinion should be waited for

... the bishop, being amazed at his account, held a searching investigation with his companions; and there were some who said that such things had often befallen in England, and cited frequent examples to show that tranquillity could not be restored to the people until the body of this most wretched man [was] dug up and burnt. This proceeding, however, appeared indecent and improper in the last degree to the reverend bishop, who shortly after addressed a letter of absolution, written with his own hand, to the archdeacon, in order that it might be demonstrated by inspection in what state the body of that man really was; and he commanded his tomb to be opened, and the letter having been laid upon his breast, to be again closed.

So the sepulchre having been opened, the corpse was found as it had been placed there, and the charter of absolution having been deposited upon its breast, and the tomb once more closed up, he was thenceforth never more seen to wander, nor permitted to inflict annoyance or terror upon any one.”

End quote.

Hello everyone, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in Medieval World, special Halloween edition. If you are enjoying what you hear, if you want to keep the podcast sustainable and its bodies below ground where they belong, please do consider signing up for the Human Circus Patreon for as little as $1 a month. It all adds up, and it all helps make this whole thing doable for me. You can find that at, or through my website at Now, back to the story. 

Except, it’s not back to the story with this episode. I’ll return to the fortunes of Robert, Geoffrey, and the rest of the Fourth Crusade, next time. Today, I thought I’d do something a little different, something a little Halloweeny. Today, it’s all about medieval ghosts and revenants. 

With the opening of the episode, you heard a story recorded by William of Newburgh, the 12th-century English historian. His Historia, the History of English Affairs, is a great source on matters high and low from 1066 to 1198, and in it, between certain scandalous events in London and the French and English kings storming one another’s castles, you find that ghost story. And it was not alone.

William had a similar tale to tell of the town of Berwick, situated at the mouth of the Tweed River, in the realm of the King of Scotland. In Berwick, a wealthy but quite dead man had sallied forth from the grave by night. No one knew just how - perhaps Satan was the cause - but once up the man would roam about with packs of dogs following after, barking furiously. Up and down the land he would go, until he returned to his rest before daybreak. All of this was quite terrifying, and nobody would go outside after dusk, for fear of hearing the dogs close in, and knowing he was close.

All agreed that something needed to be done, the simpler folk out of fear that they would be caught in the road and struck down to their deaths, a very reasonable fear in the circumstances, and the wiser that this thing wandering about, if allowed to go on, would infect the atmosphere and cause more disease and death than after-dark encounters ever would. For that was how it had been known to go in affairs like this. 

The people arranged for ten brave men to dig the problem up, to tear its carcass from the earth, and hack it limb from limb, and then to feed the pieces to the fire. That was how this corruption could be cleansed. And so it was done, and the nighttime commotions ceased, but, quote, “a pestilence, which arose in consequence, carried off the greater portion of them.” That pestilence was all about England at the time, William said, but nowhere else did it do so much harm. Nowhere else did it rage so furiously. 

I think that’s a pretty interesting piece of this story, the way this horror of a corpse abroad in the night is then tied in with the spread of disease as a point of somewhat general knowledge. There were said “... frequent examples in similar cases,” as if, not just disease, but also the walking dead were rife in England at that time. As if one accompanied the other, hand in hand.

At times in these stories, the risen dead seem most clearly a personification of disease itself, a physical force against which people could strive and something much more easily grappled with then the invisible enemy that was killing your family and fellow villagers. For example, one of William’s stories concerns a man who, intending to spy on his wife, falls from his hiding place on a beam inside the house, and badly injures himself. He ignores advice to go and make his confession, to settle his affairs on Earth; he’s distracted by the events of the day, and puts off for tomorrow what he’ll never then be able to do. He dies in the night. He’s given a Christian burial, but it doesn’t help. He’d originally arrived in the area having fled from some troubles in York, and his evil propensities were said to have only increased since then. When sickness started through the town, it begad to be said that this man was known to come up from his grave at night and to wander the locked up courts and houses, and the people knew where to look for the source of their problems. 

In some of these stories, as in the one I opened with, it’s the clergy who take the lead in resolving these matters. Not so here. The town’s religious leadership do invite the wise and worthy to a dinner to discuss the matter and to bolster their spirits, but that feast only serves as a distraction. While all that spirit-bolstering is going on, two young men who have lost their father to sickness steal away and dig up the corpse the themselves. They find it “swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood,” and the cloth in which it had been wrapped torn to shreds. Of course, there were other explanations for all of this, but there were none that the two were willing to entertain. 

To quote William:

“The young men, ... spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which [uncontrollably] flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart. This being torn piecemeal, and the body now consigned to the flames, it was announced to the guests what was going on[. They], running thither, enabled themselves to testify henceforth to the circumstances. When that infernal hell-hound had thus been destroyed, the pestilence which was rife among the people ceased, as if the air, which had been corrupted by the contagious motions of the dreadful corpse, were already purified by the fire which had consumed it.”

The genesis of this story is pretty easy to imagine. We don’t actually see the corpse do anything. It’s said to have come out of its grave and gone about pursued by packs of dogs, and the people to have locked their doors against it, and feared to meet it in the dark, but there’s no mention that anyone actually did. The corpse looked as if it had been sucking the blood from the village, but there is no actual sighting, no concrete attack, that is attested to. But that was not always the case, and I want to read one more story from William of Newburgh before we move along. This one I’ll share in full.

“A few years ago the chaplain of a certain illustrious lady, casting off mortality, was consigned to the tomb in a noble monastery… . This man, having little respect for the sacred order to which he belonged, was excessively secular in his pursuits, and -- what especially blackens his reputation as a minister of the holy sacrament -- so addicted to the vanity of the chase as to be designated by many by the infamous title of ... dog-priest; ... this occupation, during his lifetime, was either laughed at by men, or considered in a worldly view; but after his death ... the guiltiness of it was brought to light: for, issuing from the grave at night-time, he was prevented from injuring or terrifying anyone within the monastery itself only by the meritorious resistance of its holy inmates; therefore he wandered beyond the walls, and hovered chiefly, with loud groans and horrible murmurs, round the bedchamber of his former mistress.

She, after this had frequently occurred, becoming exceedingly terrified, revealed her fears of danger to one of the friars who visited her about the business of the monastery; she demanded with tears that prayers more earnest than usual should be poured out to the Lord on her behalf as for one in agony. ... the friar -- for she appeared deserving of the best endeavours on the part of the holy convent of that place by her frequent donations to it -- piously and justly sympathized, and promised a speedy remedy through the mercy of the Most High Provider for all.

Upon returning to the monastery, he obtained the companionship of another friar of equally determined spirit, and two powerful young men, with whom he intended with constant vigilance to keep guard over the cemetery where that miserable priest lay buried. These four, therefore, furnished with arms and animated with courage, passed the night in that place, safe in the assistance which each afforded to the other. Midnight had passed by, and no monster appeared; when it came to pass that three of the party, leaving [only the friar] who had sought their company on the spot, departed into the nearest house for the purpose ... of warming themselves, for the night was cold.

As soon as this man was left alone in this place, the devil, imagining that he had found the right moment for breaking his courage, incontinently roused up his own chosen vessel ... . Having beheld this from afar, [the friar] grew stiff with terror by reason of his being alone; but soon recovering his courage, and no place of refuge being at hand, he valiantly withstood the onset of the fiend, who came rushing upon him with a terrible noise, and he struck the axe which he wielded in his hand deep into [its] body. On receiving this wound, the monster groaned aloud, and turning his back, fled with a rapidity not at all interior to that with which he had advanced, while the admirable man urged his flying foe from behind, and compelled him to seek his own tomb again; which opening of its own accord, and receiving its guest from the advance of the pursuer, immediately appeared to close again with the same facility.

In the meantime, they who, impatient of the coldness of the night, had retreated to the fire, ran up, though somewhat too late, and, having heard what had happened, rendered needful assistance in digging up and removing from the midst of the tomb the accursed corpse at the earliest dawn. When they had divested it of the clay cast forth with it, they found the huge wound it had received, and a great quantity of gore which had flowed from it in the sepulchre; and so having carried it away beyond the walls of the monastery and burnt it, they scattered the ashes to the winds. These things I have explained in a simple narration, as I myself heard them recounted by religious men.”

As you might imagine, William found it striking that to set down all such instances that he was aware of in recent memory would be, quote, “beyond measure laborious and troublesome.” He mused over the the times he lived in being uniquely beset by the return of the dead. He acknowledged that it was scarcely believable that it should happen at all, but then it had happened so often. There was such abundant testimony that what might have seemed unbelievable had become undeniable. But why now? Why had it not happened before? Why, to his knowledge at least, was there no mention in the ancient authors of any such thing? Surely, it would be very strange for them not to mention such an occurrence, when they made it their business to record items evenly moderately of interest. So what then was different of his time? By what cause was the era he had been born into, that of the risen dead? He makes no direct answer right then and there, but there’s a clear sense that something had somehow gone horribly wrong for such a thing to happen.

And you’ll be hearing more stories of things going horribly wrong, but first a little break. 

In Dr. Nancy Caciola’s Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages, she introduces our next set of stories this way: “All good ghost stories must begin with an act of violence.”

It’s a good place to start. In this case, the act of violence was not an isolated crime, an unsolved murder or anything of that sort. It was the massacre of a town, the fortified, Saxon town of Walsleben on the Elbe River. There, in 929, the Slavic Redarii, who had been tributaries of King Heinrich, founder of the Ottonian Dynasty in Germany, had rebelled against him. They’d captured the town and killed everyone there, or so it was said. 

All of this was still pretty fresh in 1013, when Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg began work on his Chronicon. Two of his great-grandfathers had died in the fighting with Slavs in 929, and during Thietmar’s own lifetime, the Wendish rebellion had brought warfare all along the Elbe. The bishoprics of Brandenburg and Havelburg had been occupied, the nunneries of Kalbe and Hillersleben attacked, and the last bishop of Brandenburg’s body had been dragged from its tomb and despoiled. Though things had since calmed down, at least temporarily, having endured the turning of the millenium and operating as a kind of frontier bishop operating at the intersection of cultures and religions, where German Christianity pushed up against and intermingled with Scandinavian and Slavic practices, Thietmar offers a fascinating presentation of a time and place, in his history of the Saxon lords and their doings in which he was an active participant, but also in his series of ghost stories or, more accurately, revenant stories.

The topic seems to come to his mind quite unlooked for as he’s mentioning the massacre at Walsleben, and he recalls some more recent tales of that town.   

“That no one who is faithful to Christ may doubt the future resurrection of the dead,” he begins, “but may proceed to the joy of blessed immortality zealously and through holy desire, I shall confide certain things I have verified as true and that occurred in the town of Walsleben when it was rebuilt after its destruction.”

But Thietmar demonstrates this future resurrection in a somewhat surprising way. He speaks of a priest who had used to sing matins at the church there “at the first blush of dawn,” and maybe on this occasion the priest was running a little early because as he approached he church, he could see in the half-light that the cemetery was full of people. Crossing himself and drawing closer, he also spotted a figure standing at the doors of the sanctuary and receiving offerings from the crowd. Who were these people? Whoever they were, they were menacing, for the priest shook as he advanced. He passed among them, saying nothing, acknowledging noone. But a woman did eventually acknowledge him. She was someone he recognized, someone who had died not long before. “What are you doing here?” she asked. When he declared his business, the morning prayer, she replied that they had already taken care of all of that, and also, less reassuringly, that he would soon die. The priest reported this to his neighbours, and it turned out to be entirely accurate. He did soon die.

In the story of the priest, the revenants are physically unthreatening if probably quite worrying for the priest himself, particularly the prediction of his death. They neither attack the living nor roam the region with wild dogs at their heels. They spread no disease, and they ask for no favour from the priest, no aid in freeing them from their present situation. They seem to have just carried on in a Christian mode of life, attending church and making offerings, and thus somehow accruing things to offer, a parallel society to that of the living, fixed geographically by their burial in those church grounds. 

Elsewhere in Thietmar’s stories, people witnessed something strange around another cemetery, that of the merchants’ church in Merseburg. The guards there - or perhaps caretakers; it’s not totally clear - had seen and heard things which led them to call out the town’s most respected citizens as witnesses, and these witnesses did from a distance see candles lit and heard prayers sung. When they approached though, they found nothing. But Thietmar’s priest, by his own proximity to death, was able to brush up against the dead in a way the fully alive are not meant to, and to come back, if not for very long.

The idea of a Christian society of the dead, going about its business mostly unseen by the living, was not an invention of the Thietmar text. Back in the late 6th-century, Gregory of Tours had written of something of the sort in his Book on the Glory of the Confessors. He’d written that two men of the city of Autun were out wandering one day, when they heard prayer being sung in the basilica of St. Stephen, next to the cemetery, and astonished at the sweetness of the sound, they went inside. They sat and listened for a while, but when they got back up to look around at the choir around them, they found that they recognized no one, and that in the unlit space, the other occupants gave off a kind of glow. They stood stunned, motionless until they were noticed, and confronted. “You have done a despicable thing! How dare you stay while we perform the secrets of our worship to God! Leave now! Flee from our home or else you will leave this world!” One man did flee, but the other stayed and, as promised, he shortly left this world. It was unfortunate, certainly, but at least he had been warned. At other times, there would be less verbal communication.

Thietmar’s next story came to him by way of his niece, Bridgit, Abbess of St. Laurent, and was told while she lay sick in bed. He’d been talking of the ghostly goings-on around Merseburg, and she had been not at all surprised. In fact, she had a rather nastier tale to tell than of lit torches in the distance or faintly heard prayers at odd hours. It was of what had happened when the Bishop Baudry had arranged to renovate and re-consecrate a church at Deventer and had assigned a priest to this space, which, needing to be re-consecrated, had become vulnerable. 

This nameless priest, Bridgit said, had come to the church early one morning - so far pretty familiar - and he’d seen the dead celebrating mass inside the church - again, not a great departure. Sensibly, the priest had not confronted these revenants. He’d been to see his bishop,  who had directed him to sleep inside the church and deter any unwanted visitors. The priest had done so and, astoundingly, seems to have actually managed to fall asleep under these conditions. But undeterred, the dead came again and threw the intruding priest out and the bed he rested on with him.

So what was to be done next? Clearly, the priest’s presence was unwelcome. He went again to the bishop to ask what to do. 

This time, the bishop ordered him to equip himself with relics, to scatter holy water about the church, and to on no account to leave it unattended. And that’s what was done. I suspect the priest felt rather shaken at this point, a little less than certain at how things were going and how they might go next. But he did as asked. He made all the preparations, and he lay awake, obedient but fearful. Priests commonly slept in their churches. It was convenient for them and meant someone was there to protect the building, but it could be an uncomfortable place to stay when there had been recent violence. And this priest obviously had reason to be afraid. He was waiting for the dead to come again. And they did not disappoint.

They came, and they seized his body. This time, though, they did not bundle it outside. They placed him on the altar, kindled a fire, and then, holding his body on the flames and embers, they killed him. 

Theitmar’s niece ended her story by saying that she would be able to tell him of many more such occurrences, if only she weren’t so ill. “Just as the day is given over to the living,” she concluded, “the night is the domain of the dead.”

But what are we to make of this story? It depicts another congregation of the dead and one that does not appreciate the intrusion of the living. However, these seem to have been devoted religious practitioners, but murderous ones: once, removing the unwanted priest from their space, and then, at the second offence, killing him and destroying his body so that it could not, even in death, join them. It’s hard to view the horrifying murder of an obedient member of the clergy as proving the concept of Christian resurrection - remember, that’s how Thietmar frames these stories - so what else might this episode have to tell us?

For Caciola, the clues are in the manner and place of the killing. The unfortunate man is not dragged outside and beaten to death as the people of William of Newburgh’s accounts seemed to fear would happen to them; he is not simply declared no longer of the living, as with the priest in Walsleben or the man in Gregory of Tour’s story. He is taken to the altar, and he is burned. That doesn’t sound like just getting rid of an annoyance. That sounds like an offering.

Only a few pages later, Thietmar himself is writing of people who every nine years, in the month of January, sacrificed 99 people and horses, along with dogs and roosters, all by fire; something very similar is attested to in Adam of Bremen’s writing, decades after Thietmar, and then in Helmold of Bossau’s Chronicle of the Slavs, a Christian missionary and a priest are “immolated on the altar,” for the Slavic god Sventovit. And there’s much more too, solidly predating Thietmar and also running well after him, discussing burnt offerings, to deities or to the dead, in the spaces of Slavic paganism either lately or not yet converted to Christianity. It was, as Caciola points out, the practice that defined those religions in the Christian imagination of the time, and Thietmar’s use it seems to indicate a body of local stories that moved between pagan and Christian populations, drawing elements from each, perhaps pagan stories that were Christianized in framing context only - the church, the priest, the prayer - making them acceptable, useful even, to an abbess or a bishop.

Maybe it’s not what Thietmar intended to show with his stories - it’s certainly not his stated intention - but his tales of revenants, taken as a whole, also seem to indicate something else in attitudes towards the dead. They were not only living in parallel to the living. They were waiting ready to claim the spaces that the living relaxed their hold on, including sacred ones. Where destruction or violence or its threat led to the lapsing of a consecrated space, they were ready to inhabit it, and in the case of that story of immolation, where their claim was challenged, with the priest outlining the space in holy water, they were ready to kill to sustain it.

Thietmar’s treatment of the dead in his writing was not limited to hearsay and legends. He had his own experiences too, if not quite so dramatic; he was not burnt alive. But he found them noteworthy because they showed that such events signified that something momentous was about to happen. 

For him the world of the night was alive with signs. On one occasion, he saw a great light coming from the church and heard a sound, a kind of groaning. His brother witnessed this, as did a chaplain, and some old men also, when he asked around, were found to have heard it. Shortly after, Thietmar learned that his niece, Liutgarde, had died, and he knew the events to connected. He would hear the sound of timber falling in the night or the dead speaking to one another, and he would know that another death was imminent. 

“All of this,” he says, “provides a sharp lesson for the unlettered and the Slavs, who believe in their ignorance that everything finishes at the point of mortal death. On the contrary, for the faithful these kinds of events are a firm reminder of life after death and future reward for good deeds.”

At least, that was the intended lesson, the reminder he wished to leave his readers with, but, as we’ve seen, there were other reminders there too, of people troubled by questions of the afterlife, by the passing of the millenium, by clashes along political, cultural, and religious lines, and of how oral traditions weaved along and between those lines, resulting in rich stories. They were recorded as clear religious lessons and they may be read by us as simple ghost stories, but they are much more than than either of those alone. 

And after this break, one more story.

For our last medieval ghost story, we’re moving to the late 11th-century as seen in the ecclesiastical history of Orderic Vitalis, a monk born in the region of Mercia who spent most of his life in Normandy at the Abbey of Saint-Évroult. Orderic sourced his history, his Historia Ecclesiastica, from documents but also from contemporary oral accounts from the many visitors who came to the abbey. Here, we’re getting something from the latter, something with the commonly found feature of a messenger between this world and the next and a pretty clean outline of the three social orders: the people, the clergy, and the nobility. What you’ll be hearing is in the many-named tradition of the Wild Hunt, the passage of an army or hunt variously made up of fairies, or elves, or, as in this case, the dead. 

Orderic’s telling takes us to the beginning of January, 1091, and he says it came to him from a priest named Walchelin who served the church of St. Aubin d’Angers. This priest had been called out one brightly moonlit night to visit one of his parishioners, a very sickly man who lived at the furthest edges of his territory. It was as he headed home, not a soul to be seen on the road, that he heard the noise. 

It sounded like the movement of a great army, and immediately he thought it must be that of Robert de Belleme, marching to besiege the castle of Courcy. Now, this Robert was not a favourite of Orderic’s, not at all. Robert was a bitter enemy of Saint-Évroult’s protector and a consistently cruel and tyrannical figure in Orderic’s depiction. So when Walchelin heard what he took to be Robert’s men approaching, he wavered. Should he stand and offer his defence if needed, and what if Robert’s worthless followers were to attack him? Seeing a cluster of medlar trees in a field just a little ways from the path, he decided to hide.

But he was too late. An enormous figure suddenly loomed over him brandishing a massive mace. The sight of this giant froze him in his tracks, as did the command that came booming out: “Stand! Take not a step further!” So the priest stood in terror, he with his staff and the giant with his mace, waiting. 

The first of the army of the dead to arrive came on foot. They were not soldiers at all, but rather commoners, and some that Walchelin recognized that had died only recently. These people carried over their heads sheep, clothes, furniture, and all manner of things that a pillager might bear away. As they went, they bewailed their suffering and their evil deeds, and they urged one another on.

Next, came 100 men carrying 50 biers, and on each one a number of small men with large, barrel-like heads. Two Ethiopians carried a tree-trunk between them, a poor wretch lashed to it, his anguished cries filling the air, and on the trunk with him, a demon, that gouged at his back with burning-hot spurs. And Walchelin recognized the victim. He was the assassin who’d murdered a priest two years before, and then died without penance. Now, blood and screams both streamed from him in abundance.

Women on horseback were next to pass Walchelin, too many for him to count or even guess at. Every movement of their horses and even the buffeting of the winds brought agony, as they were lifted and dropped time and again on searing nails. And again, he recognized several of noble ladies among them, and he also recognized the palfreys of some that were still alive, to his horror realizing that their places’ had already been prepared for them in the afterlife.

“The priest stood fixed to the spot at this spectacle,” the text reads, “deeply engaged in the reflections it suggested.” And it doesn’t say what those were, but we can imagine. Viewing the horrific fate of those he had known and, in many ways worse, those he still did, he must have been thinking of his own destiny. Was it to be similar? Had he lived in such a way as to be certain that it would not?

As if underlining this line of thinking the next troop past him were the clergy, the monks, the bishops and abbots, all in black dress. He heard them wail in pain and sorrow and heard many cry out to him, imploring him to pray on their behalf, for the sake of friendship past. He saw not a few who had been very highly thought of in life, many even who were now thought of as saints, surely blessed in heaven. The eminent abbots Mainer of Saint-Evroul and Gerbert of Saint-Wandrille were there, and more whose names Walchelin either forgot or did not wish to make known, and also Hugh, the Bishop of Lisieux, a particularly interesting name to find in the list of the tormented.  

This was not Hugh’s only mention in Orderic’s history. He’d earlier written of lightning striking the cross over the Lisieux church as mass was said below. The tower had collapsed down into the interior of building, tearing into the crucifix, and as lightning flashed through in the open space, burning hair and beards, 8 men and 1 woman were killed. The bishop was not one of those who died that day, but he would not have long to live. His passing is depicted as a most graceful thing, that of a man prepared to go, not rushed off before he could make arrangements. In his life, he had overseen the completion of a cathedral and co-founded an abbey, and the clergy and nuns argued over where his body ought to be buried. Both a gravestone epitaph and a short poem are recorded in the Orderic text, and both are filled with praise. But there he was, a few hundred pages later, in Walchelin’s nightmarish vision of torment the place in between. “Human judgement is often fallible,” the chronicler mused, “but the eye of God seeth the inmost thoughts.” Just as the vessel must be polished before being placed in the treasury, so must all impurities of the soul be cleansed in the sufferings of purgatory before entering paradise. 

Walchelin was shaken. He leaned on his staff, trembling, and wondering what might happen along next. And next was the army proper, clad all in darkness and flame, armed as if for immediate battle and riding under black banners. There were the sons of Count Gilbert, Richard and Baldwin, who’d been with William the Conqueror in England in 1066 and were both lately dead. There was Landry of Orbec who rushed up the monk and pleaded with him to carry a message home to his wife. But the others around shouted him down, urging Walchelin not to a believe a word of it. The man had been ever guided by avarice and duplicity when alive, closing his ears and mind to cries of the poor. Now, branded a deceiver, his own cries were thought “unfit to be heard,” and his punishment just.

As this endless stream of soldiers from beyond passed him by, Walchelin began to think on what they were, and he had not sprung from a cave without culture, without tales or legends. He knew of the Hunt of Hellequin. He’d laughed at the stories, thought them the foolish stuff of the ignorant and ill-informed. But now he beheld them clearly, and who would ever believe him. They would laugh, just as he had. He had to find some proof. So, stirred by the need for evidence into bravery bordering on idiocy, he rushed forward from his position at the side of the path and made to grab a passing horse which lacked a rider. He thought to steer the black steed home with him as a token to show his neighbours, but the first horse whose reigns he seized burst away from his grip.

Undaunted, he tried again, with a different horse. This time, the animal was more obliging. At the touch of his hands it stopped, and stood ready for him to mount, still but snorting out great clouds of vapour. Walchelin took the reins in one hand and placed the other on the saddle, but he immediately regretted it. He felt from a one a searing heat, and the other a cold that pierced through his core, and he was frozen there in place, when four knights rode up. 

They shouted at him, enraged at his attempt, for even those of cursed company that passes in death and darkness does not like to be stolen from and will protect what is theirs. The first three knights had violence in their eyes, and who knows what might have become of Walchelin if it weren’t for the fourth. He wanted something something else. He needed the priest, needed a living soul to free him from his torment.

This knight, this William de Glos, son of Barnon de Glos, counted himself guilty of too many crimes to be recounted, and admitted to having abandoned himself to evil deeds and plunder. But he was not beyond help. The thing that weighed heaviest upon him was an act of usury. He had lent money to a poor man and taken in return a mill as security. The man had not been able to repay the debt, and the mill William had passed on to his own heirs. Now, he opened his mouth and showed Walchelin the bar of hot iron from that mill which he carried there, “heavier than the castle of Rouen.” He had to be rid of it. He begged the priest to tell his wife, and his son Roger, to return the mill to those who had been disinherited.

But Walchelin wouldn’t do it. He would be laughed at if he tried to talk to Roger, or anyone else of this family. They would never believe him, and besides he did not know this William. He did believe him either. However, he came to be convinced. Initially, he pretended not to understand, but he was given signs and reasons to believe in what this ghostly knight had to say. He listened to William repeat his request, but then a second obstacle occurred to him. He could never transmit the message of a damned spirit. He would do no such thing.

At this, the knight grabbed him by the throat, his hand burning into the priest’s neck. He wrenched him down, dragging him bodily along, and all the while shouting, but, again, an intervention came. This time from a source more familiar. Walchelin cried out to Mary through the strangling, searing fingers, and relief arrived in the form of yet another knight.

This one rode up brandishing a sword over William’s head, and maybe these dead men still had something to fear because William fled and his companions with him. At first, Walchelin did not recognize this new arrival, did not see him for who he was. “Do you not know me?” the knight demanded. “I am Robert, son of Ralph the Fair, and I am your brother.”

Like William, Robert gave proofs of his identity to the startled priest, these ones rather more personal. He talked of things they had shared from their youth together, things that no other one would know, so that soon Walchelin could only admit to himself that it was indeed his dead brother here in the night among the accursed dead. But he would not admit it to his brother, would not acknowledge him at all. And his brother, understandably, did not think much of this. 

“I am astonished at your hardness of heart and stupidity,” he said. “It was I who brought you up on our parents’ death, and loved you more than anyone living. I sent you to school in France, supplied you plentifully with clothes and money, and did all in my power to benefit you in every way. You seem now to have forgotten all this, and will not even condescend to recognize me.”

Walchelin burst into tears then. How could he not? It was indeed his brother and could not be denied, the brother who now told him that only through the mass he had sung that morning, was the priest saved from death and damnation for trying to take the horse, and only through his further actions might Robert, in turn, be saved. 

Look at this armour, this sword, these spurs caked in clotted blood, the dead knight said. It's all heavy, intolerably heavy, and it burns endlessly. It is our burden, and we cannot put it down, except for your intervention. Robert informed the priest that their father had once also been doom to travel with them, but had been freed when Walchelin was ordained in England and sung his first mass for the faithful departed, and Robert’s shield had fallen from his arm. Escape from this wretched host, this purgatory, was possible, and it was all down to Walchelin. 

Robert begged to be remembered, to be aided by his prayers and compassionate alms, and looked forward to being released from his torments within a year from Palm Sunday. And he also warned the priest to look also to himself, before it was too late. “Correct your life wisely,” he said, “for it is stained by many vices, and you must know that it will not be long enduring.”

The two went their separate ways then, the dead Robert riding on, and the living priest collapsing into sickness for a week. He would eventually tell Bishop Gilbert at Lisiuex all about what had happened to him. He would live for another 15 years, during which he would do what was needed to remedy his own situation, and he would tell Orderic what had happened that winter night in 1091.

The bulk of the story, as you’ve heard, concerns the knights, especially the three who pleaded for help from this soul that lived and could intercede on their behalf, and they reveal a tension I’ve talked about before, that of knightly life and the many measures that were being enacted to direct its un-Christian violence: the Peace of God and Truce of God, which sought to limit warfare between nobles and to protect noncombatants from it; the development of the concept of Just War; the founding of military orders by which monastic discipline was imposed. And then of course there was the difficulty of saving those who had not saved themselves in life. Walchelin’s father had been rescued, and there was hope for Robert too, but for all those others, without a blood relation in the priesthood, what was left? How long would they be riding through the night dripping blood and fire and always pulled down to the ground by the unforgiving weight of arms and armour, the very things that had been their tools in life made the instruments of their torment in death.

Orderic would finish by recording the following:

“I heard what I have written, and more which has escaped my memory, from his own mouth, and saw the mark on his face left by the hand of the terrible knight. I have committed the account to writing for the edification of my readers, that the righteous may be confirmed in their good resolutions, and the wicked repent of their evil deeds. I now return to the history I have commenced.”

And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing next episode. We’ll be returning to the history of the Fourth Crusade, of the struggles that followed Constantinople’s fall, and the troubled birth of the Latin Empire. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little aside for some Halloween fun. Thanks for listening everybody. Talk to you next time. 


  • Joynes, Andrew. Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies. Boydell Press, 2006.

  • Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

  • Shinners, John, ed. Medieval Popular Religion, 1000-1500 (2nd Edition). Broadview Press, 2007.

  • Vitalis, Ordericus. The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy. Bohn, 1854. 

  • Warner, David A, ed. Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg. Manchester University Press, 2001. 

  • Widukind of Corvey. Deeds of the Saxons. Catholic University of America Press, 2014.

Geoffrey's Crusade 5: Boniface, Baldwin, and the Bulgarians

Baldwin I of Constantinople

As the crusading French, Venetians and others celebrated their great victory in Constantinople, a victory they could scarcely have imagined was possible, others were keeping their head down or leaving the city entirely. Niketas, our Byzantine source, at first enjoyed the protection of a Venetian born acquaintance, a merchant of the city who clad himself all in armour and pretended to be one of the conquerors himself. The Venetian laid claim to Niketas’ household, declared that he had reached it and its spoils first, and turned back any would-be plunderers.

But as the pillaging and violence in the city heated up, this man despaired of successfully defending his claim and his friends, and he urged them to leave. So on April 17th, 1204, they made their way with infants and possessions on their shoulders, their servants, understandably, having abandoned them. They went as the “captives” of friendly Venetian Constantinoplites, going as if they had been taken at spear-point, yet there was danger all the same. 

They inched along, exposed in the street, people they knew coming out to escort them on their way to the gates. Women and girls were in the centre, Niketas’ very pregnant wife included, and they rubbed their faces with mud to try and discourage unwanted attention. And passing soldiers, daggers at their belts and swords hanging by their horses, watched them closely. Some of these were loaded down with spoils already, while others would halt the party to see if there wasn’t a bit of fine cloth or silver hidden about them somewhere. Still, they made out. They made it out through the gates, where Niketas hurled himself to the ground and reproached the walls of his city. 

How could they alone be insensible to this disaster? “Neither shedding tears nor lying in ruins upon the earth. ‘If those things for whose protection [they] were erected no longer exist, being utterly destroyed by fire and war, for what purpose [did they] still stand?’” 

Niketas railed against those walls for a time, then turned aside, and he and his family went away weeping to the city of Selymbria, while behind them, the struggle for power and position within Constantinople was just beginning.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, following the stories of medieval travellers of one kind and another, and the histories that surround them. If you enjoy what you hear, then please do consider signing up to my Patreon. There, for as little as $1 a month, you can prevent this podcast falling apart like the Latin occupation of Constantinople. And you can do that at or via my website at

The other little project I’ve been dealing with recently is the Kickstarter I had running last month with medieval manuscript themed Christmas cards. I’m happy to report that the Kickstarter passed its modest goal, which I was pretty excited about. It’s the first time I’ve done something like that, I learned a lot in the process, and I’ll probably do something like it again in the future. And I recognized some of the names on that list, and I know that some of you helped make it successful, which I really do appreciate. So thank you very much. 

And now, back to the story.

With the Halloween special and the episode on sacred theft, it feels like a long while since we’ve been talking about Robert, Geoffrey, and the rest, but that’s what we’ll be doing today. We’ll be finishing up their story, and that of the Fourth Crusade. So far I’ve covered the spoils of the crusaders’ victory at Constantinople, at least in terms of movable wealth, religious and otherwise, but there was another kind of treasure at stake, that of titles, and of one title in particular.

As as is often the case in this story, Geoffrey gives us a pretty positive presentation of things, and maybe a sanitized one? He says that as had been previously set out, a council of twelve men was chosen, ecclesiastics and Venetians, to select the new emperor, and though there was no shortage of applicants for the job, there were only ever two real choices: Boniface of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders. 

In Geoffrey’s depiction, the leading lights of the crusade saw the situation clearly, and perceived equally well how it quickly it could all come apart, how severely an unhappy loser could harm them all were he to feel slighted enough to take his ball and go home. If the throne should go to Boniface, then what might Baldwin do out of bitter jealousy, and what if the reverse were true? And if the Venetians were to make the push for their own doge, if the Venetian Great Council should even allow it, then wouldn’t both men abandon them in anger? 

These were not idle questions, and those who asked had other examples from previous crusades to ponder, with Geoffrey mentioning the 11th-century falling-out between Godfrey de Bouillon and Raymond de Saint-Gilles in particular. The solution they hit upon was for it to be arranged ahead of time that the loser of the election would receive a kind of consolation prize, a great gift of land that would insure they remained supportive, content, and in the region. Once that was all arranged, and with the agreement of both leading candidates, the election went ahead.  

It was held in a rich chapel within a palace, the Boukoleon Palace according to Robert, and all around it, the crusading lords gathered, surrounded by their men, for all were eager to know the decision. They waited, and when the moment came, they watched the Bishop of Soissons emerge and speak the name of the new emperor: Baldwin of Flanders. 

He was a reasonable choice, widely respected and in command of more men, and, quote, “A cry of joy was raised in the palace, and they bore the count out of the palace, and the Marquis Boniface of Montferrat bore him on one side to the church, and showed him all the honour he could. So was the Count Baldwin of Flanders elected emperor, and a day appointed for his coronation, three weeks after Easter (16th May 1204). And you must know that many a rich robe was made for the coronation.”

So that was all extremely pleasant and nice, but was it so?

Robert didn’t think it was. And admittedly, he was not an insider in all of this like Geoffrey. Rather, he’s thought to give us the word that was going around on things, and in this case, that word didn’t sound so good. He speaks of fifteen days of infighting over the composition of the electoral council itself, with each important lord kept putting forward his own men as simply the best and most reliable when it came to making really important choices like picking a good emperor, like picking someone like them. And then when it came time to hear the announcement, he says, the larger part “greatly feared and suspected that the Marquis [de Montferrat] would be named.” And when he wasn’t, then all were “right glad of it,” except of course for those who were “sore displeased thereat.”

So that doesn’t sound quite as chummy as in Geoffrey’s depiction, and, as I feel like I’ve said many times already in this story, the Niketas version made it all look even less amicable. Why was Baldwin chosen? According to Niketas, it was because the Venetian doge said so.

Boniface had been the leader of the crusade, had married Isaac’s widow and moved into the Boukoleon Palace, and he was assumed by many among both conquered and conquerors to be all but certain for the throne, but he was also a little tainted by his past-affiliation with Alexius, and then there was the fact that Dandolo didn’t want to give power to someone like Boniface, among other things a powerful Lombard lord whose people might easily sweep south and into Venice, should it ever come to that. He wanted someone more compliant, someone less ambitious, less experienced in statecraft, and less well-situated to bring his power to bear against the doge’s city if things went wrong. And Dandolo got just what he wanted. 

The big day arrived, and all the abbots and barons on horseback brought the new emperor to the Hagia Sophia. There, he was dressed in robes and shoes set with precious stones, and a rich cloak with gems forming eagles “that shone so that it seemed as if the cloak were all alight.” He was taken before the altar, where the counts Louis and Saint-Pol carried banner and sword, and Boniface the crown. And the bishops came and blessed the crown, and they made the sign of the cross over it, and they placed it on his head. 

Emperor Baldwin waited sceptre in hand while mass was sung. Then, a white horse was brought to him, and with no foreboding tumbles on the way, he was taken back to the Boukoleon Palace. He was set on the imperial throne, and all did him reverence. Then they feasted, the emperor “and all the barons in the palace with him,” and “when they had eaten, then the barons departed and all went their ways to their habitations, but the emperor remained in his palace.” The palace, remember, where Boniface had recently lived. 

So what now? Baldwin had an empire in theory; the crusaders had all kinds of things, in theory, and Niketas writes of the Latin conquerors divvying up their world in a grab for territory. They had its most important city, so surely they had the whole thing, and could claim, trade, and tax, to their heart's’ content. From North Africa to Spain, to Persia, and to the northern regions, everything was apportioned. And Robert has something of the sort happening too, with Henry, the emperor’s brother, demanding one kingdom so that he might go off and conquer it, and Louis de Blois another, and Hugh of Saint-Pol a third, and so on. However, if anything was actually to be had from those kingdoms, then they were still going to need to go out and take them. 

Emperor Baldwin himself went touring the countryside, his brother Henry going before him, not so much on a military campaign as a triumph proceeding westwards towards Adrianople. Everywhere he went, the people surrendered and honoured him, and all seemed well. But all was not well. There were various threads starting to unravel, and some sooner, some later, they were going to threaten the Latin Empire, its unity, and its existence. 

One thread was that the conquerors would not be smoothly and seamlessly taking up the apparatus of the Byzantine rulers. Niketas wrote that Baldwin refused to receive leaders of the military and civil bureaucracy. He did not take them under his own rule, and he lost much potential support as well as valuable experience when he denied the local elite any way of finding a place in his new regime. He also offered no alternative employment to the kingdoms that were springing up everywhere within the old Byzantine territory, quote/unquote “empires” even, in the Greek successor states of Trebizond, Epirus, and Nicaea.

And while this was happening within that territory, there were equally important blunders to be made without. Potential Seljuk and Bulgarian alliances were going to be proudly rejected, and a basically inadequate military force was going to be exposed to hostility from too many sides. 

But that was a little ways in the future still. For now, concern may have centred around two men. On the one hand was Boniface, Marquis of Montferrat, and on the other a former emperor: Alexius Doukas, otherwise known as Mourtzouphlos.

The latter, you might be forgiven for having forgotten all about. Maybe you thought him dead, of betrayal, or plague, or public misadventure, or he just slipped your mind entirely, melting in among the other imperial also-rans of the early 13th-century. But he hadn’t gone anywhere, or at least, he hadn’t gone very far. 

In Geoffrey’s account, we find him fleeing before the advance of crusaders coming out of Constantinople. We find him taking refuge with another old familiar face. We find him want to join forces with Alexius Angelos, and if you’re having trouble keeping track of your Alexiuses, that would be the treacherous brother that had displaced Isaac back in 1195, the uncle of the Alexius that the crusaders had originally brought to Constantinople to put on the throne. He was the one who now welcomed Mourtzouphlos in, who invited him to solidify their alliance by marriage to his daughter, who had him round to share a meal, and to go to the baths, and who then had him held down on the floor, and his eyes plucked out. 

Geoffrey put the event to use, finding some propaganda value in the story. Look at this cruel brand of treachery, he said; can any people who were capable of such a thing ever have deserved to rule over the land? The justification of what he and his fellow crusaders had done was never far from his mind.

In Robert, the unfortunate Mourtzouphlos, who had after all only overthrown his ineffectual overlords and sought to defend his people - and seize supreme power along the way - hardly fared any better. There is no mention there of putting out the eyes, but there is mention that he was unlucky enough to come across Henry and his men in a narrow pass and so be taken prisoner. Emperor Baldwin conferred with his men, and some said the prisoner should be hung and others that he be drawn and quartered. But it was the doge who thought him too highly-born for hanging and suggested a more fitting end, and so Mourtzouphlos and his imperial ambitions were pushed from the top of the Column of Theodosius, and shattered on the ground below. “For a high man, high justice,” Dandolo is said to have joked.

The ex-emperor’s story was over, but there was plenty of ambition still to go around, and after this break, we’ll talk about some of that.

The other figure of immediate concern was of course Boniface. Geoffrey has him fully participating in Baldwin’s coronation, and with no sign of a grudge, but he also him pretty quickly maneuvering to better his situation. There was already a parcel of land allotted to him, but he pushed for a trade. Couldn’t he instead have the Kingdom of Thessalonica? It was closer to his wife’s brother, the King of Hungary, and besides, it was to have been his brother’s in 1180. And Baldwin agreed. Or according to Geoffrey he did. Robert has him refusing, saying he couldn’t give what wasn’t his but rather the Venetians’ and the Barons’, but still refusing. However it played out, at some point, things became less and less agreeable between the two.

They were on the move, heading west, Boniface generally a little behind as he was travelling with his wife, we read, and thus his household and all that goes with it. He was moving to install himself and his family in Thessalonica, while Baldwin was on his victory tour, accepting fealty and, as Geoffrey frames it, pursuing Alexius, the eye-gouger. At some point, Baldwin lingered, Boniface caught up and set his pavilions nearby, and tensions came out into the open. 

They were heading towards Thessalonica, and Boniface made his feelings very plain. If they went any closer, if the emperor entered into his land, into Boniface’s land that he had heard was waiting ready to give itself up to him, then Boniface would follow him no further. In Robert, it’s very much an ultimatum: the emperor would turn aside or Boniface would go back to Constantinople and do what he must for himself. In Geoffrey, it’s more of a request: don’t go to Thessalonica. Let me. Let me install myself and gather up all resources that you need, and then let us go together against the Bulgarian king. Do not ruin my land. Baldwin’s response is also framed slightly differently in the two sources, but it would come to the same thing in the end. 

In Robert, Boniface’s position is presented as being painfully unreasonable, an egotistical assault upon the crusaders’ cause, and it was responded to accordingly. Niketas on the other hand has Boniface dumbfounded at his comrade’s betrayal. And Geoffrey, who was back in Constantinople at the time, expressed bitterness towards both sides. Who had advised the emperor to deny Boniface’s request, and how ill-advised were they both? What ill-fortune had they brought upon themselves and upon Christendom itself? Whoever was the more ill-advised of the two, the Marquis de Montferrat was turning away in disgust and anger. Baldwin was going on to Thessalonica, and Boniface was going to go do as he’d said, and carve something out for himself.

Boniface and his people came first to a castle, very strong, and very rich, and called Demotica, and the people surrendered to him - because of treachery, Robert says; because they recognized his wife, the former empress, Geoffrey says. And then he went on to Adrianople, and this one wasn’t held by some local leader who’d had a series of emperors knocked from their perches above him and had little reason to hope that help would soon arrive. It wasn’t going to surrender immediately. This one was held by Eustace of Flanders. It was defended by the people who Emperor Baldwin had left there, and that was where Boniface was pitching his tents and pavilions and laying siege to his fellow crusaders, a sign of just how seriously things had gone awry. 

Eustace responded to his awkward predicament by dispatching messengers for Constantinople where the Venetian doge and the Count of Blois governed in the emperor’s absence. And they and the other barons were incensed. What idiocy was this, that threatened to corrode all they had won by their conquests and bring it to ruin. They agreed to send negotiators to attempt to undo this war before it really got going, and naturally, one of those negotiators would be Geoffrey, who was well known and liked by Boniface. 

The marquis received the envoys with good will. He heard them out, and he defended his actions as being provoked by the emperor’s obstinate refusal to give over what was his. But he agreed to turn his cause over to the care of the council in Constantinople. The siege was raised, and Boniface returned for now to his wife in Demotica, Geoffrey and the others went back to Constantinople, and messengers were sent out to inform Baldwin of what had happened. 

It was fortunate for the crusaders that they did, and that they reached Baldwin when they did, because they didn’t find him idle. He had taken Thessalonica and then received word of Boniface’s doings behind him, and as you’d expect, he was no happier to hear the news than Louis and Dandolo had been. He and his men had set out immediately to relieve Adrianople and cut Boniface and his men to pieces. Fortunately for both sides, the messengers reached him first.

They told him that the barons in Constantinople sent health and greeting to him as their lord, but also that they complained to him and to God of those whose council had brought discord between and he and Boniface, cleverly making it an issue of bad advice and not a bad emperor; they said that they would not suffer him to go to war and asked him to submit to their ruling on the matter just as Boniface had. The emperor told them he would need some time, and he took the matter to his council. 

Of course, this was the council that had in the first place advised him on the break with the marquis, and they were beyond angry at the challenge from Boniface and from the barons. And Robert has this anger extending well beyond the council. The outrage in the host was such that when they heard the arrangements that been made for peace, they voiced loudly that it would not matter; if they caught up to the marquis, they were still going to cut him up. And their mood was not at all improved when they heard from the very same messengers that in their absence from Constantinople, the remaining spoils had been divided. They were beside themselves then with righteous fury, on the cusp of killing the men who had brought the news in a violent mob action, and only the intervention of Baldwin and the others leaders managed to calm them slightly.  

In the end, the men agreed not to kill the messengers, and Baldwin and his council agreed that they and could not lose the friendship of the doge and the others in Constantinople, and Boniface agreed to return to the city to hear what they had to say, though he didn’t actually promise to abide by it.

As he and his men made their way home, Boniface was being informed of this and summoned to do as he’d promised and present himself, but that must have been a difficult choice in itself. He had made some enemies by that point and knew full well that Baldwin bore no great love for him, knew that many others also were now against him. But he went. He went, he stuck to his demands, and he received what he had asked for all along: the Kingdom of Thessalonica, which he departed for with his wife and all his people. But neither he nor his emperor were going to have very long to enjoy their winnings, for though I’ve been focusing here to a large extent on the dangers they presented to each other, there were other threats on the immediate horizon.

One of those threats gets a bit of foreshadowing in Robert’s telling. Back when Mourtzouphlos had been emperor, there had come to the crusaders a man named John, seeking their aid in his cause, and promising his own aid in return. What he had wanted was to be crowned by them as King of Wallachia. It was a land within the empire, and he promised to hold it for them, and to come to Constantinople with 100,000 men, and if this was clearly an exaggeration, then it at least should be acknowledged that this John did have the friendship and service of the Cumans, the Turkic horse people with whom he regularly raided Byzantine lands. So absolutely, he could have pressed a substantial amount of weight down on the crusaders’ side of the scales, but they hadn’t been interested. They’d answered that “neither with him nor with his help had they any concern; and let him know of a surety that they would trouble him and work him evil if they could,” and Robert noted that this was and would be a “shame and grevious pity.”

So keep that in mind, as we roll things forward again to Emperor Baldwin’s reign, and as we see Boniface heading for Thessalonica and Baldwin and the doge continuing to divide up the land and send out lords to lay claim to it. And as Geoffrey tells it, “the covetousness of this world, which has worked so great evil, suffered them not to be at peace, for each began to deal wickedly in his land, some more, and some less, and the [people] began to hate them and to nourish a bitter heart.”

Boniface tasted a little of that bitterness as he made to move into his new home. The governor Baldwin had left in Thessalonica had most inconveniently died, and in the space he left, a high-ranking Greek had sized a few cities and made war on the marquis, while another Greek, who Boniface believed to be his ally, left the host without warning, occupied his own city, and also made war. 

Meanwhile, Baldwin was having problems too. For one thing, his wife had died. She’d been pregnant when he’d left, so she hadn’t travelled with them, but since giving birth had left and made her way by sea to Acre. There she had heard that Baldwin had been made Emperor in Constantinople, but there too she took sick and passed away, one of many spouses who never saw their family again once they had departed. And in addition to this heavy personal blow, Baldwin was hearing that Adrianople was threatened once again, but this time not by his crusading rival. This time it was in revolt.

At times in this story, it’s been too easy to think of the protagonists of the Fourth Crusade as interacting with a kind of parade of NPCs, Alexius, Isaac, Alexius again, and Alexius again again, somehow wielding power over an all too vaguely conceived people, of a city, and of an empire. And, out of convenience, I’ve at times called those people Byzantine because that is what we tend to call them, but as you may already be aware, that’s not what they tended to call themselves. Rather, it’s a more modern term, derived from the pre-Constantine name of the city. “Greeks” came to be used at times, as the empire became more overwhelmingly, though never exclusively, Greek speaking, and that’s what Robert seems to call them but again, that’s not how they would self-identify. They knew themselves as Romans. 

And the Romans were fighting back against the invaders. Roman leaders were opposing Boniface, as I mentioned a moment ago; they were fighting with Baldwin’s brother Henri; they were fighting with Geoffrey’s nephew, also named Geoffrey. I want to make clear here that they were not passive observers in this, bowing to whichever lord rode their way. They were rising up at Demotica and Adrianople, and there they were either asking for or accepting help from the man we’ve recently met as John, the one who was once to have looked to the crusaders for help and friendship, but received neither. 

Now John the Wallach, as you might read of him in Robert’s telling, will also appear in history as Johanitsa, but if you go looking for him in your own research, you might do better to look for Kaloyan, the King of the Bulgarians. Having been rebuffed in his attempts to deal peacefully with his new neighbours, Kaloyan was now employing other means, and he was going to be there at Adrianople as Baldwin tried to take back the city from its rebellious Romans in the spring of 1205.

The crusader army that made to besiege Adrianople was not as large as it might have been, for there were many off fighting elsewhere at this point. When Baldwin and Louis de Blois departed from Constantinople, they went with the numbers they could pull together relatively quickly and joined the men that had mustered in the area. After them, came a force commanded by the old Venetian doge, even with his age and poor eyesight, his presence perhaps necessitated by the fact that there were few senior men left in the city. Most were away pursuing their prizes and carving out territories, and Count Hugh of Saint-Pol, who had remained, had died of gout. So Dandolo went himself.

They all gathered before Adrianople, in their pavilions outside of missile range, and prepared to besiege it. They first constructed siege engines, and then in the days that followed, they shot and were shot at. They dug beneath the walls, removing the soil as secretly as possible and shoring up the tunnels with dry timber. It was after a few weeks of this, that Kaloyan made his first move.

He started by sending out a Cuman raiding party, to attack the sheep and horse grazing around the edges of the besiegers’ camp, and in doing so to get a sense of his enemy’s organization and response. And the response to this probing attack was highly illustrative. 

At first sight of the approach Cumans, the crusaders took immediately to lance and horse and charged. The raiders wheeled about, firing arrows behind them as they went, and the crusaders followed. They had not yet learned not to eagerly follow bodies of horse archers, lightly armed and on swift horses, that went easily into retreat, and they received heavy casualties before giving up the chase. Recognizing their foolishness, the emperor and his council let it be known that if they were attacked again, they were to form up before the camp and they were not to go charging after anyone.

But the next day, April the 14th, Kaloyan repeated the maneuver, and having read his opponent’s response to his feint, this time the trap was well and truly set. His Cuman allies, a larger party this time, did as they had before, rushing in as if on an attempted raid and then withdrawing as the response came, fleeing before that response, leading the crusaders on. Their pursuers, quite against the arranged plans and apparently at the instigation of Count Louis de Blois’s angry rush, followed even further than they had before, far enough to exhaust their heavy horses in the extended charge, and far enough to be among the pits that had been dug for the purpose, and which men and mounts plunged into, and among Kaloyan’s troops that had been hidden in ravines and around the hilltops above. 

And I’ll read from Niketas here in describing what happened next. 

The Latins, exhausted from the exertion of the chase, with horses thoroughly spent, were ensnared by the unwearied Cuman troops, cut off, and encircled. Overpowered by the multitude of Cumans in hand to hand combat, they were thrown from their horses. One was surrounded by many; the throats of the stiff-necked were exposed to the scimitar or to the noose, and many of their horses were mutilated. As [their enemy] fell upon them like a never-ending black cloud, they could not disentangle themselves from the horses or find any means of escape. So fell the flower of the Latin host and those who were far-famed for their prowess with the lance.

Those who could, fled, making for the camp, and it was Geoffrey de Villehardouin coming to meet them with a body of men around which they could rally that stopped the route from rolling right through and into the camp. Now, lesson at last learned, they held their ground in the face of Kaloyan’s attacks, waiting, not chasing, until night came, and their enemy at last retired. In the darkness, torches were lit in large numbers, as if an army remained to offer battle. Then Geoffrey, Dandolo, and the rest, slipped away, leaving no men but all their tents behind them, and marched until dawn, with Geoffrey commanding the rear-guard, ever uneasy that Kaloyan’s pursuit, when it inevitably came, might find them and finish the job. 

It had been a disaster. Count Louis was dead, and many more with him, and Emperor Baldwin, well his fate was at first unknown. Robert reported that none ever knew what became of him, but as Niketas and Geoffrey noted, he was taken prisoner, and there are all sorts of stories of how he may have been abused, tortured, starved, or perhaps, depending on who you listen to, treated with perfect decency. Some would say his skull would become an ornamented drinking cup, and Niketas has Kaloyan ordering his limbs cut off at the knees and elbows before having him cast down into a ravine to live out a last three days in pain as food for the birds. What is certain is that Baldwin would die in captivity, one more emperor of Constantinople departing from our story. 

And we’ll continue that story in just a moment. But first, a quick break.

In the days that followed, Geoffrey and Dandolo and the rest of the survivors would continue their flight from Adrianople, wary of the pursuing army that might easily destroy them, if only it caught them. One party of knights would split off, making their own way more quickly back to Constantinople where they’d spread dismay over the uncertain fate of their colleagues, and then later face recriminations for having cowardly abandoned them. 

The rest of them were reinforced by groups that had been rushing to join the siege at Adrianople, the parties encountering each other with nervous aggression followed by relief, and then deep sadness. They made their way, day by fearful day, to Rodosto, a rich and strong port city whose Greek speaking Roman population did not, or could not, oppose the sudden arrival of this armed body of men. For now at least, the crusaders were safe. And they would be safe to watch bitterly as 5 ships of crusaders headed home from Constantinople arrived, refused their prayers to stay on, and then sailed away. Safe to curse the name of Peter of Frouville, who had abandoned all his people and belongings for a spot on one of those ships. Safe to call for Baldwin’s brother Henry to take his place. Safe, but not feeling terribly safe.

All about them on the land, Kaloyan’s forces went as they would. The crusaders had the worst of their encounters, but worse still was the lot of the Romans in the provinces where now-desperate crusaders plundered, and then Kaloyan’s men plundered again. As they marched from Rhaedestus to Constantinople, there was little the men of the fourth crusade controlled. They settled into strong points, few and far between, and they fought against a tide that rolled in against them, from the northwest, and from Roman leaders like Theodore Laskaris, first Emperor of Nicaea, from the southeast.  

Help was sent for, to aid the cause of the Latin Empire, sent to the pope and any and all that would listen, but it wasn’t coming. If anything, as those 5 ships passing Rhaedestus indicated, it was leaving, and other blows were in store for the crusaders. In May of that year, just over a month after the flight from Adrianople, Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian doge, died in intestinal agony. He’d lived a remarkable life and, no matter where you sit on the spectrum of Dandolo legends, had clearly been an astonishingly vigorous 90-something, but that final campaign had been too much for him. And the crusade lost another of its leaders.

If all of this sounds like it’s spiralling towards disaster, straight from its flawed beginnings to its inevitable demise, then that’s not far from the truth. The record of what follows is full of Kaloyan’s victories, of cities sacked and their occupants slaughtered, whether Crusaders or Romans. Henry, initially regent and later emperor in replacement of his brother, did not roll over and die, but there was death all around. His marriage to Boniface’s daughter, which would have shored up the bond between to two, now more crucial than ever, was short lived, as the new empress soon died, thought not so soon that he couldn’t tell the marquis she was pregnant when the two next met, so perhaps her death was caused by childbirth. His forces campaigned on both sides of the water, and had some successes, but dealing with both Kaloyan and Theodore Laskaris was burdensome, especially when the two actually started cooperating, and Geoffrey attests that the crusaders were scattered and everywhere “distracted and oppressed by war,” and that Emperor Henry was himself torn. He wanted to relieve Adrianople from its suffering under one siege, but he needed to rescue Peter of Bracieux, and Payen of Orléans from another besieged city, and then the people of Thierri of Loos at quite another, or else lose them. He could not be everywhere. 

But then, his luck seemed to turn. Theodore offered a truce, at a price, and he bought that truce, allowing him to finally, after a number of false starts in that direction, go and break up the siege of Adrianople, and even to briefly go on the offensive entering Kaloyan’s land and gather up many provisions. Finally, on his return to Adrianople, there was more good news. There was word from Boniface. 

The marquis had really been off in his own world, engaged in all kinds of trouble around Thessalonica while Henry was putting out fires from Constantinople, with enemies everywhere between, and the two had not seen each other in some time. Now, messengers arrived from Boniface, asking for Henry to meet him by a certain river, and Henry happily agreed. 

The two met in a fair field, and stayed there for two days, sharing news that the other would not have known. They said that “as God had granted that they should come together, so might they yet again defeat their enemies. And they made agreement to meet at the end of the summer, in the month of October, with all their forces, in the meadow before the city of Adrianople, and make war against [Kaloyan]. So they separated joyous and well content. The marquis went [west], and the Emperor Henry [east].”

They were never to make that appointment though. Not long after, Boniface’s rear guard would be ambushed as he travelled. He’d rush back and into the fight, but in the process he’d be wounded by an arrow beneath the shoulder, and he’d bleed and he’d bleed. His followers would try to keep him on his horse, but as he grew fainter, they lost hope, and abandoned him to his attackers and to his fate. 

The crusaders were one lord less, their one-time leader mourned by Geoffrey as “one of the best barons and most liberal, and one of the best knights in the world!” But Niketas would take a very different angle, writing that his death, quote, “came to the delight of all Romans - this surly man was fond of gold, pertinacious, opinionated, a monster who preyed on Romans. To the Thessalonians the arrow was the answer to a prayer and truly believed to be wrought, if not discharged, by the hand of the Almighty … he was an unbearable and unappeasable evil. Having received the gaping wound, he was sent on his way to Hades by the Romans with malignant glee.”

The head of Boniface of Montferrat would be cut from his body and would be presented to Kaloyan as a gift, but Kaloyan himself wouldn’t have long to enjoy his present. He’d besiege the city that had recently been Boniface’s, but he’d encounter trouble, and there are all kinds of stories as to what kind. 

My favourite is actually that of one of our sources here, Robert de Clari. He says that the trouble was inflicted by none other than St Demetrius, whose body lay in the city and was said not to allow the city to be taken by violence. Faced with this most recent threat, St Demetrius had appeared in the night, and in Kaloyan’ tent, and speared him where he slept. There were other versions, tellings that relied less on saints rising from the dead to distribute stabby justice in the darkness, more garden-variety betrayals and assassinations, but it all came to the same thing in the end. The Bulgarian menace that had haunted the crusaders and their Latin Empire was gone, but Baldwin, Dandolo, and Boniface too.

Emperor Henry wasn’t though, not quite yet. He survived Kaloyan’s challenge. Robert tells that he lived to marry the daughter of his successor, and to crown Boniface’s son in Thessalonica. But that was where he died, in 1216. His death, the same year as Pope Innocent III’s, ended what would turn out to be a unique period of relative calm in the rule of the Latin Empire, which would itself stagger on until 1261 when Constantinople was taken by the Nicaeans, some would say retaken by the Byzantines, and when our friends the brothers Polo would leave the city on a little business venture.

Even that wasn’t quite the conclusion of the story of the Fourth Crusade though. Of the crusader states that had sprung up during those years at the beginning of the 13th century, some would even be there to be absorbed into the Ottoman Empire when it came. That spiralling disaster I spoke of would go on spiralling on for a long time still, long after its initial protagonists had passed on from this world. 

As for our narrators, Niketas would live out the rest of his life at the court of Theodore Laskaris, in Nicaea, dying around the same time as Henry. And Robert de Clari and Geoffrey de Villehardouin, would of course survive those tumultuous years to record their versions of events. And how Robert would end his, is, I think, a good note for us to end on too. I’ll be back in a few weeks with something new and medieval. Thanks for listening, everyone. To quote Robert de Clari:

Now have ye heard the truth, in what manner Constantinople was conquered, and in what way Count Baldwin of Flanders became emperor thereof, and my Lord Henry his brother after him; for he who was there and who saw these things and who heard the testimony thereof, Robert of Clari, Knight, hath also caused the truth to be put down in writing, how the city was conquered; and albeit he may not have recounted the conquest in as fair a fashion as many a good chronicler would have recounted it, yet hath he at all times recounted the strict truth; and many true things hath he left untold, because, in sooth, he cannot remember them all.


  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: The History Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That Took Constantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. Viking, 1995.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.

Geoffrey's Crusade 4: Simon & the Seven Thieves

Sack of Constantinople

When Robert de Clari entered Constantinople, he spoke with wonder of what he witnessed. There was the Palace of the Lion’s Mouth with its 500 chambers “all wrought in mosaic work of gold,” and among its 30 chapels, its wonderful Holy Chapel, with its precious stone pillars, its white marble floors, and its relics. There were two pieces of the True Cross, “as thick as a man’s leg and a fathom in length”; the lance which had been plunged into Christ’s side; two of the nails that had been driven into his hands; a crystal phial of his blood; the tunic which was torn from him; his crown, not of thorns, but of “sea rushes, sharp as dagger blades.” There were the clothes of Mary and the head of John the Baptist, a likeness of St. Demetrius from which oil ran without end, and a tile and towel, both of which bore the imprint of God’s face. There were so many more that Robert could not begin to describe them all, or indeed to understand them.

At the Hagia Sophia, Robert was struck by its “altogether round” shape, its magnificent pillars, each with their own powers of healing a specific malady, and its “high altar … so rich that the price … could not be reckoned.” It was the riches there that struck him most: so much silver, gold, and gems, so much magnificence. But he also took note of a tube, a mysterious tube of unknown metal, “of the size of one of those pipes such as sheperds pipe upon,” and of a certain miraculous virtue. Whenever a sick person would put their mouth to the tube, it would seize them, holding them fast so that their eyes would roll up in their heads, and it would draw the poison in their body out through their throat. But if you were to put your lips to the tube when you were well - because it’s always a good idea to mouth items previously mouthed by multitudes of desperately sick people - well then it would not hold you, which was probably for the best.

Outside the church, there was a thick pillar, “thrice the spread of a man’s arms, and ... full fifty fathoms high.” And at its top, a great stone, and a horse with a copper-cast figure upon it, identified by Robert and others as Heraclius, but it was what we know as the Column of Justinian, the 6th-century ruler stretching one hand out towards “Heathendom,” Robert tells us, and in his other holding an apple marked with a cross.

Robert and the other crusaders were in awe of the hippodrome, its open space a full crossbow shot and a half in length. They were amazed at the numbers of people, of priests, of abbeys, and of the riches they contained. They saw the marble table that Jesus was placed on after being brought down from the cross, and they saw the tears that Mary had cried over him. They saw the shroud which Jesus had been wrapped in, the one which raised itself up every Friday, to reveal his form, and Robert noted that nobody knew what became of it after the city fell.  

It was said of one gate that the golden ball above it would protect the city from lightning strikes so long as it remained there, and this was no small thing given how vulnerable the place was to fires. Over another gate were a pair of copper elephants, so enormous that it was a marvel to behold them. That was the Golden Gate, never opened, Robert thought, save in victory, when the emperor would, in the city’s brighter times, re-enter after battle, parading upon a chariot for all the people to share in his triumph, and to honour him.  

But these were not those times. 

There, behind the two copper women, 20 feet high and both very beautiful, had been where the moneychangers would come to sit, with piles of coins and precious stones before them, open for business, but there were much fewer of them now, that Constantinople was taken. And elsewhere in the city, Robert tells of two pillars, 50 fathoms high and with a hermit living on the top of each, stylites we would say. On these pillars were portrayed and written prophecies of all that had come to happen to Constantinople and all that was yet to come. And there, for all now to look on, were the Latin invaders and the boats by which they had won their way in. None had been able to see them for what they were until it was too late, but now, with the invaders in the city, people came, and they mused on this, their fate, and that of their city. 

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. If you wish to keep our chamberlains from offing our emperors in the night, if you’re enjoying what I do and think it’s worth supporting, please do consider doing so on my Patreon page, that’s, where every $1 a month and up makes a difference for me. And on that note, I want to say thank you to my newest patron, who goes by the delightful name of Ephemeral von Hinterland. Thank you very much! And now, back to the story. 

Today, that story takes place in the aftermath of the fall of Constantinople to the fighters of the Fourth Crusade. It’s what happened in the city once the bulk of the fighting was over. It’s something of a caper film, starring an intrepid party of Venetians.  But before we get to that, let’s check in with Robert and Geoffrey, and Niketas. The fate of the city had already been decided when the invaders found, on the morning of Tuesday, April 13th, that there was no one now to oppose them. What followed were three days of violence, plundering, and all the other ugliness included in the sack of a city.

Geoffrey speaks of something very organized. Three churches were established as collection points and a guard set, made up “of ten noble knights from amongst the pilgrims, and ten Venetians who were reputed to be honourable men,” Robert says. All of this had been sworn to before they’d even taken the walls, as part of what we now call The March Pact, the meeting I mentioned last episode, where they hammered out who would get what, what loot, what land, what title, when victory came. And also what they were not allowed to do. Robert mentions being required to swear not to do violence to any women or despoil any church, but Niketas would say they were oath-breakers on both counts. 

There was every reason for making these March arrangements before taking Constantinople. There was every chance they’d be able to temporarily occupy a section of the city and loot it, even if the whole placed proved too much for them. They had to promise to reimburse the Venetians for money owed, needed to guarantee that they would be able to, and it was also always better to decide how to divide the ice cream before that awkward moment when someone was actually holding it and everyone had their swords out. When you didn’t make plans ahead of time, you had problems like what William of Tyre claimed had happened at Ascalon in 1153. There, a group of Templars were said to have kept others from following them through a gap in the walls just so they didn’t have to share the spoils, but then they’d been cut off from those others and killed. The episode may not have really occurred in that way, but the lesson was out there to be learned. Rules established beforehand save bloody acrimony after the fact. 

In this case, there was to be fairness in distribution, with each getting a share according to their station: 2 men on foot equalling 1 horseman, 2 horsemen equalling 1 knight. However, despite these precautions and the threats of punishment, some, Geoffrey admitted, did hold back what they had taken, or committed outright theft. And of course this would happen. The temptation was strong, and “not a few” were hung as a result, including one knight who had followed Hugh of Saint-Pol. “...the covetous began to keep things back,” Geoffrey said, “and our Lord began to love them less. Ah God! How loyally they had borne themselves up to now!” 

Robert was even less content with the whole thing. From the first moments of occupation - really that first day inside the wall when you get the sense he hadn’t previously realized what the game was going to be - he’d seen the rich and highly placed take advantage of those beneath them. The treasure now gathered in the churches was a marvel to behold, true; it seemed so much that not even the 50 other richest cities of the world could equal it, and it was said locally “that two-thirds of all the wealth of the world was in Constantinople, and that the other third was scattered throughout the world.” But Robert says that the guards assigned to the churches were the ones most guilty of theft, that they used their position to help themselves as they pleased, and that the richest of the conquerors simply wandered in and likewise had from the hoard what they wanted, whether it be jewel, or silk, or gold.

And Niketas, as we heard a bit of at the end of last episode, he was of course rather more critical than either crusader of what went on in Constantinople. It wasn’t a question of spoils won to him, but of violence done to his city, its people, and its holy places.

Niketas describes the destruction of icons and trampling of relics, all in order to get at what money was to be had in jewels and adornments. 

"These forerunners of Antichrist," he raged, "chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens; some they smashed, taking possession of the ornaments embellishing them, and they set the remaining dishes on their tables to serve as bread dishes and wine goblets. Just as happened long ago, Christ was now disrobed and mocked, his garments were parted, and lots were cast for them by this race; and although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth."

And there’s more. A lot more, in fact. There was hardly a sin that Niketas did not find the crusaders guilty of, and he filled pages in making his point. He painted a scene of gross moral corruption, of frauds draped in crosses polluting the holy places of his city. In one striking passage, he describes the greedy raiders leading mules into the temple to pack out their ill-gotten gains, and how, quote, “some of these; unable to keep their feet on the smoothly polished marble floors, slipped and were pierced by knives so that the excrement from the bowels and the spilled blood defiled the sacred floor.” 

And those were some of the views, broadly speaking, from the conquered and the crusaders, but what of the Venetians? I’ve regularly divided them from “the crusaders,” in quotes, for convenience and clarity, but it’s at the cost of perhaps implying that the Venetians were something else, that they could not be crusaders themselves but were rather a bunch of bloodthirsty merchants or mercenaries, that they were somehow less capable of religious feeling than their co-religionists, and that each and every one of them was every bit as conniving as their doge, in his common portrayal. 

But clearly that’s not accurate. 

This story then is a kind of antidote to that picture because although it is a tale of theft, it’s not money that the Venetians involved were after. This is not to say that Venetian plundering during the sack of the city was any less treasure-oriented than the other crusaders. Actually, if there’s a difference, it’s generally thought that they tended to seize pieces of art as intact pieces, not breaking them apart for the value of their raw materials. Most famously, their take included the Cavalli di San Marco, the four bronze horses which long adorned the Saint Mark’s Basilica. However, this is not the story of those horses. In our story, something else entirely was taken. It was a saint. Or at least, the body of a saint. A holy relic. 

And that’s what we’ll get into in a moment now, after this quick break.

"In the memory of the blessed Simon the prophet, I will tell in what way and by what means his body was translated from the city of Constantinople and taken through the Adriatic Sea to the city called Venice."

So begins the Translatio Symonensis, the written record which does exactly that and was recovered in 1995 in Milan, in a 14th century collection of Venetian hagiographies. It, along with the excellent work of historian David M. Perry, will be my source here. 

"With the city captured," the text continues, "those who did not die began to plunder certain fortifications, palaces, and buildings that were filled with gold and silver. In the army, there were seven citizens of the Rialto. These seven were better men, because of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit."

And we know who those seven “better men” were. The names that have come down to us are Andrea Balduino, Pietro Steno, Leonardo Steno, Marino Calvo, Angelo Drusario, Nicola Feretro, and Leonardo Mauro. It all started on the ship, with Andrea and Pietro speaking of Simon, their parish’s patron saint. Did not his blessed body lie there in that very city, asked Andrea. Why yes, it did, Pietro confirmed. He could not remember exactly where, but he had been to see the city, and the saint, just two years earlier, with his uncle. The streets of Constantinople were not easy to follow, but if they just started at the Hagia Sophia, then he was sure that he could find the way from there.  

These two ringleaders, likely men of Venice’s merchant class, said a quick prayer, as they often in would in this story, and they looked to assemble their team. Andrea brought together men from their neighbourhood, from their church parish, people they could trust, and he found 10 of them. Together, they made a little scouting run

Working back from the Hagia Sophia, they found what they were looking for. They located the Church of St. Mary of Chalkoprateia, and within, a marble ark with their saint inside. Above it hung an image of a young Jesus being placed in Simon’s arms. Before, was a well of living water in which hung a miraculous orb; glowing as if made from a burning ball of wax, it was not visible to those who were dishonest, so it served as a testament to the Venetians honourable intent. They took their time, seeing all that was to be seen, and knowing all that was to be known of their target. Then, they retreated to their ship. 

There, they took a vow of secrecy, and they planned. They chose Palm Sunday to go into action, and just to put that into context, the city had been taken, and those first three days of violent looting begun, on April 13th. Palm Sunday would be the 18th, when people could be expected to be otherwise occupied and to not notice their little group going about its secret business. It wasn’t so much the locals they were worried about, the people of the city who had now little enough say over their own bodies, let alone those of the dead. Their concern was with their own side. Though it sounds like open-season had been declared, this was something - looting a church - that there had been a sworn agreement against, and people were being hung for keeping spoils to themselves. It was, it seems to me, no crime, unless you were caught. So they just had to not get caught. 

They began “when Palm Sunday had not yet ended,” with Andrea saying to his comrades:

"See, soldiers of Christ, rouse yourself in a manly way, tighten your belts, and trust in God. Do not fear Death nor the dangers of money. With faith in God we can be audacious, with the same type of audacity as with which we secured these walls."

And the other eleven answered back with one voice: “He who fears may die, because fear comes with punishment. As the scripture says, he who fears is not perfected in charity.” Confident and ready then, they left the ship.

They split into two groups, so as to not draw attention to themselves, five going by one route and seven, the seven I have already named, going the other, with plans to rendezvous at the church. But as you may have guessed from my only reading seven names, that was not how it went. That unnamed five became confused in their way. Maybe they were the group that had to take the unfamiliar way, while the other retraced steps previously taken, and they were lost in that huge city’s narrow streets and never reached the church. Maybe they never existed at all. 

Our seven did though. They paused outside the door to speak for a moment on the value of doing things quickly and without pause, Andrea reminding his comrades that “he who goes intelligently goes boldly,” and that “all good things are done with quick work.” Then, it was decided that three should enter and take what they had come for while four would guard the doors and make signs to those within should anyone approach. 

So in went the three to find the ark, their St. Simon within, but once they were there and in front of the thing, nobody could actually bring himself to open it. They started urging each other on. Surely it would be better if you should be the one! No, no, after you. You should pry it open. But not one actually took it upon themselves to do it, and from outside they heard calling. What was going on in there, their friends at the door wanted to know, the minutes the three had spent inside probably feeling like much, much more than that. Was there a problem? Were they done?

Not only were they not done, the reluctant three heard the voices of and reacted with alarm and fright. Was someone else out there? Was it time to flee or to fight? Naturally, the lookouts were not impressed by this timidity. “Where is your courage,” they demanded. “Are you men? Go, in the name of God, and complete your work knowing that God is with you. It would be better if you were dead than to leave empty-handed and without the precious treasure.”

So back in the three went, and this time, there was less delay. Andrea swung his hammer, cracking the ark open and revealing a lead case inside. That too was struck open, revealing yet another lead box within. This third one was wrapped in iron bands, but they were rusted out and already broken. Andrea stepped back then, for if he had smashed their way in, someone else ought to bring the saint out. That someone else would be Pietro, Pietro who now revealed his vision of the night before, of alone aiding mass back in Venice, with no one else there to help the rector. 

His companions insisted it should be the same then in the church as it had been in his vision, and Pietro, unhurried, in this telling at least, by the pressuring of their comrades outside or by fear of interruption, took a moment to pray: 

"Oh most sacred Simon the Prophet, who deserved to hold our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, the true light, revelation, and glory of the tribes and people of Israel, in your arms, do not turn your attention to my sins. Through your mercy make us worthy to lift up and hold your precious limbs in our hands, in order that, illuminated, we might succeed in transferring you to our lands. Thus we and our people, with great gratitude, could honour you properly and bless the Lord of lords, who lives and rules the entire world."

“Amen,” answered the other two, and down Pietro reached to pull out the bones of St. Simon, lowering them onto the purple cloth they had prepared. And as he touched the bones, a smell filled the church. It was a sweet smell like that of balsam wood and so strong that it reached the look-outs outside and caused them to call out, in joy and fear, that God was surely with them. Pietro hurried on, revealing not just bones, but also small marble containers with the teeth of the saint, a broken ring, and the milk of the virgin Mary, which they somehow all immediately recognized, presumably by its miraculous properties. They took it all, and they made their way back to the ship. 

They went with haste now, the evidence upon them much worse than any previous signs of suspicious activity, if they were caught. And that evidence was not doing any of the work of concealing itself for them. There was that powerfully sweet smell, strong enough to attract curiosity, and now there was a light too. No one had challenged the progress of the seven through the streets of conquered Constantinople, but when they had the saint’s relics safely on the ship, and stowed away in a box of aromatic herbs, it began to glow. It started to glow with a such a fierce light that not even that of candles could, by comparison, hide it. Quote: “Because God wished to reveal the sacred items by way of miracles. Even at night when most people were sleeping on the ship, the relics glowed fully and splendidly, and most of the people awake wondered at its brightness.”    

If the thieves had achieved success in bringing St. Simon onto their ship, they still couldn’t actually leave. There was that item in the March Pact, that all must remain and aid the new emperor, whoever that might turn out to be, and there was the decree of their doge, Enrico Dandolo, enforcing it. No matter how clearly Simon’s relics shone out like a bat-signal to those looking down from the city’s hills, there was to be no getting away. With some reluctance, I imagine, the thieves smuggled Simon’s body back into the city and away from from their watchful eyes.

They took it to a small chapel within a palace. There’s no mention of which one, but it must have been somewhere they were already familiar with, very likely somewhere they’d plundered just days before. In the chapel, they found an old woman caring for the space, lighting candles and offering incense, and, in an astonishing leap of faith, they left their package in her care. They implored her to keep it secret and promised money for the upkeep of the chapel in return. 

The old woman was either swayed by the money, was simply honest, or, as the Venetians’ seemed to think, was simply ignorant, because she kept their secret. She kept it well for them for six months. That was six of months of political turmoil and infighting among the crusaders, and also of rumours circulating of the saint’s disappearance, grumblings among the locals which reached the ears of the leadership. The doge decreed that any who brought in the missing relics would receive their weight in gold, but maybe this was an invention in the text, a way of showing the Venetians’ worthiness. Sights and smells had signalled God’s approval of their actions, and their success in the venture would signal the saint’s. Now, quote, “The Lord strengthened the hearts of the … men, and none of them were seduced by the love of money, but firmly persisted in their good plan,” and maybe they really were required to resist this temptation; maybe it was by bribery and confiscation that Dandolo and other leaders acquired many of holy relics that would make their way west from Constantinople, or maybe this was just a bit of artifice by which the authors would tell us that these were men morally equal to their high intent.

Whatever the particulars, none of them cracked, and that elderly caretaker of the chapel didn’t either. They held it all together until one of their number was allowed to return to Venice. It was Angelo Drusario whose lot it was to return home, and we don’t know much about his journey back. The text does tell us that “the number of sea-borne miracles that … God judged them worthy to be shown,” was beyond the human ability to describe, and this sort of thing was very much in keeping with this sort of story, that of furta sacra, or holy theft. 

What’s not in keeping, is that there’s no more detail as those miracles on water, and no adventures at sea to test our protagonists, and for which they must rely on the aid of their saint to survive. Instead, we only learn that rejoicing and praise greeted the relic’s return to Venice, that the Patriarch of Grado and the Bishop of Castello oversaw their internment “in a marble ark beneath the altar in the church of St. Simon on the Rialto; and the orations flourished there on that same day.” A business that had begun in the darkness of secrecy and theft was now recognized in the light and made holy.

In a moment, we’ll go further into the wider world of sacred plunder in Constantinople, but first, a quick break. 

This story of ours was of course not the first one of Venetians bringing relics home in less than officially authorized circumstances. Most famously, there’d been the 9th-century theft of San Marco’s bones from Alexandria by a pair of merchants. But it was also not the only act of relic-theft in Constantinople once the crusaders got in. 

The take from that city was generous in relics. The Bishop of Soissons alone is to have brought home a head of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, Thomas the Apostle’s finger and head, a Crown of Thorns thorn, a belt and scrap of cloth from Mary’s garments, another scrap from Christ’s last supper-wear, a forearm and head from John the Baptist, a rib and head from St. Blaise, fragments of the True Cross, and the staff of Moses. 

Now you might think that this bishop, this energetic head-collector, was a thief-extraordinaire, and that our Venetian friends’ activities paled in comparison to his prolific burgling. However, much of his haul he seems to have had from a chapel in the Bucoleon Palace, a palace which was under the administration of his friend, Boniface of Montferrat, during the first month of occupation. This was not stealing then. This was confiscation. It was authorized and legitimate theft, not done in secrecy while guarding the door against one’s “allies” interrupting the looting.

Between the extremes of the Venetian 7’s conspiracy and the bishop’s taxation, is one of my favourite stories of sacred theft. Dalmacius and Poncius were two knights who had, upon being released of their duties in Constantinople, failed in trying to reach Jerusalem, and returning disappointed, had requested of the papal legates that they be allowed to take a relic. The legates had given their permission, but did not allow the knights to buy one. So Dalmacius and Poncius had needed to find what they wanted by other means. They had dropped in on the Monastery of St. Mary Peribleptos and, while Dalmacius distracted the monks with questions about St. Clement, Poncius is supposed to have walked in and walked out with the saint’s head.  

Even more in the thick of things was Abbot Martin of Pairis. He located a priest in a monastic complex already being looted by crusaders, and he forced the man, under threat of death, to reveal the valuables. Martin would eventually come away with some of the blood of Christ, wood from the cross, a piece of John the Baptist, the arm of James the Apostle, and more.

Even one of the Papal Legates got in on the act. Peter Capuano wound his way through Southern Italy leaving a trail of relics behind him. His hometown of Amalfi received the head of its patron saint, St. Andrew, while Gaeta got the head of St. Theodore. In Sorrento, he left relics of James the Apostle, at the Abbey of Monte Cassino, St. Athanasius’ arm, and at Naples, pieces of other saints. 

And there are countless other stories, too many to mention here. Robert de Clari, who we’ve been following, is himself said to have brought fragments of the True Cross back with him to the Monastery of Corbie, where his chronicle would be recorded on vellum. 

All of this is to say that Constantinople was absolutely harvested in and after 1204. Relics of all descriptions were taken and trucked across Europe, along with the other riches of the city, and in this climate, trafficking and forgery thrived, very old businesses both.

You might be wondering, with all of this pillaging, all of this emptying out of treasury and church, how could the crusaders defend their actions? How could they possibly justify what they had done? We can start to answer this question by examining the Translatio of the Venetians. How did it present its heroes’ actions in the best possible light?

One way was through the villainizing of the “victims” in the story, and the author wasted no time in accomplishing this. The first paragraph establishes the citizens of Venice as “most Christian people, filled with the Catholic faith, and most eager to serve the army of Christianity … born of a noble race, but … ha[ving] a faith even more noble.” By the second, it’s the turn of the people of Constantinople: they’re hated by God “on account of their iniquities.” Wicked, impious, malignant, and arrogant, they were the target of this most just crusade. In fact, there’s no mention that it might ever have gone elsewhere, to Egypt or Jerusalem for example.     

Another method of justification was emphasizing the goodness of the individuals involved in the theft. If they were truly good, then what they had done must surely also be good, and these people were very good indeed. The text tells us, with reference to the Book of Isaiah, that our protagonists had “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and fortitude, of knowledge and piety, and a spirit that feared God.” “... although they might have numbered seven, nevertheless they were as one, because they shared one spirit and one faith they discovered the body of the blessed Simon prophet of the lord.” 

Elsewhere in the text, as the group pray for the success of their venture, they ask for assistance in finding the saint, and they evoke the three magi in doing so, seeming to compare the search for the son of God with their search within the city. If the twelve’s mission was like that of the three, then how could it be wrong?

Finally, as you might have guessed, the production of the text itself is part of the act of justification. It wasn’t just how the relic was gained. It wasn’t just having possession. The story was important, and where the resources were available, a narrative would sometimes be commissioned that would help to establish the relic in its new home. That would include the story of the acquisition, its journey home with the saint usually intervening on its bearers behalves, and also miracles on arrival. Authenticity, meaning, and significance would be attached to the object, through the kind of ceremonies that occurred at the Church of Saint Simon, and through a new tradition of miracles in this new context. 

But the pope, you might be asking, what of his reaction? What did Innocent III think of all of this? It had after all, not gone quite according to plan. His threats of excommunication, and attempts to steer the ship once it had disembarked, had largely failed. Some men had been dislodged, it was true, but he’d had little effect on the direction things took. However, now the great city of Constantinople had been taken, and it might perhaps at last rejoin with western Christianity. Surely that counted for something?

Well, it did, at least at first. When the news reached Innocent that the city had been taken, news which was delayed by Genoese piracy, he seems to have been overjoyed, but in quite a pointed way. In a letter to Count Baldwin, he praised the accomplishment as that of God “work[ing] magnificent miracles with [the crusaders] for the praise and glory of his name, for the honour and the profit of the Apostolic See, and for the benefit and exaltation of the Christian people.” Innocent had never approved of the conquest in the first place, but now it had happened, he placed the new lands “under the primary protection of St. Peter.” He offered help, the crusading indulgence for those defending Constantinople, but also a warning. The city had fallen because its people had strayed from Rome; let not its new occupants do the same. Let them instead, quote:

"...diligently and faithfully make sure that ecclesiastical goods, both fixed and moveable, are protected until they might be properly organized in accordance with our authoritative decision, so that those things that are Caesar’s might be rendered to Caesar, and those things that are God’s might be rendered to God without confusion."

Of course, as we’ve seen there had already been some “confusion” of that sort, and there were going to be years of confusion to come. That aside, even within the terms of the March Pact, there was much for the pope to take issue with. There was language around the divvying up of church property, and then there was the agreement that whichever side in the conquering force that lost out in seeing their own man as emperor would get to appoint the patriarch. This was clearly a power that Innocent would have thought belonged to Ceasar and not one he could surrender willingly to the Venetians. 

Still, Innocent seemed willing to compromise. He accepted the narrative that Dandolo and Baldwin presented in their letters about the the March Pact, that the tangled route which had led to the conquest of Constantinople was divinely inspired, and though he did not at first accept the Venetian appointment to the office of patriarch, he did then rush their chosen man through ordainment as deacon, priest, bishop, and then patriarch, all in the month of March, 1205.

However, he would not remain so amenable. As time passed, the looted church property failed to to be returned, and the Greek population failed to convert, his position shifted. He’d tried offers of rewards, and threats, but his legate, Capuano had released the crusaders from their vows, requiring only that they stay for a year to defend their conquest. Events had truly slipped from the pope’s grasp, and in his letter to Capuano, and in a very similar one to Boniface, he made his displeasure clear:

"How will the Greek Church … return to ecclesiastical unity and devotion to the Apostolic See, a church which has seen in the Latins nothing except an example of affliction and the works of Hell, so that now it rightly detests them more than dogs? … It was not enough for [the Latins] to empty the imperial treasuries and to plunder the spoils of princes and lesser folk, but rather they extended their hands to church treasuries and, what was more serious, to their possessions, even ripping away silver tablets from alters and breaking them into pieces among themselves, violating sacristies and crosses, and carrying away relics."

He wasn’t just concerned with plunder, by the way. There was talk too of swords dripping with Christian blood, and incest, adultery, and fornication. 

It was all part of the narrative which was building around the Fourth Crusade. The providential victory at Constantinople had given way to a much more accusatory tone. By their sin, by their own greed and gold-lust, their looting of the Greek churches, the crusaders had diverted much needed men and resources from the Holy Land, and they had corrupted the path which God had laid down for them. 

That was the climate within which saintly translation narratives were produced. Some of them sought as best they could to erase Constantinople from their stories. They might, for example, speak of relics brought out of disaster in the Holy Land to new homes in France, with no mention made that the items in question were really had from the looting of 1204. One way or another, these stories found ways to work around that tricky issue and with it the pope’s castigation. But not the Venetians. Strikingly, their stories did not at all avoid the question of the relics’ origins. As we’ve seen, they found other ways to craft the image of the pious thief, even as the situation in Constantinople darkened, and with it, the future of its Latin Empire. 

As for Robert and Geoffrey, they would directly tie the problems to come with the looting of 1204. Robert saw those misfortunes as, quote, “the Lord God tak[ing] vengeance on them for their pride and their bad faith which they had shown toward the poor folk of the host, and for the horrible sins that they had committed in the city after they had taken it,” while Geoffrey would grimly conclude that “full oft do the good suffer for the sins of the wicked.” 

But we’ll get into those problems, that suffering, next episode. I’ll be wrapping up this round of the Fourth Crusades, and the stories of the characters that we’ve been following.


  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: The History Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That Took Constantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. Viking, 1995.

  • Perry, David M. Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. Penn State Press, 2015.

  • Perry, David M. "The Translatio Symonensis and the Seven Thieves: A Venetian Fourth Crusade Furta Sacra Narrative and the Looting of Constantinople."

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.

Geoffrey's Crusade 3: One Alexius After Another

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, 1204

Fair to say, that it’s often a good thing to keep one’s promises, maybe even more often than often. Perhaps usually, or mostly. It’s generally good to stick to agreements one has made, some would say necessary and always. If you have given your word or put your name down on paper, then you must see things through exactly as you had said you would. But this current series is not a great argument for that type of honesty, if that’s the right word.

The story of the Fourth Crusade has been presented in a variety of unflattering ways: as a kind of ultimate expression of the cynicism of the entire crusading project as being one of naked greed rather than religious enthusiasm, or as the work of a single nefarious power bending the course of events to their will. Was it the case that the Venetian doge, Enrico Dandolo, was the masterful manipulator, taking the crusaders for everything they had and more and steering violence away from his city’s trading interests in Egypt? Or was Philip of Swabia the smoking man in the back room? Was it his it his personal goals or, to a lesser extent, those of Boniface of Montferrat that had steered events from their original course? Was the pope himself to blame, for summoning up a crusade and then tapping its resources to other ends?

One theme that has struck me in putting together this series is the potentially dooming nature of a handshake, the way agreements made in this story seem cursed to develop a kind of horrifying momentum of their own, and to carry their participants along with them. The way the ominous music seems to pick up the moment terms are set and, without discounting human agency too much in all of this, the scales start to tip towards disaster, unless you were of the Ayyubid Sultanate that is.     

Hello, and welcome. I'm Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. A quick reminder before we get properly started: rating, reviewing, subscribing, and spreading the word is how we keep our walls intact and even our suburbs free of fire. And by signing up for the Human Circus Patreon, for as little as $1 a month, you ensure a sustainably defended city, no matter what mangonels or boating peoples may be brought against it. On that note, big thank-yous go out to new patrons Malte, Derrick, Aaron, and Neil. Thank you all very much for your support! And now, back to our story.

When last we spoke, Emperor Alexius was scuttling out the gates under cover of darkness, as July 17th of 1203 became July 18th. Inside Constantinople, the people of the palace awoke to their lack of emperor and were thrown into confusion. There were some who would have been bound to the now departed Alexius and would have feared what was to come.  Others would have seen opportunity in this power vacuum, an invitation to advance themselves, maybe even to the highest of steps. The rest would simply have worried, for their city and themselves, for what would happen now, with the Latins at their gates.

From Niketas, we know that the eunuch Constantine, minister of the imperial treasuries, was one to take matters in hand, that he measured support for what was to come, and we can imagine the whispered conferences in the gardens and corridors. Probably there were many such plans being made, many would-be-emperors flickering into being and then sputtering out, tantalizingly close to power.

Constantine solidified a faction within the palace. He assembled the ax-bearers of the Varangian guard and had the empress and all her relations seized. Then, when all was ready, he called for Isaac, the former emperor. He who had been blinded through his brother’s treachery was freed from imprisonment and dressed in magnificent clothes. He was led back to the imperial throne, and word was sent to his son.

In the camp, the news was met with joyous celebration, for the way which had seemed so hard now looked as if it had been made easy overnight. Robert speaks of “great rejoicing and much pomp,” but in Geoffrey it is tempered with something else, with the crusaders rushing to their arms and armour as the news first arrived, having little faith in its source and every reason to suspect it as but cover for another attack; then, as more messengers came out of the city, with the crusaders sending in envoys to let it be known that they would not be sending in Alexius until his father guaranteed that his promises would be honoured. And the promises were big, expensive ones, crushingly so, and like those the French lords had made with Venice, they were going to be impossible to keep.

But that was all for the future. For now, the mood was still celebratory. Envoys entered Constantinople, and of course, Geoffrey was among them. They dismounted before the gates and then walked in, unopposed but passing through a corridor of Varangian guard that flanked them all the way to the palace, and to the overwhelming spectacle of the Byzantine emperor and a great press of the city’s highest men and women in all their adornments. Once the pleasantries were out of the way, they spoke to the emperor in a more private setting and made known their demands and their agreement with his son. And what was that agreement, he asked. And they told him.

His son as emperor. Obedience to Rome. 200,000 silver marks. A year’s supply of food. 10,000 men for the cause. A standing force of 500 knights in the Holy Land. “Such is the covenant that your son made with us,” they said, “and it was confirmed by oath, and charters with seals appended, and by King Philip of Germany who has your daughter to wife. This covenant we desire you to confirm."

“Oh,” he might have replied, darkness slipping a little into even the brightness of a day which had begun with being given both his freedom and the imperial crown. It was an onerous agreement, he pointed out, and maybe he thought a little as Niketas would, that his son had been a, quote, “witless lad ignorant of affairs of state,” and had not “comprehended any of the issues at stake.” However, he reassured the envoys that what had been agreed would be respected, and he confirmed it with oaths and with sealed charters.

And all was wonderful, for a while. The lords of the crusading army rode in with Alexius and saw him seated on a golden throne alongside that of his father as co-emperor, and they joined the citizenry of the city in honouring both. “The joy,” in Geoffrey’s words, “was great inside Constantinople; and also without, among the host of the pilgrims, because of the honour and victory that God had given them.”

The joy was great. But the host would not be putting down roots inside the walls, according to Robert because they could in no way trust the traitors of the city. Maybe that was an assessment stained by what was to come though. Geoffrey has the request put in by the emperors themselves, that the crusaders camp across the straight and away from any quarrels that might kick off between the recent combatants.  

The host, well provisioned now, would visit the city by barge, and marvel at its astounding wealth, its many great palaces and grand churches, and its relics beyond count. Some of the barons were there with Alexius when he greeted with honour the King of Nubia, “a king,” Robert tells us, “whose flesh was all black, and [who] had a cross in the middle of his forehead, which had been made with hot iron ... burnt into the skin.” They heard him relate, through an interpreter, that his land was 100 days journey beyond Jerusalem, where he had gone on pilgrimage. 60 men had begun the trip, and, for reasons that are not given, only 10 had survived that 100 day journey, and only 2 were now left with him in Constantinople, where he stayed in a rich abbey. He still planned to journey on to Rome, he said, to Santiago de Compostela, and, if he still lived, back to Jerusalem, and there to die. The barons listened, and they looked with wonder. 

The crusaders also received a visit from a Sultan of Konya seeking aid against his brother who had taken what was his. This was actually the former Seljuk Sultan of Rum, Kaykhusraw I, who had lost out to his brother in 1196, and lived in Constantinople ever since. He would eventually regain the throne, but not with the help of these crusaders, who decided, upon consideration, that they were engaged enough already with the emperors. 

They had been fed and they had been paid, in part at least, and for now they were content, or some of them were. Others thought it was surely time for them to be moving along towards their real goal. This had not, after all, been sold to them as a Crusade on Constantinople when they first made to gather in Venice. Still, Alexius begged their patience, their continued presence, and their force of arms, promising to pay their costs and those of the Venetians if they would remain on through March. Alexius argued that he could not entirely fulfill their covenant right then and there, and besides, if they were to leave, all that they had done for him, substantial as it was, would be for nothing. He was hated by his people because of them, he said. As things stood, the moment they were gone he was sure to be killed and the land they had taken for him lost. That, as the crusader leadership well knew, would also mean the loss of his promised help and his submission to Rome. And they had, after all, agreed to help him win his throne. Could that task really be considered done?

Not all were at all happy about it, but the crusaders stayed to see things through. 

Some half of the men accompanied the young emperor as he moved against his uncle, the other Alexius. And Boniface, Hugh, Henry, and many other barons went with them. For months they campaigned, Robert tells us, conquering 20 cities and 40 castles, doing well for themselves, and helping to win Alexius control over elements of an empire without which he was never going to muster the resources to repay his debts. 

They returned on November the 11th, the crusaders received joyfully by their comrades, and Alexius given the triumphal treatment by his courtly followers, moderate though his victories had been. But things had not gone so well while they were away. There had been fighting in the city, and terrible fires too. 

On August the 19th, a mob had stormed into the quarters of the city that were home to Italians, often Italians who had grown up in the city and, in the case of the Pisans, had just recently been on the walls defending it against the crusaders. Rage and resentment against foreigners spilled over, harming even those who had made their city strong, and destroying churches, shops, homes, and people. 

Then, days later, had come the fire. Geoffrey hadn’t been sure who had done the malicious deed, but Niketas was not in any doubt. Pisans of the city had crossed the water and befriended their Venetian former-adversaries and, together with some of the French contingent, entered Constantinople at night by fishing boats. It was a kind of raid, or perhaps something less organized than that, on the Muslim quarter of the city, a target for those frustrated in their desire to fight Muslims in the Holy Land. There, they had stolen what they could and torched a mosque. They had fought with the locals, and with the Muslims’ neighbours who had rushed to their defence, not as many as should have, Niketas says, but it was enough to drive the attackers back. They’d done as the Venetians had done then, and deliberately used fire as a barricade to cover their retreat. And it had spread beyond all possible expectations. 

I’ll quote Niketas here in his description of what happened, and it is worth noting here that his house was also damaged in the fire. For him this was no abstract event.

He writes:

It was a novel sight, defying the power of description… the fires ignited at this time proved all the others to be but sparks. The flames divided, took many different directions and then came together again, meandering like a river of fire. Porticoes collapsed, the elegant structures of the agorae toppled, and huge columns went up in smoke like so much brushwood. Nothing could stand before those flames. Even more extraordinary was the fact that burning embers detached themselves from this roaring and raging fire and consumed buildings at a great distance. Shooting out at intervals, the embers darted through the sky, leaving a region untouched by the blaze, and then destroying it when they turned back and fell upon it.

… the fire, advancing gradually and leaping over the walls … ravaged the dwellings beyond, and flying embers burned a ship sailing by. The so called Porticoes of Domninos were also reduced to ashes… The Forum of Constantine and everything between the northern and southern extremities were similarly destroyed. Not even the Hippodrome was spared, but the whole section towards the Demes as well as everything leading down to the harbour of Sophia was engulfed in flames.

… Woe is me! How great was the loss of those magnificent, most beautiful palaces filled with every kind of delight, abounding in riches, and envied by all.

In a moment, we’ll follow events in the city after the fire. First though, a word from Noah who is the host of the excellent History of Vikings podcast, another Recorded History network show that I can happily recommend.


The Latins of the city, didn’t wait around to see where the blame for the fires would be laid. This place had been their home, but many of their homes had been levelled, and now “some fifteen thousand, small and great,” as Geoffrey has it, had taken their families and what possessions they could. 

And this was probably quite sensible of them. Tensions clearly had been on the rise. There had been the recent fighting and the fire, the bad feelings naturally brought about by invading forces involving themselves in imperial politics, the prospect of submitting to Rome, the unease at the emperors’ ongoing failure to entirely fulfil their end of the deal, and then there was what had been done to make those initial payments. 

Uncle Alexius had not left the treasury in good health when he’d fled in the night. Heavy taxes had been necessary to pay the crusaders, and then, as if that didn’t do enough to turn the populace against young Alexius, the next step surely would. With little ready money at hand, the churches were plundered. Niketas wrote of vessels seized and melted down for common coin, icons hacked at with axes, anything of value extracted by force, and then, even more bitter, the crusaders selling their gains or else spending them as but profane metals. It was enraging. Some in the city said the fire had been a punishment, for they had prized their own possessions but neglected God’s treasures, but what anger they did not reserve for themselves, they directed towards the Latins and their own rulers.

Niketas clearly loathed both emperors, spoke of them “pray[ing] for the end of all things, these firebrands of the country, flaming in visage, thus personifying the angel of evil,” and he gives us quite a picture of their days in power. Alexius took to spending his time in the camps of “the barbarians,” whiling away the days with drinking and with dice, his entourage jokingly replacing the “gold-inlaid and bejeweled diadem on his head” with a “shaggy woollen headdress.” Isaac, meanwhile, muttered darkly against the blunderings and excesses of his son. Angered at his authority and prestige slipping away in favour of Alexius, he spoke of his son’s lack of self-control, his ill-formed character, and his general uselessness. And he turned increasingly to oracles, divination, and astrology, swallowing all he heard, and believing himself destined to become ruler of a united east and west, a universal lord, a god-man, and with his sight restored. He was prey to streams of monks who drank from his banquet table and prophesied freely as to his returned strength. Or so Niketas tells us. 

The Byzantine chronicler also shows us the irredeemably greedy crusaders, laughing at the foolishness of their imperial host, and returning again and again to snatch yet more treasures, their gluttony for gold impossible to satisfy now they had a taste for it. But from Geoffrey it’s a distinctly different picture. The treasure came in but a trickle, always delayed, and never even approaching the amount promised, until at last the payments ceased, and not even the pleadings of Boniface, who had done so much for Alexius, could turn the tap back on. 

We should appreciate that Alexius found himself here in a difficult position, an untenable one really. Maybe his head genuinely had swollen while in office, and maybe his recent military successes had convinced him he no longer had need of his former friends. Or maybe his situation was impossible. His Latin allies wanted their money among other things, but even if he could juice his people sufficiently, they were very likely to kill him for the squeezing. Doing away with emperors was not so normatively out of the question as he would have liked, and there was besides a prevailing attitude that nothing at all should be given to the crusaders, even if they could. As for submitting to Rome, that was quite out of the question. In this light, it's easy to see how Alexius may felt unable to do more than placate those outside the city with pleas for time while trying to anticipate the plots of those inside its walls.

Outside, a parliament was held, of the crusading lords and the Venetian doge, and it was decided that one last effort would be made to see the agreement peacefully resolved. A few good envoys would be sent to present their case and deliver their ultimatum, to make clear that if the emperor would not willingly give what was theirs, then their allegiance to him was at an end and they would have it by other means. As was ever the case when important matters were to be discussed, Geoffrey was one of those good envoys. 

Three for the French host and three for the Venetians armed themselves, mounted up, and went into the city, in some fear for their lives. At the palace, they left their horses and were brought to a room where the two emperors sat on a pair of thrones, many of their nobility about them. It was not Geoffrey who then spoke, but another, who was chosen for wisdom and eloquence. This was what he said:

Sire, we have come to thee on the part of the barons of the host and of the Doge of Venice. They would put thee in mind of the great service they have done to thee-a service known to the people and manifest to all men. Thou hast sworn, thou and thy father, to fulfil the promised covenants, and they have your charters in hand. But you have not fulfilled those covenants well, as you should have done. Many times have they called upon you to do so, and now again we call upon you, in the presence of all your barons, to fulfil the covenants that are between you and them. Should you do so, it shall be well. If not, be it known to you that from this day forth they will not hold you as lord or friend, but will endeavour to obtain their due by all the means in their Power. And of this they now give you warning, seeing that they would not injure you, nor any one, without first defiance given; for never have they acted treacherously, nor in their land is it customary to do so. You have heard what we have said. It is for you to take counsel thereon according to your pleasure.

And did all of this enamour the envoys to their Byzantine hosts? Shockingly, it did not. All present were appalled. They were “amazed and outraged,” that these outsiders would speak to their emperors so, and in their own hall too. Dark were the looks they now gave Geoffrey and his companions in the clamour that erupted. But they did not attack. 

The envoys made their very uncomfortable way back to the safety of the encampment, feeling, I’m sure, the prickling sensation at their backs that might turn to swords or arrows at any moment, listening for the shouted orders that they be taken or killed on the spot, and looking warily at the angry locals who might as easily form a mob, no matter their leaders’ intentions. They passed through the gates with relief and then out of the range of the walls and to safety, where they informed the leadership of what had transpired. 

Robert tells us that after the emperors made this last refusal to pay what was owed, Dandolo made one last attempt to speak with Alexius. “What thinkest thou to do?” he asked of the young emperor. “Wilt thou not hold at all to our agreement, nor fulfill any more of them?” And when Alexius answer that he would not fulfil any more than he already had, the doge responded with anger. “Wilt not?” he snapped. “Naughty lad. We have raised thee off the dunghill, and on the dunghill will we cast thee back again!”  

The way forward now was clear, and the crusaders were, again, going to be attacking the city of Constantinople. But in whose interest was it for them to do such a thing? Not that of the people of the city. Nor, in large part, the crusaders. Only, it has been argued, in that of the Venetians whose doge, now hit on a much more ambitious goal than throwing in against the Ayyubids: a creature of the Venetians on the imperial throne. 

It's a point with some merit, but to accept this “Dandolo as puppet master” is to reduce the other powers involved to homogenous units each having but one mind and will. There would have been plenty of people within the city who would have been quite pleased with what this crisis was doing to the emperors - we’ll be meeting one soon now - and likewise there would have been many outside of those walls who started to think about carving out something here for themselves, just a little further north than they might have planned back in France. For the more ambitious on both sides, the imperial throne was in play, and renewed warfare a pretty attractive proposition. 

That winter, as 1203 turned to 1204, skirmishes between the two sides were frequent, with Geoffrey claiming that his side’s casualties were always the lesser and Niketas saying that the results were much more mixed. No longer supplied by the emperor, the attacking forces scoured the countryside for food, and pillaged and burned churches, homes, and palaces. Still, Robert tells us, there was a great shortage of supplies, that wine sold for 12-15 shillings, a hen 12, and an egg for 2. Only of biscuit was there no such lack. Of that they had enough for the season.

The most dramatic blow of the conflict never really landed. “A great treachery,” Robert called it, but one that could have done irreparable damage to the crusaders. The plan took darkness; it took the right wind; it took, by Geoffrey’s count, seven ships. Those ships were filled with the driest of wood and pieces of pig fat, set alight, and sent across the straight, the wind carrying them towards the Venetian fleet. And they’d do it again two weeks later, the beginning of January, this time with more ships and their prows chained together. Both nights, the alarm was raised in time.

Geoffrey describes the heroism of the Venetian sailors in dealing with the threat, which he specifically notes that he witnessed. How from galleys and smaller boats they hooked the flaming ships and laboured to steer them away. How those not busy on the water formed up on land, thinking themselves about to be attacked. How the people of the city had come down to the shore in numbers without end to watch the drama unfold, “their cries ... so great that it seemed as if the earth and sea would melt together.” And if the noise and heat, the chaos, were not enough to deal with, these spectators put to boats themselves and peppered the Venetians with arrows as they worked. Still, in all this confusion, the Venetians managed to maneuver the weaponized ships into the current, and the sun would rise over those burning wrecks being carried away without harm, save for one Pisan ship and those wounded by arrows.

This would seem to be a bit of last effort on the part of our emperors. If Niketas is to be believed, they had hardly involved themselves in the defence of they city at all anyways. Alexius in particular may not have wanted to act in violence against his former protectors, especially Boniface, who he had been closest to, or maybe the two had simply lost their grip on the levers of power. Either way, power was about to be wrenched away from them entirely, and in Byzantine politics, there were no easy retirements.

But first, a quick pause.

In the final days of January, 1204, opposition to the emperors came to a boil. Everyone knew that they had to go, but the question remained as to what was to be done. Senators, clergy, and other leading citizens came together in the Hagia Sophia. Niketas was there, and looked on, sickened by what he saw. All were of the same mind, but at a loss as to who they should nominate as their new leader. They knew full well, Niketas says, that whoever it was would quickly be killed. And he himself kept his silence; he knew the faults of men, he said, and allowed bitter tears to roll down in his face, for he foresaw that nothing good was to come for his people. 

The congregation cast about for someone to take up the leadership, apparently so desperate to do so that they tried to press it on anyone of nobility who would have it. But none would. One nominee even took on the costume of a monk to escape their attention, Finally, on the third day of this, the title was given to a young man named Nicholas, against his will. And you might be wondering what Alexius was doing during all of this. He was not so isolated that he had not heard of what was happening. He sent one last time for the help of Boniface, arranging, Niketas says, to have crusaders brought into the palace to secure his safety, but his chamberlain acted first. 

This man has been in and around the story for a while now, and his name, most inconveniently, was also Alexius. This was the new, new Alexius, but he’s often known by the name Mourtzouphlos, a reference to his heavy eyebrows which met in the middle. Mourtzouphlos was descended from the Komnenian emperors who had dominated the 12th century, and he had been imprisoned under the old, old Alexius and then freed by Isaac in what reads as one of the earliest acts in Isaac’s second go as emperor. He was credited with showing leadership and bravery in opposing the Latins over the winter of 1203-1204, and even by Niketas who pretty clearly had no love for the man that, though not part of this story, had him pushed him from office. And then, when an opening presented itself, Mourtzouphlos took it. 

He shook Alexius awake with news that his people had risen up; they were coming to kill him. And this wasn’t a rushed act of rashness on his part. He’d already set the table. He’d been the one to transmit Alexius’ request to Boniface, and he’d used it against his emperor. None of the nobility who he’d shared it with would defend Alexius now. He’d won over the eunuch in charge of the treasuries, a weak man fond of ill-gotten gains if Niketas is anything to go by, and he’d lined up the Varangian Guard too. So all was ready when he convinced a sleep-befuddled Alexius that everyone from blood-relations to the ax-wielders were at his doors, making a furious assault and wanting nothing more than to tear him to pieces with their hands. The emperor quickly agreed to be covered with a long robe, and led away “to safety” by a little-known side entrance.

A grateful Alexius is to have softly sung from the Book of Psalms, “For in the day of mine afflictions he hid me in his tabernacle; he sheltered me in the secret of his tabernacle.” But then, as the reality of his situation became clear, “His lips are deceitful in his heart, and evil has he spoken in his heart,” and then, his legs in chains, “To me spoke peaceably but imagined deceits in their anger.” 

He was poisoned, three times Geoffrey says, “but it did not please God that he should thus die, so he was then strangled,” the whole process an indication, I think, that Mourtzouphlos still had reason to care about appearances, that he didn’t feel able to simply throttle the emperor in his chamber and get away with it. And some writers have Alexius lingering on a little more, the strangling occurring only after other events had taken place, and the subtler attempts had failed. Geoffrey also notes that Isaac took ill from fear around this time, and of his illnesses died, but it’s very possible that he was poisoned too. Either way, they were out, and the new Alexius was in, and acclaimed as emperor in the palace while poor Nicholas, he who’d had the title forced upon him the church, was taken and his head cut off. The reign of Alexius V had begun. 

In him, the city now had a much more vigorous defender, and they were going to need it. Maybe their assailants didn’t require another reason to attack, but they could certainly feel they had the moral high ground now. They weren’t attacking a former ally. Now it was a treacherous usurper, a murderer who had unseated what they had put in place, no matter that they had intended to do much the same. During winter, they had been cut off from assistance, supplies, and the promise of help to come in the Holy Land, and the prospects for actually getting to that place were looking particularly bleak. The clergy, including those who spoke for the pope, made it known that “any one guilty of such a murder [as Alexius V was] had no right to hold lands, and that those who consented thereto were abettors of the murder; and beyond all this, that the [people of the city] had withdrawn themselves from obedience to Rome.” The war was just, and those involved would enjoy the indulgences of crusade. 

However, some of the crusaders were going to need to take action in order to keep themselves in it. Food was in short supply and large numbers of horses had already been sacrificed. Foraging and raiding were dangerous necessities. Robert tells us, for example, that Henry, brother to Count Baldwin of Flanders, found himself in need of resources and, with a small body of men, went at night to a nearby city. He seized animals, food, and clothing, and dispatched it all by boat before heading back, but Alexius was waiting for him.

This was not an emperor in the mould of the former Alexius or his father. He was not waiting in his palace. Alexius V had heard word of Henry’s little outing and had arranged to ambush him on the return trip, at the entrance to a wood. But in the skirmish that followed, it was not Henry and his men who broke; it was the emperor’s. A wounded Alexius fled for his life with the crusaders in hot pursuit, losing his standard and his cloak in process. Worse, his patriarch had been struck a heavy blow on the head and lost the icon of Mary which accompanied an emperor when going to battle, a sign, Robert thought, that he had not the right to carry it. With those rich prizes, the crusaders were content, and they would parade before the walls of Constantinople with these tokens of their dominance, effectively disproving the boasts of victory that Alexius had spouted upon his return.

And maybe it was this victory that filled them with such confidence. They gathered to make plans, maybe also on how to actually take Constantinople, but that’s not what Geoffrey and Robert emphasized. The bulk of the meeting seems to have been concerned with what they would do after they took it. This was how the loot was to be divided. That was who should rule what land. This was how emperor and patriarch ought to be selected. They concluded that all would stay to serve the new emperor until the spring of 1205, and they swore on all of this on holy relics. 

They had it all worked out, but they were actually going to need to take the city first. The initial large-scale attacks that Geoffrey and Robert mention, occurred in early April. They were “a marvellous sight,” and they were concentrated on the harbour walls where the Venetians had before had some success. But they didn’t work. The ships brought their sky bridges against the walls and towers, but the wind on that day made it difficult to bring them close enough. Stones and other missiles from  the walls shattered the attackers’ siege engines or caused those by them to flee. Geoffrey even admitted that they lost more on that day than did the defenders, who, to quote Robert, “began ... to hoot and to shout right lustily; and they went up upon the walls and let down their breeches and showed them their buttocks.”  

Alexius had not wasted his time since taking power. Reinforcements had been brought into the city. Ditches had been dug near the base of the walls, making it difficult to bring siege engines against them. The walls and towers had been strengthened and were better protected than before, with wooden towers projecting over and out from the stone ones, so that the Venetian sky bridges no longer enjoyed the advantage of height. Venetian prisoners had been tortured to death in sight of their comrades. From his hilltop command position, overlooking events, Alexius  had his silver trumpets sounded and spoke boastfully to his people of his great success. The crusaders needed to reconsider. 

Some would have been just as happy to let the waters carry them away to the sea. Some wanted to approach the city at a different point, further along the walls where the defences were less formidable, but as the Venetians pointed out, the currents there would make this difficult. Instead, the doge or one of his men suggested the attacking ships be lashed together in pairs, so that two should be able to reach each tower, for at a one-to-one ratio, the men in the towers had enjoyed the advantage. They would take the weekend to refit, repair, and rest, and on Monday they would attack again.

They were downcast after their failure, and that Sunday, sermons were spoken throughout the camp, reassuring one large gathering after another that their cause was righteous, that their enemies were faithless traitors who were disobedient to Rome and God and had murdered their lord. They were, in the unfortunate terms that Robert puts it, “worse than Jews.” To attack them then “was no sin, but rather was it a good work and of great merit.” The crusaders, in other words, could go happily to battle in the knowledge that they were on the side of the good, and would prevail. They made their confessions, drove out the sex workers from their encampment, and made ready for the next day.

Again, the ships were brought close to the towers, and arrows and Greek fire launched up, but the fire took no hold on the tower’s leather coverings. From the wall, stones came hurtling down, but the Venetians had prepared for this and their ships were well protected by shelters of timber and vine. It was a stalemate. And Robert tells us how it was broken. 

He says that one particular ship, that of the Bishop of Soissons, was brought by the waves against a tower, and from it a Venetian managed to pull himself inside. But it was, then as ever, not necessarily the best thing to be the first off the boat, and he was promptly cut to pieces by the swords and axes of those within. However, the second man in the tower was a different matter. He dragged himself in, and, as had just happened, they fell on him, chopping away, but, being a fully armoured knight, he did not succumb. He rose to his feet like some 13th-century terminator. He drew his sword. And the astonished defenders ran. They fled down to the story below, which caused the fighters there to turn and run themselves. They didn’t know it was one armoured man upstairs, only that their comrades were in panicked flight, and the tower emptied out even as more attackers managed to make their way in at the top. 

A second tower was taken, and then more, but the men who had taken the towers weren’t willing to leave them. Despite their successes, they were still surrounded by their enemies, on the walls and below, and they had nowhere to go. 

That was when Peter of Amiens had seen their predicament, had come to shore with his men, and had spied an opportunity. There was a disused side-door, no longer a door really, just the walled up space where it once had been. That was where he attacked. 

He and his men hacked away with sword and axe, timber, bar, and pick, others behind them holding up shields against the efforts of those on the walls above. It was “a miracle of God that they were not all destroyed,” Robert says, and it sounds like it too, what with the bolts and great stones hurled down upon them in such quantities that it threatened to bury them, not to mention the pots of boiling pitch and Greek fire. Amazingly, in all that chaos, they cut a way through, they peered in, they found so many people on the other side that it seemed as if the entire world was there assembled. And they did not want to go in. 

But Robert’s brother Aleaume did. He’d been at the forefront of much of the fighting, and this was no exception. Robert told him not to go in. He insisted. When his brother still got down on hands and feet, he actually grabbed at his feet to pull him back. None of this stopped Aleaume though. He went on through, drew his blade, and if his brother is to be believed here, rushed at the first people he saw, driving them from the opening before calling on his friends outside to join him. 

And the emperor was close, close enough make a great show of spurring his horse at them in “don’t hold me back”/”DO hold me back” sort way, and then fleeing to safety within the city. 

Niketas’ account of all of this is surprisingly similar, of a pair of knights first leaping into one of the towers and frightening off the auxiliaries within. And of Peter and his men cutting their way through a gate and then scattering the would-be defenders, but he doesn’t credit Robert’s brother with this feat; it was the terrifying sight of Peter, unusually tall and wearing a helm that was shaped like a fortified city. To quote Niketas, “The noblemen about the emperor and the rest of the troops were unable to gaze upon the front of the helm of a single knight so terrible in form and spectacular in size and took to their customary flight as the efficacious medicine of salvation.” The attackers would not turn and run. So their opponents did.

The crusaders were now inside. They’d made their way in at three separate gates. The walls had been abandoned, and Niketas tells us that they “ran everywhere and drew the sword against every age and sex.” Constantinople lay open before them, it’s people no longer organized against them, but rather scattered, seeing to their own families, their own possessions, some burying what was valuable to them, others simply fleeing the city, for their assailants had never even hoped to surround it. 

The attackers were weary from fighting though. The day had been long, and they had no wish to be ambushed in the narrow streets. Better, they thought, to wait until the morning, to assemble again, and to offer battle in the open squares. So that’s what they did, taking food, and then passing the night there, just inside the walls. Passing the night in a state of some nervous excitement, I imagine, with every expectation that the day ahead would be a hard one, for many perhaps a final one.

Those who did manage to get some sleep, woke to yet more flames in the morning. Around the quarters of Boniface, certain people - Geoffrey claims not to know who. Others have since pointed to the men of a certain German count - had set defensive fires between themselves and the threat of attack, and once more, for the third time since the arrival of the Crusaders, Constantinople was burning. It had lost more houses, Geoffrey says, “than there [were] houses in any three of the greatest cities in the kingdom of France.” The city had suffered much. And it’s emperor, not for the first time, had had enough. 

When the crusaders assembled that morning, they found that there was to be no further fight, for Alexius V was gone. He had made a big show of readying to attack them the night before, but had then ridden in fear straight on out the Golden Gate, or so Geoffrey tells us. Niketas gives us a slightly different picture though. The emperor had gone about the city, making every effort to rally his people, but to no avail. They were done. He saw no need to wait around for whatever fate the Latins would assign him, so he slipped away on a small fishing boat, taking various imperial family members with him. A successor had been found immediately, but his efforts to muster some defence had also failed. So, unopposed, the crusading lords picked their palaces. 

As Geoffrey tells us, “Every one took quarters where he pleased and of lodgings there was no stint ... and greatly did they rejoice and give thanks because of the victory God had vouchsafed to them-for those who before had been poor were now in wealth and luxury.” But Robert grumbles that the rich and powerful of the host, “straightway began ... to deal treacherously with the lowly folk and to show them bad faith and ill comradeship.” And Niketas, of course, has a rather darker view of the proceedings. 

The populace, he says, moved by the hope of propitiating [the attackers], had turned out to greet them with crosses and venerable icons of Christ as was customary during festivals of solemn processions. But [the crusaders’] disposition was not at all affected by what they saw, nor did their lips break into the slightest smile, nor did the unexpected spectacle transform their grim and frenzied glance and fury into a semblance of cheerfulness. Instead, they plundered with impunity and stripped their victims shamelessly, beginning with their carts. Not only did they rob them of their substance but also the articles consecrated to God; the rest fortified themselves all around with defensive weapons as their horses were roused at the sound of the war trumpet.

What then, Niketas continued, should I recount first and what last of those things dared at that time by these murderous men?

For us those things will have to wait. I’ll be back next episode with the story of the sack of Constantinople, the looting, and one particular story, a travel story of sorts, that emerged from it. Thanks for listening, everybody. I’ll talk to you then. 


  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of TheFourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: TheHistory Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That TookConstantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise ofVenice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. Viking, 1995.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.

Geoffrey's Crusade 2: Imperial Virtues

The Fourth Crusade at Constantinople

In November of 1202, the people of Zara looked down and saw an army encamped at their walls and a fleet in their harbour, and they had no doubts as to their Venetian visitors intentions. So when the Zaran envoys sent down to the camp arrived at the doge’s pavilion, they came with a pretty clear grasp of the state of things. They came to submit themselves and their city to Venetian rule almost unconditionally; all they asked in return was that their people should not be killed. But even at such easy terms, the doge wouldn’t accept their surrender without consulting his allies first.

Dandolo left the Zarans, and in his absence, others came in to speak with them with words of encouragement. These were some of those who remained unhappy about the idea of attacking this city, and they assured the Zaran contingent that the crusading army was never going to do so, and that they had only the Venetians to worry about. If the Zarans could just resist them for a while still, then matters could be sorted out peacefully without their having to surrender. 

No doubt extremely heartened by this new information, the representatives of the city left immediately, so that when Dandolo came back to say that their submission would be accepted, he found them already gone. Geoffrey was probably there, in the pavilion, and our man in the room reports that in the confusion that followed, an abbot then stood, and he said, "Lords, I forbid you, on the part of the Pope of Rome, to attack this city; for those within it are Christians, and you are pilgrims." And the pope had forbade it too, on pain of excommunication, in a letter which may have just caught up to the crusaders. 

I like to imagine a pause here, a silence, a moment of processing and uncertainty, and then fury. Everyone shouting. The Venetians were enraged. They were about to physically attack the abbot, and maybe kill him, but the Count of Montfort stepped in their way. The doge meanwhile was yelling that he’d been betrayed. They’d stolen this city out from under him, and he demanded now that they honour their word. No threats of excommunication were keeping him and his people from what was theirs, and the crusaders had better do as they promised, especially after all those problems with paying their bills.

As had happened at every point of this story, there were some who would not go over this particular bridge. They were looking at trading a crusading indulgence for an excommunication, and then they were looking up at those walls and seeing the crucifixes which the Zarans had hung there like shields. It was just too much. They refused to take this city against the word of the pope. But there were too few of them, too few to carry the argument, and too few to justify Zaran confidence that all was as they'd been told: that these people would never attack them.

Because not many crusaders took themselves aside from what was to come. The Venetians were still there for what they believed was theirs, and the great bulk of the crusaders were also on board for this unpleasant but necessary action. 

Trenches were dug around and siege engines were put to work, while ladders were raised from the ships and sappers went in beneath the walls. The Zarans tried fighting back, and they tried appealing to papal authority to settle the argument. But they saw that neither were working and that their walls would not stand. After five days, on November 24th, they surrendered, and the city was taken, Venetians and crusades alike plundering and destroying with little sign of restraint. Some sources speak of relatively little loss of life while others are so full of bodies there were not enough left alive to bury them. 

The occupying force had a long winter ahead.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. As always, I at this time want to remind you that review and subscribing to Human Circus is how we stay out of debt with the Venetians, and that by your signing up to the Patreon for as little as $1 a month, we still get to keep all the goodly boats too. Now, back to the crusade.  

With Zara occupied, the crusaders and Venetians settled down to a no-doubt uncomfortable time. Indeed, both our sources speak of an ugly episode immediately following the taking of the city. 

The Venetians were to stay in the port, close to the ships, and the crusaders in another part of the city. But though he doesn’t say how it happened, Robert records that “a great contention arose betwixt the Venetians and the baser sort amongst the pilgrims, which lasted a full night and half a day,” and that it was difficult for the knights to separate them. Where they once managed to calm the fighting in one place, it would spark off again in another. Geoffrey called it a “a great misadventure in the host, at about the hour of vespers; … a fray, exceeding fell and fierce,” that raged in nearly every street, with “swords and lances and cross-bows and darts; and many people were killed and wounded.” One “high lord of Flanders ... was struck in the eye, and ... died ... and many another of whom less was spoken.” Eventually, peace was made, and the leaders on both sides worked to maintain it, and the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade relaxed into their Zaran winter.

The situation there had led to a flurry of communications with Rome. The king of Hungary had been enraged by the crusaders actions, but had still been willing to join them on their crusade if only they abandoned the city. When they had refused, citing their promise to the Venetians, he had called on the Pope to restore the city to his protection, and Innocent had responded in a most illustrative way. He had vigorously condemned the attack on the city, made against his explicit prohibition, and he had demanded that it  be returned immediately to its occupants and to the Hungarian king, but just as interesting was what he didn’t do. He did not act on his threats to nullify their indulgences or to apply excommunication. As angry as he was, he did not actually want them to go home.

So as letters were sent to Rome, seeking absolution, and Dandolo and the other leaders sorted out their next move, or, in other tellings, as Dandolo finessed the next step of his malevolent master plan into being, another storyline was starting to catch up to them. It had been building for some time in the background of all of this, but I didn’t mention it last episode, so let’s catch up on things now. 

For us, that means going back to April of 1195, to the Byzantine Emperor Isaac II, and to the treachery of his elder brother who had himself declared emperor while they were both hunting in the south of Thrace. Isaac was promptly blinded, a disfigurement which rendered one unfit for rule, but his son Alexius was not. Alexius and his blinded father seem to have been given a surprising amount of freedom by their power-seizing relative - maybe he felt a little bad about the whole thing - and they would put that freedom to use in getting Alexius out of there. By 1197, his sister Irene was in Germany and married to Philip of Swabia, contender for the crown of Germany, and Isaac and Alexius had a powerful ear in which to whisper for help. 

It was all arranged in secret, with the help of the young man’s tutor. They promised not to act against the emperor, but what were promises, made to a usurper? When the prearranged moment arrived in 1201, when Alexius was with the emperor in Thrace, he slipped away and onto a waiting Pisan merchant ship. His pursuers searched all the ships, his included, but they couldn't find him. He'd already changed his appearance, his hair and his clothes. He was mingling with the merchants, and, somewhat amazingly, there was nobody on hand who could identify him.

Alexius escaped, and he went to Germany with his tale of woe. He encountered Boniface of Montferrat, who you’ll remember from last episode as the leader of the crusade, and Boniface would have been very interested in what Alexius had to say. Boniface had his own family history where Constantinople was concerned. His youngest brother had died of Byzantine imperial politics, and his older brother had been caught up in it too, and come away from it feeling cheated, at least until his assassination in Tyre. There seems to have been no immediate offer of help from Boniface though, or from his lord and cousin, Philip of Swabia, and so Alexius moved on to Rome.

There, before Innocent III, the young Byzantine noble found even less assurance. The pope was not prepared to back him, or to believe too easily that the boy before him was universally beloved among his people. But despite these failures to win support or arms for his bid to return home, the cause of Alexius was soon to be that of the moment.

According to Robert de Clari, morale among the men was very low that winter. They’d gone against the pope to take this place, deeply resented their Venetian “allies,” and had already exhausted such money and supplies that they wondered how they could possibly carry on to Alexandria, or Syria, or anywhere really. As it was, what could they accomplish if they did? And the Venetians, meanwhile, were no happier. They’d sustained by far the higher losses in the recent brawling, and were still yet to be paid by their adversaries in that fight.  

Have hope, the Venetian doge had urged them all, in Robert’s telling; there was very rich and abundant country in Greece, and if they went there, they would restore themselves for wherever they wished to go next, if they could but “find a reasonable occasion for going thither.” Indeed, all they needed was a “reasonable occasion,” and that was the cue for Boniface, who had recently rejoined the party, to step up and to speak. He told of having been in Germany and having met a very intriguing young man, “brother to the wife of the Emperor of Germany, ... son of the Emperor Isaac of Constantinople, from whom one of his own brothers had taken away the empire by treachery.” Whoever had this young man with them, Boniface continued, would have their reasonable occasion. They would have great ease of passage into Constantinople and whatever supplies they should possibly want or require.

Robert has the eager host then sending two knights to Germany to ask after the young man in question, and he graciously accepting their proposal at his brother in law’s urging, but Robert was, as we talked about last episode, not always in on all that was going on. Geoffrey tells us that two envoys came from Philip of Swabia and Alexius and that they spoke to Dandolo and the other leaders in the Zaran palace where the doge was staying, and that they made the following proposal.

If the crusaders would reunite Alexius with his imperial inheritance, then he would pay them 200,000 silver marks and food for all; he would accompany them onwards on their crusade and provide 10,000 men for the purpose; he would submit to the rule of Rome, and he would establish a lifelong commitment of 500 knights for the defence of the Holy Land. It was a rich offer, but it was not met with immediate open arms.

It was argued vigorously over during a parliament the following day. A Cistercian Abbot, among others, would not have it; these men had not left their homes to fight Christians, and it was held that they ought instead to go to Syria and there do what they could. To this the other side replied that if they went straight to Syria then what they could do was precisely nothing; they need only look to what had become of those who had already left from other ports to see that. If the Holy Land was to be taken it could only be by way of Egypt or Constantinople. If they rejected Alexius’ offer, then their lot was to be shame to last for all time. 

Boniface, Robert says, was all for it, having his own reasons to want revenge on Constantinople and, the lord himself would later maintain, a realistic idea of the provisions the army needed. And Dandolo, he would have needed no encouragement. Maybe the chronicler Niketas was overdoing it by describing the doge as “a creature most treacherous and extremely jealous of the Romans [Byzantines], a sly cheat who called himself wiser than the wise,” but Dandolo knew very well how much a hostile Constantinople had hindered Venetian business, and just how much an emperor who owed them everything might help it flourish. And, like Boniface, he would have had some notion of the logistical requirements for moving forward, and also some desire for any plan that would see the crusaders able to pay their bill. 

The host was split though, laymen and clergy. Of the latter, Geoffrey says, some “prayed and besought the people, for pity's sake and the sake of God, to keep the host together, and agree to the proposed convention,” while others followed the Abbot of Vaux de Cernay in voicing their opposition. In the end, the deal was accepted, and a date set. Fifteen days after the coming Easter, they were to bring Alexius into Constantinople, but Geoffrey tells us that only 12 people of sufficient stature could be found willing to take the oath, among them Boniface, Baldwin, and Louis, and this did not bode well for the army which rested in Zara and waited on the spring. After this pause, we’ll hear what happened.


As Geoffrey puts it, “the hearts of the people were not at peace.” Knights left on embassy to Syria, swearing on relics to return, and never came back. Others slipped away on merchant ships, and 500 of these drowned from one ship. And then there was the fact that this was still an army engaged in hostile occupation, and if the crusaders felt that they had much greater affairs to see to in the future, the here and now of it all was still very much on the mind of the locals. One company that abandoned the host was reminded of this as they were ambushed attempting to leave overland; many were killed and the remainder forced to return. Others left more successfully. Simon of Montfort, Enguerrand of Boves, and the Abbot of Vaux de Cernay were all important figures who elected to fulfill their vows elsewhere.

It was not all bad though. They’d sent 4 envoys to see the pope about absolution - and one of those four had jumped ship himself - but the other three had done their job well. Word had arrived that Innocent understood entirely that it was only through the failure of others that the crusaders had been forced to such mischief. So they were scolded but absolved. However, you needed to repent in order to be excused and the Venetians were in no way repentant. They were excommunicated, but Innocent separately let it be known that the crusaders could, against normal rules, continue to accompany the severed-Venetians. What mattered now above all else, was to hold the thing together, and a series of “practical” compromises was being asked of all involved to do so.

Amazingly, an army did hold together through all this until the spring, when the time came to load up again on the ships. I suspect it came as a huge relief for the leadership to leave Zara behind and at last be moving forward, their view of the Venetians dismantling the city receding in the rear view mirror. For some, it was now closing in on a year since they’d first mustered in Venice, and the whole adventure had not yet lived up to its promise. 

The fleet’s first major port of call which the chronicles mention was the island of Corfu, off the coast of present-day Greece where it meets Albania. There they stayed for three weeks, and that was where most of the army had their first look at their imperial saviour. They heard of his coming, and they came down to greet him “with great joy and great honour,” and Robert reports that, understandably, “he was glad as no other man ever was.” Corfu also brought a reminder that this army was really not an army in the modern sense, with cohesion and clear command structure because on Corfu, again, it almost came apart, as a large body of men, perhaps even half, took themselves apart from the rest and planned to call for ships to carry them elsewhere after the rest had departed. Only the intervention of Boniface, Alexius, and the other leaders rescued the situation, the lords and abbots falling to their knees in a tearful appeal to the malcontents and refusing to move until they had rejoined the host. 

If many of the crusaders were unhappy with the plan, Corfu showed also just how unhappy the people of Constantinople were going to be with having this Alexius foisted upon them. This was no return of a beloved prince; on the contrary, the locals bombarded the Venetians ships in the harbour. 

The fleet finally left Corfu with all aboard on May 24th, a day when the sky was clear and the wind in their favour, and the sight of sails and ships covering the waters filled Geoffrey with happiness, and likely the hope that this was all going to work out after all. 

They passed ships going the other way bringing home knights that had not joined them in Venice, and Geoffrey bitterly noted that they would not show their faces, save for one sergeant who had himself brought over and inspired the thought that “even after following a thousand crooked ways a man may find his way right in the end.”

On they went, overrunning the island of Andros by force, and then coming to the city of Abydos, where Troy had once stood at the mouth of the Hellespont, and its people, Geoffrey said, “had no stomach to defend themselves.” But of course they had no real capability to defend themselves against such strength. They would not have seen the straight as Geoffrey did, “in flower with ships and galleys” and “a great marvel to behold.” They would have only seen another wave of armed men washing up on their shores. As it was, the city was placed under guard and lost nothing, Geoffrey claims, but the crusaders still helped themselves to the winter-wheat in the fields before they left. Ahead of them now, was Constantinople.

And waiting there was Alexius’ uncle, the Byzantine emperor who, I should now mention, was also named Alexius. Now Emperor Alexius is not very kindly portrayed in the chronicles, and I don’t just mean they said he was a usurper who had his brother’s eyes put out. There’s the story that after first appearing before the people of the city as emperor in the Hagia Sophia, he was then thrown from his horse, his newly placed crown breaking on the ground where it landed - hardly an auspicious start. And then there was the time that, without apparent cause, the floor before the emperor’s bed had given way and several had fallen and been hurt, and one eunuch had actually died. As the chronicler Niketas records, “God guides the steps of some or trips them up.”  

Early hopes that Emperor Alexius’ rule would prove strong had long since been dashed, as it seemed that for all the effort he had exerted in winning the throne he then gave himself over to “lavish luxury and pleasure,” once it was his. That was the man that the fleet of Boniface, Geoffrey, Robert, and the rest was bearing down on, and he knew they were coming. 

He knew, but there was little he could or would about it. Niketas wrote that the emperor had been kept informed of the movements of the crusaders all along, but that, quote, “his excessive slothfulness was equal to his stupidity in neglecting what was necessary for the common welfare,” and when proposals were put to him for the defence of the city, “it was as though his advisors were talking to a corpse.” He had eventually ordered the imperial fleet made ready, but what a joke that was, for such a thing scarcely existed anymore. Its once awesome might had been frittered away. And that had been a process of decades, not to be laid at his feet alone, but he’d done nothing to help matters. Even in 1171, already in decline, they’d put forth 150 galleys against Venice. Now, the man in charge was his empress’ brother in law, a man with a much greater gift for enriching himself and upending political opponents than for putting boats into the water, so that when the call came, far too late, to mobilize, only 20 ships were to be found, and those “rotting and worm eaten.” The emperor was just going to need to trust in those walls, which had held out so many for so long.

Our Robert was just approaching walls. The ships had been decked out to be as grand a sight as possible, and as it approached - with the transports out front propelled by oars and then the galleys under sail - the people of the city looked down on the fleet from walls and from rooftops, according to Geoffrey, “so many people ... that it seemed as if there could be no more people (in the world).”  They “looked upon it with wonder,” Robert says, but I’m sure there was more than a little trepidation too, for these people’s experience of their Latin Christian cousins had often been unpleasant. Below on the waters, the crusaders in turn gazed up at “the greatness of the city which was so long and so broad.” For many of the Venetians it was a familiar enough sight, but for others it would have been entirely overwhelming, and they perhaps wondered if they had made the right decision in coming there after all. From Geoffrey, we read:

Now you may know that those who had never before seen Constantinople looked upon it very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in all the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces, and mighty churches of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes-and the height and the length of that city which above all others was sovereign. And be it known to you, that no man there was of such hardihood but his flesh trembled: and it was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the creation of the world.

And with that modest assessment, they took harbour at Chalcedon, across the water.

In the days that followed, they settled in very comfortably, the counts and barons in an imperial palace, apparently “one of the most beautiful and delectable that ever eyes could see,” while others were about the houses of the city or, for the larger part, in tents. They watched at first as missiles launched at their ships fell short into the waters. They foraged - Geoffrey says that “those obtained supplies who needed them, and that was every one in the host,” so we can imagine life was pretty grim for the local inhabitants. They had a little skirmish, small but enough for those involved to bring back horses, tents, and other spoils, and to feel good about themselves. 

They received an envoy from the emperor, a native of Lombardy named Nicholas Rosso, who, on behalf of his lord, expressed surprise to find such worthy men there, on his land. What were they doing there? To this they replied that they were not on his land at all, as he had seized it wrongfully, that he could simply submit to the mercy of his nephew, who was among them, and that if Rosso was not returning with word that the usurper would do so, then he need not come again at all. And he didn’t.

Next, the crusaders decided to play the Alexius card. They were still certain that much of the city must want to welcome Alexius as their rightful emperor. Robert credits Dandolo with the suggestion. Take the young man on a ship, the doge is to have said; bring him close to the shore under truce, and “ask the folk of the city whether they will acknowledge the youth as their lord.” But people should not ask such questions, if they are not confident of the answer. 

The youth was loaded aboard and shipped out along the walls for all to admire, and the good people of Constantinople were invited to recognize their true emperor:

“Behold your natural lord;” Geoffrey has it said, “and be it known to you that we have not come to do you harm, but have come to guard and defend you, if it so be that you return to your duty. For he whom you now obey as your lord holds rule by wrong and wickedness, against God and reason. And you know full well that he has dealt treasonably with him who is your lord and his brother, that he has blinded his eyes and reft from him his empire by wrong and wickedness. Now behold the rightful heir. If you hold with him, you will be doing as you ought; and if not we will do to you the very worst that we can." 

Then, in a delightfully Pythonesque turn, the people actually refused to recognize the fellow being paraded before them; they claimed to know nothing at all of this young man on the boat and instead heaped abuse on he and his Latin companions. The crusaders were left with no other option than to go away and to prepare to do the very worst that they could. 

Masses were spoken. Wills were drawn up, many men taking what could be a last opportunity to make gifts that would tip the scales of judgement in their favour. They crossed the waters and landed on the shore, what opposition there was melting away at the lowering of lances. They looted the enemy’s abandoned pavilions, and they camped in the Jewish quarter with an eye making the tower of Galata their next step, for there, the north end of the great chain preventing entry into the harbour was fixed. Plans were made to take it the following day

Going by Geoffey’s depiction, there was a sortie made by the defenders of the tower, and supported by forces from the city on barges. He speaks of a certain James and his men taking the initial brunt of the attack and of James himself taking a lance to the face before the general alarm was raised and men rushed in from all directions, killing several, and driving the others back. Many of the tower chose in retreat to opt for the barges rather than getting back in the tower. Some drowned in the attempt, but others made it. Those rushing back for the tower found the attackers pressing in too close upon them to get close the gates. There was a “terrible fight,” Geoffrey says, before the tower was taken, its defenders killed or made prisoner. 

By his accounting it had been a heroic action, but then he was a heavily invested participant. By the reckoning of Niketas, it was, quote, “a sight to behold the defenders fleeing after a brief resistance,” and it must be said that though he is highly critical of the man at the top, the chronicler does find space for complementary words as to the efforts of the defenders themselves.

However fiercely the defenders had fought, the tower was lost, and with it that defensive chain, which was promptly broken. The Venetian ships swarmed into the harbour and quickly captured the vessels that lay within. Conquering Constantinople had proven impossible for nearly 900 years, but it seemed to be all going easily enough so far. After this pause, we’ll hear what happened next.

There’d been some discussion of how exactly the attack on the city might be done. The Venetian doge favoured an assault by sea with something like siege towers employed to go from boat to wall, but the French knights, understandably, were less enthusiastic about swaying about over the sea. They would feel much better to have their horses and solid ground beneath them. So a compromise was reached: they would have cake and pie. The Venetians would go by water, the French by land, and all was made ready.

On the boats, the siege ladders were prepared, the elevated bridges which could be raised and lowered by cables bound to the masts, and mangonels and petraries to bombard the walls, while on land they were laying out their own siege engines, palisades, and barricades, with one division on guard towards the gates at all times, and six or seven times a day all being required to rush to arms against raiders. They “could not sleep,” Geoffrey said, “nor rest, nor eat, save in arms.” 

The attackers were under pressure, and not only from what might come out of the gates. They had but a little flour and salted meat, and fresh meat only when a horse was killed; there was food enough, Geoffrey reckoned, for just three weeks. They were ill-prepared, astonishingly so for an army that was threatening Constantinople, and the clock was ticking. Food aside, how long would that half of their number who’d wanted to jump ship going to stick around? They’d wanted out on Corfu. Were they likely to stay for a grinding siege?

Perhaps accelerated by concerns such as these, on July 17th, the attack on the city properly began. Three of the French divisions held back to guard the camp, while four went forward against the walls, swarming around a battering ram and up ladders. They clashed with Pisans and the ax-wielding Varangian Guard. Fifteen or so set foot on the walls, fighting with sword and axe, but they were cast down or made prisoner. Others breached the wall and into a passageway, but were repulsed. It was, by Niketas’ words, a “horrendous battle … fraught with groaning on all sides,” and there were many wounds and broken bones. 

Meanwhile, their Venetian colleagues were also facing resistance. Their ships, covered with ox-hide against fire, formed up in a line where the walls met the shore, and the sky above them swarmed with projectiles. Arrows, crossbow-bolts and stones flitted between ship and wall. The line closed enough at times that those elevated bridges were brought within reach for lance or sword to cross, and there was “tumult and noise ... so great that it seemed as if the very earth and sea were melting together,” but the men of the ships were wary of going to close to shore. Until their doge made another intervention, the one for which he is perhaps most legendary. 

Sensing the timidity of his side’s attack, Dandolo, standing at the prow, clad in armour, and St Mark’s banner in hand, ordered his ship to advance to the fore as an example to the others. He shouted down the querulous objections of those around him and stood undeterred by the the arrows whistling around him. Then, as his ship reached shore, the blind 90-something year old lept nimbly down to solid ground, the first man on the beach, and planted his banner there in the sand. Seeing their doge so fearless, his men followed with enthusiasm. 

And this almost certainly is not how it happened, but it still gets repeated here and there. However, we can actually see the seeds of such a story in Geoffrey’s account, which is admittedly that of a man who was very busy elsewhere at the time. His version starts in a similar place, with the Venetians hesitant to advance, but Enrico doesn’t swim to shore in full armour and bearing a cross, or anything of the sort; what he does do is insist that his ship, with its very, very distinctive colour and appearance, rush to the shore; he does threaten “justice upon [his people’s] bodies with his hands” if they failed to comply; and he does stand at the prow with his banner as it surges forward and stirs the others to follow. Maybe this version of the story is still an embellishment, but it is rather more believable. 

Whatever brought them rushing to the walls, the Venetians quickly found success, and Geoffrey wasn’t sure exactly how it had happened. “A strange miracle,” he called it, that the defenders fled from the walls and abandoned them to the attack. From Niketas, we get a less miraculous explanation: they’d actually been able to shoot and strike down on the walls from those elevated bridges and made easy work of it from such superior positions. Soon, the Venetians were able to spread out and to take 25 towers. And for just a moment then, a pretty long moment, the city seemed as if it were theirs. 

They were atop the wall and looking out over it all, sending for the French knights to come quickly, and they ventured in, taking horses and other spoils, but they couldn’t go far into that vast city. They were too few, and would be lost and easily overcome in the streets, and they could see, among other things, the mass of fighters that were headed their way, too many for them to possibly hold back. Pulling back, they set a wall of flames among the buildings before them. Then they watched as the wind picked up from their backs and drove the fire before it, deeper in the city, so that they could no longer see their opponents through the smoke and the blaze, and a vast area was soon consumed by it.

For all this success, their allies on land would not be answering the call to join them, for the crusaders had now poked at the wasps’ nest with their stick long enough that an imperial army had come out to answer their challenge. Whether it was because of the damage to the palace from flying stones, the smoke wafting in from the Venetian-sparked fires, the scorn of his people, or some other reason, Emperor Alexius had finally shifted himself. He had left what Niketas described as the “apartments of the Empress of the Germans,” and he had come out into the world to get involved.

A “huge array,” Niketas called the army that went out with him, of “the flower of the city,” a sight to make his enemies shudder, and the testimony of Robert and Geoffrey does not dispute this. His army poured forth from multiple gates, making it “seem,” Geoffrey said, “as if the whole world were there assembled,” while Robert, getting a little carried away, saw one hundred thousand horsemen, and all the footmen of the city lined before the walls.

The crusaders for their part, formed up in three division before their camp, first archers and crossbowmen, then mounted knights, then sergeants and squires with a group of 200 hundred knights who went without horse. They formed up towards the emperor but didn’t advance, for to do so would have been to be enveloped and lost. The other four divisions were set to guard the camp, and, in an indication of how seriously the threat was taken, these were joined - guarding one side it seems - by every kitchen-knave and common fellow they could muster, wrapped in saddle cloths and armed with copper pots and pestles so that they were, apparently, horrible to look at..

At this point, Geoffrey describes a prolonged standoff, neither side too willing to close with the other, but Robert has a slightly different story. He was among the three divisions directed towards the emperor’s men, those of the Count Baldwin of Flanders, his brother Henry, and that of Count Hugh of Saint-Pol, where Robert’s lord Peter of Amiens was, and he gives us a look at the operation of this army in action. 

Baldwin’s division had the vanguard, and they began to ride towards the emperor, and Hugh’s and Henry’s divisions followed, all shining in “emblazoned trappings or with silken cloth,” and companies on foot behind each. They advanced, and the emperor’s people came forward to meet them, but as Baldwin had left the camp and its army a full two crossbow shots behind him, his advisors spoke up. Better to go no further, they pointed out. If they were to close with the enemy here, there would be no help for them. Much better to withdraw towards the palisades and let the enemy come to them if he was willing. 

Thinking the advice good, Baldwin and his division wheeled about, and his brother Henry’s did also, but that of Hugh of Saint-Pol, where Robert was, did not. He and his men remained in the field, as they were, and Hugh’s people shouted that Baldwin had surrendered the vanguard shamefully and that they ought to take it. Now Baldwin, seeing they hadn’t moved, sent a messenger, asking them to turn back with him, but Hugh would not. And Baldwin sent more messengers, asking for God’s sake that they not bring shame on him for doing as he was advised, but rather turn back and join him. But again, Hugh would do no such thing. Instead, a shout went up from the two leaders of his division that they should ride forward at full speed, and so they did.

Robert was among them as they charged, and he allowed himself in recording this moment, to slip into fantasy a little, and imagine that the ladies of the palace had gone up to the windows and looked down at he and his comrades and said to one another that they seemed as angels, “such goodly men were they.” 

Now Baldwin’s knights said to him that he was doing a most shameful thing by not immediately riding after Hugh, and that if he did not move himself immediately, then they could follow him no longer. So, of course Baldin did as they said. With Henry’s division following, he and his men gave chase, pulling even with Hugh and moving ever closer to the emperor’s men. The counsel had been for them to pull back, keep tight and together, and let the enemy come to them, but now, in their efforts to outdo one another, they had far outstripped any support and were close enough that crossbow shots began to be exchanged. 

As Baldwin and the others crested one last hillock, they halted, the enemy before them on the other side of a canal, also stopped in their tracks. What to do now? Discussions were had among the leaders. Their distance from the camp and any possible reinforcement was no more helpful now then it had been before, and having rushed all the way over there, actually attacking didn’t look like a good option. What were they to do? 

As they considered their options, the decision was taken out of their hands. The emperor, apparently without a blow being struck, was going to withdraw.

What bitterness it must have been to be looking out from Constantinople just then. Niketas wrote that “a work of deliverance would have been wrought had the emperor’s troops moved in one body against the enemy, but now the nagging idea of flight and the faintheartedness of those about him thwarted Alexius from what needed to be done. To the joy of the Romans [of Constantinople] he drew up the troops in battle array and moved out, ostensibly to oppose the Latins, but he returned in utter disgrace.”

According to Robert, there was a “great murmuring” in the city then that if this emperor of theirs would not take up arms on their behalf and protect them from the crusading army, then perhaps they would go and take another look at that young man, for maybe they’d rejected him too soon. And Emperor Alexius assured them that he would do as they asked. He would fight the invaders. He would fight them tomorrow. However, that’s not what he did. Instead, he made for the palace and made ready his escape. He gathered gold and gems and pearls. It’s possible that he really intended to use them to gather some reliable mercenaries, having no faith in his own troops beyond the Varangian guard and Pisans, who were too few in number to carry the day themselves. But he would not be returning. 

Outside the walls, the crusaders returned to their camp. They laid aside their arms and armour. They were “weary and overwrought.” First the combat at the wall and then the tension of the standoff against what all sources seem to indicate were overwhelming numbers, would have been exhausting. They joyfully exchanged news of the doings of the day with the Venetians, but they did not eat or drink much, for their stocks were now too scarce for that. 

They did not know that as they dreamed, that the emperor was abandoning his city. That he made off from the palace in the middle of the night, and that in the morning, the sun would rise on a very different world, where they were concerned, one in which the imperial throne would be vacant and Alexius gone.

As Niketas wrote, “it was as though he had laboured hard to make a miserable corpse of the city.” He was a “miserable wretch among men,” the chronicler continued, “neither softened by the affection of children nor constrained by his wife’s love, nor … moved by such a great city.” But Niketas had some surprisingly kind words for the now former emperor too. If he had been excessively concerned with comforts, he had not been such a bad sort in other ways. He was mild of temperament, and accessible to any who wished to speak to him, and “sometimes, one could contradict him without placing restrictions on oneself in speech.” He had little time for slanderers or flatterers, and he had been forever stricken by guilt for what he had done to his brother, and that had apparently affected him deeply. Niketas continues:

“If it be exceedingly difficult for emperors not to cut down the ears of corn which overtop the rest, and not to leap brutally upon those who have offended them, then one could see that Alexius was rich in such virtue. He did not drive a stake into the eyes to implant darkness or prune the limbs of the body as though they were grapevines, to become a butcher of men. As long as he wore the gloom-stained purple, no woman put on black. Neither did fire flash from his eyes like rays from gems, nor did he abuse others with insults so that teardrops the size of round pearls should fall.”

And that is where we’ll leave things for today. Next episode, we’ll meet the new emperor. Maybe even more than one, for Constantinople could be a tricky place to rule. Thanks for reading. 


  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: The History Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That Took Constantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.

Geoffrey's Crusade 1: Venetian Appointments

Siege of Zara

In his 1978 book, The Fourth Crusade, Donald Queller opens with the following words of Francesco Guicciardini:

If you consider the matter carefully, you cannot deny that Fortune has great power over human affairs. We see these affairs constantly being affected by fortuitous circumstances that men could neither foresee nor avoid.

It’s an interesting way to start the history of a project that has generally been framed as an unmitigated disaster, a project that left the rails early and never returned to its station, but just kept ploughing along up to the point it ran out of momentum within the ruined walls of Constantinople. Was this all just the work of Fate? Had the human beings involved no control over the matter at all? 

Some observers, many even, have seen quite distinct human-agency at work, a nefarious hand steering the entire enterprise for self-serving purposes, to the misery of many. But the story seems less clearly one-sided to me. It seems more a tragic series of ongoing blunders, miscalculations, overconfident commitments, and yes, people using other people, until it all collapsed.   

Could they have foreseen it? Could they have avoided it? Surely, there was a time when they might have, but as we’ll see, the participants in our drama pursued their goals within a narrowing field of options, the cruel logic of the moment carrying them along towards an end which most involved would never have chosen.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. I remind you at this time that rating, reviewing, and, for as little as one dollar a month, signing on to the Patreon, is how we extricate ourselves from the khan’s drunken embrace; and that you can find the link to the Patreon, and all other things Human Circus, at On that note, a special thank you to Mark, the newest member of the Human Circus patreon family. Your support is hugely appreciated. And now, back to the story.

As I’m sure you’ve realized, we’re onto something new with this episode. This isn’t Marco Polo, but it is a topic we briefly touched on at the beginning of the Marco Polo series, and it certainly does concern his birthplace. Today, I’ll be talking about the Fourth Crusade, a massive military misadventure by most measurements and an unpleasant confirmation of all the people of Constantinople had grown to suspect of their Latin Christian visitors. It would never reach its stated goal of Ayyubid Egypt, but it would have serious consequences, not the least of which was the hastened demise of the Byzantine Empire. 

I’m not going to be exhaustive about the crusade here. Instead, in keeping with how I usually do things, I’ll loosely be following the story of an individual, or in this case two. You’ll be getting the lead up to the Fourth Crusade from the perspectives of Robert de Clari and Geoffrey de Villehardouin, the former a common knight from Picardy, the latter the Marshal of Champagne, a leader, and fortunately for us, a chronicler who gives us access to events at the level of command. Together, they give us a bit of a picture of what it was to go on crusade at the dawn of the 13th century, and they take us up to the story I want to tell next. “Here,” to quote the report of Robert, “beginneth the history of them that took Constantinople, and presently we will tell you who they were and for what cause they went thither.”

But we need to take few steps back before any of that. We should know that at this point there were crusader states all along the Syrian coast. There was the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which held sway over Beirut, Tyre, Acre, Caesarea, and Jaffa, but crucially, not Jerusalem itself. That had been taken by Salahuddin in 1187, and had not been won back in the Third Crusade. 

We should know that in the city of Rome, on the 8th of January, 1198, Pope Celestine III had died. He was 92 years old and had been pope for the last 7 of them, having attempted to step down from his position just the year before. Into his place stepped Lotario dei Conti di Segni, better known now as Pope Innocent III. 

Innocent was in his 30s then, a distinctly youthful change from his predecessor, and he began his papal reign energetically. When he wrote to the Patriarch of Jerusalem with news of his elevation, he was already announcing his intent to take back the Holy City, and it wasn’t only empty words either. Soon he was acting on that promise. He declared a new crusade in August of that summer, and set a date of March, 1199 for the campaign to begin. He deliberately excluded the kings of Europe, who he did not want exerting too much control over the operation, and he called for all barons, counts, and towns to provide men and to supply them for two years. He extended the usual offers of indulgence for those who took the cross or contributed, and also protection for participants’ worldly goods while they were away. He named legates, and he imposed a tax upon the clergy. But the results of all these efforts were distinctly underwhelming. It maybe have been relatively easy time to assert papal authority, but it was a difficult one in which to raise an army. 

Europe was divided. Of course it was; always was. But here, France and England were at war with each other, as were Genoa and Pisa, and Germany was at war with itself, with Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick struggling over the imperial throne. There are indications that the clergy resisted the taxation attempts, and neither blood nor treasure were pouring into the war chest as the Spring of 1199 deadline rushed up and was gone. Innocent was disappointed, but a light was flickering on in France which would turn things around.

On the outskirts of Paris, a preacher was making a name for himself. Fulk of Neuilly, as he was called, was filling the streets with his enthusiastic listeners, and a contemporary called him “another Paul.” He railed against usury, lechery, and the concubinage of the clergy, picking out offenders right there in the crowd. And he preached Innocent’s crusade.

With Innocent’s approval, Fulk went to work, extending his reach well beyond the suburbs of the city and enlisting men, some nobles, but mostly the poor, thousands of whom signed up at his urging. And then, at a late November tournament at Ecry, in Northern France, the host, Count Thibaut de Champagne, and his cousin, Count Louis de Blois, took the cross, and took the other attending knights along them. With those two grandsons of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine officially on board, the floodgates opened. Innocent’s crusade was behind schedule, but it was gaining momentum.    

Both of our chroniclers open their stories by listing some of those notables to take the cross: Thibaut and Louis, who we’ve already met, and also Count Baldwin of Flanders, with his brother, and Count Simon of Montfort with his; the bishops of Soissons and Troyes, a bishop from Germany, the future Bishop of Acre; and many more knights, abbots, and monks than could easily be mentioned; lords are named from Burgundy, Champagne, Beauvais, the Ile-de-France, Flanders, and elsewhere. Robert lists those who would be most notable for their deeds and prowess, the rich of course, but also, interestingly, the poor - Hugh of Beauvais, Robert of Ronsoi, and so on.

If it’s Robert de Clari, much closer in station to a commoner, who provides the more inclusive list of crusaders, it is Geoffrey who gives us the details of what would happen next. He was by far the more senior of the two and personally involved in much that Robert could only piece together after the fact. 

He tells us that when the lords met at Soissons to make plans, they at first could come to no agreement. Many felt they didn’t yet have enough men. And so, the year 1200 passed, with more meetings taken every two months, but no immediate moves toward departure, until it was agreed at least that envoys should be selected to make the arrangements. There were to be two each chosen  by Thibault, Louis, and Baldwin, and these six representatives would be provided with sealed charters from the barons guaranteeing their commitment to carry out whatever agreement the envoys entered into, “in all sea ports, and [wherever] else the envoys might fare.” It was an open ended assignment to see about getting them all to the Holy Land, and conveniently for us, our Geoffrey was going to be one of Thibault’s chosen two. 

The envoys’ first decision was where to take their business. Genoa, Pisa, and Venice were all good possibilities to find transportation for a crusading army, each twice a year carrying men and supplies to the Levant, but Genoa and Pisa had for the time exhausted themselves in their wars against one another and there had besides been many complaints over the Genoans’ handling of Philip Augustus during the Third Crusade. Venice then, was to be the envoys’ selection and Geoffrey’s destination.

In the first week of Lent, February 1201, they arrived in the city of Venice and were welcomed by its Doge, Enrico Dandolo. He was “very wise and very valiant,” Geoffrey wrote. He was in fact very old too, perhaps in his 90s, and also at least partially blind. Some would come to say that he had been blinded by Manuel Comnenus of Constantinople, but this detail was probably added for dramatic effect later on. Dandolo would really  become something of a legendary character, and not just when it came to avenging blindings. He’s given parts of unlikely heroism in some depictions, while in others, he’s the manipulative villain with only the prosperity of himself and his city on his mind, a kind of criminal mastermind almost.

The man Geoffrey and the others met, was not yet any of those things. What was it they might want of him, he wondered aloud, upon reviewing the letters of their lords, likely having a pretty strong idea already why the barons of France might call upon his sea-going city, and when the envoys asked to appear before his council, and let it be tomorrow, he invited them to return in four days and make their wishes known.

On the fourth day, the envoys presented themselves at the palace, “passing rich and beautiful,” and found the doge and his council within. What did they want? That Venice should, “take pity on the land overseas and the shame of Christ, and use diligence that [their] lords have ships for transport and battle.” And how were the Venetians to use diligence? “After all manners that [they] may advise and propose,” the envoys responded, just so long as it was within the means of their lords to cover the cost. That was of course going to turn out to be a real problem, but for now Dandolo asked for eight days in which to consider the proposal, and the envoys took their leave. 

If it seems that Dandolo was really stringing his visitors along here, four to eight days at a time, know that this was no small bit of business for the Venetians. This was an all-in affair that would replace all others until it was done, requiring the total commitment of the city and its resources to this one cause. They’d be emptying their other baskets entirely to do this, and, if Geoffrey’s account is to be believed, the entire operation was going to be left to the Venetians to plan out. This is where we want to go, the would-be crusaders had told them; now show us what you can do. And after this brief pause, we’ll hear what the Venetians came up with.


As it happened, the Venetians could do quite a bit. When Geoffrey and the others returned on the eighth day, their meeting concluded with this: the Venetians would construct transport ships for 4,500 horses and 9,000 squires, ships for 4,500 knights and 20,000 “sergeants of foot,” and they would provide nine months of food for horses and men, at a price of four marks for four-leggers, two marks for two. In addition, if the crusading army would cut them in on 50% of their loot while the Venetians were with them, then they could also count on 50 armed galleys to accompany the fleet.

It was a serious contract, and the envoys, after taking the night to think it over, not nearly long or hard enough it would seem, went in to tell the Doge that they found it agreeable. Now, he just had to see if his people found it agreeable. He took the matter to his great council of forty, and then on to one hundred of his citizens, then two hundred, and then a thousand, building consensus before his grand piece of public theatre: an assembly of 10,000 in the Church of St Mark.

There, in what Geoffrey called “the most beautiful church that there is,” mass was said. Then the envoys themselves were brought to the front of the church, and Dandolo had them address the people, and humbly asked for what they wanted. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, the Marshal of Champagne, stepped forward, and he began to speak:

Lords, the barons of France, most high and [powerful], have sent us to you; and they cry to you for mercy, that you take pity on Jerusalem, which is in bondage to the Turks, and that, for God's sake, you help to avenge the shame of Christ Jesus. And for this end they have elected to come to you, because they know full well that there is none other people having so great power on the seas, as you and your people. And they commanded us to fall at your feet, and not to rise till you consent to take pity on the Holy Land which is beyond the seas.

The envoys went to their knees, openly weeping, and the doge, whether calculating or authentically moved, maybe both, burst into tears too, as did the entire assembly in a great display of shared emotion. “We consent! We consent!” they shouted, their hands raised. The doge took the front again, and gave a speech, all “good and beautiful words,” and the people left, happy and united. 

The next day, Geoffrey and the other envoys again met with Dandolo. The treaties were officially signed; the following year was chosen for their departure, when the “barons and pilgrims were to be in Venice, and the ships ready against their coming;” and a destination was set too. Geoffrey tells us that the council was told those ships would be headed for Egypt, but to the general public it was to be the much vaguer “overseas,” something they would surely take to mean a straight line to Jerusalem. The arrangements were forwarded on to Rome for the pope’s ratification, and the envoys, having borrowed enough money for an initial deposit, left for France. 

They had been successful in their mission, and a deal had been secured, but at what a cost, some 85,000 marks. With all that was going to happen later on, people often portray this agreement as the first of a series of cunning Venetian maneuvers bent on achieving a private self-serving goal, but actually their price was close to standard, as such things went, close to recent prices set by the Genoans for example. The prices per knight, horse, and squire were actually all reasonable enough. The problem was with how many were supposed to be involved. This wasn’t a “bring who you will, and we’ll build a fleet to match”-type situation; the Venetians were putting all they had into being ready to shift some 35,000 people, and they expected to be paid for it, whether 35,000 people really showed up or not. This was the agreement Geoffrey and the other envoys had signed on behalf of their lords, and they have to be considered at least partly responsible for this wild optimism, as do their lords who they represented. 

There were no mixed feelings on Geoffrey’s return, no hint that he’d signed the French barons up for something undesirable, something that was going to set the whole thing horribly off course. Maybe he, quite understandably, presented his actions in the best possibly light when the moment came to write things down. Or maybe nobody yet saw the implications, too full with the glory of what they were embarking on to consider it would be anything less than a thing of wonder. 

In his account, we do actually get a little taste of what was going to make things difficult for the crusaders. On his way home from Venice, he meets with a Walter of Brienn. Walter was off to Apulia to conquer the lands of his wife, and Geoffrey identified some of the best of Champagne going with him, knights who had all taken the cross. They told Geoffrey that they would be ready to join him when the time came, but they wouldn’t. 

As Geoffrey reflected on Walter’s case, “events fall out as God wills, and never had they power to join the host,” but Walter and the many knights who accompanied him didn’t just happen to be busy at that moment. Pope Innocent had enlisted them in his struggles in southern Italy with the House of Staufen. So it was that when all those knights were to be needed to make up the numbers in Venice, Walter would be fighting in Apulia, and in June of 1205, when the events of the Fourth Crusade had all played out, he was still going to be there in Italy to be surprised and killed in his own camp, he and his many much needed knights never leaving Italian shores. 

Geoffrey travelled on from this encounter to Troyes, where he found his lord Thibaut still entirely on board. Unfortunately, Thibaut was also sick, very sick, bedridden and slipping away towards the end. Count Thibaut was briefly revived by Geoffrey’s arrival and his news. He rose from his bed, and for the first time in a long time, mounted and rode his horse, but that would be the last time. He soon died, and on his tomb, the following words were inscribed:

Intent upon making amends for the injuries of the Cross

and the land of the Crucified

He paved a way with expenses, an army, a fleet.

Seeking the terrestrial city, he finds the one celestial;

While he is obtaining his goal far away,

he finds it at home.

Behind him, Count Thibaut left money for his friends and followers that they should, upon receiving it, swear on holy relics to join the gathering in Venice, but there were many among them, Geoffrey says, who kept that oath badly. They took the money made their promises, but they did not hold to them. Like the passing of Walter of Brienn into Apulia, they were very much the smoke of a fire still to come.

The death of Thibaut also left the issue of leadership to be arranged, and it wasn’t so simple as handing things off to Louis or Baldwin, or at least that’s not what they did. The crusaders likely viewed this as an opportunity to pull someone in, to dangle the prospect of the glory of command, with support and resources already attached, and to land a powerful baron who had not yet taken the cross, and with him, his many men. From Robert and Geoffrey we get different perspectives on quite how this went. 

Robert will tell us that the Marquis de Montferrat in Lombardy was sent for, and that he agreed to take his place at their head. But Geoffrey lets us know that the Marquis was not the first to be asked. The job had been offered around a little before coming to him. Odo, Duke of Burgundy, had said no, and so had another count, before Geoffrey, who often - perhaps fairly - takes on the role of wise counselor in his own narrative, suggested that they might ask Boniface, the Marquis de Montferrat, and that he would not refuse them. Geoffrey does not mention it, but he’d quite likely visited Boniface on his way home from Venice, and knew the marquis would not say no. 

In Boniface, the crusaders were getting a leader that was acceptable to their different factions, and to the pope. They were getting the son of a crusading family, and an experienced campaigner, and they were getting his many followers too.

Boniface came to the assembly in Soissons, in the abbey’s orchard, and the crusaders prayed he accept the leadership; they threw themselves at his feet, crying, and he threw himself at theirs. Maybe Geoffrey was romanticizing the scene a little here, reaching for a moment more chivalric than factual, but it really was a very emotionally demonstrative time. Either way, the fourth crusade now had a leader, and it had a rapidly approaching appointment to keep in Venice.

After Easter, the crusaders began to make their journeys, and “at their departure many were the tears shed for pity and sorrow, by their own people and by their friends.” They would have been making preparations for a long and potentially life-ending journey. Money would have been raised for the trip and affairs put in order at home. Some would have put thought to the state of their soul, what grievances might still be held in the balance against them, that they might now correct before it was too late. Others would have had second thoughts about going at all. They had perhaps first taken the cross in an outpouring of public enthusiasm, and at the encouragements of a passionate preacher like Fulk, but now they were alone with their own thoughts, and the whole thing was more real, and more immediate. 

At eight centuries distance, we might think these knights with their religious convictions and their sense of heroic virtue would be immune to such misgivings, having already given their word, but we would be mistaken. Raimbaut, troubadour and friend to the Marquis de Montferrat himself, agonized over the thought of leaving his love, Beatrice, and wavered between staying with her and staying loyal to his friend. He pictured the banners and the battle cries, and the heavenly rewards of dying in such a cause, but he was not entirely convinced. In the end, he would go, but not until 1203.

Those who did leave on time, reached Venice in the spring of 1202. For many, it would not have been a direct journey. They were on an extended pilgrimage, even if one that would culminate in violence, and they would have stopped on the way at sites like Clairvaux and Citeaux, strengthening their resolve at the homes of sacred relics. Arriving in Venice, they, quote, “saw the goodly fleet that had been made ready, the goodly ships, the great ... transports for carrying the horses, and the galleys, greatly did they marvel at these and at the great riches that they found in the city.” By Robert’s view of things, it was all pretty great and goodly, and the new arrivals settled themselves in among tents on the Isle of Saint Nicholas. 

With Geoffrey, however, the picture was not nearly so rosy. He knew that all wasn’t proceeding as planned, that the multitudes who had taken the cross were not pouring into the city as projected. Many of them were taking other routes; they were departing from other ports. Some likely suspected there would be problems, and looked to the muster in Venice before committing themselves, and of course by doing so they made of their concerns a reality. Even Count Louis of Blois, one of the initial leaders, held back in this way at first. Envoys were sent out to try to lessen the damage and “by encouragements and prayers” to convince any waverers that Venice was the still the best option to leave from. Geoffrey was, again, among these envoys. He persuaded Louis, and some other crusaders do seem to have been talked into sticking with the plan, but not all, and, as we’ll see, not enough. 

Some knights didn’t just skip the communal travel option. They failed to present themselves entirely. Geoffrey saves his bitterest words for these, people like those on the fleet from Flanders, those who had sworn on holy relics they would bring the fleet to Venice, and its cargo of cloth, food, and men at arms with it. They had not kept to their promises, and their captains were listed off by Geoffrey: John of Nêle, Castellan of Bruges, Thierri, and the rest. And there were other disappointments too: bishops, counts, Walter of Saint-Denis’ brother Hugh. Some would prove of little worth where they were going. Others were causing mission-crippling difficulties simply by not going at all. There were too few knights , and they had too little money.

Pope Innocent saw the problems well enough, but this was no longer his crusade. He ordered some of the knights biding their time in Lombardy to join the host in Venice, but to no great effect. His legate meanwhile arrived only in late July, and then was not allowed by the Venetians to join as a legate, but only as a common preacher. There were many hands on the wheel now, and the pope’s were not the strongest. 

The Venetians had held their end of things up. There were all those goodly boats. Indeed, “the fleet they had got ready was so goodly and fine that never did Christian man see one goodlier or finer; as well galleys as transports, and sufficient for at least three times as many men as were in the host.” And that last part was really the issue. 

The doge’s people had thrown themselves into the project with everything they had; Robert even has all other projects forbade, all other trade curtailed, while the resources went into constructing, and provisioning, this one great fleet. But now the crusaders were assembled there on Lido, it was painfully obvious that there were not enough of them to necessitate such a grand fleet or to cover its costs. The knights on hand paid their quoted shares of the fee, but they were like the last of a very large party leaving the table. They were expected to pick up the entirety of the tab that remained. And they weren’t quite there. They were not quite halfway there, and the Venetians were not pleased.

Now the crusaders faced an interesting decision, and key to this was the fact that “the crusaders,” was not a homogenous mass, tidily calculating in all it did. It was messy collection of individuals, that might just as easily come apart. Some wanted to cut their losses in Venice. They’d paid for their portion, no great outlay for some of them, and if the Venetians were not then willing to take them, well, they could easily find someone else who would; they’d vowed to go on crusade to the Holy Land not to Venice. For others, this might have been an opportunity to just go home; they’d made the effort after all, and maybe it really would be for the best for all of this to be over. That’s not how everyone saw it though. For some, Geoffrey wrote, it was better that they gave “all that [they had] and go penniless with the host, than that the host should fall to pieces and fail; for God [would] doubtless repay [them] when it so please[d] Him.”

This side started scraping the bottom of the savings they had available to them. The Count of Flanders gave “all that he had and all that he could borrow,” and so did Count Louis, and others too. Up to the palace these nobles went, with silver and gold, in coinage and other forms until, when all was totalled up, they were still more than 30,000 marks short! Those who’d held back were gladdest of all now, for, the scheduled departure date of June 29th having long passed, they were certain the whole thing would at last fail, and at least they would have lost very little out of it themselves and would be free to pursue other possibilities, their conscience clear. Some did leave. It was inactive army tied by a shared goal rather than any kind of command structure, and they had nothing to do save for complain at the apparent greed of their abusive hosts. The season for sailing was winding down, and things looked bleak.

However, this was when Dandolo intervened, and where the narrative of the doge as a conniving manipulator starts to gather steam. They had squeezed all the money they were going to have from the agreement, he told his people, and though it was not everything they had been promised, if they held it without delivering on their end of the bargain, it was sure to attract blame and recriminations. Would it not be better to find some other way for the crusaders to pay their way? Surely, if they put their heads together they could come up with something. What about the city of Zara for example? Maybe their guests could help with that. Maybe they could all winter there together, it being now too late to sail for Egypt. Maybe he and his people could then see their way to forgiving “the debt of 34,000 marks ...,” or at least “until such time as it [should] please God to allow [them] to gain the moneys by conquest… ." After this short pause, we’ll hear about Zara, and why they went there.


Zara, or Zadar, was an old Roman and then Byzantine city, and a port across the Adriatic Sea. It was useful as a site of resupply on voyages to the east, and crucial as a gateway for Dalmation oak to reach the Venetain shipyards. And it was no longer in their hands. The city had achieved independence around 1180, fought off attempts at recapture, and sought protective friendships first with the Hungarian King, who had build them a fortress, and then with one of Venice’s aquatic rivals, the city of Pisa.

So this was where the Venetians wanted their guests to go with them, and the crusaders were in a bit of a bind. They could say no and hope that their hosts would fulfill their end of the contract despite not being paid in full, but then “they,” again, was not a homogenous entity. There were many who wanted this all to disintegrate, who did not see it as necessary for the fulfillment of their personal crusading vows, so the party that wanted to hold it all together, our friend Geoffrey among them, couldn’t let the momentum fall away. They felt bound to agree to this that would keep things on course, no matter how they may have felt about it, because there was always that greater good to consider at the end of it all, that shining goal that could supersede so much else.

And all of that was enough for many of the crusading knights. They were in, and that meant another of Enrico’s grand gestures, his wonderful public displays, was in store for them. Up he went before his people at the church of St Marks, with many of the crusaders there too. Before the mass was given, he stepped up before them. 

“You are associated with the most worthy people in the world,” he said, “and for the highest enterprise ever undertaken; and I am a man old and feeble, who should have need of rest, and I am sick in body; but I see that no one could command and lead you like myself, who am your lord. If you will consent that I take the sing of the cross to guard and direct you, and that my son remain in my place to guard the land, then shall I go to live or die with you and with the pilgrims.”

And they shouted their agreement; they cried; they wept. Geoffrey mused at Enrico’s “great heart,” and “how little like him were those who had gone to other ports to escape the danger.” The doge knelt before the altar, weeping, and they sewed the cross upon his hat for all to see, and his people and the armed pilgrims shared in the sight of his dedication. They were united in this, for now, and they were going to Zara together. 

Or at least most of them were. There were some who left at this stage, either because they had now exhausted their more meager funds or because they could not stomach this new revelation which must have been filtering down through the ranks, for all the leadership likely did to prevent it. If going to Egypt would have been off-putting, then think how much more so would be assaulting a Christian city, under the protection of a king who had taken the cross no less, and all on the behalf of the hosts that some now viewed as abusive and irredeemably greedy. The disaffected bled more numbers from the ailing army and then spread their unhappiness to those arriving late or waiting to see what transpired in Venice. The papal legate, denied official recognition, did what he could to keep too many from abandoning the crusade, and then left to consult with Innocent. He hadn’t wanted anyone to leave this army, but he also would have no part of storming Zara. And neither would the crusade’s official leader. He too chose this time to go and see the pope. For those that remained, their fleet put to sea in early October, 1202. 

This was not the monumental force that Geoffrey and his compatriots had once imagined, but it was still, in Geoffrey’s eyes and Robert’s, pretty grand. “...the shields were ranged round the bulwarks and castles of the ships, and the banners displayed, many and fair.” The priests all chanted. The Doge of Venice himself was aboard a vermillion coloured ship, a matching pavilion above him, and four silver trumpets before. In Robert’s words: was the goodliest thing to behold that ever hath been since the beginning of the world. For there were full an hundred pair of trumpets, both silver and brass, which all sounded for the departure, and so many timbrels and tabours and other instruments that it was a fair marvel to hear. But when they were come forth upon the sea, and had spread their sails and hoisted their banners upon the castles of the ships, and their ensigns, then verily did it seem that the whole sea was all as warm, and that it was all ablaze with the ships that they were steering and the great rejoicing that they made.

The fleet gathered supplies and men at Venetian subject cities along the coast, and, on November 10th, they appeared before the fortified city of Zara. Looking up, they said to one another, “How could such a city be taken by force, save by the help of God himself?" But I suspect the people of the city looking down at more than 200 transports and galleys, saw very well how it might be done. The chain at the mouth of the harbour was quickly broken and men poured ashore, bringing horses and siege machinery with them. From the walls, the Zarans did not contest the landing, but watched as camp took shape below. Predictably, tragic twists were about unfold, but we’ll be getting to those next episode. 

We’ll witness the fate of Zara, and the unspooling of events that would lead Geoffrey, Robert, and the rest, to the doorstep of the Byzantine Empire. All that, and more, next time.


  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: The History Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That Took Constantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.

Marco and the Polos 7: Marco Polo Comes Home

Marco Polo.png

I’m going to start this story at the end. Marco Polo comes home in 1295, a man of 41 or 42 years. And maybe we shouldn’t call it home because he’d been away about 24 of those years, longer than he’d ever lived in Venice.

Anyways, he comes back, and pretty quickly he’s in trouble again. The details are a little murky here, but somehow, somewhere, he’s taken prisoner by the Genoese. Maybe they get him at the Battle of Laiazzo, but that seems too early, or maybe it’s Curzola, but that seems too late. One writer gives up on being exact and has him, quote, “taken prisoner at some obscure and otherwise unrecorded engagement of armed merchantmen in 1296.” 

The details don’t really matter though. What’s important is that he is a prisoner. And we probably shouldn’t picture a barren cell rounded out by beatings and bad food here. His was more the imprisonment of a gentleman kept for ransom, likely enjoying some freedom but not beyond the city walls. 

Marco did not pass his time alone. He spent it in the company of a Rustichello da Pisa, a writer of Franco-Italian Arthurian romance, and together, they wrote the Travels of Marco Polo. Marco narrated the events and spoke of the many wondrous people and places he had seen, and Rustichello recorded his words, glued them together, and provided the stylistic flourishes that at times echoed his Arthurian stories. Or at least, that’s how the story goes.

Maybe at the time of the 1299 peace with Genoa, maybe not, Marco was free to again return to Venice. There, he lived a fairly unremarkable life; he’d had all his adventures already.  He seems to have been comfortable. He married up, to the daughter of a more prestigious family than his own, and he had three daughters who likewise married into the elite. He inherited money, lent money; sometimes he lent to relatives who he then brought legal action against for failure to repay. And he engaged in business ventures in musk and other goods. And of course, he received visitors, who were drawn to the book.

Marco was not going to die in obscurity, only to have his work gain new life after his own had ended. As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, the book was widely translated and transcribed even within his own lifetime, and we know that Pietro d’Abano of the University of Padua came to consult with him and also Thibaut de Chepoix, a representative of Charles of Valois, to obtain a copy of that book.

But obscurity or not, Marco did die. During the night of Sunday the 8th of January, 1324, he died, and he was buried at the church of San Lorenzo. But that was not the end of his story, and besides, we have some catching up to do.   

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please do rate and review it on iTunes, and perhaps also sign up to the Patreon for as little as a dollar a month, for that is how we avoid being scooped up by giant birds and sent crashing to the ground like helpless elephants. You can find information about the Patreon, and all other things Human Circus, at Now, back to the story, and to the conclusion of the Marco Polo series. Today, I’ll be talking about two journeys: that of a book, and that of a man making his way back to Venice after many years away. 

When Marco Polo died, he did not leave behind mountains of gems, jewels, and expensive exotica. There had been substantial losses on the return trip, and in the end, the spoils of his two decades abroad, though tantalizing, were not chests of rubies and sacks of silver. There were however silks, including quite expensive ones that had Mongol designs worked into them with gold thread and other materials; there was a Buddhist rosary, the silver belt of a Mongol noble, the tall headdress of a Mongol woman, complete with pearls and gold, and the golden tablet of authority that the khan had given to him. Aside from his Mongol slave, who we know as Pietro and who Marco released when he made his will, there was nothing else to show for having been to the other end of the continent and been, by his own account at least, somebody pretty important there. 

He didn’t exactly end his life in poverty though. His household included 24 beds, and his share of the Polo property had grown. At the time of his death, his holdings included stocks of musk, horsehair, silk, and white silk cocoons intended for sale. His purse was full of silver, and there actually was a chest of silver too; he left behind respectably pious donations, and the rest to his daughters and to his wife. But, unless you were his wife or daughter, that wasn’t really his legacy. The legacy was the book.

The book travelled far, and it started to take on different forms. By the 16th century you apparently had one manuscript that was a Tuscan translation of a Latin translation of a Tuscan translation of the Franco-Italian in which the original is thought to have been written, and this is an extreme example, but it didn’t take anything so dramatic for the the text to change. 

Some time in the years before 1314, while Marco was still alive, Francesco Pipino of Bologna was directed by his Dominican superiors to produce a Latin translation of the text, and in his preface, he made his purpose clear. “Let none deem this task to be vain and unprofitable,” he said. “For I am of the opinion that the perusal of the book by the faithful may merit an abounding grace from the Lord; in contemplating the variety, beauty and vastness of God’s creation, as herein displayed in his marvellous works… .” 

The book was cast as one of marvels yes, but as the varied marvels of god’s earth, and of course the reader was not intended only to idly ponder such great diversity. Pipino hoped also that the, quote, “sloth of undevout Christians may be put to shame, when they see how much more ready the nations of the unbelievers are to worship their idols.” “Moreover,” he continued, “the hearts of some members of the religious orders may be moved to strive for the diffusion of the Christian faith, and by divine aid to carry the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, forgotten among so vast multitudes, to those blinded nations, among whom the harvest is indeed so great, and the labourers so few.” It was a great big world, and of its population, Christians were coming to realize that they made up a smaller percentage than they would have ever thought possible; it was time, Pipino urged, to go out and do something about it.

Of course, as the purpose changed, so followed the text. The chivalric style of the original was replaced. The opening passage, directed at emperors, kings, and dukes, was gone, and so were others. The chapters were reorganized, and non-Christian religions became hemmed in by new descriptors: they were “wretched,” “abominable,” or “wicked.” There was to be no question as to impartiality or cosmopolitanism when it came to religious matters in this book. And this wasn’t the only alteration the text underwent.

One 15th-century Irish-Gaelic rendition slapped on an origin story of a Francesco the Franciscan having translated the book from an original Mongol version, and it really put some sparkles on the battle scenes too. Different versions featured magnificent illustrations that seemed to spring from an illuminator’s lazy scanning for key terms or just from their expectations as to what a book of the east should contain, rather than from the text itself. Still others might lead you to believe the book to be the work of, quote, “a gentleman of Venice who went sailing there with his four sons, descendants one after the other.” The text could be found bound up with the Romance of Alexander and Jean de Mandeville, or with Odoric of Pordenone and other travellers to the east. The variations were many, and you’ll find if you read the Travels of Marco Polo now that the footnotes will be full of references to how version X gives Y date as being 10 years earlier, or that another manuscript orders the passage you’re reading entirely differently. For these reasons and more, it’s been said that it’s more accurate to speak of “the books” of Marco Polo than “the book.”  

If those books may at first have been greeted with some measure of disbelief, or bound up with romances, in the early decades of the 14th-century, an increase in merchant and missionary traffic connected Europeans to China, developing small communities there and bearing witness to the truth of this grand civilization beyond the Muslims and the Asian Steppe. There were Franciscan houses in Zaiton, Hangzhou, and Yangzhou. There was a community of Genoese merchants at Yangzhou, where the gravestones of one family’s son and daughter have been found. There was a church in the Yuan capital, built there by a Venetian merchant named Pietro. 

Though the situation would not last, letters and travellers returned from these trips confirming much of what Marco had seen and moving the text solidly away from pure fantasy. Given all this, it is interesting then to find a Florentine transcriber in 1392 who explains that he has copied down the book, quote: pass the time and to keep melancholy away. Since these seem to me incredible things; and what he [Marco Polo] says seems to me not so much lies as more than miracles. And yet what he speaks of could be true, but I don’t believe it - though in the world one finds very different things from country to another. But these, it seems to me - though I’ve enjoyed copying them - are things not to be believed nor to give faith to, so it seems to me.

At the end 14th century, as with now, there were those who were not convinced by Marco’s wild tales. 

Christopher Columbus at least does seem to have been convinced. His copy of the book is peppered with marginal notes on “gold in the greatest abundance,” “infinite spices,” “much incense,” and more. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now. We know that the books travelled far and wide. We’ve seen them in the shops or on our own shelves. What about Marco himself? What brought him back from China? 

The question of what caused Marco Polo to return to his estranged birthplace is an open one. Why then? Why at all? A few answers present themselves. It’s been suggested by John Man that Marco may have lost someone close to him in China, a courtesan perhaps, and no longer had anything tying him there. Marco was no monk, and people love to muse over his potential relationships, especially in connection with the Princess Kokochin. 

Others, have suggested that the Polos sensed the imminent demise of their patron, Kublai. The khan’s wife and favourite son had died; he was suffering health problems likely tied to his increasing weight and alcoholism; and, though still staggeringly powerful, he was reeling from one failure to another at home and abroad. The end could not be far off, and the Polos may have decided that they did not wish to remain without his protection and with the prospect of being caught up in a potentially-bloody Mongol succession. Or perhaps Kublai’s love was like an excessively drunk friend’s embrace, pleasant at first but then suffocating and exponentially less so, and the Polos simply leapt at a timely opportunity to disentangle themselves. 

Here, I’ll tell you the story that Marco and Rustichello concocted, or at least the one that has been transmitted down to me. But first, a quick break.

According to the text, the Polos were feeling more and more that they had stayed long enough, that their wealth was great enough, that they would very much like to make the return journey, and that, quote, “however honoured and caressed by the [khan], this sentiment was ever predominant in their minds.”

So they were looking for a way out. They were pondering how they might extricate themselves from this luxurious prison; they were waiting for opportunities, and they had a deadline. They didn’t know when exactly the clock would run out, but they could see the khan deteriorating, and they worried about how they would get home without his support. The text says that they considered his help absolutely necessary, that were he to die before they could make their journey, then they would not get another chance. They needed Kublai to be on their side in this while he was still around to do so.  

It was Marco’s father, Niccolo, who made the approach. He waited for a day when Kublai seemed most especially cheerful, and you can imagine this was not a comfortable wait. He’s maybe keeping an eye on the khan - how is his mood today? How much has he had to drink? What news has he had? Has anyone angered him? And all the while, time ticks along, Kublai gets a little older, and they’re still wanting to leave. Finally, Niccolo picks a time that seems good to him; he throws himself at the khan’s feet and makes his plea for “his majesty’s gracious permission for their departure.”     

However, for all of Niccolo’s care, he had not chosen the right time. And maybe there was never going to be a right time because Kublai Khan did not give his gracious permission. He seems instead to have been rather hurt that they should have considered leaving at all. Why would they want to go, and risk themselves on such a difficult journey? What could there be for them out in the world that he could not provide right there and then? Was it wealth or honour? If so, he would gladly grant them whatever they could wish for, but out of his respect for the Polos, he could only refuse their petition to leave. So, they were still looking for a way out.   

Of course, this is all a little hard to swallow now, these heaping mounds of self-glorification wrapped in hardship that Marco ladelled on. Were they really so beloved by the khan that he could not bear to part with them? Maybe they were. They’d been about for two decades and would eventually come home with at least some kind of endorsement in the form of those golden tablets. Perhaps they really were such personal favourites. Either way, they apparently needed a good reason to leave, and this needs a bit of consideration itself. 

Marco Polo often seems entirely free to do as he pleases in the Travels. At least, he claims to have moved about quite independently within the khan’s domains. What was to stop he and his family from going where they wished? From the riches they are said to have gained, they should have been able to afford the costs of the trip, and they were experienced travellers too. It seems though that for at least Marco, if not the other Polos, the situation was not unlike that of a soldier, bound to the serve his lord - John Man has suggested that this could have been exactly what he was - and if he was free to roam his lord’s realm, he was not so free as to be able to strike off on his own without penalty. 

When that good reason the Polos had been waiting for first arrived, Marco was away on one of his wanderings. An embassy had arrived from Kublai’s great-nephew, Arghun Khan, grandson of Hulagu and lord of the Ilkhanate. Arghun had sent a request. His wife, Boloḡān Kātūn, had died in 1286, first making known her last wish that none should replace her but one of her own family. Now, Arghun’s ambassadors had arrived at the khan’s court to make good on her wish. 

It’s a somewhat odd story, particularly when you consider that Arghun had several other consorts already and would add another also named Boloḡān Kātūn before his ambassadors could even return; however, the idea that he would have sought another woman of royal Mongol lineage, of Genghisid heritage, is certainly plausible enough, and there are other sources that refer to the marriage and the embassy. 

At first, all of this had nothing to do our Venetian friends. Kublai greeted his great-nephew’s men with honour and hospitality, and a woman was sent for, a 17 year old whose name was Kokochin, and you’ve probably come across her before. In tellings of Marco’s story, few writers seem able to resist her as a love-interest for Marco, but really the text gives us no reason to think she was any such thing. She was however described variously in the two translations I’m looking at here as “beautiful and charming,” and “handsome and accomplished,” and the ambassadors, upon meeting her, “highly approved.”

All was made ready for their departure, and attendants were chosen to form a suitable escort for an Ilkhan’s consort. Kublai Khan saw them off in great style. They set off back the way the embassy had come, overland for Baghdad, and if all had gone well, they would off ridden right out of our story, and maybe the Polos would never have found their reason to return. But all did not go well. Just had been the case for Niccolo and Maffeo all those years earlier, there was war in the way. 

Having travelled for eight months, their further progress was obstructed and the roads shut up against them, by fresh wars that had broken out amongst the Mongol princes. Much against their inclinations, therefore, they were constrained to adopt the measure of returning to the court of the grand khan, to whom they stated the interruption they had met with.

The text is no more specific, but these fresh wars very likely involved Kaidu of the House of Ogedei, or of Dawa, the Chagataid khan he had appointed. From a distance of seven centuries, Kaidu’s whole life appears one of restlessness and struggle, a consistent effort of the body, mind, and will against his cousins in Yuan China and the Ilkhanate, and around this time, he was also fighting to support his pick for Batu’s old throne. Somewhere in all that constant exertion, the ambassadors’ path home was blocked. There was to be no Pax Mongolica for them, no easily hopping along the much-praised relay network with its rest-houses and fresh horses, so back to Kublai they went, doubtless adding another little grain of irritation to his lifelong grievance against his cousin, and back into the path of the Polos. 

It happened that Marco was also returning to the khan at that time, with much to tell him of all that he’d seen. He’d been away on one of his wanderings, this time on the seas of Southeast Asia, which he reported were safely navigable. And of course the news, when it reached the ears of the Ilkhan ambassadors, was extremely interesting. The khan had a man who was familiar with the seaways south. They had been three years gone from home, and if they were not to go by land, then perhaps they might return by water. They reached out the Venetians, and a confluence of interests began to form. 

The ambassadors needed a safe trip home with Kokochin, and the Polos a pressing reason to make that trip. Both parties wished to convince the khan that they should be allowed to go together. Maybe the Polos  simply agreed to accompany them home, without going into their own issues at all, but I like to imagine here a series of furtive meetings here on how best to proceed with their cause. Who knew what fits of vexation might result if the Polos bothered Kublai bothered again with the same question. This time, it was agreed that the Ilkhanids would make their approach with Kokochin and point out “with what convenience and security they might affect their return by sea, to the dominions of their master,” Kublai’s great nephew, how much less expensive it would be to dispatch them this way, and how much swifter too. Once they had the khan’s agreement, they would turn to the topic of the Polos, for Kokochin’s voyage would be far safer in the company of a fellow like Marco, who had so recently sailed south. 

The Ilkhanids got their audience, they made their requests, and the khan pulled a face. As the most powerful ruler of his time, I don’t imagine that he was much in the habit of needing to conceal his feelings on anything much at all, and he did not disguise his displeasure at what was being asked of him. The idea of parting with the Polos was “exceedingly displeasing” to him, as he’d already made abundantly clear. However, constrained by politeness and the “importance and urgency” of the case, the khan agreed. He would let his beloved Venetians go from his grip.

And I feel I must interrupt the story here to rain on Marco Polo’s extra-special self-importance parade a little. We’ve seen in the last episode how developed the trading networks were between China and India. It seems really unlikely that there was nobody about who could equal Marco in navigating the oceans they were to sail, but, to be fair, it is possible that there was nobody about in the court at that particular moment, no known quantities or figures of real standing who would be suitable to escort a member of Mongol royalty and also be familiar with large parts of the route. It is worth noting that Rashid al-Din, writing in the early 1300s, and Yuan sources, would both speak of this mission to deliver Kokochin to the Ilkhan, though admittedly neither would mention the Polos by name.

The text has Kublai Khan grudgingly call them before him for one last audience. He greets them with warmth and reassures them of his lasting love and regard. He provides them with a golden tablet, those passports which provided free, safe, and well-supplied passage throughout his realms. He made them promise that once they had spent some time with their family, that they would return to him immediately. Finally, he either granted them authority to act as his ambassadors to the pope and kings of Europe, or he attached men to their party for that purpose - it depends on the version you’re reading. At last, having given their word that they would not be leaving him forever, the party was ready.

A fleet was prepared for them, of 13 or 14 ships. At least 4 or 5 of these were large enough to carry crews of 250, and 4 masts, while the others were perhaps the smaller boats mentioned elsewhere in the text, that would work as pods around the larger vessels and tow them where necessary. Marco is, for what it’s worth, very complimentary of these boats, speaking highly of their construction and maintenance. They were made of fir-timber, fastened with good iron nails, and sealed with a substance made by kneading together hemp-fibers with wood-oil and lime. There were 50-60 cabins, and there were 13 water-tight compartments within the hull in case of leaks caused, Marco helpfully adds, “by running on a rock or by the blow of a hungry whale.” 

On the khan’s orders, they were provisioned for two years, and rubies and gems given to them as gifts. And then they embarked. It was around the beginning of 1291, and Kublai, for all his insistence that they return, was never going to live long enough to see if his uncaged birds would come back to him.    

In just a moment, we’ll follow the Venetians, Ilkhanids, and Kokochin on their way south and then west, but first, a quick pause.

The Marco text covers this journey in the barest of detail, offering for example that after three months of navigation they arrived at Sumatra, but leaving the rest for elsewhere in the book. We know from elsewhere in this series how Marco found it splintered into kingdoms, each with their own language, how he was struck at being so far south he could no longer see the North Star, how he noticed a clear difference between the coastal populations, often Muslim, and the hill peoples, often cannibals. 

Marco and company were detained on Sumatra by weather, waiting for the winds to change, and they observed the trade in spices and wood, they witnessed those hideously ugly unicorns, and they drank excellent wine, fit to cure dropsy, and tisick, and spleen. For five months they waited, and then they sailed on, west across the Bay of Bengal, and then northwest along the Indian Coast and the Arabian Sea, encountering many things that were strange to them. 

They saw fine cotton cloths that put them in mind of spiders’ webs. They saw how the bodies of great lords were burnt upon death, and that his attendants threw themselves upon the same fire saying “that they [had] been his comrades in this world, and that they ought also to keep him company in the other world.” They saw temples in which families would consecrate their daughters, presenting them to their gods, and where the monks would call on the girls to make a banquet and dance before the gods, leaving the meat a respectable length of time until it was said to be consumed by the deities and then taking it away to eat. 

They saw people who Marco deemed members of a class of idol-worshipping Brahmin, chughi in his words, or yogis. These ascetics ate only a little, mostly rice and milk, and drank twice a month a strange potion of sulphur and quicksilver that granted them their long lives, 150-200 years, Marco reported. He went on that they went naked, wearing only a small ornament tied about their forehead, that they daubed themselves with a powder made of burnt cow dung, and that they ate no from bowls but from leaves, and of those never green leaves, for those were said to still contain a soul and it would be a sin to eat from them. 

In some versions of the text, the description continues in a rather more judgemental tone:

They are such cruel and perfidious Idolaters that it is very devilry! They say that they burn the bodies of the dead, because if they were not burnt worms would be bred which would eat the body; and when no more food remained for them these worms would die, and the soul belonging to that body would bear the sin and the punishment of their death. And that is why they burn their dead!

That opening exclamation seems very much the sort of thing that Francesco Pipino might have written into the account.

For eighteen months, they sailed the waters around India, and they didn’t have it all their own way. On the contrary, the death toll was severe, particularly so in some versions of the text. One has only 8 surviving of an initial company of 600, sailors not included, a real blood bath, while the rather more reasonable version has 600 total dying, including two of the three Ilkhanid ambassadors. I keep talking about medieval travellers who made it home - funny how the chronicles are all written by people who survived - but it’s moments like this that are a helpful reminder of what kind of enterprise long distance travel was at this time. It meant years away from home and a pretty good likelihood of death by disease or violent misadventure while you were out there. Really, I should do a series on travellers who didn’t make it. Mini episodes maybe.        

Of course, we already know that’s not what happened to Marco. The Polos, Kokochin, and that sole surviving ambassador arrived safely at their destination, often thought to be Hormuz, at the narrows between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. They got there, but they found that they were too late. They were like waiters trucking out long-delayed dishes from the kitchen only to find their frustrated customer had in the meantime moved on. Kokochin’s fiancé, the one who had his sent his ambassadors all the way to Great Uncle Kublai in China, was dead. 

Arghun was the grandson of Hulagu; great, great grandson of Genghis Khan; and the fourth Ilkhan, and I’m not going to do him justice here. If you’re an Arghun fan, be reassured that I will be returning to him some time down the road, that there’s another story he’ll be part of. For now, know that he’d sent away for a royal consort, and that he had, in the meantime, been convinced by an Indian monk to take a steady course of those mercury and sulphur mixes which were said to prolong life. Eight months of that program, and he became ill and died in 1291. And maybe it hadn’t even been his unfortunate new diet plan that had killed him - there is talk that it was murder - but it’s certainly a tempting enough theory.  

So when our travellers arrived, all was not quite as they’d expected. Likely, their arrival was not quite expected. Arghun’s eldest son, Ghazan, was still young to occupy the throne, or so the text tells us. But Ghazan had been 20 years old when his father had died, young, but not exactly an infant in need of a regent. It seems instead that circumstances had prevented Ghazan from making the grab for power when the opportunity presented itself. Sometimes being close to the center of power, being the first qualifying candidate to apply for the job, is enough, and it was Ghazan’s uncle, Gaykhatu, who had filled the vacancy. 

Ghazan did not challenge his uncle’s rise to power. Relations, indeed, seem to have been friendly between the two, and it was Gaykhatu who received the travellers and directed them to escort Kokochin on to Ghazan. As it happened, that future 7th Ilkhan was in the northeast of their territory with an army of 60,000 men, guarding the passes against any attacks from Kaidu’s direction, and so there the Polos had to go, getting further away now from the city of Venice, and likely wondering if they might ever be free to go there. 

Marco tells us that Gaykhatu’s rule was unpopular, perhaps consider illegitimate, and that they went to and from Ghazan under heavy escort, for “the people were disposed to commit insult and proceed to outrages, which they would not have dared to attempt under the rule of a proper sovereign.”

Still, despite threats and outrages from an unhappy populace, they brought Kokochin at last to her new husband, though what she thought of it we do not know. She’d been dragged halfway around the world with no prospect of ever returning, and all to marry a man she had never met before. In some versions of the Polo text, he says that she wept in sorry when the Venetians left; and that’s not impossible - after 2 years of travel they were among the few familiar faces in her new life - but in a way it’s more about him than her: see how loved and respected our most wonderful narrator was among the Mongol royalty, the text seems to shout, and how none of them wished him to go!

On their return journey, the Polos paused again at the court of Gaykhatu, and there stayed for another 9 months, and how long that must have seemed, now they were so close, relatively speaking, to their destination. What could have held them there? Perhaps they were waiting for the best possible circumstances in which to depart - it was still not a journey to be taken lightly - or maybe this was yet another Mongol ruler who found them simply too charming to be allowed to leave. 

Leave they did though, going by way of Trebizond on the Black Sea. Marco doesn’t say anything of it, but we know from other sources that they had a little trouble in the area. The Empire of Trebizond, a Byzantine successor state, was in the midst of a dispute with Venice, and the Polos were unlucky enough to wander into the middle of it. We know they would later claim to have had goods worth 4,000 Byzantine golden coins seized from them on the way through and that by 1310 only 1,000 would have been regained. But when the time came to record his story, this didn’t make it in. 

After that setback, it was on to Constantinople, to Negroponte on the Greek island of Euboea, and, at last, to Venice. It was 1295, and they had been gone for a quarter-century. Who of their family would still have recognized them?

There is a tradition recorded by the 16th-century scholar Giambatista Ramusio that indeed no one did when they appeared on the doorstep. Like Odysseus, they were said to arrive unlooked for and unknown, and who could have blamed their sceptical relations? Here were three strangers of bizarre manner and garb, claiming to be family members long considered dead. They had to quote Ramusio in translation, “an indescribable something of the [Mongol] in their aspect and in their way of speech, having forgotten most of the Venetian tongue. Those garments of theirs were much the worse for wear, and were made of coarse cloth, and cut after the fashion of the Mongols.” 

Clearly, the Polos weren’t in the kind of fine silks to be found in Kublai’s China. They were dressed for travel, and had travelled far. They would have been deeply foreign to their Venetian relatives, and looking very much more the impoverished con-men than long-lost kin. 

They were so foreign in appearance, that, according to Ramusio, their family did not accept them at all. The Polos actually had to withdraw and plan a new approach. They had to invite all involved to an enormous feast at which they paraded in their silken fineries, displayed multiple crimson wardrobe changes, and cut open their ragged clothes to let spill gems of great value and variety upon the table, all to the amazement of their guests. Then, in all that grandness, the guests were somehow convinced that they did after all recognize these good people as their noble friends of times past, that these were indeed the Polos who had gone away. 

Maybe that wasn’t quite how it happened, but one way or another, the returning Polos were accepted into their family home and grew comfortable there. And they aged, and did business, and one by one they died. First Niccolo, around the time of their arrival. Then Maffeo, in 1309. And then, as I said at the beginning, Marco Polo himself, in 1324.

By then Gaykhatu was dead, and Ghazan, and Kokochin too. And Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China, he had died in 1294, when the Polos had not yet even completed their journey home.     

As for Marco, I want to read one last quotation from the book. It’s the end of the prologue, the end of the “story” portion of the book really, where the reader gets this tale of a trip to the khan’s China and back again, once for Niccolo and Maffeo alone, and then once more with Marco. It reads:

The foregoing narrative may be considered as a preliminary chapter, the object of which is to make the reader acquainted with the opportunities Marco Polo had of acquiring a knowledge of the things he describes, during a residence of so many years in the eastern parts of the world.

Like travel narratives before and since, Marco Polo’s takes pains to assert its own truth. You can believe this, it says. I have stepped on these shores, and sailed these seas; I have seen these far off places, observed their peoples, and spoken to their lords. And I have lived at the court of the greatest lord of them all, of Kublai Khan, the Yuan Emperor. Believe me.     

Marco and the Polos 6: The Grand Tour

Marco Polo Catalan Atlas

You must know that on leaving the port of [Quanzhou] you sail west-south-west for 1500 miles, and then you come to a country called Champa, a very rich region, having a king of its own. The people are Idolaters and pay a yearly tribute to the Great Kaan, which consists of elephants and nothing but elephants.

You have heard that the king of this land was old and had no stomach for the fight which Kublai Khan’s commanders brought into his lands, and that he lacked the forces to oppose them. Or perhaps, you think, he instead had wisdom to see that peace could be more cheaply bought in elephants than in blood.

The king, in fear or in wisdom, sent his messengers to the khan, offering to submit to his rule, and asking him to call upon his general to withdraw and leave in peace the realms that the king had long ruled in peace. Moved by pity, or perhaps relief at the ease with which his cause was won, Kublai Khan accepted this proposal, and from then on received “every year a tribute of 20 of the greatest and finest elephants that were to be found in the country.”

There are very great numbers of elephants in this kingdom, and they have [eagle-wood] in great abundance. They have also extensive forests of the wood called [ebony], which is jet-black, and of which chessmen and pen-cases are made. But there is nought more to tell, so let us proceed.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. A quick reminder before we get going that that you can find me online at and on twitter at circus_human, and that rating, review, subscribing, and signing up for the podcast Patreon is how we keep our astonishingly large fleet afloat in terrible weather. And on that note, a huge thank you to Alan T and Juan Alvarez, my newest patrons. Thank you both very much. 

My initial plan for this episode had been the theme of Yuan failure in Southeast Asia and Kublai’s ongoing inability to effectively extend his power into its jungles and heat, and in the face of persistent and occasionally brilliant resistance. I felt like doing something different though, having just talked about Kublai’s problems with imperial overreach during the last episode, so I’m putting that aside. 

One of the areas of the Marco Polo text I really haven’t done justice to yet is his description of the world outside of China, so that’s what I’m doing today: talking about the images he brought back to Venice and Europe. It’s Marco the travel guide; it’s one late 13th-century understanding of the world, or at least that part of it between Southeast Asia and the African coast.  

I’m doing something slightly different today. It’s not the usual format. It’s you as Marco, so when I say, for example, that you think of a people as beasts, I am neither saying that I think they are beasts nor saying that I think you think they are beasts. It’s only that Marco thought so, or at least the text said so, which is maybe not the same thing. Anyways, what I’m trying to do here is present a picture of the world as he reported it, the things he found interesting to relate to his European audience. So that’s why you’re going where he went. Some of today’s destinations he visited himself, others most definitely not.

Your journey starts as you sail from Champa and arrive at the island of Java. It is vast, held by the most knowledgeable navigators you’ve met to be maybe the largest island in the world, and it is ruled by one king who is beholden to no other power, not even to the great khan himself. You do notice that the people here worship idols, but your attention is drawn quickly to the abundance of pepper, nutmeg, spikenard, galangal, cubebs, cloves, and all manner of other drugs and spices which are to make their way around the world from this place. Ships come laden with other goods to trade for those spices and make their owners a rich profit, or to collect the gold which is produced here (a likely confusion with Borneo) and take it back to China. You yourself find a way aboard one of these ships, but you are not bound for China.

Your destination is much closer at hand. Java the Lesser, which some know as Sumatra, sits just to the northwest, and its name belies its great size. Like the one you have just left, this island produces spices, some of which are not to be found anywhere else in the world, and the perfumed eagle-wood too. Unlike Java, it is not united. You find fractured kingdoms and peoples, some friendly to you, but others less so. In one area of coastal towns you find mostly those converted by the frequent visits of Muslim merchants, living according to the laws of Muhammed, while up the in the hills and away from the water, the people live like beasts. You find that they worship for a day the very first thing they had set their eyes on that morning, and, significantly more worrisome, they eat human flesh. You don’t linger long, but then the neighbouring kingdom is little more to your taste. 

Here too, you find beasts, this time lacking either law or religion. They call themselves the khan’s subjects, yet they pay no tribute nor receive any emissaries. However, the area does not lack for wildlife. There are wild elephants in great numbers, and you see unicorns too. You find they are nearly as large as elephants and hairy as buffaloes, with heads like wild boars, and equipped in the middle of their foreheads with a thick black horn. They are altogether uglier than you’d imagined, and not at all like in the stories, generally mired in mud when you see them, not in maidens’ laps. There are also monkeys in the area, and the thought occurs to you that these are probably the pygmies that people bring home and claim are brought from India; really there is no such thing, just Sumatran monkeys, hair plucked but for the beard, and skin dried and then treated with saffron and other substances. Satisfied at least to have solved this mystery, you move along. 

In the next kingdom, contrary winds detain you for five months, but fortunately you are not alone for you fall in with a company of 2,000 men. You’re able to dig in deep ditches and fell trees for walls, and good thing too, for some the people are fearsome and wild, and well known to be eaters of men. Others are less unfriendly and keep you well supplied. They have the best fish in the world here. They have coconuts. They have bread made of flour that is found under the bark of a tree. They have an excellent wine derived from trees which remind you of date palms, and in a pleasant haze, the months pass quickly enough. 

However, you meet savage men in the hills with tails the thickness of dogs, and you meet others whose practices disturb you more than that. When one of them is sick, they call on a sorcerer to determine if the patient is to live or die. If the sorcerer foretells that they won’t recover, then they the matter is not left to play out as it will. They are promptly suffocated with cloth, cooked, and consumed by all their kin, down to the last of the marrow, and the remains of their bones are carried off in a chest. Captured enemies who cannot afford the ransom receive similar treatment. This, of Sumatra, you won’t be missing. 

To the north, you encounter small islands. At one, the people go entirely naked in stark contrast to the high prices which the spices and wood will fetch. At another, the people’s faces put you in mind of large dogs, as does their cruelty. You do not stay long. 

From these islands, you sail south by southwest for a time, covering nearly a thousand miles of water and crossing the Bay of Bengal until at last, you come to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It is a large island, but you’ve heard it was once even larger, and that the strong north wind and the low and flat nature of the island at that end have conspired to submerge much of it. 

The people are idolaters and scarcely clothed. They live on rice, meat, and milk, and drink tree-wine much like that you’ve had before. But none of that is what interests you most, for you know what interests Kublai Khan. He has sent embassies on multiple occasions asking after a great ruby. No other country in the world produces rubies, but this one does, and sapphire, and topaz, and amethyst besides, and the island’s king has a ruby unlike any other. It is thick as a man’s arm and without flaw, and it seems, in the light, to be a piece of flame. Many times, Kublai has asked what price he might pay to possess it, and many times, the king has said it is not to be had for any price. Still, it seems there may be an even greater treasure on the island, and this one Kublai has sought more successfully.

There is a large mountain at the island’s centre, difficult enough to approach that massive iron chains are fixed to its sides to make it at all possible; however, many do make the climb. They come in pilgrimage to the sepulchre at its peak though there is some disagreement over whose relics are within. There are those who say that they are the remains of Adam, the first man, others, that they are of the very first of the idolaters, the son of a wealthy and powerful king.

This prince, you are told, would not be moved by worldly affairs, even when tempted by all the king would offer, and seeing his steadfastness, the king built a wonderful palace to be his prison, for he had no other sons to name as heirs. Within that palace, the prince was ensconced in beauty and untroubled by illness or aging or any of the ugliness of the world, until one day, when he went outside and he saw a dead man, and then a very old man, and both sights troubled him terribly. He was greatly disturbed, and asked after what he had seen: do all people age so? Do they all die? The prince refused to return to his comforts. He went on to live the life of a great saint, to take himself to mountains lofty and pathless where he endured many hardships. And he did not die only once. He died fourscore times and more, as a man and then an ox, and then a horse, and so on, and on, until after his 84th life he became a god. This is the story you have heard, and you know too that your khan has acquired some of those relics for himself, whether they be of Adam or the Buddha, that his envoys have paid a rich price to bring back two teeth, some hair, and dish from their resting place to the court of Kublai.       

You leave the island and its mountaintop sepulchre behind you, and you go west but not far, only until you reach the mainland, and the coast of India. There, you learn something of the local pearl industry, how in the months of April and May, the divers work all day on and under the water for the shells, and how they are protected by fish-charmers who keep the more dangerous sea-life at bay. The merchants must pay both groups from their profits, and another 10% for the king, and you chance to see that king yourself. He’s a striking figure, with a cloth around his waist, a necklace of gems, and a silk thread strung with 104 pearl and ruby prayer beads. When you see him, he is astride his horse but bound by a circle that has been traced in the ground. The people here will not cross outside of a circle drawn about them by one who they owe until they have made good on that debt, and you see the king himself so confined, a credit to his sense of justice. You also see a man paraded on a cart through the streets. He has 12 knives, and he takes one up, shouting that he is slaying himself for the love of his god, and runs it through his arm. You gather that he is a condemned criminal who has been permitted to sacrifice himself to his chosen deity rather than be slain by the king’s men for his crime, and you turn away after the fourth knife. 

You find the climate here difficult to endure at times. It is hot beyond measure, hot enough, that were you to put an egg in one of the rivers, the very heat of the sun would boil it before you could leave it far behind. The rains come only a quarter of the year, saving what would otherwise be an entirely uninhabitable country, and then there are the pests. Light cane-work beds which can be lifted by cord to the ceiling are necessary or else you will be bitten by tarantulas, fleas, and other vermin. Meanwhile, outside, the poor sleep on the ground. 

In this region also is a small town. It’s largely unvisited by merchants but pilgrims both Muslim and Christian go there, you’ll be going there too. Pilgrims come to take up red earth from the ground, for it is known for its healing properties, and particularly for its power in curing fevers. It was here in this small Indian town that Saint Thomas came and eventually died, and you’re told the story of that tragic accident. The saint was praying outside his hermitage one day, surrounded by the peacocks which are so plentiful in the region, when a local hunter, who would claim to have seen nothing but peacocks, fired an arrow which struck Thomas in the side. The saint would quickly succumb to his wound, but it was not the last he was seen in the town.

Apparently, a local baron was stuffing all the Christians’ houses with his rice so that no pilgrim could find shelter. Though the people pleaded with him to move his rice and no longer hinder their devotions, he ignored their entreaties. This bitter situation went on unchanged until one night the saint himself was suddenly there before the baron. He was in his home, pressing a fork to his throat and promising an evil death if the man did not empty his rice from the houses. In the morning the baron submitted, and Saint Thomas is said to have here worked many more great miracles since. 

Further to the north is a place you hear of where the king has been dead for forty years, but he is not missed, for the queen, who rules still, is more beloved than ever any other lord or lady. In her realm, diamonds are abundant beyond belief, but they are hard to come by. You are told that they often lie in unreachable valleys and amongst the most venomous of snakes. Fortunately, the people of the region have contrived a solution to this. They throw pieces of meat down into valleys and gullies, and then watch as white eagles swoop down to take the meat, now pebbled with gems from the valley floor. All that remains to be done is then drive the eagles from their nests, or else wait longer and take the eagles themselves or, later still, sort through their droppings for the diamonds. But that’s not where you’re going. You’re headed west from the hermitage of Saint Thomas, and into Kerala, and in just a moment, we’ll be going there too. 

The Indian province of Kerala is where you understand all Brahmans to come from. You identify the Brahmans as the best and most honest traders of the world, and unswayed by temptation. However, they are also, to your way of thinking, excessively swayed by signs and omens, seeing them everywhere. The length and character of their shadow in the morning sun on a particular day of the week, the path of a bird seen as they walk, the source of a tarantula on the wall: any of these might be seen by a Brahman as a good or bad omen and acted on accordingly. 

In Kerala, you meet merchants whose ships have come from the west, from Hormuz, Aden, and elsewhere, and from all about the country, people come to trade with them, bringing a thriving business to the region. And in the city of Kollam, there are more merchants still, from China, Arabia, and the Levant. They come for the pepper, the brazilwood, the ginger, and the indigo, a herb which is prepared in large vessels that boil beneath the sun. They find, as you do, a population mostly of idolaters, but with some Christians and Jews, and they find, as you do, people everywhere chewing at a certain leaf, sometimes prepared with spices and quicklime, and spitting out the saliva that plentifully results.   

And perhaps they too are struck by the creatures of this country, for all its birds and beasts are altogether strange, most unlike your own. It must be that incredible heat which makes them so. The peacocks are beautiful and larger than you’ve seen and the lions black all over. There are parrots of all colours, kinds, and sizes, and even the rooster and hen is different here. From, fowl to fruit, everything differs from what you know, and is finer, and better. The palm-sugar wine is excellent also, and strong, and you rub at your eyes as you look at monkeys so peculiar, you would take them for men.

Further north and west along the Arabian coast of India, you see the North Star, which had been hidden from Java, rise to two cubits above the horizon, and you come to Mangalore. It has language and king all its own, and it offers tribute to no other ruler. 

To this place, ships come in from all quarters, but especially from China, bringing copper, gold, and silk, cloves, and spikenard. They take back pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. And from here, one hundred vessels of corsairs set out every year, the pirates even bringing their families with them. They form up in fleets and spread out in cordons across the water, sometimes as long as 100 miles. When one corsair has sighted a vessel to be taken, they signal the rest with smoke, so that the surrounding pirates will close in too and join them in the plunder. They do not kill unnecessarily though, and when they then let the ship go, considerably lighter than before, they bid its masters to go out and amass still more wealth so that it may be brought back to them again. At your next destination, you hear that the pirates force their victims to drink a preparation of tamarind and sea water to make them vomit up any gems or other valuables they might have swallowed and thought hidden. 

That next province is Gujarat, home, you’re told, to the most desperate pirates in existence. The people here grow pepper, ginger, indigo, and great quantities of cotton. They produce the skins of goats, oxen, buffaloes, and unicorns, all to be shipped off to Arabia, and they make lovely mats in blue and red leather, with figures of animals and birds worked into them, and gold and silver wire embroidery. 

Soon, you’ll be coming to the end of your travels in mainland India. As the land curves west into Makran, and the people are less and less likely to be idolaters and more and more to be Muslims, you will put once more to sea. You regret that you cannot see or indeed describe all the islands of India, for there are said 12,700 of them. For now, you are going 500 miles south to the islands of Female and Male. 

The islands, 30 miles apart, are very much out of stories you have heard of places elsewhere in the world, but never seen yourself. As the names of islands imply, on one live the men and on the other the women, all Christians who follow the Old Testament. Only for three months of the year - March, April, and May - do the men move over to women’s island, returning with the coming of June to their own island, and their work. They fish most productively, drying their catch to provide ample food for the year and more to trade with besides. Chief among them is a bishop who answers to the archbishop of another island, where you are going next. 

That is the island of Socotra, near the mouth of the Gulf of Aden. Its archbishop answers to Baghdad, not Rome. The people, Christians, are practised in spearing whales with a cord and float attached, so that when the whale dies they may easily locate it and bring the whale to shore where they take oil from the head and, in great quantity, ambergris from the stomach. However, though the population is Christian, the island also produces the greatest enchanters in the world. They have spells which will turn the wind and confound passing ships, that will produce terrible storms and disasters, and that will have much viler effects than you care to recall.

Trade comes to island, picking up gold, cotton, ambergris, and salted fish, and there are pirates in abundance too, who come to sell their plunder to willing buyers. And among all these travellers and traders from near and far, you hear stories of other lands. 

You are told of Madagascar, a noble and beautiful island 1,000 miles to the south where four elders govern over a Muslim populace. Due to the curious nature of the currents, ships rush south to the island in three days over distances that will take them twenty to return, but still they make the trip with gold and silk which they trade for the ambergris, sandalwood, and elephant tusks produced there. They can go no further south though; those currents are such that if they go any further, they will not be able turn back north, in any season. 

On the island are elephants in quantities beyond those in any other country; there are camels, whose meat the people eat exclusively; there are leopards, bears, and lions; and there is another creature, which you had heard of at the court of Kublai Khan. It is said that there is a gryphon, though not of the kind you have read of before. Not half-lion and half-bird, it looks more like an eagle but of such great size and strength that the bird apparently swoops down to snatch up an elephant in its talons, carry it high into the air, and then send it smashing to the ground and its death, to be eaten at the bird’s leisure. The bird is known as the rukh, and word of it had reached the great khan himself. 

You remember how Kublai had heard tell of the rukh even from his capital, and had sent out an envoy to ask after the matter, and then another when the first became detained. His men returned safely and with strange stories to tell, chiefly of the rukh, but they didn’t bring only stories. They brought two boar’s tusks weighing more than 14 pounds each, from creatures big as buffaloes, and they brought a feather of the rukh far beyond the proportions of any known bird. How delighted had Kublai been, and what gifts he had given those who had brought it to him. But you are far away from all of that now.

Some thousand miles northwest of Madagascar is the island of Zanzibar. You drink wine there made of dates, rice, good spices, and sugar. You watch the trading in elephant tusks and ambergris. You admire the giraffes at length, for they really are beautiful. You note the strength of the people, that they may carry for four and eat for five. But you write at length that they are hideously ugly, in a way you have not throughout your other travels, that the men “look like very devils,” and the women are a “disgusting site.” Your customary cosmopolitanism seems to be slipping.

Eventually, you reach the mainland coast of Africa and the great province of Ethiopia with its elephants and ostriches, lions, apes, and leopards, its six kingdoms and its six kings, three Muslim and three Christian. Its Christians are marked on their faces with hot iron as part of their baptism, and their history in the region traces back to the preaching of St Thomas the Apostle as he passed on towards India. Here, the people are skilled soldiers and practised horsemen, and they have no shortage of practice in struggle with the Nubians and the Sultan of Aden.

Actually, you hear one particular story of how the greatest king of Ethiopia, a Christian, had recently thought to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there “to adore the Holy Sepulchre of Our Lord God Jesus Christ the Saviour.” But his advisors would not have it. Were he to go himself, they counselled, he would be far too vulnerable to the predation of his enemies, who were powerful. Instead, he ought to send a holy man in his stead. 

The advice seemed good, and the king selected a bishop who would make the trip on his behalf. And that bishop did set out and arrive at the sepulchre and there pay it honour and make a generous offering on the king’s behalf. It was on his return journey though that the sense of the king’s men was born out. As the bishop passed through Aden, its sultan heard word of his passing, a Christian, a bishop, and an envoy of the Ethiopian king. He was seized, questioned, and forcibly circumcised; you have been put to shame in spite of your king he was told, and then he was released. 

Time it took to recover and to make his way home to the king, but he did recover and make it home. His king greeted him with happiness, and listened with delight as the bishop told of all he had seen in Jerusalem and of every detail as to the sepulchre itself, but then the tale turned to return journey, to his mistreatment at the hands of the sultan, and to the sultan’s parting words. Then the king was not so pleased. Such was his grief and wrath over this offence that “he was like to die of vexation. And at length his words waxed so loud that all those round about could hear what he was saying. He vowed that he would never wear crown or hold kingdom if he took not such [fitting] vengeance on the Soldan of Aden that all the world should ring therewithal, even until the insult had been well and thoroughly redressed.” 

The Ethiopian king mustered men, horses, and elephants with castles on their backs. He gathered these around him and made over land and gulf for the Kingdom of Aden in great force, and the sultan’s men came forward to meet the Ethiopians at a strong point, a pass near their frontier where they thought they could hold the invaders. But you’re told that vengeful king would not be stopped, that his were better soldiers and slew a “marvelous number” of their enemies and drove them back into their own land. Repeatedly, they were attacked in the narrows of the pass but each time prevailed, killing more. You’re told that the king entered his enemy’s land and remained there for a month, killing and destroying until his appetite was satisfied, and then he returned in triumph and joy to his own country, his rival humbled, his bishop and his honour avenged. As for you, you will be travelling on to Aden yourself.  

At the port of Aden, you marvel at the traffic, and at the volume of goods which pass through. Ships carry horses out to India, where they’ll fetch a higher price than anywhere else, and others arrive with pepper and spice. The incoming ships are often unloaded onto smaller boats to continue on for seven days before the goods are transferred onto camels for a further journey of 30 and so come to Alexandria; that is how all that city’s spices arrive. 

No wonder then that the sultan is counted one of the richest princes of this world. On all of this traffic, he collects duties, and you detect no sign that he has been damaged significantly or set back in wealth or influence by the Ethiopian invasion you’d heard so much about.

His rule extends to your next destination, whose king is subject to him, the great city of Esher, its lord a Muslim who governs his people justly and well. He makes a good profit on his frankincense monopoly, the product of trees like small firs from which sap is allowed to flow through small cuts and is collected. Aside from frankincense, his lands produce dates, of which wine is made, and fish in something beyond abundance, so much so that two large tuna can be had for a single Venetian silver. Smaller fish are caught in astonishing quantities in the months of spring and then fed to beasts throughout the year, for there is no grass for them here in this place which is perhaps the driest in the world. And in some ways, the people eat little different from their animals: larger fish are cut into pieces of a pound or so, dried, and then eaten like biscuits all year. And the sheep! You will remember those best of all of this place. They are pretty little creatures, but they have no ears, only horns.

With some regret, you leave the lovable sheep behind you and carry on up the Arabian coast, moving northeast, until you come to Qalhat, a noble city with strong fortifications. It sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, where its ruler can choke off trade passing into the gulf and so force his rivals to bend to his will or else lose out on the massive revenues that result from that trade. As you set out over the gulf yourself, bound for Hormuz, you think yourself very tired of salt fish and dates.

You have been to Hormuz before, on your way east, and you think now, as you did then, that the heat is truly horrifying, stiflingly, fatally so. The temperature is only made at all bearable by the cunning ventilation on the windward side of their homes. However, the countryside is home to beautiful birds of kinds not seen elsewhere, and you are able to reacquaint yourself with the city’s good wine of dates and spices. The first drink induces uncontrollable vomiting, but after that, one is all the better for it. You sit by the harbour and sip and you look with alarm on the boats. You have seen boats on the rivers of China, the Ocean of India, and many else besides, but these scarcely deserve the name. They are made of planks stitched together with coconut fibres and then rubbed with fish oil, and you are not in the least surprised to learn that many are lost to storms on the journey to India. 

As you move homeward, the end of your journey in sight, you hear stories of other places. You hear, for example, of somewhere to the north known as the Land of Darkness, where it is always night and neither moon nor stars appear. Its people are tall and colourless, unruled by any king, and amass many valuable pelts through hunting. Mongols go there sometimes, raiding upon mares that have left foals behind so that when they are ready to return home they simply allow the horses beneath them to return to their foals, which they do, unerringly, through the darkness. You feel some regret at never having seen such a thing yourself, but only a little. For you have seen many things, not the Land of Darkness and not the great province of Russia with its sable fur, silver mines, and unbearable cold, but much else besides, and you are ready to go home, 

You are making your own way overland towards Constantinople from which you will sail for Venice, and as you near your goal, your writings taper off. Many merchants and others have been there, and many of your audience will already know of where you walk now, so you do not bother to record further descriptions. And there you leave me. And there we leave our grand tour. 

We’ve seen now some Marco Polo’s broader picture of the world outside of China, and of the networks of trade which he encountered, around Indonesia with its spices, from China to India, or India to Arabia, and on to Egypt and elsewhere. We’ve seen some of the products and practices that interested him, a 13th-century European understanding of the Buddha’s origin story, and the end of Saint Thomas at the hands of an Indian peacock hunter. 

There is some misleading information in there to be sure, everything from locations out of any rational order to the rukh and other such myths from off the side of Marco’s path which, as with your own, likely did not cross Madagascar. That said, there was also a lot of quite accurate information that would have been new to his audience, and that was a relatively huge audience. This is pre-printing press we’re talking about, but the book was something of a bestseller in its time. It was written out again and again, and, though we lack a patient zero, we have a multitude of other manuscripts to prove it, 150 surviving medieval and renaissance copies, which, if you’re not sure, is indeed a lot. In its first twenty years alone, the book would be reproduced in Latin, German, Venetian, Tuscan, Franco-Italian, and French.

And I’ll talk more about that next time, when I’ll be back with the final Marco Polo episode, or at least the final one for now. I’ll be following Marco’s adventures on his way back to Venice - his awkward parting with Kublai, the mysterious or maybe not so mysterious Kokochin, the massive loss of life the homeward trip entailed -  and I’ll also be taking up the writing of the book itself.

Marco and the Polos 5: The Echoes of the Wind

Kuniyuki Japanese Armies Defeating Mongol Invaders

Near the gates of the Hakozaki shrine of Fukuoka, Japan, is a stone marker with characters cut into its surface. They form the words of a song, and that song, in translation, goes something like this:

From four hundred states and more

Hundreds of the foe appear,

Looms a peril to the nation

In the fourth the Koan year.

What should be our fear? Among us

Kamakura men will go,

Martial discipline and justice

To the world with shout we’ll show.

From the [Mongol] shores barbarians,

What are they, The Mongol Band,

Fellows insolent and haughty,

‘Neath their heaven we will not stand.

Onward now our arms were practiced

For our native country’s sake,

For our country now a trial

Of these Nippon swords we’ll make.

To the waters of Tsukushi

We advance through flood and wave;

We with bodies stout and vigorous,

If we die, and find a grave,

Dying, we become the guardian

Gods of home, for which we fell,

To Hakozaki’s God I swore it,

And he knows the pure heart well.

Heaven grew angry, and the ocean’s

Billows were in tempest tossed;

They who came to work us evil,

Thousands of the Mongol host,

Sank and perished in the sea-weed,

Of that horde survived but three,

Swift the sky was clear, and moon beams

Shone upon the Ghenkai Sea.

It all sounds like a legend, a patriotic song of supernatural forces sweeping away the barbaric threat like ants. It tells of the sea, twisted by some great power into an irresistible weapon and striking down the enemy without mercy, and striking again, and again, until only three of their number survived, and then laying calm, resting, as the moon shone down on its now still waters, and on the broken boats and bodies of a Mongol invasion.

It’s not, as it’s sometimes been thought, purely the stuff of song and legend though. It’s a fascinating chapter of Mongol history which is often ignored, and it’s an important piece of Japanese history too, with its theme of divine protection echoing into modernity. It’s a snapshot of Kublai Khan’s Yuan Khanate reaching the limits of its abilities. It’s mentioned in Marco Polo’s text, and it’s what we’re talking about today.  

Hello, and welcome back. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus. I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that rating, reviewing, and subscribing is how we keep our dishes brimming with delicious fermented milk beverages, and also to let you know that the podcast now has a Patreon. Patreon, if you’re not familiar with it, is a subscription platform where you can pledge a monthly amount towards a project such as this one and receive something nice out of it for yourself. I currently have 1, 3, and 5 dollar monthly options, and you can find them at or via my own website at And now, let’s get back to the Travels of Marco Polo.

During the last few episodes, I’ve focused on Marco’s time in China and his relationship to Kublai Khan, and I ended the last one by saying that we’d be headed next for Myanmar, Japan, and elsewhere. Slight change of plans: this is all going to be about Japan. There’s just too much to the story to cut it down and cram it in to an “also visited” episode, so I’ll be talking about 2 attacks, how they’re covered in Marco’s text, how they’ve been remembered, and what we’ve learned since. This then will be an episode of invasions, and, unusually for Mongol stories, they won’t be successful ones. 

In Southeast Asia and across the sea, Kublai Khan’s empire was reaching its limits. Remember that story of Kublai’s financial minister Ahmed, the one who may or may not have been guilty of the vilest corruptions and sorceries? I mentioned then that he had the unenviable responsibility of sustaining the purse of a khan who kept dipping in deep for massive project after military expedition after naval adventure. Now, Kublai would hardly be the first Mongol khan to look to enlarge his territories - it would have been a real first if he hadn’t - but he was going to experience some costly setbacks along the way. Japan was one his costlier ones, and it revealed an outer limit to the whole world domination project that had long been the Mongols’ stated goal in life. 

Marco Polo would not be going to Japan himself, but he speaks of what he calls Zipangu, “an island in the eastern ocean,” where a king ruled over his people and their inexhaustible supply of gold. Except it was more like his inexhaustible supply of gold, for he did not allow it to be exported. Few merchants from elsewhere thus visited the island, and this contained bounty of treasure, Marco says, must explain what he’d heard of the king’s palace from those who had been there. The roof was plated entirely with gold, and the ceilings of its halls too; even the furnishings were gold, and the size and quantity of the pearls were apparently no less impressive. It was real storybook stuff, an island of riches and its greedy king.

Putting issues of treasure aside for a moment, Marco turns to religion, first considering Zipangu’s many-shaped idols, their animal heads, sometimes many heads, and their many limbs. He says Christians - he doesn’t say which Christians exactly - had enquired about the shapes and been told that they were that way because they had been in the past and so they would be transmitted into the future, that these were the idols of the practitioners’ parents and so they would also be those of their children. And then the text takes on a suddenly aggressive tone: the rituals done before these idols were “wicked and diabolical,” nothing short of an abomination to even relate in written form. Really, like HP Lovecraft’s indescribable evils, the author could not bring himself to tell us of such foul deeds, but he does insist on telling us, as the passage gathers steam, that, quote:

...the idolatrous inhabitants of these islands, when they seize the person of an enemy, who has not the means of effecting his ransom for money, invite to their house all their relations and friends, and putting their prisoner to death, dress and eat the body, in a convivial manner, asserting that human flesh surpasses every other in excellence of its flavour.

However, it was neither religion nor rumours of cannibalism which stirred in Kublai a desire to take it all for himself. It was all that wealth, or so Marco says. He tells us that a great fleet was fitted out for the purpose, and that a substantial army was loaded aboard under the command of two officers, two men who were apparently going to be the source of problems to come.

The invading army reached land in safety, but the poison had already set in at the top. There was a jealousy and bitter hatred between the two commanders which would not allow for cooperation on the task at hand. Plans of the one were resisted or ignored by the other, and though they were in their target’s territory, in their mutual animosity they could not get it together to actually take anything of consequence, whether fortress or city, except for one. And even there, they met with problems. They had cut off the heads of everyone within the walls, but there were eight people whose heads they simply couldn’t cut off, who, quote, “by the efficacy of a diabolical charm, consisting of a jewel or amulet introduced into the arm,” were rendered invulnerable to blades, uncuttable and unkillable. 

Approaching the problem pragmatically, the Mongols beat them to death with clubs, but not all the would-be conquerors’ challenges were going to be overcome so easily. Their leadership was as paralyzed as ever by a terrible working relationship, and nature was about to turn against them too. A great wind, some in Japan would say a divine wind, was making its way towards them. 

When the storm came, a decision was made to load the troops back aboard and ride it out at sea, but this second part of the plan proved impossible. The violence of the wind increased, sinking several ships, and scattering the rest. Those of the invasion force who survived, limped home across the waters to their khan, leaving behind them 30,000 men. Those soldiers who’d washed ashore on a small island with wreckage from the fleet, now found themselves utterly abandoned and without any hope return, but despite their desperate situation, they seem to have done quite well for themselves without the burden of their generals.

When the gale ended, a force came across from the mainland by boat, hunting for the survivors, but not in an organized way. The Mongols occupied the highland at the island’s centre, and watched as their enemy circled around, following the road, and then, the Japanese forces having gone on their way, the Mongols swept down and took their boats. They didn’t use them to go home, for these probably weren’t boats suitable for sea crossings. Instead, they used them to enter the, quote, “principal city of Japan,” friendly colours flying, and occupy it unresisted.

So there they were, this 30,000, having done what their commanders hadn’t really been up to, but now quite stuck. They had a captive city, apparently the “principal” one, but what were they to do with it? What were they to do when a blockade went up around them, and all hope of escape save for surrender had gone? They could only give themselves up after six months, having negotiated for their lives to be spared, and this, Marco tells us, is what they did. They exited the city and disappeared from our story entirely. 

Meanwhile, the story of those two commanders was reaching its own conclusion, though it would take some time for things to play out. Apparently some years passed before Kublai came to understand exactly what and who had been responsible for his army’s failure, but he did at last come to understand it and decide on appropriate punishment. The one commander was beheaded, but the other was less fortunate. He was sewn tightly into a fresh buffalo skin and then left to die as the skin dried and contracted around him, leaving him unable to move and succumbing to a nightmarishly suffocating end. 

But how accurate was all of this? And I don’t mean the buffalo skin here. I mean the invasion of Japan. How does Marco Polo’s depiction of this chapter of Mongol history compare with what we think now? Though it was once thought of as a bit of a fable, we’ll see that the basic contours of the story are there.

For Kublai, the treasure to be acquired in Japan was likely not so much gold as it was the prestige he stood to gain, and I think this goes back to an inherent insecurity in Kublai’s position. He had become Khan of the Mongols in a manner that was not entirely above board, a kurultai on his own territory which was far from universally attended and then a civil war, and then he would become Yuan Emperor of China too. In both roles, he needed to prove his worth and his mandate, and that meant expansion. 

He also likely wanted to head off the Japanese-Song connection. Kublai’s early engagements with Japan came as he was still dealing with the Southern Song, and cutting them off from this friendly trading source across the water would hardly have hurt those efforts. 

Kublai first reached out to Japan by way of his Korean vassals. He sent envoys as soon as 1266, but the Koreans didn’t keep their end up. They were expected to bring the embassy over the sea to their destination - the Mongols were not naturally an ocean-going power themselves - but they did not want to keep that particular end up. They had a decent relationship with the Japanese rulers who had fairly recently interceded to halt Japanese piracy on their shores, and they had no desire to become embroiled in a Mongol-Japanese conflict. So they played up the problems that awaited the envoys: the ocean was too violent, the weather too unpredictable, the way too hard to pass safely. And it worked. They entertained their visitors into the winter months; they gave them a taste of the crossing in stormy weather; and the envoys, apparently more alarmed by the ocean than by the prospect of returning to Kublai Khan empty handed, headed for home. 

Of course, Kublai was immensely displeased by all of this, both with those envoys and with the Koreans, and he still wanted to reach out to Japan. In 1268, his second attempt arrived on Japanese shores, this time with effective Korean assistance. There was an official from the Ministry of Rites along, and one from the Ministry of War too, and they informed the Japanese that their leader, Kublai Khan, was the emperor of China and that he required appropriate tribute immediately. This, in part and in translation, was the letter which they brought with them:

The great Emperor of Mongolia notifies the King of Japan that history shows that a small country is to be dependent on a large one, and that the benefit of such an arrangement is mutual.

Since ancient times, the sovereigns of small countries whose territories adjoined each other have taken it as their duty to cement peaceful relations by upholding good faith. How much more so [should this apply in this case], since Our ancestors received a clear mandate from Heaven and controlled all of China, and those from distant places and other regions who fear Our awesomeness and embrace Our virtue have been countless.

When We first ascended the throne, as the innocent people of Korea had long suffered from spearheads and arrowheads, We immediately disbanded the soldiers and returned their frontier fortresses and sent their old and young back [to their homes]. The Korean sovereign and subjects came to Our court to express their thanks. Although in righteousness we were sovereign and subject, we were as happy as father and son. We believe that your subjects also already know this.

Korea is our Eastern frontier. Japan is close to Korea. From the founding of your country you have also occasionally had contact with China, but to Us you have not sent even an envoy with a single cart to communicate friendly [intentions].

Fearing that your kingdom knows this but has not considered it [carefully], We have specially dispatched an envoy with a letter to proclaim Our intention…

The letter continues on, with allusions to how one really doesn’t want to resort to weapons, and soldiers, and so on. And the Japanese, well, they did not respond at all, and this needs some explanation. Who were the Japanese we were talking about here? It’s obviously a pretty generalizing term, so who exactly didn’t answer this charming declaration? Who was making the decisions? In just a moment, we’ll find out.


Japan of the era we’re talking about, the late 13th-century, was in what’s known as the Kamakura period, a time usually marked as beginning in 1192 with the establishment of the shogunate. It was a time when power was split between two centres of authority but had swung well in the direction of the one at the expense of the other. At one end of this imbalanced balance of power was Kyoto and the emperor’s court, and at the other end was Kamakura, home to the shogun’s military administration, the bakufu. By our period, the shogun himself was but a figurehead. Truer power rested with a regency long held by the powerful Hojo family and with a military council that the Hojos had established.

So when that letter showed up, it went first to Kamakura and then on to Kyoto where it was received with alarm and offence. It prompted debate and eventually also a written response issued from Kyoto which was then promptly rejected by the council at Kamakura. It was the military leadership which was turning the envoys away empty-handed. 

Apparently undeterred by this lack of fellow-feeling, Kublai tried again in 1271. He was after all the most powerful man in the world. Surely, this “king of a little country,” as he is sometimes translated as addressing the Japanese emperor, could not continue to ignore him so rudely. But he did, or the bakufu did, and again the Mongol embassy was turned away with nothing to show for it. This time, they went so far as capture a pair of Japanese fishermen on their way home. They brought them back to their khan who then entertained them, told them to tell their rulers of all they had seen, and had them released back to Japan, but again, amazingly, there was no response. 

I’m sure by this point Kublai was quite flabbergasted; what kind of people wouldn’t even answer him? And when he’d been so unfailingly polite! One last effort was made in 1272, but it too led nowhere. The imperial court again showed signs of being willing to respond; however, the leadership at Kamakura was not, and war became inevitable. 

It’s interesting that the military administration chose this path because it’s possible that they didn’t need to. They had access to information from Korea as to the Mongols’ intentions and preparations for war, and there was a real possibility that some nice words on the khan’s most supreme supremacy and a well chosen gift might have forestalled the whole thing. The invasion would be no easy operation for the Mongols to manage. They were not inclined to ship-building themselves and had to press their Chinese and Korean subjects to the task, and the whole process put a tremendous strain on everyone. The advance elements of the Mongol forces in Korea even exhausted the local resources and food had to be shipped out to sustain them. 

Maybe that Korean-supplied intelligence reassured Japan’s military leadership that they had nothing to worry about. Maybe their ocean-bound seclusion gave them a false sense of security, that they were impervious to attacks from outside. Maybe they had no much to worry about from problems inside. Maybe their pride rendered them unable to concede the khan’s supremacy, even for the time it would take to write a letter, or maybe they just assumed that the attack was coming anyways and that they could not prevent it, only prepare. 

And maybe they were right, because of course the attack did come in November of 1274. As usual, there’s some disagreement as to how many attackers there were. Some estimates place the Mongol and Chinese forces at 15,000 and their reluctant Korean companions at 8,000, while others have argued, on the basis of the Mongols’ apparent unwillingness to venture far from their boats, that it may have been as few as but a few thousand. 

However many they were, their waves broke over the islands of Tsushima and Iki, easily overwhelming them, before reaching Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, on November 19th, 1274, and at first, things seem to have gone well for the attackers. They took the city of Hakata and they burned it down. The Japanese fighters were skilled but faced unfamiliar tactics and weapons; I’ve seen it said that their emphasis on individual valour and excellence was not ideally suited to oppose the Mongols who fought as units. However, other commentators have seen something more even in these confrontations, and maybe this view is closer to truth, because what happened next is that the Mongols withdrew.

The story goes that a coming storm gave them cause to flee, that their ships’ Korean crews insisted on taking the fleet safely away from the shore and that was why the invasion ended. Not everyone has found this story convincing though, and other possibilities have been put forward. Some have suggested that the Mongol army was too fractured. Others, that their attack was disorganized or that all their arrows had been used up, and this would have indicated either quite serious disorganization on their part or perhaps only that they had never planned on staying long. And this, I think leads to another interesting hypothesis. Maybe it wasn’t a failure at all. Maybe they withdrew because their mission had already been completed. 

The invading forces had burned down Hakata and denied or disrupted the substantial income that the Southern Song received in trade from the city. That could have been all that this fairly modest force had been trying to do. Perhaps the whole thing was more of a scouting raid than an invasion, certainly an idea that would fit comfortably within the Mongol practice of war, and the real goal for now was still in Southern China. Or maybe the Mongols left primarily because their commander had been shot in the face, because that had indeed also happened.

Cause aside, the reprieve was not indefinite, but then Japan’s military administration had known that it wouldn’t be, and the years after that first Mongol invasion were not wasted. They monitored preparations in Korea for another invasion, pondered a disruptive strike to sabotage those efforts, constructed walls around likely landing sites, patrolled the coast, and they cut off the heads of the latest round of Mongol ambassadors. It was a gross act of indecency and an open invitation to war, but then the Japanese leaders probably felt that particular ship was already well on its way out of the harbour, with no chance of bringing it back to dock. They had, after all, already been invaded by the Mongols just the year before, so killing a few more on their shores wouldn’t have seemed an unnatural thing to do. That second invasion was coming. 

It didn’t happen right away. Korea had to recover from 1274 first. It had to spring back from having its grain seized, its people taken from the fields, and the crop shortfalls that resulted. It had to rely on Kublai’s relief shipments for years. And Kublai, he had to deal with the Southern Song, but once that issue was wrapped up with the death of the last claimant to the throne, Kublai was free to exert more of his considerable strength in the war against Japan and he also had an extra reason to do so. As the Yuan Emperor now ruling all of China as a foreigner, he needed more than ever to establish his authority, and just as it had always done and would always do so for rulers facing domestic challenges, foreign military adventure looked like the perfect solution.

This time, an enormous force was to be mustered for the purpose. 40,000 men were to leave from Korea in 900 ships while the southern army of 100,000 men travelled from the south in 3-4,000 ships. The numbers of soldiers here are, as always, highly suspect, but the number of boats is not as crazy as you might think. These weren’t fleets of perfect cookie-cutter uniformity. The vessels would have been a mix of new, purpose-built craft and refitted ones from the quite massive existing stock of merchant and pirate ships, and they would have varied in size too. Both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta mention that Chinese ships would travel in pods with smaller boats attached to the sides of larger ones, towed behind, or, in the case of the smallest, actually carried aboard, ready for use after the ocean crossing had been safely completed. All things considered then, 900 in one fleet and 3-4,000 in the other, starts to look a little less unreasonable than at first glance. It’s not on the same scale of impossibility as battles you sometimes read about where one and a half million men on one side faced a million on the other, with sundry elephants scattered in between. It is probably still an exaggerated number though.

The two fleets were to arrive on Iki island together in mid-June of 1281, but of course it didn’t go that smoothly. The northern army left Korea on time. They reached their goal, and they waited, and they waited. And then they waited some more. They waited as their ships rotted and their supplies ran short. And back in China the southern army was only just departing. Their greater numbers required more time to prepare, their commander had become sick and had needed replacing, and somehow the Mongols’ vaunted postal system had let them down or, maybe more likely given Marco’s talk of conflict among the leadership, those in charge of the southern army were not as communicative as they might have been with their colleagues to the north.

Eventually though, the southern army did arrive. It hadn’t happened exactly as it was supposed to, but the Mongol war machine had finally started to roll. Now, surely, the samurai would succumb as so many had done before, and the Mongols would spread even further across the map. Except they didn’t. The second invasion was going to make no more of a dent than the first. What could have happened? 

The story goes that the kamikaze happened. First came sulphurous smells from the sea, then sightings of a green serpent, and then the divine winds themselves, terrible storms heaven-sent to smash the southern fleet and kill as many as 80% of its soldiers. Much of the Korean fleet seems to have found shelter and headed safely for home, but the broken remains of the southern army were left struggling among themselves and fighting for space aboard what few boats were left. The stragglers who could not find a ship were hunted and finished off by the Japanese defenders. There were stories of massacres committed by the Yuan invaders on the smaller islands and of their captives being strung to the sides of boats through holes cruelly pierced through in the palms of their hands, and the Japanese fighters weren’t looking to take many prisoners. There’s one story of three Mongols taken captive who each sought to preserve his life by claiming that he was the important general, but unable to distinguish between their claims, their captor simply killed them all.  

Some of the Mongol survivors would have been slaughtered in the shallows as they dragged themselves exhausted towards land. Others, already ashore, would have been caught against the water and surrounded by warriors looking to earn the rewards which valour in combat and before witnesses could bring them. There would have been nowhere for the invaders to go, and so they mostly died. 

For the Mongols, the story of the storm was something of a double-edged sword. To some degree it lets them off the hook in questions of their military might. If either nature or the gods themselves had intervened, then who could blame the generals or their soldiers if they did not secured victory? They could still be undefeated in regular-season play, for this was something entirely different. It just didn’t count. For Kublai himself though it was quite another matter. Establishing his authority as emperor of China might have been his primary motivation in launching the invasion in the first place, and now it seemed that he did not have the mandate of heaven at all.

In Japan, the issue was less muddy. There was no problem of explaining away either a massive defeat or the hostility of the gods, and in the courtly and priestly sources, the supernatural origins of the victory are celebrated. One courtier wrote of the first invasion that, “this great protection [could] only have happened because of the many prayers and offerings to the various shrines … around the realm,” and of the second he said the following:

On this past first day [of the seventh month] a typhoon sank most of the foreign pirates’ ships. Several thousands were killed or captured. Not one [enemy] boat remains at Iki or Tsushima. Most of the foreign invaders who came [to Japan] lost their lives or were captured. This event reveals unprecedented divine [support]. A source of great rejoicing in the realm - what could exceed this? This is no random event. Even though we live in the final age, the gods’ support has not ceased. One must more fervently worship the gods and buddhas.

And this courtier wasn’t alone in his assessment. In 1309, the head priest of the Takeo Shrine in Kyushu took direct credit for the event, saying that the shrine’s god had risen to fire three arrows at the invading fleet, and that right before the coming of the storm, three purple banners had turned to point in that direction. 

The victory gained religious significance in part because a religious victory was what many had been calling for all along. First Kyoto’s imperial court and then Kamakura’s military leadership had called on temples to pray for their enemies’ destruction even before the invasion of 1274, and in 1281, the emperor himself had issued a prayer with the accompanying wish that his own life be sacrificed should Japan suffer any damage during his time. They had asked, and the gods, apparently, had answered.  

Of course, not all analysts have looked to the sources and found the weather, divine or otherwise, to be responsible for the Mongols’ lack of success. In just a moment, we’ll get into what else may have contributed to their failure.

There is plenty of evidence that the attackers faced stiff resistance from the outset and that they never really established any momentum. After all, by the time the storms are supposed to have hit, they should have been well inland if the weather was all they had to be worried about. But there was more. The landing sites were fortified against them, and the walls, constructed since 1274, seem to have held them at bay, keeping the attackers in the open, unsheltered, and vulnerable to skirmishers and storms. 

The northern army cleared the outer islands and landed at Hakata Bay to find that wall and its defenders waiting for them, and they were driven back, back to the water, and back to their ships. From there, they bombarded the shore trying to soften up the defenders, but they had stalled entirely. They couldn’t take the beach back, and they were constantly threatened by raids, on the small island where they were pasturing their horses and on their fleet. Their ships were chained together into a kind of floating fortress to prevent individual vessels becoming surrounded, but small boats of fighters threatened them still, boarding and fighting hand to hand or crashing in with boats filled with burning hay. They managed to sink many of these boats on their way in and kill the occupants of others as they came aboard, but not all. There are stories of individual samurai lacking their own transportation, lying and coercing their way aboard others’ boats just to get at the enemy, and then there are scrolls showing them as they cut their way across the Mongol decks in close-quarters combat. They could storm a ship, set it on fire, and make off with the heads of their enemies before reinforcements arrived, and the northern army grew pretty tired of this treatment. They pulled even further back, to the island of Iki, and they never got any closer. 

Meanwhile, the southern army, what should have been the dominant force, made for land 30 miles south of Hakata, at Imari Bay, and there, they too faltered. Fighting on land carried on for weeks, while off-shore the southern fleet also strung itself together into a defensive formation connected by boardwalks, and fought off probing attacks by small boats, burning and otherwise. And I wonder if this fortress formation was, in part, why they were so decisively finished by the storm, why they failed to adequately respond to it. Maybe their reactions were hobbled, and they could not maneuver as they would have, and that was why the divine wind left them completely shattered. As one Korean account tells us, quote: “The vessels were jammed together in the offing, and the bodies of men and broken timbers of the vessels were heaped together in a solid mass so that a person could walk across from one point of land to another on the mass of wreckage.” Looking out at all that destruction, and their enemies made suddenly helpless, it’s easy to see why the relieved Japanese would have seen an otherworldly hand at work.  

But if it was the weather that had caused so much damage and brought the whole effort to a sudden halt, it hadn’t exactly saved those defenders in the nick of time, just as their positions were about to be rolled up and their lands rolled into the Yuan Empire. They’d been doing just fine for themselves, and this second attempt on the part of Kublai’s forces seems, if anything, to have been less successful than the first, despite the vast expenditure of resources involved. Maybe those defenders wouldn’t have needed the gods, or the weather, on their side after all.

1281 was not the end of Kublai Khan’s overseas ambitions, nor of his plans to take Japan as his own. As we learned from Marco, he blamed his commanders for their poor efforts, perhaps fairly, perhaps a convenient bit of scapegoating, and he set about planning a third invasion. In 1283 he was ordering the construction of a new fleet in southern China, and in 1285 calling on northeastern China to build another 200 ships, for Korea to provide supplies of rice for the operation, and for a number of captured pirates to be pardoned and to join the invasion force; but that invasion never came. He’d overloaded the Koreans, and others, with excessive demands on their resources; he’d squandered much of the navy which he’d inherited from the Southern Song; and he’d sunk a lot of blood and treasure into the project with nothing to show for it. There were complaints about the costs of the boat-building, revolts over the resultant taxation, and his advisors pressed him to abandon all thought of Japan, at least for now. 

In Japan too, the Mongol attacks left their mark economically. They didn’t know that they’d seen the last of the Yuan invaders, and that though they had heard word of preparations in Korea, those would come to nothing. As a result, the Bakufu, the military administration, remained in a state of war for years longer than necessary. Warriors were mobilized, patrols maintained, fortifications built, and the departure of ships strictly policed. They were braced for a strike that never came, and the claims on their limited resources piled up. Unlike recent civil conflicts, the fighting with the Mongols had produced no new wealth or holdings to be distributed to the multitude of warlords, shrines, and monasteries which now clamoured for rewards or compensation. Complaints piled up, and tensions grew. The system couldn’t be sustained. So one of the legacies of the Mongol invasion of Japan would be fall from power of the Hojo clan, and the collapse of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 1330s.

That wouldn’t be the last this legacy was felt in Japan either. The story all but disappeared following the Sakoku Edict of 1635 as Japan moved towards seclusion. Their policies, vigorously enforced, were more pointedly anti-Catholic and anti-European, but other foreign influences were also policed, including any mention of the Yuan attacks of the 13th century. Even in 1808, you find the example of a writer censored for including the invading Mongols in his novel, and by that point, understandably, the story had left the public consciousness, not to return until an imperial power again threatened their shores.

That moment came in 1854 when the gunboat diplomacy of American Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet forced the Japanese to open their ports and bring an end to two centuries of self-imposed isolation, and the years that followed which included events such as the bombardment of Kagoshima by the British. Soon after, the Mongols were back. In a woodblock print of the 1860s, they were there on the beach again, samurai driving them into the water, but the left panel of the triptych is particularly interesting. Cannon-fire rains down, smashing the invaders’ ships, and the ships themselves are black with steamboat side-wheels. To many viewers, they would have been reminiscent of the “black ships” of the Europeans and Americans, and the message was clear: divine assistance had allowed Japan to defend its coastline against powerful enemies before, and it could do so again. 

Japan went through immense changes in the 19th century, enormous societal shifts which I can in no way do justice to here. The feudal system was gone, the samurai, the bakufu. Loyalty was to be directed to the nation in the person of the emperor. New institutions were developed to safeguard it, and new stories were needed to underpin the divinity of the emperor, the heavenly protection of the country, and the idea of sacrifice in the service of Japan and its ruler in the face of foreign threats, or rather old stories were needed, and the Mongol invasion one suited the situation perfectly. The scrolls of Takezaki Suenaga, a samurai whose 13th-century exploits had been recorded, just happen to have been dusted off at this time and all kinds of poems, stories, books, songs, and paintings produced of them to bring the past to vivid, heroic life. Later, tragically, as the end of World War II closed in, the kamikaze, the divine wind, was evoked again, and thousands of men from Japan’s Special Attack Units sacrificed themselves in an effort to again keep an enemy from its shores. 

The thread which carries this story into the present can be picked up in late October of 1944, with the sinking of the Japanese cruiser the Maya, and it 336 of its crew with it. The survivors were rescued by the battleship Musashi, but it too was sunk, and another 143 of the Maya’s crew were killed. One man who survived the wrecks of both the Maya and the Musashi, and tuberculosis besides, was Torao Mozai. He was the retired engineer who went to Hakata Bay in the early 1980s, armed with a sonoprobe for scanning the seabed and looking for the truth behind legendary tale of the Mongol invasion. 

That man’s search produced many artifacts such as swords, spearheads, Chinese storage jars, and anchor stocks, and also revealed ones which local fishermen had already found, like the commander’s bronze seal which had been living in someone’s toolbox. And then, more recently, other projects have brought up bones, leather armour scraps, bronze mirrors, tortoiseshell combs, helmets, bundles of arrows, and a bowl with its owner’s name: Wang, commander of one hundred men. They also found bombs, ceramic bombs packed with gunpowder and pieces of iron shrapnel, real 13th-century explosives, and then, in 2002, hundreds of pieces of the wooden ships themselves were brought up from beneath several feet of mud, some marked by fire. 

They were made of camphor, a wood commonly found in Chinese boat construction, but they were not shining examples of that industry. The Southern Song navy that had been passed on to Kublai, is said to have included iron armour, Greek fire flamethrowers, gunpowder bombs hurled by trebuchets, and sailors experienced in combat with coastal raiders, pirates, and Mongols, and in protecting the increasingly important trade by water which land pressures had necessitated. 

These people were not new to the sea; however, the final decades of the Song had been hard on them. Corruption, inefficiencies, and the grotesque cost of staving off the Mongols had badly depleted resources which were not making it through. An official report on the state of one naval base in the 1230s found that of 5,000 men, a mere 500 were in any state to serve; quote, “the rest of the men were weary, dispirited, deaf, moronic, emaciated, short and frail. Look at them and one can see what the men [in other bases] are like. They cannot ride the waves and thrust with their spears. This is the result of thirty years of neglect. They cannot be used for combat and yet they cannot be demobilized.” They were not exactly the cream of the crop.  

Closer examination suggests that the boats found off the coast of Japan were rather shoddily put together, the products of rushed builds or repairs, with several pieces of wood made to do the job of a few strong ones and in places held together with rough clusters of nails. There were all sorts of signs that the work was poorly done, and it’s possible that it wouldn’t have needed such a great storm to scatter these ships to the ocean floor. Maybe just a regular storm would do. 

Some of the other finds too, the jars and anchors in particular, speak to similar problems, with shortcuts of all kinds seeming to indicate quick and crude preparation on the part of the khan’s forces, either with an eye more to meeting a Mongol khan’s deadline than to matching any level of quality control or because that navy still hadn’t recovered. Tellingly, the chronicles and the archaeological record both indicate that the Korean fleet was not sent to the bottom by the storm. It simply turned for home once the mission had so clearly failed.  

The pieces recovered also reveal another aspect to the invasion. There has been very little definitively Mongol material found; it’s mostly Chinese, so maybe it’s not right to speak in terms of a Mongol invasion of Japan at all. More accurately, Kublai Khan was responsible for two Yuan Empire invasions of Japan, but both would fail, whether through a lack of readiness, internal conflict at the command level, skill and steadiness on the part of the defenders, or the weather itself, perhaps divinely ordered, perhaps not. The likely answer, lazy as it may sound, looks like being all of the above.   

Marco Polo had brought many tall tales home with him. This one, of the invasion of Japan by Kublai Khan’s Yuan Empire and of fractured leadership and a storm contributing to its failure, has largely been borne out by all we’ve learned since. There’s been no progress as to those “diabolical charms” which Marco had described, the ones that rendered their wearer impervious to blades, and it seems reasonable to conclude that talk of Mongol survivors snatching up undefended principle cities was just a face-saving fabrication, but the rest of it all seems to be pretty solid. 

Kublai’s failure to take Japan revealed a new weakness in Yuan power and an inability to project it over the sea, and it wasn’t a unique stumble for the khan. Late in his life, he poured money and men into a series of expeditions that broke down in the tropical heat, forests, and disease of southeast Asia, his armies finding Vietnam every bit as difficult to subdue as future empires would. In Japan and elsewhere, late-career Kublai overextended himself and came away with little to show for it, only a severe financial burden that had to be shouldered by his increasingly unsupportive Chinese subjects and managed by a series of roundly despised financial administrators.     

And that’s where we’ll leave things for today. I’ll be back again in a few weeks with more from the universe of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. As you may have noticed, plans sometimes change episode to episode, so I don’t want to be too definitive on what the next one will include, but I think we’ll be going to Vietnam.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition, translated by Henry Yule and revised by Henri Cordier. Courier Corporation, 1993.

  • Chase, Kenneth W. "Mongol Intentions Towards Japan in 1266: Evidence from a Mongol Letter to the Sung." Sino-Japanese Studies 9, no. 2 (1997).

  • Conlan, Thomas D. In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga's Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan. Cornell University (2010).

  • Delgado, James P. Adventures of a Sea Hunter: In Search of Famous Shipwrecks. Douglas & McIntyre, 2004.

  • Delgado, James P. Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armaga. Douglas & McIntyre, 2008.

  • Delgado, James P. "Relics of the Kamikaze," Archaeology.56, no. 1 (January/February, 2003).

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Mass, Jeffrey P., ed. Court and Bakufu in Japan: Essays in Kamakura History. Stanford University Press (1995).

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. University of California Press, 1988.

  • Sasaki, Randall J. The Origins of the Lost Fleet of the Mongol Empire. Texas A & M University Press, 2015.

  • Yamada, Nakaba. Ghenko, the Mongol Invasion of Japan. London, Smith, Elder, 1916.

Marco and the Polos 4: Did You Go to China, Marco?

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan

At times in this series I’ve talked about the near-mythical nature of this character we’re discussing, how Marco Polo can easily fade into legend in our minds, and how there was that story of him on his deathbed being challenged by a friend to correct the record and remove any fabrications while he still could. On that occasion, he is to have said that if anything he’d actually held material back, and that the truth was only more wonderful, not less.

That end-of-life acquaintance was not the last person to question Marco Polo’s story. His medieval audience often read it as romance or fable, and there’s been a tradition of scepticism ever since, where his accounts are concerned. Was his role with Kublai Khan as he said it was? Did he get out of Kublai’s capital to see the rest of China? Did he even go to China at all? Did he actually even make it east of the Black Sea? Was he instead spending two decades in Constantinople and his family’s other places of business? Was his book only a patchwork of previous Persian travel narratives? It’s a line of questioning that has long existed and was reignited in the 1990s by a new book on the topic. Today, I’ll be picking up those questions. 

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time, I’d like to remind you that rating, reviewing, and subscribing is how we keep the horsemen from our walls, and that you can find me online at I posted a little written addition to the last episode there, on The End of the Song in Marco and otherwise, and I’ll keep doing that with the pieces that don’t, for whatever reason, quite fit into the main podcast narrative. So do give that a look if you’re interested. 

I also have an announcement to make, that the podcast now has a Patreon, and that you can find it at, so please do find it at if helping me tell stories of medieval history and helping yourself to some medieval history podcast related rewards sounds like something you might be interested in. And on that note, I have some patrons to thank. Angela, David, Caz, Ashley, Shoni, Chris, and Rosa, my very first patrons, thank you all very much! And now, let’s get back into the story.

Last episode, I told you about Marco Polo’s peculiarly triumphalist depiction of Kublai Khan as the bearer of the Genghisid dynastic legacy, and we left off with the mention that Marco is said to have been on-site, or at least in the city, to witness the violent end of the khan’s head of finance, Ahmed. This episode, it’s on to the questions of whether he was in China at all and, if so, what he was doing there. We’re going to talk about some of the answers that have been proposed in response to these, but we’ll start with what the text has to say. What does it tell us he was doing? 

Of course, the short answer is that it doesn’t tell us a whole lot, at least explicitly. In a few of his few personal references, Marco says that he acquired the wool of a yak and the dried head and hooves of a musk deer, that he was once kidnapped along with many of his companions who lost their lives, or that he had to recover from illness for a time in the crisp, clean mountain air of what is now Afghanistan, and all of these fragments pass the reader by quickly. They come and they are gone again without further explanation. But if as the reader you’re wishing for more, you find to your amusement that when he does stretch out into a personal anecdote, it’s straight into one of the book’s most renowned falsehoods; it’s the story of the siege of Xiangyang, the Song fortress-city which blocked the tributary south. The siege had actually concluded in 1273, a few years before Marco had even reached the Khan’s court, but that didn’t stop him from writing his family in or from giving them a real starring role in the proceedings.

Xiangyang, along with its pontoon-bridge-linked sister city, Fancheng, had been proving a tough nut to crack. Its population of 200,000 was protected by six kilometres of 7 meter walls and a 90 meter wide moat with one side opened onto the river, itself a 500 meter wide avenue for resupply when in flood, and at other times a tangled maze of shallows. Actually getting at those walls was exceedingly difficult, let alone storming or undermining them, but it had to be done. Marco positions the city as a last hold-out at the end of war against the Song, falling only after the rest of the empire had already been defeated; really though, it was an earlier move in that campaign. The city was the door that needed to be opened in order for the Mongols to move south along the waterways, and the defenders knew it. 

They’d been prepping. They’d been strengthening their fortifications and securing supplies, and then they’d been busily resisting nearly 3 years of siege. There’d been occasional attempts to break out, quickly stifled, and there’d been periodic battles as resupply fleets tried to fight their way into the city, getting men and resources in but suffering massive losses in the process. While the Mongol besiegers were coming out on top in these encounters, and capturing many ships in the process, there was little progress being against the city itself and little sign that things were going to change soon. Something had to be done, so that’s when the Polos stepped in, and, in Marco’s telling, really showered themselves with glory.

They stepped up before the khan at his court, and they addressed him like this: 

"We could find you a way of forcing the city to surrender speedily;" whereupon those of the army replied, that they would be right glad to know how that should be. All this talk took place in the presence of the Great Kaan. For messengers had been despatched from the camp to tell him that there was no taking the city by blockade, for it continually received supplies of victual from those sides which they were unable to invest; and the Great Kaan had sent back word that take it they must, and find a way how. Then spoke up the two brothers and Messer Marco the son, and said: "Great Prince, we have with us among our followers men who are able to construct mangonels which shall cast such great stones that the garrison will never be able to stand them, but will surrender incontinently, as soon as the mangonels or trebuchets shall have shot into the town.

Well, that certainly sounded alright to Kublai, and he “bade them with all his heart” to begin at once. 

The Polos set to work. They gathered timber and those followers they’d spoken of, according to one translation “a German and a Nestorian Christian, who were masters of that business,” and in another, Nestorians who were not their followers at all but rather “some of the ablest smiths and carpenters” under the khan’s command. The Polos and their team constructed a pair of mangonels capable of hurling 300 pound rocks at their target, and once completed, the two siege engines were demonstrated for the khan, who marvelled at their effectiveness. Then, to quote Marco: 

And what shall I tell you? When the engines were set up and put in gear, a stone was shot from each of them into the town. These took effect among the buildings, crashing and smashing through everything with huge din and commotion. And when the townspeople witnessed this new and strange visitation they were so astonished and dismayed that they wist not what to do or say. They took counsel together, but no counsel could be suggested how to escape from these engines, for the thing seemed to them to be done by sorcery. They declared that they were all dead men if they yielded not, so they determined to surrender on such conditions as they could get. Wherefore they straightway sent word to the commander of the army that they were ready to surrender on the same terms as the other cities of the province had done, and to become the subjects of the Great Kaan; and to this the captain of the host consented.

So the men of the city surrendered, and were received to terms; and this all came about through the exertions of Messer Nicolo, and Messer Maffeo, and Messer Marco; and it was no small matter.

Marco wasn’t wrong about that; the collapse of Xiangyang wasn’t small at all, but it wasn’t quite all as he’d described it either. As it happens, Kublai had not sat about in helpless vexation until his illustrious Venetian guests proposed a solution. He’d dispatched a messenger who in only 5 weeks had reached the city of Tabriz to find the khan’s nephew Abaqa, heir to Hulagu’s Ilkhanate. What Kublai needed were better siege engines, capable of the power and range the city’s situation required, or rather he needed better siege engineers, and that was what the Ilkhan Mongols had. They’d used massive counterweight trebuchets when they’d taken Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, and other cities, and it turned out that they could spare an engineer or two for their eastern cousins. 

So it wasn’t Niccolo, Maffeo, and Marco who engineered the fall of Xiangyang. It was Ismail and Ala al-Din who wintered with their families as guests of Kublai and then, in the spring of 1272, started the work that was needed. By the summer of that year, their creation stood ready to fling over 200 pounds of rocks around 200 metres, and the last phase of the siege began. First to go was the bridge connecting Xiangyang to Fancheng, and then the defences of Fancheng itself. Its walls were broken and its people brought out and slaughtered. They were piled high and in easy sight of Xiangyang’s defenders as a preview of what they could expect for themselves. Then Ismail turned his machine towards Xiangyang and with the first shot struck a watch tower, shaking the city and throwing its people into complete confusion. Soon after that, a surrender was arranged.  

It was all kind of how Marco had said it had been, but then again not quite, not quite when he said, or where he said it fell in the Song campaign, or who he had said deserved credit for all that siege engine brilliance. 

Moments like this in the text are, I suspect, what really leads people to start to doubt the veracity of the entire work, to point to them and say “Well if he’s lying here, why should we believe any of it at all?” Clearly, he wasn’t really where he said he was. Maybe, as John W. Haeger argued, he’d gotten as far as Daidu but no further, gathering up the stories on which his book would be based. Or maybe it was all just a fantasy that Marco had cobbled together from the safety of his family’s trading post in the Black Sea port of Soldaia, or maybe as far east as Bukhara if we’re being generous, its sources no more first-hand than first-hand encounters with Persian travellers and their reports on which the whole thing must have been based. The older Polos may well have been to see the khan all those years earlier, and got their hands on one of those golden tablets, but little Marco had not been nearly so ambitious.  

That was basically the contention of Frances Wood in her aptly titled 1995 book Did Marco Polo Go to China? She argued that he didn’t, and not only because of what appear to be lies regarding his personal involvement, with the siege being the prime example. Wood pointed to errors in dates, distances, and descriptions, including numbers of arches on bridges, gates in walls, and that sort of thing. However, this is not an argument I find compelling; I don’t remember how many windows there are on the front of the building where I work and I walk past it multiple times, most days of week. If Marco had not written down exactly when an event had occurred in his roughly 2 decades away, exactly how far it been between this city and that, or exactly how many arches were on that particular bridge in that particular city, well I can’t really blame him for not getting it all quite right. 

In addition to these slip-ups, Wood brought up a lack of Chinese names and terms in Marco’s account, but this also, isn’t really convincing. It seems reasonable enough to begin with that Marco would have relied on the terminology of the administrators, of Persian and Turkic. And then we have historian Stephen Haw pointing out that a number of the place-names used really do seem to be transliterations of 13th-century Chinese, only run through the garbling pens of subsequent generations of scribes to whom the words would have been entirely unfamiliar and meaningless. Though it was not always the case, the vast majority Chinese locations he was referring to can now be identified with relative ease.

So that’s all very understandable, but what about Marco’s failure to include fairly striking aspects of Chinese culture? There were no observations as to the writing, tea-drinking, or book-printing. Where was the foot-binding and where was the great wall? After this quick pause, I’ll try to answer those questions


As was mentioned last episode, Marco does not seem have been enormously interested in Chinese culture or, with few exceptions, the Chinese themselves, and this lack of interest and might go some way to explain why he didn’t really settle into descriptions of the writing system and why there’s no tea-drinking going on. His interests were those of his patron, Kublai; they were those of the conquerors and the administrators. He was not, in this sense, a man of the people. 

That point aside, let’s look at the specifics. It’s true enough that he doesn’t write of the wonders of book-printing, but he does seem impressed by money printing; there’s actually a fairly detailed passage on its production. As for foot-binding, it should be noted that one manuscript does contain a reference to certain Chinese women walking with extremely small steps and this could have been reference to foot-binding. If so, whether the women in question were bound themselves or were mimicking the walk of those who were, it would have been a much more readily observable phenomenon than the binding itself. Finally, as others have noted before me, if we are to say that Marco has been caught out in not including some of these aspects of Chinese culture and that he must have gotten his information from other sources, other more genuine travellers, then we would have to ask why those sources had no information on these aspects, and so on, and so on.   

So what else did Wood have to say? One of the main points she and others have relied on to challenge Marco’s presence in the east, is the total lack of any mention of him or his family in the Chinese sources. If he really was, as he’d claimed, governor of Yangzhou for three years, then where were the records verifying this? Why was there no record of him at all? Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that Marco probably wasn’t the governor of Yangzhou for three years, that this was a lie, an embellishment, an exaggeration to some degree at least. But that aside, we don’t know if he appears under a different Mongol or Chinese name; we don’t know what name we should be looking for. Additionally, we should not be surprised if his presence, assuming he didn’t really govern a city, was simply not noted at all. Other well known travellers such as Odoric of Pordenone and Giovanni da Montecorvino also passed through unnoticed in Chinese sources, and Giovanni de Marignolli too. An absence of evidence, of this kind at least, was not an evidence of absence. 

Alright, you may be thinking, but what about the wall? What kind of person goes to China and doesn’t mention the Great Wall? 

The simple answer to the wall question is that the Great Walls have not always been so great. While the idea of the Long Wall had long existed, it’s thought that Marco would have only chanced to see something pretty unimpressive: pounded-earth remains held together by bundled wood and forming a not particularly great sight on the journey between Shangdu and Daidu. Consider this early 14th-century poem:

The high mounds of earth beside the road are said to be the ruins of the ancient Great Wall.

The water in the caves of the pools along the way is good for my horse to drink.

I am very lucky to live at a time of an honest and enlightened government.

Peace reigns in this border area where the flames of war raged in the past.

The crops are growing luxuriantly and cattle and sheep are all over the fields.

It is a pity that I cannot sing the full praises of our wise sovereign.

Clearly, these are not awe inspiring sights of power and strength. These are hillocks. They’re remnants and reminders of another time, suitable for this kind of stopping-by-the-ruins reflection on past and present, and for Marco, they would not have carried that same cultural weight. Among all the more recent signs of war and conquest, would he have even registered these shadows of borders and dynasties that had passed from the world? If so, he didn’t bother to write about it.  

Before I move on from the question of Marco’s veracity, I want to quickly compare his observations to some of his near-contemporaries. Odoric had written of foot-binding and cormorant fishing besides. If Marco was in China, was he really such a dull fellow as to miss so much? Not at all. In fact, the renowned world traveller Ibn Battuta hadn’t mentioned foot-binding either, and Odoric himself had said nothing of the writing system or of tea. Besides, Marco had his own strengths, reporting on topics which others did not, or did not manage so clearly: porcelain, coal, paper money, and salamanders among them. And note that by salamanders he meant asbestos and identified it as not, as was commonly thought, the skin or fur of some amphibian but rather as something to be mined and then formed into fibres, with all the unusual properties around fire which the old lizard-skins were said to have had.

Marco’s reporting on China has generally since been corroborated. You find, perhaps surprisingly, that once you get past issues of personal experience in the design and direction of siege engines and in governing cities, Marco was very reliable. The details concerning paper currency, administrative structure, and taxes and levies have all been found to be accurate, and on everything from the penalties for cattle theft to the work on the “magnificent” Grand Canal, from his description of Chinese ships to the post-mortem marriages of Mongol children, from the attempted invasion of Japan to the planting of roadside trees, and on a multitude of other topics too, Marco has been vindicated by more recent research. 

The scholarly consensus then is that Wood’s arguments were unconvincing and contained a number of misinterpretations or errors, but if we set that matter to rest and accept that Marco did indeed make it to China, that leaves us still with the question of what he was doing there. One of the more believable answers the text provides is that he was frequently present in the old Song Dynasty capital of Lin’an, or, as Marco calls it, the “celestial city” of Kin-Sai, the “celestial city,” so let’s hear what he has to say about it.

He describes its busy waterways and streets of stone and brick, its crowded markets and plazas, and its most pleasant situation between lake and river. He describes the joy of taking a boat out on the canals, to sit at table and chair and be propelled along the banks by boatmen with long poles, a “gratification,” he says, which “exceeds any that can be derived from the amusements on the land.”  He says that the bridges thrown across the main canals were high enough for masted ships to pass beneath, and, in an often-cited gross exaggeration, he refers to a common saying that the city contained 12,000 bridges. There were large stone warehouses for the goods of traders from India and elsewhere, and sources other than Marco record a community of Arab merchants. There were public baths, moderately priced wine shops, and stores selling “spices, drugs, trinkets, and pearls.” He speaks of delicious fruits: peaches white and yellow, imported raisins, and unusually large pears. He speaks of plentiful game of all kinds; the highly productive lake contained geese and ducks that were cheaply available, and enormous loads of fish were brought from the sea. However, he also notes that the poor had to eat whatever kind of meat they could come by, no matter how unclean; it was not a paradise.   

Of the people of the city, Marco has more to say than the usual rundown of idolaters, Christians, and Saracens. He notes the courtesans were in all parts of the city in numbers which “[he] dare[s] not venture to report,” and he has nothing but high praise for them, in their appearance and charms. Travellers who experienced their company could never forget it, he says, and when they had gone away, they said they had been to the heavenly city and wanted nothing more than to be able to return. And he finds the other people of city charming too, if perhaps in other ways. They were openly friendly with one another and with strangers too, inviting them into their homes and sharing food and advise with them freely, but they had no love for soldiers. They remembered who they were conquered by, and they resented it.   

At times, the sheer size of the place seems to have startled Marco. I have seen estimates that the city was home to a population of 1-2 million and that it was the largest in the world at the time, and Marco was amazed at the number of fish which were brought into the city and all sold in only a few hours. He tries to communicate the vastness of the numbers here, of people and of goods, and he settles on pepper as his example, citing his source as a customs official. The daily tally of imported pepper was 43 loads of 243 pounds each, for a total of 10,449 pounds. And he makes the point again later, saying of the port of Quanzhou, that so much pepper passed through it, that the amount shipped on to Alexandria for western consumption was perhaps less than a hundredth of the total. 

I’ve pointed out that the Marco Polo text was a little short on wonders, with not much in the way of monstrous races, fantastic beasts, and that sort of thing; however, the picture of China he presents really would have been fantastic to his European audience. These would have been astonishing images he was describing, of a place beyond the Muslim world and beyond the marauding horsemen of the Asian steppes, where the massive cities of an advanced civilization rose and were inhabited by unbelievable numbers of people. Even if they don’t seem that way to us, these were the wonders which would filled his readers with amazement and doubt.

Bridge quantities aside, the depiction of the city is highly believable and full of detail. The text tells us that “This city was frequently visited by Marco Polo, who carefully and diligently observed and inquired into every circumstance respecting it, all of which he entered in his notes… .” And if you’re wondering whether Marco spun the whole thing from memory, then this is a reassuring point. He was taking notes, and he would have had to to produce a text so packed full of descriptive detail and information. He would also have had to if he was to do as the text tells us, and travel the wide realms of the great khan, reporting to him on what he saw. 

This is probably the prevailing image of Marco Polo, that of the imperial raconteur, regaling Kublai with tales of all that he could not go out and see for himself, and it’s presented in the text’s prologue. We read that Marco picked up the most commonly used languages and, having proven himself to Kublai, was sent about on the khan’s business or travelled for his own private reasons; and everywhere he went, he observed and he enquired. He saw that his khan took great pleasure in hearing of new things, of the customs and practices of peoples, and of the many eccentricities of the lands under his rule. So Marco wrote them down as he went, returning now and then to his khan to speak of what he’d seen and heard in the wide world, to earn his khan’s favour and the envy of others at the court. And then he returned to Venice and did the same thing for us, or rather for his contemporaries, in the form of this book. 

It’s interesting, if inconclusive, to imagine that as he was apparently working from those notes, he might have told his readers some of the same stories he’d once told the khan. I always like to ask myself, when reading travel narratives, what seems to have most interested the writer. Here, I find it entertaining to think that what we may be getting, muffled by the layers of transmission, is what Marco thought would most interest Kublai Khan. And what was that? Whether we take them be driven by a Mongol emperor’s tastes, those of Marco himself, or his imagined audience, what themes leap off the page again and again?

The basics are clearly who the people are, what they do, and what they produce; for example, he might say that at such-and-such-a-place they are mostly idolaters, a blanket term which encompassed Buddhists but also many others that Marco did not or could not differentiate, that they live off the fruits of the land, and that they grow great quantities of the most excellent rhubarb which is then carried abroad. I mention this first because it’s very tempting, as a reader, to let these elements fade to white noise in the foreground of the text and jump straight to the sex and magic, but that wouldn’t really be representative of the text’s contents. Once, we get past the basics though, what do we see? We see astonishment at the scale of business and transactions, the numbers involved. We see curiosity as to different currencies, the making and use of paper money but also when he comes across salt-cakes, porcelain, or seashells being used for the purpose. We see a clear interest in ships, whether they be the huge numbers of Chinese river boats - 15,000 seen at one city he claims - or the detailed workings of vessels along the Indian coast. We see, as I’ve already mentioned in this series, an enthusiasm for hunting, whether it be simply a potentially fruitful area or the large-scale operations of the khan and his court. Finally, as people have often commented on, we see sex and magic, and after this pause, we’ll get into that.


One of the categories that seems to always catch Marco’s attention is marital and sexual norms, and fair enough; he was encountering some ideas that would have challenged the ones he grew up around. In one province of what he broadly terms Turkistan, he’ll write that if a woman’s husband is away from the home for 20 days then she may seek another if she wishes. Another area was likely off the track of Marco’s travels and perhaps somewhere he heard about from the elder Polos or other travellers entirely; there, he says that the men would go away when a traveller arrived, leaving the women of the house to entertain the new arrival for as long as he wished to stay. Elsewhere, among the idolaters, and here he likely means Buddhists, he finds the laity living as, quote, “beasts of the field,” taking mortal sin with indifference, while those in the monasteries were deemed to “lead more correct lives.” 

Mongol marriages, even polygamous, are given the stamp of virtuous approval, and praised for the chastity, modesty, and solemnity involved, and also for the superior population they allowed, a population that could accomplish great conquests or a tremendous postal system over unimaginable distances. Tibet, on the other hand, gets much more morally judgemental treatment, their customs deemed “scandalous,” “shameful and odious.” Apparently, unwed young women would bring travelling merchants home with them, asking only a token in return that they might hang about their neck, and the girls with the most tokens were considered the most beautiful and most favoured in future marriage. In some versions of the text, following the moral leanings of a scribe or translator, this was disgraceful, but in others Marco only says he relates it “as a good story to tell, and to show what a fine country that is for young fellows to go in.”

Marco also tells us about magic, and maybe he told Kublai too. There are demons in the empty places of nature, luring us to our deaths; there are spirits in the darkness whose voices horrify us when we make camp for the night. There are the magicians of Kashmir and Tibet, “filthy and indecent,” and supposedly eating the flesh of executed criminals, but according to Marco more skilled in magic than anywhere else in the world. And what magic exactly? He tells us that they would climb to the roof of Kublai’s palace when the clouds were threatening, and shield their khan from bad weather, even while rain and lightning stormed all around. They could also “cause tempests to arise, accompanied with flashes of lightning and thunderbolts, and produce many other miraculous effects.” They could make vessels of wine and milk fill the khan’s cups, as if done by an invisible hand, and then cause the cups to float through the air to his table, untouched. They did whatever they willed with their “infernal arts,” though Marco admits that this last example stretched credibility.     

Elsewhere, we read about the Yunnan province, which does not get a glowing review in this travel guide. The atmosphere was so foul in the summer that merchants would actually leave for healthier air “in order to escape from death.” The people used poison on their arrows and carried poison on their person, ready to swallow it rather than endure torture at the hands of their enemies if they were captured. Distinguished strangers were murdered in order for their spirits to be captured to the benefit of the murderer’s household. And when a rich person fell ill, there was sorcery. Or rather there was shamanism, which amounts to much to same thing in Marco’s account: long ritualized sessions of music and dancing leading to possession by the evil spirit that had caused the illness and, having found from that spirit which deity had been offended, a sacrifice of sheep, followed by feasting on the meat by the shamans themselves. “And thus do the demons sport with the blindness of these deluded and wretched people,” or so one description concludes, perhaps another bit of editorializing on the part of a scribe along the way.

These were some of the things Marco might have told Kublai about, as he apparently wandered his khan’s domains, but what took him on those travels? As I mentioned, Marco is said to have gone out on the business of the khan, gathering stories of what he’d seen and heard. He apparently resolved an unspecified “important concern” in one city, earning Kublai’s trust; he went west as the khan’s ambassador for a time; he was sent elsewhere to examine the customs revenues; he governed Yangzhou for three years, though, again, it’s generally thought that he didn’t.         

One analysis (that of Paul Pelliot) regarding Marco’s activities is that he was involved in salt administration, and certainly there are no shortage of references to salt in the text. In what is now north-eastern Afghanistan, salt was mined from the mountains; in Tibet, it was collected from salt springs and boiled down in small pans; in Yunnan province, it was produced from brine wells to the enrichment of the locals and their khan alike; in the region governed by Hangzhou, it was harvested from the salt lagoons which dried up in the summer. All told, it was a very salty book, but all of this is not to say that Marco necessarily played this role either. Salt was immensely important to Yuan China’s economy and the revenues involved would have of course excited his interest in demonstrating the vastness of this distant civilization. And besides, the idea of a salt-based empire would have been cozily familiar to the Venetian, his old home-city itself having established a great deal of its power on a monopoly over the very same resource. So Marco the salt administrator, well, maybe. 

What seems fairly likely is that Marco was involved in administration of some sort, as an overseer or accounting official. His grasp of Yuan finances, customs, organizational structure and taxes seems to indicate it, and something of an itinerary has been mapped out along these lines by Peng Hai, and fairly convincingly too. Starting from early 1275 he has Marco in Ningxia for three years and then in Yunnan and Vietnam until 1280; from there he’s in the capital of Daidu for 2 years and then sent as an accounting official to Yangzhou from 1282 until 1284, and then to Hangzhou into 1285. He was in the field with Kublai in 1287, when his khan dealt with the challenge of Nayan, as covered in a previous episode, and then he was off to Southeast Asia for three years before heading for home. Is this accurate? It certainly could be. There’s a lot of supporting, or at least suggestive, evidence, if nothing one would call conclusive. 

We have then this developing picture of a man who really did go to China, really did meet the khan and serve him in some capacity or at least live in his immediate world, and who may or may not have worked in the salt industry or as a roving accountant. And maybe we can zoom in a little further.

Stephen Haw and others have zoomed in and suggested that the picture we get could match that of one of the keshig, the khan’s 12,000-strong personal guard whose members were often dispatched on tasks as needed and could even rise to become generals or senior administrators. It’s a tantalizing possibility. It’s also a fairly realistic one that still fits with our romantic image of Marco as a loyal servant to the khan whose business might believably take him abroad in the empire. You can picture him there, waiting upon the khan and available for his order to spin him to this town or that to see to some managerial need or financial assessment, and then returning to thrill Kublai with intricate descriptions of all that he’d seen. It’s all very cinematic. And Marco himself mentions the keshig too. 

"You must know,” he says, “that the Great Kaan, to maintain his state, hath a guard of twelve thousand horsemen, who are styled Keshican, which is as much as to say ‘Knights devoted to their Lord.’ Not that he keeps these for fear of any man whatever, but merely because of his own exalted dignity."

Of course, what Marco does not say is that he was one of these “Knights devoted to their Lord.” He does not say that he did the khan’s bidding as a member of this fiercely loyal personal guard, and maybe there was good reason for that. Maybe, even with all that carrying on about the near heavenly nature of his most supreme wonderfulness, the khan of khans, it was a step too far to be communicating to his European audience that his adoration had extended to this point, that he, now a respected citizen of Venice, had, as historian John Man puts it, “actually worshipped a pagan emperor as if he were god.” Or maybe this is another case of projecting the fantastic back on Marco’s story. Maybe the reason for the omission was something less complicated. Maybe Marco simply wasn’t a member of the keshig.

Marco Polo remains a charmingly mysterious fellow. If he’s now been solidly tied to a real stay in in 13th-century China, there’s still a great of uncertainty that surrounds him, with the potential for new information to be discovered or old ideas overturned. Peng Hai thinks he has identified the illusive Marco in the pages of the Yuanshi, the History of the Yuan, and in the figure of a courtier who clashed with a powerful family at Kublai’s court. This courtier had been arrested for breaking a rule which did not allow men to walk on the same side as women within the palace, but he had been a favourite of the khan and Kublai had asked after him, and, hearing of his predicament, had him freed. The courtier’s name is recorded as Buluo. It fits nicely enough with the material of the Polo text, and it would indeed be quite something, the long-sought sign of Marco’s passing in a Chinese source. But that’s about as definite as we can be at this point. Perhaps more signs will emerge.     

That’s where I’m going to leave things for today. This has been a far from all-encompassing look at the topic. There’s a lot more out there, and I haven’t even got to the question of authorship yet, but I hope I’ve given some idea of how Marco and his book have come to be viewed and why.

If you’re enjoying the podcast, please do check out the Patreon page, which, again, you can find at There are rewards which include early access to ad-free episodes and also scripts if you like to read along or look something up after, and from the $1 per month level on up you’re entered in draws for thematically appropriate books in which I’ll try to transcend my usual, shockingly ugly handwriting to convey my thanks. And on that note, thank you again, those of you who have already signed up.

In a few weeks, I’ll be back with more Marco Polo. We’ve got a couple of episodes left in this series still, and with this next one we’ll be getting away from China and heading for Myanmar, Japan, and elsewhere, and seeing the limits of Yuan Mongol expansion. I’ll talk to you then.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition, translated by Henry Yule and revised by Henri Cordier. Courier Corporation, 1993.

  • Haw, Stephen G. Marco Polo's China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. Routledge, 2006.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World.Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Man, John. Marco Polo: The Journey that Changed the World. HarperCollins, 2009.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times.University of California Press, 1988.

  • Vogel, Hans Ulrich. Marco Polo was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. Brill Academic Pub, 2012.

Marco and the Polos 3: Marco and the Great, Great Khan

Kublai khan

People often like to say that in sports they pull for the underdog. Maybe it’s boxing, and you’re desperately hoping an apparent mismatch will become something more interesting or that the clearly anticipated and carefully planned narrative will be overturned entirely. Or maybe it’s more of a team sport and there’s a particularly arrogant franchise you’d like to see end their season in disappointment, or at least be forced to put on a bit of show before the coronation. But it might be different if you found yourself parachuted into the A-side’s locker-room, if you shared in their celebrations, their triumphs, and their broader culture too, if they told their stories to you, and if you maybe developed an appreciation for where they’d come from and why, and of how they came to occupy this place at the top and all that made them champions. Maybe you wouldn’t be so keen to see them knocked off.

That is, in a sense the position Marco Polo found himself in. He was there at the summer palace of an undefeated champion who’d lost little in the way of confidence over a long and successful career, and he seems to have settled into the culture there, to have heard their stories, and their songs. He’d picked up the origin account and the anecdotes and seen the highlight reel; he’d spent some time, some solid years, embedded there, and he’d gotten a bit of a sense of why they’d succeeded. He’d found them at their most glorious and could not have imagined how it would ever have been otherwise. 

Little wonder then that Marco wasn’t too interested in upsets. 

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. If you haven’t yet, please do rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes. It helps me out and it secures a steady stream of medieval travellers in your direction. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about, a question about something that’s come up already, or just want to say hi, then you can do so by way of my new and shiny website at where you can find any and all human circus related material. I’ll be posting some new writing there also, some previews of upcoming topics, and perhaps a few other things too, along with episodes and sources, etc, so please do come by and check it out. Asks and invitations aside, let’s get back to the story.

Last episode, we saw the 3 Polos extricate themselves from their Venetian home and the delays posed by papal elections and we made our way to Acre, up to Lesser Armenia, and east on to the summer palace of Kublai Khan at Shang-du, with some pauses on the way to talk Assassins and Priest-Kings. We left off with some questions about the Polos’ time in China and the creation of the text itself, and I must admit that I won’t be answering those questions yet today because we also left off with the Khan’s very warm welcome of the youngest Polo and the idea of a friendship to come, and that’s what we’re onto today: Marco’s glowing depiction of Kublai Khan and general enthusiasm for the while Mongol imperial project. And I should note that for convenience I am for now going to be say Marco here when I talk about the voice of the text rather than “Marco Polo author,” or Rustichello, the man generally credited with doing the actual writing, but that’s an issue for later on. For now, let’s talk about Marco’s new best friend, the khan of khans.

I have in my notes here a section simply marked off as “the wonderful wonderfulness of the khan,” and that should give you some idea of the kind of 5-star reviews which he gets in the Polo text. The khan is introduced as “lord of lords… [who] respect to number of subjects, extent of territory, and amount of revenue, … surpasses every sovereign that has heretofor been or that now is in the world.” And there’s more buttering up to come, that Kublai is “brave and daring in action” and “considered to be the most able and successful commander that ever led the [Mongols] to battle,” that “his limbs are well formed, and in his whole figure there is a just proportion. His complexion is fair, and occasionally suffused with red, like the bright tint of the rose, which adds some grace to his countenance. His eyes are black and handsome, his nose is well shaped and prominent.” 

Just a great a guy, was the khan, and he was not merely a brave and handsome fellow either. The khan, we are told, was remarkably generous, acting with quote “admirable and astonishing liberality … towards the poor,” providing grain and cloth for those families who needed it, and adored by all. And if that weren’t enough, in an old Mongol khan ploy, he claimed Christian sympathies too: it was only that these idolaters around him demonstrated the strength of their religion so ably, and if the pope were only to have sent those hundred men who could refute their arguments, if the power and effectiveness of Christianity were only to be demonstrated, well, he was very much on their side, really. 

We see Kublai on the hunt, on rather large scale hunts, borne about by up to four elephants in a beautifully carved wooden litter, lined inside with cloth of gold and outside with the fur of lions. His twelve best falcons and twelve favourites of his officers accompany him, and when a bird is sighted, he lifts the curtain and orders the release of his falcons, looking on with delight from his couch as they overpower their prey. And he whiles away the day this way before retiring to his camp, a massive array of tents and pavilions to house the nobility, the ladies of his court, the guards, and ten thousand falconers, 10 thousand really just meaning “a lot,” with all that would have been needed to accompany them.

We see Kublai in his grand hall, enjoying a great feast with his empress at his left and eldest son at his right, blood relatives at lower tables, and then further out, lesser officers lower down, and more still seated on the floor or waiting outside, hoping to make their petition. There is wine and mare’s milk without end, and there is such abundance of food that Marco here allows himself a rare, and soft, critique of the khan’s ways, deeming them “excessive.” At his signal, the khan is served by officials with their faces veiled so that their breath will not trouble his food or drink, figures who immediately withdraw three paces to prostrate themselves. Music plays as he eats and drinks, rendering the act momentous, that of a god eating from their table, and when the eating is done, the tables are cleared to make room for jesters, jugglers, and gymnasts, amusing all until the night is done, and the company make their stumbling exit, the strict rule not to touch the the threshold on the way momentarily relaxed to account for those too heavily affected by alcohol to avoid it. 

We see Kublai at his birthday party, a great festival. He’s a September baby, apparently, and he appears dressed all in gold with the nobility and officers all similarly dressed, some “ornamented with precious stones and pearls,” if less grandly than the khan. He receives gifts from all over his realm: precious metals, stones, and cloths. There are parades of richly adorned elephants, and of camels too, and sometimes, a lion is led forward, specially trained to prostrate itself before the khan in a clear demonstration of his absolute dominance over even the most wild and powerful manifestations of nature.

And we see Kublai at war. We see it in detail with the rebellion of Nayan, a prince of sorts and ruler of four provinces. It’s one of the passages where the text really zooms in for a moment on an event.

We read that Nayan was moved by the power he had accumulated, and a certain amount of youthful arrogance too, to become his own master and to overthrow the khan. And why not, you might think. The khan had after all won his throne by force of arms and was fair game. Nayan reached out first to Kaidu, head of the house of Ogedei and lord of the Chagatayid territory, seeking his assistance, and Kaidu, ever up for opposing Kublai in all things, agreed, promising to contribute one hundred thousand horsemen to the effort. But such large scale arrangements were not so quickly or quietly made, and before they could properly begin, Kublai had heard and he had acted.

In some sources, he sent his foremost general to investigate and Nayan revealed his treacherous and deceitful nature by hosting the general at a feast and then failing in his attempt to trick and trap the general, who escaped. According to Marco, he mustered what men were within 10 days journey and came up with 360,000 horse and 100,000 foot, obviously absurd quantities which apparently included his “falconers and domestic servants.” Maybe this indicated that he was indeed grabbing up whatever troops he could find quickly, before more extensive preparations could alert his enemy and, worse still, allow Kaidu’s forces to unite with Nayan’s, but by “domestic servants” the text likely means the keshig, something between a personal guard and civil service, not just a case of grabbing up the butler and the cook and getting out there. 

Kublai’s army moved quickly, coming close to Nayan’s without the enemy’s knowledge, coming so close that only a range of hills separated them, and still the one side did not know the other to be there, still did not know even as their enemies camped for two days and waited, as the khan consulted his astrologers for the proper time to strike. Then, one morning when he was told his victory was assured, he did strike. 

His men poured down into the plain, and only then did Nayan wake to their presence. He lamented that the connection with Kaidu hadn’t been achieved sooner, and, I can only assume, that he and his commanders had completely failed to secure a basic awareness of their surroundings. Perhaps they’d thought themselves to be safe there in their base of operations while their target sat comfortably ignorant in the luxury of his palace. But no, the target was here, now, approaching them in person in “a large wooden castle,” flying the sun and moon standard, bristling with bowmen. and “borne on the backs of four elephants,” their bodies covered in hardened leather and gold cloth.

“An infinite number of wind instruments” sounded then, and cymbals and drums and “such singing, that it was wonderful to hear,” and then they closed, first by arrow, then by lance, sword, and mace, until the piles of horses and men were high enough that it become difficult for the two sides to advance upon one another. So it went, from morning to noon, undecided, but at some point Nayan saw the threat of being surrounded and in attempting his escape he was taken and brought before the khan. Death was quickly arranged, wrapped in a carpet so that his noble blood would not spill beneath the sky, and with his surviving supporters pledging their loyalty to Kublai, that was an end to things.          

The text plays it all for glory, celebrating this special occasion which saw Kublai Khan go out in person to meet a military challenge long after he’d relaxed into his role as emperor and handed over such the bulk of such responsibilities to his sons and generals. But the story carries a bit of a double-edged message. Marco is, as always, here trumpeting the greatness of the Genghisid dynasty, the unifying power of its claim to the conquest of the world; however, for all this grandness, and Marco’s talk of a ruler who surpassed all others, in some respects Kublai did not even surpass his Mongol khan forebears. Yes, he would gain pretty vast parts of China, but he lacked in Central Asia the Chagatai Khanate lands, in the west the Golden Horde or Kipchak Khanate, and centred around present-day Iran, the Ilkhanate. He lacked things which even his older brother Mongke had possessed, so even as Marco doesn’t break stride in his narrative of unbroken greatness from Genghis Khan all the way up through to Kublai, the Nayan story serves as a little reminder that something had changed. 

That process of crumbling imperial unity which we followed through the To See the Mongols series was reaching its conclusion by this point, and of the different Mongol khanates only the Ilkhans would continue to offer any kind of allegiance, and that only performative. As a leader ascended to rule the Ilkhanate, they would look back east for legitimization and approval, but they wouldn’t be taking orders, marching to the assistance of Kublai and his descendants or participating in a vast pan-familial invasion of the kind that had seen princes of all the Ghengisid branches slicing into Central Europe and Southern Syria. Kublai Khan was still the founding emperor of the Yuan Dynasty in China, and that was still something pretty substantial; however, he was not really the khan of khans and the lord of lords, not any more, and, despite Marco’s description to the contrary, he was aging into obesity and alcoholism, and he stood only with great pain. 

Not that any of this halted Marco in heaping on the praise, for Kublai and for the Mongols more generally. The Franciscans who’d travelled to the khans before him had expressed disgust or irritation at a broad range of Mongol characteristics and behaviours, but not so with Marco. He found much to like.    

He describes the Mongols’ bravery in battle and in danger of all kinds, their ability to survive in any circumstance. “No people upon earth,” he claims “can surpass them in fortitude under difficulties, nor show great patience under wants of any kind. They are perfectly obedient to their chiefs.” And it goes one. The woman are praised for their “decency of conduct … their love and duty to their husbands,” and the men for their loyalty to their wives, whether they be few or many.  

This sort of thing wasn’t entirely new. Those friars before him had come to some of the same conclusions, but they’d also followed up with disapproval and even rancorous hostility. Friar Carpine had eventually concluded that the Mongols’ “evil habits [were] so numerous, they [could] hardly be set down,” while Friar William declared his willingness to preach war against them as best he could the world over. Now, Marco does admit that “[the Mongols’] disposition [was] cruel,” but he was otherwise overwhelmingly complementary of these people most perfect in marriage and perfect in war, patient through hardship, and loyal to their leaders. When he describes Genghis Khan’s initial conquests, he even attributes to the khan such an inclination towards, and I’m quoting here, ”justice and other virtues, that wherever he went, he found the people disposed to submit to him, and to esteem themselves happy when admitted to his protection and favour… .” He makes it sound like terror-tactics, large-scale butchery, and military conquest would have been entirely unnecessary to achieve expansion, only the realization of the tremendous goodness to be found in the supreme khan’s affectionate embrace. 

But that had been some time ago, hadn’t it. It had been in the first years of the 13th century when Genghis had been becoming Genghis and unifying the neighbouring clans under his rule, and now that century was almost over. 

This brings us to Marco’s one real critique of the Mongols, and it’s an interesting one: that the Mongols he came to know were not the Mongols who had spread across Asia and spilled triumphantly beyond its limits. They had, he says, started to forsake their own laws and to take up the customs and habits of the idol-worshippers and the Muslims. They’d started to settle in among the peoples they were to have conquered, to enjoy life among them, to soften and become corrupted by civilization, to lose the characteristics that had made them so uniquely capable of conquest in the first place. 

It’s a theme Marco returns to later, though he doesn’t make the connection himself, in spinning a bit of a fairytale of the Southern Song’s demise. Their ruler, we are told, was kind, generous, and just, but too safe for his own good, too secure behind his walls, and too given to whiling away his hours in the royal park with the thousand most beautiful women he could find. And that, we are told, led to his flight by ship before the khan’s approaching armies, that softness, that fleshiness of his character, bringing the entire empire to destruction. As a historical depiction of the the Southern Song’s final days, it’s been roundly dismissed, but the way it’s presented in contrast with the khan’s character is fascinating.

Quote: “Very different from the temper and habits of [the Song ruler] were those of Kublai Khan, emperor of the [Mongols], whose whole delight consisted in thoughts of a warlike nature, of the conquest of countries, and of extending his renown,” or so we are told. But the depictions of these two rulers have more similarities than he lets on. After all, in the Marco Polo text, we see Kublai at feasts, celebrations, and, at about his most active, on the backs of elephants, peeking out through the curtains to admire the ferocity of one of his falcons from the comforts of a couch. Marco says of this Song ruler that he ignored the world of war and weapons for the company of beautiful women, but the khan had an entire infrastructure in place to facilitate exactly that, scouting them from a particular region and then bringing them in for periods of training and tryouts, which Marco tells us all about. 

It’s seems an inconsistency, his apparent admiration for Kublai while seeing something similar as rot at the root of a dynasty’s collapse, and I don’t believe he is here trying to make a subtle go of predicting the decline and fall of the khan’s empire; that apparent admiration of his for Kublai and the Genghisid legacy appears to be very real and quite untroubled by doubts as to its future. And admittedly, the Mongols could not in the end be accused of forgetting all things to do with war, even if their rulers did spend their fair share of time in the park.

The whole idea of the Mongols experiencing a kind degenerative gentrification as they got used to the life of their new neighours makes for an interesting point, but not because it’s unique.

What Marco was touching on was the sort of traditionalist challenge that may have informed Nayan’s rebellion, likely motivated Kublai’s brother in their civil war, and was at the root of the challenge Kaidu long presented to Kublai’s rule and even that of his successor. In other words, it’s the kind of attack that Kublai fought off throughout his entire reign, militarily and culturally. What’s interesting here is that Marco would voice it at all, an uncharacteristic note of criticism of Kublai’s Mongols in China when he makes no such acknowledgment of this idea as a powerful one in propelling inter-Mongol conflict, of moving Nayan or others to rebel. He’s very much the voice of the establishment, spinning tales that likely echo those of court historians and entertainers. Quite possibly then, when he worries that the Mongols are being corrupted, he’s expressing not only the contention of those who rebelled against Kublai’s rule, but also an anxiety that was present at the court of the Yuan ruler himself.  

At the end of August, the milk of the khan’s special herd of white mares was sprinkled on the ground, and Marco and the rest of that court followed his beloved khan to Kublai’s capital. Remember that their first meeting was in Shang-Du, his summer retreat; it was still a pretty grand affair, and still really quite new, but Kublai had needed something different. He no longer wanted something Mongol and Chinese, as he had in the past, when he’d ordered the construction of Shang-Du. He’d wanted something entirely Chinese as the site and symbol of a new and Chinese empire like those which had governed before. For that, he had looked to an old imperial home, to Zhongdu, the Jin Dynasty capital which the armies of Genghis had destroyed in 1215, and he ordered construction to begin there where an overgrown parkland surrounded a beautiful lake. 

That’s where Marco, the khan, and thousands of others were bound, and over the course of some 20 years, he likely made the trip often, but he doesn’t describe the route in any great detail. Elsewhere, there is drama to be found in the act of travel; there is a place where tangled piles are made of the bones of wild goats, to mark the way when the path is too covered in snow to see; and there is another, a desert, where voices are heard, malicious spirits which lure stragglers away from their parties and to their doom with familiar-sounding calls, and where the sudden sight of phantasmal brigands cause the unwary to flee in terror and become terminally lost in the dunes. 

By comparison, the grand procession from summer home to imperial capital was evidently less exciting. However, as a logistical feat it is really quite impressive, involving an army of human and animal life to be settled and fed at established towns along the way, at least one them an old imperial stronghold itself, the refurbished skeleton of yet another empire. And the journey to the capital had other significance too, as a parade to the new centre of the Yuan Mongol world, more than 1300 kilometres from Karakorum. 

Marco records the name of Kublai’s new capital as Cambaluc, a decent enough attempt at Khan-baliq, literally the Khan’s city, but it was also known as Daidu, and if you looked for it now on a map, you’d be looking for Beijing. 

As Marco entered it, he described another nested city, like Shangdu, with the palace within an inner city within another city, walls within walls within walls. For the construction, Kublai had again turned to his advisor Liu Bingzhong, the Shangdu architect, as well as the ingenious water-engineer Guo Shoujing, and possibly also a Central Asian Muslim named Ilkhtiyar al-Din. A temple sprang up dedicated to Kublai’s ancestors and granting Genghis Khan a Chinese title. There was a Buddhist temple too, a white pagoda which still can be seen. An astronomical observatory. A Green Mount to which the khan ordered the most handsome trees in his realms be brought and replanted and a pavilion at its peak. Bridges, lakes, and gardens, abundant wildlife and game in the parklands, and fish, swans, and aquatic birds in the waters. And the palace. 

The palace was a single story but high roofed, and covered in tiles of different colours, of “red, green, azure, and violet,” raised on marble and accessible on all 4 sides by marble staircases. Within were halls, chambers, and apartments, all beautifully decorated with gilding, and carvings of dragons, warriors, beasts, and battle scenes. This was where Kublai had founded an imperial Chinese dynasty, where, again with the help of Liu Bingzhong, he had taken the name Yuan to refer to that dynasty, a word carrying the senses of source, of origin, of prime mover, of spring, of eldest, and of much more besides. Mongol touches were present - the ermine skins in the khan’s sleeping chambers, the gers, or tents, in the parks, the soil of the Mongol steppes for the royal altar - but this was recognizably a Chinese imperial city, its buildings, rituals, and institutions an open appeal on the part of its ruler.    

Marco doesn’t only linger over this palace and the greatness of its occupant. He also turns to outer city, and the world of its inhabitants, and in his telling reveals a discontent among them under Kublai’s rule, if one he blames a Muslim minister for. 

He tells us that Khan-baliq was a city of astrologers, a city of 5,000 of them, and that these astrologers, based upon their charting of the heavenly bodies, would make predictions about the future, that in one month there would be lightning and heavy rains or in another sickness, discord, and conspiracy. They would write their predictions up on small squares and sell them to those desiring a look at the future, with the most proven forecasters being the most honoured and the most sought after. Or they would provide more specific readings, for the beginning of any great venture, in war, business, travel, personal life, or the development of a new capital. It seems that one of the readings offered as to Kublai’s new capital spoke of rebelliousness and treachery in the city, and this only further fed a suspicion in the khan’s mind which already had some history behind it.

Even back before Kublai Khan had been Great Khan, there had been a rebellion in northern China led by a local leader who had fought on behalf of the Mongols against the Song. More importantly, it was assisted by one of one of Kublai’s long-time Confucian advisors, who he’d had to execute, and this betrayal really seems to have stung. Quite aside from the fact that there would, naturally, be an abundance of uprisings in the occupied Song territory, historians such as Morris Rossabi have pointed to a growing distrust of the Chinese on Kublai’s part, a distrust that would impact his policies moving forward. So even as he moved to make himself familiar to the Chinese, taking up a number of his advisers’ suggestions to adapt in rituals, laws, institutions, and material culture, he refused to take other steps such as continuing with the traditional civil service examinations. He recognized that doing so would have limited his officials to those with a demonstrated familiarity with the Confucian texts. And he didn’t want that. Where possible, he’d actually look to govern China with administrators from elsewhere.

With all this in mind, Kublai kept a pretty tight grip on the locals. A great bell rang out every night, and from then on, one had to remain inside or find yourself swept up by patrols with your fate to be decided on in the morning. Only a dire emergency would excuse going out and then you had to carry a light. It must have been an eerie place to be of an evening, with all its people sealed up inside, the odd few dashing out on urgent matters, or scurrying silently as they could in the darkness, avoiding the roving guards who moved through the streets in groups of 30-40. It was an occupation. And it was the scene of building displeasure under the governance of Ahmed, one of a powerful council of twelve that saw to the empire’s affairs, and one who apparently was particularly favoured by Kublai.

Ahmed is described as a “crafty and bold man.” He filled public offices to further his interests, and extracted “presents” from those he’d seen appointed; he manipulated, bribed, and threatened to gain the most beautiful women as wives and otherwise; he brought about the execution of any who opposed him; and he and his sons generally seem to have reigned as tyrants beneath the khan’s nose, massively enriching themselves over two decades. 

That was the picture Marco offered at least, but Ahmed appears in other sources too; and he was not, or at least not only, the entirely self-interested predator we see in Marco’s sketch. Born near present-day Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, he was Kublai’s finance minister, the man in charge of the khan’s tax collection and financial policies and thus likely an unpopular fellow at the best of times. And this was an expensive time; there were the intermittent incursions from Kaidu to be dealt with on the Central Asian border, support required for the Korean vassal, the conquest of Myanmar, and disastrous overseas adventure in Japan, all of which had to be paid for, in addition to non-military costs such as massive new construction and infrastructure projects. Ahmed was the one responsible for squeezing the fruit, and Kublai was a ruler who needed a lot of juice.       

That may partially explain the evisceration Ahmed receives in the Yuan sources, and it’s worth noting that he’s not the only villainous financial administrator to be found there. He appears as a man who abused the very economic policies he had created for his own profit, whose appointments were driven by nepotism, and who leaned heavily on false accusations in order to undermine political opponents and see them retired or executed. On the other hand, in Persian sources such as Rashid al-Din, Ahmed gets a much kinder portrayal, as someone who held his office “with honour for nearly 25 years,” who encouraged trade, and, if he had brought his supporters and family members into offices around him, well that was perfectly natural, and indeed necessary to see his policies enacted in the face of a great deal of personal hostility. Maybe he was simply a successful player for power whose successes and position as a foreign-born finance minister over a conquered people made him hateful in the eyes of those who felt the effects of his decisions and those he outmaneuvered at court. 

Of course, there is no question of such nuances in Marco’s dramatic telling. As he has it, the khan had been bewitched, had actually fallen victim to magic spells that had brought him under his cunning minister’s sway and rendered him blind to the man’s corruption and abuses. He goes on to say that the people of the city waited for a chance to deal with Ahmed, and two conspirators in particular were waiting. Marco identifies them as Vanku and Chenku, leaders of men, either militarily or as civil officers, while from others we see them as Wang Zhu and Gao. The former was a military commander who’d found himself a brass club which he was saving just for Ahmed, and the latter was a Buddhist monk and magician who’d apparently once murdered somebody to fake his own suicide after one of his magic tricks had proven less than magical. 

This delightful pair chose a time when Kublai was away from the city, gone early to his summer retreat on the night of April 10th, 1282, and they went into action, to assassinate Ahmed and then send out word to their contacts that the uprising should begin and that all with beards should be killed. There are variations on the plan, but they all revolve around faking the arrival of Kublai’s son Zhenjin. In the Marco version, Wang Zhu and Gao sneak into Zhenjin’s palace and light up one of his apartments before having a messenger sent to Ahmed, telling him that the khan’s heir, who Ahmed feared and respected, had arrived suddenly in the city and required his attendance. All seemed to go well, but they didn’t know that Ahmed, in hurrying through the city had bumped into a commander of the guard who was bemused to hear that the Zhenjin should have come so secretly that he hadn’t heard of it and followed after Ahmed. So when the target entered that lit up room and perceived a seated figure, he prostrated himself before it, and Gao stepped forward and cut off his head. But then the commander stepped forward too from the doorway, and he raised the alarm with a cry of treason, and he shot Wang Zhu where he sat. 

In other tellings, the conspirators also came at night but with a group of followers, presenting themselves as the prince and in his escort. Killing one set of guards who saw through their disguise and tricking another into escorting them to the palace, they called Ahmed forth. And here Wang Zhu got to use that brass club of his, killing Ahmed with a single blow to the head before being seized in the chaos that followed. 

There was to be no revolution after the killing. Instead, there was a swift roundup of conspirators. When he heard what had happened, an enraged Kublai promptly ordered the execution of all involved, and then he sent an officer to look into the matter. Marco has it that this officer reported back with information that enraged the khan again, that this was when evidence of Ahmed’s use of magic came to light, that Ahmed’s body was disinterred and torn apart by dogs, that his sons were flayed alive, and that even his fellow Muslims were punished for his deeds, some as his colleagues or appointees, but others simply as his coreligionists, with new laws at least temporarily imposed on their practices, and new restrictions. 

And in other versions too, it’s in the aftermath where Ahmed was really vilified. His home was searched, and suspicious quantities of wealth were uncovered along with a pair of tanned human skins, and, the real clincher, a jewel that had specifically been given to the khan. But as others have asked before me, why was this incriminating jewel so easily discovered? Why did his family not get rid of it or hide it elsewhere? Did they not know of its origin, or had it been planted on them by Ahmed’s enemies? Of course, it’s difficult to know at this point.

The Ahmed anecdote is an important one in the Polo text. It hints at a lot of issues in Kublai’s reign: financial difficulties, corruption, infighting among his advisors and officials, problems caused when he was seen to privilege one religious group or another, the idea that try as he might to present as a Chinese Emperor, he was still one of the ones with beards, and the list goes on - but it’s also important for another reason. It includes the claim that Marco Polo was present in the city for all of this, there in the capital in 1282 when Ahmed, fairly or unfairly, met his violent end.

And this is significant because the text rarely gives any such indication; you mark them all down as you’re reading through it, but you’re not left with much, just a few snippets really outside of the prologue. You read at one point that he was ill for some time and was cured by the clean air in the mountains of Badakhshan, the northeast of modern-day Afghanistan, and at another that he and the older Polos spent a year in a Tangut city, for reasons he declines to expand on. He says he spent a lot of time at the old Song dynasty capital at Hangzhou, known by the Song as Lin’an and referred to as Kin-Sai by Marco, and in the relative abundance of detail, one can easily believe he spent some time there.

His doings generally have remained a mystery though, a topic still of contention and disagreement, with some even claiming that he never actually went to China at all. And that’s what I’m going to get into next time. I’d originally thought to do so in this episode, but I wanted to really focus here on Marco’s Kublai, on this picture of a khan caught in a curious moment: governing over a conquered population that vastly outnumbered his own forces and doing so, at the direction of his advisors, by making himself more familiar to that population, but also clearly uncomfortable with going too far in that direction, and all the while alienating many in the Mongol world with the moves which he did make. And I wanted to focus on this idea of Marco himself not just as some kind of trans-continental flaneur, but perhaps to be thought of as more of a mouthpiece for empire and a trumpeter for Kublai Khan as the bearer of Genghis’s dynastic legacy. So next time, the doings of Marco Polo in China as governor, ambassador, builder of siege engines, outright liar, or something else entirely. That’ll be the story next episode.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Man, John. Marco Polo: The Journey that Changed the World. HarperCollins, 2009.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. University of California Press, 1988.

Marco and the Polos 2: Of Assassins and Other Things

Marco Polo Venice

The text we’re dealing with today is about travel, but it isn’t really a travel narrative. In fact for the great majority of the book, or books, there’s very little narrative at all. It follows the journeys of a Venetian merchant family, and there are prices to be found, and products, and quantities too, but it is no merchant’s handbook. The characters within are in circumstances which virtually guarantee adventure, but this is no adventure story either and what little there is seems amongst the books’ most suspect material. It might be said to be a work of geography, and here we’re closer to the truth, but then it’s not easy to use as such and is often hindered by the skeleton of a story that does exist. As a work of history, it’s frequently misleading, and as a book of wonder, it’s rather short on wonders, or at least those of the fantastical kind.

The books of Marco Polo, are, in summary, a pretty frustrating read. But there is something there, sometimes actually there on the page and sometimes more in the space formed by omission, something that has captured people's imaginations for hundreds of years and continues to do so today. With this episode and the next two, I’ll try to get at what that is. 

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time I ask of you, like a khan to a pope, that you and all your kings and princes please rate and review the podcast, on iTunes, Stitcher, or your platform of choice, and that you impose upon your cousins, vassals, and land-bound labourers to do the same. Thank you, all of you who have already supported the podcast in this way or with donations, and thank you too, all of you who have supported the podcast just by downloading it. It’s extremely nice on my end to see that people are indeed listening. Now, all of that aside, let’s begin.

Over the next few episodes, I’ll be talking about the Marco Polo text, a book that goes by various names, and I'll be looking at both the history of the book and the history contained within it. I’ll also continue to follow the story, such as it is, that the book gives us of the Polos and their travels. Today, we’ll be looking at their departure from Venice, their journey towards Kublai Khan, and some of the themes of the text as well a bit of the history/mythology it contains. 

Last episode, we started in on the prologue, that of our story and that of the books themselves, following Niccolo and Maffeo from Constantinople, across the waters of the Black Sea and east to meet with Berke Khan of the Golden Horde or Kipchak Khanate, and then, their way home blocked, rather further east, seeking first to find a bit of a long-cut back to the Mediterranean and then taking up the envoys’ invitation that brought them to the palace of the emperor Kublai Khan. When we left them, their mission on the khan’s behalf, the delivery of a letter and the request for holy oil and a hundred men, was stalled by events beyond their control, a papal election or lack thereof. The Polos were forced to wait, and as they did, they dropped in on the family back home in Venice. Let’s pick things up from there.

Marco’s Venice had sailed through the rough patch that followed the fall of the Latin Empire of Constantinople as well as could be expected. The returned Greek emperor had allied himself with Venice’s Genoan enemies and barred the Venetian fleet from its critical anchorage at the gateway to the Black Sea. But the exile hadn’t lasted for long. The emperor had his own motives in not favouring Genoa too much and in playing the two rivals off against each other and had his own troubles with attempting to restore the rest of the old empire, and he soon let them back in the door. Venice’s exclusivity, which it had enjoyed under the Latin Empire, wasn't coming back, but it's colony was allowed to remain in place and most of its trading privileges were restored. If the city was no longer the only player at the table, at least it again had a seat. 

Venice was growing, in prestige and prosperity. From the sacking of Constantinople, it had drawn in the treasures of an empire, and the wealth and goods brought by trade continued to fill its purse, as carpets, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, silk, slaves, and perfume sailed into its port.   

And what about Marco himself? Given that the book leaves our main character behind to focus on his father and uncle’s time abroad, what can we say of his early years? That he grew up in the shadow of all this imperial splendour. That he was raised in a merchant family. That he lived in the parish of San Severo with his other uncle following his mother’s death. And that he was very likely brought up on the kind of math which we would term “word problems.” 

And we have examples. Maybe you’ll feel closer to Marco to think of him sitting down to a kind of lesson that in some ways sounds oddly familiar: 

Make me this calculation. 2 merchants have their wool on a ship. One of them put 13 sacks and the other of them put 17 sacks [on board]. And when they had arrived in Venice the captain demanded his freight charges from the merchants and they said to him, "Take one of our sacks from each of us and sell it and pay our freight costs and return the remainder." And the captain took 2 of these sacks and sold them and gave 10 coins from the proceeds to him who had 13 sacks and the freight had been paid. And he returned 3 coins to the man who had 17 sacks and his freight was entirely paid. And the merchants said to the captain, "We want to know how much you sold the sacks for, and how you calculated what you took from it for freight charges."

Of course you, or little baby Marco, had to speak for the captain, give the final answer, and show your work. 

Along with this kind of applied math, Marco would have learned about conversions of currencies, weights, and measurements, assessing the value of different products, the movement of silver about Europe, and helpful proverbs like “Good words and evil deeds deceive wise man and fool alike.” All of it appears in the early 14th-century Venetian merchants’ handbook, the Zibaldone da Canal. It’s a few decades later, and of a different merchant family than the Polos, but it’s a taste of the culture Marco would have been brought up in while his father and uncle were away.

Once they were all back together in the city, they waited; they waited for quite a while for a new pope to be declared; they waited until they grew tired of waiting, until they could do so no longer. They waited during the longest papal election in history, as the cardinals were locked in, placed on rations of bread and water, and had the roof removed from over their heads all in order to encourage their timeliness. Two of the cardinals in question actually died during this painful 3 year process, as well as a third who had, perhaps wisely, managed to make himself absent for the whole thing. Understandably, the Polos gave up on waiting, and they left before a new pope was named. 

It was three Polos this time, for Niccolo and Maffeo were joined by Marco for their trip back to Kublai Khan. In fiction, this is often dramatized with Marco convincing his at first reluctant father to bring him along, but really there’s no reason to think this was the case. Certainly there’s no suggestion of this in the text, and if the Mongol khan’s court was a far stretch for a first turn at travelling merchant’s apprentice, it was about time for the younger Polo to get out and experience the world. 

The three of them made first for Acre, where they met again with the papal representative, Teobaldo Visconti, and then went inland to Jerusalem. If they couldn’t get a pope to give them a hundred men, then at least, Visconti had indicated, they might bring the khan some oil. The expedition to the holy city was no great trek as journeys covered on this podcast go, a mere 80 miles as the crow flies, but it may still have presented dangers. They were in the Mamluks’ territory now. 

There had been some limited cooperation between the Mamluks and the crusaders when the former had gone north to face Hulagu’s Mongols in 1260, but a decade since had made quite a difference in where things stood. Since then, the armies of the Mamluk Sultan Baibars had swept out of Egypt and into the remains of the Crusader States, besieging Acre, unsuccessfully, in 1263, but taking a number of towns and castle. They had gone as far north as Lesser Armenia, looting its cities as they went, and in 1268 they had had taken Antioch and massacred or enslaved its people. Antioch’s ruler, Bohemond VI, had not been present at the time, but he had received a letter from Baibars, filling him in on what he’d missed:

Death came among the besieged from all sides and by all roads: we killed all that thou hadst appointed to guard the city or defend its approaches. If thou hadst seen thy knights trampled under the feet of the horses, thy provinces given up to pillage, thy riches distributed by measures full, the wives of thy subjects put to public sale; if thou hadst seen the pulpits and crosses overturned, the leaves of the Gospel torn and cast to the winds, and the sepulchres of thy patriarchs profaned; if thou hadst seen thy enemies, the Muslims, trampling upon the tabernacle, and immolating in the sanctuary, monk, priest and deacon; in short, if thou hadst seen thy palaces given up to the flames, the dead devoured by the fire of this world, the Church of St Paul and that of St Peter completely and entirely destroyed, certainly thou wouldst have cried out “Would to Heaven that I were become dust!”

This was all pretty recent too; less than five years had passed. And Jerusalem was in Mamluk hands when the Polos went. Though the text makes no mention of it at this point, it was likely a tense little shopping trip for the Venetians. Like so much of the Marco Polo text, it’s the stuff of a single sentence, but you can so easily imagine it spun out into a book or a movie. 

Once they had the oil, the Polos were on their way, heading north through Little Armenia, but it wasn’t open roads ahead to China. Instead, they received a letter summoning them straight back to Acre. Larger dramas had played themselves out and now imposed themselves on the Polos, for that long wait we talked about was finally over. There was a new pope, and his name, well his name was now Gregory X, but right up until it was that, it had been Teobaldo Visconti, the Polos’ man in Acre. 

It was quite a stroke of luck for our Venetian friends. The ruler of Lesser Armenia set them up with a galley and sent them back down the coast, and their acquaintance, the brand new pope, set them up with blessings and new credentials. However, he didn’t set them up with 100 well educated Christians. You might have thought that 100 moderately capable men who would do in a pinch might have been scared up for the occasion, but Pope Gregory doesn’t seem to have gone that route. Instead, he kept with tradition where adventures to the Mongol khans were concerned. He sent them with papal letters and a pair of Dominicans, Nicolo da Vicenza and Guielmo da Tripoli. Friars were something that came in twos, not in hundreds, and the Polos weren’t waiting around for another 98. Back up through Lesser Armenia they went.

That's how far they’d gotten last time before being called back by the new pope. This time, that’s how far they got before alarming intelligence reached their ears, and their two friars abandoned ship on the whole project. Clearly, these were not the hardy Franciscans of previous decades, sternly braving starvation, stone-cracking cold, and death by Mongol to venture into alien lands from which some would literally never return. These two apparently just needed to hear about the Mamluk Sultan Baibars laying waste to the country to turn over the papal letters to the Polos and their own safety to a nearby body of Knights Templar. And the timing of this is a little odd, coming solidly between notable two periods of Mamluk incursions into Lesser Armenia and Anatolia. 

It doesn’t seem like any major invasion ought to have caused them any trouble. Still, it’s believable enough that fighting, or rumour of it, was creeping north through Syria at the time our party was passing through. Or maybe this was just a literary device intended to show-off the Polos’ unshakable fortitude in the face of threats that would make lesser men scurry to the relative safety of the nearest crusader outpost. Either way, I fear our days of following Franciscans and Dominicans to the courts of khans may be behind us. There was to be no great friar-Mongol adventure this time. The Venetians continued on, surely not alone, but no longer bringing even 2 of the requested 100, on towards Kublai Khan. 

And this is how that great journey reads in one of the editions I’m using:

Niccolo, Maffeo, and Marco, however, undismayed by perils and difficulties (to which they had long been inured), passed the borders of Armenia, and prosecuted their journey. After crossing deserts of several days’ march, and passing many dangerous defiles, they advanced so far, in a direction between north-east and north, that at length they gained information of the grand khan, who then had his residence in a large and magnificent city named [Shangdu]. Their whole journey to this place occupied no less than three years and a half… .

Like I said, the book is no travel narrative, no great feat of adventure story-writing. Here we have yet another purported three year period which must indeed, as the text admits, have included hard marches over deserts and through “dangerous defiles,” and much more besides, even with that golden tablet of imperial favour and entitlement that Kublai had granted them. But this short paragraph is all the text includes on the matter, a great emptiness into which an imagination might pour all kinds of stories.

And maybe we can fill in some of those blanks by looking elsewhere in the books of Marco Polo. I should explain here, that the narrative part of the books is really very short. It’s a prologue, a set-up for the main body of the text, a justification or explanation for it. The main body is something like a cataloguing of selected towns, cities, and regions from Lesser Armenia on east, with the odd story interspersed. You’ll read that such-and-such a town is noble and good and populated by people of W and X religions who produce Y and Z crops and products, and sometimes things then move hurriedly on to the next noble city with little to differentiate them. In one location, it’s only the swollen legs and glands of the populace that stand out. In other places there are other details that start to colour in the gaps in the narrative or establish other patterns.

Of Lesser Armenia for example, we read that the game was plentiful, both birds and beasts, a feature that always seems to have drawn Marco’s attention; we also read that the air was not particularly healthy, that the city on the coast from which they moved inland was heavily frequented by merchants from Venice, Genoa, and elsewhere trading in spice, silk, and other goods, and that the nobility of the area had in the past been renowned for their expertise as soldiers but now were fallen on drunkenness and cowardice. 

This last point raises questions for me. Was this a generalization based on a personal encounter or two, something like the generalized grumbling of a tourist who once had a disappointing breakfast somewhere? Was it something said locally of the region’s nobility that the travellers picked up on? Or did Marco simply prefer places to people? We’re going to see that cities are often magnificent and noble, but their people, nobles and commoners alike, are often treacherous and bloodthirsty criminals with few redeeming characteristics. And there’s an immediate example of this as the Polos moved east from Lesser Armenia. The Turkomans had excellent horses, and sold fine mules, but the human inhabitants themselves were, like others we’ll meet, “rude people, and dull of intellect.” 

Further east, the Venetians started to pass through lands that were to them alive with the life and legends of Alexander the Great: places where his gates had sealed off the uncivil world, where his army had fought with that of Darius the Achaemenid Emperor, where he’d married Darius’ daughter, or where animals descended from Alexander’s own beloved horse Bucephalus had still, until only recently, still walked the earth; had done so until their owner, the king’s uncle, had refused to surrender them up to the king and been killed for it, and his widow had then destroyed the horses.

The city of Baghdad is described as the “the noblest and most extensive city to be found in [that] part of the world,” home to silks wrought with gold, “velvets ornamented with the figures of birds and beasts,” and studies in “[Islamic] law, magic, physics, astronomy, [and] geomancy.” It is also identified as the place where Hulagu had defeated the last Abbasid caliph and sealed him away with all his riches to ponder, in his last starving, dying days, the uselessness of all that gold. Not the way the caliph’s end is usually believed to have come, but certainly a memorable story.  

The city of Tabriz on the other hand is, of course, “large and very noble,” abundant in precious stones and pearls, delightful gardens, and merchants from Europe and India. Those who were part of such trade were wealthy indeed, but the bulk of the inhabitants very poor, and the Muslim there were singled out as “treacherous and unprincipled.” You might be starting to notice a pattern here. 

As the books wind their way east, Muslims are pretty regularly associated with villainy of one kind or another: in one area given to “savage and bloodthirsty” acts of violence which they’d happily inflict on travellers and traders alike were it not for their fear of Mongol retribution, in another as covetous and sordid merchants, prone to all manner of ill-dealings. Muslims in the books’ depiction are dishonest even with themselves, condensing wine and then giving it another name so as to sidestep prohibitions and drink it, and they are too easily redeemed by the confession of their faith and thus feel free to commit even the most serious criminal acts without repercussions. Piling on to this, there are stories of Muslim persecution of Christians and of miraculous interventions by which they are foiled, in Baghdad and Samarkand in particular. 

Along with all of this though, there are some counter examples which start to stand out. 

Sometimes this might be physical admiration, as in the case of an area of northern Iran where the Muslims are described as, quote, “a handsome race, especially the women, … the most beautiful in the world.” Other qualities stood out too, and not just of appearance. In one area the Muslims are “civilized in their manners, and accounted valiant in war.” In another they are considered keen and skilled sportsmen and hunters, not an inconsequential compliment from one as interested in hunting as Marco seems to have been. Then, on a more personal note, he records learning much from a very wise Turkoman travelling companion, a Muslim. My point here is that the text is hardly immune to the biases of its times; they’re here in abundance. But it does, very occasionally, rise above them or, perhaps more accurately, shuffle around them. The Other in the Marco text is a pretty interesting topic in itself, and I’ll get into it more next episode with its treatment of Mongols and Chinese, but for now let’s turn to the topic I think of as stories of the road.

On the Polos’ travels, they heard stories of the lands they passed through, and these vary quite a bit. You get the humble shoemaker of Baghdad who once accidentally saw the leg of an attractive slipper-buyer and then scooped out his own eye before causing a mountain to move and an Abbasid caliph to secretly convert; you get recent Mongol history given in some detail like Kublai’s war with Kaidu of the house of Chagatai; and between fairytale and rough history, you get things like the Assassins.

I’ve talked a little about the Assassins before on this podcast, about their legendary mountain strongholds and how they fell to the invasion of Kublai’s brother Hulagu, and I’ve long planned to work them more fully in as the focus of an episode, but that won’t be this episode. I bring them up again here though because the Marco Polo telling, which he “testifies to having heard from sundry persons,” is one that has been largely discounted but is also one that has really stuck with us since. It’s a synthesis of the Assassin legends that were already circulating among Europeans, with perhaps a few additions, but it quickly became the standard version, and it might be the one you recognize.

“Having spoken of this country,” it opens, “mention shall now be made of the old man of the mountain.” What comes next is an explanation of how “the old man of the mountain,” Ala al-Din Muhammad III, commanded total obedience from his followers and sent them out into the world to reliably do his bidding in the face of death.  

Between two lofty mountains, there was a beautiful valley, a luxurious garden paradise into which Ala al-Din brought the most delicious fruits and the most fragrant bushes and flowers, all in abundance. There were palaces, richly decorated in gold, paintings, and silks. There were, arranged to flow into them, streams of the purest water, and of wine, milk, and honey. And there were women, skilled in song and dance, in music, and in, quote, “dalliance and amorous allurement.” It was a garden of delights and fascination, an unearthly paradise to satisfy all the senses and every desire. It was in short a place one was meant to want to stay, to cling to, to remain and never to leave, and if you must go, to claw your way back in as quickly as possible. 

Over this garden valley, Ala al-Din had absolute power. You could only get there through a secret passage from an impregnable mountain fortress, and you only entered when, if, and how he wanted you to. The chosen were young men from the surrounding area, those who showed bravery and a certain promise in the martial disciplines. He secluded these youths at his castle, lecturing them daily on his power to grant entrance into paradise, and dosing them with opium. You’d awaken to find yourself in a palace apartment within the valley, surrounded by beautiful women, with milk and honey flowing through the room and a head full of drugs and, soon exquisite, exquisite wine too. A few days of this and all its joys and you’d again be moved in your sleep, whisked away to the unpleasantly normal world outside. Where had you been, you would be questioned before Ala al-Din and his people; in paradise, you confidently replied, by the favour of the old man of the mountain. 

Such were the rewards which waited for those who did his bidding, and so his followers had no fear when thrown into danger. Fear was for those who crossed him and his people, whether king, vizier, or caliph, for their fate was a very public death by dagger at the hands of a man who knew his own fate already to be assured in the happiest of ways. 

The text wraps things up with the Mongols dismantling that legendary fortress, and this did indeed happen, but it should be noted that there are no reports of heavenly garden valleys. Possibly they had just been very well hidden. Then, the text wanders on to other things, to a waterless desert and to a town which produces the best melons in the world, cut in long thin spirals and dried in the sun for shipment. Such is the peculiarity of the Marco Polo text, mixing these details which can seem to us somewhat mundane with highly dramatic bursts of history or legend.

And the Polos also wandered on, their experiences on the road very occasionally bubbling to the surface in the text in little hints and allusions. Maybe Marco was kidnapped at a certain point, losing many of his fellow-travellers as they were sold into slavery or put to death. Elsewhere, he might have been present to witness winds of such an extreme temperature that the locals would submerge themselves in water up to the chin to save themselves from the suffocating heat. It was said to be so bad that the baked remains of anyone caught out in the open would fall apart on contact, limbs dropping to the ground as people tried to clear their corpses. It was all very colourful and unpleasant. 

These moments of Marco’s personal experience come up very rarely after the prologue, really forming an infinitesimal portion of the text, so much so that their purpose is slightly unclear. Are they intended to entertain, to break up a sometimes monotonous geographical parade? Honestly, there's really not enough of them for that, and, that being the case, “why not?!” I want to ask, want to ask while roughly shaking Marco by his shoulders in fact. The man and some immediate relatives make a 13th-century land journey to China and the court of Kublai Khan and the text has fairly little to say about it. Again, I think it's part of what makes the subject matter so appealing to turn to fiction, a great sea of possible and even likely adventures that exist in these openings, just waiting to be coloured in, but it's also more than a little aggravating.

Verification seems another likely reason to reference personal experience. You can believe these things I'm telling you to be true because I was there and I saw them. It’s a common enough inclusion, sometimes quite repetitive even, in medieval travel narratives, but that's not the case here. The aspects Marco is attested to have experienced on the journey east are few - you wouldn't get to your other hand in counting them off - and they seem almost inconsequential the details that are supported in this way, not at all matters of great importance or attached to key locations where it's crucial to establish that he was there.

In the end the personal material in this section feels a little like accidental inclusions, inadvertent slips that made it into the text. So let’s put them aside for now. We’ll be returning to Marco’s role in his own story next episode, and to the creation of the text itself, but for now let’s turn to another section of legend and history. Let’s turn to Prester John. 

Yes, it's the return of that mythical priest king who I keep threatening to do a series about so often does he pop up. And here’s another example, in the Marco Polo text. What’s he doing there? Well, he’s serving as a father figure and a mentor to Genghis before falling out with the great khan and being overthrown by him. If you’re familiar with the Genghis story, then you’ll have heard this one before. This was the Ong Khan, the regional ruler whose favour Genghis had sought out long before he himself rose to any kind of great stature. This seemingly odd association, of local ruler long defeated with Christian saviour, is not unique to this book. The Ong Khan had been associated with Prester John in the past. Friar William makes a mention of the connection, and speaks of crossing Prester John’s supposed realms but finding none save the odd Nestorian who recognized what he was talking about. And communications from the Mongols also included reference to themselves as the conquerors of the priest-king and the inheritors of his lands and authority. As travellers like the friars we followed went into Mongol territory, there was a great deal of curiosity as to Prester John, and lo and behold, there he was found. But he had changed. 

This was not the otherworldly figure, the dispenser of miracles who lived among monstrous beings and went to war with an invincible army forming up in unlikely numbers behind jeweled crosses. This was someone more modest, someone who had diminished in stature as they had drawn closer to him, someone who had faced and been defeated by Genghis Khan. And it wasn’t relegated entirely to the past either; there’s a present-day descendant of Prester John serving as the Mongol Khan’s vassal in the Marco Polo text, and his realm produces fine quality azure stone and camel-hair products. It’s an interesting transition which I need to get further into at some point, but one can immediately see the obvious propaganda value in it for the khans, their power eclipsing this nearly all-powerful Christian saviour even as their armies seemed at first to realize the promise of defeating the Muslims in the Holy Land. And this was Marco Polo’s little part in it all, as he, his father, and his uncle, travelled across countryside that had been Prester John’s, making their way towards Kublai.  

The Polos may well have been concerned that when they finally arrived at the khan’s court, they would find themselves unwelcome, perhaps forgotten; something of the sort may have been going through their minds when they made to leave without waiting for a new pope. It would after all have been years since Niccolo and Maffeo had left Kublai’s company, 8 years by the book’s accounting of time, in some editions at least. Who could know what other whims, interests, or ideas might attract the attention of a Mongol emperor in such a long interim, and whether or not he would still care to see them when they arrived. 

As it turned out, they needn’t have worried. The text informs us that they were given the royal welcome, met 40 days’ journey from their destination and with orders given to ease their way and give what comfort could be offered as they approached. That was how they came to Shangdu and found Kublai Khan waiting for them.

If you’ve listened to episode 7 of my Mongols series, you’ve come across Shangdu before, though not by that name. Back then, when Kublai had first established it, back when his brother Mongke had still ruled as great khan, it been Kaiping, the shiny new capital designed for him by his advisor Liu Bingzhong. In 1264 it had been renamed Shangdu, or Upper Captital, but it was no longer Kublai’s primary city. As of 1267, that had been another city, at present-day Beijing, but when the Polos visited the khan, they did so in Shangdu, now his summer capital. 

The city of Shangdu was three nested cities within one square outer wall of two and a half kilometres of pounded earth on all sides. On a map, the outer city took up an L shape across the top and down the left side, while in the lower right quadrant, more than a quarter really, was the imperial city, and then boxed within that, the palace city. For a closer look than that, we’ll need Marco’s help.

The text describes a palace of marble and other attractive stones, elegant in design and skillful in execution, its chambers and halls all in gilt and exquisitely painted with the figures of people, beast, birds, flowers, and trees, paintings that you could only regard “with delight and astonishment.” But it’s the khan’s special park and hunting enclosure that really receives the attention here. There were rich and beautiful meadows, watered by many rivers and brooks and dotted with fountains, and stocked with animals of all kinds that were not “ferocious in nature” and which roamed among trees and plants brought to that place for the khan’s enjoyment. More than 200 hundred hunting hawks and falcons were kept on the grounds and at least one hunting leopard which was carried on horseback, presumably on a horse with no sense of smell or self-preservation, until it was to be loosed at the khan’s command. At a particularly lovely spot, by a grove of trees, was the khan’s pavilion, its gilt pillars, wrapped in dragons, supporting a roof of varnished bamboo. It was in short a place to which the resources of a great power were exerted to facilitate the leisure of one man’s summer months.

That was was the Shangdu the Polos arrived at, and the text relates that all the khan’s highest officers were there when they were ushered into his presence, and that the travellers stepped forward and prostrated themselves on the floor before him. Kublai commanded them to rise, and they did so. Then he asked after their mission on his behalf. What of their travels, and what of the pope? What of the oil and those one hundred men? How had it all gone? 

Now we know there were to be no 100 forthcoming, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered the khan overly. He listened in silence to their story, and then greeted with enthusiasm first “the letters and presents of Pope Gregory,” and then the holy oil. The latter was received with reverence, we read, and instructions given for it be “preserved with religious care,” though whether that meant being assigned to some of the city’s Nestorians, placed within Kublai’s own chambers, or something more like the warehouse from Indiana Jones, it does not say. The pope’s letters, on the other hand were read out on the spot, much to the enthusiasm of the khan, who commended “the fidelity, the zeal, and the diligence,” of his ambassadors. 

Around this point, Kublai noticed Marco Polo, and he asked who he was. To this Niccolo answered, “This is your servant, and my son;” upon which the khan replied, “He is welcome, and it pleases me much.” It was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Marco and his family were going to be staying on in Shangdu and, so the text tells us, elsewhere throughout their host’s empire, particularly in China. What would be going on during this time? What would Marco be doing for all those years? The text offers some possibilities - ambassadorship, governorship, building war machines - but how believable is all of this? And what of this text itself. What of the circumstances of its creation, its spread, and its popular reception? All that and more, next time. I’ll talk to you then.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by William Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • Cathay and the Way Thither, Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. III, translated and edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. London, 1916.

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City. Chatto & Windus, 2009.

  • Daftary, Farhad. The Assassin Legends. I. B. Tauris, 1994.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

  • Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. Chinese Imperial City Planning. University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Marco and the Polos 1: From Venice to the World

Polos Leave Constantinople

Certain historical figures are so steeped in layers of legend that they start to lose focus in our eyes, and we almost need to remind ourselves that yes, this was a real person. For me, and I suspect for many people, the character we’re getting into today is one of those figures, an almost fantastical being existing in the strange in-between of myth, history, and poetry, and this illusory element isn’t helped by his cultural appearances, his destination in Coleridge’s opiated dream, his tall tales of the empire in Italo Calvino’s novel, his adventures in a Netflix series, and so on. To one degree or another they swing wildly away from any attempt at historical accuracy, but they remain tethered to Kublai Khan and his Mongol Empire, giving our character’s life a surreal quality, that of a fable, but one grounded in this very real 13th century.

And if you are skeptical about his story, then your reaction is not unlike that of his contemporaries. There’s an anecdote of his death bed, where a friend brings him one of the manuscripts and urges him to set the record straight, to speak out against some of the book’s more incredible statements. However, far from offering any retraction, he’s supposed to have replied that on the contrary he had not told half of what he’d seen.

Of course, we’re talking about Marco Polo here, the 13th century Venetian traveller, merchant, ambassador, adventurer, administrator, and many other roles too, both more and less likely. And yes, he was indeed a real person. 

Hello and Welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. I should start out today with an apology for the lateness of this episode. As you can probably still hear in my voice, I’ve had a head cold which won’t go away. I’ve been waiting until its gone to record, but for now I’ve given up on the gone part, so we’ll see how this goes.

I also have an announcement to make, that I’ve found a new home since I last recorded. That’s a new hosting service, which shouldn’t affect you at all, but also a new podcast network. Human Circus is now part of the podcast network. It’s full of great shows, which I can happily recommend, and I’m very excited to be joining them all there. One change which you will notice is that ads will start to appear on the show. Sometimes that will be for the other podcasts on the network and sometimes for sponsors’ products. I realize that, given the choice, you’d probably opt for no-ads in your podcast listening, but these sponsors are going to help make the whole project more sustainable for me and also help me make improvements to the show, so I ask you to bear with them, and me. Now, announcements out of the way, let’s get to the story. 

If you look at the title of this episode, you’ll see I’m starting a new series, focusing on the travels of Marco Polo, but we’re not starting from scratch here. The previous run of 7 episodes, To See the Mongols, led up to this point, tracing exchanges between Mongols and Western Europeans and wrapping up by looking at the rise of Kublai Khan. So if you haven’t listened to those yet, they do give a lot of good background and context for this series and you may want to hear them first.

Today, we won’t be seeing much of Marco himself, just a glimpse of him at the end. Instead, we’re going to set the scene with a look at his city of Venice and its role in Mediterranean competition and Eurasian trade; and we’re going to look at the first Polos’ meeting with Kublai Khan, that of Niccolo and Maffeo. This is the prelude.

The story of the Polos could begin at many points. You could go with the origins of Venice as a 6th century safe haven for those escaping invasion in the lagoons, but that would be crazy. You could look at the centuries of allegiance to the Byzantine Empire culminating in the Golden Bull of 1082 which allowed special trading rights and exemptions, most importantly with regards to trade in Constantinople. You could follow the early crusades, and the Venetians response to them, slow, by some tellings, to sabotage their trading success in the eastern Mediterranean until they sensed the possibility of success, and then plunging in to earn privileges and advantages in the resultant crusader kingdoms. All of those would make sense, but not wanting to turn this into an extended history of Venice podcast, I’m going to start with the Latin Empire of Constantinople in the beginning of the 13th century.

Now, sometimes it’s easy to lose any sense of time in historical events. You hear a story, and it becomes a little bubble in your consciousness, adrift from any connection to all the other little bubbles bobbling about in there. So let’s try to raft some of those bubbles together. Today, we’re starting in 1204 and then jumping forward to the main storyline starting around 1260. What do those dates mean? What else is happening? What can we tie this particular bubble to?

Well, the first years of the 13th century gave us the rise of Genghis to become great khan of the Mongols, the founding of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, and also that of the University of Cambridge. And in 1215,  on the 15th of June, the Magna Carta was signed. In the second half of the century, when our story will be taking place, we get the University of Paris, the birth of Dante Alighieri, the work of Thomas Aquinas, King Edward’s struggles with Scotland and with William Wallace of Braveheart fame, and the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire. There’s more of course; there always is, but hopefully there’s something there for you to hang this story next to. Now, let’s get back to 1204.

In that year, Constantinople had fallen to the fourth crusade, with Venice taking a role that has been depicted as opportunistic, morally malleable to the moment one might say, even villainous some have said. Others have painted a more complex picture in which the Venetians and their doge appear less Machiavellian, and more just playing the cards they were dealt. It’s a great story in itself, and I’m going to put that aside as part of a near-future topic.

For now, know that Venetian involvement had secured the city a significant share of the spoils. That meant countless works of Byzantine art and treasure, the great bronze horses of the hippodrome, statues of the old Roman tetrarchs, and the 50,000 silver marks still owed for the fleet they had supplied, but it also meant a full 3/8s of the city and its empire. The Venetian leader, Enrico Dandolo, managed to arrange for right of conquest to a run of coastal territory and ports that connected his city to the Black Sea: the coast of western Greece, the Ionian islands, the Peloponnese, Naxos, Adrianople, Gallipoli, and control of key harbour districts of the imperial capital itself, to which he added the island of Crete, purchased for a thousand marks. He negotiated all of this and also the exclusion of Genoa and Pisa, their Italian rivals in trade and more fatal forms of competition. The exclusion was part of a long running, bitter back and forth, a sometimes bloody contest for the riches which the Mediterranean and its ports could provide. And this latest move placed Venice in an excellent position.

The lagoon city had problems certainly. It now had an empire of sorts to administer to, and Crete alone was going to cost it years of fighting with the Genoans. But it also had opportunities. Whether on through the Red Sea by way of its trading relationships in Egypt for which it had received a papal dispensation, from the Crusader Kingdoms and east to the Persian Gulf, or overland from Constantinople and the Black Sea ports, Venice was now admirably situated for business in the goods of the east, of Central Asia, China, and India. It’s the last of the three routes, the overland one, that we’re concerned with today, and that was deeply impacted by the rise of the Mongol Empire. 

Linking China and India with the Mediterranean was hardly a new invention; Seneca, the first century Roman, had bitterly complained of the popularity of Chinese silk in his time, and money and goods had flowed back the other way too. However, if you’ve listened to my last run of episodes, and you should, you’ve seen the degree to which western Europeans friars of the 13th century felt themselves to be entering a new and strange world, one which Alexander the Great had sealed away with walls of biblical proportions and which may or may not have contained dog-headed men. At least one Roman embassy is said to have actually visited China, yet a millennium later, we have these Franciscans taking their plunge into total darkness. What had happened?

The short answer is that Western Europe had largely retracted from the broader Eurasian trade system. And this is not to say that “the Silk Road,” as these routes are popularly known, went unused. Jewish Rhadanite traders had travelled those paths, and as the Islamic caliphates had stretched from Spain to the Indus River, so had Muslims.  But Latin Christendom had become detached from all of this in the periods between the fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire and the Crusades. Now, with much of Asia unified under a Mongol Empire and a reignited European taste for what the east had to offer, Venetians and others would join them and re-engage in the trade from the Mediterranean, and through it from the cloth-producing markets of the north, to India, to China, to the quote/unquote “spice islands,” and elsewhere.

This moment of relative unity that allowed them to ease into transcontinental business has been called the Pax Mongolica, a reference to the idea of the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace” that had stabilized the realms within its ambit and allowed for the kind of easy exchange of goods and ideas that could only occur under such conditions. Of course, it may also bring to mind the words that Tacitus had put in the mouth of a Caledonian chieftain, that the Romans had made a desert and then called it peace. And there’s some truth to that here. The Mongols had done their fair share of desert-making as their conquests had forged a vast empire. But leaving aside how they had gone about it, the Mongols had, for a moment, made one what had been many, or at least they very briefly had. Mongol Peace is a bit of a misleading term, as by this point the Mongol khanates are already fighting each other. Still, for mile after mile, you travelled under Mongol authority.

And this is credited as having had an enormous impact. People, goods, and ideas could move more easily under this semi-unified rule. They were subject, broadly, to one set of laws and stable tribute gatherers, not ambushed figuratively and physically by this bandit lord’s men and that local king’s extortionate demands. Of course, there was still danger. As we saw in the preceding episodes, the natural environment itself could be terminally daunting, and the threat of physical violence was clearly not entirely banished from the situation. Demons and less supernatural sources of death still lurked in the shadows of possibility. Mongol force had not entirely tamed all within its domains, and in the conquered territories of the empire we find those who still held out; Friar William mentions Alans in the Caucasus and also those who had escaped Mongol service and now clawed out a living through raids and brigandry. But it was still easier. 

There was a system of law that discouraged local warfare and theft, an ability to anticipate to some degree the costs one would accrue in travel, and a saving in securing and protecting the goods in transit. I think a lot of people probably imagine the Mongol-controlled steppes as a land where you were promptly shot on sight by ruthless, mounted archers, but as should be becoming pretty clear, religious figures, ambassadors, and, most importantly for us, merchants, were generally able to move through it without experiencing such misfortune.

Venice was one of the powers which was going to be doing well out of this. The city’s merchants had been doing very well in fact, trading, among other things, in cloth, spices, and slaves, and this Pax Mongolica, however misleading that “Pax” part may be, opened new possibilities, many of which could be found in Constantinople. 

In that city, they had the deck stacked pretty well in their favour. I mean, it’s true that much of the local populace likely hated them. The Venetians were inseparably associated with the bloodshed of the 4th Crusade, and events in which Constantinoplites had been violently juiced by their rulers to pay off the crusaders and seen significant sections of their city, significant numbers of their homes I should say, burned in massive fires for which Venetians were in no small part to blame. So there was that. But they very much had the run of the city. In the port they had six jetties, they had churches, and they had two large fondachi, the facilities which catered to travellers and merchants with warehouse space, an inn, and a central courtyard to receive caravans of goods. They had a governor, or podesta, making trade agreements on their behalf, and they were propping up a faltering Latin Emperor whose barons even pawned the crown of thorns, supposedly THE crown of thorns, to them in desperation. They shipped silk, spices, slaves, wood, and riches home to Venice. They had the run of the city and the gateway to the Black Sea, but it couldn’t last forever. 

Venice could not support such an unsustainable regime indefinitely. The Latin Empire Of Constantinople increasingly lacked the approval of the locals, was weak from the start both militarily and financially, and was soon hemmed in on land by Nicaea, one of the Byzantine states that had survived exile from the imperial capital, and at sea by the Genoans, who wanted back in. The end couldn’t be long, and in July of 1261, it came. The forces of Michael Palaiologos, who’d schemed and fought his way to Nicaean dominance, reclaimed Constantinople as Byzantine, not with the assistance of Genoan naval pressure, but simply by way of a poorly secured section of the walls. No prolonged siege was required, just the timely presence of Michael’s general who acquired two vital pieces information: one, that the Venetian fleet and much of the Latin garrison were away raiding in the Black Sea and two, that there was a convenient passage by which his men might enter the city quietly, open a gate, and secure large portions of its walls by dawn. And so it went. The Latin Emperor Baldwin II awoke to an unpleasant surprise and was forced to escape in such a hurry that he left his sceptre and crown behind him, and the city’s Venetians rushed to follow. But two of Venice’s most famous men had already left the city.        

Two of the sons of Andrea Polo da San Felice, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, had been carrying on their business in Constantinople since around 1254. We read that “these respectable and well informed men, [had] embarked in a ship of their own, with a rich a varied cargo of merchandise.” The third brother in this fraterna compagnia, Marco but not that Marco, remained behind in Venice, likely to continue to conduct the merchant family’s transactions in his brothers’ absence. It was a standard enough business arrangement and made sense when partners would be gone for seasons or years at a time. In this case, the partners were going to be gone a little longer even than that. 

Niccolo and Maffeo apparently spent their time in the then still Latin imperial city trading their varied cargo for “fine and costly jewels,” and just how much time they spent doing this is totally unclear. Dates generally in this part of the story are speculation and the tying together of known events, so you’ll see the brothers Polo leaving Venice anytime between 1250 and 1255 and in some sources staying until as late as 1269; this last date is clearly incorrect though as they are to have left when the Latin Emperor still reigned and that puts a cap of 1261 on things. I’m going to follow historians such as Peter Jackson, who I relied on frequently in the Mongols series, and say that they departed Constantinople in 1260. They did so then, safely ahead of the Byzantine recapture of the city, but they may have been pushed to go by the increasing threat of political and economic instability, may have sensed the inevitability of coming change. It’s fairly likely that they did, and that this led them to convert their stock to the gems which of course carried the benefit of being highly portable and easily sewn away into their clothing. Across the Black Sea they went, bound for the city of Soldaia, a trading centre on the Crimean Peninsula from which foods, furs, and slaves passed on into Europe, Egypt, and elsewhere. 

It was much the same itinerary we saw Friar William follow, and William had mentioned meeting many merchants in the city from Constantinople. The Polos themselves had a trading house there, so they weren’t strangers to Soldaia, but, as with William, they wouldn’t be staying in they city. Maybe they had not found business to their liking on arrival; perhaps the demand for their jewels was not what they’d thought it would be or the competition too fierce for profits to match their desires. More likely though, it had been their plan all along to strike out overland from the Black Sea port. They would have heard, certainly, from their time in Constantinople, that the Mongol rulers had a tremendous appetite for gems both as luxury goods and as currency, and that they could expect to find ready buyers for what they carried. Whether by necessity or, more likely, by prior intent, they went east.

Their mode of travel now was the horse, The Travels of Marco Polo tells us, but it tells us little else. As we’ll see when we get deeper into the text in the next episode, it really isn’t a travel narrative and is often a frustrating read from which to try to piece together any kind of coherent story. And this is still just the prologue to Marco’s journey proper which we’re dealing with. We need to look elsewhere then for the details on what the road may have been like.   

They would have travelled northeast until they reached Tana, where the Don River meets the northeast corner of the Sea of Azov. There we can pick up the thread of Florentine trader Francis Balducci Pegolotti, who would write about the route nearly a century later in his Merchant’s Handbook. He describes the road from Tana to the Volga River as 25 days by ox-wagon or 10-12 by horse-wagon, and then from there up to Sarai by river. Salt-fish and flour you’d need to set out with, enough to last, but you could buy meat along the way. Pegolotti reckoned it to be the most dangerous stretch of the whole long road to China, though if you had 60 men in your company, you’d still “go as safely as if you were in your own house,” but even more than armed men, he emphasizes the absolute need to hire a good guide and interpreter before leaving Tana. It was foolish to imagine you might save money on a translator of lesser skill and expense, for you’d surely end paying much more than what you’d saved at every step and possibly find yourself in real danger.

What arrangements the Polos made, we do not know. We do know that they had several Christian servants who they had brought with them from Venice, and would be with them for the duration of the trip, and we know that they made it. They made it to Sarai, and they made it to Berke Khan. And we should quickly cover who this was. 

This was a grandson of Genghis Khan by way of Jochi, Genghis’ eldest son though perhaps not his biological son. Berke was by this time khan of the Golden Horde, the Jochid domain that Batu Khan had carved out and which stretched from central Ukraine to Eastern Kazakhstan.

Maffeo and Niccolo reached the Jochid khan at an interesting time, but then, as I’ve said before, it was really always an interesting time in the Mongol empire. In this case, Mongke, the great khan, had died, and there was a civil war, the Toluid Civil War between his brothers, to decide who would replace him, with Berke supporting the claim of the traditionalist youngest brother against that of the eventual victor, Kublai. More regionally, the years building up to the Venetians’ arrival had seen hostilities brewing between Berke and his neighbour to the south, his cousin Hulagu Khan, whose Ilkhanate now stretched across Persia, much of Anatolia, and northern Syria. Hulagu had committed various acts of mass violence against Berke’s Muslim co-religionists; most notably he had sacked Baghdad and killed its Abbasid Caliph; he may also have been responsible for the deaths of up to three Jochid princes who’d died under unclear circumstances as part of his campaign; and finally, he’d occupied land in northwestern Iran and around the Caucasus that had been part of the Jochid Mongols’ territory. Balanced against all of this, “he’s my cousin” started to looked pretty inconsequential.

For what it’s worth, chroniclers tend to favour religion as Berke’s primary motivator for going to war again his relative, but he had financial reasons for doing so too. Because Hulagu had cut him out of the immensely profitable trade routes running through Iran, Berke and his successors, while continuing to fight for that territory, were going to need to look elsewhere. And this would actually lead to Golden Horde khans really elevating trade through the Black Sea, something which had previously gone largely ignored. What had once been a distant second was now by necessity their first option in trade, and this pivot towards the Black Sea could have already been taking shape in Berke’s mind as the Polos arrived.

They would have found him holding court at either Sarai or Bolgar along the Volga River. The former was by then a walled palace surrounded by tents and pavilions and complete with markets, religious buildings, and public baths, while the latter was something more established, a centuries old urban centre that had been the capital of the Volga Bulgars and was taken by the Mongols in 1237. 

And again our source is pretty sparse here, with none of the details with which the Franciscans had coloured their encounters with the khans. It mentions Berke giving them a warm reception, and it mentions an exchange of sorts. Apparently, the Polos laid some of their stock in jewels before the khan and seeing how much they pleased him, made him a generous present of the lot. And Berke, pleased indeed and unwilling to be shown up as less generous, ordered them given double the jewels’ value and “several rich presents” too. It’s an interesting moment. Perhaps we are meant to admire the merchants’ daring success here, the immense profits of their largesse, but clearly they had not come so far with the fruits of their trading in Constantinople to hand them over without expectation of reward. This was a predictable mode of transaction which, with the one participant being royalty, was performed as an exchange of gifts. These Venetians were not the Franciscans of earlier decades, navigating unknown waters, and they had surely picked up, in Constantinople and Soldaia, from the readily available body of knowledge on dealing with Mongol royalty. 

Whatever their expectations, the Venetians seem to have done well out of it, but for reasons we don’t know, they didn’t take their winnings and turn for home. They apparently stayed on for a year in the khan’s domains, but doing what? Were they trading this entire time, had the khan requested they stay, or were they simply really, really enamoured with life at Berke’s court?      

Whatever kept them, they waited too long. They waited until Constantinople had fallen back into Byzantine hands, cutting off their return, with Venetian merchants blinded or otherwise maimed in the violent aftermath; they waited until open war between Berke and Hulagu blocked the possibility of passing down between the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea and to the city of Tabriz; and rather than wait any longer, they chose to  embark on an absurdly long detour. They were going to try and circle round to the north of the Caspian Sea, pass down well to the east of it into what’s now Uzbekistan, and then make a sweeping turn south toward Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and west for the Mediterranean. It’s probably for the best that it didn’t come to that. 

As it was, their jumping off point was Ukek, midway between Sarai and Bolgar, and it was a substantial hike to their destination, the city of Bukhara, a grinding 2,300 km according to Google Maps, which doesn’t offer a horse option but estimates it to be a 473 hour walk. Of this epic trek, the text has only this to say: that at one stretch they crossed a desert for 17 days and that they found there “neither town, castle, nor any substantial dwelling, but only [Mongols] with their herds, dwelling in tents on the plain.” It’s been pointed out that this was an old caravan route and that, contrary to claims of having seen nothing but tenting Mongols, they must have passed through substantial commercial centres like Urgench and Khiva along the way. The text does say they took an “unfrequented route,” -they were carrying a great deal of wealth and likely fearful of being caught up in fighting or attacked by thieves- so maybe they avoided these centres, but that doesn’t seem likely. Their survival doesn’t seem likely, if that was the case. It’s more probable that this was just another missing element in the text. This wasn’t after all their story, and storytelling was not the strength of the text.

In Bukhara, the brothers found an ancient city and an important centre of trade and religion, but one that had fallen on hard times and had more to come quite shortly. Genghis Khan and his army had arrived in 1220, and the garrison had left. With little other choice, Bukhara had surrendered; its people were taken out of the city, and the Mongols stormed in. They took everything they could, killed everyone that they found still within the walls, and left a burning ruin in their wake. One chronicler tells us that Genghis “contented himself with slaughtering and looting once only, and did not go to the extreme of a general massacre.” The useful artisans and women were enslaved, the young men enlisted to be driven up against the walls of the next city and soak up the casualties. Everyone seems to have been taken, slain, or scattered, but then we read of a rebellion in the area in 1238 and new slaughter, and still the city seems then to have been reestablished. Sorghaghtani Beki, an immensely powerful and capable administrator, and mother of Kublai and Hulagu, had overseen Bukhara’s rebirth, financing an important madrassa there among other projects. 

Though there would be more violence ahead, for now the city was again on the upswing, helped by its position along well travelled and long established trade routes. However, as Niccolo and Maffeo arrived it was also caught in the middle of a war. Its connection to continental trade was strangled off, and so was the Venetians’ progress. They were stuck in that city for three years, and we really don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they took part successfully in the local trade that still continued; maybe they took advantage of the opportunity to absorb knowledge and language from the diverse array of people that had repopulated this centre of trade, the Persians, Mongols, Turks, Chinese, and more. Maybe they simply settled into the everyday life of a trading city on the tense knife-edge of being swallowed up in civil war.

However they occupied their time, they were eventually offered a curious escape route, not a door opening back to their home in the west, but further east and further in. Some men had come to town, were passing through actually, and they happened to hear of these two Venetians who were living there. They were envoys of Hulagu, the khan of Persia, and they were on their way to the court of Kublai Khan, ostensibly still great khan of all the Mongols, though the empire was cracking apart at its dynastic seams. Would the brothers like to join them?  They could promise safe and secure passage, an honourable reception, and a khan who would be most interested to meet them. Between that and being stuck in Bukhara, it was not a hard choice. Would they like to come? Certainly, they would. 

Again, we’re given little detail as to the journey, but this time we’re given a reason up front. The brothers witnessed “many things worthy of admiration” in the area, but those are to be saved for later, for Marco Polo’s telling. Fair enough then. I’ll do the same. But I will comment on the time this is supposed to have taken them, a full year from Bukhara to Kublai’s court, on account, apparently, of the extreme weather, the snows and flooded rivers. Having just followed the journeys of elderly and overweight friars making the full trip from Constantinople or Hungary to the Karakorum region in less time, this seems a little weak on the Polos’ part. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on them though. Maybe even in the envoys’ company, war still slowed their advance; maybe the envoys had business along the way somehow pressing enough to delay them in their dealings with Kublai; or maybe the weather really was particularly bad; they were going through some pretty punishing terrain after all. And maybe it wasn’t really a full year. 

However long it took, it’s worth noting that even in this time of strife, they were able to make the journey at all. They’d been stranded in Bukhara for three years, but a traveller with the title and tablet of a khan’s envoy could still freely move about in safety, likely by way of the system of relay stations that dotted the empire and facilitated rapid travel for those on official business.  Whether one year or not, these envoys delivered them to Kublai Khan just as they had promised.

And I’ve been following friars over the long roads to the Mongols for 7 or 8 episodes now, so I fear I may be becoming a little blasé about meeting the Mongol khans. Make no mistake though; this was quite a big deal. According to the book, this was an enormous deal and Kublai Khan had never seen a, quote, “Latin” before. That does seem a little suspect. Mongke Khan’s camp had been brimming with all manner of European artisans, slaves, and soldiers. Still, this was a milestone, a new kind of encounter, certainly the first Venetian merchants that we know of making the trip and meeting the great khan of the great Mongol Empire and the founder of the Chinese Yuan dynasty in what was to be his summer palace. 

We don’t have a great deal of information about the meeting, of course, but with what we do have, we can contrast the Venetians’ experience with those of the friars who came before them. Those Franciscans had been successful in gathering information about these barely known horse-people but had been repeatedly frustrated in efforts at making any kind of spiritual or diplomatic headway among them and had generally come away with more threats than promises to carry home. 

Kublai Khan greeted these guests warmly, “with great honour and hospitality,” and then, as previous khans had of their visitors, closely questioned the Venetians on the European emperors, quote, “how they maintained their dignity, and administered justice in their dominions; and how they went forth to battle, and so forth. And then he asked the like questions about the kings and princes and other potentates.” The Mongols seem always to have been seeking to learn and ready to take opportunities to discover what they could of far-off lands, peoples, and their rulers, from interviews like this right up to the reconnaissance which preceded their invasions. 

Next, we read that:

...he inquired about the Pope and the Church and about all that is done at Rome, and all the customs of the Latins. And the two brothers told him the truth in all its particulars, with order and good sense, like sensible men as they were; and this they were able to do as they knew the [Mongol] language well.

Now there are a few things to note here. First, that they had learned the language during their long travels, maybe in Bukhara. It was an enormous advantage over early visitors to the steppes, men like Friar William who had eventually picked up only enough to realize that he could not at all trust his translator and had struggled horribly as a result of these limitations. However, those previous travellers had generally had a bit of a different attitude towards sharing information with the Mongols. They had also answered questions about who the most powerful men in Europe were, but they had been very aware that the people they were speaking to may very well soon be coming over the plains and through the mountains to use any information they were given against them. Previous travellers had also usually found excuses to not return with Mongol ambassadors, recognizing that these were potential spies and scouts they would be bringing home with them. Not so with the Polos. They seem to have been only too happy, when Kublai requested it, to accompany one of his men back to Rome. Maybe this  was because the idea of Kublai taking action against Christian Europe was no longer really a live threat. 

While previous messages from the Mongols had offered only promises of invasion if the pope and all his kings did not promptly offer their submission, the tone here was dramatically different. This was a khan whose efforts were entirely focussed on China and whose western domains were really no longer actually under his control; Berke Khan’s Golden Horde was independent, and Hulagu’s Ilkhanate recognized Kublai’s official supremacy but not really his governance and was in any case entirely caught up in fighting the Golden Horde and the Mamluks. So for Kublai, Europe was much further away than it had been for his predecessors. It was quite out of mind, as a prospective conquest at least. So what did Kublai Khan want?

What he wanted was holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a curious request, but not one that necessarily indicated any interest in converting. What he was asking for was, aside from anything else, a token of spiritual power and prestige to be delivered to him by a foreign religious leader; it was, as such, an instrument, among many I’m sure, which could demonstrate his greatness and the power and reach of his empire. I’m thinking here of the way the gifts from King Louis of France, of a specially made chapel tent and various books and relics, had been used 20 years earlier, how they were displayed to visiting leaders and ambassadors in a way which said “look how the Franks have offered their submission; look how all the world’s powers bow before me.” I think the holy oil might be put to similar use.

Kublai may have also wanted the oil for quite a different kind of power. This was after all a holy object, held to be so by the Christian world, and as we saw in the last series, Mongols were often quote syncretic about these things. Spiritual power was, after all, spiritual power. So long as it worked, they weren’t necessarily picky. 

He also wanted people. Specifically, he wanted the pope to send him 100 well-educated Christians, well-suited to argument and to disproving the words of the “idolaters” and other folk. If they could accomplish this, it was claimed, then he and all his people would become Christians, but again, I don’t think conversion was ever on the menu.

It’s quite conceivable that these promises simply made their way into the story by way of its Christian transcribers, an issue I’ll return to in later episodes, but, that aside, the possibility of a Christian Mongol khan had been dangled about before, with little to show for it. Moreover, Kublai had long relied heavily on the Buddhist and Daoist advisors who were very close to him, and it’s unlikely he would reject them and potentially damage his rule in China. Instead, I think it’s more probable that Kublai wanted the Latin Christians as a balancing force. He’d witnessed firsthand in Northern China the violently disruptive effects of religious conflict and had been called on then to facilitate a fierce debate to decide the issue. These 100 of the pope’s men could be brought in to counteract the dominance of Muslims, Buddhists, and Daoists in his counsel and administration, or they might be put to use as officials in conquered regions to deflect local resentment from the Mongols themselves. Religious or otherwise, a purpose could always be found for 100 well-educated individuals.  

And with that, the Venetians had their commission, and they’d be given something to aid them in carrying it out: a golden tablet granting the bearers rights to make use of the system of imperial stations for shelter and fresh horses, and to call on local governors to escort them and on cities and towns to provide provisions. They’d taken the long way to Kublai, but the way home should have been much smoother with that golden tablet in hand.

Yet all does not seem to have gone smoothly. Their Mongol ambassador companion fell ill, quickly and seriously, and had to be left behind, and again weather seems to have caused delay to an unreasonable degree. This time it was said to be three years, owing to the “extreme cold, the snow, the ice, and the flooding of the rivers,” and they probably weren’t three years; likely the time span here is just meant to convey the great difficulty of their travels, the grand nature of their feat. But however long it took them, the reached Layas in Lesser Armenia, about as far east as you can go on the south coast of Anatolia before the land curves south.

From Layas they were sailing for the crusader city of Acre, arriving in April of 1269, or 70, or 72, or 60, depending on the manuscript. And immediately they received bad news in regards to their Mongol-commissioned errand, that mission to deliver a letter to the pope and secure holy water and a full 100-strong complement of his best Christian minds. It turned out that the pope was dead. This was pretty fresh news, working from the 1269 arrival date. Pope Clement IV had died recently, in November of 1268. What were they to do? They weren’t going to be making the return journey to Kublai just yet, not if they were to complete their business with the pope. They were going to need to wait for a new one to materialize. That’s what the papal legate in Acre, Teobaldo Visconti, apparently urged them to do, and that’s what they did. They, quote, “determined upon employing the interval in a visit to their families in Venice,” which was very sweet of them. 

As it turned out, they wouldn’t be in and out the door. This would be the longest papal interregnum on record, an excruciating electoral ordeal, in which the cardinals were physically locked up in a building to motivate the decision making process. Niccolo and Maffeo didn’t yet know that though. 

They arrived in Venice to find that while they had been away time had passed there also. Niccolo had left a wife, and he returned to find her dead. He’d surely heard while in Constantinople that his son had been born, but he returned to find that baby-Marco was already a young man of around 15 years old.

And that’s where we’ll leave Marco Polo and his family for today. With my next few episodes, we’ll get into the travels of Marco himself. We’ll pick up his story as he joins Niccolo and Maffeo on their return journey. We’ll get into the long quest to separate fact from fiction, and we’ll get into the story of the books themselves. I’ll talk to you then.


  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by Willam Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • Cathay and the Way Thither, Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. III, translated and edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. London, 1916.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Oxford University Press, 1989.

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City. Chatto & Windus, 2009.

  • Ciociltan, Virgil. The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. Brill Academic, 2012.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.

To See the Mongols 7: Mongol Civil War

Hulagu at Siege of Alamut

In the mid-1250s, Friar William returned from his travels, and the princes of the house of Tolui set about the tasks that their brother, the great khan Mongke, had assigned to them. And these tasks, these new conquests, were not just further acquisitions of a Mongol Empire. Like the fruits of Batu’s successes in the west, to have and to hold, and to pass down through his family, they were legacies, seeds of new and distinct dynasties, dynasties that were soon to grow apart from one another and even lead to armed clashes between the great Mongol families.

The next years were going to bring changes to the empire. There’d be growth, as Kublai and Hulagu stretched it new directions; there’d be real adversity, as they ran up against the Mamluks of Egypt and the Southern Song of China; and there’d be upheaval in the east and in the west as both Batu and Mongke would die and leave room for new faces, new directions, and new conflicts as the far-flung members of the Mongol imperial houses, the descendants of Genghis Khan, would turn against one another: the leader of the house of Chagatai fighting against the Jochid Golden Horde of Batu’s successor, the Jochids against a new Toluid khanate in Persia, a civil war within the house of Tolui over who would replace Mongke as great khan, and then an Ogedeid challenge to the victor’s supremacy. It was, to quote Lone Wolf & Cub and Liquid Swords, a bad time for the empire. But it was not all bad. If the Mongol Empire was growing apart, it at least was certainly still growing. 

Hello and welcome. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time, I gently remind you that ratings and reviews are highly appreciated, and that if you choose to do neither, then like Mongke Khan says, “how can we know what will happen?” And of course, as always, donations are always welcome in lieu of reviews. They keep me in hosting money for the podcast, help pay the late fees at the library, and subsidize my crippling mare’s milk habit. That business out of the way, let’s begin. 

We’ve been following Friar William for a few episodes now, so it’s been a while since we’ve checked in with the wider world to see how things are going out there. First though, I want to note that last episode I left the poor friar stranded in Acre against his stated will, saying he’d be stuck teaching there; he would in fact make it to France a few years later though, likely thanks to the intervention of his royal patron, King Louis. He would get there to meet with English philosopher and fellow friar, Roger Bacon, who would write about the meeting. 

That postscript aside, we’re going to catch up on that wider world now, and we’re going to roll that world forward through the difficult process of establishing a new great khan and its ramifications for the many only-slightly-less-great khans who held sway over much of the Eurasian landmass. We’re going to prepare the way for the great celebrity traveller of the 13th century, the Venetian Ibn Battuta, and the star of Italo Calvino’s excellent Invisible Cities, Marco Polo. He’ll be making his grand entrance next episode, and that means we’ll be dipping into yet another fascinating period of turmoil in the ever-shifting Mongol landscape (because it’s really always an interesting time in Mongol history). Today, it’s the rise Hulagu and Kublai. Both will carve out important new Mongol territories and navigate a civil war, but only one will live to join us next episode. 

Checking in with our characters, Mongke Khan was right where we left him, solidly in command of a still-unified empire; Hulagu was invading Persia; and Kublai was conquering the Dali kingdom and administering to his Northern Chinese holdings. Let’s start with Kublai, the subject of one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most productive dreams.

Dali, in the Yunnan province, wasn’t an end in itself. It was part of a longer term goal, the opening of a new front on the west of the Southern Song Dynasty, and it had gone beautifully for Kublai. With the assistance of Uriyang-kadai, son of the famed general Subedei, he’d defeated the main Dali army, executed the chief minister and the officials who had unwisely killed his envoys (hardly ever a good idea when visited by Mongol ambassadors), and seized the territory without any unnecessary slaughter of the general population or its ruling family. It was a show of restraint for which the Chinese sources credit his Confucian advisor, and as we’ll see, maybe more critical spectators did too. For now though, the campaign, the first entirely under his own command, was considered a great success, and Kublai settled down to govern and enjoy what he’d earned; but of course his choices in governance and enjoyment were going to have consequences.

Kublai ordered the construction of a kind of capital. It was placed carefully at the edges of the two worlds, of the Mongol pasture and the Chinese agrarian lands. K’ai-p’ing, it was initially called, but you might know it better as Xanadu. The new city was quite a picture of luxury, with its marble palace and its hunting park, and for all its grandeur, it drew negative attention to match. To many Mongols it represented a weakening of the traditional ways, a corruption even, and in its design a worrying sign of Chinese influence over its owner’s thinking. He’s gone soft, they might have said; he’s settled down and become something that smacks more of the conquered than it does of the conqueror; he relies too much on his Chinese advisors, on those Daoists, Confucians, and Buddhists. And they weren’t entirely wrong. Kublai was substantially influenced by people like the astronomer and mathematician, former administrator and still Buddhist monk, Liu Bingzhong. In some ways, their man in the east was not as much like them as he had been. 

Likely there was something of these concerns in the tension that grew between Kublai and his brother Mongke; maybe Kublai’s opponents at the khan’s court whispered in Mongke’s ears that his little brother had succumbed to the softening effects of a sedentary life; maybe they just had to tell him of Kublai’s new palace, and how it threatened to outshine his own; or maybe the charges of financial misdeeds and favouring Chinese laws over Mongol ones really were at the heart of the matter.

Those were the accusations that Mongke’s representatives brought to Kublai and the cause for their investigations, and they hadn’t come to hand out slaps on the wrist. After inspecting the records, they conducted a round-up of officials involved and had them killed, notably sparing those with powerful connections to Mongol nobles but largely following a policy of culling the Chinese from Kublai’s administration, reducing that cultural influence in the Mongol government and at the same time cutting Kublai off at knees. And who knows where the investigation was going, and if it might have crept closer to Kublai himself if he hadn’t intervened, but he had to. He initially sent representatives to argue his case, but then he took the more personal route and went himself, seeking to make a personal appeal to the khan and cut out any considerations of taxes, traditions, and Chinese influence.

And the appeal worked. The histories tell us that at the beginning of 1258, the siblings embraced and erased their differences, but some have questioned this sentimental picture of brotherly reconciliation. There were after all other reasons for the khan to forgive Kublai those little oversteps in his territory. Mongke had big dreams, and he needed his little brother to realize them. His sights were still set on Southern China, and he would need every advantage to succeed; losing the support of Kublai and his Northern Chinese connections might have been something he simply could not afford. 

All this time, Hulagu had also been busy. His own campaign had begun more like a multi-year migration, a more than two year march, and it was an enormous operation said to include up to 150,000 people and who knows how many animals. Resources had to be allotted in advance; actually, land had to be allotted in advance. With the number of horses involved, setting aside and preparing pastures for them to pass through was absolutely necessary. When they approached western Iran for example, the commander Baiju and his men were ordered out of the way and into Anatolia to relieve some of the pressure on the grasslands, incidentally bringing fresh violence into those lands. And it was not these considerations alone that made the approach complicated and cumbersome. 

This was also the last great unified Mongol campaign. Much like when the other princes had ridden with Batu as he carved out his Toluid inheritance, Hulagu was not the only Mongol royal at the party; he had three Jochid princes, a Chagatayid, and men from all arms of the imperial family. As the campaign progressed, he would also have Georgian and Armenian armies with their Christian leaders; he’d have Muslim rulers: the Seljuk Sultan, the Atabeg of Fars, the ruler of Mosul, and many more, with their fighters too; he had siege weapons, Islamicate and Chinese, maybe as many as 1,000 Chinese engineers who operated catapults and naphtha-throwers; there were giant crossbows and trebuchets; there were massive bolts, enormous rocks, pots of “Greek fire,” and explosive devices using gunpowder. All of this enormous war machine was directed first of all at the Persian Nizari Ismai’ilis, the Assassins in their legendary mountain fortresses.

The Assassins had at first submitted to the Mongols and been left alone, but that been before the killing and general lack of cooperation, the murder of of a Mongol general, the refusal of their master to present himself in person to the khan, and the rumoured threat of 400 killers in disguise which had apparently menaced Mongke. The Mongols simply couldn’t afford to leave such a potential enemy at their back as Hulagu advanced, and so they didn’t. They besieged and bombarded Master Rukn al-Din Khurshah in his stronghold. They forced him to submit and then used him to unlock all the other fortresses save only one or two which held out for a whole year. Finally, his usefulness having expired, he and his family were killed. And Hulagu’s forces moved on. 

Next to fall was the seat of the Abbasid caliph, Baghdad. The city had a fearsome reputation, but in truth, its best days were behind it. There is some suggestion that its soldiers had gone unpaid, and that many had for that reason left the city, and there may even have been treachery on the part of a chief minister who was said to have misled his caliph as to the degree of imminent risk while at the same time informing the attackers of his city’s poor defences. Treachery or not, the Mongols and their vassals reached Baghdad in mid-January, 1258, having already destroyed a large part of the garrison, and by early February the caliph and his family had realized the inevitability of their defeat and come outside to give themselves up, but it was too late. The Mongol policy on surrender had been pretty consistent: you give up now, when we arrive or preferably sooner, and life gets to go on; you don’t, and it doesn’t. Letting people call it a day a few weeks into the siege just encouraged the next city down the road to try their luck at resisting too. In such a policy, examples had to be made.

When Caliph al-Musta’sim ventured outside the walls, it didn’t save his city from being sacked. His soldiers were disarmed and they were slaughtered; the men were killed, the children and women rounded up and shipped out, another violent population displacement in the violent Mongol century. In some sources, the number of the dead is as high as one or two million, and even if we discount that entirely, we still need to understand that the chroniclers are telling us that appalling numbers of people had been killed.

There are two stories on the end of Abbasid caliph himself. The most likely version has him and his family feasted by Hulagu before being wrapped or sewn in carpets or cloth and then either bludgeoned to death or trampled by horses so that their noble blood didn’t splash upon the ground. The other, perhaps suspiciously poetic, version has Hulagu gaining access to the caliph’s treasure and then demanding to know why he hadn’t used it to defend his city; in this telling, the conqueror then seals the caliph in with nothing but his riches and waits for him to die in a “see if your gold will help you now!” type situation.

Syria was next. 

Back on the eastern front, some 6,500 kilometres away, a massive and multi-pronged invasion was coming together. Not all of Mongke’s advisors had been keen on the idea of going south; it was hot, they said, and full of disease, unfamiliar conditions, and inconvenient rivers. It’s worth noting that it also represented a politically united giant, managed by an exam-proven bureaucracy, supported by a well-organized tax system, and containing some of the world’s most populous cities, including Lin-an at the top of that list. Mongke would not be talked out of it though. It was, aside from all those things, an incredibly rich prize, and it was besides that within the khan’s destined domains, as was all of Earth. He had the usual rituals conducted, and he set his plans in motion. 

Leaving his youngest brother,  Ariq Boke, at home to run things in his absence, Mongke himself went out with one of four armies in 1257; Kublai, despite questions as to his gout, lead another which was intended to meet up with a third. With the fourth arriving from Yunnan almost 1,500 kilometres to the southwest, they were set to link up around Ezhou. Some 1,000 kilometres to the west of Ezhou, Mongke would be taking Chengdu in Sichuan, but these were big distances they were talking about, and this could never be a quick campaign.

And it wouldn’t be. The summer of 1257 found Mongke in the Liupan mountains, and in the spring of 58 he was taking Chengdu; but then it was 1259 by the time he reached the Chongqing region, and there his progress was halted. There was a fortress on a ridge above a town called Hechuan, and as the rain storms of late spring gave way to heat of summer, disease set in. It was just as his advisors had feared, but Mongke still was not dissuaded.

Meanwhile in Syria, Hulagu’s Mongol machine of death was rolling forward and gathering steam as regional rulers and Ayyubid princes saw the writing on the ruins of the walls and submitted. Not everyone gave way though. Some cities held out, for a while at least, and the governor of Aleppo, Damascus, and Hims, Sultan al-Nasir Yusuf, was not giving in either, or rather he was not doing so with quite the desired levels of speed and commitment. His representatives had been there for Guyuk’s kurultai, and he’d followed up with Mongke and more recently been in touch with Hulagu. But he’d neither appeared in person before Mongke nor offered gifts to Hulagu. His fortresses in northeastern Syria fell first. Then Aleppo suffered a seven-day siege and a slaughter with its citadel holding out for another month. After that, Damascus opened its gates, and it’s said that the Christian Mongol general, Kedbuqa, entered the city side by side with the Prince of Antioch and the King of Lesser Armenia. 

Then - and stop me if you’ve heard this one before - the great khan died, and the future of the whole thing was thrown into uncertainty. Yes, it was Ogedei’s death all over again, and just like Batu had pulled back from Hungary, so did Hulagu from his advance through Syria. There’s some debate over the exact timing and cause of his movement, but it’s known that he left an army under the command of Kedbuqa and withdrew with the bulk of his forces to what we’d called northwestern Iran, west of the Caspian. Things weren’t all the same as they had been for Batu though. He didn’t have a powerful enemy waiting for him back east, as Batu had, didn’t appear to have any reason for delaying matters of succession by his absence, as Batu had. But just like Batu, he was going to stay away. Why?

The answer may have had something to do with Batu actually. You see, Batu Khan, long stable figure of power in the Mongol west, had died. He’d died shortly after Friar William had seen him, in 1255 or 56, and his son Sartaq, confirmed in Karakorum as ruler of the Batu’s Golden Horde and heir to the Jochid rule, had died on the way back west from there. Settling into the Jochid throne now, was Batu’s brother Berke. 

Berke has entered our story before, but only briefly. It was Berke that Batu had charged with seeing Mongke placed on the throne back when that was happening. And William had mentioned him in connection with his disparagement of Sartaq’s Christianity which he found not up to snuff; he’d likewise impugned Berke’s Islamic beliefs as opportunistic and not entirely authentic, more a product of Berke’s base of operations being along a trade route travelled by Muslims than by any deeper held beliefs. But Berke’s beliefs appear to have run a little deeper than William had imagined.

Berke had a number of reasons for opposing Hulagu. In him, Berke was dealing with a fellow Mongol lord, it’s true, but also with a competitor, most immediately one whose land-claims around Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran overlapped with what Berke viewed as having properly been Batu’s and thus part of his own Jochid inheritance. And he was also dealing with a competitor who had attacked a major Islamic centre of culture and power in Baghdad. It was not quite the city it had once been, and tales of the Mongols running the river black with the ink of the books they callously tossed in may have overblown, but it was a major Islamic centre nonetheless, home of the caliph, and its destruction part of a wider campaign against the Islamic realms. Berke, despite what William’s assessment may suggest to the contrary, appears to have been quite angry about Hulagu’s assault on the great Islamic city. 

If land and religion weren’t cause enough, there’s also the fact that three Jochid princes had died during Hulagu’s campaign, and they hadn’t died in battle. One of them had possibly been poisoned, but in other tellings, the three had all been executed at Hulagu’s command after some disagreement over who had authority. It’s a murky chapter in Mongol history, but in some of the sources these deaths are, quite understandably, tied to the outbreak of hostilities between Hulagu and Berke. 

And with these hostilities, we’re finally getting to that moment I’ve been hinting at for some time, that period when the great Mongol Empire begins to split apart at the familial seams and becomes a set of slightly less great Mongol Empires, plural. This was no fleeting division in the Mongol core. This would be open war In a few years between the Jochid Golden Horde and Hulagu’s Ilkhanate, but for now, Hulagu was merely pinned down by conflict and not going east to participate in raising Mongke’s replacement. Actually, he faced threats on two different fronts. In addition to that of Berke in the north, another power also demanded his attention: the Mamluks.

The Mamluks were the Turkic slave soldiers of Ayyubid Egypt who had recently risen against the ruling dynasty and were right in the messy part of establishing their own. Despite the struggles, assassination, and infighting that defined that process, they could still prove more than a match for the forces Hulagu had left behind with Kedbuqa in Syria. And they weren’t mincing words about it either. When they received the Mongol envoys and their demands for surrender and submission to Hulagu Khan, they killed them; they cut their bodies in half and they spiked their heads over Cairo’s gates. It was not normally a recipe for success. It had meant complete obliteration for the Khwarazmian Dynasty, and for others since then, but that was not to be the Mamluks’ fate.

They did not wait locked away in their cities and fortresses for the horsemen to knock at their door. They prepared themselves for war, and when they realized that Hulagu and much of his armies had left the neighbourhood, they went on the offensive. North, they rode, gathering other fighters to their cause including men who’d formerly served the Ayyubids and others who’d fought for the Jochid princes in Hulagu’s great army. They also reached out to their crusader neighbours to propose an alliance.

And this must have been a difficult proposition for the crusaders. In recent years, they’d surely been thrilled to see the Mongols sweeping in like the legend of Prester John come back to life and better than ever, sacking Baghdad, taking Damascus, devastating Aleppo and favouring Christians over Muslims as they did so. But longing for Prester John at a safe distance, all the way to the furthest reaches of Asia, was quite a bit different from having his overpowering armies on your doorstep and spilling over into your house. John of Beirut and Julian of Sidon, Christian lords both, had made raids into the now-Mongol lands and the resultant massacre at Sidon when Kedbuqa hit back had significantly cooled local enthusiasm for the Mongols as saviours of Christianity, and so had Pope Alexander IV’s new policy of excommunication for anyone cooperating with the Mongols. 

All this was then theirs to consider, and though they did not militarily support the Mamluks in their bid to remove the Mongols from Syria, didn’t ride in their company, the crusaders didn’t hinder their passage either. Far from it, they even agreed to resupply the Mamluks at Acre where the army rested beneath their walls. Nothing then stood between the Mamluk forces and Kedbuqa’s Mongols, who came south to meet them. On September the 3rd, 1260, the two sides collided. They were likely roughly equal in numbers, probably 10-12 thousand a side, both heavily reliant on skilled cavalry, and in this contest, the Mongols were about to be out-Mongoled. 

First contact was made by the soon-to-be Mamluk Sultan Baybars. He and the vanguard clashed with the Mongols and then withdrew, thrown, their enemies thought, into retreat. And Kedbuqa’s forces gave chase, as so many of the Mongols’ enemies had before. They rode in confident pursuit until the Mamluks reached a predetermined point at ‘Ayn Jalut, “the Spring of Goliath,” where David was said to have slain the giant, where the plain narrowed between Mount Gilboa and the hills of Galilee, and where the bulk of Mamluks waited in the hills under the command of their leader, Qutuz. There, Baybars turned back about and Mamluk cavalry poured down around the Mongols, the attacker, as had happened so many times the other way, becoming the attacked. 

And for all that, it was still apparently a very close thing. One wing of the Mamluk army was said to have been on the verge of breaking and only rallied when Qutuz threw aside his helmet to reveal his face and called them to his side. He’d be dead soon, murdered by a Baybars-led conspiracy, but his terrible gamble or act of martial defiance in butchering Hulagu’s envoys was going to pay off. The Mongols’ Syrian conscripts abandoned them. Kedbuqa either fell there and then or was taken and put to death, his last words defiant. And his army fled, hunted, before turning again to engage, but they were shattered. 

This was not an ending to Mamluk-Ilkhanid Mongol hostilities; there were interesting times ahead, as the Golden Horde and the Mamluks supported each other against Hulagu and his heirs, and then further shifts as those heirs converted to Islam themselves, but for now, for our purposes, I think we can see why Hulagu may have felt himself too engaged in regional events to make the trip east to meddle in imperial politics. And how was that going by the way? How was that succession playing out?

Not smoothly, one has to say. When Mongke Khan had collapsed on campaign in the August heat, Hulagu had broken off his military engagements, but Kublai does not seem to have done the same, does not seem to have immediately turned for traditional Mongol territory, the burial of the great khan, and the selection of a new imperial ruler at the kurultai. “Let us pay no attention to this rumour,” he is instead reported to have said, “We have come hither with an army like ants or locusts. How can we turn back, our task undone?” Maybe Kublai felt he needed a fresh military triumph to bring to the table for succession talks. His army pressed forward.

They laid siege to Ezhou and were helpfully joined first by Uriyang-kadai’s army, slightly depleted by fighting and disease, and then less helpfully by Song reinforcements. Somehow - it seems the siege was not exactly watertight - these reinforcements made their way into the besieged town, and further months passed. The Song commander, the emperor’s chancellor actually, offered a deal: yearly tribute if only the Yangtze would be acknowledged as the new border; however, Kublai was not interested. What could such a deal offer them now when they had already crossed the Yangtze by force, and could do so again in the future as they pleased? As it turned out, it was going to need to be in the future because there was troubling news arriving, much more so than that of Mongke’s death. Word came from Kublai’s wife that the little brother they’d left at home, Ariq-Boke, was in the process of mustering forces, his intentions as yet unknown.

It wasn’t clear just yet what these forces were to be used for, but it soon would be. Two days after the news had arrived, messengers came from Ariq-Boke, innocently inquiring after Kublai’s health and offering greetings, and they claimed to have no idea of any troops being raised at all. Naturally, Kublai was suspicious. He left generals in charge of the siege of Ezhou and went north to assess matters for himself. Messages were sent back and forth: to Ariq-Boke, asking about the troops and animals being gathered; why weren’t they being sent to aid efforts against the Song? And then back again to Kublai, with gifts of falcons and calming words of reassurance, that an army was no longer being raised. Ariq-Boke is said to have been counselled to soothe his brother’s suspicions, “so that [Kublai] may feel secure and grow careless.” But Kublai neither felt secure nor grew careless. He accepted the gifts and parted peacefully with the messengers as if all was well and his heart truly at ease, but then he immediately wrote to his generals: “Abandon the siege ... at once and come back, for our mind, like the revolution of Fate, has changed.” 

The next escalation was to be that of the competing kurultais. Each man called his supporters to him and announced himself to be the one and only Great Khan; however, these ceremonies were both not quite legitimate, and it was a fact that would return to haunt Kublai long after this chapter in his life had ended. 

There’s some disagreement over who made the first move, whether Kublai was reacting to Ariq-Boke’s declaration, or whether it was the other way around. One version finds Ariq-Boke gathering what supporters were at hand, not near Karakorum where Kublai might more easily strike at him and where such gatherings were traditionally held, but in the Altai mountains where he summered. Though he is portrayed in sources such as Rashid al-Din as the usurper, the schemer, and plotter, he can also be seen to represent the more traditionalist inclination within the Mongol empire, and he had no shortage of support. He counted amongst his allies the old khan’s sons, one of Mongke’s wives, and grandsons from the Ogedei, Chaghatai, and Jochi lines, but it seems doubtful they were all able to attend his hastily summoned kurultai. Even more doubtful than this was his claim to the support of both Berke and Hulagu, but that was exactly what he trumpeted across the empire in an effort to cement his authority and to paint Kublai as the rebel outsider under excessive Chinese influence and trying to manipulate his way to the throne. 

Of course, this would have enraged Kublai, but if the story is true, it’s likely that Ariq-Boke’s dishonesty also drove many Mongol notables away and into the arms of Kublai, the only viable alternative. In this telling, this is the point where Kublai calls an assembly of his own, a kurultai but again not one at Karakorum. His would be at K’ai-p’ing. He likely had Hulagu’s support but that was going to have to be in spirit alone. He did have northern China though, with its wealth of men and resources. He had the army he’d taken to war against the Song. And he had powerful allies, lords like his cousin, Khadan of the House of Ogedei  who was going to aid him in cutting Ariq-Boke off from southern supplies. Kublai was going to try to starve and squeeze the Karakorum his rival had returned to. 

Whoever had gone first, they were both out in the open now with their positions announced, and already they were beginning to take one another’s pieces off the board. An Ariq-Boke loyalist, and Ogedeid grandson, was caught leaving Kublai’s kurultai to tell his khan what he’d seen, and he’d be killed. Meanwhile, Kublai tried to have one of his own supporters set in control of the Chagadaiyid lands, but Ariq-Boke intercepted him and his 100-man escort and had them all killed.

Like Kublai, Ariq-Boke sought to place his own creature in charge of the Chagadaiyids, a man named Alghu; however, he didn’t have quite the hold over him that he thought he did. Alghu was supposed to send supplies once established, but instead he turned on Ariq-Boke and his ally Berke, raiding his territories and substantially expanding Chagadayid holdings at the expense of both the Golden Horde and his former political patron. 

Maybe he sensed the way events were moving. Ariq-Boke, for all the traditionalist support he must have had around him at Karakorum to even contemplate the whole endeavour to begin with, was becoming isolated within the traditional Mongol lands, and that was no longer such a great proportion of the empire.

In a series of battles, Kublai was closing in, and Ariq-Boke was being driven deeper into the north, running low on allies, supplies, and hope, while his opponent now wintered in Karakorum itself. He needed some good news, and he did receive something of a reprieve when a rebellion in China demanded Kublai’s personal attention, but he gained little from it in the end. As 1263 turned into 1264, starvation set in among his army, and his friends became fewer. Alghu threatened from the one side and Kublai the other. There’s a story of a great wind sweeping in and carrying off his own tent and breaking its supporting post. It was not a good omen, and indeed Ariq-Boke did not have great things in the future. He had made his play for the throne, and he’d come up short. Really, there could only be one outcome.

As the end closed in, Ariq-Boke tried to make a last brotherly appeal. Much like Kublai had done with Mongke, he presented himself and asked or peace, submitting to his brother’s will. There, in Rashid al-Din’s account, “The khan looked at him for a time and was moved with brotherly feeling and sorrow. Ariq-Boke wept and tears came to the khan’s eyes also. He wiped them and asked: “Dear brother, in this strife and contention were we in the right or you?” Ariq-Boke answered: “We were then and you are today.”” Morality had been decided in force of arms and political maneuvering. 

Feasting followed, and for the moment, Ariq-Boke took his place among the other princes, but the whole matter could not go so easily forgotten. Ariq-Boke is said to have taken the responsibility entirely upon himself, declaring himself the author of the crime; however, so much damage and strife called for more than one scapegoat. Kublai had his defeated brother’s commanders asked what fate ought to befall ones such as they who had brought about such discord. At first there was silence, and then a senior member among them spoke: “O emirs, why do you not answer ? Have your eloquent tongues become mute? That day when we set Ariq-Boke upon the throne we promised each other that we should die in front of that throne. Today is that day of dying. Let us keep our word.” 

Perhaps the moment was not staged quite so dramatically as that, but it came to the same thing in the end: death for those leading men, powerful, but not enough that they couldn’t be killed in the circumstances. But Ariq-Boke himself was another matter, a deeply awkward one that was to be decided at the kurultai Kublai then called for. He’d won the war. Now, he wanted the prize: the ceremonial legitimization of his authority by all branches of the royal family and perhaps also advice as to the fate of his little brother. His messengers went out, and again I’m relying on al-Din here in saying that it seems the khans all had other pressing matters on their plates. 

Alghu, who the messengers reached first, replied that he too had taken power without the approval of either Kublai or Hulagu, and when all the worthies of the Mongol world were assembled and spoke on whether they thought him right or wrong, then he would say what he thought. Hulagu, who they reached next, said, more or less, that when Berke set out for a kurultai, he would go also. And Berke, wouldn’t you know, had something similar to say: just let Kublai and Hulagu arrange a time and a place, and he would be there. Alghu worried for his own unofficial status, and Hulagu and Berke worried about each other. 

We know that the Jochid lord and his Ilkhanate counterpart would not be meeting in peace in the Mongolian interior. It was open war ahead between them, civil war one might say, and what was broken would never be whole again. And Kublai, he would get neither a proper kurultai to declare his election nor any assistance or at least shared responsibility in dealing with Ariq-Boke. There’d be no moment of mutual guilt, no Ides of March at which he and Hulagu could stick their knives in together.

And maybe Ariq-Boke’s death came entirely innocently, the exhaustion of the losing campaign and an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s possible he was just another member of the Genghisid bloodline with a severe drinking problem and health problems to match. But under the circumstances it’s a little hard to believe he went in peace, in his tent, and by natural causes, that as Rashid al-Din so tersely puts it: “in the autumn … Ariq-Boke was taken ill and died.” Poison seemed likely to many observers then, and it seems likely enough now too.

More deaths followed in 1265 to 67: Berke Khan, ruler over the Jochid Golden Horde; Hulagu, founder of the Ilkhanate that was to become its own Mongol-Persian empire; and Alghu too; he’d taken power of the Chagatayid Khanate rather opportunistically but would then die in the midst of struggles with Kaidu of the House of Ogedei when Kaidu rose against Kublai Khan. It was all falling apart, and there’d be less and less to bind it all together. 

A mighty empire would remain in the east though, and we’ll be going there. There’d be unity enough still for travellers to pass from one end of the continent to the other, and Kublai was going to do alright for himself, proper kurultai or not. He was going to survive those bloody years of the mid-60s, and he’d play host to our next journey. 

In the last years of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, in 1260, a pair of Venetian merchants left that city ahead of a storm and made their way, like William had, across the Black Sea to Soldaia, and, like William, from there they went east. Their names were Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, and it’s their story, theirs and that other, lesser-known, Polo that we’ll getting into next. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you soon. 


  • Al-Din, Rashid. The Successors of Genghis Khan, translated by John Andrew Boyle. Columbia University Press, 1971.

  • Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the Islamic World. Yale University Press, 2017.

  • Lambert, Malcolm. Crusade and Jihad: Origins, History, and Aftermath. Profile Books, 2012.

  • Man, John. Kublai Khan: From Xanadu to Superpower.Bantam Press, 2006.

  • Marshall, Robert. Storm from the East: From Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan. University of California Press, 1993.

  • Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans.Faber & Faber, 1971.

  • Rossabi, Morris. Khublai Khan: His Life and Times.University of California Press, 1988.

To See the Mongols 6: The Road from Karakorum

William of Rubruck’s Route

As the painfully cold December of 1253 became the still-painfully-cold January-through-March of 1254, Friar William settled into life at the court of the Mongol emperor, Mongke Khan. But as that turned to May and to June, he began squirm. Mongke had granted them a two month stay on the 4th of January, but though they were never made to feel unwelcome, by early summer they were really pushing things to the point of impoliteness.

William wasn’t quite ready to leave yet though. He waited in hope of hearing news of those German prisoners that Andre de Longjumeau had spoken of, the ones who had been moved when their master had fallen afoul of Batu and lost his life for it. But no word of them arrived. He waited in hope of the King of Armenia’s appearance. But that wouldn’t come until later in the year, after he’d left. Finally, as neither German nor king materialized, his thoughts turned to the journey home. Having weathered one Mongolian winter in Mongke’s camp, he did not relish the thought of waiting long enough to travel home during another, and he sent word to the khan to inquire about their situation. Soon, he’d be headed home with us following behind, but he wasn’t entirely done in the khan’s camp.  


Last time we talked, William was coming to grips with the nature of his new Armenian monk colleague and taking part in the great inter-religious debate of 1254. Today, we’re going to start in and around that period, covering some of his time with Mongke’s court before turning back west with him to recover some of what he had lost, cross an Alexandrian divide, and consider the future of both the crusades and Latin-Mongol relations.

The Mongol court was not still during all that time of squabble, strife, and popping in to the khan’s nephew’s for a drink which we witnessed last episode; the company was mobile, maintaining their nomadism even as they ruled over enormous stretches of the world, and around the beginning of April, 1254, they reached the area of Karakorum, the Mongol administrative capital established by Ogedei. Immeasurable wealth in treasure and material culture had been dragged back there, had been brought to this new-born centre of the world from an empire which spanned from Korea to Poland. And it was apparently all quite underwhelming.

William rated the city as “not as fine as the town of St. Denis,” and the St. Denis monastery as “worth ten of [Karakorum’s] palace,” but we are here to talk about Karakorum, not St. Denis. The Mongol city was surrounded by mud walls set with four gates at which different kinds of trade occurred, in grains, sheep and goats, cattle and wagons, and horses respectively. Within those walls were a Persian quarter where traders gathered, a Chinese quarter full of craftsmen, palaces for the court secretaries, and twelve temples, two mosques, and one church.

More impressive to William’s eye, was the khan’s great palace, biannual home to his drinking sessions of Easter and June and set amongst cruder, barn-like structures housing treasure and supplies. William thought the palace like a church, with its “middle nave,” its “two rows of pillars and three doors on the south side.” At the north end, the head of the church, sat the khan, and a flight of stairs ran up towards him from either side. 

Perhaps the most striking feature of the palace sat at the entrance and had only just been completed. It was the work of a Parisian silversmith who’d been captured by the Mongols, and it sounds like quite the contraption. William describes silver branches, leaves, and fruit affixed to a “large tree made of silver, with four silver lions at its roots, each one containing a conduit-pipe.” And there were four pipes to match these leading into the tree, all topped by serpents with their tail curling around the trunk. What was this all for? Well, one pipe was for wine, another refined mare’s milk, a third for a honey drink, and a fourth for rice ale.

When the khan called for something to drink, the word would be passed along by servants to a man concealed within the trunk of the silver tree, and that man, either overjoyed to have something to do or terribly bleary from having just been woken up, would blow on a pipe causing the angel atop the tree to sound its trumpet (apparently bellows had initially been experimented with but then a human found to be necessary); then, some servants would pour the appropriate liquids into their pipes up above, while others down below would catch them in basins and bring them off to the khan for his enjoyment. It was all delightfully cumbersome, unnecessary, and silver.  

While in Karakorum, the friars celebrated Easter with a great crowd of “Hungarians, Alans, Russians, Georgians, and Armenians.” William heard public confessions, and he preached a fairly dangerous message, one which spoke to an issue I’ve mentioned before, that conflict between Christian ideals and the life one had to live: the Mongols had carried off much of other people’s belongings, William said, and thus, these conquered people before him, forced to live among the Mongols, might permissibly steal from them the “necessities of life.” However, they were on no account excused in attacking fellow-Christians “and should sooner let themselves be killed.” He makes no mention of how this last injunction was received, only that he rather suspected that the Nestorians would soon denounce it to Mongke, and expecting them to do so, he proclaimed himself willing and ready to state the same before the khan himself. All considered, the occasion was held to be a happy one, for more than 60 people had been baptized by the Nestorians on Easter Eve.

There were other sources of community there too; the friars dined one night with that Parisian artisan who’d crafted the khan’s silver booze tree, joining a company that included a man named Basil whose father was English and a Hungarian-born woman whose mother was French. There is no mention of what they ate, but William counted it a “most jovial dinner.”

However, jovial or not, they were going to need to be moving on at some point. William, as I said, got the ball rolling, and soon he heard back from the khan’s secretaries, inquiring again as to why he and Bartholomew had been visiting them this whole time, a question one might have thought settled over the last 5 months. But as it turned out, and as I mentioned at the end of last episode, Louis’ letter was lost and with it the khan’s memory of the whole matter. So William explained again how they had come to be there, adding, now that the letter no longer hung over his head, that he had come because it was his duty to preach the gospel to all. 

The next day, he received his answer:

The lord khan says you have been here a long time. He wishes you to return to your own country and asks whether you would be willing to take his ambassador with you.

Just as Carpine had before him, William refused, politely explaining that being but a poor monk, he would be unable to protect the ambassador in the hostile lands they would need to pass through and that, therefore, he could not risk it. Whether this was his only motivation or he was mindful of the threat posed by such Mongol visitors, as scouts for an invasion to come, he does not say.  

William did have one last audience with Mongke, one that Bartholomew with his lifetime ban could not attend. There, on the eve of the friar’s departure, the khan spoke on the topic of religious belief, drinking four times while he spoke William thought, and William waited for the translation: 

We [Mongols] … believe that there is only one God, through whom we have life and through whom we die, and towards him we direct our hearts. … But just as God has given the hand several fingers, so he has given mankind several paths.

And then he turned accusatory: 

To you God has given the Scriptures and you Christians do not observe them. You do not find in the Scriptures, … that one man ought to abuse another, do you? … And likewise you do not find that a man ought to deviate from the path of justice for financial gain. … So, then, God has given you the Scriptures, and you do not observe them; whereas to us he has given [shamans], and we do as they tell us and live in peace.

Mongke made it clear that he did not include William in his accusations - and a secretary spoke up to vouch for the total lack of greed William had displayed even when given opportunities for blameless gain - but it was also pretty clear that the khan wouldn’t be seeking baptism any time soon.

Mongke promised provisions for the friar’s journey and an escort to the kingdom of Armenia and asked in turn that William take a letter with him. Then, he said “There are two eyes in one head, and yet in spite of being two they have only one sight, and where one turns its glance so does the other. You came from Batu, and by way of him, therefore, you must return.” Far from a subservient position, Mongke firmly placed Batu as his equal neighbour in the great skull of Mongol leadership.

As their time together drew to a close, William asked if he might have the kahn’s approval to return again, once more referencing the missing Germans as he did so. Mongke said it was certainly acceptable for him to come, if his masters were to send him. But William pushed on. What if he was not sent? Whether or not envoys were going be sent, did he have the khan’s own permission to return. After a long silence, Mongke replied “You have a long journey ahead: recruit your strength with food, so that you may reach your own country in good health.” The friar left, feeling powerless and wishing for the strength to make miracles and humble the great emperor.

In the following days, the letter was prepared, and William generally took in the goings on of the court. An ambassador from India happened through, with 8 leopards and 10 greyhounds, and an envoy from the Seljuk Sultan with rich gifts, gifts to which the khan apparently replied that presents were all very well, but what he really needed was men. And then there was the envoy from the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad. The caliph had less than 4 years to live, and his dynasty would be ended, his city sacked, and its inhabitants massacred when the Mongols besieged it in 1558. For now though, the future was uncertain. William heard talk from some that they had made peace and that the caliph had pledged to provide 10,000 horsemen; others claimed that Mongke had demanded the Abbasids destroy their fortifications, to which their ambassador was said to have retorted: “When you remove all your horses’ hooves, we shall destroy all our fortifications.”

Eventually, the letter was ready. It addressed itself as an edict, as a command, to “King Louis, ruler of the French, and to all other rulers and priests and to the great Frankish people,” Frankish here standing standing in for a much broader category than the people of France. Interestingly, the letter then seems to have set out to erase all previous communications: “The order of the everlasting God was issued to Genghis Khan,” it read, “but neither from Genghis Khan nor from anyone else after him has this order reached you.” The 1248 embassy to King Louis was written off as that of a liar, while the letter that Longjumeau brought back was discounted because it had come from the late Guyuk’s wife, and Mongke told William that she “was the worst of witches, and that with her sorcery she had destroyed her entire family.”

Finally, after establishing the context of the letter and its delivery, it got down to business:

It is the order of everlasting God that we have made known to you. When you hear and believe it, if you are willing to obey us, you should send your envoys to us: in that way we shall be sure whether you wish to be at peace with us or at war. When in the power of the everlasting God the entire world … has become one in joy and in peace, then it will emerge what we shall do. But if, on hearing and understanding the order of the everlasting God, you are unwilling to observe it or to place any trust in it, and say, ‘Our country is far away, our mountains are strong, our sea is broad,’ and relying on this you make war upon us - how can we know what will happen? He who has made easy what was hard, and brought near what was far distant, the everlasting God - He knows.

After all that effort to supersede previous communications, this one doesn’t seem to establish anything particularly new. Be at peace with us or suffer what God alone can know, for wherever in the wide world you may be, you are on our land. It was by now a pretty well trod path, with “peace” really meaning submission, and Guyuk had said something very similar in the letter Carpine had taken home. However, that embassy to Louis which Mongke dismissed as a liar’s work had been sent by someone who Mongke had done away with in his violent cleansing of Ogodei partisans upon coming to power. Additionally, remember that this “liar’s” embassy was the one that had sounded the king out on the idea of military cooperation and let it be known that Guyuk Khan and certain of his family members were baptised Christians. Mongke Khan had in the end made it pretty clear to William that he was not a Christian, and, however a Christian may have taken the repeated reference to “everlasting God,” in his letter to Louis and the lords of Europe, he did the same.

Message received, William was ready to head home, and he found out just before his departure that Bartholomew wasn’t coming with him. Winter or not, the other friar simply couldn’t face the return trip, and without William’s knowledge he’d gained permission to remain in Karakorum with the Parisian silversmith. “You are not leaving me,” he told William, whose first reaction was to say he would stay there by his fellow-friar’s side. “I am leaving you, since if I accompany you I see danger to my body and my soul, for I cannot face the unbearable hardship.”

So it was that on July 8th or 9th of 1254, William took tearful leave of his colleague and made to go, together for the first three weeks with the Indian envoys who were taking the same route, and then with just his interpreter, a Mongol guide, a servant, and an order entitling them all to a sheep every four days, if they could find someone to give them one. They were taking a different route than they’d come by, and for more than two months, they travelled towards Batu with no “trace of any construction other than graves.” They passed only one town on the way, a small village which could provide no food, and for two and sometimes three days in a row they consumed only mare’s milk. Maybe Bartholomew had made the right choice.       

They reached Batu’s camp on September 15th, a year after they had left it, and there they found the unfortunate Gosset, their servants, and, presumably, Nicholas the purchased boy. Gosset and the others were alive, but they were in rough shape. It was a potentially pretty miserable limbo they’d been caught up in, awaiting another’s return, and a reminder of all the inglorious side stories found at the edges of history, many of them irrecoverable. We don’t know much about that year in their lives, but William does say that it was only the King of Armenia’s intervention, drawing their plight to Sartaq’s notice, which had saved them. It was starting to be generally assumed that the friars were dead and never coming back, and Mongols were already asking the stranded Gosset and co. if they “knew how to tend cattle and milk mares.” Before William’s reappearance, they’d been beginning to appear available. 

Batu asked William where he wanted to go, and if William had only known that Louis was by that point already home in France, he might have made his way quickly there, from Batu’s territory into Hungary; but he didn’t.

It would be a month before Batu could find them a guide, and even then the man in question seemed concerned more than anything with maximising his gain out of the whole transaction. There were to be no payments forthcoming from William, so despite the Franciscan’s instructions to the contrary, the guide made arrangements to escort them to the Seljuk Sultan in Anatolia, where he hoped he would be generously rewarded. 

On October the 18th they headed south, travelling along the Volga and its branches, and compelled to cross them 7 times by boat. Along this stretch, William reconnected with some of the belongings he’d been forced to leave behind with Sartaq’s people on the way east. He recovered most of their vestments, their silver vessels, and their books, but he never got back that illuminated psalter which the queen had given him.

Early November brought them to the mountains of the Alans, who still held out against the Mongols. The threat of raiders emerging to attack their livestock necessitated Mongol guards watching over the passes and an armed escort for William and his company, 20 men who brought them to the Iron Gate. They were now on the coast of the Caspian Sea in present-day Dagestan, and between the water to their east and the impassable mountains of the North Caucasus to the west was a small plain barred entirely by a long and narrow walled city through which travellers were forced to pass. Beyond the city was the remains of another barrier, one with a history that stretched into legend. William identified it as the Gates of Alexander.

And this was of course Alexander the Great he was referring to. In particular, what we’re talking about is from the Romance of Alexander, the collection of legends telling of his origins, his wars with Persia, invasion of India, and the miraculous deeds and encounters with strange beings in between. These legends had captured the medieval imagination with images of Alexander pulled through the sky by griffins, moving beneath the water in variations on the submarine, and confronting my favourite monstrous humans, the blemmyae, the headless people with faces on their chests. The barriers the travellers now crossed were said to be the ones which Alexander had put up to keep out the barbaric tribes and monstrous races, and also, William briefly mentions, to wall out the Jews. William had now been to the lands beyond the barriers, and while his travels seem to have left him skeptical of any dog-headed men, just the sort of thing which featured heavily in the stories, this great act of Alexander’s, the barring of the uncivil from the civilized world, is treated as truth and fact which had now been lived in a new way. He had been on the other side of that divide, and it hadn’t made him cease to believe in it. What did he now think of what was found on the other side?

His time with Mongke’s court had given him access to people who had travelled there from every direction, and he’d heard many things from them. In one conversation, he spoke with a priest who had come from China. Unfortunately, he didn’t get any more specifics as to what kind of priest this was or where he had come from, but he that’s not to say he learned nothing at all. He learned of a people who lived in the north and “tie[d] varnished bone under their feet and skate[d] over the frozen snow and ice at a speed that enable[d] them to catch birds and animals.” From another Chinese priest, this one dressed in “the finest red,” he heard of a place in the east where the rocky cliffs were inhabited by “creatures who [were] built like human beings in every respect except that their knees [did] not bend and they move[d] along in a kind of hopping, and … the whole of their little body [was] covered in hair.” These little monkeys of some sort were apparently lured out and made drunk on rice ale, so that they could be non-fatally bled in their slumber for the making of a purple dye. He also heard, though he did not believe it, that there was a place beyond China where you did not age but remained just as you were when you had arrived. And what of the monsters, William wanted to know. Had any of the monstrous races been seen? He was told they had not.

William had been on the other side of the Alexandrian divide and had seen no dog-headed men, but that does not seem to have shaken his belief in the story of Alexander’s Gate. If he had not seen much in the way of monsters, there had certainly been barbarism enough for his tastes, as he’d made clear from his first encounter with the Mongols, and there’d been demonic activity too. There was that pass the party went through on the way to Mongke’s encampment where demons were said to prowl, and then there was the demon William identified as the cause of Mongke’s wife’s sickness. And he heard stories of other demons. When he writes about what he’s learned of the shamans and their roles in Mongol society, demons, from his perspective, play a part in that too, being conjured up to dispense oracles or shouting over a dwelling to warn of an escaped Hungarian who hid within. All of that was on the other side.

They came down into the Mughan plain of what is now Azerbaijan. They crossed a bridge of boats secured to an iron chain where the Kura and Araxes rivers met, and then they followed the Araxes, going southwest, and stopping in for wine at the home of Baiju, the commander that Ascelin of Lombardy had met with in 1247. From November they followed the river, extremely thankful, I’m sure, to not be spending their winter in the Mongol camp, but it was wintery enough still for William to regret not being able to visit the source of the Euphrates because of the great snowfalls which had made such side-ventures impossible. William and Gosset celebrated the Christmas feast as best they could in a tiny Armenian church, one of what had once been 800 but was now only 2, in a once “very large and beautiful city,” “reduced by the [Mongols] almost to a wilderness.” The next day, its priest died.

Now, on this side of Alexander’s walls, they were in a world permeated by magic of a different kind. They were near the Church where St Bartholomew had been martyred, and St Judas Thaddaeus too, and not far away was the mountain where it was claimed Noah’s ark had come to ground and wood brought down from it to the church by an angel. And from an Armenian bishop, he heard of a prophecy. He had heard it before, from Armenians in Constantinople, but now he gave it more attention.

It was said that a great race of archers would come and conquer the entirety of the east; they would take everything from north down to south, would come to Constantinople itself, and would take its harbour. But then, one of them, known as the Wise Man, would enter the city. He would would see the churches there and he would see himself baptized before advising the Franks on how to kill the Mongol leader. Chaos would then reign in the Mongol empire, and Franks and Armenians alike would take up the pursuit of the shattered enemy, resulting in Frankish rule in Persia. “Then [would] follow the conversion to the Christian faith of all the people of the east and all the unbelievers, and such peace [would] reign in the world that the living [would] say to the dead, ‘Alas for you who have not lived to see these times.’” 

“Just as the souls in Limbo [were] waiting for the coming of Christ so as to be set free,” the bishop told William, “so we are waiting … in order to be delivered from this slavery we have been in for so long.” The Armenians had a while still to wait.

For another 3 weeks the snow held them before they could journey on. They reached the north east of present-day Turkey at the beginning of February, arriving at Ani, “the city of 1001 churches,” and capital of the old Armenian kingdom, and William noted that indeed it had “a thousand Armenian churches” and two mosques. From there it was west to Erzincan where a terrible earthquake that year had that killed 10,000, “not counting the poor;” the ground visibly split open where they rode and earth piled down from the mountains to clog valleys. More earthly violence was ahead at the sight of the Mongols’ 1243 victory over the Seljuk Sultanate. There, the quake had opened up a great lake on the plain where battle had occurred and William seemed to savour the thought that, quote “the whole [plain] had ‘opened her mouth,’ to swallow now the blood of the [Muslims].”

By the end of April, they were in Sivas, or Sebaste, the sight of the Forty Martyrs, the Christian Roman soldiers who had been executed by exposure on the frozen lake in the 4th century, and William visited their grave. 

The travellers were not proceeding as quickly as they might. Their guide was intentionally holding them back so as to be able to make the most of the requisition order he carried, and when they were in areas where it didn’t apply, it was worse. He’d pocket the money intended for food and then seize a sheep by force when the opportunity presented itself. William didn’t complain though. He was too concerned about the possibility of he and the servants being slain or sold into slavery.

They did eventually reach Konya, the Seljuk capital, around the 19th of April, 1255, and their guide presented them there to the sultan. Between the sultan and a helpful Genoese trader, Friar William and his company were dispatched on to the coast despite their lack of gifts to their guide, and now William was only a few hops from the end of his journey. It was Cyprus on June 16th and Antioch on the 29th, and from these he travelled in the company of another friar, arriving at Tripoli in time for the meeting of their chapter on the 15th of August. It was 27 months since he’d embarked on the Black Sea. 

William didn’t want his journey to end there. At least in writing he expressed the wish that he could report to King Louis in person, which would have meant travelling to France to see him, but the Minister of his order wouldn’t have it; maybe it was discomfort over William’s coziness with the king, maybe the pressing need for him to the remain in the region and work; maybe William didn’t really want to do any more travelling at all. Whatever the cause, now that he had returned, he was to teach in Acre and could communicate whatever he needed to the French king in writing. Just as well for us that that was the case, or perhaps we would not have such a record to go by.

The Franciscan wrapped up his report with an assessment of the Anatolian situation. It was overwhelmingly not Turkish, he reassured his king; it was Greek and Armenian, and the Seljuk Sultanate was weakened by scheming, plotting, infighting, and defeat by the Mongols; “Hence it is,” he said, “that Turkia is ruled by a boy, possessed of no funds, few warriors and numerous enemies. [The Nicaean Emperor] is sickly and is at war with the [Bulgarian Tsar], who is likewise a mere lad and whose power has been eroded by the [Mongol] yoke.”

It would be so easy, he was telling the king, for Christian forces to pass through or conquer all these regions. The time was ripe, and it was but forty days’ journey with wagons to reach Constantinople from Cologne and fewer than that to then travel on to Armenia; and you didn’t need to pay the costs of travel by sea or endure its dangers. Finally, if the Christian peasants were only “willing to travel in the way the [Mongol] princes move[d] and to be content with a similar diet, they could conquer the whole world.” The friar was extremely enthusiastic for King Louis to return to the crusade, and Louis would be back eventually, but not until 1270. Even then, he would not be going overland into Anatolia as his friar friend had suggested; he would take the sea route, and he would die of dysentery outside Tunis, roughly a month after landing.

What else had William reported? Unlike Carpine, he had little to say of tactics, capabilities, or recommendations on military matters of any kind, but he did cover other points extensively, giving information on the various peoples who lived within the enormous Mongol domains, their religious practices, the Christians of the east if through a distorted glass, the political positions of Batu and Mongke, and their reception of embassies and other missions.

Potential crusades and the Mongol use of weapons were not the main thrust of his journey after all. What was William’s conclusion as to his religious expedition among the Mongols? First, we should note that he failed to find those German slaves which he’d been asking after. He passed quite close, but knew nothing of it at the time, only later learning that they had all been relocated and employed in mining and in the making of weapons, another abandoned splinter of written history, to my knowledge at least. 

Then there are his thoughts on further religious ventures. In Ani, that city of 1,001 churches, he’d met a party of Dominicans who were on their way to Mongol lands with letters from the pope to Sartaq and Mongke asking that they be allowed to remain and preach; it was very similar to what William and Bartholomew had been doing, but astonishingly, they had “only one serving-lad in poor health, who knew Turkish and a few words of French.” That didn’t scream success, and William had a pretty good idea of what kind of welcome they’d receive. He told them of his own experience, that the letters would indeed get them through safely if that was what they wanted, but that if their only reason for being there was to preach then they would be listened to by nobody, especially without a capable interpreter, William by now really understanding the value of good translation. 

In the conclusion of his audience with Mongke and in the closing words of his report to Louis, William further emphasised this idea that a purely religious mission to the Mongols was pointless. In that final exchange with the khan, he’d bemoaned that as he was not an ambassador he was not free to say what he would like to. An ambassador could speak his mind and would always be asked if there was more he wished to say. As a simple visitor invited to appear before the khan, the friar could only answer the questions which were put to him. 

And his report ended with much the same thought, that no friar should make any further journey of the kind he had made to the Mongols, for to do so was futile. William had shown up in costume, with beautiful books and sacred objects, and chanted in song, but it had made no dent in their courtly attitude of curiosity. Friar William had been received as but another exotic tidbit washed up on the Mongols’ beach. Now if the pope were to send a bishop as an official ambassador and make a real show of it, to do so “in some style,” and to answer the Mongols’ letters in strength, then that would be useful. However, he concludes, the effort would need to be supported by “a good interpreter - several interpreters, in fact - and plentiful supplies.” No more shoestring operations, in other words, featuring friars in ones or twos to appear as humble little figures before the emperor; what was called for was the big gesture, a grand show of power to match that of the khan and to address him on equal footing, a difficult thing to project all the way to Karakorum.

Finally, we can look at William’s words as he left Mongke’s encampment, a quantitative summary of his time: “We baptized there a total of six souls.” It was no great turning of the tide.

And that’s where we’ll leave Friar William to his teaching in Acre. There are other stories in his report, and maybe I’ll return to them at some point. I’d love for example to do something from the perspective of the apparently incompetent interpreter Homo Dei / Abdullah, but that would need to be more speculative than what I’ve been doing here. Then there’s the khan having learned that 400 of the Assassins had been sent in disguise to kill him, which is clearly the plot for a movie. And there’s more too, but that’ll have to be for another time. Thanks for listening, everyone. I hope you’ve been enjoying this run of episodes on the Mongols and travellers to them because there will be more on the way. In fact, the most famous of travellers among the Mongols is still to come, and I’ll soon be starting in on the story of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. But we need to get there first, so next episode, we’ll set the table with the rise of the brothers Hulagu and Kublai. Talk to you then.


  • Carpini, Giovanni. The Story of the Mongols: Whom we Call the Tartars, translated by Erik Hildinger. Branden Books, 1996.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Christopher Dawson. Sheed & Ward, 1955.

  • Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans. Faber & Faber, 1971.

To See the Mongols 5: The Great Debate

Audience with Mongke Khan

In 1253, the Mongol Empire was showing no sign of faltering or of falling inward under the now-solid rule of Mongke Khan. That was the year the khan’s brother Kublai conquered the Yunnan province and extended Mongol dominion further into China while at the other end of the empire, their brother Hulagu was soon to be embarking on an infamously bloody campaign to destroy the Nizari Ismailis, and the Abbasid and Ayyubid states.

To the northwest, it’s true that Mongke, or maybe Batu, seemed content with what had already been achieved, satisfied with a little push, pull, and occasional military action to keep the King of Ruthenia, the “Russian King,” in check. There were not the same immediate rumblings as there’d been under Guyuk Khan that armies of horse-archers would soon again come pouring through the mountains and into Central Europe. However, the Mongol question had hardly receded entirely from consciousness for those in the Latin Christian world. We’ve already seen the degree to which it was on King Louis’ mind while on crusade, and the year 1253 is actually also significant for the beginning of a new crusade: the papal legate and Abbot of Mezzano was headed into Poland to drum up support for just that very thing, though it wouldn’t come to much. Such was the situation as our Friar William made his way deeper into Mongol imperial territory to meet the khan of khans.      

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. At this time, I ask that if you’re enjoying the podcast, and I trust you’re not inflicting this on yourself if you’re not, that you please consider supporting it with ratings, reviews, shoutings about it from the rooftops, and donations of always-needed sushi money. And I want to express my gratitude to those of you who have donated. It really does brighten my day. Thank you. Also, a quick other note: this is a bit of a longer episode today than I have been doing. That’s just how the story worked out. If you’re like me, you’re listening on the way to work or while you’re doing dishes, or our walking somewhere, the length doesn’t matter too much, but if you’re just sitting and listening, hopefully you’re sitting somewhere comfortable. Now, let’s continue with the story of William’s journey east.

When last we talked, the friar and his companions, Bartholomew, Gosset, and the disappointing translator, had beetled their way across the Black Sea and into the encampment of first one Mongol commander and then another. They’d arrived before Sartaq, son of Batu, to deliver King Louis’ letter, and then to express their doubts as to the validity of Sartaq’s self-professed Christianity, and then they’d been forwarded to Batu himself, the man who’d put Mongke on the throne. Things with Batu had gone well enough - nobody had been slain or banished - but their journey was not at an end. William and his colleague Bartholomew were carrying on to see the emperor, Mongke Khan, and what we didn’t get to last episode, is that they were not to do so together.

Perhaps it should have come as no great shock to them as much the same separation had been demanded of Carpine’s party before theirs, but this last piece of news struck the travellers most unpleasantly by surprise, and it struck some a fair bit harder than it did others. On the one hand, the interpreter was upset to learn that he’d be travelling on to Mongke’s court with William, while Bartholomew kicked up quite a fuss at being informed that he wouldn't be. Faced with the prospect of returning to Sartaq’s camp to wait, he proclaimed that “he would sooner they cut off his head than [that he] be separated from [his fellow friar].” In the end, the pair remained united thanks to William’s intercession, for he was, in his own chronicle at least, very much the more capable of the two; on August the 14th, 1253, they left, taking their less enthusiastic interpreter with them and leaving King Louis’ secretary Gosset behind along with Nicholas, the purchased boy. 

For our part, we will be following the Franciscans as they make their way towards the court of yet another member of Mongol royalty, this time that of the great khan himself. There were many miles ahead of them, of course, and also terrifying demons and frozen toes, crushingly awkward social situations in the khan’s encampment, and finally the great debate, an almost too good to be true scene of competing religious truths. It was going to be an eventful year.

The first part of their journey was in the company of Batu’s travelling court, but that doesn’t mean they proceeded in courtly luxury, with as much meat as they could stuff down and fermented mare’s milk to match. You see, they weren’t actually lodged with the khan; they were dispatched to another caretaker, one who apparently did not keep them quite as fed as they might have hoped and, having received no gift from them, “did everything with a bad grace.” For five weeks they rode along the Volga under this man's care, and William has Bartholomew saying, near tears, “I feel as if I have never eaten.” Either remarkably stoic, or content to play the part in his report to the king, William makes no mention of his own concerns.

Finally, in mid-September, they received a Mongol visitor, the son of a commander. The man informed them that he was to guide them to Mongke, but their first conversation hardly inspired confidence:

“I am to take you to Mongke Khan,” he said. “It is a four month journey, and the cold there is so intense that rocks and trees split apart with the frost: see whether you can bear it.” “My hope.” [William] replied, “is in God’s power to help us endure what other men can.” At that he said, “If you prove unable to bear it, I shall abandon you on the way.”

William understandably protested this, saying that they were after all being sent by the man’s master, Batu, but perhaps he was not so uncaring of their fate as his words indicated. He inspected their belongings and had them cast away all that he deemed unnecessary, and he returned the following day with coats and pants of sheepskin, boots of felt, and fur hoods. They were as ready as they’d ever be, and with a pair of pack-horses, they passed to the north of the Caspian Sea moving east.

They were in solidly nomadic country now, of city-less herdsmen, and William connected the land with the invasions of the past, those of the Huns, the Vandals, and the Bulgars. Sometimes, the travellers would be able to change horses two or three times in a day, moving quickly, while other days took them more slowly through uninhabited lands offering no such opportunities. When it came time to choose horses, the last picks were always those of William’s colleagues, the Mongols taking the best for themselves, but in a rare personal detail, William mentions that due to his great weight, he at least was always given a strong horse. 

Of food, they had little, and they were “famished, thirsty, frozen, and exhausted.” It was millet broth or some other drink in the morning and nothing solid until the meat they'd eat when they stopped for the night. And they really had no choice in the matter. They were in no position to comment or complain as to how things were going, only to bear what William starts to term “severe trials,” days that left their horses exhausted so that the riders would beat them into continuing, trade off onto a pack-animal, or ride two men to a horse to rest another. It was all very much in the tradition of suffering and strain in the medieval travel narrative, and, I’m sure, required little or no embellishment to make it so. They were still new to this life, to this place, and William refers to himself and his fellows as “wretched folk” for whom their guides initially had nothing but contempt.

Despite that contempt, the Franciscans value did soon become apparent. Their guide took to bringing them by the camps of wealthy Mongols for whom they would pray. It does not seem that those they prayed for were Christians, at least as William understood the word, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t respect spiritual power, doesn’t mean they weren’t quite happy to have a holy person of one kind or another engage with the realm beyond on their behalf. Just as Timur more than one hundred years later would consult both Islamic and Shamanistic advisors before battle, maybe these “wealthy Mongols” would see the truth of a religious position born out in its utility and in its power in worldly events. It’s a theme we’re going to come across a few times in this episode; like Guyuk had written to the pope, what could man do to man if God were not on his side?

But William doesn’t give enough information for us to really know these people’s religious inclinations, didn’t have it himself actually, and was more than a bit frustrated by the situation. Here they were, being brought before Mongols of influence and power who wanted to be prayed for, and his interpreter was still as incompetent as ever, or else, as he puts it, “much good seed could have been sown.” William recognized that Genghis’ sons were multiplying and spreading across the great sea of the Eurasian Steppe; if only they could just be Christians as they did so. As a religious mission, the whole thing was proving extremely frustrating.

William and Bartholomew went where they were directed and said their blessings, turned down offers of gold, silver, and cloth, and they answered questions about where they’d come from. Was the Great Pope 500 years old? Did their countries contain much in the way of cattle, sheep, and horse? Small talk of this sort, their interpreter could apparently manage. On, the friars went.

Their travels show us something of the political situation between Batu and Mongke. The latter was ostensibly the superior, but the balance may actually have been something closer to equality or shared rule. There is reference to the governor of a town coming out to meet them with ale and cups as was done for all envoys of Batu and Mongke, as if the two were of similar standing, and then there’s also the point in their journey where they started to move among Mongke’s people. There, their guide was met everywhere with “singing and clapping,” a respect that was shown to all of Batu’s representatives by Mongke’s people as it was shown to Mongke’s by Batu’s. However, Batu’s people were apparently less quick to do so, less likely to think it necessary, and this attitude might have come down from their leader. Maybe Batu the kingmaker rather felt that having put Mongke on his throne, he needn’t bow before it quite so low as all the rest. On the other hand, we have the guide in Batu’s camp telling them that his lord was requesting they be allowed to stay in the country but that he had no power without Mongke. The situation was complicated.  

In whatever way the balance of power was then aligned, William’s observations again foreshadow the divisions to come. Already, here was Batu’s khanate at least somewhat independent from imperial rule; one day not so long in the future, the Golden Horde, as it’s often called, would be entirely so.

The land the friars passed over now was itself being reshaped by Mongol dominion. One plain William mentions had once held many towns; however, they’d been destroyed to make way for better grazing, a pretty pressing concern for the horse people. And this was not the only instance of deliberate land conversion. During the invasions of China, farmlands were destroyed and allowed to revert to pasture, and there’s a story, maybe true, maybe intended to emphasize the Mongols as barbaric, that during Ogedei’s rule there were elements which spoke for the large scale killing of the conquered Chin population just to better facilitate this process.  

That town where the governor greeted the travellers was not the only one they passed through in what is now southeastern Kazakhstan. In one, they were surprised to discover the inhabitants to be Persian-speaking Muslims, far from where they’d expect to find them. At another, William inquired into the fate of the German prisoners that Longjumeau had mentioned, but he learned nothing save that their master, Buri, had drunkenly offended Batu and lost his life for it. Then, at a place where many merchants converged at a market, the party stopped for an astonishingly luxurious 7-12 days, an unusually restful time even at the low end. There, in Qayaligh, they waited for one of Batu’s secretaries who was needed to arrange their visit to Mongke’s court, and there William went forth and into various temples, meeting Nestorians, Muslims, and “idolaters,” and trying to make sense of it all.

In particular, it was that last religious category that piqued his interest, at least to the extent that he wanted to see their, quote, “stupid practices.” Who were these “idolaters,” with their temples at which they laid lamps, incense, and offerings of bread and fruit before an altar, where there was a statue of a winged figure that reminded William of St Michael and others which looked more like bishops with their “fingers held as if in blessing.” Who were they? Our friar friend caught sight of what looked like a black ink cross on one man’s hand and took them all for Christians led astray by improper doctrine, but they were most likely Uygher Buddhists.

William visited their temples and found them in their shaved heads and belted saffron tunics, seated silently in rows upon the ground with benches before them on which they occasionally placed the books they held. He tried to get them to speak, by many means he says, and we can only imagine what absurd means he may have resorted to try to make them break their silence; however, they would say nothing, probably because they were meditating or something of the sort and, despite appearances to contrary, actually quite busy. He tried to ask about these silent, saffron figures around town, but the Muslims he spoke to took offence and were unwilling to tell him of this other religion. 

Eventually, William did manage a bit of a dialogue inside a temple, and he found that many of the human figures, the statues which surrounded him, were actually effigies of the dead brought in by family members; thinking of the wider Mongol practice of making felt effigies, William erroneously concluded that all Mongols were part of this sect which he’d encountered in Qayaligh. Learning about new religions was hard, especially through the veils of language, culture, and the starting position that you were looking at what were essentially “stupid practices.” Despite his shortcomings though, I find this early record of European observations of Buddhism quite fascinating. I’ve actually seen this referred to as the first such record, but I’m not sure if that’s true. I’m curious though. Maybe one of you listening can let me know if you’ve come across an earlier one. 

Not far outside of Qayaligh, that secretary apparently having finished his business by November 30th, they found a Nestorian settlement and celebrated their first church in a long time by marching straight in to a joyful chanting of the Salve Regina, and probably causing a bit of a disturbance in the process. Then, it was back to the wilderness for them. They passed a lake which seemed to them like an ocean, so choppy was its surface, and gales ripped through the valley so fiercely there was said to be danger of being carried down into the water. Across the valley, they turned north in early December towards what was likely the snow-covered peaks of the Tarbagatai range in eastern Kazakhstan. Along narrow mountain roads they went, finding little habitation but following the yam/iam horse stations and moving at great pace through increasingly intense cold for which they were given another layer of goatskin.

One particularly nightmarish evening, the party was entering a steep-cliffed pass when word came from their guide to prepare for demons. Along that pass, it was said to be commonplace for demons to appear suddenly, to seize men and to leave no trace. At times, they might take just the horse, leaving the rider behind; on others, it was the rider’s innards they were after, and the corpse would be left otherwise undisturbed on its steed. Now, William was skeptical about dog-headed men and the legends of Prester John, but he certainly believed in demons. With the threat of supernatural horrors hanging over the party, it was an uncomfortable ride through a cold and deepening darkness. The friars chanted the Credo in unum Deum as loudly as they could all the way through, and when they all reached the other side safely, their Mongol companions were most impressed. They requested written charms which they themselves could carry on their heads for safety, showing an openness to different religions, just so long as they worked in this world. William wrote them out a prayer and tried again to accompany it with instruction, but once more his efforts were frustrated by the translator.

They were closing in on Mongke Khan’s camp, and at this late stage of the journey, William learned something troubling from that secretary they’d waited for, something I brought up last episode. He learned that the letter Batu was sending to Mongke stated that King Louis was requesting military aid in the Holy Land. He knew the letter to be doing no such thing, only “urging [Sartaq] to be a friend to all Christians, to exalt the Cross, and to be the enemy of all who are enemies to the Cross,” and maybe that last point was the source of the confusion, but William did not think the confusion was accidental. He suspected that the letter’s Armenian translators had tweaked its contents deliberately and produced something more to their own liking than to Louis’ original, but wanting neither to endorse this new message nor to openly contradict Batu, he chose to say nothing for now. 

Diplomacy was a difficult and dangerous business. Only the year before, a man had arrived from Acre under an assumed name claiming to be an envoy of the papal legate on crusade, and telling a story of a disobedient horse having carried off the gold-lettered message from heaven which he’d been sent to give Mongke. That man, whose story had ended in a Nicaean prison when he’d try his game on one too many rulers, had in fact also been pushing the idea that only some inconvenient Muslims separated Mongke from the friendship and loyalty of King Louis. Apparently, such false ambassadors were not uncommon, and the Mongols killed them when they could. William was going to need to be careful not to be taken for one when they reached the khan. 

They’d left Constantinople in April, and now, finally, on December 27th, the friars arrived at the camp of Mongke Khan. At last, the party could rest, and this they did, their guide, the commander’s son, in a large dwelling where he received many visitors and drank from flagons of excellent rice ale, and William, Bartholomew, and their interpreter in something more modest, just large enough for themselves, their belongings, and a small fire.    

Outside, Mongke’s camp was a pretty international place to be. They met Hungarians, Armenians, Greek knights, ambassadors from Nicaea and Korea, Chinese clergy, a Christian from Damascus who represented it’s Ayyubid sultan, and a woman from Metz, Lorraine who’d had the misfortune to be captured while on business in Hungary and since married a Russian builder who’d also been taken, the couple’s story a good reminder that the camp’s diverse character was hardly by the choice of its inhabitants. 

The friars went about at first without shoes on the frozen, winter ground, and caused quite a stir, and it wasn’t only their deeply inappropriate bare feet that elicited confusion. What were they doing there? They’d put forward their story of coming to Sartaq because of his Christianity, and then being forwarded on and on. But why were they there, they were still asked. Did they want to make peace on Louis’ behalf? No, William answered. Louis didn’t need to make peace, for he had done no injury. At this, their interrogators were astonished and would repeat, “Why have you come, seeing that you did not come to make peace?” 

William thought this a profound arrogance on their part, that they imagined that the world wanted nothing more than to come to them and beg for peace. If allowed, he said, he would have, “preached war against [the Mongols], to the best of [his] ability, throughout the world.” Fortunately, he kept his thoughts on the matter to himself and said no more of their intentions other than that they’d been sent there by Batu, but he was pretty optimistic about how that war would go if it happened. When he mentions the Teutonic Knights and their conquest of Prussia, he goes on to say that they would most certainly also easily conquer Russia if they tried, for if “the [Mongols] were to hear that the great priest - that is, the Pope - were launching a crusade against them, they would all flee to their wastes.” Of course, we know that the Pope was indeed launching a crusade and that the Mongols didn’t look ready to take their toys and go home, but William was not alone in this assessment. Matthew Paris and even Carpine with all his well-grounded reasons for concern had both voiced similar sentiments.

The friars, having answered all questions, now waited to be summoned. It was a strange world they found themselves in even after months of travelling through a harsh and alien environment. Remember that William had felt he’d already plunged into something quite different and barbaric in his first meeting with Mongols on the road. Now, he was truly submerged in it. In all this strangeness though, they would make an acquaintance who would really shape their time at Mongke’s court.

They were first drawn to the small cross on the dwelling’s roof, and in they went to find a richly decorated altar and an Armenian monk named Sergius. This Sergius greeted them, prayed with them, and told them his story. He’d been living as a hermit near Jerusalem when he had experience two visions of God, and in both of these, God had commanded him to go to the Mongols, but he had done nothing. On the third appearance, God had thrown him to the ground and threatened his life if he did not go; so he had went. He had travelled to Mongke’s court and, a little rashly it seems, promised that if the khan were to become Christian then all the “Franks and the Great Pope would obey him.” Now that the friars had arrived, he wanted William to say the same. 

Before anything else, though, the friars needed to appear before the khan. On January the 4th, they stood before the door of his residence, and the felt before it was lifted. Their bodies were searched for knives, and, it being Christmas, they chanted A solis ortus cardine and entered a space covered in gold cloth. There was a small fire burning in the centre, and the khan sat on a couch dressed in fur with a wife beside him and children behind. William, displaying his usual nasal sensitivities, described Mongke as a snub-nosed man of medium build, and maybe forty five years of age, and then singled out an adult daughter for her ugliness; he doesn’t mention what exactly he found so unappealing about her, but I strongly suspect it was the nose. 

While they waited, they were offered and accepted some sweet rice wine which they sipped at to show respect. Mongke took a moment to inspect some falcons, and then he called on the friars to kneel and to speak. William opened with prayer and praise, to God and then to Mongke, wishing he be granted a long life. And then he went into his now well-rehearsed explanation as to their presence, how one Mongol ruler had led to another completely naturally and innocently. He concluded by expressing the hope that they be allowed to stay and serve God on Mongke’s behalf and by apologizing for their lack of gold, silver, or precious stones to offer as gifts.

Mongke’s reply began as follows: "Just as the sun spreads its rays in all directions, so my power and that of Batu are spread to every quarter;” - and notice here we have Mongke speaking in what seem to be terms of shared power, at least in this translation - “and therefore,” he went on, “we have no need of gold or silver from you.” 

So far, so good, but then Mongke continued speaking and while his interpreter also continued, William no longer had any idea what he was saying and realized to his horror that the man had not held himself back from the rice wine and was now completely and totally  drunk. And then it seemed to him that Mongke too was drunk. William could just make out from his interpreter’s slurred delivery that the khan seemed unhappy that they had first visited Sartaq rather than coming straight to him, but he wasn’t sure. It was a kind of socially comedic nightmare, except that the consequences were potentially dreadful. Knowing the interpreter wasn’t up to much, William limited his words to a quick apology and then fell silent. Soon after, they were shown the way out. 

It hadn’t been the best of audiences, and their interpreter had again made himself painfully conspicuous in the process, but at least they’d received the khan’s approval to stay in his lands, a request William had made on Bartholomew’s behalf. His colleague was far too physically weak now to consider travelling for home during the winter. The trip would have almost certainly killed him; he’d begged William to gain permission for them to remain, and Mongke, for all their bumblings before him, had granted it. The friars went back to their cold little home where they were brought some fuel for a fire and a little food. Their prolonged visit may have saved Bartholomew’s life, but it was still going to be a punishing time.  

The weather was cold, very cold. Clear skies could turn to great snowfalls which needed to be cleared by wagon. By May, William writes, the ground would thaw in the warmth of the sun, but there in the thick of the winter it remained frozen all day. To their credit, the Mongols tasked with their care did provide them with extra layers when the weather turned particularly bad. William at first declined such offers, saying no to the sheepskin, but when the temperature dropped, he didn’t say no to the lynx fur; Bartholomew, on the other hand, appears to have accepted any and all offers of warmth, quite understandably I think.

Bartholomew, by William’s report, was having a bad time of it. His body seemed to be breaking down under the combined weight of arduous travel, an extreme and alien climate, and an unfamiliar and possibly insufficient diet. It was “millet with butter or dough cooked in water with butter or sour milk, and unleavened bread baked in cattle or horse dung.” Now, “dough cooked in water” sounds like pasta, and maybe it was, but he later describes “dough boiled in water” as producing a drinkable gruel, so maybe thinking of this as a pasta and butter diet would be a little misleading. Whatever the cereal cooking specifics were though, there were certainly no vegetables to be had, and while a “scrawny ram” was on at least one occasion provided, this just drew the starving to their home in droves, prompting William to, somewhat obnoxiously, declare that “it was there that [he] experienced what a martyrdom it is, when destitute, to give bountifully.”

Maybe it was his poor health that led poor Bartholomew to his near-fatal blunder at the khan’s tent. They’d been warned, after all, not to step on the threshold, just as Carpine had been before them; but Bartholomew, twisting to bow awkwardly on his way out the door and then turning too quickly to catch up with the others had stumbled right onto it. Some unpleasantries had followed; however, it was decided that there had been no interpreters present to tell the unfortunate friar, and he escaped with merely a lifetime ban from entering the Khan’s residences. The usual penalty of death was not applied. Poor Bartholomew was saved, but he may have been wasting away into nervous infirmity. 

Meanwhile, their new friend Sergius the monk was claiming to subsist on a saintly, Sundays-only diet, a weekly meal of “dough cooked with vinegar for him to drink.” Really though, he was keeping a box of “almonds, grapes, dried plums and ... other fruits” below the altar, and he’d eat from it when nobody was around. When William and Bartholomew fell in with this Sergius, they unknowingly joined something like a cliquey school setting midterm, or maybe a prison. They were with him because he was a Christian, but being unquestionably part of that gang was not always going to be comfortable for them.

From the top down, the situation was like this. Mongke treated the different religions syncretically, which is to say that he was happy to receive blessings from a Christian, and even to accept their efficacy, but that he was also going to be consulting the charred shoulder-blades of a sheep because that too was powerful and useful. This kind of buffet-table religiosity was not William’s cup of tea, and we can easily see how it started to look to him like manipulative and cynical opportunism, which admittedly there may sometimes have been a little of. 

On holy days, Mongke Khan would hold banquets. This meant that when shamans would pronounce a day to be holy, it would be so; when the Nestorians did the same, the results were much the same; and when they left after praying for the khan and giving their blessings, Muslims would immediately arrive and provide the same services. Mongke was, one might say, really hedging his bets on the religious issue, or perhaps simply did not see them as being at all mutually exclusive, in much the same way as one might now attend for example a Buddhist temple on certain occasions and a Daoist one on others. William, however, muttered darkly, or at least that’s how I’m picturing what he’s written, that, quote, "the Khan believes in none of them… And yet they all follow his court as flies do honey, and he makes them all gifts and all of them believe they are on intimate terms with him and forecast his good fortune.” Our friar was having none of it.

As part of the camp’s religious community, William made the rounds of the royal family with Sergius and the Nestorian priests. They’d drop in on a son of the khan, giving him their blessing then sharing a drink with him, and then it’d be on to the home of a wife who was sick in her bed where William was annoyed at his new colleague’s insistence that she drag herself out of bed for prostrations before the cross. Next was the home of royal daughter, who greeted them happily and called for drink and sheep’s meat. Once, “a good deal of drink [had been] consumed,” which William apparently declined to partake in, it was off to another woman of the court. There too, they were welcomed and she prostrated herself before the cross before calling for yet more drinks for the priests, again “a good deal to drink,” and at the next stop, an older wife, they drank again. Clearly, visiting each member of the royal family in turn was a pretty jolly affair for the Christians, and they rounded the day off with boisterous chanting and howling in the oratory which William reported was not locally disapproved of.

In mid-February, Mongke’s first wife Cotota’s (sometimes Qutuqui) condition worsened considerably, to the point of death. Sorcery, in Willliam’s terms, was first tried but did no good. Looking elsewhere for answers, Mongke turned to Sergius for help, and Sergius committed a bit of an over-promise. Of course, he could help Mongke and cure Cotota! Why, if he didn’t, then the Khan could cut off his head. It was rash, very rash, and William likely told him as much when the monk tearfully revealed what had happened and begged for their help.

For all his questionable behaviour, the Armenian was now part of the team, or they were part of his, so even as his religious practices, increasing belligerence and vanity, and elements of his personal appearance really started to bother William, they did help him with the cure. They were there with him for the all-night vigil, the mixing of holy water with some kind of rhubarb drink that Sergius made, and readings from the bible over the patient. 

While she did get better, William observed with quiet condemnation that Sergius and these priests who ministered to her illness, did nothing for her soul, did not recommend baptism or offer religious instruction, did not dissuade the use of sorcery in placing four half-drawn swords around the bed and a silver cup full of ashes on the wall. He’d later be less quiet when he discovered that Sergius was treating yet another patient: “Either go about like an apostle,” he said, “genuinely performing miracles by the power of prayer and of the Holy Spirit, or play the physician in accordance with the art of medicine.” It was becoming very clear to the friars that Sergius was not like them.

And Sergius continued to stir up trouble. He’d had a bit of a fall from grace with Mongke and then tried to patch it up by suggesting he might travel to the pope and bring all of Latin Christianity in submission to the khan. Clearly having learned nothing in his narrow escape from his last reckless promise, he was soon questioning William as to the likelihood of it all: would the pope be willing to see him? Would he give him horses? Would King Louis go along with sending his son to Mongke? William again cautioned against making “fraudulent pledges.”

Unfortunately, this was not the only source of tension arising from the Armenian’s actions. There was an ugly bit of business when a senior Nestorian fell badly ill, and the man who was brought in to examine him arrived at the conclusion that, quote, “A lean man … who neither eats nor drinks nor sleeps in a bed is angry with him: were he able to obtain his blessing, he could recover.” Everyone involved immediately identified this as Sergius, which is pretty damning in itself, and friends and family begged him to give his blessing, but Sergius said to William “Let him be, for he and three others who will go the same sorry way had hatched the design of going to court and securing from Mongke Khan my banishment and yours from these parts.”

Sergius did eventually attend the sick man. However, this was only when he’d heard word of his improving condition, and he did not provide his blessing. He trampled on his bed and, in William’s absence, fed him with unknown medicines. The next day brought a noticeable relapse, and William was convinced to leave the man’s side so as not to be polluted by death and barred from Mongke’s presence - the Mongols being at times oddly squeamish about death, something that comes up quite a bit actually. Soon the man was dead, and when William spoke to Sergius, the monk, far from denying it, really took the credit: “Do not be concerned: it was I who killed him with my prayers. He alone was educated and was opposed to us; the rest are ignorant. In future, all of them, and Mongke Khan too, will be at our feet.”

It was becoming clear that their monk friend was a man of questionable morals, enormous ambition, intermittent manic recklessness, and, to William’s way of thinking, deeply unsound religious practices too. Piling into the negative column was the new revelation that Sergius was regularly consulting a man who may have been a Muslim geomancer and also had a Russian deacon divining for him. Now, William was truly “shocked at his stupidity,” but he still couldn’t really part ways; they’d been directed at some point, assigned even, to Sergius’s company by the khan himself. They would just have to put up with him for now.

And that meant putting up with quite a bit. The monk was now openly trash-talking Muslims, calling them dogs with no incitement from their end, and generally creating what one might term a really poisonous workplace. A confrontation occurred when a group of Muslims goaded Sergius in return, and unable to use reason in his defence, he attempted to lash out at them with a whip. Things were escalating.

Maybe Sergius’ provocations were partly responsible for bringing on the debate. Maybe it would have happened without him. Perhaps it had been William’s own verbal sparring with a Muslim seeking to be sent as an ambassador to King Louis that had been the cause. Whatever the case, the message came through on May 25th that Mongke wanted to see them all. “Here are you, Christians, [Muslims], and [Buddhists], and each one of you claims that his religion is superior and that his writings or books contain more truth.” The khan wanted to test those claims. He wanted the three sides to present their truths in discussion before him. He was concerned with power and efficacy in his religion and perhaps also with quelling the arguments within his camp, so the date was set and preparations were made.

William and the Nestorians gathered on May the 30th in the oratory. For all their shortcomings in his eyes, that was his team, and this was their locker room and soon their arena. The Nestorians had prepared some writings, the creation of the world, Christ, his ascension, and the coming judgment, writings which William naturally found fault with, and this is perhaps the part of the whole story where I find relying on William’s view most frustrating. I’d love to have all of this from the side of the Nestorians, who to start with would not name themselves after Nestorius the 5th-century archbishop of Constantinople, and when we get to the debate it would be wonderful to have some idea what a Buddhist thought of the whole thing, or a Muslim. But we don’t have that. So we have to settle for William being clever. 

They talked strategy, and the Nestorians were all for going at the Muslims first, maybe due to the recent hostilities William and Sergius had been part of, but William shot that down right away. The Muslims were after all basically in agreement in regards to the one God, and it was better to have them for allies against the third side at the start. He then suggested a test-run, a little sparring session or role-play to prepare. I’ll be the Buddhists, he said, and assuming I deny that God exists, prove to me that he does. They tried, but it didn’t go well. Their efforts were entirely in the form of quoted scripture, and this, William pointed out, was never going to work. The Buddhists had their own scripture, he said, and were hardly likely to be swayed so easily by someone else’s: “If you tell them one story, they will quote another.” William decided it would be best for him to start things off.

Three secretaries arrived to serve as umpires, a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Christian, and the ground rules were laid:

This is Mongke’s decree, and let nobody dare claim that the decree of God is otherwise. He orders that no man shall be so bold as to make provocative or insulting remarks to his opponent, and that no one is to cause any commotion that might obstruct these proceedings, on pain of death.

There was silence among the gathered throng, both participants and onlookers. The threat of death aside, it was all very polite.          

And then it began. The Christians placed William at their centre and told the Buddhists to address him, and, kind of like the rumble at the end of The Outsiders, one of theirs stepped forward to meet him. “Friend, if you are brought to a halt,” he said, “you may look for a wiser man than yourself.” What was to follow was going to be messy.

Mongke appears to have done what he could, what with the referees and the ground rules. However, there were certain difficulties that were going to be hard to overcome. Language, in particular, was an issue. William had acquired the assistance of a more component translator, which helped; however, the debate to come would have had to accommodate Mongolian, for the benefit of the khan at least, and something in the range of Chinese, Persian, Arabic, Latin, and/or French for the participants. Furthermore, it would not be your garden-variety travellers’ small-talk. Complex religious ideas would be in play, ideas which are not always easily captured in a second language at the best of times. 

And of course in looking at the text now, I’m at a further step or two removed, reading a translation of a 13th-century friar’s hopefully sincere attempt at reporting the translation of unfamiliar belief structures, likely reframing them within his own system of understanding as he did so. There’s even some question as to whether the “Buddhists” were in fact Buddhists; after all, William didn’t call them that, and some commentators have in the past taken them instead to be Daoists. We can only do our best.

How to start this kind of thing. William’s opposite number among the Buddhists asked if he’d like to begin with “how the world had been made, or what became of souls after death.” Neither, answered William. It was God over which they disagreed, and all things were from him, so that was where they should start. The umpires ruled this very fair, and the event rolled on.

The glimpses we get of what follows are fascinating. William relates that a child from China had been produced to illustrate the way souls could, quote, “escape after death to any place where they would not be compelled to suffer.” The boy was no more than three years old to look at but demonstrated himself to be rational beyond his years, able to read and write, and claimed to be a third incarnation. William doesn’t seem to have allowed himself to be distracted by such matters though. He kept the debate focused on the issue of God. Was there only one God in perfect unity? Were they as numerous as were the lords of different regions? If God was so good, why had he made so much evil? That last one, the theodicy question, caused William to answer that God had not created evil, and that all that existed was good. This caused amazement in many of the onlookers who apparently took special care to write that one down as a most obvious error.

Eventually, William’s strategic decision to go after the Buddhists first paid off as he scored a point, and earned gales of laughter from the Muslim side. His opponent had admitted to the belief that no god was all-powerful, and then been cornered by William’s incisive line of questioning, falling silent and refusing to continue even when urged to speak up by the khan’s referees. Of course William’s clever reasoning had won out; it was his report after all.

And if his effortless victory over the Buddhists doesn’t give us pause, then he has the Nestorians stand and make to open the next line of argument only to find that the Muslims have thrown in the towel and admitted to the truth of the Gospel and that they prayed to God that “they may die a Christian death.”

And we can picture what this scene might have been like: probably the most powerful man in the world at that time seated and looking on, while representatives of three massive religions debated the big truths before him. It was surely tense and, given the language barriers, full of misunderstandings. We can imagine that, as Peter Jackson and David Morgan have pointed out, the Muslims present may well have acknowledged their own belief in Jesus as prophet, or something of the sort; there may well have been some truth behind William’s implausible knockout punch. We can imagine a much more substantial conversation between faiths, but with William’s reading we can only imagine.

What importance did he himself give to his supposed great triumph? Perhaps surprisingly, not much. After the other contenders had surrendered the field, the Nestorians stood and held forth on the “coming of Christ in judgement,” and other matters. Nobody interrupted them; but then, nobody was convinced either. Nobody, in his words, stepped forward and said “I believe, and wish to become a Christian.” Like much else of his religious mission among the Mongols, the episode has to be counted a disappointment, whether or not he filed it under the win column. As the gathering neared its inevitable conclusion, Nestorians and Muslims alike were singing boisterously while the Buddhists sat silent, and then “everyone drank heavily.” I have to think the friar counted it an empty victory.           

And that’s about where we’ll finish things off for today. First, though, we’ll bid a very fond farewell to Sergius. We’re going to start next episode with the end of the friars’ stay with Mongke, but we’re leaving our Armenian friend here. What a odd monk, you may have thought at times during this story. Well, as it happened, he wasn’t one. William was going to discover on his way home that Sergius was an illiterate cloth weaver, just another oddball opportunist making himself a new life out on the steppes. And there’s one more thing I want to mention before we part. You might have wondered since our protagonists arrived at Mongke’s camp, what became of that troublesome letter, the one in which King Louis had supposedly requested Mongol military aid, the one that had pushed William to near-silence as to the reason for their very presence. Well, it would turn out that the letter had been lost, and Mongke had forgotten what it said. That left a relieved William pretty free to present himself as he saw fit, and it also tells us that maybe the Christian crusaders, and their potential as foes or friends, just weren’t that important to the Mongols after all.

Thanks for listening everyone. I’ll talk to you again in a few weeks, and we’ll cover William’s departure from the Mongol camp and his return journey, and we’ll catch up on the wider world and take a look ahead.


  • Carpini, Giovanni. The Story of the Mongols: Whom we Call the Tartars, translated by Erik Hildinger. Branden Books, 1996.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Christopher Dawson. Sheed & Ward, 1955.

  • Gladysz, Mikolaj. The Forgotten Crusaders: Poland and the Crusader Movement in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, translated by Paul Barford. Brill, 2012.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410. Pearson Longman, 2005.

  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 1986.

  • Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans. Faber & Faber, 1971.

To See the Mongols 4: A William Leaves Town


When last we spoke, Mongke Khan was cleaning up after his rise to power. He’d gained the support of the khan in the northwest, Batu the kingmaker, the most senior of the Genghisid royal family still remaining. He’d turned back the attempts, both political and more confrontational, of his cousins in the Chagatai and Ogedei lines. He’d violently disposed of the former regent, who sank beneath the surface of a river wrapped in cloth. And soon he’d be issuing orders for the next phases of the Mongol Empire’s expansion: sending his brothers out, Hulagu into Persia and Kublai further into China.

His counterpart in this story and the focus of this episode had also been busy, but with perhaps less grandiose impact upon the world. He’d been in Cyprus as 1248 turned into 1249. He’d travelled with King Louis IX’s army into Egypt. He’d parted with King Louis IX in Jaffa in 1253, had stopped in Acre, and then preached in crusader-held Constantinople on April the 13th of the same year, receiving a letter of introduction from the Latin Emperor Baldwin to the closest Mongol commander. And from there and then he had departed, to evangelize and to provide comfort and instruction, particularly to a population of German prisoners who were said to be held by the Mongols. Fortunately for us, he wrote a letter to Louis detailing his journey and all that he had learned, more a book really than a letter. His name is sometimes recorded as Willem van Roeysbroek and sometimes as William of Rubruck. I’ll be going with just William here. 

Last episode, we saw the end of Guyuk Khan’s rule and covered some of the travellers who went east or west in his time to connect the empire to Latin Christendom: Ascelin of Lombardy, Andre de Longjumeau, the Mongol envoys David and Mark who met with Louis on Cyprus, and Aibeg and Serkis who travelled to the Pope in Lyon. For this episode, we will be following in the footsteps of Friar William as he makes his way across the Black Sea and to the east, towards the camp of Mongke Khan. We won’t quite get there today, but we will be meeting with Mongol royalty. 

From the comparative luxury of Carpine’s fairly well documented origins, we must now return to a pretty vague picture of our central character. Let’s start with a date of birth. That was somewhere between 1215 and 1230, and that broad range gives us a pretty clear indication of how painfully un-clear this man’s early life is to us. 

We do know that he was a Flemish Franciscan and that he either travelled with Louis on the crusades or, as there is some indication of, was already teaching in Nicosia and joined Louis there. But either way, he does seem to have been close to the royal family. There’s the implication that he counted the king among his quote/unquote “spiritual friends,” and his few belongings which he took on the trip included a beautifully illuminated bible given to him by the queen. We should also consider the purpose of William’s journey. It has sometimes been presented as a kind of undercover diplomatic mission on Louis’ behalf, the French king feeling understandably hesitant after previous efforts, but William’s own statements on the matter as well as his actions seem to indicate a more personally motivated religious mission. 

Even so, when William departed, he did so with Louis’ clerk Gosset who carried coins donated by the king and a letter to Batu’s son Sartaq who, it had been widely reported, had converted to Christianity. William clearly had Louis’ support. Perhaps the king still held out hope that Christianity among the Mongol leadership might lead to cooperation, or maybe he just recognized the value of the kind of first-hand intelligence the mission might provide. As we’ll see, Friar William was an exceptionally observant fellow. From the practices of the Mongol shamans, to the physical traits he found so unappealing, to the day to day dietary concerns of his journey, he was going to provide no shortage of details to the man he addresses at the beginning of his report as “most Christian lord, Louis, by the grace of God illustrious King of the French.”

William did not go alone. With him were Gosset the aforementioned clerk, an Italian friar named Bartholomew of Cremona, a boy named Nicholas who they’d buy in Constantinople, and an interpreter who was going to cause him some trouble. This last member of the party is recorded by William as Homo Dei, or “man of god,” but some have suggested that his name may actually have been Abdullah/Abd-Allah, or “servant of god.”

The travellers entered the Black Sea on the 7th of May, 1253, and immediately, we know we are traversing a religious landscape, one alive with spiritual history and with miracles. There, on what we would call the Crimean Peninsula, was the city where St Clement was martyred, exiled from Rome around the end of the first century and executed by being thrown in the sea tied to an anchor. There, William writes, they sailed past “a temple said to have been built by the hands of angels,” said in fact to have risen in marble on the very spot where the saint had been cast into the water.

William also connects the area to more contemporary relations and trade. He notes the city of Soldaia, or Sudaq, where they landed, as being a gateway through which merchants passed between what he terms Turkia and the northern regions, carrying squirrel and other valuable furs to the south, and cotton, silk, and spices in the other direction. Further east was the city of Matrica, where Constantinople’s traders would come to buy dried fish, sturgeon, shad, and eel, and surrounding cities are also described in terms of whose territory they fall within and to whom they pay tribute.

In Soldaia, we get the first taste of what will become an ongoing and delicate issue for William and his colleagues. Were they envoys and official representatives of the king, and to be treated as such? Not according to William, but here, he was given little choice to define himself, for, contrary to his publicly stated words, a group of merchants had arrived in the city before him and let it be known that official ambassadors indeed were on the way; they warned William that if he contradicted them, he would not receive the safe-conduct which was provided to ambassadors.

As it happened, everything went smoothly in the city. Its prefects happened to be away delivering tribute to Batu, but their deputies welcomed the friars, putting them up in a church, and telling them “many favourable things about [Sartaq],” which, a trifle ominously, William notes “were not [his] own later experience.” 

They also offered the party a choice, a choice which gives us a bit of a window in on the logistics and practicalities of this kind of arduous land journey. Would they prefer ox-drawn wagons or pack horses for their baggage? Choosing horses granted a plus 8 bonus to speed, but naturally their were also drawbacks to balance the game. William was advised that covered wagons would be best, or else they’d need to unload everything wherever and whenever they stopped to rest for the evening. The advice seemed sound to him, as it does to me, but he writes that they later regretted it. Instead of the one month the trip to Sartaq might have taken by horse, theirs was to take two. 

But off they went, the five riding horses, and with them wagons containing wine and rich biscuit to give as presents, bedding, vestments, and presumably some food options other than the wine and biscuit if they weren’t to consume their presents before their arrival. 

Two days after leaving Soldaia, they encountered Mongols. William writes: 

When I came among them I really felt as if I were entering some other world. Their life and character I shall describe for you as best I can.

As best he could turned out be quite well. William was an observant traveller with a good eye for details. He described the breeches made of pelts, lined with silk for the wealthy and with cotton cloth or soft wool for the less fortunate; he noted the process for making the fermented mare’s milk and how it stung the tongue but left an appealing aftertaste of almonds and “a very agreeable sensation inside;” he expressed an uncharacteristic degree of alarm at the appearance of the Mongol women: “[They] are astonishingly fat,” he wrote. “The less nose one has, the more beautiful she is considered… .” And this won’t be the last we hear from William on the topic of Mongol women’s noses, which seem for some reason to have really bothered him.

William’s first encounter with the Mongols, the one that left him feeling as though he had entered some other world, appears to have gone reasonably well, though he might not agree. The party was surrounded and, being made to wait, they sat in the shade of their wagons for shelter from the sun. They were asked first if they had ever been in region before. The answer being a no, the welcoming committee demanded, quite brazenly William felt, some of their rations, so our travellers coughed up some of the biscuit and wine they’d brought from the city. Finishing the first flagon, the Mongols, number unspecified, pressed for more drink saying, “a man does not enter a house on one foot.” Exasperated, William and his colleagues gave it to them, indicating also that they could really give no more. 

Other questions were asked, and the topic did eventually come around to the friars’ purpose, with William stating that they carried a letter to Sartaq and being very careful to avoid presenting himself as an envoy or giving any impression that he had been sent by the king. And there were questions as to what rich delights they might be carrying to Sartaq and whether they might bring them out to show; there were requests for bread and close inspection of all knives, gloves, purses, and belts in sight, but against all of this William stood firm, saying that the travellers still had too far to go to be unloading useful items now. At this, he was called an imposter, a pretty serious charge as we’ll see, but their interrogators let them pass with a 2-man escort and off they went.

As Carpine had before him, William grumbled at what he took to be an incurable greed carried out in “highly persistent and impudent fashion.” He complained that actually giving something to these people was entirely wasted, for it was met with no gratitude, while failing to do so could have consequence later were you to require some service. He took his leave of this group feeling, quote, “as if [he] had escaped from the clutches of demons.” Unfortunately for William, the journey to the heart of the Mongol empire was going to necessitate a series of such demons holding him in their clutches.

The next one was going to be a relation of Batu’s who William names Scacatai, and our travellers don’t find him encamped. They encounter him on the road, his dwellings carried on carts towards them, and they’re amazed at the sight of this rolling city passing over the land, at the great flocks of sheep, the vast herds of oxen and horses, and at the comparatively few men who could be seen steering it all. This Scacatai, they learned, had only 500 men beneath him, and half of them were elsewhere at another camp.

Despite the relatively modest number of his men, he was of course going to require some gifts. Such his interpreter made clear to them after first indicating that he himself would need some food and cloth for bringing them before his commander. Mustering another flagon of wine, a jar of biscuits, and a plate of fruit, the friars went forward to Scacatai’s tent on the 5th of June, 1253. 

They found him seated at a couch with a guitar-like instrument in his hand and beside him his wife, and William presumably didn’t voice his reaction to her nose, that he was “really under the impression that she had amputated the bridge of [it].” And things went quite well really. Their somewhat apologetic offering was accepted and shared out on the spot, their intentions to go speak of the Christian faith with Sartaq were restated, and their letter from the Emperor in Constantinople was received and sent away to be translated. Until that translation was returned, they were to travel with Scacatai, and, again, two men were assigned to them

William’s time travelling with the commander was not without value. It brought the friars into contact with some interesting people and gives us a look at their religious work. First, was a group of Alans, a people of the Caucasus region and Christians of the Greek rite. These men were concerned, as William writes many Russian and Hungarian Christians were, that they might not be saved because of the life they led beneath the Mongols. They could not observe feast days, even if they knew when they were, and had to drink the fermented mare’s milk and eat what had been slaughtered by Muslims and, quote, “other infidels.” No mention is made here of the violence they were obliged to do to fellow Christians on behalf of the Mongols but presumably that also weighed on their minds. It was a tension that was not at all unique to the enslaved, that the life one was obliged to lead did not seem to correspond to Christian ideals. William unfortunately does not go into further detail here, only that he “set them right as best he could.”

The practical difficulties of living a religious life are immediately enforced in William’s story by the arrival of a Muslim who in the course of their conversation becomes interested in converting. Just on the cusp of baptism, he leaves hurriedly saying he would need to consult his wife, and when he returns, he is adamant that he will never convert; it is believed by Christians of the region that one could not be Christian and drink the fermented mare’s milk, and this man’s claim is that survival without the drink is not possible, that the local conditions and manageable diet do not allow it. William tries to convince the man that in fact it’s very possible to drink and be Christian - he’s already tasted the milk himself - but he cannot be convinced, and the episode ends with William in despair at the misinformation spread through the region about Christianity, a situation he blames squarely on the Russians.

Meanwhile, the translated letter had returned, and now the friars were sent on to Sartaq, their intended destination, with an escort, a goat, several skins of cow’s milk, and a little mare’s milk. And this was badly needed. Their wine had recently run out, and William credits only their biscuits and the grace of God for staving off death.

It was the 9th of June, and as they reached the edge of Scacatai’s territory, they felt they “had passed through one of the gates of hell.” The party travelled with the sea to their south, recording the geography that the Kipchaks had once inhabited. William writes: 

As we headed east, then, all we saw was the sky and the ground and on occasions, to our right, a sea called the Sea of Azov; and also Kipchack graves, which were visible to us two leagues off, owing to their practice of burying members of one family all together.

He also notes the ceaseless and brazen thieving of their guides, but it wasn’t only the guides who were making matters difficult for them. When they stopped at encampments, they were pressed on all sides, quite literally and physically, by crowds who trampled over them to get a look at what they had, and all the while their limited food ran low. 

Putting a cap on this bundle of negativity, William was extremely frustrated in his attempts to preach to the locals, the only possible saving grace of their mobbing round the party when it stopped. His interpreter was not at all up to the task of communicating religious ideas of any sort. Indeed, when William picked up some small amount of the Mongol language he’d realize the danger of communicating through the man at all, that whatever William or his companions said, this interpreter was just as likely to present it as something entirely different. 

Additionally, it appeared that their guide was little better. A misunderstanding on his part led to them losing their animals, and though they managed to find replacement oxen, they would need to walk with the wagons. And they don’t seem to have known where they were going. They were exhausted, slogging through unfamiliar wilderness with no sign of other people. Only the appearance of a pair of horses, rushing at them out of nowhere, provided a bright spot and allowed the guide and interpreter to go off together in search of human habitation. 

Finally, “like shipwrecked men coming into harbour,” they found people, found horses, found oxen, and found their way to the yam system, allowing them to hop from station to station and into Sartaq’s encampment on July 31st.

Sartaq was the son of Batu, and in just a few years, in 1256, he’d be very briefly inheriting command of Batu’s ulus, the House of Jochi, the Golden Horde. For now though he was encamped 3 days journey from the Volga river and to the northwest of the Caspian Sea. The friars’ particular interest in him was religious. It had after all been reported that Sartaq was a Christian, and this was why Louis was writing to him in particular. Was Sartaq a Christian though? Was he just a Mongol ruler whose territory saw many people of many faiths pass through, including religious figures who competed for influence at his court? Was he merely happy to receive gifts from all?

There are some indications that he was in fact a Christian. Firstly, he said so, or his chaplain did  before the pope in 1254, a year after William met him. Of course, we can’t necessarily take his word on this; there may well have been other motives, but other people said he was Christian too. Contemporaries in the Syriac and Armenian Christian worlds viewed him as one of their own, and Muslims of the time also identified him as Christian. So what did William think?

William’s first impression was simply of an incredibly large camp, each of his 6 wives apparently having to themselves up to 200 wagons to start with. Their first audience was with a Nestorian named Quyaq, an important member of the court, and their guide was appalled to see they were bringing nothing to this Quyaq as a guest; perhaps it would reflect poorly on him. However, when they presented themselves to the man, as he sat with people dancing to the sounds of a guitar before him, he waived away their apologetic statement that “as one who had relinquished his own belongings, [William] could not be the bearer of what belonged to others.” Despite the guide’s misgivings, Quyaq found the explanation entirely proper, and after reassuring them that he would rather give them something of his own if they were in need, had them seated and served with milk. The meeting seems to have been friendly enough; Quyaq requested that they say a blessing for him, and they encountered one of the men who’d travelled to meet Louis back in Cyprus.

The next day they appeared for Sartaq himself, and they were requested to do so with their books and ornaments, and all their vestments. Quyaq seems to have initially believed that they intended to give it all to his master, but that unfortunate misunderstanding having been navigated, they came before Sartaq’s tent, looking, I’m sure, quite exotic to the Mongol court within, who had the felt hanging at the entrance thrown up for the viewing. William stood in his best vestments, a fine cushion held to his chest, the Bible given to him by Louis, and “a most beautiful psalter given [him] by … the Queen, containing very fine illuminations.” Beside him, Friar Bartholomew held a missal and a cross, while Gosset the clerk bore the thurible. They were told to chant a blessing and, dutifully singing the Salve Regina, they entered, and behind them came a crowd of Mongols who’d gathered round to watch the show. 

Within the tent, there was a bench with drinks and goblets to the side and in front of them Sartaq and his wives, whose noses seem all to have escaped William’s critical eye. Quyaq passed around the Christian curiosities, to Sartaq first, and to the wife sitting next to him. They examined the thurible and incense, the psalter, the Bible, the cross, and they asked questions. “Does this contain the Gospel?” “Is this the image of Christ?” They seem to have been genuinely curious. William meanwhile, took a dim view of the Nestorian practice of not putting Christ on their crosses. The audience wrapped up with the presentation of Louis’ letter which was then, again, to be translated.

But it seems like Sartaq didn’t quite understand or believe that they weren’t there as ambassadors for King Louis, and there was a good reason why. The letter Louis wrote was supposedly a greeting from one Christian leader to another with the request that William and Bartholomew be allowed to stay and preach in the Mongol leader’s territory. However, William would later realize that somehow in translation it had become a request that the Mongols come to his aid against the Muslims. This rather more substantial matter was really something that Sartaq felt he couldn’t rule on independently; the issue needed to go higher up, so William and the rest were headed off to see the father, Batu.  

They wouldn’t see Sartaq again on the way out the door, but they would be seeing more of Quyaq and his brother the priest. And irritations were in store there. On the day of their departure, Quyaq’s brother was going to be merrily pulling out the books and vestments from among their belongings. When they protested that they were supposed to appear before Batu with them, they were dismissed with a “Do not talk so much, and be on your way.” With there being no way for them to seek Sartaq’s intercession and with the unpleasant possibility that their somewhat suspect translator had made a generous gift on their behalf, they simply had to swallow their loss and be on their way.

So what did William make of his host’s supposed Christianity? Was his assessment coloured at all by being plundered on departure? William here relates an interesting thing he was told by Quyaq and a number of other court secretaries: “Do not say that our master is a Christian. He is not a Christian; he is a Mongol.” William took this to mean that they understood the term “a Christian” much as they did “a Frank,” as the name of a people, a people of which they were not a part. “Whether Sartaq believes in Christ or not,” William wrote, “I do not know. What I do know is that he does not wish to be called a Christian: in fact my impression is rather that he makes sport of Christians.” William believed that Sartaq’s professed Christianity was very much a product of being on a route taken by Christians and, when they passed through on their way to his father bringing gifts, he was entirely welcoming to them. His uncle Berka, on the other hand was on a route taken by Muslims and, low and behold, proclaimed himself a Muslim.

For what it’s worth, Sartaq’s Christianity was, as I mentioned, widely accepted by his contemporaries. Maybe when they said of him that “he is not a Christian; he is a Mongol,” they meant only that he was, above and beyond all else, a Mongol first, and that if challenged to define himself in one word, that word would not be “Christian.” Clearly, it would not be William’s first choice of words to define him. 

As his journey into Mongol lands continued, William would grow more disillusioned with the Christian possibilities of his hosts, particularly those of the Nestorian Christians. In his issue with the Nestorians, specifically the Naiman people, he leads us back to our recurring companion, and eventual subject of a future series, Prester John. What was the connection there?

William speaks of a Christian King John among the Naiman, brother to Genghis’ benefactor and protector turned adversary Ong Khan. He says of the the Nestorians that “only a tenth of what they said about him was true.” He himself was going to pass through the very lands where this most glorious John had apparently ruled and find nobody beyond the odd Nestorian who even knew remotely who he was talking about; and this is not the limit of the misinformation he lays at the Nestorians’ feet. They were, he argues, more broadly prone to lies and rumour-mongering. It was they who had made it known that Sartaq was a Christian, that Mongke and Guyuk were Christians, “And yet,” William writes, “the fact is that they are not Christians.”

William was headed next to Batu, a man we’ve already visited on the Carpine journey, and he was not at all feeling confident about the trip. Just as Carpine had mentioned the risk of Ruthenians along the way, William and his party moved in some fear of imminent attack. There were Russians, Hungarians, and others who had been enslaved and then escaped, and in small groups they were very likely to kill any who they encountered. The friars’ guide was himself apparently quite scared of this possibility, and this can’t have been reassuring. That, and there were the legends of local “dogs so large and ferocious that they attack[ed] bulls and kill[ed] lions.” And if this weren’t enough, food or lack thereof was, as always, a source of worry. By biscuit now, they sustained life as they reached the Volga, the great river that was something of an elevator, bearing arrivals like themselves to whichever floor Batu then happened to be dwelling on.

Batu’s camp, you see, moved with the seasons. The grandson of the great khan Genghis, he was not so far removed from their nomadic traditions as to be settled in a static position, and he moved along the east bank of the Volga, upstream in the summer and then, as the friars found him, beginning to move downstream. 

A boat carried them from a settlement Batu had established on the west bank for the purpose, it’s ferrymen finding the khan’s court on the east, and, again, William was amazed at the sight of a full Mongol camp. He’d seen one commander’s tents rolling towards him, then Sartaq’s, and both times he’d been quite taken by their appearance. Now, as he neared Batu’s camp, he was “struck with awe.” It was like a large city, stretching out lengthways in every direction for 3 or 4 leagues, every direction save for to the south of Guyuk’s residence itself, the direction which its entrance opened on. 

The day after their arrival, they were called before Batu. They came before him, not, as William says Carpine had, adapted to local dress so as not to invite derision towards a representative of the pope, but in habits, with heads uncovered and in bare feet. They came to the centre of the tent, and they saw him there, on a sofa overlaid entirely in gold, three steps up from the ground and with one of his wives beside him, with his other wives on his left and men to his right. They stood before him, and William was struck by his red-blotched face and his bodily resemblance to the lord John of Beaumont, a man whose dimensions are sadly lost to us. They stood before him in silence, long enough William thought to recite Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God … Do not fling me from thy presence.” The time passed. And then he told them to speak.

On one knee they went, and then it was signalled that they should be on both. What should one say in such a situation? How do you begin? Like interviewing for a job before a one-way mirror, the cultural divide, and the language divide bridged only by interpreters you could not entirely trust, would make it difficult to feel your way through the situation, to move reactively. You had to simply speak your piece, to present yourself as best you could and hope you got the job or at least that you were allowed to return with your head still attached. What to say? 

Thinking himself on both knees as if at prayer, William said a rather pointed one: 

My lord, we pray God, from whom all good things do proceed, that having conferred on you these earthly possessions, He will in time grant you heavenly ones, without which these are nothing. ... Be absolutely sure that you will not possess the things of Heaven without having become Christian. For God says, “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but that believith not shall be condemned.”

By other tellings, William told the Khan of the west that he “would perish eternally and be condemned to everlasting fire.” And there was laughter in response, maybe at William’s words or maybe at Batu’s response, that where a nurse allowed a few drops of milk to fall into the baby’s mouth, the sweet taste encouraging it to suck, this foreign teaching had been offered with the encouragement not of sweet milk but of everlasting punishment. There was derisive clapping, jeering probably, but all of this went untranslated over William’s head. He heard the laughter and saw his translator’s stricken face, but he pressed on. “I came to your son [Sartaq] because we heard he was a Christian, and brought him a letter from my lord the King of the French. He sent me here to you. You must know the reason.” 

The interview eventually hit its stride, however uncomfortably it had begun, and William and his colleague were invited to partake of the ever-present mare’s milk and questioned as to their lord and who he was at war with. William didn’t know it then, but it was presumably a line of questioning that related specifically to their apparent request for military support. 

They sat and drank in Batu’s company, and if we are tempted to think this a regular day at the office for William, its strangeness is underlined by the demands that they raise their heads. William didn’t know if it was simply because the Khan wanted to see their faces or because of belief in some kind of witchcraft, that a downturned or sad face in his presence foreshadowed evil, but he complied.

Again, though, the meeting was successful enough. Certainly, nobody would be losing their head, and the friars were not about to be firmly asked to vacate the Mongol domains. However, it brought new burdens. Batu had decided that they ought to present themselves to the Great Khan, Mongke, so that’s where they’d be headed next.

And that’s where we’ll be headed next episode. I hope you’ve enjoyed William’s journey so far, and I hope you’ve enjoyed our journeys together in 2017. It’s been fun to do these podcasts, to have some outlet for this reading and writing I like to do, and it’s much more so to know there is somebody, that there are somebodies, at the other end of this process listening. It means a lot to me. So I hope you’ve been enjoying it too. 

Happy New Years, everyone. I hope you enjoyed your Christmas, your Saturnalia, your Festivus, or whatever other winter festival you choose or are obliged to partake in. Thanks all of you, and I’ll talk to you again in a few weeks.


  • Carpini, Giovanni. The Story of the Mongols: Whom we Call the Tartars, translated by Erik Hildinger. Branden Books, 1996.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Christopher Dawson. Sheed & Ward, 1955.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410. Pearson Longman, 2005.

  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 1986.

  • Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans. Faber & Faber, 1971.

To See the Mongols 3: An Interregnum

Ascelin of Lombary Delivers a Letter from Pope Innocent IV to Baiju the Mongol General

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus.

It is written that in 1235 a member of the Dominican order set off from Hungary on a kind of quest. This Friar Julian had learned of another, older land of Hungarians, or Magyars, to the east, ones who had never left their ancestral homeland for what would be Hungary, so he went to look for them. In the course of his journey, it’s said that his entire party died one after the other, leaving him to go on alone, but he was ultimately successful, indeed finding a community of Magyars living in what he called Magna Hungaria and finding himself entirely able to communicate with them. And entirely able to hear from them of a storm approaching from the east, of an enemy that was beginning to threaten their borders. Friar Julian brought a warning to his king, Bela IV of Hungary, that they were coming, that they wanted world domination, that Rome was next, and that they were particularly aggrieved with Bela for his taking in the Kipchak refugees after their defeat by the Mongols. 

Two years after his first excursion, he would be unable to return the same way, for that enemy had arrived and had shattered the Magyars, killing or taking them into captivity. And as we know from last episode, in 1241 they would be in Hungary itself. Bela’s army would be obliterated, and the king himself would be fleeing from town to town, desperately making deals to claw his way back into control over his kingdom. And Latin Christendom would have to take notice. There had been warnings before; the Queen of Georgia had apologized in writing for her inability to contribute to the 5th crusade because of a barbaric invasion from the east, but now they would be scrambling to understand the new reality. A big part of that would involve the gathering of intelligence and the delivering of pleas and demands, and that would require the great efforts of human individuals exposing themselves to the unknown in unfamiliar lands, realms which had to some extent receded from their view into the haze of Plinian fantasy, Alexandrian epic, biblical time, and the tantalizing promise of the priest-king Prester John. 

Over the last two episodes, we heard about Euro-Mongol relations through the unlikely body of Friar Carpine. We’re going to continue with that theme today touching on a couple of different diplomatic missions to and from the Mongol empire. I’ll also be covering some of the history, some of the events occurring between the Carpine mission and that of our next major traveller. When we look at the khanate of this period, we’ll see another death, another interregnum, and a new khan. First though, let’s get ourselves caught up. 

I didn’t spend much time last episode on saying who exactly the Mongols were save for who they were in Carpine’s view, but I think it might be helpful to quickly establish the basics here before continuing. Who are we talking about when we say someone is a Mongol? The answer to this question in a way depends on when you ask it.

You could ask the question in 1167, 1162, or maybe 1155. Those are some of the dates given for Genghis Khan’s birth. Then the answer would be something like this: A Mongol is a member of one of a number of independent nomadic clans seasonally migrating across a space in the north/northeast of Mongolia with the Kereyids to the south, Merkids to the northwest, Naimans to the east, and the Tatars, with whom they were constantly confused, to the southeast. There had been one before who had attempted to unite the Mongols, but there was no longer. Life revolved around the sheep and the horse: the former for meat, milk, and cheese, as well as for clothing and the construction of their tents, or gers; the latter for transportation, hunting, raids, warfare, and the fermented mare’s milk which they seem to have enjoyed so heavily. Religion was shamanistic, with powerful figures providing prophecies, facilitating ancestor worship, and liaising between the immediate world and the land’s spirits which pierced it, with the highest place given to Tengri the Eternal Sky. From The Secret History of the Mongols, we have a sense of a world of familial feuds and cycles of violence from which one could not entirely shield oneself, but only flee for one’s life.

Consider the circumstances of Genghis’ birth. A Merkid man is travelling on horseback. With him him on a cart is his new wife who he is bringing home, but to his folly, he is otherwise travelling alone. Happening to spot him is another man, a Mongol who is out hawking and who, seeing the unusual beauty of the woman in the cart, races off to gather his two brothers. Shortly after, the Merkid sees the three brothers riding towards him and has no doubts as to their intentions. Also seeing them, his wife speaks: 

Do you see the look on the faces of those men? They wish to kill you. As long as you remain alive, there will be girls on the front seats of carts and women in the black-covered wooden carts. If you live, you will perhaps find a girl or a woman for yourself… Save yourself.

And that’s often how it seemed to be in these early Mongol stories. Faced with raids, the men who could do so would escape, would evade their attackers and hope to later retake what they had lost or just to strike a blow in return. So it was in this story, as the Merkid man rode off, eventually losing his pursuers over the hills. The hawker who had brought his brothers with him was Genghis’ father, the woman who was now led away on the cart, his mother. Years later, the Merkids would raid Genghis’ family, driving him from his home and seizing his wife Borte. And so the cycles went. 

Born with a blood-clot clutched tightly in his fist, Genghis was given the name Temujin at birth, after a Tatar recently captured or killed, and his early circumstances were not auspicious for the future domination of much of the Eurasian landmass. When he was quite young, his father was poisoned by Tatars who recognized an old enemy; his little family group was abandoned by their clan, its member seeing no benefit in supporting two women and 7 children; he’d feel it necessary to murder his bullying older half-brother; and he’d be taken captive and enslaved by that former clan. No, it was not a promising start in life, all in all, and his early years in the Secret History tend more towards his mother’s foraging for birch-leaf pear and wild onion and his learning to fish or hiding in thickets than to terrifying towns, cities, and cultures into submission. 

Thing were of course going to get better though, and my favourite description of this process is from writer David Morgan. This is his succinct summary of the tale of Genghis Khan. Quote, “First, individual followers are attracted by the young warrior’s personal qualities; then the support of a powerful patron is gained; ultimately there is a breach with that patron, and a gradual increase of strength is maintained as various tribes are one by one defeated and either killed, enslaved, or, in most cases, simply incorporated into the new Mongol military machine.” And that’s the whole story really. Sure, there are details missing, and taking the the whole thing as a story we might focus first on the relationship with his blood brother Jamukha, a close friendship leading to the bitterest of rivalries over Mongol leadership, but the general shape is there. After that, it’s just a matter of expansion. 

I’m not going to rehash the Genghis/Temujin narrative in its entirety, but I do want to pause for moment over this one part of the Morgan quotation, that “various tribes… were … incorporated into the new Mongol military machine.” Again and again in those early conquests, Genghis wasn’t just leading the same Mongol force against a series of opponents; he was growing the Mongol force and, as he did so, changing what it meant to be Mongol. His, what we might call, anti-aristocratic attitudes would certainly not appeal to all and many would be killed upon their defeat, really an understatement of the violence of Mongol growth, but my point is that many also joined this swelling Mongol nation and not only, as would also happen in large numbers, as slaves to be spent without care. Those who joined bent in some ways, in allegiance to their new Khan and in lining up within his system of military organization, his rules and expectations for conduct, but they came as Tatars, Kereyids, Naiman, Merkids, and later as Uyghers, Tanguts, and Khitan; they came as Nestorians or Buddhists or Muslims; they came as stockbreeding nomads, as hunters and fishers, or as more settled agriculturalists. And they changed what it was to be Mongol. So when the Mongols are entering Central Europe, they are not quite the same Mongols who’d successfully overcome their neighbours in Northern Mongolia. 

By this point when we ask the question, “what is a Mongol?” from an outsider’s perspective at least, our answer might be something more like this: one of a diverse many whose allegiance was to the khan and his family. Later still, the answer to our question would change again, as increasingly distinct reaches of Mongol rule became Persianized in the case of the Ilkhanate, or settled into China as with the Yuan Dynasty, or to some other corner of the great empire.

A fun example of this diversity in our period can be found in the European invasion, though it’s also a definite outlier not to be taken as indicative of the general run of things, and the source is not always reliable. I’m referring here to the writings of Matthew Paris, the 13th century chronicler of St Albans Abbey who records a letter sent to the Archbishop of Bordeaux from an Ivo of Narbonne. One the high points is this little tidbit: that eight Mongols were taken prisoner in fighting near Vienna and one of them, who had been employed by the Mongols as their envoy to the Hungarian King, was from England. There’s a little more in the letter of the Englishman’s history, of him being banished for crimes from England, losing all he had gambling in Acre, and wandering on lost to the world, only to be picked up by the Mongols who were impressed by his mastery of languages. I don’t know if any of this is true or not -there’s actually a highly speculative book on the topic of identifying this man if you’re interested- but it is a really scintillating possibility.

Matthew Paris has other material on the Mongol invasion of Europe, and what I find most interesting is the range of attitudes to the invasions which is revealed. In the same letter from Ivo which gave us the English Mongol, there’s an account of the unspeakable horrors of the attack, of brutal violence and its grisly aftermath including the cannibalism practiced by the Mongols’ dog-headed followers. More interesting to me though is the explanation of this disaster as resulting from the, quote, “heresy, and many other sinful things arising among us Christians,” that “the Lord has been roused to anger, and become an angry devastator, and most fearful avenger. This I say, because a fierce race of inhuman beings, whose law is lawlessness, whose wrath is fury, the rod of God’s anger, is passing through and horribly ravaging a wide tract of country, horribly exterminating with fire and sword everything that comes in their way.” If you listened to the Schiltberger series, you’ll already be familiar with this idea, that the successful enemy, Mongol or Turk, be considered God’s rod, an instrument of punishment for the sins and misdeeds of Christians. 

Elsewhere in the Paris writings, the recent disasters are given more earthly causes. A Jewish conspiracy is trotted out by way of explanation, along with the claim that the Jews of Europe believed these invaders to be long lost kinfolk who had been sealed up by Alexander behind the Caspian Mountains and that some even sought to bring aid to the Mongols in the form of smuggled weapons.  There is talk that the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II might have opened the door to the Mongols in seeking to use them to dominate the region and could thus dismiss them whenever he saw fit, but this is dismissed by Paris as only being said by those who were jealous of the emperor and not be believed. On the other hand, we have Frederick accusing the pope of turning Europe against him and thus dividing it, crippling its ability to respond to this danger. And the pope countered this accusation with his own, that Frederick had made some secret arrangement with the invaders, but of course, regardless of whether or not malicious intent or cooperation with the Mongols was involved, Europe was very divided. For example, Duke Frederick of Austria, a different Frederick, didn’t come to the aid of his neighbour in Hungary; he came to snaffle some free land, and that was really indicative of the possibilities of any united response, an expression of Carpine’s fears that Christian Europe would not be able to effectively cooperate, even in the face of such a fearsome adversary.   

Another fascinating moment from Paris,  if again not a well-supported one, is the arrival in England of a warning said to come from quite a surprising source. An embassy had apparently come to the French king and a representative sent on to the English telling of a monstrous and inhuman race that was a threat to them all, of men with outsized heads, and eaters of raw flesh, even human flesh. They were expert archers on swift horses, believed to have been sent forth as “a plague on mankind,” and only by combining all available forces in response to this terrible threat could it be overcome. Who had sent this warning, this call to armed cooperation?  According to Paris, it was the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of the Assassins. Rashid ad-Din Sinan, to whom the Old Man of the Mountain usually refers, was in fact dead in 1192, but it remains a possibility that a later Nizari leader sought allies in Western Europe, and in England in particular. They’d had diplomatic dealings with the Crusader States, and they certainly had every reason to be concerned about the Mongols.  

Whoever it was that looked to England for help, Paris records the answer of the Bishop of Winchester, who “happened to be present,” and would not let them finish speaking, but rather interrupted, quote: “Let us leave these dogs to devour one another, that they may all be consumed, and perish, and we, when we proceed against the enemies of Christ who remain, will slay them, and cleanse the face of the Earth.” There would be no joint Anglo-Assassin anti-Mongol league born on that day. 

We know what happened in Eastern and Central Europe next, how, if there had been warning signs before, the Mongols now well and truly stormed into Central Europe, and European consciousness. And then left. Paris seems to indicate they were beaten back out of Hungary, which is a bit of an optimistic assessment of the strategic situation, but however the circumstances were being read, there was concern enough on the pope’s part to dispatch the religious diplomat/spy, Friar Carpine, who we learned about over the last two episodes. And if you listened to those, then you’ll remember that Carpine did not return with reassurances. Rather, he came with testimony as to the menace the Mongols posed, if any were now needed, a disturbing ultimatum from Guyuk Khan, and Carpine’s own assessment that the khan’s special attentions would be turned towards Europe next. What was to be done?

As I also alluded to last episode, other embassies had been sent out. A pair of Dominicans, Ascelin of Lombardy and Simon de Saint-Quentin, had made their way to the commander Baiju’s camp west of the Caspian Sea around the same time that Carpine was dragging himself back through Kiev, and at least one of them managed to make themselves very unwelcome. It seems Ascelin would offer neither the thrice-bent knee nor any form of gifts or tribute, instead taking to the offensive in speaking of the greatness of the pope and demanding the conversion of his hosts. However, this did not have the desired effect, not at all. Baiju was apparently all for flaying the friars alive and maybe even returning their newly stuffed skins to the pope by way of reply, but perhaps through the intervention of his wife, he restrained himself. Still, it was only with the arrival of Eljigidei, who Guyuk had sent west with the command of his armies, that the Dominicans were really out of the woods. Eljigidei packed them off with letters that echoed Guyuk’s earlier sentiments and in the company of two Mongol envoys, exactly the thing that Carpine had saw the need to avoid. Aibeg and Serkis, the one possibly a Uyghur and the other a Syrian Nestorian, actually made their way to the pope in Lyon and met with him in 1248. Oddly, those particular Mongol agents seem to have left no great mark on history, but this was not the limit of Eljigidei’s diplomatic efforts. He also sent out representatives to King Louis IX of France, and Louis was not in France. Louis had ignored the pope’s pleas to stay and take on the emperor, pleas carried by our friend Carpine in fact. Louis was on crusade in the Holy Land.      

Eljigidei’s representatives, a pair of Nestorians, caught up with Louis before he’d gotten properly settled into the business of crusading, actually intercepting him at Cyprus, and the picture they painted must have been an extremely enticing one. From them, Louis heard that the Great Khan and his mother were baptised Christians, that Eljigidei had been charged by Guyuk with the protection of Christians in his domain, that Eljigidei would even be willing to assist him in driving the Muslims from the Holy Land, and that if Louis landed in Egypt while the Mongols made for Baghdad, well then those two great Muslim powers would be unable to assist each other. It was a clever proposal on Eljigidei’s part, and how could Louis resist such an offer, especially when presented to him by Christians? He sent out Andre de Longjumeau as part of a duo of friars, as one does, and with them gifts, letters, a purpose-built tent chapel of fine scarlet cloth, chalices, books, and wood from the true cross... It would be two years before they returned to him, their arrival delayed by, among other things, temporary imprisonment by the Sultan of Aleppo.

In the meantime, Louis also had a rough go of things. For him, that was two hard years of crusading and included imprisonment by the Ayyubid Egyptians after defeat at the Battle of Al Mansurah because while the Mongols had not yet moved on Baghdad, Louis did actually land in Egypt. Did his friars bring good news?

Naturally, they brought a confused story of the Mongol nation’s origins on the edges of Prester John’s land, but also an account of travelling past one broken city after another, the bones of its people piled on the ground, so that they wondered that the Mongols should have overthrown so many and hold power over such a great distance. They brought Louis a gift of cloth and a letter, but it did not promise the assistance that he had hoped for, that he had been promised really. According to one source the letter went very roughly as follows:  

A good thing is Peace; for in a land of peace, those that go on four feet, eat the grass of the field in peace; and they that go on two, till the earth whence all good things in peace proceed. This is for a warning unto you, for you can not obtain peace save from us. Prester John rose against us, and many other kings, and all of them have we put to the sword. Therefore we bid you send us so much of thy gold and of thy silver each year, that thou mayst keep our friendship. And if you do not, then will we destroy you and your people, even as we have done to those others.

Not totally supportive then. 

Upon arrival, the Longjumeau mission had not been welcomed as that of an equal there to talk terms of an alliance. It had been received as a subservient power come to offer formal submission and the magnificent chapel-tent accepted as a gesture of tribute. Louis’ biographer records that the king bitterly regretted ever having sent the friars in the first place.

Some interesting information did come of it all however. There were tidbits on Mongol life such as their riding with raw meat below their saddle, the meat worked by the heat of the horse and weight of the rider and then either eaten or tossed in a bag for later, a bag which was said to emit a fairly repulsive smell. There was information on the route and on matters such as the German prisoners held by the Mongols, all of which was somehow passed along to Willem van Ruysbroeck to guide him on his own journey. There was the promising news of some Christian prince among the Mongols, so powerful as to have defeated the Emperor of Persia. There was the news that Guyuk Khan was dead. 

And yes, this was not so long after Carpine had witnessed the kurultai for Guyuk’s elevation in August of 1246, less than two years after, in April of 1248. The exact cause of death is open to some debate, but the circumstances seem pretty well agreed upon. The tensions between Batu and Guyuk, those Jochi and Ogedei family tensions we talked about last episode, those had not gone away with Guyuk’s enthronement. In 1248, Guyuk and Batu had moved towards one another. Batu had been summoned, but he went cautiously; he must have been suspicious of Guyuk’s intentions to start with, and soon he received confirmation in the form of a warning. Then, as the pair closed, one of them died. 

What had happened? Longjumeau has Guyuk dying as the result of some medicine, with the suspicion cast heavily on Batu, but Ruysbroeck would hear that Batu had sent his brother on ahead and that this brother and Guyuk had slain each other in an argument. Others have found it more likely that the great khan’s brutally unhealthy lifestyle combined with the hardships of the journey simply finished him off naturally. Either way, control of the Mongol Empire now passed again to a regent, this time to Guyuk’s widow Oghul Qaimish.

This itself is a really fascinating thread in the story of the Mongol Empire, that the wives of the dead great khans would rule for very substantial periods of time, and we touched on this in the Carpine story with regards to Guyuk’s mother. Qaimish’s reign would be less successful however; it was not going to lead to the elevation of her son. Instead, another powerful woman was going to fatally outmaneuver her.   

The woman in question was Sorghaghtani Beki, the widow of Ghengis’ son Tolui. She had been administering to the Tolui family lands since his death in 1232 and had kept herself independent from Ogedei’s repeated attempts to join their lines either through himself or his son Guyuk. And this wasn’t her first act in direct opposition to the Ogedei line. She had suffered a loss in power and influence under Guyuk’s rule and had apparently been the one who had warned Batu that Guyuk was coming his way with ill-intent. Now, with Guyuk dead and the throne vacant, she was not looking to let Qaimish smoothly pass the title from the father down to the son. She had her own sons in mind, in this case Mongke, and she was going to call in the goodwill she’d presumably earned with Batu to do so. Batu meanwhile had no interest in seeing the Ogedei line continue to rule, and when Sorghaghtani sent Mongke to him, Batu received him favourably having likely been promised a great deal of autonomy in running his own not-so-little khanate-corner of the world. 

A kurultai was called, a grand council of the Mongols, but it was not your normal kurultai. Batu called it in his home territory. He summoned the Mongol world to his own backyard to make Mongke the great khan, and some of that world came when he called. The Jochid line was represented of course, as were the Toluis, but of the Chagataid and Ogedeid lines all either left when they realized what was happening or never actually showed up in the first place, staving off the appointment. There is talk at this point in the chronicles of Persian historian Juvayni, of “those who spoke evasively and postponed on this matter, fabricating tales and inventing stories.” 

Not to be dissuaded, Batu now sent his brother to call a second kuriltai to elect Mongke, this time in the Mongol heartland. Again, the Ogedei and Chagatai families were invited, but they still refused to endorse the validity of the event with their presence and participation. Some came late, while others dawdled to an almost unbelievable degree, stretching the bounds of acceptability to the breaking point. These were those not quite yet ready to admit defeat. 

They came for Mongke with many armed men, a violent coup attempt disguised as the proper paying of respect to the new khan, and according to Juvayni, they might have been successful were it not for a man possibly named Keshik, though this might just be a corruption of a word descriptive of his role in the story rather than a name. In any case, this Keshik as I’ll continue to call him was a falconer who had lost his camel, and he was clearly not one who was quick to forget such a thing. While others feasted and toasted Mongke’s elevation, this Keshik searched tirelessly for his missing camel, and in doing so he happened upon a great caravan of men, animals, and wagons, the latter supposedly loaded down with food and gifts. Unconcerned, Keshik persisted in seeking that camel, asking after it among these men until he happened across a broken wagon and in aiding its driver found it to be full of weapons. “What’s all this,” he asked, or something of the sort. “The same as in all the other wagons,” replied the driver, still taking him for one of their own. Soon, Keshik had the truth of the matter, that these men planned to make violent mischief under cover of the drunken feasting which would surely be put on to welcome them. Still feigning indifference, he made off quietly, and then raced back to warn Mongke and the others. It’s worth noting that this is also pretty much the story that Ruysbroeck would be told in 1254

In Juvayni’s telling, Keshik’s urgent pleas that the festivities be set aside and that all make ready for impending danger are at first scarcely believed, such an act on the part of family members being beyond the limits of comprehension, but in all tellings, defensive rings are set up, making certain that none may approach or leave. Then a party is sent out to capture the offending parties, in particular Shiremun, Guyuk’s son and likely the Ogedei choice for succession, Shiremun who did not yet know his plan was ruined, that he already lost. 

He and his followers were seized and brought before Mongke to receive their punishment. A whole host of advisors, administrators, and generals who’d guided Guyuk, and Ogedei before him, were promptly executed, including Chingkai who had Carpine dealt with in our last episodes. Ruysbroeck heard that 300 such notables were put to death, and that women were beaten with burning brands to elicit confessions before being killed. Another source puts it at 77 including the Eljigidei who had dealt so cleverly with King Louis. Shiremun was dispatched to China which would seem very lenient but he was then murdered or executed there. The Chagatai prince Buri on the other hand had argued violently with Batu on that European campaign and was turned over to him to be killed. And Oghul Qaimish, the regent who had failed to see her family continue to sit upon the throne, she was either wrapped in felt or sewn into a sack, and then she was thrown in the river to drown. There was little margin for error in seeking the Mongol throne, for yourself or for another.

These challenges turned aside, Mongke Khan’s position was solidified, and so I suppose was Batu’s. But it would be Mongke who would sit as great khan when Friar Willem van Ruysbroeck departed in 1253. And that’s the pair we’ll be discussing next: the one already making plans for further Mongol expansion into Song China and through Syria into Egypt, the other on a mission more religious than diplomatic in character and flung into one of the more cinematic debate scenes in written history. For that and more, I’ll see you next episode. 


  • Carpini, Giovanni. The Story of the Mongols: Whom we Call the Tartars, translated by Erik Hildinger. Branden Books, 1996.

  • Joinville, Jean. The Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville. John Murray, 1906.

  • Paris, Matthew. English History. From the Year 1235 to 1273, translated by J. A. Giles. George Bell & Sons, 1889.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Christopher Dawson. Sheed & Ward, 1955.

  • The Secret History of the Mongols, translated by Urgunge Onon. RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410. Pearson Longman, 2005.

  • Jackson, Peter. "Medieval Christendom's Encounter with the Alien." In Travellers, Intellectuals, and the World Beyond Medieval Europe, edited by James Muldoon, 347-369. Routledge, 2016.

  • Man, John. Kublai Khan. Bantam, 2007.

  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 1986.

  • Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans. Faber & Faber, 1971.

  • Waterfield, Robin. Christians in Persia. Allen & Unwin, 1973.

To See the Mongols 2: A New Khan

Carpine, Rubruck, and Polo

Welcome back everyone. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. Last episode, I started a new series, but I didn’t really explain what I’d be doing. I guess I was just excited to finally be putting out something new after a pretty long silence. Anyways, I want to take a minute here to very broadly outline what’s to come. I’m going to be doing a set of episodes looking at travel narratives that illustrate the contacts between Western and central Europe and the Mongol Empire. I’m still sorting out how many episodes that will be and what I’ll be covering, but there are a number of really fascinating characters, really interesting stories of people going one way or another and recording what they saw. There are figures like Willem Van Ruysbroek, Friar Julianus, and Rabban Bar Sauma, and there are also some great side topics I might dig into too where they don't quite fit into the main narrative, so, vague as that may be, there will be good things to come.

Last episode, I started to talk about Giovanni Carpine, the 65 year old overweight Franciscan given the mammoth diplomatic task of converting the Mongol khan to Christianity and convincing him not to trouble Latin Christian Europe again, or, failing that, to at least learn something of him and his terrifying people. To that end, Carpine left Lyon in the Spring of 1245 and off he went, travelling overland to Bohemia, north into Poland, and then east, and then rather further east still, meeting with Batu Khan roughly a year after his initial departure. 

And that was roughly where we left him last, contemplating the vastness of the world to the north, west, and south of him, and then going on, him, Benedict, and the rest of their nameless party. They went on the same as before, switching horses through the system of relay stations, or Yam, and apparently going through 5-7 of the animals per day. For 8 days they rode through what had been the lands of the Kipchaks, maintaining a punishing pace, and then for 20 days through those of of the Kankali Turks. There, they met few people, only deserts and the occasional salt marshes, and Benedict reports finding the skulls and of dead men scattered like dung across the ground. If the landscape needed to get any more ominous, both Benedict and Carpine would later note in their reports that when Grand Prince Yaroslav had gone that way, many of his followers had died of thirst and left their bones on the ground where the friars now rode. 

They passed through what had been the Khwarazmian Empire, had been until some 25 years before when the Mongols had arrived at the door and, following some unpleasantness over slain emissaries, destroyed them utterly. Over the course of less than two years Genghis and his sons and generals, including Subutai, had conducted a campaign that is generally regarded as quite brilliant and extremely bloodthirsty. Now, as Carpine and Benedict rode where the shahs had ruled, they saw ruined cities and forts without number, and villages in which no sign of life was seen. They don’t seem to have seen Samarkand, Bukhara, or Nipashur; they were further north, along the edges of the shahs’ former domains, passing Otrar which Carpine calls Ornas, the city which held out for 5 months against an army commanded by Chagatai and Ogedei before falling in 1219. 

And this all starts to take on the feel of a kind of travel guide to conquered nations, because next Carpine comes to the realms of the Qara Khitai, a former nomadic empire, and then after that to the city-less land of the Naimans, also since defeated and absorbed into the Mongol body. Still further east they went, getting closer now.

The land they describe was sometimes plains and sometimes mountainous, largely unfruitful, only rarely featuring water and streams, and beset by extreme acts of weather. Its midsummer brought lightning storms that Carpine says were responsible for many deaths, and also surprising quantities of snow. At times, the wind would blow so fiercely that travel became impossible, the strength of the wind and the blinding dust forcing them to fling themselves to the ground. At other times, hail fell in abundance, sometimes so much that the following thaw would create great floods. Carpine claims that one such flood swept away 160 men and many tents from an encampment. Overall, the picture was one of severe weather in nearly all its possible forms, which the friars were clearly unprepared for. The countryside to them was vast, wild, and, to quote Carpine, “much poorer than [they could] say.”

The Eurasian Steppe was, and in fact still is, an enormous strip of grasslands pinched into semi-distinct regions, occasionally interrupted by mountains, and stretching from China all the way to Romania with an offshoot in Hungary. With forested regions to its north and drylands to its south, it has, for thousands of years facilitated trade and the growth and spread of the nomadic and semi-nomadic communities who many people know best for their periodic intrusions, those the of Scythians, Huns, Magyars, Bulgars, and Seljuk Turks into other people’s history. 

But of course, this was not, as it may have seemed to inhabitants of the northeast Achaemenid Empire or 13th century Hungary, a fantastical un-land of perpetual darkness which irregularly pulsed outwards in great, displacing surges of violence. And its people didn’t exist solely to sally out every few decades and knock around some Europeans. Gaining a better understanding of the Mongols seems to have been one of Carpine’s goals, and we’ll follow him into it, to see what it tells us of them, or perhaps him.   

Though in the last episode I lingered over some of the more bizarre details which Carpine relates, he did make a significant contribution to a 13th century European understanding of Asia as what we might term a “real place,” not one of divine or monstrous possibility, of paradise or end-times related beings or fantastical legions, but rather one of mountains, rivers, deserts, forests, fortresses, and peoples, and the people he actually encountered, whether he seemed to like them or not, were decidedly human, not of the “monstrous races” out of Pliny. So let’s get to Carpine’s attempts at understanding the Mongol people, humanizing them really if not always in the most flattering terms.  

“Their appearance is quite different from everyone else,” he begins. Clearly making some pretty broad generalizations along the way, he then goes on to describe hair-styles, eyes, waists, noses, “middle-size feet,” and cheekbones. He talks clothing, tunics, and the women's headdresses, outlined in wonderful detail, and then the hats which for whatever reason he finds totally indescribable. He writes of large felt tents with their openings to the sky to allow the passage of light in and smoke out, and of how some are easily dismantled for travel while others must be moved intact with ox-drawn carts. And horses, he writes of how they have so many horses that he had not known that there existed that number in the entire world.

Carpine also tries to understand and communicate their religion. He reports on its material manifestations: the shrine at the centre of every camp, the felt idols and images of men on their tents, the felt udders placed beneath the doorways to protect their flocks. He writes of idol-making ceremonies involving the most important women of the camp and the sacrifice of a sheep, its meat eaten and its bones burned. He writes of the use of those idols to heal the sick, and the offerings made to them of food, drink, the first of the mare’s milk, and the hearts of freshly killed animals. And he writes of the burial of their noblemen: either beneath the roots of plants, or in some place in the field, buried in their tents and at their tables with meat and mare’s milk, with horses, saddles, and hay all buried with them, and the bones of a horse burned for them.

From there Carpine expands into the Mongols’ beliefs. They believe in an afterlife much like this one, he explains, only much more abundant, where their flocks multiply and they eat and drink and do all that the living do in this world, but more so. They believe in the power of divination and of magic, and they speak with and hear the voice of their god. They believe in the power of the moon to which they pray, and believe it to be the child of the sun. They believe in the purifying power of fire, and are sensitive to the messages of falling stars. They believe in the power of shamans or sorcerers to intercede on their behalf. They believe in one god, a creator of all things. 

Here, Carpine is taking on a difficult task, and he’s hindered at the outset by an apparent assumption that these people he’s trying to come to grips with in fairly short order actually have an overarching belief structure that is common to all, that all Mongols are followers of the same god and have the same beliefs. But they didn’t. They, if we’re understanding “they” to encompass the confederation centred around the Mongol royal dynasty, included Buddhists, Nestorian Christians, Muslims, and Daoists, along with the worshipers of Tengri, the sky god, the “one god” identified by Carpine. If he’d made it to Karakorum on his travels, as he very nearly did, he would have seen that the city included temples to all these religions. I wonder what he would have written then. Would his assessment have been different if he had seen these varied beliefs so publicly displayed? Maybe it would have made no difference at all. Carpine does note the Mongol toleration of diverse religious practices. Perhaps he just doesn’t regard those diverse practices as being Mongol. Still, that tolerance, along with the apparent monotheism, likely gave him hope in his task of converting the Great Khan and, in a top-down spiritual coup, his followers also. As we’ll see later, there was reason for at least a sliver of hope.

Some of that hope might have been diminished, however, when Carpine turned to consider those followers themselves. In one of the more fascinating sections of his report, he considers what he found to be good and bad in the customs, habits, and character of the Mongols with all the confidence of a man who’s spent months among his subjects.   

First, the good, or at least Carpine’s good: they seldom argued or were brought to blows; there was very little murder and no theft or robbery to speak of; food was readily shared even when scarce; lost animals were dealt with in all fairness; there was an overall absence of envy and an incredible willingness to help one’s neighbours. These inclinations towards community survival and internal order, obviously beneficial for people living in a fairly harsh and unforgiving environment, were reinforced by some equally harsh punishments where waste or theft were concerned. Stealing could result in death, and Carpine noted that, quote, “if a piece of food is given to anyone and he cannot eat it and he spits it out of his mouth, a hole is made beneath the tent and he is drawn out through the hole and killed without mercy...  And they have many similar customs that are too numerous to recount.” 

But then the litany of Carpine’s complaints begins. The Mongols were arrogant beyond belief, treating all outsiders from lords on down as dirt beneath their feet. They lied easily to them too, were highly prone to treachery, and would think nothing of killing them. Quick to anger, when they were mild it was the subtle and cunning calm of a scorpion soon to sting. Furthermore, he says, they were unbearably filthy, absolutely refusing to wash their clothes, and their diet included such unappealing items as lice, mares’ afterbirth, and, in a seemingly unsupported accusation, human flesh. They drank to the point of illness and then continued drinking right next to the results of their illness. They greedily demanded gifts, yet they were terribly stingy in return. At one point Carpine just gives up on the job of cataloguing their shortcomings which he'd set himself and simply states “In short, because their evil habits are so numerous, they can hardly be set down.”  

The final stretch of our travellers’ journey was hurried along by a desire to arrive in time for Guyuk’s election. They rode from morning until night without stopping for food or rest, and often they halted too late to eat, and would eat nothing until the following morning. Horses which tired were left behind, for they always had new ones to replace them. It was a hard ride, but they were going to arrive on time.

Ahead of them, the kurultai, the grand council to elect the great khan or khagan, was shaping up. And you may have noticed something here. If Carpine and co. were rushing feverishly to reach the gathering in time, rushing from Batu, then how was Batu going to get there on time? The answer was that he wasn’t. Batu would not be attending at all.

This takes us back to something I mentioned in the last episode, that Batu and Guyuk had a bit of history together. It seems they hadn’t entirely gotten along during the sweeping westward campaign that had begun in 1236 and carried them into Europe, and yes, Guyuk had been there. Though, as I’ve mentioned, it was Batu’s operation and Subutai is generally considered to have been the mastermind of the whole thing, there was a whole host of Mongol royalty on hand for the campaign, all of whose names I will now merrily butcher. There were Batu’s brothers Orda, Berke, Sinkur, and Siban; Chagatai’s son and grandson, Baidar and Bur; Tolui’s son Mongke; and Ogedei’s sons Kadan and Guyuk. This grand assemblage of Genghis’ grandchildren was, broadly speaking, pursuing the Mongol’s self-identified destiny of world domination, but it was also carving out Batu’s inheritance. And the issue of that inheritance, that line of descent from Genghis, leads us to a potential root of the discord between Batu and Guyuk.

I don’t want to get excessively bogged down here in Mongol genealogy, but Batu you see was the son of Jochi. Jochi’s mother was Genghis’ wife Borte, but he was born following her return after being held by the Merkits, a neighbouring tribal confederation destined to become part of the Mongol world, and there was always pretty deeply held suspicion that he wasn’t really Genghis’ son. To his credit, Genghis does seem to have treated Jochi as an eldest son and repeatedly affirmed this view, but rifts did develop between Jochi and the other children, coming to a head during the Khwarezmian campaign. There was anger, disagreement over the handling of a particular siege, and the replacement of Jochi by Ogedei as commander of that siege. After that, Jochi would take to his land near the Caspian, and he would refuse to come forth again, even at Genghis’ direct summons. Such was the situation until first Jochi then Genghis died in 1226, on the eve of apparent open hostilities.

So the Batu-Guyuk conflict is not just a matter of personal disagreement. It’s a matter of familial rivalry, the divide between the lines of Jochi and Ogedei, and, in the not too distant future, there would not be one united Mongol khanate, but rather a handful of competing ones: the Yuan Dynasty, the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate, and the Ilkhanate.

But all of that was for the future. For now, the kurultai was going ahead, though not without without contention. It had been a long, drawn-out process; there had been a lot of support for Tolui’s son Mongke; and Batu, in open defiance of his family, was not there at all.       

Such was the situation the friars were riding into, quite blindly, in July of 1246. Upon arrival, they were given a tent and their letters were received. They waited, attended court in a rather larger tent that Carpine estimated would hold 2,000 people, and generally experienced a wonderful outsider’s perspective of the whole series of events. 

They hardly had a front row seat, were hardly of any importance at all to the proceedings, but they saw the leaders arrive, riding in with their men from the surrounding hills. Carpine saw that on the first day he watched, all who attended dressed in purple, on the second in red, in blue on the third, and on the fourth in their best silk. Within a great tent the leaders spoke of Guyuk’s elevation while outside the others drank. And Carpine and his fellows were made to drink with them. They were given ale because they did not care much for the fermented mare’s milk, and they were compelled to drink so much of it that they could not remain at all sober, complain as they might.

The Franciscans were not the only visitors from afar. There were Russian dukes, a Seljuk sultan, Korean princes, a pair of Georgian princes, an ambassador from the Caliph of Baghdad, and ones from ten other Muslim leaders, or so Carpine was given to understand. Actually, he claims that there were more than 4,000 ambassadors, lords, and governors there to bring tribute and gifts, and to submit to the new great Khan. All were made to drink together, and so they did for a good four weeks, hailing Guyuk each time he left the tent in the belief that he had just been elected. 

In the bustle of comings and goings around the tent, and in Carpine’s state of enforced intoxication, he wasn’t sure exactly when the big moment of the kurultai occurred, or really what was going on within that tent at all, but the whole thing did eventually move to another site for the enthronement itself, a “beautiful plain next to a river between hills,” where multitudes gathered. On the day, all who were present faced south, while certain notables stepped before them and, to the complete lack of comprehension of Carpine and likely many other foreign observers, gave lengthy speeches. Then, all knelt in the direction of the south, but Carpine and Benedict quote, “did not know whether they made incantations and knelt to God or to other things [and] did not want to genuflect.” Guyuk was placed upon an imperial throne and his immediate leaders came forward to bow to him, and then all his people knelt, now to to him. Later there was cooked meat with broth and seasoning, and drinking, of course, tremendous quantities of drinking.  

After the festivities, Carpine’s party was called forward to bend the knee 4 times and warned again not to touch the inner threshold of the tent. Guards searched them for weapons, and they joined the other emissaries within a large tent for the presentation of gifts. There were silks and other rich cloths of various kinds, gold-work, furs, and all manner of nice things. There was a kind of portable canopy covered in gems, a set of camels and matching decorated saddles, horses in iron or leather, and gold, silver, and silk enough to fill 50 wagons.      

But celebrations and gift-givings aside, there was the business of diplomacy to be done, and the circumstances were not ideal. One might easily, as Carpine did, wander into the wrong cemetery grounds and narrowly escape the death penalty, or, as he managed to avoid, innocently take a stick from the wrong bush and, again, be faced with death. Alternatively, you might simply starve as you waited your turn to speak to Guyuk. 

That’s what happened to Carpine and his party. They were given food for one which was to split between four stomachs, and there was no nearby market for them to trot down to pick up supplies; they had trouble finding any means to provide for themselves at all and might have even died of hunger if Guyuk’s goldsmith, a Ruthenian, had not intervened and supported them somewhat. Meanwhile, they were sent away from one potential appearance before the Khan because, or so Carpine was told, Guyuk intended to raise his standard against the west… so that was a little ominous. 

No matter how experienced Carpine was, here he had been flung into a new and entirely unfamiliar situation, and he was not well prepared. The supply of pelts which they’d amassed for gift-giving had run dry, and now they were in the situation that their Russian advisor had warned them against before they set out for Kiev: meeting a Mongol leader with nothing to offer, nothing at all to pile onto those 50 wagons. How important could they, or the pope who they represented, really be, if they could not even manage the most meagre of gifts? It’s probably why they were kept waiting for so long. After all, Guyuk had already heard the purpose of their visit and would have felt no urgency to see them in person.

The waiting did give them more time to mix with those who came to bring their business before Guyuk and those who served the Mongols in one capacity or another, they were only too happy to speak with the friars. Carpine writes that they knew exactly what he wanted and did need not be asked, instead volunteering all kinds of information on the Mongols, their practices, and past. Perhaps it was one of these sources that provided Carpine with this optimistic assessment of Guyuk’s religious leanings. 

The khan, who is rather flatteringly described as being serious, intelligent, and morally strict, with no mention of his possibly alcohol-related sickliness, was said to be very supportive of Christians, to pay their expenses and retain a Christian choir; in fact, they were absolutely expecting him to convert. There certainly were Christians around Guyuk. Though I’m sure there was much to their beliefs which Carpine would have found alien and strange, there were a great many Nestorian Christians who occupied positions of power with the Mongols, and the Franciscans point of contact with the new great khan was in fact himself a Nestorian, one named Chingai. However, we know now that conversion wouldn’t be happening, that there would be no such religio-diplomatic victory for Carpine and his pope, and actually that Guyuk did not have many years to live, but Carpine and Benedict waited with high hopes.  

Things did finally move forward by November, and they demonstrate how capable the Mongols had become in dealing with foreign diplomats and communicating across the barriers of distance and language. Various meetings with Guyuk’s secretaries and ministers led to careful written translations of the Pope’s letters and of all that Carpine and his party had previously said before Batu. These materials were brought before Guyuk for his consideration, and then it was arranged for a letter to be recorded that they would carry back with them. Did the pope have people who could read the languages of the Rus, the Muslims, or the Mongols? He did not, they replied, or rather, quote, “there were Muslims in our part of the world, but they were distant from from the Lord Pope.” Translation on the spot thus being necessary, a letter was brought to them to be rendered into Latin, and once completed it was translated back word by word to insure its accuracy and Carpine was made to read it twice and be certain no questions remained. “See that you understand everything well,” they told him, “because it is useless if you do not understand something since you must travel to such distant lands.” “We understand everything well,” Carpine replied.

Actually Guyuk rather thought it would be a good idea for some Mongol representatives to return with them, but Carpine was less enthusiastic about this. Wouldn’t this just be an invitation for them to scout the lands they visited? And when they came and they saw the terrible divisions that existed within Latin Christendom, wouldn’t they be more encouraged to attack? Worse, what would happen if these representatives were to be harmed, killed even, while away? The Mongol response to the death of their ambassadors would be as predictable as it would be merciless. No, none of that sounded beneficial, so Carpine simply did not extend any such invitation. 

Instead, he collected his pass, his letters signed with the imperial seal, and his gifts from Guyuk’s mother, fox fur cloaks with silk liners which were promptly grabbed up by the Mongols who had long been accompanying them, and he turned at last for home. 

The return journey he relates in hardly any time at all. It was of less interest him, I suppose, and did not pertain to his mission, but it was again an impressive feat: proceeding overland pretty much from one end of the Eurasian landmass to the other, and travelling, Carpine writes, for an entire winter. The ground was often covered with snow, and when they paused to rest they stamped it down with their feet to make a little space for themselves to lie.  

Their route is not entirely clear. Probably, they followed the same Yam system back, eventually coming to meet Batu again and being sent on. They met again with that particularly greedy local administrator, and he tried again to press them for gifts, only this time he had no success, for they had nothing. They arrived in Kiev in early July and were greeted as if they had returned from the dead, and one can certainly understand this reaction on the part of the city’s inhabitants: the elderly Franciscan and his company had crossed deserts of sand and of snow, traversed ludicrously large stretches of land, sometimes tied to their horses so as not to collapse from the saddle, and often on the most meagre of rations and in the worst of health. More than that, they’d been to visit the monsters who’d shattered the city completely just 5 years before, and then they’d come back. 

They still had a long way to travel. They were bound for Lyon after all, where they were to present the Pope with Guyuk’s letter, and, if it seems like the bulk of the trip is behind them, it’s worth considering that they still had more than 1,200 miles to go. Carpine was going to make it though. 

The closing section of Carpine’s narrative is among my favourites. It’s where he reaffirms that he is to believed, that he did indeed see these things or, where he had noted, hear of them from some credible person. And he lists off the people who witnessed their passing and could confirm their travels in one location or another: the merchants of Bratislava who accompanied them to Kiev, a Duke Oleg, Michael the Genoese, Manuel the Venetian, Renerius of Acre, and many more either named or less specifically cited. Any who doubted Carpine’s words need only consult these witnesses to be assured of their truth. 

And Carpine was happy to tell any who would listen of what he had seen himself. The Italian friar Salimbene met Carpine in Lyon after he’d returned, and Salimbene wrote that Carpine could often be found describing his journey, holding forth until he could speak no more and then actually having his book read aloud and explaining any points that weren’t understood. He had a lot to talk about: his journey, interactions, observations, and all that he heard on a broad range of Mongol-related topics, including how they fought and how to fight them. 

Yes, one thing I haven’t touched on so far, is that this plump, moderately elderly friar returned from his there-and-back-again with descriptions of the Mongol armies and their practices, and they are pretty recognizably what we think of when we think of Mongol military organization. There’s the decimal system, with its units of tens, hundreds, thousands, and so on, and there’s the fierce collective punishment these units faced for underperforming: if one of a group of ten flees, the rest are killed; if all of a group of ten flee, then the hundred to which they belong are killed. There are details on everything from the weapons of the Mongols, to the fashioning of their armour, to their method of cross rivers. There’s the consistent use of scouting parties who take nothing, only kill or injure if they can, to be followed by occupying forces and the deployment of skilled raiders to pluck the land clean. There’s the classic feigned retreat which followed initial attempts to overwhelm the enemy with the first rush of arrows, the fading back that so often drew Mongols’ opponents to their doom at a pre-arranged ambush point, as had happened to the combined Qipchaks and Rus in 1223. 

Carpine points to the Mongols willingness to withdraw from large armies only to destroy them piecemeal once they’ve disbanded, the use of non-combatants or outright dummies on horseback to mislead as to numbers and deployment, the use of captives and other peoples front and centre with stronger forces circling round the wings, and the way, once the enemy was surrounded, that the Mongols gave them a path out, let them see freedom, and let them string themselves out in disorganized escape through the offered opening, only to close in and slaughter them as they fled. I’m sure Carpine had heard something of the Mongol victory over King Bela’s Hungarians. 

Even strong fortifications were no guarantee of safety. When faced with such positions, Carpine writes, Mongol armies would press day and night with bows and siege engines, not allowing the defenders any rest while cycling their own men through in shifts. Greek fire could be used, even burning grease from the flesh of their dead enemies, an intimidating weapon which Carpine helpfully notes could be extinguished with beer or wine, or perhaps not helpfully at all if the results are anything like putting water on a grease fire. If a river was present, the Mongols might use it to flood the target. They might tunnel in and set fire to it. Ideally, they might politely but firmly request surrender, call everyone in the city out to be counted, and massacre them on the spot, saving only the skilled artisans and useful slaves. They “are most clever in war,” reads Carpine’s account, “because they have been at war for more than forty years with other people.” 40-something years of wildly successful warfare brings us on to Carpine’s next point: the Mongols, he said, were terrible to be ruled by, unbearable tyrants who were treacherous and would promise one thing but then take anything, abusing high and low born alike. 

What then was to be done? Was Carpine’s message one of impending and unavoidable doom, that the people of central and western Europe should do best for themselves and their families by rushing to the Pacific and hurling themselves in? No, Carpine wasn’t simply fear-mongering. He was saying that it was the Mongols’ open intention to conquer the entire world, and that the Christian world was their most immediate target, that Guyuk himself had stated his intention to invade Prussia and Livonia. Given that they were, according to Carpine, vicious scorpions who would be intolerable to live under, preparations must be made. Carpine had solutions, or at least he had suggestions, and they’re pretty interesting too.

The first point concerned cooperation. It was a common theme of Mongol invasions that they would take advantage of local divisions and exploit them utterly, isolating their opponents and then defeating them bite by manageable bite. Christians must, Carpine insisted, band together as one body operating under one plan if they were to stand a chance. They should be armed pretty much as the Mongols were, with bows, arrow-tips tempered as the Mongols did, hooked lances for pulling riders from their horses, thick chest-plates, and armour for body and horse. They should organize their armies as the Mongols did with commanders of 1000s, 100s, and 10s. They should punish those who retreated from the line of battle as the Mongols did, or at least severely if not actually fatally. 

There’s obviously a bit of a theme developing here, but “do as the Mongols do” wasn’t Carpine’s only advice. He also made good points about choosing battlegrounds next to thick forests so as to avoid  easy encirclement on that side, making heavy use of scouts to monitor attempts at that encirclement, fielding armies composed of distinct battle groups rather than single bodies, keeping leaders in position to direct aid where it was needed, and, as many had learned too late, not following the Mongols when they retreated. And there’s more too, on the preparation of fortresses and of the countryside itself. Carpine was quite thorough. He had travelled among the Mongols, talked to them and those who had been devastated by them, and he seems to have come away from them with a mix of respect, fear, and disgust. 

We will be returning to these Mongols again, following other figures who travelled one way or the other and created exchanges between 13th century Latin Christendom and the still united Mongol empire. However, here is where we’ll end things with our friend Friar Carpine, a man of toughness and intelligence whose greatest adventure in life came after 60. He wouldn’t be going east again, but he would become Archbishop of Antivari, in present-day Montenegro. His work on the Mongols and his travels among them would be read by many when reworked into part of Vincent of Beauvais’ great encyclopedia, but he’d die in 1252 in the midst of a legal struggle with a rival archbishop.

As we finish this episode, there’s one more subject I want to mention: Guyuk’s letter. I’m sure you’re wondering what the great khan wrote to the pope. Did he promise conversion to Christianity and assistance in retaking the Holy Land? Did he inform him that his end was near and that the Mongol armies would soon again be on his doorstep? Let’s end things off for today with that letter:

Having taken counsel for making peace with us, You Pope and Christians have sent an envoy to us, as we have heard from him and as your letters declare. Wherefore, if you wish to have peace with us, You Pope and all kings and potentates, in no way delay to come to me to make terms of peace and then you shall hear alike our answer and our will. The contents of your letters stated that we ought to be baptized and become Christians. To this we answer briefly that we do not understand in what way we ought to do this. To the rest of the contents of your letters, that you wonder at so great a slaughter of men, especially of Christians and in particular Poles, Moravians, and Hungarians, we reply likewise that this also we do not understand. However, lest we may seem to pass it over in silence altogether, we give you this for our answer.

Because they did not obey the word of God and the command of Genghis Khan and Ogedei Khan, but took counsel to slay our envoys, therefore God ordered us to destroy them and gave them up into our hands. For otherwise if God had not done this, what could man do to man? But you men of the West believe that you alone are Christians and despise others. But how can you know to whom God deigns to confer His grace? But we worshipping God have destroyed the whole earth from the East to the West in the power of God. And if this were not the power of God, what could men have done? Therefore if you accept peace and are willing to surrender your fortresses to us, You Pope and Christian princes, in no way delay coming to to conclude peace and then we shall know that you wish to have peace with us. But if you should not believe our letters and the command of God nor harken to our counsel then we shall know for certain that you wish to have war. After that we do not know what will happen, God alone knows.


  • Carpini, Giovanni. The Story of the Mongols: Whom we Call the Tartars, translated by Erik Hildinger. Branden Books, 1996.

  • The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Christopher Dawson. Sheed & Ward, 1955.

  • The Secret History of the Mongols, translated by Urgunge Onon. RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410. Pearson Longman, 2005.

  • Jackson, Peter. "Medieval Christendom's Encounter with the Alien." In Travellers, Intellectuals, and the World Beyond Medieval Europe, edited by James Muldoon, 347-369. Routledge, 2016.

  • Marshall, Robert. Storm from the East: From Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan. University of California Press, 1993.

  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 1986.

  • Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans. Faber & Faber, 1971.