Mongols-N-o-B-art - 1/7/01 "Mongols - Nomads or Barbarians" by Baroness Catriona Macpherson, GoA.
NOTE: See also the files: Mongols-msg, Mongl-Mission-art, fd-Mongols-msg, horses-msg, Scythians-msg, yurts-msg, kumiss-msg.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefan’s Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This paper was originally presented at a Symposium on Barbarians at
Pennsic 21 or 23.
Mongols - Nomads or Barbarians
by Baroness Catriona Macpherson, GoA Nomadic tribes have often been referred to as barbarians by "other cultures" and many early historians, when, in fact, they were tribes whose cultures simply had not advanced as rapidly as had the cultures of the more sedentary dwellers of the cultivated lands of China and Iran. The Mongols were one of these nomadic tribes who lived in a severe climate, where agriculture was impossible because of the scarcity of water. They were forced to modify their lives in order to survive; the land literally shaped their lives. Being constantly occupied with survival, they had little time to become more civilized. While it is true that nomadic tribes were sometimes motivated by aggression, it is also true that they were constantly in need of new pasture and water for their herds of horses and domestic stock, which were their means of survival. They were often forced to move as other tribes pushed them from behind.
We must understand that nomadic tribes were different from us. They should be looked at within their time and the geographical area of their world. They had different beliefs and standards, quite different from those held by most people today, and until these facts are taken into account, modern historians, who frequently tend to use the present as a standard by which to judge the past, completely fail to understand nomadic tribes. They were not barbarians; but born into a harsh climate, which forced them to be fierce and sometimes cruel by our standards, in order to survive. For hundreds of years nomads were cut off from the rest of Asia; their lifestyle almost unchanged. Hunting and herding supported them; there was no farming because the land could not be irrigated. They were not mentally inferior; but specialists in survival against severe odds. It has been said they did not know how to build a serviceable bridge to cross a river, but did they need bridges? Since they were always on the move, they might never need to cross a particular river at a particular spot again, and they could cross rivers by piling their possesssions on top of their horses, and swim them across, while holding on to their tails.(1) Why expend unnecessary effort and tie themselves to a certain route, possibly going miles out of their way, just because there was a bridge there to cross the river. When sedentary peoples became too dependent on bridges, walls and other accoutrements of "civilization", their ability to think and act quickly in a crisis became dulled. Not so the nomad; his wits were always razor sharp, enabling him to face unexpected challenges which confronted him, with a good chance of survival.
There are many levels of civilization, each with its accompanying body of knowledge and customs. The Mongols may not have been on the top rung of the ladder but they certainly had their place on the ladder. They had no written language, but made up for this lack by committing their history to memory and retelling it down through the ages. They had their own special skills and knowledge which enabled them to survive in a hostile environment. Certainly they was not inferior to their sedentary neighbors. The Mongols learned quickly, and after first raiding the edges of civilization, they penetrated deeper into the settled areas, killed off able-bodied men, carried off women, and young children who could be raised as slaves or warriors.
The Mongols were only one of the nomadic tribes which inhabited the Asian Steppes, however not until unification under Jenghiz Khan, did they become the Mongol nation. They had their own culture and their own tribal laws. (See Appendix A for The Great Yassa of Jenghiz Khan.) It was frequently necessary for nomadic tribes to engage in internecine wars by which the strongest chief got the best grazing lands, so vital to their survival, and it was usually necessary to keep them by force. Following tribal customs more often than not resulted in conflict with another tribe. It was by internecine warfare, and a show of strength, that Jenghiz Khan was able to unite the individual Mongol tribes into a single mighty nation.
According to Webster:
Barbarian: of or relating to a land or culture, or people alien and usually believed to be inferior to one's own.
Nomad: member of a people with no fixed residence but wandering from place to place usually seasonally and within well-defined territory in order to secure a food supply.
Early Western writers referred to the Mongols as barbarians rather than nomads, their opinions being largely based on Mongol military conquests and atrocities so often written into their accounts. While Brent says, "... their activities have become synonomous with senseless cruelty, a violation of all security, all boundaries; for centuries they were regarded as the epitome of human destructiveness," he further adds, "It has taken the cold ingenuity of the twentieth century to match and even outstrip them the heinous crimes that both legend and true recollection have placed at their door."(2) And legends, we know, must be taken with a grain of salt. Although they were not particularly original, their conquests, under Jenghiz Khan and his successors, were instrumental in broadening and spreading knowledge and skills, and this dissemination equaled or perhaps surpassed the spread of Hellenic civilization which has been attributed to the conqueror, Alexander.(3)
If we go back far enough in time in any race, we can find barbarism of some sort, and the Mongols certainly had their roots in nomadic barbarism, however, the Mongols with whom we are dealing here were not barbarians. For example, their military conquests were carried out under a highly organized system; no longer were they haphazard hordes decending out of the blue! While Shamanistic in their religious practices, they tolerated all other religions, and often sought to learn from them. They were honorable people not readily given to lying, stealing and cheating.
In the Thirteenth century, while the Mongols were invading China, more than one Chinese general defected to the Mongols, demonstrating their respect for what the Mongols were: natural aristocrats who answered to no master but themselves.
Nomadization persisted as a distinct alternative to life centered about cities, and hence known as civilization. Throughout the long history of the nomads, civilized people overlooked the dynamic qualities and cultures of the nomads, viewing them as barbaric.(4) How accurate and fair have the judgements or labels of writers of history been? The Mongols were no less rational than other peoples. Did the tales of their conquests increase with the telling? To acknowledge only the brutal aspects of their behavior is to fail to understand them. Nomadic peoples did not recognize political boundaries, and laws other than their tribal customs held no meaning for them, and while they were often wild, they were free.(5)
The classical world encountered many kinds of barbarians, people so labeled by their neighbors. Celts were barbarians to Romans for a long time, as were the Germans to Gaul, and the Slav world to Germania. The land afterward known as southern China long remained a barbarian country to the original Chinese of the Yellow River. Because agricultural conditions in all these regions imposed an agricultural way of life upon their inhabitants, they emerged from their backwardness to become increasingly identified with that life, so by the second half of the Middle Ages almost all of Europe, Western Asia, Iran, the Indies, and China had advanced to the same stage of material civilization. The steppe zone escaped this process being forced to follow a pastoral, nomadic way of life, such as the rest of humanity had known thousands of years earlier at the end of the Neolithic age. The steppe and forest people who could not follow an agricultural way of life remained at a lower cultural level than their agrarian neighbors. As human beings, they were not inferior to the rest of mankind, but simply not as culturally advanced because their environment perpetuated a way of life which had disappeared elsewhere.(6)
Nomads acted primarily in ignorance, knowing no other way. It was part of their culture. In the Empire of the Ilkhans in Persia, nomadism tried to stamp out a settled system of existence and to a considerable degree they succeeded. Under Hulagu the Mongols deliberately burned and massacred, destroyed an 8,000 year old irrigation system and nearly ended the mother civilization of all the Western world. They, as nomads having been born into and lived their lives in an open-air environment, viewed sedentary people as weak, indecisive, corrupt, crowded, and totally incomprehensible to them; a blight on good pasture land! Civilization vs pasture, to them there was no contest!
To the sedentary peoples of China, Iran and Europe, the Hun, Turkoman, and the Mongol were savages to be intimidated by a display of arms, amused by glass beads and by titles, and kept at a respectful distance from cultivated land. The poor Turko-Mongol herdsman who in years of drought ventured across the meager grazing of the steppe from one dried-up waterhole to another, to the very fringe of cultivation, must have stared in awe at the miracle of sedentary civilization: bountiful crops, village storehouses filled with grain, the luxury of the towns. The patient toil required to maintain these luxuries was beyond the comprehension of the nomad. He must have been fascinated like the wolf - his totem - when in snowy weather it draws near to the farms and spies its prey within the fences. He must have experienced the age-old urge to break in, plunder, and escape with his booty.(7)
The development of increasingly prosperous agricultural communities within sight and contact of peoples still at the pastoral stage, and suffering the appalling famines that frequently occurred in steppe life in time of drought presented not only a glaring economic contrast but a social contrast that was even crueler. The problem of human geography became a social one. The farming communities that cultivated the good yellow soil of northern China, the gardens of Iran, or the rich black earth of Kiev were encircled by a belt of poor grazing land where terrible climatic conditions often prevailed, and where one year in every ten the watering places dried up, grass withered, and livestock perished, and with them the nomad himself. From the beginning of history there has been conflict between nomad and civilized or sedentary people, a clash between the "haves" and the "have-nots".
Pastoral nomadism is not an intermediate stage on the evolutionary path from hunting to farming, but a highly specialized way of life, involving the domestication and control of many different animals and the use of large tracts of land with sparse rainfall in such a way as to provide support for the people and the animals. The nomad enjoyed the freedom of the wide open spaces and changing scenes, and he had little use for the farmer, who was rooted to the land he tilled and condemned to a life of laborious, and usually painful physical toil.(8) He had meat from his flocks and herds for food, and their skins for clothing and tent covering. Being a victim, as well as prisoner of his environment was preferable to the sedentary life. In every age, nomadic society, though preferring trade to rape and plunder, has frequently been predatory; the contest for the best grazing-lands has set one tribe against another, and the greed for luxury or manufactured goods beyond the reach of their simple economy has repeatedly driven the pastoral peoples to ride out of the steppes and plunder the fields and cities of their sedentary and civilized neighbors.
These periodic thrusts of nomads into the cultivated areas were a law of human nature. Whether Turks or Mongols, they belonged to an intelligent, level-headed, practical people who, drilled by the harsh realities of their environment, were always ready to follow a strong leader. The sedentary and often decadent communities fell under their onslaught, the nomads entered the city and, after the first few hours of massacre were over, they gathered up their booty and left as suddenly as they had come.
The nomad was nearly always successful because even though he was retarded in material culture, he possessed a tremendous military superiority. Barbarians relied only on superiority of numbers and atrocities for conquest, while the Mongols relied on better trained military forces and superior tactics.(9) He was the mounted archer, the technical arm, which gave him almost as great an advantage over sedentary man as artillery gave modern Europe over the rest of the world, an incredibly mobile cavalry of expert bowmen. The Chinese, Iranians, Russians, Poles or Hungarians could never equal the Mongols as mounted archers. Trained from early childhood to drive deer at a gallop over the vast expanses of the steppe, accustomed to patient stalking and to all the ruses of the hunter on which their food and their life depended, they were unbeatable. The mobility of their cavalry, when handled by experts like Jebe and Subodai,(10) allowed whole units to move as one man, and even when units were separated by a considerable distance, they moved on the enemy simultaneously. Fathers Plano Carpini and Rubruck, who watched this action, were impressed by this technical superiority. Are these the tactics of barbarians? The mounted archers of the steppe reigned over Eurasia for thirteen centuries because they were a product of the steppe. Their survival depended on the same skills which made them superior warriors.
The record of the Golden Family and their attempt to dominate the world has nothing to do with present-day morality.(11) They were nomads of the thirteenth century, influenced by their own environment and by the different cultures with which they came into contact. Depending on one's point of view, the Mongols are either supremely accomplished in warfare, or inhuman shedders of blood. No matter how they are viewed, they must be judged against the background of their time, as life was then.
Jenghiz Khan's campaigns were not calamities sent by God, a popular opinion in his time; but the outcome of a set of circumstances which he recognized and took advantage of. His tribal world was ready for unification at the same time that China and other settled states were in decline and he merely took advantage of the situation.
The Middle Ages was a period of near constant warfare and upheaval. Morris Bishop wrote of the conditions in the West during The Hundred Years War, "...war became a rather dirty business. It was conducted by contract armies, recruited anywhere without concern for nationality. ...knights fought no longer from feudal obligation and loyalty but for advantage. Their dream was to capture and hold some noble for an enormous ransom."(12) The Mongols, however, were loyal to Jenghiz Khan and even when Turks made up a large part of their fighting forces, the Mongols still fought as a unit, loyal to their commanders. Nomad tribes invariably were loyal to their clan chiefs and as long as their chiefs led them to good grazing lands and protected them from other raiding tribes, they remained loyal to them. In Jenghiz Kahn's time, his troops remained loyal to him because he was a strong and charismatic leader who inspired trust and loyalty. It certainly hurt nothing that he or his generals led them on many successful campaigns which provided much booty.
This loyalty made possible a united Mongol army, organized on a decimal system, which was not new, as steppe armies before Jenghiz Khan's time had been so organized. It was a simple but effective system. A troop of 10, called an arban, was the smallest unit. A squadron of 100, made up of 10 arbans, was called a jagun. A regiment of 1,000, made up of 10 jaguns, was called a minghan. A division of 10,000, made up of 10 minghans, was called a tumen. Generally there would be two to three tumens in a Mongol army.(13) A personal bond of loyalty united the captains of tens, hundreds, thousands and ten thousands, a feudal principle surviving in Asia while it was dying in Europe.
The decimal system facilitated giving orders. No officer had to give orders to more than 10 men and everyone was responsible only to the officer above him, facilitating an effective system of discipline. Not only in organization but in discipline, the Mongol Army was superior to other armies of its time and for some time to come, including the Medieval European armies of its time, which were the armies of the French, English, Spanish, and Germans. The only army that might be compared favorably to the Mongols, in the matter of discipline, was the Swiss army. Such a well-organized, highly trained army with such deeply ingrained discipline can hardly be likened to a barbarian army, a disorganized rabble, which charged indiscriminantly, and at the slightest sign of opposition, faded away. Jenghiz Kahn's network of spies and paid informants, demonstrates a skill beyond the capabilities of barbarian tribes.
H. G. Wells, quoting J. B. Bury, in his notes to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, observes, "It is only recently that European history has begun to understand that the successes of the Mongol army which overran Poland and occupied Hungary in the spring of A.D. 1241 were won by consummate strategy and were not due to a mere overwhelming superiority of numbers...It was wonderful how punctually and effectually the arrangements of the commander were carried out in operations extending from the Lower Vistula to Transylvania. Such a campaign was quite beyond the power of any European army of the time, and it was beyond the vision of any European commander. There was no general in Europe, from Frederick II downward, who was not a tyro in strategy compared to Subutai [Subodai]. It should also be noticed that the Mongols embarked upon the enterprise with full knowledge of the politcal situation of Hungary and the condition of Poland--they had taken care to inform themselves by a well-organized system of spies; on the other hand, the Hungarians and Christian powers, like childish barbarians, knew hardly anything about their enemies."(13) From a military standpoint alone, one cannot classify the Mongols as barbarians.
Many historians did believe that Mongol victories were due to an overwhelming superiority of numbers. Further research disproves this excuse of defeated medieval armies, furthered by medieval historians, and shows that often, indeed, the Mongols were outnumbered. Their superior fire power and military tactics led their opponents to actually believe the Mongols outnumbered them. The basis of Mongol power was their undeniable prowess on the battlefield, which was enhanced by their policy of wasting nothing and adopting anything useful to them, an extension of their generations on the Asian steppe.
Command of the armies was held by the royal princes in name only. The actual control went to the experienced generals, the most famous of whom were Jebe Noyan and Subodai Bahadur in the Western campaigns and Mukhali in China. Promotions in the Mongol army were by merit, not seniority, and both Jebe and Subodai were made generals before they were twenty five. Through the years, many students of military tactics have studied the campaign strategies of Subodai; among the most well-known were Napoleon, Gustavus Adolphus, Rommel and Patton.(13)
The Middle Ages was a time of terror, which was a normal living condition, for both rich and poor, but especially the poor and the workers. Professional soldiers disliked pitched battles, preferring raiding and plunder. Mercenaries appeared throughout the land. Poor German knights in particular made a career of war. "Duke" Werner von Urslingen led a band in Italy, whose operations were worthy of the Mafia. He would invade a peaceful region, rob, rape, kill and burn and then let the capital city know what he had done, and demand a fee for leaving the territory - or else!(14) The Mongols were also guilty of exacting tribute from some marginal territories such as Novgorod or Mien, in lieu of attack and plunder. The Battle of Crécy crippled French power for a century; the Battle of Poitier was a repeat of Crécy; and The Hundred Years War was a futile war, achieving little but misery, destruction and death.(15) So much effort was extended with so little to show for it. Mongol destruction and death were not altogether futile, for at least they forged a mighty empire, and throughout Asia and eastern Europe, established `Pax Mongolica' which benefited both the East and West.
Mongol atrocities, while they may not be matched in the West by numbers, they most certainly may be in kind. Jenghiz Khan and his successors were known to have massacred whole populations of captured cities. When Richard Lion Heart captured Acre in 1191, he watched calmly as his men massacred 2,700 Moslems. The cruel crusaders were not inclined to extend any Christian charity to their Moslem enemies. The Black Prince captured the city of Limoges in 1370, and apparently irritated by its resistance, he had three hundred of its men, women and children beheaded.(16)
In his Military History of the World, J. F. C. Fuller cites numerous examples of Christian cruelties: In 1182 Andronicus Comnenus led a popular rising against the Empress, during which, in a fit of frenzy all the Latins in Constantinople were massacred by the populace, (17) who referred to the Franks as barbarians! When the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem in 1099, they made a bloody sacrifice - a three-day promiscuous massacre; 70,000 Moslems were put to the sword and harmless Jews were burnt in their synagoge.(18) On June 11, 1185 William of Sicily seized Dirazzo, then marched on Thessalonica, took it and massacred its inhabitants.(19) Enrico Dandolo (1193-1205) semi-blind doge of Venice, over 80 years of age, was in charge of the Fourth Crusade. On April 13, 1204 Constantinople was stormed, and for three days the city was sacked in scenes of hideous carnage.(20) This was Christians killing Christians! On May 6, 1527, Charles I of Spain (also Emperor Charles V) marched on Rome, and in an orgy of pillage and massacre the Eternal City was sacked once again.(21)
The Mongols were so despised by Europeans for their "barbaric ways", yet Saint Louis sent the Franciscan William of Rubriqais to the Great Khan in Central Asia in the hope that the Mongolian Empire, when once converted to Christianity, might descend on the rear of the Turks and help the Christians in Palestine.(22)
The Mongols were criticized for using captured people to precede their troops when attacking and laying siege to cities. No doubt this was a cruel practice, but the Mongols reasoned that the inhabitants of a besieged city would give up rather than fight when they saw the captives paraded before the Mongol army, thus saving the lives of many of the besieged. Now according to Bishop, "The casualties in storming a castle were usually enormous, but lives were regarded as expendable."(23) Bishop was writing of warfare in the West.
Killing the inhabitants and burning the cities was a Mongol tactic until they realized the cities could be used to consolidate and expand their power, and be a source of future wealth, at which time the people were spared. Before the Mongols moved on, they hired foreigners to help those Mongols left behind with the administration of the captured cities.
Barbara Tuchman writes of the Battle of Crecy, "...dismounted French knights, hampered by mud, fell into helpless disarray...the English archers threw down their bows and rushed in with their axes and other weapons to an orgy of slaughter."(24) It might have been incovenient to take prisoners at this time!
The Inquisition, established in 1233, was another fine example of Western civilization. Being an inquiry into men's faith, no one was safe. Simply to speak to a known heretic was dangerous. The accused was not informed of his accusers who might be liars, murderers or thieves, and in ignorance, he had no way to defend himself. He and anyone who stood beside him could be tortured. A nice touch of civilization was exhibited when children below the age of puberty and aged women and men were tortured less severely than the robust!(25)
The trial of Joan d'Arc for witchcraft and heresy, cannot be considered anything but uncivilized. For five months she was mercilessly questioned, until broken down, she recanted and later retracted it. The church turned her over to the English army who burned her at Rouen.
The Middle Ages was indeed a time of needless pain and death; life was short, dangerous and doomed. It was a cruel age, callous toward suffering, with little sympathy and pity, and small respect for human life. We shudder at its tortures, judicial mutilations, blindings, and beheadings. Riasanovsky points out in his Fundamentals of Mongol Law, maiham, (crippling punishment) was unknown among the Mongols; their chief punishments being death, flogging and exile.(26)
Twentieth century cruelties are impersonal mass cruelties which we can view from a distance; air bombings, napalm, atom bombs, agent orange, genocides and the starvation of peoples. The Mongol Age was a clearcut quest for power, material gain and the forging of an empire. In the Twentieth century we have had W.W. I and II, Korea and Viet Nam. Can we be so sure why they were fought and what was gained? The Mongols were the East's equivalent on a gigantic scale, to the Norman invasions.
To maintain communication throughout the empire, a rapid and effective post system, yam, was organized. A continuous change of mounts, made possible by the enormous numbers of horses available to them, allowed some of the riders to travel over two hundred miles in one day. There were three main classes in the postal system: `second class', carried by foot-runners; `first class', carried on horseback; and `His Majesty's Service', carried by non-stop riders who changed horses but not riders.
The Mongol peace that followed the European conquests had its benefits. Under Jenghiz Khan a most complete religious tolerance was established across the length and breadth of Asia. Churches weren't harmed and priests of all faiths were permitted freedom to practice their beliefs. The strength and distribution of the principal religions of the world were permanently changed by Mongol conquests. Representatives of every nation appeared at the court at Karakorum: envoys of the pope, Buddhist priests from India, Byzantine and Armenian merchants, Italian, French and Chinese artisans and craftsmen rubbed shoulders with Arab officials, Indian and Persian mathematicians and astronomers. Extended post roads spanned the entire empire, and both valuable merchandise and messages were carried to all parts of the empire. Legend has it that an unprotected young female could take a sack of gold safely from the Don River to Khanbaligh, the city of the Khans.
The Mongols reopened four major trade routes that had been closed, or disrupted by wars and bandits, for centuries: (1) the old Silk Road, going from West China to Iran; (2) an alternate route from the lower Volga to West China; (3) a sea route from China to the Persian Gulf; and (4) a Siberian route, possibly pioneered by the Mongols, that began in the Volga-Kama region, ran through southern Siberia to Lake Baikal, and then turned south to Karakorum and on into Peking.(27) Merchants dispatched their caravans over these roads carrying new and useful things to Europe. This relinking of Europe and the Orient resulted in an increased cultural exchange, and a greater knowledge of world geography. Skilled artists and craftsmen, as well as scientists, physicians and astronomers, from captured countries, were moved freely around the vast Mongol empire, taking their talents and experience with them.
Mongol rule in Asia opened that continent to European missionaries and traders, of whom the best known were the Polos. Their visits during the reign of Qublai, sparked Europe's interest in a water route to China for access to the enormous trade possibilities, and in an alternate route to replace the difficult and dangerous overland route. The search for a water route to China set off a wave of exploration, leading to a sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope, and the accidental discovery of the New World.
Recent research and reappraisal of contemporary literature on Mongol conquests have led the more modern scholars and historians to downplay the terrible destruction, and stress the more positive and constructive achievements of the last great nomad empire. Worthy of attention in the field of art were their carvings from horn, bone, and hard wood. From these materials they made numerous articles: plates, cups and bowls; bracelets, brooches and plaques. Mongol horsemen played polo, most certainly one of the minor legacies left to the world, by their conquests.
Because the Mongols had no Bible or Koran, and no sacred scriptures, they left no lasting monuments to a brief but glorious civilization, for one should call the Mongol nation civilized. Their roots can be traced back to a nomad/barbarian culture, but from the time of unification under Jenghiz Khan, when for the first time they called themselves Mongols, they must be considered a civilized nation.
After the retreat of the Mongol hordes from Russia, and the chaos of the warring Russian princedoms that followed, nationalism arose making possible the creation of the empire of Ivan the Great, the first of a series of oppressive Russian dynasties, and a tradition of despotism, which by one name or another has existed down to modern time.
The Mongol gift to China was unity also, a unity which survived for seven hundred years. China's centuries old culture was too deeply entrenched to be replaced by Mongol culture, and it was the Mongols who succumbed to Chinese culture.
For so called barbarians, they had a highly developed code of laws by which the Mongol nation and other nomad nations lived. Fragments 1-8 are examples of the scope of their laws. Death is the punishment for adultery, sodomy, lying intentionally, practicing sorcery, spying on the behavior of others, intervening between two parties in a quarrel to help one against the other, urinating into water or ashes, becoming bankrupt three times, failure to slaughter an animal, that is to be eaten, according to Mongol custom, and if in battle, during an attack or a retreat, anyone let fall his pack, or bow, or any luggage, the man behind him must alight and return the thing fallen to its owner; if he does not so alight and return the thing fallen, he is to be put to death.(28)
For being classified as barbarians by many early historians, their administration was highly developed. Their administrative offices included ministers, chief administrators, directors, viziers, commanders-in-chief and others officers who carried P'ai Tze made of gold, which signified they were on the Emperor's business. During the reigns of Ogodai and Mongke regulations of official service were established, and secretariats were formed.
The Mongols held no private property; their land was for communal use by the tribe for hunting and cattle-breeding.
Their criminal law system of punishments included in the Great Yassa was simple, the penalties being: death, flogging with rods, and exile. Provision for substitution of ransom for the death penalty was provided for and crippling punishments were unknown.
Jenghiz Khan instituted the office of Chief Judge, but one of his successors decided that lawsuits and other disputes were to be brought for decision to the Court of the Khan, which later became an administrative court. A woman's social position, in general, was good compared to much of the rest of the world. She could freely dispose of her property and take charge of her own affairs.(29)
An interesting provision of the Yassa was the stiff penalty, death, for the same person going bankrupt three times. First and second bankruptcies carried lesser penalties.
The Kuriltai, the assembly or congress of the khan, ruling princes and other members of the nobility, plus highest ranking commanders, was an outstanding example of collective rule. According to custom, military, as well as civil matters, of the empire were debated. Although the conference only had consultative power, it was of considerable significance. It showed that the Great Mongol Empire was not considered the personal affair of the Great Khan, but as the common heritage of his entire clan, with the most important decisions being reached through common consultation. Even though there was open discussion in the kuriltai, the voice of the Khan often prevailed, unless one or several of the stronger princes could pursuade him to alter his view on a matter before the kuriltai.(30)
Their chief legislative instrument was the Great Yassa, supplemented by decrees, or edicts, of the Khans. The Yassa was published about 1218. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it had force and effectiveness throughout the Great Mongol Empire, but it was applied only to Mongols and other nomadic peoples; not to the settled agricultural populations of the countries conquered, e.g. China, Persia or Russia.(31)
Mongol law had its roots in the organization, administration and court of the clan. It developed from the basic needs of the nomadic hunters and cattlebreeders, who had by comparison a rather poor cultural inheritance. The Yassa of Jenghiz Khan was the best known, the oldest, and also the most important Mongol code of laws. It was compiled between 1206 and 1218, the first decade of the reign of Jenghiz Khan as Emperor of the Steppes.
The scattered Mongol tribes, at first, regulated their lives according to local custom. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, these tribes were united under the rule of Jenghiz Khan. With this union came also the union of customary law, which became written law for all the Mongols under the sovereignty of Jenghiz Khan, and was known as the Great Yassa. It was called "Great" because it was the law common to all the tribes as opposed to an individual tribal Yassa which could exist independent of and side by side with the Great Yassa.
Although they had no religious code to live by, they had certain traditions, and according to these, certain actions were considered sinful.
Humanity is possessed of both good and bad traits and the Mongols were no exception. Probably their most outstanding good trait was their complete and ready obedience to their masters. The Mongols respected their leaders and did not readily lie to them. They rarely ever argued with each other and murder or wounding was rare. Petty theft might occur but robbery on a large scale did not exist among them. Their tents and the carts where they kept their valuables were not locked. They showed respect for one another, were friendly and willing to share their food with each other, even though it often was scarce. Although this seems at odds with the standard picture of Mongol warriors which the enemy saw, John of Plano Carpini(32) and William Rubruck,(33) European friars, both observed the Mongols in their camps and agree with the above description.
The Conqueror believed that if enough Mongols were educated, they could eliminate the employment of foreigners in civil administration, although when he needed them, he never hesitated to use them. He regarded the kind of education that was needed to keep the empire together as compatible with a nomadic life. He thought that an educated pastoral society could be organized like his army but that proved impossible.
The turmoil created by the Mongols in Central Asia resulted in an upheaval of peoples, their cultures and their religions. The rise and fall of their empire produced more enduring effects in Europe than in Asia. Much of the culture east of the Euphrates River was stifled under early Mongol dominance, giving rise to a westward flow of culture rooted in the ancient classical world. For the first fifty years of the fifteenth century, learned refugees brought books, works of art, artifacts, ideas and inventions to the West; all of which helped to launch Europe into the greatest cultural regeneration ever experienced by man, the Renaissance.
Jenghiz Khan and his successors should be remembered, not for blood baths, pillage and burning, actions not so unusual in their time, but for breaking down the barriers set up in the Dark Ages, and putting the West in touch with the East, to the benefit of mankind in general. This should be the memorial of a great and proud nomadic nation.
The Yassa of Jenghiz Khan
Based on The Great Yassa of Jenghiz Khan found in Valentin A. Riasanovsky's Fundamental Principles of Mongol Law, Indiana University Publications, Uralic and Alaic Series, Vol. 43, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1965.
According to Makrizi:
1. Adultery is punishable by death, whether the adulterer is married or not.
2. Sodomy, intentionally lying, practicing sorcery, spying on others, or intervening in a quarrel in order to help one against the other a are punishable by death.
3. Urinating into water or ashes is punishable by death.
4. One who takes goods (on credit) and becomes bankrupt, then does so again and again and becomes bankrupt, is to be put to death after the third time.
5. Giving food or clothing to a captive without the permission of his captor shall be punisable by death.
6. To find a runaway slave or captive and not return him to the person to whom he belongs is also punishable by death.
7. Slaughter of an animal, to be eaten, must follow Mongol custom. The feet should be tied, the belly ripped open and the heart squeezed in the hand until the animal dies, and then the meat may be eaten. Death is the penalty for slaughtering an animal in the manner of the Mohammedans.
8. During an attack or retreat (in battle), should anyone let his pack, bow, or baggage fall, the man following him must dismount and return the fallen object to its owner, and if he does not, he is put to death.
9. Jenghiz Khan decided that no taxes or duties should be imposed upon certain specified people, among whom, curiously enough, were those who wash the bodies of the dead.
10. All religions were to be respected and no preference was to be shown to any of them.
11. On food and eating, he proscribed the following: His people were not to eat food offered by someone else until the one offering the food tasted it himself, even though one might be a prince and the other a captive. They were not to eat anything in the presence of anyone else without offering him food. No man was to eat more than his comrades, or to step over a fire on which food was being cooked, or a dish from which people were eating. A traveller, passing by people who were eating, must dismount and eat with them without asking for permission, and they could not deny him food.
12. No one must dip his hands into water and must use a vessel for the drawing of water.
13. Jenghiz Khan commanded that they not wash their clothes until they were completely worn out. [This would appear that they were not to wash their clothes ever.]
14. He ordered them not to say anything was unclean, insisting that everything was clean and there was no distinction between clean and unclean.
15. They were not to show preference for any sect, or pronounce words with emphasis, or use honorary titles when speaking to the Sultan or anyone else, only his name was to be used.
16. Regarding the military: he ordered that his successors personally examine the troops and their arms and equipment before entering battle, that they supply the troops with everything necessary for the campaign and to look to everything including needle and thread, and if any of the soldiers were missing any necessary equipment, that soldier was to be punished. Women accompanying the troops were to do the men's work while they were fighting.
17. He ordered the warriors returning from campaign (battle) to carry out certain duties in the service of the Sultan. He ordered the warriors to present all their daughters to the Sultan at the beginning of each year so he might choose some of them for himself and his children. He appointed Emirs (princes/generals or noyans) at the head of the troops and commanders of thousands, hundreds, and tens.
18. Even the oldest of the Emirs, if he had committed some offence, was to surrender to the messenger sent by the sovereign to punish him, even if the messenger was the lowest of his servants; and was to prostrate himself before him until he had carried out the punishment prescribed by the sovereign, even if it were death.
19. Death was the punishment for Emirs who addressed themselves to anyone except the sovereign, and to anyone changing his post without permission.
20. The Khan ordered the Sultan to establish permanent postal communications so that he might be kept well-informed, in a timely manner, of all the events of the country.
21. He appointed his son, Jagatai-baen-Jenghiz Khan, to make sure that the Yassa was observed.
From Mirhond (or Mirhovend):
22. Soldiers were punished for negligence; and hunters who let an animal escape during a community hunt were to be beaten with sticks and sometimes put to death.
23. Regarding punishment for murder, one could ransom himself by paying fines: for a Mohammedan the fine was 40 golden coins (Balysh); and for a Chinese, one donkey.
24. If a stolen horse is found in a man's possession, he must return it to its owner along with nine horses of the same kind; if he cannot pay this fine, his children must be substituted for the horses, and if he has no children, he shall be slaughtered like a sheep.
25. "The Yassa of Jenghiz Khan forbids lies, theft and adultery and prescribes love of one's neighbor as ones's self; it orders men not to hurt each other and to forget offences completely, to spare countries and cities which submit voluntarily, to free from taxes temples consecrated to God, and to respect old people and beggars. Whoever violates these commands is to be put to death."
26. "(The Yassa prescribes these rules:) to love one another, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to give false witness, not to be a traitor, and to respect old people and beggars. Whoever violates these commands is put to death."
From various sources:
27. "(The Yassa of Jenghiz Khan prescribes that) a man who chokes on food must be driven out of the camp and immediately killed; and whosoever puts his foot on the threshold of the tent of the commander of an army shall also be put to death.
28. "If unable to abstain from drinking, a man may get drunk three times a month; if he does it more than three times he is culpable; if he gets drunk twice a month it is better; if once a month, this is still more laudable; and if one does not drink at all what can be better? But where can such a man be found? If such a man were found he would be worthy of the highest esteem." (Riasanovsky considers this fragment to belong to the Maxims of Jenghiz Khan, maxim 20)
29. "Children born of a concubine are to be considered as legitimate, and receive their share of the heritage according to the disposition of it made by the father." (Beats the law of primogeniture in Europe where only the oldest inherited, much more civilized). "The distribution of property is to be carried out on the basis of the senior son receiving more than the junior, the younger son inheriting the household of the father. The seniority of children depends upon the rank of their mother; one of the wives must always be the senior, this being determined chiefly by the time of her marriage."
30. "After the death of his father, a son may dispose of the father's wives, all except his mother; he may marry them or give them in marriage to others."
31. "All except the legal heirs are strictly forbidden to make use of any of the property of the deceased."
Valentin Riasanovsky also published thirty maxims of Jenghiz Khan in his Fundamental Principals of Mongol Law. Some of his astute observations included the following:
_Whoever can manage his own house well can also manage an estate, whoever can keep ten men in order in accordance with conditions may be given a thousand and a tuman and he will also keep them in order._
_Any word on which three well-informed men are agreed may be spoken anywhere, otherwise it cannot be relied upon..._
_Whoever goes to a senior must not say a word until the senior has addressed him; then let him answer according to the question..._
_Any horse that runs well when it is fat will also run well when it is fairly stout or fairly thin. Such a horse can be said to be a good one. But no horse can be said to be good that runs well in only one of these conditions._
_As a man knows himself so should he know others._
_A man is not like the sun and therefore cannot appear everywhere before people; when the master is away hunting, or at war, the wife must keep the household in good condition and order so that if a messenger or a guest should happen to enter the house he may see that everything is in order; and she must prepare a good meal so that the guest may not want for anything. Thus she will win a good reputation for her husband and exalt his name in the assemblies like a mountain that rears its peak. Good husbands are known by their good wives. If a wife be stupid and dull, wanting in reason and orderliness, she makes obvious the badness of her husband. There is an adage-verse: _In a house everything resembles its master.__
_In affairs caution is necessary._
These laws and maxims do not appear to come from a barbarian tribe, but from a tribe of people who are intelligent, wise and very much in touch with reality, not the barbarians that some writers have labeled them.
Bibliography Secondary Sources
Bishop, Morris. The Middle Ages, American Press, Baltimore, 1950.
Supplementary Reading Primary Sources
Altan Tobci, A Brief History of the Mongols. Translated by C. Bawden, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1955.
The Secret History of the Mongols. Translated by Francis W. Cleaves, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982.
A History of Asia, Vol. 1, W. Bingham, H. Conroy, F. Ikle, Allyn and Bacon, Inc., Boston, 1964.
Blunt, Wilfrid. The Golden Road to Samarkand, Viking Press, New York, 1973.
Grousset, Rene. Conqueror of the World, translated from the French by M. McKellar and D. Sinor, Orion Press, New York, 1966.
Humble, Richard. Marco Polo, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1975.
Humble, Richard. Warfare in the Middle Ages, The Mallard Press, 1989.
Hyland, Ann. The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades, Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., United Kingdom, 1994.
Juvaini, `Ala-ad-Din. The History of the World Conqueror, translated from the text of M. Qazvini by John A. Boyle, Vol. 2, Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1958.
Koch, H. W. Medieval Warfare, Bison Books Ltd., London, 1978.
Komroff, Manuel, ed. Contemporaries of Marco Polo, Dorset Press, New York, 1989.
Lamb, Harold. Genghis Khan, The Emperor of All Men, McBride and Co., 1927.
________. Tamerlane, Garden City Pub. Co., Garden City, New York, 1928.
Osprey - Men At Arms Series, No. 105, Turnbull, S. R., The Mongols, Osprey Publishing Co., London, 1980.
The Secret History of the Mongols, An Adaptation of the Yuan Ch'ao Pi Shih, based on the English translation of F. W. Cleaves, by Paul Kahn, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984.
Spuler, Bertold. The Mongols In History, translated by G. Wheeler, Praeger Publishing Co., New York, Washington and London, 1971.
Storm Across Asia, (Genghis Khan and the Mongols, and The Mogul Expansion), HBJ Press, New York, 1980.
Studies On The Secret History of the Mongols, by Kuo-Yi Pao, Uralic and Altaic Series, Vol. 58, Indiana University Publishers, Bloomington, Indiana, 1965.
Vernadsky, George A. The Mongols and Russia, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1953.
Vladimirtsov, B. Ya. The Life of Chingis-Khan, translated from the Russian by Prince D. S. Mirsky, Benjamin Blom, New York, London, 1930.
Williams, Brian. Genghis Khan, Rourke Publishing Co., Windermere, Florida, 1979.
Yip, Jacky, and Bonavia, Judy. The Silk Road, Chartwell Books, Inc., Secaucus,
New Jersey, 1988.
1 Lamb, Harold. The March of the Barbarians, Country Life Press, New York, 1940, p. 361
2 Brent, Peter. Genghis Khan, McGraw-Hill, N. Y., 1976, p. 240.
3 Wells, H. G. The Outline of History, Garden City Publishing Co., Garden City, New York, 1925, p. 675.
4 Trippett, Frank. The First Horsemen, Time-Life Books, N. Y., 1974, p.79.
5 Trippett, p.127.
6 Grousset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1970, p.viii.
7 Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes, p. ix.
8 Saunders, John J. History of the Mongol Conquests, Routledge, London, 1971, p.11.
9 Liddel-Hart, B. H. Great Captains Unveiled, Chapter 1, Jenghiz Khan and Sabutai, Ayer Co., Publishers, Inc., Salem, NH, 1928.
10 Lister, R. P. Genghis Khan, Dorset Press, New York, 1969, pp. 65-67.
11 Lamb, Harold, p.361.
12 Bishop, Morris. The Middle Ages, American Heritage Press, N. Y., 1968, p.350 and Koch, H. W. Medieval Warfare, Bison Books, Ltd., London, 1978, p. 61.
13 Wells, H. G. p 61
14 Wells, H. G. p 673
15 Chambers, James. The Devils Horsemen, Atheneum Press, N. Y., 1979, p. 66- 67.
16 Bishop, p. 312-313.
17 Bishop, p.350-51.
18 Bishop, p. 353.
19 Fuller, J. F. C. Military History of the Western World, vol. 1, Da Capo, 1954, p. 418.
20 Fuller, p. 430-31.
21 Fuller, p. 432.
22 Fuller, p. 433.
23 Fuller, p. 555.
24 Fuller, p. 436.
25 Bishop, p. 87.
26 Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1979, p. 585.
27 Bishop, p.185.
28 Riasanovsky, Valentin A. Fundamental Principles of Mongol Law, Indiana University, Bloomington, c. 1965, p.200.
29 Encyclopedia of Asian History, vol. 3, Mongol Empire, and The Mongols, Scribner's Sons, New York, 1988.
30 Riasanovsky, p.83.
31 Riasanovsky, p.200.
32 Riasanovsky, p.199-200.
33 Riansanovsky, p.199.
34 Dawson, Christopher, ed. The Mongol Mission, Sheed and Ward, N.Y., 1955, p.14-15.
35 Spuler, Bertold. History of the Mongols, Dorset Press, New York, 1968, p.78-79.
Copyright 1996 by Milly McCloskey, 14228 N 45th Drive, Glendale, AZ 85306-4500. . Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being