Colonel Sir Henry Yule's preface to the CHINA article (looked at last week) makes mention of one of the first known western visitors to the Orient, the Franciscan friar Johannes de Plano Carpini. Carpini, who merits his own entry (also penned by the colonel) in the same volume of EB9, made a remarkable journey in the middle of the 13th century from Lyons, France, to the court of the Khaan at Karakoram, in the heart of Mongolia.
In 1241 Mongolian troops scored an alarming victory at Liegnitz which "threatened to cast European Christendom beneath the feet of the barbarous hordes." In fact, the death of Genghis' son Ogudei and dispute over the succession meant that Mongolian interest turned away from further conquest into Europe. "The dread of the Tartars was, however, still on men's mind four years later , when Pope Innocent IV. determined (1245) on sending a mission to the Tartar and other Asiatic princes, the real object of which apparently was to gain trustworthy information regarding the hordes and their purposes."
The 65 year old Carpini, who had been a companion and disciple of Francis of Assisi, was chosen as the Pope's envoy. The delegation left Lyons on Easter Day 1245 (16th April), made a brief visit to seek "the counsel of an old friend, Wenceslaus, king of Bohemia," and from Kiev crossed into Mongol territory, to be escorted to the camp of Batu, the "senior of the Chingizid family."
Here the envoys with their presents had to pass between two fires before being presented to the prince. Batu ordered them to proceed onwards to the court of the supreme Kaan in Mongolia, and on Easter Day once more (April 8 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 [ie, Mongolian-fashion] to enable them to endure the excessive fatigue of this enormous ride [...] till, on the Feast of St Mary Magdalene (22d July), at last they reached the imperial camp called Sira Ordu (Yellow Pavilion), near the Orkhon River, - this stout-hearted old man having thus ridden something like 3000 miles in 106 days.
Carpini and his companions were to witness the Kurultai or formal election by tribal consent of the new Khaan Kuyuk, where "3000 to 4000 envoys and deputies from all parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, [bore] homage, tribute, and presents." After the enthronement of Kuyuk, the Pope's envoy was presented to the Khaan.
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 Kaan's office as the scourge of God. Then commenced their long winter journey homeward[.]
Carpini was able to present the Khaan's letter to the Pope, and his report on the extent of the Mongol empire, still at Lyon, at the end of 1247. He was rewarded with the archbishopric of Antivari in Dalmatia, and at a date shortly after unrecorded by history, died.
Carpini left two documents of his observations on the Mongols, the Liber Tartarorum and the Historia Mongalorum quos nos Tartaros appellamus (ie, the "History of the Mongols whom we call the Tartars"), the first reliable European accounts of the Mongol people and empire. His great journey into the East and back is all the more remarkable, as Sir Henry observes, as
John of Pian del Carpine 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.
While the world watches Beijing in adoration of today's majestic Olympians, let us not forget the achievements of fat and heavy old men.