the mongols conquer the world -- 8/03/15

Today's selection -- from The Edge of the World by Michael Pye. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols built the largest empire in world history, overwhelming other Asians and Europeans with their ferocity, their fast and flexible forms of warfare, and their innovative strategies -- "they fight more by policy than by main force":

"They were not just different: they were the opposite of everyone else. Flat noses, little eyes far apart, prominent chins, eyebrows from their foreheads to their noses and an absolute refusal to wash their, clothes 'especially in time of thunder'; their thick, short thighs, their short feet and pigtails made them seem ominously different from people who imagined they had noses like Roman statues, big blue eyes and long legs to show off with short clothes. The faces of the Mongols were 'contorted and terrible', so the archbishop Ivo of Narbonne heard from an Englishman who had lived with them.

"They were nomads, always moving, just when Europe was netted with solid towns. They didn't use money as Europeans did for almost everything from buying a better afterlife to settling the account on a market stall; William of Rubruck said 'there was nothing to be sold among (them) for gold and silver, but only for cloth and garments', and if you offered them a gold coin from Byzantium 'they rubbed it with their fingers and put it to their noses to try by the smell whether it was copper or no'. They hadn't got the point of money at all, the Westerners said; they still thought it was a kind of barter.

Mural of siege warfare, Genghis Khan Exhibit in San Jose, California

"They were single-minded drunkards and 'when any of them hath taken more drink than his stomach can well bear, he casteth it up and falls to drinking again'. They ate their dead, and even the vultures would not touch the bones they left; they gave their old and ugly women to the cannibals.' and subjected the better-favoured ones to 'forced and unnatural ravishments'. They seemed to be doing their best to be appropriate for the world east of the Baltic and the Caspian, which Europeans had populated thickly with their own fears and legends, with dog-headed, ox-hoofed men who hopped on one foot and lived on the steam from their soup. ...

"Even the Assassins, the Ismaili Muslims of modern Syria who were famous for their courage, their ingenious killings and perhaps their smoking habits (although the name 'assassin' probably does not come from 'hashish'), sent ambassadors to France and England to ask for help in beating them back. By 1241, Mongol armies had taken Hungary, taken Poland; they had all of Russia except for Novgorod, which was their vassal. They had defeated the Teutonic Knights, they were harassing the borders of Bohemia and Saxony. Their spies were all around Vienna, but when the Duke of Austria asked for help from the West, there was silence. Indeed, for all the flurry of talk and arming and planning in various castles, there seemed to be nothing that could stop them moving west as far as the edge of the world. ...

"This is after the time of the great Genghis Khan, the 'mighty hunter' who 'learned to steal men and to take them for a prey'. His successor, his son Ogedei, also knew how to hunt and trap human beings, and when Franciscans on a papal mission reached Kiev they saw for themselves what it meant to be defeated by the Mongols: 'an innumerable multitude of dead men's skulls and bones lying upon the earth'. 'They have no human laws, know no mercy, and are more cruel than lions or bears,' Matthew Paris wrote.'

"They had magic, or so it must have seemed. Their catapults were light and portable, and could hurl metal a full hundred metres from anywhere in the field; there is no proof they had cannon, but they did not need them. They had gunpowder to fire rockets and create smoke and confusion, to raise a true fog of war. They also knew how to pitch burning tar at the enemy, and how to firebomb towns and armies. In his encyclopaedia, Vincent of Beauvais reckoned they let loose a whole series of evil spirits. Their courier services kept every part of the army informed and they had signalling systems by flag and by torch; so they were always connected, and their tactics could be complicated. Dividing their army into separate sections actually gave them an advantage. They could swing around and harry and pretend to retreat so the enemy would fall into traps.' They were everywhere on the other side of the smoke, and they had spies all around, and they were ruthlessly disciplined. Where Europeans worked by weight and mass and force, armies like battering rams made of men and horses, 'the Tartar fights more by policy than by main force'."


Michael Pye


The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe


Pegasus Books LLC


Copyright 2014 by Michael Pye


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