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.” /~\

Rubruck in the realm of the Mongols

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; 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

Interpretations of William of Rubruck’s Letter

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.” /~\

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.” /~\

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.” /~\

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."/~\

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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