Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

How the Friars Fared Among the Tartars

The sea of Mongol invasion which, pouring in the thirteenth century from the vast steppes of Asia, overflowed all Eastern Europe, and was checked in its course only by the assembled forces of the German nations, filled the world of the West with inexpressible terror. For a time, after whelming beneath its flood Russia, Poland, and Hungary, it was rolled back, but the terror remained. At any moment these savage horsemen might return in irresistible strength and spread the area of desolation to the western seas. The power of arms seemed too feeble to stay them; the power of persuasion, however, might not be in vain, and the pope, as the spiritual head of Europe, felt called upon to make an effort for the rescue of the Christian world.

Tartar hordes were then advancing through Persia towards the Holy Land, and to these, in the forlorn hope of checking their course, he sent as ambassadors a body of Franciscan friars composed of Father Ascelin and three companions. It was in the year 1246 that these papal envoys set out, armed with full powers from the head of the Church, but sadly deficient in the worldly wisdom necessary to deal with such truculent infidels as those whom they had been sent to meet.

Ascelin and his comrades journeyed far through Asia in search of a Tartar host, and at length found one on the northern frontier of Persia. Into the camp of the barbarians the worthy Franciscan boldly advanced, announcing himself as an ambassador from the pope. To his surprise, this announcement was received with contempt by the Tartars, who knew little and cared less for the object of his deep veneration. In return he showed his feeling towards the infidels in a way that soon brought his mission into a perilous state.

He was refused an audience with the Mongol general unless he would perform the ko-tou, or three genuflections, an act which he and his followers refused as an idolatrous ceremony which would scandalize all Christendom. Finally, as nothing less would be accepted, they, in their wise heads, thought they might consent to perform the ko-tou, provided the general and all his army would become Christians. This folly capped the climax. The Tartars, whom they had already irritated, broke into a violent rage, loaded the friars with fierce invectives, and denounced them and their pope as Christian dogs.

A council was called to decide what to do with these insulting strangers. Some suggested that the friars should be flayed alive, and their skins, stuffed with hay, sent to the pope. Others wished to keep them till the next battle with the Christians, and then place them in front of the army as victims to the god of war. A third proposition was to whip them through the camp and then put them to death. But Baithnoy, the general, had no fancy for delay, and issued orders that the whole party should at once be executed.

In this frightful predicament, into which Ascelin and his party had brought themselves, a woman's pity came to the rescue. Baithnoy's principal wife endeavored to move him to compassion; but, finding him obdurate, she next appealed to his interest. To violate in this way the law of nations would cover him with disgrace, she said, and stay the coming of many who otherwise would seek his camp with homage and presents. She reminded him of the anger of the Great Khan when, on a former occasion, he had caused the heart of an ambassador to be plucked out and had ridden around the camp with it fastened to his horse's tail. By these arguments, reinforced with entreaties, she induced him to spare the lives of the friars.

They were advised to visit the court of the Great Khan, but Ascelin had seen as much as he relished of Tartar courts, and refused to go a step farther except by force. He was then desired, as he had been so curious to see a Tartar army, to wait until their expected reinforcements arrived. He protested that he had seen enough Tartars already to last him the rest of his life; but, despite his protest, he was detained for several months, during which the Tartars amused themselves by annoying and vexing their visitors. At length, after having been half starved, frequently threatened with death, and insulted in a hundred ways, they were set free, bearing letters to the pope ordering him to come in person and do homage to Genghis Khan, the Son of God.

At the same time that Ascelin set out for the south, another party, headed by John Carpini, set out for the north, to visit the Tartars then in Russia. Here they were startled by the first act demanded of them, they being compelled to pass between two large fires as a purification from the suspicion of evil. On coming into the presence of Bathy, the general, they, more terrified perhaps than Ascelin, did not hesitate to fall upon their knees. To heighten their terrors, two of them were sent to the court of the Great Khan, in the heart of Tartars, the other two being detained on some pretext. The journey was a frightful one. With no food but millet, no drink but melted snow, pushing on at a furious speed, changing horses several times a day, passing over tracts strewn with human bones, and the weather through part of their journey being bitterly cold, they at length reached the court of the Mongols on July 22, 1246.

They arrived at an interesting period. The election of Kujak, a new khan, was about to take place, and, in addition to great Tartar lords from all quarters of the Mongol empire, ambassadors from Russia, Persia, Bagdad, India, and China were at hand with presents and congratulations. The assembled nobles, four thousand in all, dazzled Carpini with their pomp and magnificence. The coronation was attended with peculiar ceremonies, and a few days afterwards audience was given to the ambassadors, that they might deliver their presents. Here the friars were amazed at the abundance and value of the gifts, which consisted of satin cloths, robes of purple; silk girdles wrought with gold, and costly skins. Most surprising of all was a "sun canopy" (umbrella) full of precious stones, a long row of camels covered with Baldakin cloth, and a "wonderful brave tent, all of red purple, presented by the Kythayans" (Chinese), while near by stood five hundred carts "all full of silver, and of gold, and of silk garments."

The friars were now placed in an embarrassing position by being asked what presents they had to give. They had so little that they thought it best to declare "that they were not of ability so to do." This failure was well received, and throughout their visit they were treated with great respect, the khan cajoling them with hints that he proposed publicly to profess Christianity.

These flattering hopes came to a sudden end when the great Mongol ruler ordered the erection of a flag of defiance against the Roman empire, the Christian Church, and all the Christian kingdoms of the West, unless they would do homage to him; and with this abrupt termination to their embassy they were dismissed. After "travailing all winter long," sleeping on snow without shelter, and suffering other hardships, they reached Europe in June, 1247, where they were "rejoiced over as men that had been risen from death to life."

Carpini was the first European to approach the borders of China, or Cathay, as it was then called, and the story he told about that mysterious empire of the East, gathered from the Tartars, was of much interest, and, so far as it went, of considerable accuracy. He was also the first to visit the court of those terrible warriors who had filled the world with dismay, and to bring to Europe an account of their barbaric manners and customs.

Shortly after (in 1253) a friar named Rubruquis, with two companions, was sent to Tartary by Louis IX. of France to search for Prester John, an imaginary Christian potentate supposed to reign in the centre of Asia, to visit Sartach, a Tartar chief also reported a Christian, and to teach the doctrines of Christianity to all the Tartars he should find. Rubruquis did his work well, and, while failing to find Prester John or to convert any of the Tartars, he penetrated to the very centre of the Mongol empire, visited Karakorum, the capital of the Great Khans, and brought back much valuable information, giving a clear, accurate, and intelligent account of the lands he had seen and the people he had met, with such news of distant China as he could obtain without actually crossing the Great Wall.

After his visit information concerning these remote regions ceased until the publication of the remarkably interesting book of Marco Polo, the first to write of China from an actual visit to its court. The story of his visit must be left for a later tale.