Take Home Final

March 18, 2008

This is the actual pair of essays I turned in for my world lit and history class.


This excerpt from John Mandeville’s Travels reads like the sensationalistic B-movie version of Marco Polo’s Travels. Polo plays down the scale and majesty of the wonders of the Far East that his readers expected to hear about, going so far as to only mention the more outrageous examples as second-hand stories about inaccessible islands, and not something that he actually saw himself. Mandeville doesn’t do that. You want griffons? He’ll give you so many griffons they’ll be coming out of your ass. You want amazing geography? How about a river of fucking diamonds that pours out of Paradise into an eternally flowing sea of rocks? How’s that catch yer wanderlust? Mandeville’s Asia has so many wonders that by the time he gets around to the beast men, they seem boring. Oh really, they grunt? Yawn. Show me the new stuff, man, the hot stuff. A castle made out of gemstones that glows in the dark? Wow! That’s the shit, man! Game on!

And while Polo’s Travels wasn’t exactly apolitical, Mandeville’s Travels is shameless (and hilariously unintentional) propaganda that features love letter to the not-real-Holy-or-particularly-Roman Emperor’s political ambitions. This swooning mancrush takes the form of the story of Prester John, the awesomest dude ever to rule an empire. And what an empire it was! According to Mandeville’s document, Prester John’s realm was almost literally built of money. And there was peace! And prosperity! And the Patriarch of St. Thomas (who was kind of “like a Pope”) knew his place! Modern scholars have proven that Mandeville “borrowed” liberally from many sources in compiling his manuscript, and so it appears plausible that his fawning account of Prester John- or P to the J, as I like to call him- is drawn from the writings of Otto of Freising, or others like him. Otto was a German bishop who, in the 1150s, wrote a story about a wonderful ruler named John in a far off utopia whose political arrangements just happened to mirror the relationship that Emperor Fredrick I wanted to have with the Pope- specifically that the Holy See should shut up and do what it’s told. It seems likely that Mandeville, writing in the 1350s, didn’t care so much about the political subtext of Otto’s 200-year-old story.

Mandeville doesn’t speak much about the Mongols in the excerpt we were given for this essay. From the limited scope of this reading, I can’t authoritatively draw any conclusions about why this is so. However, rampant speculation is right up my alley. Perhaps he was sparing us the massive cranial trauma that would result from our heads exploding from trying to comprehend the un-fucking-believableness of the Great Khan of Tartary’s realm: apparently it was even cooler than Prester John’s was. Mandeville leaves exactly how this superlative feat of civilization was superior to John’s realm vague and unclear. Again, I can only presume that this was a public service on his part, and not the result of him glossing over how he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.

Or maybe, to be (slightly) more charitable, he just knew what his audience would be bored by more tales of those scary Mongols. By the mid-fourteenth century, the Mongols hadn’t made a major incursion into Europe for decades. Polo’s Travels– not called that at the time, but that’s getting down to an annoying level of detail- had been available and well known for almost as long. The Khans were old news, and their empire was rapidly heading into decline. Given Mandeville’s preoccupation with plagiarizing[1] the “Oh wow! Did you see that?” style of travel narrative, he may have simply not wanted to waste the time and effort to repeat tales that wouldn’t excite his audience.

Tellingly, Mandeville does not mention the Black Death, the defining event of the latter fourteenth century. That he didn’t mention it at all (and was alive enough to not-mention it), indicates that he probably wrote this before the plague started stomping Europe’s face into the dirt. One would think that if you were writing the story of the world during the Black Death, it would be the story of the world as it falls to pieces. And of course, it would have been almost impossible for him to distribute his manuscript during the Black Death: it would have been like trying to get a pizza delivered to the CDC’s hazardous diseases ward.

Overall, Mandeville’s document makes Polo’s look positively scholarly. The exuberant first-hand accounts of the impossible and fantastic, set incongruously next to the mundane (at least he got parrots more-or-less correct) does not do much to recommend the accuracy and intellectual rigor of this document. Taken alone, it seems almost tailor made to support and reinforce the stereotype of the ignorant medieval chronicler, dutifully copying down whatever absurd tale he hears. But the fact that modern historians can piece together a more accurate and complete picture of history would suggest that there must be some value in these kinds of documents- even if that value is very well hidden to the causal reader.


Your majesty! I have some bad news. Those Tartars you asked me to look into? They’re monsters, all of them. Oh, and don’t call them Tartars to their face, or they’ll wrap you up in a rug and kick you do death. I know, it’s weird, right? Who kicks their enemy to death? But yeah, call them Mongols. That’s what they say they are. They claim to be Christian, sort of, like through marriage or something, but they won’t call themselves that. They think it’s an insult to their Mongolness to say they are Christians.

Oh, but back to the point. I have recently come into possession of a document that purports to be a history of the Mongols from their own mouths. In this story, the Mongols boast about all the people the slaughtered and all the kings they humiliated and then killed. It is so brutal in its description of their behaviors that if it were written by a third party, I would have dismissed it as slander. But this is the version of the story of their conquests that they tell amongst themselves! There was this group called the Tanguts or something, and they’d agreed to supply troops to help the Mongol king- called a Kahn- on one of his campaigns, but when the time came, they went back on their word. So the Kahn went and finished his campaign without them, and then he came back and exterminated the Tanguts. He raped and killed all of them, then made their king beg for forgiveness, and then killed him too. This is what they brag about.

Now, Marco Polo’s famous tale spends a lot of time talking about the Mongols as well. To hear him tell it, their new Khan, some guy named Kublai or something, is the best ruler ever, ever, ever. But it sounds like Polo was on the take![2] He hung out at the Khan’s court for years, and became a close friend and advisor to the Khan. Certainly we can assume that the Khan rewarded him with status and wealth. I just don’t think we can afford to trust the rosy picture Mr. Polo wants to paint for us, sire. He spends so much time on the mercantile opportunities and the lay of the land, it’s as if he didn’t even care about the military implications of any of this.

I found what I conclude to be a more reliable of testimony in the report written for the Pope by Friar Joannes Carpini. This resilient old man rode deep into the heart of the Mongol empire as a Papal envoy to protest their invasion of Eastern Europe and to assess their military strength and intentions. After two years, he returned with grave news: the Khan had demanded that the Pope and all other Christian leaders travel to his camp and swear allegiance to him. Furthermore, he declared himself the “scourge of God.” According to Friar Joannes, the Mongols are rude, arrogant, and dreadfully well suited for wars of conquest.

With all this information at hand, I can only conclude that our safest course of action is not to pick a fight with these people. However, if they begin another campaign into Christendom, you must join with the other kings of Europe and send your army to fight them immediately, so that the war will not be fought on our own land. Any war between any Christians and the Mongols should be treated as a war between all the Christians and the Mongols. I suggest you try to convince the other kings of this. It may even be necessary to stop contributing to the Crusades until the situation with the Mongols has been stabilized.

About matters of diplomacy: while Polo’s account is perhaps a bit too fawning to be entirely trusted, the depth and detail of his discussion of the financial opportunities should not be ignored. If peace between Mongol and Christians can be achieved, trade missions would not be a bad idea. And above all, if you enter into a diplomatic agreement with the Khan, you must keep to it! Breaking your word- not that you would ever do anything so low, sire, I’m speaking hypothetically here of course- will bring an automatic death sentence down upon you and your entire dynasty.

They are not invincible. They are just ridiculously strong. However, I have reason to believe that will not always be so. In their secret history, they have a story where a mother tells her five sons to break an individual arrow shaft. They do so easily. Then she binds five arrows together, and tells them to break the bundle. They cannot. The lesson, she says, is that they must remain united to remain strong. Separately, they are vulnerable. The Mongols have a curious habit of not naming their heirs ahead of time. When the Khan dies, the senior commanders all meet up and elect a new one. When was the last time you saw five brothers, each with an equal claim, agree on who should be king? They have set themselves up for a very bloody succession crisis, and so long as they hold to this silly tradition that threat will grow each time power changes hands. Patience, your majesty, that is what is required. If we can hold them off long enough, the Mongols may solve our Mongol problem for us.

[1] Plagiarism is an anachronism in this context; they had no concept of copyright. Anachronisms are fun!

[2] I don’t think Polo was being bribed to give Kublai good press; I’m trying to recreate the reaction of a scared 13th century royal advisor trying to make sense of conflicting reports available to him.


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