Blog-post author Irene Malfatto, Società Internazionale per lo Studio del Medioevo Latino, SISMEL, Firenze.
Acre, spring 1253. The Franciscan William of Rubruk says goodbye to his friend and protector, the French king Louis IX, and starts a journey towards the Golden Horde khanate and its sovereign, Sartaq. William’s task is both a missionary and a diplomatic one: the Franciscan’s familiarity with the French monarch gives him a sort of protection during the trip, which consists however – in William’s words – in the humble attempt to give some help to the European captives in Tartary.
The undeniable main goal of the mission, anyway, was to inquire about the attitude of the Khans towards Christianity. This issue, besides its missionary implications, was indeed a crucial factor in Louis’ crusader plans: a possible alliance with the Mongols against the Turks would have meant a great help in the recovery of the Holy Land. The trip’s pious purpose was then strictly connected with the French crown’s interests.
Back in Palestine in 1255, William writes a long letter to king Louis, in order to report the outcomes of his travel experience. This letter is indeed a book, a travel account known with the latin title of Itinerarium, recently edited by Paolo Chiesa and translated in English by Peter Jackson.
Some passages in the Itinerarium refer to certain manuscripts William took with him on his trip to the East. Some of those books stayed with him all the time, some other were lost along the road. These information, anyway, give an insight into what could have been the “book baggage” of a missionary on the Silk Road in the 13th century.
When William gets to Sartaq, who was said to be a friend of Christians or even converted to Christianity himself, he is immediately asked for gifts to give him. William soon has the sense of the distance between his Franciscan ideal of poverty and the Khan’s greedy attitude.
The meeting with Sartaq was supposed to be the mission’s final purpose, but it turns out to be just its starting point. The friar’s ambiguous diplomatic status concerns the Golden Horde ruler, who sends him to his powerful father Batu first, and later all the way to Karakorum, to meet the Great Khan Möngke. This is how William describes his first meeting with Sartaq and his entourage:
We met up with Sartach, then […] our guide began to ask what we were going to take for him and was highly outraged on seeing that we were not getting ready anything to take […]. I further explained, by way of apology, that I was a monk and neither owned nor accepted nor handled gold or silver or anything of value, with the sole exception of the books and the liturgical items with which we worshipped God, so that we were bringing no gifts for him or for his master: as one who had relinquished his own belongings, I could not be the bearer of what belonged to others. (Itinerarium XV, 1-2)
William does not have any gift for the king, but he carries with him some objects which are related to his religious status: liturgical tools and manuscripts. When officially summoned by Sartaq, he tries to show what he has:
I myself put on the more expensive vestments, and held against my breast a very fine cushion, the Bible you [king Louis] had given me, and a most beautiful psalter given me by my lady the Queen [Margaret of Provence], containing very fine illuminations. My colleague took the missal and the cross, while the clerk, dressed in a surplice, took the thurible. […] We were told to chant a blessing for him. (Itinerarium XV, 6)
Sartaq shows a special interest in the manuscripts, and asks questions about their contents:
He took […] the psalter, which he and the wife sitting next to him scrutinized closely; and after that, the Bible. He asked if it contained the Gospel. “Yes”, I said, “and the complete Holy Scripture”. (Itinerarium XV, 7)
The Mongol sovereign does not understand the religious value of those objects, nor their liturgical function. He asks William to leave the books at his court in order to “have a closer look” to them; eventually, the friars would have been able to take them back on their return journey.
Tunc necessaria fuit michi patientia, “I had to be patient then”, writes William when reporting of this humiliating experience. Cleverly, the friar tries to minimize the loss by hiding some books, in order to save them from an inevitable fate:
I had one consolation, in that anticipating their greed I had removed from among the books the Bible, the Sentences, and other volumes to which I was more attached. But my lady the Queen’s psalter I had not dared remove, as it had attracted too much attention by reason of the gold illuminations it contained. (Itinerarium XVI, 3)
Indeed, the Queen’s illuminated psalter will never be returned. This is what William writes about his return journey in the following year:
He returned the books, with the exception of my lady the Queen’s psalter: this he had my permission to keep, since I was in no position to withhold it, for he said that Sartach had been very much taken with it. (Itinerarium XXXVII, 10)
Together with the psalter, many other books “disappeared” in the process. William gives a little list:
I failed to recover the bible in verse, a book in Arabic which was worth thirty bezants, or numerous other items. (Itinerarium XXXVIII, 13)
It would be extremely interesting to know more on these books and where did they end up. Unfortunately, William does not give enough information. Anyway, it is clear that the manuscripts raised the interest of the Mongol Khan mostly as beautiful material objects. Sartaq showed even some sort of curiosity for the practical making process of parchment:
He had also asked me, should I happen to revisit those parts, to bring them someone who knew how to make parchment […]. (Itinerarium XXXVII, 11)
Even though the questions here are so much more than the answers, William’s account offers an example of the circulation of manuscripts on the missionary routes to the East. Certainly, his case was not isolated and it shines light on the role of travel accounts in the attempt to reconstruct a network of book mobilities in the context of the pax mongolica.
- The Mission of William of Rubruck, trans. Peter Jackson, Hakluyt Society, London 1990
- Guglielmo di Rubruk, Viaggio in Mongolia, ed. Paolo Chiesa, Mondadori, Milano 2011