William of Rubruck (c. 1220 – c. 1293, or ca. 1210-ca. 1270) was a Flemish Franciscan missionary, monk and explorer. His account is one of the masterpieces of medieval geographical literature comparable to that of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and is the most detailed and valuable of the early Western accounts of the Mongols. Born in Rubrouck, Flanders, he is known also as William of Rubruk, Willem van Ruysbroeck, Guillaume de Rubrouck or Willielmus de Rubruquis. He travelled to various places of the Mongol Empire in Asia before his return to Europe. [Source: Wikipedia]

William of Rubruck wrote: “I questioned priests, who had come from Cathay, who bore witness to it, that from the place where I had found Mongke Khan to Cathay was twenty days journey between south and east; while to Onan Kerule, which is the true country of the Mongol, and where is the ordu of Chingis, was ten days due east, and that all the way to these eastern parts there was no city. There were, however (they said), people called Su-Mongol, which is "Mongol of the waters;" for su is the same as "water." They live on fish and by the chase, for they have no flocks, no herds. Likewise to the north there is no city, but a people raising flocks, and called Kerkis [=Kirghiz]. There are also the Oengai [=Uriyangqai], who tie polished boned under their feet, and propel themselves over the frozen snow and on the ice, with such speed that they catch birds and beasts. And there is a number of other poor peoples to the north as far as they can extend on account of the cold, and they confine to the west on the land of Pascatir, which is Greater Hungary, of which I have spoken to you previously. The northern end of the angle is unknown, on account of the great cold. For there is eternal snow and ice there. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“I asked (these same priests) about the monsters, or human monstrosities, of which Isidorus and Solinus speak. But (I) was told that such things had never been sighted, which makes us very much doubt whether (the story) is true. All of these said nations, no matter how miserable they may be, must serve (the Mongol) in some manner. For it was a commandment of Chingis, that no one man should be free from service, until he be so old that he cannot possibly work any more. /~\

Mongol Tents

William of Rubruck wrote: “Nowhere have they fixed dwelling-places, nor do they know where their next will be. They have divided among themselves Cithia [=Scythia], which extendeth from the Danube to the rising of the sun ; and every captain, according as he hath more or less men under him, knows the limits of his pasture land and where to graze in winter and summer, spring and autumn. For in winter they go down to warmer regions in the south: in summer they go up to cooler towards the north. The pasture lands without water they graze over in winter when there is snow there, for the snow serveth them as water. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“They set up the dwelling in which they sleep on a circular frame of interlaced sticks converging into a little round hoop on the top, from which projects above a collar as a chimney, and this (framework) they cover over with white felt. Frequently they coat the felt with chalk, or white clay, or powdered bone, to make it appear whiter, and sometimes also (they make the felt) black. The felt around this collar on top they decorate with various pretty designs. Before the entry they also suspend felt ornamented with various embroidered designs in color. For they embroider the felt, colored or otherwise, making vines and trees, birds and beasts. /~\

Rubruck on Mongol Social Customs

Ming Dynasty painting of, dozing Mongols

William of Rubruck wrote: “And over the head of the master is always an image of felt, like a doll or statuette, which they call the brother of the master: another similar one is above the head of the mistress, which they call the brother of the mistress, and they are attached to the wall: and higher up between the two of them is a little lank one (macilenta), who is, as it were, the guardian of the whole dwelling. The mistress places in her house on her right side, in a conspicuous place at the foot of her couch, a goat-skin full of wool or other stuff, and beside it a very little statuette looking in the direction of attendants and women. Beside the entry on the woman's side is yet another image, with a cow's tit for the women, who milk the cows: for it is part of the duty of the women to milk the cows. On the other side of the entry, toward the men, is another statue with a mare's tit for the men who milk the mares. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“And when they have come together to drink, they first sprinkle with liquor this image which is over the master's head, then the other images in order. Then an attendant goes out of the dwelling with a cup and liquor, and sprinkles three times to the south, each time bending the knee, and that to do reverence to the fire; then to the east, and that to do reverence to the air; then to the west to do reverence to the water; to the north they sprinkle for the dead. When the master takes the cup in hand and is about to drink, he first pours a portion on the ground. If he were to drink seated on a horse, he first before he drinks pours a little on the neck or the mane of the horse. Then when the attendant has sprinkled toward the four quarters of the world he goes back into the house, where two attendants are ready, with two cups and platters to carry drink to the master and the wife seated near him upon the couch. And when he hath several wives, she with whom he hath slept that night sits beside him in the day, and it becometh all the others to come to her dwelling that day to drink, and court is held there that day, and the gifts which are brought that day are placed in the treasury of that lady. A bench with a skin of milk, or some other drink, and with cups, stands in the entry. /~\

“In winter they make a capital drink of rice, of millet, and of honey, ; it is clear as wine : and wine is carried to them from remote parts. In summer they care only for cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk). There is always cosmos near the house, before the entry door, and beside it stands a guitar-player with his guitar. Lutes and vielles [i.e. guitars] such as we have I did not see there, but many other instruments which are unknown among us. And when the master begins to drink, then one of the attendants cries with a loud voice, "Ha!" and the guitarist strikes his guitar, and when they have a great feast they all clap their hands, and also dance about to the sound of the guitar, the men before the master, the women before the mistress. And when the master has drunken, then the attendant cries as before, and the guitarist stops. Then they drink all around, and sometimes they do drink right shamefully and gluttonly. And when they want to challenge anyone to drink, they take hold of him by the ears, and pull so as to distend his throat, and they clan and dance before him. Likewise, when they want to make a great feasting and jollity with someone, one takes a full cup, and two others are on his right and left, and thus these three come singing and dancing towards him who is to take the cup, and they sing and dance before him ; and when he holds out his hand to take the cup, they quickly draw it back, and then again they come back as before, and so they elude him three or four times by drawing away the cup, till he hath become well excited and is in good appetite, and then they give him the goblet, singing and clapping and stamping their feet until he is drunk.” /~\

William of Rubruck on Mongol Men and Women

The soldiers and their families slept in gers, portable tents that were easily assembled and taken apart and were carried on the backs of pack animals when the tumen was on the move. Fuel for cooking and heating came from animal dropping collected by women and children. Camel dung was particularly prized for its clean burn.

In the Mongol Empire, women enjoyed equal rights with men. Even subject people were granted these rights. Women devoted much of their time to milking the thousands of animals, the Mongol’s primarily food source. When the Mongols were fighting, the women helped the men by killing the wounded and collecting arrowheads. Although the great khans had many wives and concubines, one wife, usually the first, enjoyed a high status and often was a trusted advisor and major player in court affairs.

William of Rubruck wrote: “It is the duty of the women to drive the carts, get the dwellings on and off them, milk the cows, make butter and gruit, and to dress and sew skins, which they do with a thread made of tendons. They divide the tendons into fine shreds, and then twist them into one long thread. They also sew the boots, the socks and the clothing. They never wash clothes, for they say that God would be angered thereat, and that it would thunder if they hung them up to dry. They will even thrash anyone doing laundry and confiscate it. Thunder they fear extraordinarily; and when it thunders they will turn out of their dwellings all strangers, wrap themselves in black felt, and thus hide themselves till it has passed away. Furthermore, they never wash their bowls, but when the meat is cooked they rinse out the dish in which they are about to put it with some of the boiling broth from the kettle, which they pour back into it. They also make the felt and cover the houses. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“The men make bows and arrows, manufacture stirrups and bits, make saddles, do the carpentering on (the framework of) their dwellings and the carts; they take care of the horses, milk the mares, churn the cosmos or mare's milk, make the skins in which it is put; they also look after the camels and load them. Both sexes look after the sheep and goats, sometimes the men, other times the women, milking them. They dress skins with a thick mixture of sour ewe's milk and salt. When they want to wash their hands or head, they fill their mouths with water, which they let trickle on to their hands, and in this way they also wet their hair and wash their heads. /~\

Genghis Khan and his wife and sons

“As to their marriages, you must know that no one among them has a wife unless he buys her; so it sometimes happens that girls are well past marriageable age before they marry, for their parents always keep them until they sell them. They observe the first and second degrees of consanguinity, but no degree of affinity; thus (one person) will have at the same time or successively two sisters. Among them no widow marries, for the following reason: they believe that all who serve them in this life shall serve them in the next, so as regards a widow they believe that she will always return to her first husband after death. Hence this shameful custom prevails among them, that sometimes a son takes to wife all his father's wives, except his own mother; for the ordu of the father and mother always belongs to the youngest son, so it is he who must provide for all his father's wives who come to him with the paternal household, and if he wishes it he uses them as wives, for he esteems not himself injured if they return to his father after death. When then anyone has made a bargain with another to take his daughter, the father of the girl gives a feast, and the girl flees to her relatives and hides there. Then the father says: "Here, my daughter is yours: take her wheresoever you find her." Then he searches for her with his friends till he finds her, and he must take her by force and carry her off with a semblance of violence to his house. /~\

William of Rubruck on Mongol Clothing

William of Rubruck wrote: “Of their clothing and customs and appearance you must know, that from Cataia [=China], and other regions of the east, and also from Persia and other regions of the south, are brought to them silken and golden stuffs and cloth of cotton, which they wear in summer. From Ruscia, Moxel, and from Greater Bulgaria [=a region in the middle Volga, not to be confused with minor Bulgaria mentioned above] and Pascatir [a region between the upperl Volga and Ural R.], which is greater Hungary, and Kerkis [=Kerghiz], all of which are countries to the north and full of forests, and which obey them, are brought to them costly furs of many kinds, which I never saw in our parts, and which they wear in winter. And they always make in winter at least two fur gowns, one with the fur against the body, the other with the fur outside exposed to the wind and snow; these latter are usually of the skins of wolves or foxes or lynx; and while they sit in the dwelling they have another lighter one. The poor make their outside (gowns) of dog and kid (skins). [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“They make also breeches with furs. The rich furthermore wad their clothing with silk stuffing, which is extraordinarily soft, light and warm. The poor line their clothes with cotton cloth, or with the fine wool which they are able to pick out of the coarser. With this coarser they make felt to cover their houses and coffers, and also for bedding. With wool and a third of horse hair mixed with it they make their ropes. They also make with felt covers [both] saddle-cloths and rain cloaks; so they use a great deal of wool. You have seen the costume of the men. /~\

rendering of Genghis Khan

“The men shave a square on the tops of their heads, and from the front corners (of this square) they continue the shaving to the temples, passing along both sides of the head. They shave also the temples and the back of the neck to the top of the cervical cavity, and the forehead as far as the crown of the head, on which they leave a tuft of hair which falls down to the eyebrows. They leave the hair on the sides of the head, and with it they make tresses which they plait together to the ears. /~\

“And the dress of the girls differs not from the costume of the men, except that it is somewhat longer. But on the day following her marriage, (a woman) shaves the front half of her head, and puts on a tunic as wide as a nun's gown, but everyway larger and longer, open before, and tied on the right side. For in this the Tartars differ from the Turks; the Turks tie their gowns on the left, the Tartars always on the right. Furthermore they have a head-dress, which they call bocca, made of bark, or such other light material as they can find, and it is big and as much as two hands can span around, and is a cubit and more high, and square like the capital of a column. This bocca they cover with costly silk stuff, and it is hollow inside, and on top of the capital, or the square on it, they put a tuft of quills or light canes also a cubit or more in length. And this tuft they ornament at the top with peacock feathers, and round the edge (of the top) with feathers from the mallard's tail, and also with precious stones. The wealthy ladies wear such an ornament on their heads, and fasten it down tightly with an amess (a fur hood), for which there is an opening in the top for that purpose, and inside they stuff their hair, gathering it together on the back of the tops of their heads in a kind of knot, and putting it in the bocca, which they afterwards tie down tightly under the chin. So it is that when several ladies are riding together, and one sees them from afar, they look like soldiers, helmets on head and lances erect. For this bocca looks like a helmet, and the tuft above it is like a lance. And all the women sit their horses astraddle like men. And they tie their gowns with a piece of blue silk stuff at the waist and they wrap another band at the breasts, and tie a piece of white stuff below the eyes which hangs down to the breast. And the women there are astonishingly fat, and she who has the least nose is held the most beautiful. They disfigure themselves horribly by painting their faces. They never lie down in bed when having their children.” /~\

Rubruck on Living Among the Mongols

William of Rubruck wrote: “Then they appointed someone to take care of us, and we went to the monk. And as we were coming out of there to go to our lodgings, the interpreter I have mentioned came to me and said: "Mongke Khan takes compassion on you and allows you to stay here for the space of two months: then the great cold will be over. And he informs you that ten days hence there is a goodly city called Caracarum (Karakorum). If you wish to go there, he will have you given all you may require; if, however, you wish to remain here, you may do so, and you shall have what you need. It will, however, be fatiguing for you to ride with the court." I answered: " May the Lord keep Mongke Khan and give him a happy and long life! We have found this monk here, whom we believe to be a holy man and come here by the will of God. So we would willingly remain here with him, for we are monks, and we would say our prayers with him for the life of the Chan." Then he left us without a word. And we went to a big house, which we found cold and without a supply of fuel, and we were still without food, and it was night. Then he to whom we had been entrusted gave us fuel and a little food. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“Our guide being about to return to Batu, begged of us a carpet or rug which we had left by his order in Batu's ordu. We gave it him, and he left us in the most friendly manner, asking our hand, and saying that it was his fault if he had let us suffer from hunger or thirst on the journey. We pardoned him, and in like manner we asked pardon of him and all his suite if we had shown them an evil example in anything. /~\

“We came to our cold and empty dwelling. They had supplied us with couches and bed covering, and brought us fuel, and given to the three of us the flesh of one poor, thin sheep for food for six days. Daily they gave us a bowl full of millet and a quart of millet mead, and they borrowed for us a kettle and a tripod to cook our meat; and when it was cooked we boiled the millet in the pot liquor. This was our diet; and it would have been quite sufficient, if they had let us eat in peace. But there were so many suffering from want of food, who as soon as they saw us getting our meal ready, would push in on us, and who had to be given to eat with us. Then I experienced what martyrdom it is to give in charity when in poverty.

re-creation of the great ger cart

“At that time the cold began to grow intense, and Mongke Khan sent us three gowns of papion skins, which they wear with the fur outside, and these we received in thankfulness. They inquired also whether we had all the food we required. I told them that a little food sufficed us, but that we had no house in which we could pray for Mongke Khan ; for our hut was so small that we could not stand up in it, nor open our books as soon as we lit the fire. So they reported these words to him, and he sent to the monk to know whether he would like our company, and he replied cheerfully that he would. From then on we had a better dwelling, living with the monk before the ordu, where no one lodged except ourselves and their diviners; but these latter were nearer and in front of the ordu of the first lady, while we were on the extreme eastern end, before the ordu of the last lady.

Mongols and their Horses

Mongol horses were small but durable with a thick neck, short legs and a large head. They "obedient, even tempered and ideal for winter fighting.” Horses were rarely used as beats of burden. Oxen were used to pull and carry loads in rocky terrain and camels were favored on grass and sand. Mongol children learned to ride at around the age of our of five.

The Mongol saddle had disc-shaped stirrups that served as platforms and allowed the riders to perform various maneuvers in battle. The Mongols could use their lances, sabers and bows and arrows with frightening results while riding full speed on their horses. The could shoot arrows forward, to the side and to the back. They especially adept at shooting targets from the rear.

Each soldier had around five horses—the horse he was riding plus four remounts which could be used when the horse he was riding got tired or injured. Mongol soldiers usually changed their mounts every day to conserve their animals’ energy. It was said riders could survive for months on the milk and blood from their mounts. Soldiers would often stay in the saddle for days, slitting a vein in the neck of the horse to drink its blood so he would not have to stop for meals."

Mongol Caravans

When the Mongols were making war, they traveled in tumens, great caravan that Ibn Battuta described as "a vast city on the move." A large 50,000-person tumen sometimes extended for 50 miles across the steppe. It moved at a rate of about five miles a day, stopping four times a day to milk the animals. In wartime several tumens could converge, forming an army of 100,000 or more.

A 50,000-person tumen and its logistical support embraced 75,000 oxen and camels; 2,000 collapsible ger; 10,000 infantrymen; 30,000 family members; a cavalry of 10,000 men that surrounded the caravan in a screening formation; 40,000 fresh horses; and domestic herds of 100,000 sheep and 10,000 goats to provide milk meat and wool for the moving army.

"The do not need a baggage train or stores, since they have with sheep, horses, and other animals, and live exclusively off their meat," wrote Ibn-al-Athir. The milk of the animals was their primary source of nourishment. When food was particular scarce they could drink their animal’s blood.

Great Khan's Golden Ger

At the front of the great khan's tumen was a golden ger where great khan held court. Mounted on a cart pulled by two dozen oxen, it served as an administrative center where the Khan met foreign dignitaries and held meetings with his generals. The gers of his wives were also generally carried in one piece on a cart rather than taken apart for transport like other gers. The wooden wheels on the massive carts were constantly lubricated with animal fat.

The golden ger was always positioned so that its door faced south. The great khan sat on golden throne with his principal wife on the north side. The khans sons sat on the east side along with lesser wives and children. Visitors and ministers were always required to stand on the west wall. A brazier stood at the center of the ger and guests were usually served fermented mare's milk.

Guards were stationed outside the door of the ger. "Entering into and going from the palace tent," said Genghis Khan, "must be relegated by the night guards...The night guards watch over my golden life."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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