It’s 5343 miles from Lyons, France to Karakorum in Mongolia. That’s how far Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (aka John di Plano Carpini) was sent in 1245, along the Silk Road. Pope Innocent IV had noticed that the Mongols had destroyed Russia and Budapest, and had parked near Vienna. Western Europe was getting nervous, for good reason. Innocent sent Giovanni out to tell the Mongols to stop attacking, submit to the Pope, and join them in their campaign against the Muslims.
Guyuk Khan, grandson and one of Genghis’s successor,* declined. (One suspects the translator may have softened the language in the pope’s letter.) The Khan offered a counterproposal, something like “there’s only one god, Tenggeri the sky god, and only one master on earth–me! So I recommend everyone in Europe should submit to the Mongols instead, otherwise chaos will ensue…”
By sending Giovanni out across Asia, the Catholic Church was also chasing down a rumor. They thought there might be a Christian king, maybe another descendant of David, out in the East. His name was supposed to be Prester John.
The fake news of Prester John probably started with crusaders, those Europeans wandering around in Syria and the Levant, with their holy mandate to take stuff (see David Perry’s book Sacred Plunder). One of them came back mumbling a story about a descendant of David–or maybe a descendant of the magi–who had defeated the Saracens and set up a kingdom back east. There was, in fact, a Mongolian lord who had made headway into Persia, named Karaghan, which might have sounded like “John” if you coughed. The Mongols were fascinated by many of the religions around them, and that particular tribe called the Keraits had a number of Nestorian i.e. Eastern Christians. In other words, there were Christian Mongols before, during, and after the empire, yes there were.
By the time the Catholics were sending people out to check out the rumor, the Keraits had passed on, but there was this new fantastic military leader who was defeating a lot of Muslims. The Christians way over in France and Italy kinda sorta hoped that he might be the legendary Prester John.
It turned out that the guy was Genghis Khan, who was neither Christian nor Prester John. The Pope started to figure that out when the Khan’s armies passed by the Islamic empire and aimed for eastern Europe. After the Mongols took Budapest and wiped out a big swath of Teutonic knights, they paused on the Hungarian plains.
By then, Pop Innocent IV might have been fairly sure that Genghis was not a Nestorian long-lost monarch, holding down the Christian fort out east, but he sent out Giovanni just in case and to petition the Khan for help and for submission. Later, new rumors started that Prester John still existed, but that he was somewhere in Africa, maybe Ethiopia or Timbuktu. Meanwhile, 62-year-old Giovanni was still plodding along the road out to Karakorum.
They Eat People! And Without Napkins!
Giovanni kept going, spending nearly two crossing Asia and taking notes. Apparently, he’s still celebrated today by the Italians, who write him up in children’s books as a cute old man on a tired horse. Giovanni did take copious notes, a great deal of it specifics around the Mongolian military. He laid out how they approached cities they wanted to conquer, and the rough number of troops of various types. So it was essentially military reconnaissance, though the Mongols never treated the fellow as a spy. Maybe they knew he was but didn’t worry about it; they had spies everywhere, too.
Meanwhile, Giovanni found the Mongol behavior appalling and enumerated in his notes the many things he found objectionable. For example, he said the Mongols married their own family members, and that young women dressed just like the men. They were “grasping and avaricious,” and were constantly drunk because they thought it honorable. (Oh and Europeans weren’t? Mead? Vodka? Ale? c’mon, everybody was always a little buzzed.)
Mongols ate “everything,” said Giovanni, whether dogs, wolves, foxes, or horses–and even human flesh. FYI, that rumor about cannibalism was a very common claim by Europeans, but has never been substantiated. Mongols did eat every kind of animal flesh; they didn’t farm, so were the inverse of vegans. Giovanni also said they ate mare placentas and lice.
But worse–horror of horrors–“they do not use table-cloths or napkins.” Giovanni was apparently highly offended that the Mongols wiped their hands on their leggings or the grass. They didn’t wash, neither themselves, their clothes, or the dishes. Giovanni neglected to note that their land had very little water, so it was sparingly used. (Their legal code executed people for urinating in the water supply. One might consider that harsh punishment but another may point out that fouling the water supply meant death for many others. Didn’t they see “Dune”?)
The Letters between Pope and Khan
Happy go-lucky Giovanni finally met with Guyuk and got to see him installed as the new Khan in 1246. That’s when he pulled out the pope’s letter, also called the papal bull Cum non solum. In the letter, Innocent IV proclaimed himself “God’s vicar”–hmmm, wonder how that translated. He asked for safe passage for Giovanni, which was granted. The pope then asked? told? suggested? that the Khan halt his campaigns westward because they were so darned destructive and killed people indiscriminately… i.e. killed anyone as opposed to just killing heathens and non-Christians, which was the way the Christians did it.
The Mongols generally respected priests–they were granted tax exemptions and treated well regardless of religion–so Giovanni was indeed not harmed. Still, we might imagine Giovanni sweating in his brown Franciscan robes at this point.
Then, Guyuk dictated a letter of his own and told Giovanni it might be a good idea if he sent Mongol envoys on the return journey to Italy. That might have been bad for the Europeans, who were fighting among themselves. After all, the reason that the Pope Innocent IV was in Lyons was that the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II had attacked Rome. Giovanni managed to talk Guyuk out of the envoy idea, but the letter was potential dynamite.
By the power of the Eternal Sky…this is an order sent to the great Pope that he may know and understand it…thou, who art the great Pope, together with all the kings, must come in person to do homage to Us… How dost thou know whom God forgives? … By the power of [my God] He has delivered all the lands to Us…We shall recognize your submission. And if you do not accept our God’s command and act contrary to Our command We shall regard you as enemies…From the letter by Guyuk Khan to Pope Innocent IV
Giovanni did take the letter back to the pope, even knowing that the Khan demanded submission from the Europeans to the Mongols. The Franciscan priest was probably quaking in his boots all over again up until the second he handed it over. Lucky for him, the Pope had better things to think about and didn’t throw him over to inquisitors.
Giovanni was rewarded with being primate in Croatia, although eventually got involved in some ecclesiastical disputes and died within a few years. By then, he was nearly 70 and left behind the legacy of his extraordinary journey.
Wonder what happened to the horse?
*If you want to be cool with the medieval scholars, you could spell it Chinggis Khan.