Marco, Niccolò, and Maffeo Polo presenting the Papal Letters to Kublai Khan, MS Bodl. 264, Part III, f. 220 r.
Next meeting: 8th March 2017 / Room 2.04 / 3-5pm
Genghis Khan and The Mongol Empire
Genghis Khan (b. 1162, d. 1227), born Temüjin, was the founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, which was the largest contiguous land empire in history. Originating in the steppes of Central Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia, eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, and the Iranian plateau, and westwards as far as the Levant and Arabia.
Temüjin rose to power in the late twelfth century. When his wife, Börte, was kidnapped by the Merkit tribe, Temüjin united the rival Mongol tribes under his rule through political manipulation and military might. With the help of Toghrul, Khan of the Keraites, and his childhood friend, Jamukha, Temüjin defeated the Merkit tribe, secured the return of his wife, and went on the defeat the Naimans and Tatars.
Temüjin was elected khan of the Mongols in 1186. In the following year, however, Jamukha attacked Temüjin defeated him at the Battle of Dalan Balzhut. Temujin and his patron Toghrul were subsequently exiled. In 1197, the Jin dynasty initiated an attack against the Tatars, with help from the the Keraites and the Mongols. Temujin commanded part of the attack, and after his victory the Jin restored him to power. In 1201, Jamukha was elected Gür Khan, which caused Temüjin to declare war on him. After several battles, Jamukha was turned over by his own men, and Temüjin was victorious.
By 1206, Temüjin had managed to unite or subdue the Merkits, Naimans, Mongols, Keraites, Tatars, Uyghurs, and other disparate smaller tribes under his rule. He was acknowledged as Khan of the consolidated tribes and took the new title, ‘Genghis Khan’. The title Khagan – or ‘Great Khan’ – was conferred posthumously by his son and successor, Ögedei, who took the title for himself.
Genghis had four sons by his wife Börte, including Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei, and Tolui, and he divided his empire among them; however, Genghis did not name his eldest son, Jochi, as his successor as there was widespread doubt over his paternity. Chagatai declared that he would not accept Jochi as his father’s successor and threatened to go to war with his brother. To avoid civil conflict, Genghis named his third son, Ögedei, as his successor.
Three of the descendants of Genghis Khan – Güyük Khan, Möngke Khan, and Kublai Khan – are described in the travel narratives of John of Plano Carpini, William of Rubruck, and Marco Polo. Güyük Khan reigned from 1246 to 1248, and he was the eldest son of Ögedei Khan. Möngke Khan reigned from 1251 to 1259, and he was the eldest son of Tolui Khan. Kublai Khan reigned from 1260 to 1294, and he was the second eldest son of Tolui Khan.
Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty, which ruled over present-day Mongolia, China and Korea and he assumed the role of Emperor of China. By 1279, the Mongols had conquered the Song dynasty and Kublai became the first non-native emperor to conquer all of China. By the time of Kublai’s death in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate khanates or empires, each pursuing its own separate interests and objectives: the Golden Horde khanate in the northwest; the Chagatai Khanate in the middle; the Ilkhanate in the southwest; and the Yuan dynasty in the east based in modern-day Beijing
The Travellers and their texts
John of Plano Carpini (c. 1185-1252)
John of Plano Carpini was a Franciscan Friar from Umbria in Italy. Pope Innocent IV sent John to Mongolia and, acting in his official capacity as a papal legate, he delivered a letter written by the Pope on 13th March 1245 to Güyuk Khan that requested the Mongols to stop persecuting Christians.
John’s History of the Mongols exists in two different versions – a longer one and a shorter one – that survive in a number of manuscripts. The best manuscript of the History is Corpus Christi, Cambridge, MS. 181, which contains the longer version of the text along with William of Rubruck’s Itinerary. The History of the Mongols was also included in Vincent of Beauvais’ thirteenth-century encyclopedia, the Speculum Historiale.
William of Rubruck (1220-1293)
William of Rubruck was a Flemish Franciscan missionary. He accompanied King Louis IX of France on the Seventh Crusade in 1248. On 7th May 1253, he set out on from Constantinople on a missionary journey to convert the Tatars to Christianity, and he followed the route of John of Plano Carpini through Asia. William was granted an audience with Möngke Khan, and presented his report to King Louis IX on his return.
William’s Itinerary only survives in eight manuscripts. The three manuscripts at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the one at the British Library, are the sources of all the extant manuscripts. The Itinerary was partially edited and translated into English by Richard Hakluyt in the late seventeenth century, and the Hakluyt Society published a full translation of the text by William Woodville Rockhill in 1900.
Marco Polo (1254-1324)
Marco Polo was a merchant traveller from Venice. In the 1260s, Marco’s father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, travelled through China and were invited to the court of Kublai Khan, who asked them to deliver a letter to the Pope. Kublai asked the Pope to send him 100 Christian scholars who were familiar with the Seven Liberal Arts and he also requested that an envoy bring him back the oil of the lamp in Jerusalem.
Niccolò and Maffeo returned to Venice in 1269, and Marco met his father for the first time. The death of Pope Clement IV in 1268, and the three-year election of Pope Gregory X, prevented Niccolò and Maffeo from immediately fulfilling Kublai’s request. In 1271, Niccolo and Maffeo set out for China with Marco. Just as they were leaving Acre, the Polos were recalled following the election of the new Pope, who provided them with letters and gifts for the Great Khan. The Polos eventually arrived in China around 1275, and they presented the oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to Kublai Khan. Marco soon became a favourite of the Great Khan: he was sent as an emissary throughout the empire, and he described each of the territories he visited to Kublai on his return.
The Polos travelled throughout Asia for 24 years, and Marco returned home in 1295. At the time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa, and Marco was captured in a naval battle and imprisoned by the Genoans. While in prison, Marco met the Arthurian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa, and he dictated his travels to Pisa who wrote them down in Italian-French as Livre des Merveilles du Monde. Marco’s account of his travels in Asia was translated into Tuscan, Venetian, German, Latin, and Court French during his lifetime.
The Travels survives in 150 manuscripts, but the original manuscripts have been lost. The extant manuscripts are divided into two groups: A and B. The ‘A’ texts are best represented by Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 1116, a Franco-Italian version that was written in Italy during the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, the ‘B’ texts derive from a lost version that preserved the content, but not the style, of the original text. These texts include the sixteenth-century printed text by Giovanni Battista Ramuiso and the early fifteenth-century Latin manuscript that was discovered in Toledo in 1912.
Questions for discussion
- How do these texts negotiate the different genres of itinerary, historiography, ethnography, autobiography, and/or romance?
- What is the significance of the first-person narrative?
- How is the reader/audience constructed as part of the narrator’s journey?
- Do the different roles and/or occupations of the travellers inform their narratives?
- How are the different Khans presented in each of the texts?
- How are conversion and religious conflict described in the texts?
- What is the function of letters, envoys, and interpreters in the texts?
- Mary B. Campbell observes that ‘[t]he travel book is a kind of witness: it is generically aimed at the truth’. Are these texts committed to truth, or do they slip into fiction?
- Kim M. Phillips argues that the ‘desire for information and for pleasure were two chief impulses guiding late medieval readers’ interest in travel writing on Asia’. How do these texts describe the customs and lifestyle of the Mongols, while also presenting them as a source of wonder for the reader?
 Mary B. Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 2-3.
 Kim M. Phillips, Before Orientialism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), p. 2.