The Travels Of William Of Rubruck In Central Asia And Mongolia

Long are the roads walked by the lonely, intrepid traveler.  Not for him are the well-worn pathways of the conventional sightseer; for he is a seeker, and seekers by definition prefer the untrod vistas of the globe.  He will deliberately chose the unknown road, the trails less walked, the scenes less scrutinized, and the more risky propositions:  and he does this because he must, because some devilish inner compulsion drives him forward, like a demon nipping at his heels.

William of Rubruck (or William de Rubruquis) was one of the most fascinating explorers of Central Asia and the Far East, and is the only medieval traveler whose exploits are fit to be ranked with those of Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo.  A native of Brabant, he was born in Flanders around 1220.  In 1248 he joined the Seventh Crusade under the leadership of France’s pious king Louis IX.  It seems that he gained the personal trust of the king through long association and his own strength of character, but we do not know with certainty.  At that time (the late 1240s) the Mongols were the world’s rising superpower; they would utterly destroy the Baghdad Caliphate in 1253 and then proceed to make all Europe quake with fear.

But little about them was known; and it was to correct this deficiency, and perhaps also to seek to mollify their violent excesses, that Louis sent William on a mission of exploration into Central Asia.  We note that in 1246 and 1247, pope Innocent IV had sent diplomatic missions to the Great Khan in Mongolia (as well as to his representatives in Persia), but these efforts seemed to produce little in the way of results.  William had no illusions about the dangers he was shouldering.  Around 1246, a friar named Jean of Pian de Carpine described the Mongols of his era (whom he calls “that nation of Satan”) in a way that few of his contemporaries would dispute:

Swarming like locusts over the face of the earth, they have brought terrible devastation to the eastern parts of Europe, laying it waste with fire and carnage. After having passed through the land of the Saracens [Arabs], they have razed cities, cut down forests, overthrown fortresses, pulled up vines, destroyed gardens, killed townspeople and peasants. If perchance they have spared any suppliants, they have forced them, reduced to the lowest condition of slavery, to fight in the foremost ranks against their own neighbors. Those who have feigned to fight, or have hidden in the hope of escaping, have been followed up by the Tartars and butchered. If any have fought bravely for them and conquered, they have got no thanks for reward; and so they have misused their captives as they have their mares.

To prepare for this mission to “Tartary,” William first journeyed to Constantinople and then set out on May 7, 1253.  His first stop was the Crimea.  Louis had ordered him to keep a low profile, but William soon found out that the Tartars had better intelligence capabilities than did he; upon reaching Soldaza in the Crimea, he was chagrined to learn that everyone knew about his missionary purposes in the Far East, and that he was an official representative of a head of state.  He was denied permission to continue his journey.  However, some adroit maneuvering on his part (perhaps aided by monetary inducements) corrected the situation, and he was able to proceed to the camp of Zagatay Khan, the regional ruler.  The European was startled by the barbarous appearance and brutish manners of the Tartars:

Then they drink all around, and sometimes they do drink right shamefully and gluttonly. And when they want to challenge anyone to drink, they take hold of him by the ears, and pull so as to distend his throat, and they clap and dance before him. Likewise, when they want to make a great feasting and jollity with someone, one takes a full cup, and two others are on his right and left, and thus these three come singing and dancing towards him who is to take the cup, and they sing and dance before him.

And when he holds out his hand to take the cup, they quickly draw it back, and then again they come back as before, and so they elude him three or four times by drawing away the cup, till he hath become well excited and is in good appetite, and then they give him the cup, and while he drinks they sing and clap their hands and strike with their feet. Of their food and victuals you must know that they eat all their dead animals without distinction, and with such flocks and herds it cannot be but that many animals die. [Travels of William of Rubruck]

William’s mode of travel was by oxen and carts.  He met Sartaq Khan after crossing the River Don, then proceeded on to the settlement of Sarai near the River Volga to pay his respects to Batu Khan.  Batu had no interest in meeting this representative of a strange religion and culture; he was referred on to the court of the Great Khan himself in Karakorum, Mongolia, who was known to have a fascination with foreigners and their ways.  This arduous journey across Central Asia in winter was begun in September 1253.  It must have been fearsomely cold; yet William arrived at his destination in January of the following year.

Diagram of the interior of a Mongol yurt

He was granted an audience with the Great Khan, and dutifully described Mongol customs and habits, including those of marriage:

As to their marriages, you must know that no one among them has a wife unless he buys her; so it sometimes happens that girls are well past marriageable age before they marry, for their parents always keep them until they sell them. They observe the first and second degrees of consanguinity, but no degree of affinity; thus one person will have at the same time or successively two sisters.

Among them no widow marries, for the following reason: they believe that all who serve them in this life shall serve them in the next, so as regards a widow they believe that she will always return to her first husband after death. Hence this shameful custom prevails among them, that sometimes a son takes to wife all his father’s wives, except his own mother…When then anyone has made a bargain with another to take his daughter, the father of the girl gives a feast, and the girl flees to her relatives and hides there. Then the father says:  “Here, my daughter is yours: take her wheresoever you find her.” Then he searches for her with his friends till he finds her, and he must take her by force and carry her off with a semblance of violence to his house.

The information he gives us on Central Asia is fascinating, and he is surprisingly objective for a Roman Catholic friar of his period.  He accepts without undue condemnation the doctrines of Muslims, Nestorian Christians, and his Mongol hosts, proving that familiarity with foreign customs is a natural antidote to prejudice and narrow-mindedness.  Some of his comments ring familiar bells to those acquainted with Adam Olearius’s travels in Russia a few centuries later:

That 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 were full, and they had to carry it off in carts.

William began his journey back to Europe in July 1254.  The information he conveyed in his written account of his travels (Itinerarium fratris Willielmi de Rubruquis de ordine fratrum Minorum, Galli, Anno gratiae 1253 ad partes Orientales, or more simply The Travels of Brother William of Rubruck).  We do not know much about the rest of his life.  Presumably he made his way back to the Low Countries, or perhaps he moved to France.  His written account tells us much about how difficult travel was in those days, and how hardy a man needed to be to undertake it.  What also impresses the reader is the surprising objectivity, the willingness to see things from the other man’s perspective, and the unflagging curiosity of this medieval monk.  If Louis IX selected him for these traits, then he once again proved his wisdom as a king, and goodness as a man.


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