Franciscan monk

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]

On reaching western Mongolia, William of Rubruck wrote: “After that we entered the plain in which was the ordu of Gukuk Khan, and which used to be the country of the Naiman, who were the real subjects of that Prester John. I did not at that time see this ordu, but on my way back.“Again we ascended mountains, going always in a northerly direction. Finally, on the day of the Blessed Stephen (December 26th) we entered a plain vast as a sea, in which there was seen no hillock, and the following day, on the feast of St. John the Evangelist (December 27th), we arrived at the ordu of the great lord.[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 we were five days from it, an iam (messenger) at whose (station) we were sleeping, wanted to send us by a round about road, over which we should have had to plod for more than fifteen days. And this, as I learnt, so that we might pass by Onankerule, which is at it were their original home, and in which is the ordu of Chingis Chan. Others, however, said that they had wanted to make the journey longer, so as to magnify their importance; and they are in the habit of doing this to persons who come from countries not subject to them. And it was with great difficulty that our guide obtained that we should travel the direct road, after they had detained us over this matter from dawn to the third hour.” /~\

Later, in the “morning the tips of my toes were frozen, so that I could not thereafter go bare-footed. The cold in these regions is most intense, and from the time it begins freezing it never ceases till May; even in the month of May there was frost every morning, though during the day the sun's rays melted it. But in winter it never thawed, but with every wind it continued to freeze. And if there were wind there in winter as with us, nothing could live; but the atmosphere is always calm till April, then the wind arises. And when we were there, the cold that came on with the wind about Easter killed an infinite number of animals. But little snow fell there during the winter, but about Easter, which was at the end of April, there fell so much that all the streets of Caracarum (Karakorum) were full, and they had to carry it off in carts. They brought us from the ordu of the first (wife) sheepskin gowns and breeches and shoes, which my companion and the dragoman took; for my part I did not think I was in need of them, for it seemed to me that the fur gown I had brought with me from Batu's sufficed me.” /~\

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; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East’ by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volumes 1 and 2 (London: John Murray, 1903) are part of the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). “Marco Polo's Asia,” by Leonardo Olschki (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960). When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes. Books on 18th and 19th Century European Explorers of Western China: The Question of Hu by Jonathan Spence and Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk. Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe:
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation silkroadfoundation.org ; Scythians iranicaonline.org ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns britannica.com ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Interpretations of William of Rubruck’s Letter

Rubruck in the realm of the Mongols

William of Rubruck wrote: “It was on this part of the journey that that secretary, the one we had waited for at Cailac, told me that in the letter that Batu was sending to Mongke, it was stated that you asked for troops and aid from Sartach against the Saracens (Muslims). At this I was much astonished and also annoyed, for I knew the tenor of your letter, and that there was no such request in them, only that you advised him to be the friend of all Christians, to exalt the Cross, and to be the enemy of al1 the enemies of the Cross. (I feared) that as those who had interpreted (your letters) were Hermenians (Armenians) from Greater Hermenia--great haters of the Saracens (Muslims)--they had perhaps through hatred and for the discomfiture of the Saracens (Muslims), gratuitously translated as had suited their fancy. [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 /~]

“I remained silent, saying nothing for or against this, for I feared to contradict Batu's words lest I should be accused of trickery without reasonable cause. So we came on the day I have mentioned to the said ordu. To our guide was assigned a big dwelling, but to us there was given a very small hut in which we could barely store our things, make our beds, and a little fire. Many came to see our guide, and there was brought him rice wine in long narrow-necked flagons, and I could not discern any difference between it and the best Auxerre wine, save that it had not the perfume of wine. We were called and closely questioned as to the business which had brought us. I replied : "We have heard that Sartach was a Christian: we came to him. The King of the French sent him a sealed letter by us; he sent us to his father, his father sent us here. He must have written the reason why." They asked if you wanted to make peace with them. I replied "He sent to Sartach letters as to a Christian, and if he had known that he was not a Christian, he would never have sent him letters. /~\

“As to making peace, I tell you that he never did you any harm. If he had done something for which you had to make war on him or his people, he would willingly, as a just man, make apology and ask for peace. If you without motive should want to wage war against him, or his people, we trust that God, who is just, would aid them." And they always wondered, repeating: "But why did you come, if you did not come to make peace?" For they are already so puffed up in their pride, that they believe that the whole world must want to make peace with them. Of a truth, if it were allowed me, I would, to the utmost of my power, preach throughout the world war against them. I did not, however, wish to clearly explain the reason of my coming, lest I should say something contrary to what Batu had stated ; and so I gave as the only reason for my coming there that he (Baatu) had sent me.” /~\

William of Rubruck on the Homeland of the Mongols

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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“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. /~\

Christians at the Court of Mongke Khan

William of Rubruck wrote: “The next day we were conducted to court, and I thought I could go barefooted, as in our own countries, so I left my shoes. Now, those who come to the court get off their horses about an arrow's flight from the dwelling of the Chan, and there the horses and the servants keeping the horses remain. So when we had alighted there, and while our guide went to the dwelling of the Chan, there came an Hungarian servant, who recognized us--that is our Order, and as they surrounded us and gazed at us as if we were monsters, especially because we were barefooted, and they asked us if we had no use for our feet, because they supposed that we would at once lose them, this Hungarian gave them the reason, telling them of the rules of our Order. [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 /~]

7th century Nestorian stele in China

“Then came the grand secretary, who was a Nestorian Christian, and whose advice they nearly always follow, to look at us: and he examined us carefully, and called that Hungarian, of whom he made many inquiries. Then we were told to go back to our lodgings; and, as we were going back, I saw before the east end of the ordu, the distance of two crossbow shots from it, a dwelling with a little cross over it. Greatly pleased, and imagining there was something Christian there, I boldly went in, and found an altar right beautifully decked. For there was embroidered on a cloth of gold an image of the Savior, of the Blessed Virgin, of John the Baptist and of two angels, and the lines of the body and of the garments were marked out with pearls, and there was a great silver cross with gems in the angles and the middle, and many, other church ornaments, and an oil lamp having eight lights was burning before the altar ; and there was seated there an Hermenian monk, swarthy and lank, and he was dressed in a tunic of the roughest hair-cloth reaching halfway down to his shins, and over it he had a stole of black silk lined with vaire, and under his hair-cloth garment he wore an iron girdle. /~\

“As soon as we entered, and even before saluting the monk, we sang on our knees: "Ave regina coelorum," and he arose and prayed with us. Then, having saluted him, we sat down beside him, and he had a dish with some fire in it before him. We told him the cause of our coming, and he began encouraging us greatly, telling us to speak boldly, for we were the envoys of God, who is greater than any man. After that he told us of his coming there, saying that he had preceded us by a month, and that he had been a hermit in the country of Jerusalem, and that God had appeared to him three times, enjoining on him to go to the Prince of the Tartars. But as he neglected going, God threatened him the third time, striking him down to the ground, and saying that he should die if he did not go; and that he should say to Mongke Khan that if he would become a Christian, all the world would come under his rule, and that the Franks and the great Pope would obey him; and then he admonished me to speak in a like way. /~\

“Then I answered "Brother, I will willingly advise him to become a Christian; for I have come to preach that to all men. I will promise him also that the French and the Pope will rejoice greatly, and will have him for a brother and a friend. But that they would become his slaves, and pay him tribute as these other nations, that will I never promise, for I should be speaking against my conviction." At this he remained silent. When we went to our lodgings, we found it cold and we had eaten nothing that day. We cooked a little meat, and a little millet with the broth of the meat to drink. Our guide and his companions had got drunk at the court and had little care of us. [At that time there were near to us] envoys of Vastacius [=John III Ducas Vatatzes, Emperor of Nicaea] but we did not know it. At dawn (the next day) some men from the court made us get up in all haste. I went with them bare-footed a little way to the dwelling of these envoys, and they asked them if they knew us. Then a Greek knight, recognizing our Order, and also my companion, whom he had seen at the court of Vastacius with Friar Thomas our provincial, he and all the envoys bore great testimony of us. Then they asked if you were at peace or at war with Vastacius. "Neither at peace," I answered, "nor at war," and they enquired how that could be. "Because," I said, "their countries are remote from each other, and they have nothing to do with each other." Then the envoy of Vastacius said that there was peace, and this made me cautious, and I kept silence.” /~\

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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“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.

“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.

Envoys to the Mongol Court

William of Rubruck wrote: “So, then, we were quartered with the other envoys; for they do differently as regards envoys at the court of Batu and the court of Mongke. At Batu's court there is an iam (messenger) on the west side who receives all those who come from the west; and it is arranged in like fashion for the other quarters of the world. But at the court of Mongke all are under one Iam, and may visit and see each other. At the court of Batu they do not know each other, and one knows not whether another is an envoy, for they know not each other's lodgings, and only see each other at court. And when one is summoned, another perhaps is not: for they only go to court when summoned.” [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 /~]

“Each day during these four days, they changed their raiment, which was given them each day all of one color from their boots to their turbans (tyaram). At this time I saw there the envoy of the Caliph of Baldach, who used to be brought to court in a litter between two mules, and some said of him that he he had made a peace with them, in view of which he gave ten thousand horse soldiers for his army. Others said that Mongke had said that he would not make a peace unless they destroyed all their fortresses, and that the envoy had replied: "When remove all the hoofs of your horses, we will destroy all our fortresses." /~\

"I saw also the envoy of a certain Soldan of India, who had brought eight leopards and ten greyhounds taught to sit on horses' backs, as leopards sit. When I asked them concerning India, in what direction it was from that place, they pointed to the west. And these envoys went back with me for nearly three weeks, always going westward. I saw there also envoys of the Soldan of Turkia, who had brought him rich presents; and he (i.e., Mongke) had answered them, as I heard, that he did not want gold or silver, but men; so he wanted to be given troops. On the feast of Saint John [=June 24th] he held a great drinking bout, and I counted an hundred and five carts and ninety horses loaded with mare's milk; and on the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul [=June 29th] likewise. /~\

Westerners and Western Christians in Mongolia

Head of a "Westerner", 11th century, western China

William of Rubruck wrote: “A certain woman from Metz in Lorraine, Paquette [or Pascha] by name, and who had been made a prisoner in Hungary, found us out, and she gave us the best food she could. She belonged to the ordu of the Christian lady of whom I have spoken, and she told me of the unheard-of misery she had endured before coming to the ordu. But now she was fairly well off. She had a young Ruthenian husband, of whom she had had three right fine looking boys, and he knew how to make houses, a very good trade among them. Furthermore, she told us that there was in Caracarum (Karakorum) a certain master goldsmith, William by name, a native of Paris: and his family name was Buchier, and the name of his father was Laurent Buchier. [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 /~]

“She believed that he had still a brother living on the Grand Pont, called Roger Buchier. She also told me that he supported a young man whom he considered as his son, and who was a most excellent interpreter. But as Mongke Khan had given this said master three hundred iascot, that is three thousand marks, and fifty workmen to do a certain work, she feared he would not be able to send his son to me. She had heard people in the ordu saying: "The men who have come from your country are good men, and Mongke Khan would be pleased to speak with them, but their interpreter is worth nothing." 'Twas for this that she was solicitous about an interpreter. So I wrote to this master of my coming, asking him if he could send me his son; and he replied that during that moon he could not, but the following he would have finished his task and then he would send him to me. /~\

“We found there a certain Christian from Damascus, who said he had come for the Soldan of Mont Real and of Crac [=Karak], who wished to become the tributary and friend of the Tartars. Furthermore, the year before I arrived there, a certain clerk had come there from Acon (Acre in Palestine), who called himself Raymond, but whose name was in truth Theodolus. He had started out from Cyprus with Friar Andrew, and had gone with him as far as Persia, and he brought certain instruments from Ammoric there in Persia, and he remained there after Friar Andrew.” /~\

Story of Another Friar That Met Mongke Khan

William of Rubruck wrote: “ When Friar Andrew had gone back, he went on with his instruments and came to Mongke Khan, who asked him why he had come; and he said that he was with a certain holy bishop to whom God had sent a letter from heaven written in letters of gold, and had ordered to send it to the lord of the Tartars, for he would become the lord of the whole world, and he must persuade men to make peace with him. Then Mongke said to him: "If thou hast brought these letters which have come from heaven and letters of your lord, then thou art welcome." He replied that he had been bringing letters, but that they and his other things being on an unbroken pack-horse, it had run away through forests and over hills, and he had lost everything. Now it is a truth that such accidents frequently do occur, so one must be very careful to hold one's horse when obliged to get off it. /~\

“Then Mongke asked the name of the bishop. He said that he was called Oto. And thus it was that he told the man from Damascus and Master William that he had been a clerk of the lord Legate. Then the Khan asked him in whose kingdom he dwelt. And he answered that he was under a certain king of the Franks, who was called King Moles. For he had before that heard of what happened at Mensura, and he wanted to say that he was one of your subjects. Furthermore, he said to the Khan that the Saracens (Muslims) were between the Franks and him blocking the way: that if the road were open they would send envoys and would gladly make a peace with him. Then Mongke Khan asked if he would take envoys to that king and that bishop. He replied that he would, and also to the Pope. Then Mongke had made a very strong bow that two men could hardly string, and two arrows with silver heads full of holes, which whistled like a pipe when they were shot. And he told the Mongol whom he was to send with this Theodolus: "Go to the king of the Franks, to whom this man shall take you, and offer him these from me. And if he will have peace with us, and we conquer the land of the Saracens (Muslims) as far as his country, we will leave him all the rest of the earth to the west. If not, bring back the bow and the arrows to us, and tell him that with such bows we shoot far and hit hard."/~\

“Then he made this Theodulus leave his presence, and his interpreter was the son of master William, and he heard (the Chan) saying to the Mongol : "Go with this man; examine well the roads, the country, the towns, the men and their arms." Then this young man upbraided Theodulus, saying that he did wrong to take envoys of the Tartars with him, who only went to spy. Then he answered that he would put them to sea, so that they would not be able to know whence they came nor how they had come back. /~\

“Mangu also gave the Mongol his bull, which is like a plate of gold a palm broad and a half cubit long, and on it is written his order. He who bears it can command what he pleases, and it shall be done without delay. So when this Theodulus had come as far as Vastacius, and was wishing to pass on to the Pope, to deceive the Pope as he had deceived Mongke Khan, Vastacius asked him if he had letters of the Pope, since he was an ambassador and had to lead envoys of the Tartars. And when he was unable to show any letters, he seized him and took away from him all that he had got together, and threw him into prison. As to the Mongol, he fell ill and died there. Vastacius, however, sent back to Mongke Khan by the attendants of the Mongol the bull of gold, and I passed them on the road at Arseron (Erzerum) on the border of Turkie, and they told me what had befallen this Theodulus. Such adventurers wandering through the world, the Mongol put to death when they can lay hands on them.” /~\

William of Rubruck with the Sick Wife of Mongke Khan’s Son

William of Rubruck wrote: The “second lady, who is called Cota [=Qotai], and who is an idol follower” was “lying ill in bed. The monk obliged her to get up from her bed, and made her worship the cross with bended knees and prostrations, the forehead on the ground, he standing with the cross on the west side of the dwelling, and she on the east side. When this was done, they changed places, and the monk went with the cross to the east side, and she to the west; and he commanded her boldly, though she was so feeble she could scarcely stand on her feet, to prostrate herself three times, worshipping the cross facing the east, in Christian fashion: and this she did. And he showed her how to make the sign of the cross before her face. After that, when she had lain down again on her bed, prayers having been said for her. [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 /~]

“It happened after this that the lady Cota, who had fallen ill about the Sunday of Sexagesima (15th February), fell sick even unto death, and the sorcerers of the idolaters could do nothing to drive it out. Then Mongke sent to the monk, asking him what could be done for her, and the monk rashly replied that if she did not get well he could cut off his head. Having made this promise the monk called us, telling us of the affair with tears, and begging us to keep vigils with him that night in the oratory; this we did. And he had a certain root called rhubarb, and he chopped it up till it was nearly powder, and put it in water with a little cross which he had, and on which on which had been set in relief an effigy of the savior, and by which he said he could find out whether a sick person would recover or die. If he was to escape, it stuck on the sick person's breast as if glued there; if not, it did not stick. And I thought that this rhubarb was something holy which he had brought from Jerusalem in the Holy Land. And he was in the habit of giving this water to drink to all sick persons, and it could not be but their bowels were stirred up by such a bitter draught. But they considered this movement in their bodies something miraculous. /~\

“Then I said to him, as he was preparing it, to make the potion with holy water as is done in the Church of Rome, for it has great virtue in expelling devils, for we supposed that she was beset of a devil; and at his request we made him holy water, and he mixed rhubarb in it, and put the cross to soak in it the whole night. I told him also that if he was a priest, the sacerdotal order had great power in expelling devils. And he said he was; but he lied, for he had taken no orders, and did not know a single letter, but was a cloth weaver, as I found out in his own country, which I went through on my way back. /~\

“The next day then we went to this lady, the monk, I, and two Nestorian priests, and she was in a little (tent) behind her larger dwelling. When we went in, she got up from her couch, worshipped the Cross, put it reverently beside her on a silk cloth, drank some holy water and rhubarb, and washed her breast (with it); and the monk requested me to read the Gospel over her. I read the Passion of the Lord according to John. Finally she revived and felt better, and she caused to be brought four iascot of silver, which she first put at the foot of the Cross, and then gave one to the monk, and she held out one to me, which I would not receive. Then the monk held out his hand and took it. And to either of the priests she gave one; so she gave that time forty marks. Then she had wine brought, and gave the priests to drink, and I also had to drink three times at her hand in honor of the Trinity. She also began to teach me the language, making fun of me because my lack of an interpreter made me dumb. /~\

“The next day we again went back to her, and Mongke Khan, hearing that we had passed that way, made us come in unto him, because he had heard that the lady was better; and we found him with a few of his attendants, and he was sipping liquid tam, which is a food made from dough for the comforting of the head, and charred sheep's shoulder-blades lay before him, and he took the Cross in his hand; but whether he kissed it or worshipped it I did not notice, but he looked at it, seeking something or other. /~\

“Then the monk asked permission to carry the Cross on high on a lance, for he had previously spoken to the monk about this, and Mongke replied: "Carry it as you like best." Then, having saluted him, we went to the said lady, and we found her well and bright, and she drank again of the holy water, and we read the Passion over her. But these miserable priests had never taught her the faith, nor advised her to be baptized. I sat there, however, silent, unable to say a word, so she again taught me some of the language. /~\

“The priests do not condemn any form of sorcery; for I saw there four swords half way out of their scabbards, one at the head of the lady's couch, another at the foot, and one of the other two on either side of the entry. I also saw there a silver chalice, of the kind we use, which had perhaps been stolen in some church in Hungary, and it was hung on the wall full of ashes, and on the ashes was a black stone; and these priests never teach that such things are evil. Even more, they themselves do and teach such things. /~\

“We visited her (i.e., Cota) on three days, so that she was completely restored to health. After that the monk made a banner covered with crosses, and got a reed as long as a spear, and we used to carry the Cross on high. I showed him the deference due to a superior, because he knew the language. He did, however, many things which did not please me. Thus he had made for himself a folding-chair, such as bishops are wont to have, and gloves and a cap of (with) peacock feathers, and on it a little gold cross, which, so far as the cross went, pleased me well. He had rough claws, which he tried to improve with unguents. He showed himself most presumptuous in his speech. Furthermore these Nestorians used to recite I know not what verses, of a psalm according to them, over two twigs which were joined together while held by two men. The monk stood by during the operation; and other vanities appeared in him which displeased me. Nevertheless, we kept to his company for the honor of the Cross; for we used to carry the cross on high throughout the whole camp, singing the "Vexilla regis prodeunt," at which the Saracens (Muslims) were greatly astonished. /~\

Priest Killed by Muslim Diviner?

William of Rubruck wrote: Then it happened that master William fell grievously ill; and, as he was convalescing, the monk, while visiting him, gave him rhubarb to drink, so that he nearly killed him. So when I called on him I found him in this distressing condition, and I asked him what he had eaten or drunk. And he told me how the monk had given him this drink, and how he had drunk two bowls full, thinking it was holy water. Then I went to the monk and said to him: " Either go as an apostle doing real miracles by the grace of the prayer and the Holy Ghost, or do as a physician in accordance with medical art. You give to drink to men not in a condition for it, a strong medicinal potion, as if it were something holy; and in so doing you would incur great shame, should it become known among men." From this he began fearing me, and warding himself from me. [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 /~]

“It happened also at this time that the priest who was a sort of archdeacon of the others fell ill, and his friends sent for a certain Saracen (Muslim) diviner, who said to them: "A certain lean man, who neither eats, nor drinks, nor sleeps in a bed, is angered with him. If he can get his blessing, he may get well." So they understood that this referred to the monk, and toward the middle of the night the wife of the priest and the sister and the son came to the monk, begging him to come and give him his blessing. They aroused us also to ask the monk. And as we asked him he said: "Let him alone, for he and three others who go also in evil ways, have formed the project to go to court, to obtain of Mongke Khan that you and I be driven out of these parts."/~\

“Now there had been a dispute among them, for Mongke and his wives had sent on Easter eve four iascot and pieces of silk to the monk and the priests to be distributed among them, and the monk had kept one iascot as his share, and of the remaining three one was counterfeit, for it was of copper; so it seemed to the priests that the monk had kept too large a share for himself; and it may therefore well have been that they had had some talk among themselves, which had been repeated to the monk. /~\

“When it was daylight I went to the priest, who had a very sharp pain in his side and was spitting blood, whence I imagined that it was an abscess. I advised him to recognize the Pope as the father of all Christians, which he at once did, vowing that if God should give him health he would go throw himself at the Pope's feet, and would ask in all good faith that the Pope should send his blessing to Mongke Khan. I advised him also to make restitution, if he had anything belonging to another. He said he had nothing. I spoke to him also of the sacrament of extreme unction. He replied: "We have not that custom, nor do our priests know how to do it; I beg that whatever you do for me, you do it according as you know how to do." I told him also of confession, which they do not make. He spoke a few words in the ear of a priest, one of his associates; after that he began to grow better, and he asked me to go to the monk. I went. At first the monk would not come; finally, on hearing that he was better, he went with his cross; and I went carrying the body of Christ in the box of master William, having kept it from Easter day at his request. The monk then began to trample on (the bed of) the priest, who meekly embraced his ankles. Then I said to him: "It is a custom of the Roman Church that sick persons partake of the body of Christ, as a viatic and protection against all the toils of the enemy. Here is the body of Christ which I have kept from Easter day. You must confess and desire it." Then he said with great faith: "I desire it with all my heart." And as I was about to expose it, he said with great earnestness: "I believe that this is my Creator and Savior, who gave me life, and will give it me again after death at the general resurrection." And so he received the body of Christ made by me, after the fashion of the Church of Rome. /~\

“The monk remained with him after this, and gave him, while I was away, I know not what potion. The next day he began to suffer unto death. So taking some of their oil, which they say is holy, I anointed him according to the fashion of the Church, as he had asked me. I had not any of our oil, for the priests of Sartach had kept everything. And as we were about to repeat the prayers for the dying, and I wanted to be present at his death, the monk sent me word to go away, for if I should be present I could not enter Mongke Khan 's house till the year was up. When I mentioned this to his friends, they told me it was true, and they besought me to leave, so as not to interfere with the good I could promote. /~\

“When he was dead, the monk said to me: "Care not about it; I have killed him with my prayers. He was the only scholar, and was opposed to us. The others know nothing. However, all of them, Mongke Khan included, will come to our feet." Then he told me the above related answer of the diviner, which I did not believe, so I asked priests, friends of the deceased, if it were true. They said that it was; but whether he had been told beforehand, or not, they did not know. /~\

“After this I discovered that the monk had called this said Saracen diviner into his chapel with his wife, and had had dust sifted and had them divine for him by it. He had also a Ruthenian deacon with him who divined for him. When I had learned this, I was horrified at his ignorance, and I told him: "Brother, a man who is full of the Holy Ghost, who teaches all things, should not seek answers or advice from diviners; all such things are forbidden, and those who are given to them are excommunicated." Then he began to excuse himself, saying that it was not true that he sought such things. I was not, however, able to leave him, for I had been lodged there by order of the Chan, and I could not go elsewhere without his special order. /~\

Rubruck’s Journey to Karakorum

Model of Karakorum

Karakorum (Classical Mongolian: Qara Qorum, Khalkha Mongolian: Kharkhorum) was the capital of the Mongol Empire between 1235 and 1260, and of the Northern Yuan in the 14–15th centuries. Its ruins lie in the northwestern corner of the Övörkhangai Province of Mongolia, near today's town of Kharkhorin, and adjacent to the Erdene Zuu monastery. They are part of the upper part of the World Heritage Site Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape. [Source: Wikipedia]

William of Rubruck wrote: “From the time when we reached the court of Mongke, he never moved his carts (bigavit) but twice toward the south; and then he began going back northward, which was toward Caracarum (Karakorum). One thing I remarked throughout the whole journey, which agreed with what I had been told by Messire Baldwin of Hainaut in Constantinople, who had been there, that the one thing that seemed extraordinary was that he ascended the whole way in going, without ever descending. For all the rivers flowed from east to west, either directly, or indirectly--that is to say, deflecting north or south. [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 /~]

“Toward Passion Sunday (29th March [1254]) he started out with his light tents, leaving the big ones behind him. And the monk and we followed him, and he sent us another skin of wine. And on the way we passed between mountains where there was excessive wind and cold and much snow fell. So toward the middle of the night he sent to the monk and us, asking us to pray God to temper this cold and wind, for all the animals in the caravan were in danger, particularly as they were then heavy with young and bringing forth. Then the monk sent him incense, telling him that he himself should put it on coals and offer it to God. I know not whether he did this, but the tempest, which had already lasted two days, abated when the third day of it was already beginning. /~\

“On Palm Sunday (5th April) we were near Caracarum (Karakorum). At early dawn we blessed some boughs, on which no signs of budding had yet appeared. And toward the ninth hour we entered the city, with raised Cross and banner, and passed through the Saracen quarter, where there is a square and a market, to the church. And the Nestorians came to meet us in a procession. Going into the church, we found them ready to celebrate mass; and when it was celebrated they all communicated and inquired of me whether I wished to communicate [i.e., take the Eucharist]. I replied that I had already drunk, and could not receive the sacrament except fasting. When the mass had been said it was already after noon, so master William took us with great rejoicing to his house to dine with him; and he had a wife who was a daughter of a Lorrainer, but born in Hungary, and she spoke French and Coman well. We found there also another person, Basil by name, the son of an Englishman, and who was born in Hungary, and who also knew these languages. We dined with great rejoicing, and then they led us to our hut, which the Tartars had set up in an open space near the church, with the oratory of the monk.” /~\

“Of the city of Caracarum (Karakorum) you must know that, exclusive of the palace of the Chan, it is not as fine as the village of Saint Denis, and the monastery of Saint Denis is worth ten of the palace. There are two quarters in it; one of the Saracens (Muslims) in which are the markets, and where a great many Tartars gather on account of the court, which is always near this (city), and on account of the great number of ambassadors; the other is the quarter of the Cathayans (Chinese), all of whom are artisans. Besides these quarters there are great palaces, which are for the secretaries of the court. There are there twelve idol temples of different nations, two mahummeries [mosques] in which is cried the law of Machomet, and one church of Christians in the extreme end of the city. The city is surrounded by a mud wall and has four gates. At the eastern is sold millet and other kinds of grain, which, however, is rarely brought there; at the western one, sheep and goats are sold; at the southern, oxen and carts are sold; at the northern, horses are sold. /~\

“We arrived there following the court on the Sunday before Ascension (May 17th). The next day we, the monk and all his household, were summoned by Bulgai, who is the grand secretary and judge, and all the envoys and foreigners who were in the habit of frequenting the monk's house; and we were separately called into Bulgai's presence, first the monk, and we after him; and they inquired most minutely whence we were, why we had come, what was our business. And this inquiry was made because it had been reported to Mongke Khan that four hundred Assassins had entered the city under various disguises to kill him. About this time the lady of whom I have spoken I had a relapse, and sent for the monk, but he was unwilling to go and said: "She has called back the idolaters around her; let them cure her if they can. I shall go there no more."/~\

Easter in Karakorum

William of Rubruck wrote: Mongke Khan “promised that he would come the next day to the church, which is rather large and fine, and the whole ceiling is covered with a silken stuff interwoven with gold. The next day, however, he went his way, telling the priests in excuse that he did not dare come to the church, for he understood that they carried the dead there. We remained, however, with the monk at Caracarum (Karakorum), together with the other priests of the court, to celebrate Easter 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; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“Holy Thursday and Easter were nigh, and I did not have our vestments, and I was observing the way the Nestorians consecrated, and was greatly worried about what I should do, whether I should receive the sacrament from them, whether I should say mass in their vestments, with their chalice and on their altar, or whether I should wholly abstain from the sacrament. Then came a great number of Christians, Hungarians, Alans, Ruthenians (Russians), Georgians, Hermenians (Armenians), all of whom had not seen the sacrament since their capture, for the Nestorians would not admit them into their church, so they said, unless they were re-baptized by them. However (the Nestorians) had not told us anything of all this; on the contrary, they confessed that the Roman Church was the head of all churches, and that they should receive their patriarch from the Pope, if the roads were open. And they offered us freely their sacrament, and made us stand in the entry of the choir to see their way of doing, and, on Easter eve (11th April), beside the font to see their mode of baptizing. They said that they had some of the ointment with which Mary Magdalen anointed the feet of the Lord, and they always pour in oil to the amount they take out, and they knead it into their bread. For all the Eastern (Christians) put grease into their bread instead of yeast, or else butter or sheep's tail fat or oil. They also say that they have some of the flour with which was made the bread that the Lord consecrated, and they put back in it as much as they take out; and they have a room beside the choir, and an oven where they bake the bread, which they must consecrate with great devotion. /~\

“So they make a loaf of bread a palm broad with this oil, and then they divide it first into twelve pieces according to the number of the Apostles, and after that they divide these portions according to the number of the people, and a priest gives to each the body of Christ in his hand, and the person takes it from his hand devoutly, and touches the top of his head with his hand. /~\

“Then I made them confess through the interpreter as well as I could, stating the ten commandments and the seven mortal sins, and the others which one should shun and publicly confess. They excused themselves for theft, saying that without thieving they could not live, for their masters did not provide them with either clothing or victuals. At this I reflected that they (the Mongols) had carried off goods and livestock without justification, I said that it was permissible for them to take of their master's things what was necessary for them, and I was ready to say so to Mongke Khan 's face. Furthermore, certain among them were soldiers, who excused themselves for being obliged to go to wars, for otherwise they would be put to death. I strongly forbad them to go against Christians, or to injure them they should rather let themselves be killed, for then they would become martyrs; and I said that if anyone wished to charge me to Mongke Khan with this teaching, I was ready to preach this in his hearing. The Nestorians from the court had approached while I was teaching, and I suspected that they might inform against us. /~\

“Then master William had made for us an iron to make wafers, and he had some vestments which he had made for himself; for he had some little scholarship, and conducted himself like a clerk. He had made after the French fashion a sculptured image of the Blessed Virgin, and on the windows surrounding it he had sculptured the Gospel history right beautifully, and he made also a silver box to put the body of Christ in, with relics in little cavities made in the sides of the box. He had also made an oratory on a cart, finely decorated with sacred scenes. I accepted his vestments and blessed them, and we made right fine wafers after our fashion, and the Nestorians gave me the use of their baptistery, in which was an altar. Their patriarch had sent them from Baldach a quadrangular skin for an antimensium, and it had been anointed with chrism; and this they used instead of a consecrated stone. So I celebrated mass on Holy Thursday (9th April) with their silver chalice and paten, and these vases were very large; and likewise on Easter day. And we made the people communicate, with the blessing of God, as I hope. As for them [the Nestorians] they baptized on Easter eve (11th April) more than sixty persons in very good order, and there was great rejoicing generally among all the Christians. /~\

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

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