Franciscan friar by Rembrandt

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 traveled to various places of the Mongol Empire in Asia before his return to Europe. [Source: Wikipedia]

In Central Asia William of Rubruck encountered Muslims, Buddhists and Nestorian Christians. He wrote: “ The first are the Iugurs (Uighurs), whose country confines on this said country of Organum (Urgench in present-day Uzbekistan), being situated among the mountains to the east of it; and in all their towns is found to mixture of Nestorians and Saracens (Muslims), and they are also scattered about towards Persia in the towns of the Saracens (Muslims). In the said city of Cailac (Qayaligh, near present-day Kapal in Kazakhstan) they had three idol temples, two of which I entered to see their foolishness. In the first one I found a person who had a little cross in ink on his hand, whence I concluded he was a Christian, and to all that I asked him he replied that he was a Christian. So I asked him: "Why have you not here the Cross and the figure of Jesus Christ?" And he replied: "It is not our custom." So I concluded that they were Christians, but had omitted this through some doctrinal error. I noticed there behind a chest which served in the place of altar and on which they put lamps and offerings, a winged image like Saint Michel, and other images like bishops holding their fingers as if blessing. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“That evening I could find out nothing more, for the Saracens (Muslims) shun these (idolaters) so much that they will not even speak of them, and when I asked Saracens (Muslims) concerning the rites of these people, they were scandalized... Those Iugurs (Uighurs) who live interspersed with the Christians and Saracens (Muslims), through frequent disputations, as I believe, have reached the point of having no belief but that in a single God. These Iugurs used to inhabit the cities which first obeyed Chingis Chan, who therefore gave his daughter to their king. And Caracarum (Karakorum) is as it were in their territory, and all the land of the king of the Prester John and of Unc his brother, was round about this country, though they occupied the pasture lands to the north, while the Iugurs lived amidst the mountains to the south. So it happened that the Mongol adopted their letters, and they are their best scribes, and nearly all the Nestorians know their letters...The Iugurs are of medium size, like us. Among the Iugurs (Uighurs) the Turkie Coman language has its source and root. /~\

Rubruck's route in Central Asia, China and Mongolia

“Beyond them to the east among those mountains are the Tanguts (a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people who moved to Northwest China sometime before the 10th century and established the state of Western Xia), most valiant men, who captured Chingis in war; and he, peace being made, and once freed by them, subdued them. These people have very strong cattle, with very hairy tails like horses, and with bellies and backs covered with hair. They are lower on their legs than other oxen, but much stronger. They draw the big dwellings of the Mongol, and have slender, long, curved horns, so sharp that it is always necessary to cut off their points. The cows will not let themselves be milked unless sung to. They have also the temper of the bull, for if they see a man dressed in red they throw themselves on him to kill him...Of the Tanguts I have seen big men, but swarthy.” /~\

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com;

William of Rubruck on Buddhists

William of Rubruck talked about encountering idolaters in Central Asia. Most likely he was referring to Buddhists and thus his account of them was the first description by a Western source of Buddhism. He wrote: “The day following was the first of the month and the Easter of the Saracens (Muslims), and I changed my host and was lodged near another idol temple, for the people entertain envoys each as he may and according to his ability. Going into this idol temple I found the priests of the idols there, for on the first of the month they throw open the temples and put on their sacerdotal vestments, offer (incense, hang up lamps and offer) the oblations of bread and fruit of the people. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“When then I had sat down beside these priests, after having been in the temple and seen their many idols, great and small, I asked them what they believed concerning God. They answered: "We only believe that there is one God." Then I asked: "Do you believe he is a spirit, or something corporeal?" "We believe that he is a spirit," they said. "Do you believe that he has never taken upon him human nature?" They said: "Never." "Then," said I, "if you believe that he is one and a spirit, why do you make him bodily images, and so many? Furthermore, if you do not believe that he became man, why do you make him in human shape rather than in that of some animal?" Then they replied: "We do not make these images to (of) God, but when some rich person among us dies, his son, or wife, or someone dear to him, has made an image of the deceased, and puts it here, and we revere it in memory of him." Then I said: "Then you only make these out of flattery for man." "Only," they said, "in remembrance." Then they asked me, as if in derision: "Where is God"To which I said: "Where is your soul?" "In our body," they said. I replied: "Is it not everywhere in your body, and does it not direct the whole of it, and, nevertheless, is invisible? So God is everywhere, and governs all things, though invisible, for He is intelligence and wisdom." Then, just as I wanted to continue reasoning with them, my interpreter, who was tired and incapable of finding the right words, made me stop talking. /~\

William of Rubruck on Tibetans and Other People the East

Uighur princesses

William of Rubruck wrote: “Beyond these are the Tebet (Tibetans), a people in the habit of eating their dead parents, so that for piety's sake they should not give their parents any other sepulcher than their bowels. They have given this practice up, however, as they were held an abomination among all nations. They still, however, make handsome cups out of the heads of their parents, so that when drinking out of them they may have them in mind in the midst of their merry-making. This was told me by one who had seen it. These people have much gold in their country, so that when one lacks gold he digs till he finds it, and he only takes so much as he requires and puts the rest back in the ground; for if he put it in a treasury or a coffer, he believes that God would take away from him that which is in the ground. I saw many misshapen individuals of this people. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

After Tebet are Longa and Solanga [=possibly NE Manchuria and Korea], whose envoys I saw at court, and they had brought with them more than ten big carts, each of which was drawn by six oxen. They are little men and swarthy like Spaniards, and they wear tunics like the chasuble (supertunicale) of a deacon, except with narrower sleeves. On their heads they wear a miter like a bishop's, except that in front it is slightly lower than behind, and it does not terminate in a point, but is square on top, and is of stiff black buckram, and so polished that it shines in the sun's rays like a mirror or a well-burnished helmet. And at the temples are long strips of the same stuff, which are fastened to the miter, and which stand out in the wind like two horns projecting from the temples. When the wind strikes it too violently, they fold them up across the miter over the temples, where they remain like a hoop across the head; and a right handsome ornament it is. And whenever the principal envoy came to court he carried a highly-polished tablet of ivory about a cubit long and half a palm wide. Every time he spoke to the Khan or some great personage, he always looked at that tablet as if he found there that he had to say, nor did he look to the right or the left, nor in the face of him with whom he was talking. Likewise, when coming into the presence of the lord, and when leaving it, he never looked at anything but his tablet. /~\

“Besides these people there is another, as I was assured, called Muc, who have towns, but who take no animals for themselves. There are, however, many herds and flocks in their country, but no one herds them; when anyone wants some, he goes to a hill and calls, and all the animals hearing the call come around him, and let him treat them as if they were tame. If an ambassador or any foreigner come to that country, they put him in a house, and give him all he requires, until his business has been settled; for should a foreigner go about the country, his odor would cause the animals to run away and they would become wild.” /~\

“All these nations are in the mountains of the Caucasus [likely the Tian Shan or some other mountains in Central Asia], but on the north side of these mountains, and (they extend) as far as the eastern Ocean, and (this is) also to the south of that Sithia which the pastoral Mongols inhabit, and whose tributaries they all are. And all of them are given to idolatry, and tell fables of a host of gods, and of deified human beings, and of the genealogy of the gods, as do our poets.” /~\

Later Rubruck wrote: “One day a priest from Cathay was seated with me, and he was dressed in a red stuff of the finest hue, and I asked whence came such a color; and he told me that in the countries east of Cathay there are high rocks, among which dwell creatures who have in all respects human forms, except that their knees do not bend, so that they get along by some kind of jumping motion; and they are not over a cubit in length, and all their little body is covered with hair, and they live in inaccessible caverns. And the hunters (of Cathay) go carrying with them mead, with which they can bring on great drunkenness, and they make cup-like holes in the rocks, and fill them with this mead. (For Cathay has no grape wine, though they have begun planting vines, but they make a drink of rice.) So the hunters hide themselves, and these animals come out of their caverns and taste this liquor, and cry "Chin, chin," so they have been given a name from this cry, and are called Chinchin. Then they come in great numbers, and drink this mead, and get drunk, and fall asleep. Then come the hunters, who bind the sleeper's feet and hands. After that they open a vein in their necks, and take out three or four drops of blood, and let them go free; and this blood, he told me was most precious for coloring purples. They also told me as a fact (which I do not, however, believe), that there is a province beyond Cathay, and at whatever age a man enters it, that age he keeps which he had on entering. /~\

William of Rubruck on China and the Chinese

Tang-era dancer

William of Rubruck wrote: “There is also great Cathay, whose people were anciently I believe, called Seres. From among them come the best silk stuffs (which are called seric by that people), and the people get the name of Seres from one of their cities. I was given to understand that in that region there is a city with walls of silver and towers of gold. In that land are many provinces, the greater number of which do not yet obey the Mongol, and between them and India there is a sea. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“These Cathayans (Chinese) are small men, who in speaking aspirate strongly through the nose, and in common with all Orientals, have small openings for the eyes. They are most excellent artisans in all manners of crafts, and their doctors know full well the virtues of herbs, and diagnose very skillfully the pulse; but they do not use urine samples, not knowing anything about urine: this I have seen myself. There are a great many of them at Caracarum (Karakorum), and it is their custom for all sons to follow the same trade as their fathers. 'Tis for this reason that they pay such a great tribute; for they give the Mongol daily a thousand five hundred iascots or cosmos [an iascot is a piece of silver weighing ten marks] so this is fifteen thousand marks, exclusive of the silk tissues and the provisions which they receive from them, and the other servitudes which are put on them.” /~\

Later Rubruck wrote: “Cathay is on the ocean. And master William told me that he had himself seen the envoys of certain people called Caule [=Kao-li: Korea] and Manse [=Man-tze: southern China, still ruled by the Song], who live on islands the sea around which freezes in winter, so that at that time the Tartars can make raids thither; and they had offered (them) thirty-two thousand tumen of iascot a year, if they would only leave them in peace. A tumen is a number containing ten thousand. /~\

“The common money of Cathay is a paper of cotton, in length and breadth a palm, and on it they stamp lines like those on the seal of Mongke. They (i.e., the Cathayans (Chinese)) write with a brush such as painters paint with, and they make in one figure the several letters containing a whole word. The Tebet write as we do, and have figures quite like ours. The Tanguts write from right to left like the Arabs, but they repeat the lines running upwards; the Iugur, as previously said (write) up and down. The ordinary money of the Ruthenians (Russians) are skins of vaire and minever.” /~\

William of Rubruck on Nestorian Christians in Asia

Nestorian in western China

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “The Nestorian Ancient Assyrian Church of the East originated among and was dominated by Syriac speaking people of the region of modern Iraq and Iran.The Church of the East traces it origins to the evangelistic ministry of the apostle Saint Thomas and Mar Mari and Mar Addai [Thaddeus], who were among Christ’s seventy disciples. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012]

Nestorians lived in large numbers in Persia and Iraq after they were persecuted in the Christian west. Around the time of the Muslim conquest in the early 7th century they began traveling eastward on the Silk Road to Turkestan, India, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. They had penetrated deep into China, where a Nestorian church was founded in 638, in Changsan (Xian, See China). Wherever the went Nestorians continued to use the Syriac language. It was estimated that around the end of the A.D. first millennium there were more Nestorians than Catholics and Orthodox Christians combined. Among the Asians who were converted to Nestorian Christianity were Kublai Khan’s sister in law. The Nestorians prospered in the Mongol Empire but were nearly wiped out by Tamerlane.

William of Rubruck wrote: On the feast of Saint Andrew (30th November) we left this city ( Cailac, Qayaligh, near present-day Kapal in Kazakhstan), and at about three leagues from it we found a village entirely of Nestorians. We entered their church, singing joyfully and at the tops of our voices: "Salve, regina!" for it had been a long time since we had seen a church...Living mixed among” the Mongols and Tartars “though of alien status (tanquam advene), are Nestorians and Saracens (Muslims) all the way to Cathay. In fifteen cities of Cathay there are Nestorians, and they have an episcopal see in a city called Segin [=Hsi-king], but for the rest they are purely idolaters. The priests of idols of the nations spoken of all wear wide saffron-colored cowls. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“There are also among them, as I gathered, some hermits who live in forests and mountains and leading lives that are extraordinarily ascetic. The Nestorians there know nothing. They say their offices, and have sacred books in Syrian, but they do not know the language, so they chant like those monks among us who do not know grammar, and they are absolutely depraved. In the first place they are usurers and drunkards; some even among them who live with the Tartars have several wives like them. /~\

“When they enter church, they wash their lower parts like Saracens (Muslims); they eat meat on Friday, and have their feasts on that day in Saracen fashion. The bishop rarely visits these parts, hardly once in fifty years. When he does, they have all the male children, even those in the cradle, ordained priests, so nearly all the males among them are priests. Then they marry, which is clearly against the statutes of the Fathers, and they are bigamists, for when the first wife dies these priests take another. They are all simoniacs, for they administer no sacrament gratis. They are solicitous for their wives and children, and are consequently more intent on the increase of their wealth than of the faith. And so those of them who educate some of the sons of the noble Mongol, though they teach them the Gospel and the articles of the faith, through their evil lives and their cupidity estrange them from the Christian faith, for the lives that the Mongol themselves and the Tuins [=Buddhists, from Chinese T'ao-yen: "man of the path." The term properly refers only to priests but Rubruck applies it here to all Buddhists] or idolaters lead are more innocent than theirs. /~\

Debate Between Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in Mongke Khan's Court

Buddha from western China

William of Rubruck wrote: “We were assembled then on Pentecost eve at our oratory, and Mongke Khan sent three secretaries who were to be umpires, one a Christian, one a Saracen, and one a Tuin; and it was published aloud: "This is the order of Mongke, and let no one dare say that the commandment of God differs from it. And he orders that no one shall dare wrangle or insult any other, or make any noise by which this business shall be interfered with, on penalty of his head." Then all were silent. And there was a great concourse of people there; for each side had called thither the most learned of its people, and many others had also assembled. [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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“Then the Christians put me in the middle, telling the Tuins (Buddhists) to speak with me. Then they — and there was a great congregation of them — began to murmur against Mongke Khan, for no other Khan had ever attempted to pry into their secrets. Then they opposed to me one who had come from Cathay, and who had his interpreter; and I had the son of master William. He began by saying to me: "Friend, if you think you are going to be hushed up (conclusus), look for a more learned one than yourself." I remained silent. Then (the Tuin) inquired by what I wished to begin the discussion, by the subject how the world was made, or what becomes of the soul after death. I replied to him: "Friend, this should not be the beginning of our talk. All things proceed from God. He is the fountain-head of all things; so we must first speak of God, of whom you think differently from us, and Mongke Khan wishes to know who holds the better belief." The umpires decided that this was right. /~\

“He wished to begin with these questions, as they consider them to be the weightiest; for they all belong to the Manichaean heresy, that one half of things is evil, and the other half good, and that there are two (elemental) principles; and, as to souls, they believe that all pass from one body into another. Thus a most learned priest among the Nestorians questioned me (once) concerning the souls of animals, whether they could escape to any place where, after death, they would not be forced to labor. In confirmation furthermore of this error, as I was told by master William, there had been brought from Cathay a boy who, from the size of his body, was not more than three years old, but who was capable of all forms of reasoning, and who said of himself that he had been incarnated three times; he knew how to read and write. /~\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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 August 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.