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Pope Innocent IV sent Friar John to rebuke Genghis Khan

Posted in Adventure, Historical articles, History, Religion, Travel, War on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

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This edited article about John of Plano Carpini first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.

Friar John da Pian del Carpine,  picture, image, illustration

Friar John marches through the blinding snow

On Easter Sunday, 1245, when Friar John da Pian del Carpine left Lyon at the start of a long journey, he was by no means sure he would live to see another Easter day. And the farther he travelled, the less sure he became.

Snow covered him like a white blanket, as he crossed Poland and Russia. Icy winds numbed his bones and chilled his limbs, so that at the end of the day he could hardly crawl out of the sledge in which he travelled. But it was not this which caused his growing feeling of horror. It was the devastated countryside all around him. The cities he passed were in ruins, some with hardly a building left standing. There were few people, but there were human skulls and skeletons littering the roads.

The devastation was the work of ruthless Mongol invaders, and it gave Friar John no consolation at all to reflect that he was on his way to visit the leader of these savage hordes, with a letter from the Pope.

Just over thirty years earlier the Mongols, fierce nomads, united under the leadership of Genghiz Khan, had swept out of the steppe lands into Central Asia, smashed through the Great Wall of China and conquered the country, and then overrun Persia.

Genghiz Khan was a savage conqueror, born in a savage age. His enemies might find themselves boiled, burned or skinned alive, or nailed to wooden horses. Conquered cities were often levelled to the ground, so that no trace of them remained, and their inhabitants massacred. Any who hoped to save their lives by offering to join the Mongol army were likely to be summarily executed as they entered the Mongol camp.

In 1237 the Mongols, led now by Genghis Khan’s son and successor, Ogedei, turned on Europe, unleashed a reign of terror. Just when it seemed that nothing could save Christendom, Ogedei died. The throne was elective, the election required the presence of all the Mongol nobles and still undefeated, the Mongol army poured back into Mongolia to elect a new leader.

At this stage, Pope Innocent IV decided to send a mission to the Mongol leader demanding that their attacks cease. For this mission, he chose Friar John da Pian del Carpini.

There could hardly have been a more surprised man than Friar John. There was nothing in his past to suggest that at the age of sixty odd he was the ideal man to go adventuring into an unknown, inhospitable land where no Westerner had ever been before.

Born in the little Italian village of Pian del Carpine about 1180, He had joined the Order founded by St Francis and risen to become warden of the friary of Cologne. Whatever his duties, they did not consist of riding from dawn to dusk in all weathers, converting heathen hordes, exploring unknown territory, or spying, one or all of which would have stood in him good stead for the task the Pope had in mind, which was to convert the Mongols, or, failing that, to bring back details of their military strength and their future plans for attacking Europe.

Armed with the Pope’s letter of rebuke, but little else of any practical value. Friar John set off. Luckily he obtained plenty of advice and supplies needed to survive the bitter winter from well-wishers, as he passed through Poland and Russia.

Slit eyed and ferocious-looking, and also unwashed, the Mongols who rushed out at him as he reached the frontier outpost made the stout Friar’s heart sink to his boots, but in Mongol territory genuine travellers were not ill-treated and he soon reached the Mongol town of Sarai – something new in towns to Western eyes, being completely portable. It consisted of street after street of round felt tents called yurts. When the Mongols wished to move on, they simply packed up their tents, and left. Overnight a whole city might disappear, as if it had never existed.

From Sarai to Sira Ordu, or Golden Camp, where the election of the new Khan was about to take place, was a distance of 3,000 miles. Used to nothing more lively than a placid Italian donkey, Friar John suddenly found himself strapped to a fiery little Mongolian horse, speeding across the barren countryside, puttees wound around his legs to protect them from the sharp, spiky grass with a party of Mongols.

He learned a lot about the Mongols and their neighbours – and he heard many rumours. If the weather was appalling, with gales, snowstorms and hailstorms, even in the middle of summer, the tales the Mongols had to tell froze his blood. There were, for instance, monsters in the north with the shapes of men but the feet of oxen and the faces of dogs. They spoke words like men, but at every third word they barked like dogs. Worst, by far, was the country where the women had the shape of humans, but the men had the shape of dogs. The Mongols still recounted with dread how these dog men had fallen on their soldiers and put them to flight.

In modern times no one would dream of believing tales like these, but the Friar faithfully recorded every word and counted himself lucky to reach his destination four months later having suffered only the miseries of hunger, thirst and cold.

Transport was excellent, they stopped for fresh mounts four or five times every day. Food was scarce. They never stopped to eat. If they arrived at their destination late at night, they went to bed hungry, being given for breakfast the food they should have eaten for supper. Nor were the Mongols particular about their diet. They ate anything, even lice – or worse. It made Friar John no happier to hear that when the Mongol army had run out of food while besieging an enemy city, Genghis Khan had ordered his soldiers to eat every tenth man. The barbaric remedy was effective, for the city was captured.

At last they reached Sira Ordu, the huge city of tents, and saw the election and enthronement of the new Khan, a sight no Westerner had ever before seen, but the Friar was no nearer gaining an audience with the new Khan. Foreign ambassadors and princes thronged the place, waiting to pay homage to the new leader. What was one humble Friar among so many notables? Besides, he had brought no gifts, a grave breach of etiquette. 500 casks full of silver, gold and silk stood on a nearby hillside, gifts for the Khan. The Friar had nothing to offer but a letter from the Pope, a stern and critical letter at that.

In the four months he waited, he wrote down all the information he could get about the Mongol army and the dissensions among the Mongol leaders. It was fortunate he did, for when at last he was summoned before the Khan, it was not because the Mongol leader was interested in being converted to Christianity, or ceasing his attacks on Christendom. In fact, he claimed a divine right to conquer the world and dictated a reply to the Pope’s letter stating this.

Friar John carried the Khan’s letter, translated into Persian and Latin, back to Lyons again. He had been away two and a half years and he was welcomed back as if he had returned from the dead.

He had not converted a single Mongol, or prevented any invasion, but he had made a journey which had never been made before by any Westerner – and survived. More than that, he had brought back a wealth of valuable information about the Mongols, and his prophecy that the quarrels between the Mongol leaders would prevent another invasion of Western Europe proved correct. He was rewarded with a bishopric.

As for the Khan’s letter, which the Friar had travelled so far to get, the Persian translation was filed away in the Papal archives and forgotten – until 1920, when it was rediscovered, and after nearly six hundred years, it once more saw the light of day.

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