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John of Plano Carpini's great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, or John of Plano Carpini or John of Pian de Carpine or Joannes de Plano (c. 1180 - August 1, 1252) was one of the first Europeans to enter the court of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. He is the author of the earliest important Western account of northern and central Asia, Rus, and other regions of the Tatar dominion.


Life before the journey

He appears to have been a native of Umbria, where a place formerly called Pian del Carpine, but now Magione, stands near Perugia, on the road to Cortona. He was one of the companions and disciples of his countryman Saint Francis of Assisi, and from sundry indications can hardly have been younger than the latter. Joannes bore a high repute in the Franciscan order, and took a foremost part in the propagation of its teaching in northern Europe, holding successively the offices of warden (custos) in Saxony, and of provincial (minister) of Germany, and afterwards of Spain, perhaps of Barbary, and of Cologne.

He was in the last post at the time of the great Mongol invasion of eastern Europe and of the disastrous Battle of Legnica (9 April 1241), which threatened to cast European Christendom under the leadership of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Ögedei Khan. The dread of the Tatars was, however, still on people's mind four years later, when Pope Innocent IV dispatched the first formal Catholic mission to the Mongols, partly to protest against the latter's invasion of Christian lands, partly to gain trustworthy information regarding Mongol armies and their purposes. Behind these there may have lurked the beginnings of a policy much developed later - that of opening diplomatic intercourse with a power whose alliance might be valuable against Islam.

Joannes's travels

At the head of this mission the pope placed Friar Joannes, at this time certainly not far from sixty-five years of age, and nearly everything in the accomplishment of the mission seems to have been left to his discretion. He was provided with a letter from the Pope to the Great Khan, Cum non solum, becoming a papal legate. Joannes started from Lyon, where the pope then resided, on Easter day (16 April 1245), accompanied by another friar, one Stephen of Bohemia, who broke down at Kanev near Kiev, and was left behind. After seeking counsel of an old friend, Wenceslaus, king of Bohemia, Joannes was joined at Wrocław by another Minorite, Benedykt Polak, appointed to act as interpreter.

The onward journey lay by Kiev; the Tatar posts were entered at Kanev; and thence the route ran across the Nepere to the Don and Volga. Joannes is the first Westerner to give us the modern names of these rivers. Upon the Volga stood the Ordu or camp of Batu, the famous conqueror of eastern Europe, and the supreme Mongol commander on the western frontiers of the empire, as well as one of the most senior princes of the house of Genghis Khan. Here the envoys, with their presents, had to pass between two fires to remove possible injurious thoughts and poisons (section X), before being presented to the prince (beginning of April 1246).

Batu ordered them to proceed onward to the court of the supreme khan in Mongolia; and on Easter day once more (8 April 1246) they started on the second and most formidable part of their journey so ill, writes the legate, that we could scarcely sit a horse; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink. Their bodies were tightly bandaged to enable them to endure the excessive fatigue of this enormous ride, which led them across the Jaec or Ural River, and north of the Caspian Sea and the Aral to the Jaxartes or Syr Darya (quidam fluvius magnus cujus nomen ignoramus, "a big river whose name we do not know"), and the Muslim cities which then stood on its banks; then along the shores of the Dzungarian lakes; and so forward, until, on the feast of St Mary Magdalene (22 July), they reached at last the imperial camp called Sira Orda (i.e. Yellow Pavilion), near Karakorum and the Orkhon River, this stout-hearted old man having thus ridden an estimated 3000 miles in 106 days.

Since the death of Ögedei Khan, the imperial authority had been in interregnum. Güyük, Ögedei's eldest son, had now been designated to the throne; his formal election in a great Kurultai, or diet of the tribes, took place while the friars were at Sira Orda, along with 3000 to 4000 envoys and deputies from all parts of Asia and eastern Europe, bearing homage, tribute and presents. They afterwards, on the 24th of August, witnessed the formal enthronement at another camp in the vicinity called the Golden Ordu, after which they were presented to the emperor.

The great khan Güyük refused the invitation to become Christian and demanded that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him and swear allegiance to him. It was not till November that they got their dismissal, bearing a letter to the pope in Mongol, Arabic and Latin, which was little else than a brief imperious assertion of the khan's office as the scourge of God. Then commenced their long winter journey homeward; often they had to lie on the bare snow, or on the ground scraped bare of snow with the traveller's foot. They reached Kiev on 10 June 1247. There, and on their further journey, the Slavonic Christians welcomed them as risen from the dead, with festive hospitality. Crossing the Rhine at Cologne, they found the pope still at Lyon, and there delivered their report and the khan's letter.

Not long afterwards Friar Joannes was rewarded with the archbishopric of Antivari in Dalmatia, and was sent as legate to Louis IX. The date of his death may be fixed, with the help of the Franciscan Martyrology and other authorities, as 1 August 1252; this resilient old man lasted five full years after the hardships of his journey.

His books

He recorded the information that he had collected in a work, variously entitled in the manuscripts Ystoria Mongalorum quos nos Tartaros appellamus ("History of the Mongols, which we call Tartars"), and Liber Tartarorum, or Liber Tatarorum ("Book of the Tartars [or Tatars]"). This treatise is divided into eight ample chapters on the country, climate, manners, religion, character, history, policy and tactics of the Tatars, and on the best way of opposing them, followed by single (ninth) chapter on the regions passed through. The book thus answers to its title.

The title is quite significant insofar as it calls attention to the fact that the Mongols were not identical to the Tatars. In fact, the author mentions that the Mongols were quite offended by the fact that they were referred to by this name: Tatars had been vanquished by them in several campaigns around 1206 and had since then ceased to exist as an independent ethnic group.

The "Tartar Relation" (Hystoria Tartarorum)

A manuscript of a variant of the Ystoria, written by Minorite friar C. de Bridia, perhaps based on Joannes's lectures, appeared on the art market in the 1950s and was purchased for Yale University. This Tartar Relation describes Joannes's journey, including some detail that did not make it into his own written account. The manuscript is perhaps most known because it was bound with a manuscript of Vincent of Beauvais' popular encyclopedia Speculum historiale and a spurious map on vellum, the notorious "Vinland map"- no such map is included with a second, older Hystoria/Speculum manuscript volume found more recently.[1] Another theory of the origin of Historia Tartarorum proposes that it was a record made by a Silesian friar (de Bridia meaning "of Brzeg") from an oral account made by Joannes' companion Benedykt Polak during final stages of the journey; C. de Bridia was ordered to put Benedykt's account into writing by Fr Bogusław, the head of Franciscan order in Poland and Bohemia.[2]

Contents of Ystoria Mongolorum

Like some other famous medieval itineraries it shows an entire absence of a traveller's or author's egotism, and contains, even in the last chapter, scarcely any personal narrative. Joannes was not only an old man when he went cheerfully upon this mission, but was, as we know from accidental evidence in the annals of his order, a fat and heavy man (vir gravis et corpulentus), insomuch that during his preachings in Germany he was fain, contrary to Franciscan precedent, to ride a donkey. Yet not a word approaching more nearly to complaint than those which we have quoted above appears in his narrative.

His book, both as to personal and geographical detail, is inferior to that written a few years later by a younger brother of the same Order, Louis IX's most noteworthy envoy to the Mongols, William of Rubruck or Rubruquis. But in spite of these defects, due partly to his conception of his task, and in spite of the credulity with which he incorporates the Oriental tales, sometimes of childish absurdity, from which William is so free, Friar Joannes' Ystoria is in many ways the chief literary memorial of European overland expansion before Marco Polo. Among Joannes's more innovative recommendations was the development of light cavalry to combat Mongol tactics.

It first revealed the Mongol world to Catholic Christendom; its account of Tatar manners, customs and history is perhaps the best treatment of the subject by any Christian writer of the Middle Ages. We may especially notice, moreover, its four name-lists of the nations conquered by the Mongols; of the nations which had up to this time (1245-1247) successfully resisted; of the Mongol princes; and of the witnesses to the truth of his narrative, including various merchants trading in Kiev whom he had met. All these catalogues, unrivalled in Western medieval literature, are of the utmost historical value.

See also

External links and references

  1. ^ Prof. G. Guzman, in "Terrae Incognitae" vol. 38, 2006
  2. ^ Edward Kajdański: Długi cień Wielkiego Muru, Warsaw, 2005 (in Polish)

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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