The Mongols and the Beginning of the Rennaissance

How horsemen from Central Asia helped usher in the rebirth of European culture.

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A new unstoppable force overcame the Central Asia steppe in the thirteenth century. The Mongols, under Chinggis Khan, had emerged to become the largest contiguous land empire in the world. By the time Chinggis’s son Ogedie took power as Great Khan, all of Central Asia was in Mongol hands, and China and Russia were set to fall. On the western frontier of this empire was feudal Europe. The fragmented continent had no central resistance to the Mongols, as their leaders were too distracted with their petty squabbling. The people of Europe looked on in shock as these unstoppable horsemen ravaged Poland and Hungary and then suddenly left.

While the Mongols would not return to finish what they had started, their impact on Europe forever changed society. The fear of a return invasion would cause the Pope to try to appease the Mongols. Given the ease of travel allowed under the Mongols, the process would gain much-lost knowledge and open new populations for missionaries to spread the Catholic faith. This flow of information and trade would lead to the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe.

The Dawn of an Empire

When Chinggis Khan unified the Mongol tribes in 1206, he began what he believed was the destiny of his people, to rule the whole world. The initial focus of Chinggis’s campaign would be China, the grand prize for the Mongol people. However, he would have to wage war with the Khwarezmhshah, Ala al-Din Muhammad, in Persia before he could complete the conquest of China.

The Khwarezmhshah, the Muslim ruler of Persia and Central Asia, at first maintained good relations with the Mongols and served as a buffer zone to the West.

However, relations deteriorated rapidly when the soldiers of the Khwarezmhshah captured and killed a caravan at the outpost of Uttar, claiming that they were spies. This action would provoke Chinggis to hold off on the China campaign and destroy Persia.

The Persians were no match for the swift Mongol horsemen. Central Asia and Persia were subjugated, and Ala al-Din Muhammad died in exile. The Middle East was open to Mongol invasion and conquest. Chinggis left a portion of his army in the region, and they returned to finish his conquest of China.

While Chinggis took most of his army directly back towards China through Central Asia, his generals Jebe and Subudei took a long way back, going west into the Middle East and Eastern Europe and north through Russia. This two-year journey became an extended reconnaissance mission, as the Mongol army gained information and performed raids along the borders of Hungary and Russia. During Jebe and Subudei’s absence, the Great Khan had died, and they were required to return until the election of the new khan could be decided.

With the election of Chinggis’s son Ogedie as the Great Khan, the Mongols saw the need to expand and consolidate their empire. In Chinggis’s will, he had promised his eldest son Jochi and his heirs all the lands in the west that the Mongols had entered. As Jochi had died several years earlier, his son Batu demanded his birthright and urged Ogedie to begin an expedition to take the lands to the west, the Middle East, and Russia.

In 1237, Subudei and Batu led a massive Mongol force of seventy thousand troops into Russia and Eastern Europe. The campaign began with the subjugation of the Bulgars and other steppe tribes of the Russian plain, conquered by the spring of 1237.

The armies of Europe should not have been surprised when the Mongol armies came approaching. The Muslim Saracens had sent an embassy to the king of France and to England to try to ally in 1238. The Muslim rulers saw the mutual threat of the Mongol invasions and looked to the Europeans to put aside their differences to defeat this familiar foe.

Christian leaders would not listen. They saw the destruction of the Muslim states as a way to spread Catholicism. Peter des Roches, the Bishop of Winchester, went so far as to state: “ Let us leave these dogs to devour one another, that they may all be consumed and perish.” These opinions would change with the invasion and conquest of Russia.

Differences in Military Technology

One of the significant flaws in the European armies was their lack of utilizing the mobility of their equestrians. Mongols were skilled riders, wore light armor, and had deadly, powerful, and accurate compound bows. The Mongols used tight military formations, and each soldier worked as part of a unit, following orders with fervent obedience. This mobility and discipline gave the Mongols a great advantage when fighting.

On the other hand, the European knights were not as effective. They were little more than mounted infantry, which would dismount in combat. The heavy armor that the knights wore limited their mobility. They used unimaginative and predictable tactics in battle, which would lead to victory for the Mongols.

The Mongols had another advantage in military technology. As the Mongols subdued the populations of China and Persia, they gained many skilled artisans and military tactics in siegecraft and artillery. The addition of the light catapult and explosive rockets from China would prove to be very effective in the Mongol conquests.

The Subjugation of Russia

Russia at this time was fragmented into twelve rival principalities. These Russian princes often feuded with each other, a disadvantage that Subudei was quick to use. By using a divide and conquer tactic, Subudei neutralized a solid united resistance, leading to the utter defeat of the Russians by 1240.

With the subjugation of Russia, Subudei saw Europe as the next target of the Mongol horde. Using the Ukrainian plains as a base of operations, the Mongol army ravaged Central Europe for four months. The armies of Poland, Hungary, Brandenburg, Saxony, Silesia, and Bohemia were destroyed. With these decisive victories over much larger forces, the Mongol army set its sights on Western Europe.

The rulers of Europe were in a panic, seeing these riders of the East as demons from hell or punishment from God. There was the belief that these were the people of Gog and Magog in the Book of Revelation, sent to destroy the world. Refugees fled the west with horror stories of the Mongol invaders. As one observer wrote, “A great fear of this barbarous race spread even into far-off lands like Burgandy and Spain where the name of Tartar was unknown until then.”

The Holy Roman Emperor, Fredrick of Hohenstaufen, was seen as the first line of defense since his German lands were the immediate target of the possible invasion. Fredrick urged unity of the princes of Europe to fight the Mongol threat and could have allied with Pope Gregory IX. However, with the great power struggle that always was present between the Emperor and the Pope, no united resistance was formed.

Luck would shine on the people of Europe. With the sudden death of Ogedie in 1240, the Mongols withdrew back to the homeland for the quriltai, the meeting that would elect the new Great Khan. Subudei made it known that he was not retreating but would eventually return, an event that, luckily for the Europeans, did not occur. General Kaidu circled and looted Vienna before the evacuation, stating,” We are called away, and we spare the Germans war.”

Batu consolidated his forces in Russia and found the Golden Horde. Having attained the lands he felt entitled to him, Batu did not need to invade Europe further. As a result, Europe would be spared further invasion from the Mongols.

The death of Ogedie had spared Europe from destruction, but it would change the European world forever. With the influx of refugees, the racial map of Eastern Europe was changed, as new peoples were driven into the lands and mixed with the native populations. The weakened and decimated lands of Hungary would be taken over by Austria, which would lay the groundwork for the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

Building Friendly Relations

The fact that the Mongols did not return in 1242 stunned the people of Europe; the fear of an eventual return of the Mongol hordes shocked the leaders of Europe to take action. With the feuding monarchs of Europe and the Pope, no consolidated resistance could have been formed. The new Pope, Innocent IV, was determined to rectify the situation and would attempt to make some peace with the Mongols to avoid further invasions and destruction.

The Pope sent missionaries and monks such as John of Plano-Carpini, William Rubrick, and Simon of Saint Quintin to investigate the Mongol lands and work on peaceful agreements with the khan to avoid further conflict. The first three were sent in 1245. Only the mission led by John of Plano-Carpini would reach Mongolia itself.

Missionaries were sent as ambassadors to the Mongol khan because of the Mongol custom of respecting religious people. The universal religious toleration of other religions allowed the monk to move freely throughout the empire under the protection of the Great Khan. This would also enable the missionaries to spread Christian teachings to the Mongols, who they saw as a natural ally, given their conflict with the Muslims in the Ilkhanate. With the large Nestorian Christian population in Central Asia, it seemed that the Mongols would become Christian converts eventually, as many in the Great Khan’s court had already done so.

An attempt would be made to plan a united attack on the Abbasids in Syria in 1269 and liberate the Holy City of Jerusalem. The Mongols would protect the Crusader states in the Middle East, maintaining close relations. Still, nothing would come of the proposal, and the dream was soon abandoned.

The Pope also held to the legend of Prester John, a Christian king from the East who supposedly would help Europe to eliminate the Muslims. There was the hope that this king could be found in the Mongol khanate. The peoples of Europe would later abandon this idea and see the Mongols as a threat to Christians and Muslims alike.

In 1287, Arhon Khan of the Ilkhanate sent Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian monk. To attempt another alliance against the Muslims in Palestine. This alliance as well, would not come to fruition. Sauma’s mission did make some gains in European and Mongol relations. He travelled farther than any envoy at his time, seven thousand miles to the court of Edward I of England, where he received Mass with the king. While Sauma’s attempt to make peaceful alliances with the monarchs of Europe did not succeed, the connections made between the societies would be beneficial.

Kulai Khan

When Kublai Khan, Chinggis’s grandson, took the throne, the Mongol Empire had begun to consolidate. During his time in China, Kublai saw the advantage of building up a government allowing the Mongols to rule their subjugated populations effectively. He urbanized his people in China and began a new administrative system under the Chinese model. One of the Mongols’ most outstanding achievements would be the yam system. A type of medieval pony express, the yam system allowed for safe and swift conduct of people and information throughout the empire through way stations throughout the Mongols’ land.

Kublai also had high regard for leaned individuals. He invited intellectuals from all over the empire to come to his capital in, China, to study and exchange knowledge. He even opened a school of Western studies to discover Western expertise in medicine, calendrical sciences, and many other fields. His school allowed the exchange of ideas between the West and China.

The Mongols respected all faiths and maintained a high religious tolerance. Kublai Khan sent a request to the Pope to send one hundred priests to share the knowledge of the Christian world with his court. It was considered a great dishonor to spill the blood of a holy person, and most religious people were allowed safe conduct throughout the empire. For this reason, missionaries were the best suited for diplomatic missions. These men would be given medallions that showed who they were and would be allowed to pass through Mongol territory under the protection of the Khan.

These envoys would deliver the Pope’s letters to the Khan, returning with correspondences and stories of what they had seen. Christopher Dawson’s book, Mission to Asia, complies with many of these accounts, which would become the first reliable sources that Europeans would have of the Mongols. Some khans saw the advantage of treating well with the Europeans. As John of Plano-Carpini wrote, the Christian influence in the court of Batu Khan gave much hope for peaceful coexistence between the two peoples. Kuyuk Khan even gave a show of conversion in hopes of uniting the Christians and Mongols.

Securing the Silk Road

The Mongol empire was not simply about military conquests. Roughly 1245 to 1345 saw a brief period of direct contact between the East and West under Mongol rule. The Mongol rulers would encourage trade and travel throughout the lands of the khans. The people of Europe at this time were ignorant of the customs and history of the East. However, the new ease of travel would change this. Where previously, one would have to take a long, dangerous, and costly journey to China, one could now travel through the East with ease. One could safely pass through the empire as long as one had a paiza, a silver, gold, or wood tablet. The type of paiza worn by the traveler allowed the people to know the rank and importance of the traveler and treat them accordingly. The paiza gave the wearer protection, accommodations, transportation, and exemption from taxes and duties.

This revelation would be significant to merchants such as Marco Polo, who would enter the service of Kublai Khan. Polo’s writings would become very important as a guide to the people and customs of the Mongol empire. Under the Golden Horde, Venetian and Genoese merchants set up trading posts in Tabriz and Crimea. Trading posts were encouraged along the Black Sea, allowing traders to bypass Muslim territory. The area was cleared of pirates and robbers, making it one of the safest trade routes for merchants.

Trade throughout Eurasia flourished under the Mongols in the late thirteenth century. These traders would not only bring back goods and information about the lands and people of the East but also lose unknown knowledge to the people of Western Europe.

The Spread of Ideas

The Mongols had an intellectual impact on Europe as well as militarily. Thanks to the Mongols, European thinkers were allowed access to the libraries of the East. Old classics such as the writings of Plato and Aristotle were rediscovered and brought back to Europe, where this ancient philosophy would be spread and analyzed. Europeans were also exposed to the inventions of the East.

As Francis Bacon wrote, the three most important discoveries from the East were printing, gunpowder, and the compass, “Unknown to the ancients…these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world; first in literature, then in warfare, and lastly navigation.” Paper, which had been in China for centuries, was discovered and soon produced in Europe. The discovery of Chinese gunpowder and Muslim metallurgy, which the Mongols would later use to make artillery, was also of great interest to the people of Europe.

Europe, which had been exceptionally far behind in technology and thought, was blown away by what they learned from the East. There was a general feeling of needing to catch up with the rest of the world. In a way, this need would help to spark the Renaissance. Within a few centuries, new schools of thought emerged, and science began to take a new forefront over religion, which had held back scientific advancement for so long.

Thinkers and artists such as Da Vinci, Galileo, and Machieallivi would emerge and change the way Europe thought. Eastern themes and techniques would become prevalent in art (depth, light, textiles, and horses) and would come to define Renaissance art. Mongol ideas began to show up in works of literature and philosophy, such as Nicolaus of Cusa. Nicolaus of Cusa wrote about promoting global peace and understanding, an idea that came to personify the views of later Mongol thinkers.

Shortly after introducing paper from China, Guttenberg invented his first printing press in 1455, leading to the end of the costly use of hides or vellum in exchange for the cheaper use of paper. The availability of paper allowed for the spread of new ideas. This would lead to the rediscovery of Greek classics, writing in vernacular languages, spreading nationalism, the Reformation, and the birth of scientific thought.

The Development of Nation-States

The Mongol invasions would have political and military effects as well. The fear of further attacks would cause some feudal leaders to put aside their bickering and try to unite in fear of another invasion. These alliances and consolidations would eventually cause the feudal systems to break down, as nations like France would become proper national entities. The introduction of artillery from the Mongols would lead to the development of cannons and later early models of guns. These innovations would, in turn, change how wars would be fought, as conventional medieval warfare would no longer work.

The legacy of the Mongol conquests would live on long after the fall of the khanates. The Europeans were given all the benefits of the Golden Awakening of the Mongols without the devastation of the conquests. The influx of trade and information into Europe would have lasting effects on society, helping to usher in a new era of history. The trade connections began by Chinggis Khan’s descendants would last between Europe and Arabia well into the reign of the Ottoman Turks. Had it not been for the Mongols, Europe would never have gained as much free access to the East. It may have been centuries more before the knowledge of the East would be found by Western thinkers. As devastating as the Mongol conquests would be, for better or worse, they changed the shape of Asia and Europe forever.

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