Older Than You Realize

The Story of the Mongols Whom We Call Tartars by Friar Giovanni de Pian del Carpini is one of the most important primary sources on the Mongol invasion of Europe and Mongols in general. Giovanni was sent as an emissary to the Mongol Great Khan in beginning in 1245, four years after the disastrous battle of Legnica in which the Mongols had devastated much of Europe’s best armies of the time.  The aim was to determine whether or not the Mongols planned to press their invasion into the Holy Roman Empire, and preferably to prevent this possibility by offering Christian baptism to the Great Khan.

The source is important because it gives us a clear description of Mongol customs, beliefs, and behavior. However, at one point when the author is in the then-conquered lands of Rus, the story goes a bit off the rails.

If you’re not used to reading medieval primary sources, it can sometimes be a bit of a shock to see how casually an author goes from describing realistic things we can easily imagine, to descriptions of obviously mythical beasts, monsters, or otherwise supernatural beings or phenomena with no setup whatsoever. People were simply more credulous in those days.

Giovanni goes from things like describing Mongol camp life to talking about the Mongols’ invasion of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. In the process, he talks about how they encountered such things as a people who lived entirely underground, another race of people whose females were in human form but whose males were dogs that could freeze themselves and hurl their bodies at high speed against their opponents, and best of all- a race of strange people in the vicinity of Armenia who all have one leg and one arm. They would pair up to operate bows, and they would roll away quickly when attacked.

Obviously this was utter nonsense. What is interesting though is that to the best of my memory, Giovanni didn’t hear any of this from the Mongols themselves. They were related to them by various Rus princes he met earlier in his journey.

So there you have it. Russian “dezinformatsiya” dates back to at least the mid-13th century!

I’m available for commentary, fellowships, lectures, etc. You’re welcome.

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“The Holy Roman Emperor hateth us so! Surely we are great!” -Lady Margaret of Armenia

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3 thoughts on “Older Than You Realize

  1. Mr. Hack

    The preeminent scholar of Mongol(Tartar)/Rus history in the 20th century is undoubtedly Charles Halpern. If you’re really interested in this topic (as you appear to be), then read anything and everything you can written by the man. His ‘Russia and the Golden Horde’ belongs on your library shelf.

    I confess that it irks me whenever anybody, including the erudite Halpern, substitutes ‘Russia’ for ‘Rus’, for it’s really a great inaccuracy. Even Halpern, after spending some time really engrossed in Michael Hrushevsky’s monumental ‘History of Ukraine-Rus’, reviewing it quite judicially and yet very complimentary states about himself in the review of the masterpiece about his own guilt here:

    ‘While he [Hrushevsky] admitted that Vladimir-Suzdal inherited political, legal and cultural institution from Kyivan Rus, he denied that such borrowing finessed the national barrier between Ukrainian south and Russian northeast, which he likened to that between Rome and Gaul. Hrusehvsky’s interpretation remains a powerful indictment of the Great Russian interpretation of Kyivan Rus exclusively or primarily as the forerunner of Muscovy, of russkaya zemlia as the ‘Russian land’ (a sin to which the current reviewer pleads mea culpa for too many past occasions). Hrusevsky’s nuanced and sophisticated presentation of his conception reflects both his enormous erudition and impeccable scholarly integrity.’
    http://www.ciuspress.com/catalogue/history/24/History%20of%20Ukraine-Rus‘.%20Volume%201

    Reply

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