Giovanni da Pian del Carpini & Benedykt Polak

Giovanni da Pian del Carpini When Pope Innocent IV decided to send a delegate to the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, he selected Giovanni del Carpini for the task. In April 1245, Carpini left Lyon accompanied by the Franciscan monk and interpreter Benedykt Polak. Polak new the Old East Slavic language, which would come in handy as they took the route through Kiev to reach Mongolia.

Giovanna da Pian del Carpini, born around the year 1180, was a provincial of the Franciscan Order at Cologne. He had been one of the early associates of Francis de Assisi, and since 1222 he had played a major role in the establishment of the Franciscan order.

The Franciscan monks took a vow of strict poverty, and the order also had an emphasis on evangelism, so enduring the hardships of traveling to unknown lands to spread Christianity there fitted in perfectly with their ideals.

Traveling to Mongolia

Carpini and Polak took a northern route from Lyon, going through Bohemia, Poland and Ukraine. In the still snowy Ukraine, Carpini became very ill and had to be transported in a cart. When they reached Kiev, they were advised to travel with Tartar horses through the lands of the Tartars.

In early February 1246, they finally got to the western frontier of the Mongol Empire. On the right bank of the frozen River Dnieper was a Mongol encampment of circa 60,000 men, but no one there was able to translate the Papal letters to any Mongolian dialect. Still, they wanted to help the envoys, and provided them horses and guides.

On 4 April, the monks stopped to rest at a camp on the Lower Volga, where they stayed while waiting for the Papal letters to be translated into Mongol, Russian and Arabic. Despite being on an arduous journey, they had been fasting for the 40 days of lent, only eating a thin porridge made from millet and melted snow. At the camp, they were in very poor condition and almost dead from starvation. Still, they survived, and they also went through a Mongolian purification ceremony where they passed between fires. After four days at camp, they had their translations and could continue their journey.

In Karakorum

The monks reached the Mongol capital Karakorum in 22 July, 1246.

In Karakorum, a new great Khan named Güyük, son of Ogadei, was about to be enthroned. The monks invited him to become a Christian, and he replied that the Pope and the princes of Europe would have to visit and swear allegiance to him first.

Going back home

Kublai KhanOn 13 November 1246, the monks left Karakorum, carrying with them a letter from the Great Khan to the Pope.

Traveling through Central Asia during the winter was difficult, and they didn’t reach Kiev until June 1247. In November 1247, Carpini could finally deliver the letter from the Great Khan to the Pope.

In his letter, the Great Khan explained to the Pope that”….you must come yourself at the head of all your kings and prove to Us your fealty and allegiance, And if you disregard the command of God and disobey Our instructions. We shall look up on you as Our enemy. Whoever recognizes and submits to the Son of Gods and Lord of the World, refuses submission will be wiped out.”

Carpini’s accounts

Carpini wrote “Historia Mongolorum”, which provided European readers with plenty of new knowledge about the mysterious lands to the East. This book includes a lot of descriptions of 13th century Mongol way of life, including information about their felt-covered homes, their leather clothes and their love for koumiss (fermented horse milk).

Much of the information in Historia Mongolorum eventually made its way into the widely circulated medieval encyclopedia “Speculum Historiale” by Vincent de Beauvais.

Benedykt Polak’s accounts

Benedykt Polak'Benedykt Polak, who had kept a travel journal, wrote the brief chronicle “De Itinere Fratrum Minorum ad Tartaros” (On the travel of Franciscan friars to the Tatars) and the longer book “Historia Tartarorum” (History of the Tartars). His writings include a copy of the letter sent by the Great Khan to the Pope.

None of his accounts seem to have been widely circulated in his own time, and it would take until the1800s before “De Itinere Fratrum Minorum ad Tartaros” became available in print. It was printed in France in 1839 and in Poland the following year. “Historia Tartarorum” was rediscovered and published by scholars at the Yale University in the United States in 1965.


Not long after the return of Carpini and Polak to Europe, King Louis IX of France was in Cyprus trying to organize the Sixth Crusade against the Saracens in Egypt. There, he was reached by an envoy from the Mongol commanding general at Trabriz in Persia. This envoy told him that the Great Khan Güyük and his nobles had been converted to Christianity three years later and that the Mongols might be interested in helping King Louis against the Saracens.

King Louis promptly dispatch a delegation to the Great Khan to find out more, appointing the Dominican friar Andrew of Longjumeau as the main envoy. The group started their journey in 1249. Traveling at ten leagues a day, they reached Mongolia only to find that not only had the Great Khan Güyük not converted to Christianity – he had also been dead for two years.

Instead of bringing back help for King Louis, Longjumeau brought back a message from the Mongols that essentially said that unless the king started sending them a yearly tribute, he and his subjects would be destroyed.

Willem of Rubruck & Bartholomew of Cremona

In 1249, before Longjumeau had returned to King Louis, the king and his army was defeated by the Saracens. This defeat prompted the king to dispatch another delegation to the Great Khan.

Willem of Rubruck The second delegation to Karakorum was headed by Willem of Rubruck, a Franciscan monk of Flemish origin. He was to travel as a missionary rather than an ambassador, but did bring with him official letters from the king to the khan.

Willem of Rubruk spent a year on Constantinople to get ready for the trip, before traveling by ship to Crimea where he landed in May 1253. From the Crimean port, he traveled by cart, a decision he would come to express regret about later since traveling with horses only would have been twice as quick. Accompanying him was the Franciscan monk Bartholomew of Cremona, a dragonman, a slave boy purchased in Constantinople, and some cart drivers. A dragoman was an interpreter and official guide between Europe and Turkish, Arabic and Persian-speaking countries.

Reaching Sartakh

In August 1253, Willem Rubruk reached thecourt of Sarthak, a powerful Mongol chief. Reportedly, this chief had converted to Christianity, but when Willem reached the court he found out that these claims were untrue. Nevertheless, the chief at Sartakh was helpful and aided Willem in his continued journey.

Traveling to see the Great Khan

In September, a messenger arrived with orders to bring the missionaries to the Great Khan Mangu, the successor of Güyük. They were warned that it would take four months to travel and that the winter cold would be so harsh that it split stones.

On 16 September 1253, they embarked on this leg of the trip, provided with guides, horses and warm clothes from the Mongols. Passing the Ural River and the steppes of Kazakhstan, the journey was very difficult for the monks. The Mongols only ate solid food in the evening. In the morning, they drank millet gruel. There was no lunch meal, but in the evening they ate meat – often served nearly raw. Willem reports that for weeks, they saw no towns.

On 8 November, they came to Kenchat, a Muslim town located in the valley of the River Talas. This is were Willem first learned about yaks, being told that they attacked anyone dressed in red and would only allow themselves to be milked when sung to.

The day after Christmas day, the travelers reached “a plain as vast as a sea”. Finally, they were at the court of the Great Khan Mange.

At the court of the Great Khan

The monks stayed with the Great Khan Mange for seven months. The first three of these months they spent in a camp, suffering greatly in the biting cold. When these three months were over, the court traveled to the capital Karakorum, which Willem describes as smaller than the village of St. Denis (now a suburb of Paris). Willem writes about how Karakorum had one special quarter for the Saracens and another one for the Cathyans (the Chinese). The Saracen quarter was where the markets were, while the Cathyans are described as being artisans.

The Great Khan was very interested in learning about Europe and Christianity, but had no desire to be converted. During his seven month stay, friar Willem only baptized six people. According to the Great Khan, God had created the world and given the different people inhabiting it different believes and customs. This world view seem to have been reflected in the organization of the capital; Willem’s writings tell us that Karakorum had 12 idol temples of different nations; two mosques and one Christian church.

One of the people that Willem got to know while staying with the Great Khan was a Tibetian lama who told him a lot about China. This is how Willem learned about things such as paper money, and the Chinese way of writing with a brush and “making in one figure the several letters containing a whole word”. At the time, both of these things were unknown in Europe.

At this point in history, Karakorum was an important international and intercultural hub that received embassies and envoys from various rulers, including the King of Delhi, the Seljug Sultan, the Byzantine Emperor, the Caliph, the Russian princes, the King of Little Armenia, and the leaders of Jezireh and Kurdistan.

Returning home

Willem began his return journey during the late summer of 1254. With him, he brought a letter from the Great Khan to King Louis, stating that “Wherever ears can hear, wherever horses can travel, there let it be heard and known: these who do not believe, but resist Our Commandments, shall not be able to see with their eyes, or hold with their hands, or walk with their feet….If you will obey Us, send your ambassadors, that We may know whether you wish for peace or war….”

Friar Bartholomew was to weak to go home with Willem, so the Great Khan Mangu agreed to let him stay at court and promised to have him cared for.

On 18 August, Willem took farewell of Bartholomew and set out with his interpreter, a guide and a servant. Since it was still summer, they could travel a more northerly route. Roughly one year later, Willem finally reached Tripoli. There, he was told that King Louis had gone back to France. The Provincial of the Franciscans decided to send Willem to the city of Acre instead of letting him continue to France, so he never got to deliver the letter from the Great Khan personally to King Louis.

Willem Rubrucks accounts

Willem Rubruck wrote “A Journey to the Eastern Parts of the World”. In addition to details from his personal experiences, the book contains quit a lot of stories told to him during his journey, stories of which the truthfulness is difficult to estimate.

Willem provides us with a detailed account of his life with the Mongols. Among other things, we learn that the Mongols live in domed tents of felts (yurts) that are either black or whitened with chalk, and with interiors embroidered with depictions of trees, vines and animals. The entrance to the tent is covered with a carpet to keep the heat from escaping, and at either side of the entrance hangs the teat of a mare and cow’s udder.

Inside each tent, the men inhabited the western side and the women the eastern side. Pieces of felt in the shape of human beings hung above the heads of the husband and his main wife. A man could have several wives, and female slaves could be his concubines.

The largest tents were be up to 30 feet (9+ meters) in diameters, and the Mongols used very big wagons to transport them – sometimes with teams of up to 22 oxen. Other items, such as bedding, were transported in camel-drawn carts.

Among the ruling class, both men and women wore expensive clothing. During wintertime, they dressed with fur right next to the skin to keep warm. The men shaved a square patch on top of their heads, leaving a tuft to fall over their eyebrows, while keeping the hair longer at the back and on the sides. The women greased their nose and eyebrows with a black cream.

Willem also writes about drinking koumiss (although he spells it “cosmos”), the fermented horse milk of which the Mongols were so fond. Among the Mongols, horses were only milked by men, while cows were only milked by women.