Was plague present in Mongol armies from the beginning of the conquests? New research by Dr Monica Green in the ‘biological archives’ has put the date of the Black Death back by a century. You can read a write-up in the Smithsonian. Dr Green’s original article The Four Black Deaths may need institutional access, but she summarises her findings in a Twitter thread.
It’s going to be a plague year on my blog. I want to look closely at the historical evidence for bubonic plague in the wars I am writing about in Amgalant. It is not too late to change plague’s status in my fiction, from an ominous mention to a big player. Then, I have been sitting on a before-and-after post about what was lost in the Great Plague: an easy connection between Asia and Europe that people forgot in the post-plague recession, but which we can see reminiscences of in art and romance. For that I am re-reading Boiardo, whose Orlando Innamorato features a wonderful Mongol khan.
Today’s post is a compilation of material I have on Mongols and disease – as I start to re-think my material in light of the new research. It’s immediately applicable to Amgalant, since Three treats the off-steppe conquests. My drafting is currently in Tangut, North China, and the Central Asian campaigns into Black Qatat and Hwarazm.
It is in the territory of Black Qatat [Qara Khitai], timed to Chinggis Khan’s first excursions there before 1218, Dr Green locates the polytomy, or ‘Big Bang’, that dislodged a reservoir of virulent Y. pestis strain – a strain associated with the Black Death – and sent it in several directions. East, back to Mongol sieges in China in the 1220s. West to the siege of Baghdad, 1258. Elsewhere with the Mongol armies in their unprecedented mobility. Previously, Hymes [see bibliography] had placed this reservoir in marmot populations in Tangut, but Dr Green argues for Issyk Kul. Either way, Chinggis’ first off-steppe activity is now thought to have kicked up a marmots’ nest of plague.
Was plague pre-existent on the Mongols’ steppe? I had assumed yes, and meant to write in Amgalant of plague management at home, becoming much less safe when Mongols inhabited other environments. I took management strategies from far more modern accounts. In contemporary Mongolia,
Mongolians hunt marmots for fur and meat, which leads to a high risk of plague infection. As a result, human plague cases have been identified almost every year in Mongolia beginning in 1940 and the mortality rate is approximately five times higher than the world average… From 1940 to 2008, there were 521 human plague cases registered in Mongolia, of which 69.9% resulted in death. Bubonic plague accounted for 68.4% of all human cases registered from 1989 to 2008, the pneumonic form accounted for 29.3% of cases, and the septic form accounted for the remaining 2.3% of the cases. The majority of human cases were infected by marmots (75.2%), 20.3% were infected by other people, and 4.5% were infected from fleas… People contracted plague through direct contact while handling and skinning infected marmots. [‘Plague in Mongolia’: see bibliography]
But Dr Green finds the Black Death strain of Y. pestis only present in Mongolia post-polytomy – brought back from the conquests. So perhaps the pre-Chinggis Mongols only had to deal with milder strains, which are traceable to ancient times. In Against Walls I have a passage on containment at home, before they left the steppe:
Sweat dribbled from him like a distillery. Violent nausea, splitting headache, listlessness, sleeplessness, sweats: adds up to marmots’ plague. There were contagions now with people dependent on marmot meat. You always test a marmot first; an unsafe animal is dopey, incurious, slow. When plague comes to a ger the people of the ger, the dead, the early-symptomed and the outwardly untouched, hang black felt over the door and shut themselves in, for the plague demon to do his worst with them, whom he has in his claws; to keep his rampage within the circle of their ger. Greater love hath no-one, greater courage. Yesugei was moved every time he thought of that. Ordinary people. The plague demon – what sin created him? The shamans can tell you: a neglect here, a cruelty there. Can he ever be tamed? Of course; every demon is a victim too; once he was human, once animal, once like you and me. We make our own demons, we can unmake them. Only the circle is vicious, quipped a shaman. A circle is holy. The Tartar with the wife who drew a circle in the air and put his head into his hands. Yesugei poked at his armpits, his groin, where the black bulbs grow; no tumour, no tenderness; and he ought to be giddy.
This is Yesugei, father of the future Chinggis Khan – poisoned; he only suspects plague. As the Persian historian Juvaini wrote, in the years before Chinggis Khan Mongols were impoverished and ate crisis foods. Explorer Tim Severin, In Search of Genghis Khan (1991) has a chapter on ‘The Black Death’: he met pestes live in the countryside and interviews a Minister for Public Health. Severin is told, ‘the Mongol name for plague was “marmot sickness” and it had been known by this description since the time of Genghis Khan.’ The 13th-century traveller John of Plano Carpini mentions black felt, although not plague:
When anyone is sick past cure, they put a spear there and wind black felt round it and from then onwards no outsider dares to enter within the bounds of his dwellings.
If Mongols experienced the Black Death’s type of plague not as homegrown and familiar but new and from a strange environment, how they felt about unknown infections becomes highly relevant. Humphrey and Onon in Elders and Shamans look at cases in ethnography from the beginning of the 20th century:
More important was the disturbance of hitherto relatively closed communities as a result of war, migration and banditry and the emergence of new spirits. Alien shamans roamed abroad. The Tungus especially mistrusted Daur shamans, if only because they were suspected of bringing the Bushku spirit with them… The experience of new pervasive misfortunes and pestilence was constructed by ‘shamanism’ as being the result of the activity of new spirits, almost always from the outside. [325-6]
Do we see, in early Mongol sources, any notion that new, dangerous spirits have been introduced among them as a result of new environments and movement? Yes, we have exactly this in the tale of Ogodei’s sickness while on campaign in China. Next are excerpts from Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe, where I examine this story for Mongol attitudes to war. In Hymes’ study of Chinese sources for the Mongol wars, plague sites are locations of major war events, largely city sieges. Plague might have been associated with war, by Mongols too.
In the story, Tolui offers himself as a sacrifice to save his brother Ogodei the khan, who lies sick from a spirit-attack. The story is told in two places: the Secret History of the Mongols and Rashid al-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh. In my post Two Sacrificial Deaths I have given both tellings almost complete.
There is a strong urge to ‘see through’ Tolui’s end for the real story; it is almost universal that histories say he died from alcohol abuse. The Secret History writes his end as a self-sacrificial magic death, whereby he substitutes himself for his sick brother the khan. Ogodei lies gravely ill, and the medicine people determine he is under attack from the local spirits, here in North China where he has waged successful war. The medicine people report: ‘The masters and khans (usual honorary words for spirits) of the land and the waters of the Qitad people, now when their people and folk are spoiled and now when their cities and towns are destroyed, rage violently against the khan.’ When they offer the angry spirits (with divination ‘by bowels’) whatsoever other thing they ask for in his stead – from among ‘animals, food, gold and silver, people’ – Ogodei’s condition only worsens; when they ask whether another member of the royal family might serve in his stead, Ogodei improves enough to talk. Tolui volunteers and drinks ‘the waters of conjuration’; he quickly feels the effects (he says ‘I am drunk’, that being a familiar sensation to him; the phrase has not served him well) and dies, it seems within a few days. Ogodei recovers.
Either Tolui believed himself to death or the waters of conjuration held substances – infection, potion – to help him to that end: both can occur, with such magic deaths… Mongols believed in the efficacy of a sacrifice and in its heroic value – which we know by the way the tale is told. Tolui or his near and dear laid claim to these high qualities in his culture. Perhaps he only had to want to be brilliant, admired and fearless: the boast he gives the spirits goes along with this. I am handsome, he says, I am militarily accomplished. In Rashid he extends this brazenly: I am better than my brother. So he convinces the spirits they want him: he is of high value. He was in his prime, and fresh from an extraordinary success – again, in Rashid. It is not about fear of spirits, but Tolui’s fearlessness…
Spirits enter rarely into the Secret History. They have to be occasioned; the history reports on them when people are affected by them, when they motivate action. So at the death of Tolui we hear, as we have not heard before, about a conquered people’s spirits, their activity against the Mongols, even in Mongol victory. It seems a fine understanding of disease: the diseases the army met on campaign in places new to them, which took a toll even after victories. Here the one fallen ill is Ogodei, and his illness is thought to be inflicted by local ‘masters of the land and waters’, in anger at the devastation, disruption, at the human death that accompanied the Mongols’ war. What’s more, it is considered fit and right that a son of Chinggis be sacrificed to assuage these spirits. Whether he was sacrificed in actuality or not, the story considers this a fair, if sad bargain. Tolui does not say ‘I am handsome and accomplished’, he uses metaphor. This is his short poem:
I have cleft the back of the salmon.
I have split the back of the sturgeon.
I have conquered those near,
I have pierced those afar.
Fair of face, long of spine am I.
Rashid translates this into workaday prose and has him claim he has done great damage in the war: therefore the spirits want him. To imagine that a Chinggis son – one who boasts how fine he is – makes a fitting sacrifice for the spirits of their victims (already dead) is extraordinary, and casts an interesting light on how Mongols thought of war. The devastation they caused did not go unremarked; this is a story about consequences – consequences, first, for the enemy, and next a cost to the victors. It was never safe to kill on this scale: the victims had spirits too. In a shamanist world, spirits of place are everywhere, spirits loyal, in one sense or another, to local humans, and though the humans be defeated and ‘lie in heaps like rotten trees’ (the usual description of a forest of dead after a battle), the spirits can yet avenge them. By the story, by the religious understanding, Mongols make acknowledgement that their acts have upset these presences, who obey their own interests – who have a right, in a world of plural spirits, to exact a price in reparation; we may wonder whether we can put this in psychological terms and see an unease with the havoc they have caused.
I’d particularly note this is a lashing-out, a fightback by victims – by casualties, even when these are already dead. Briefly in my passage from Against Walls, Yesugei thinks that the first cause of a disease such as plague is one person’s past mistreatment of another person. To explain this conception of disease as a result of social ills, here are quotes from Humphrey and Onon on spirits – harm-causing spirits – as ‘discursive interpretations of relationships’. Roles: the spirit is the Victim, the Aggressor the one who hurt them; the Sufferer whomever the spirit takes it out on…
It might seem that vengeance should be taken on the one who did the harm, in other words that the Aggressor and Sufferer would be the same person; but this was usually not the case. There are several ‘reasons’ for this. The initial hurt to someone who became a barkan spirit almost always happened in the distant and mythicized past, whereas the vengeance was taken on someone living now who just happened to be the innocent sufferer. Secondly, the initial hurt was often caused by the way things are in society, such as the structure of male dominance, social neglect, or war, and therefore the Aggressor in these cases was a general category such as ‘our ancestors’ or ‘powerful officials’. Thirdly, as Urgunge explained to me, ‘If in life you were afraid of someone, in death you would be too,’ meaning that the initial victim, a young woman spirit for example, would not always dare to take revenge on a powerful man. This was the case even if it had been just such a man who had tormented her and caused her to die and become a vengeful spirit… All we need to remember here is that although the Aggressor harmed the Victim-spirit, the Victim-spirit would then haunt a different Sufferer (or an unbounded set of Sufferers). This not only created a possibly endless cycle, but it rendered the initial injustice relevant to all the potential ‘innocent’ victims of a revenge attack, revealing this situation of hurt to be a matter of a more general intersubjectivity. 
With an eye to war casualties’ enlistment of spirits in Tolui’s story, note that it is vulnerable or low-power members of society who gain efficacy as spirits. Also consider how open-ended the harm and its effects are understood to be, and how the innocent suffer.
Only the involvement of a further crucial person, the Redressor, could halt the vengeance by atoning for the wrong. Now it might be imagined that it was the present Sufferer who would redress the hurt to the Victim, for example by making a propitiation, thus freeing themselves from the haunting spirit. However, this seems to have hardly ever happened. Rather, another person was involved, this being someone who cared for the patient and was therefore willing to make an offering (or anything else demanded) on their behalf. The Sufferer from vengeance was essentially passive, except that suffering itself evoked the love of the Redressor. There could be nothing worse, Urgunge said, than being left to bear the haunting of a spirit unaided. Indeed this was virtually unimaginable. The loving relative had to bear the cost of redressing the ancient wrong, however ruinously expensive were the propitiations demanded by the Victim-spirit. 
It is fascinating to read Tolui’s story against this template. Spirits might be afraid to strike powerful men who did the harm? But these spirits attack the centre of power, Chinggis Khan’s family. True, Ogodei is ascribed a complaisant personality and attracted a lot of anecdotes about his excesses in his wish to please people. Tolui, on the other hand, ran the harshest of the Mongol campaigns, in Khurasan. If you had to choose a soft target among Chinggis’ sons, you’d try your luck with Ogodei. Tolui fits the Redressor role well: he is the ‘loving relative’, being famous for his love of his brother. Ogodei is passive in the story, except that his suffering ‘evokes’ a sacrifical love.
Other societies connect spirit-inflicted illness to different emotions, their most negatively-coded.
The Daur sensitivity was… to hard-hearted neglect and its corollary, revenge, which moved inescapably through social life, from past hurts through the present and into the future. The cure of a patient by a shaman was thus never simply a cure but more like a drama-in-history, a revival of ‘memories’ which spread their tentacles into the present, giving the hue of ancient emotions to the present suffering… The shaman provided the public explanation. He could rearrange the jagged parts, sending back the spirit, ‘turning’ (nairuula—) the multiplicity of twisted human relationships, but everyone knew that this was only a brief respite, as the past had its momentum, caused by the endless activity, the blundering and the cruelties of people in the past.
Shifting the causes for misfortune to the mythicized past had one notable effect. It meant that human relations at the present could be envisaged as harmonious, as if they really corresponded to the clan ideal. The relations of aggression were with the spirits. Urgunge said, ‘No one quarrelled in Daur (i.e. in his childhood). You don’t want to believe it, but you have a Western point of view. They dared not quarrel…’ [A]nger was repressed and cast backwards to archetypal scenes. [Shamans and Elders, p. 270-1]
Those other ethnographers from the West, friars who visited the Mongols at home in the 13th century, noted the smooth relations in Mongol society. Nobody displayed interpersonal anger. John of Plano Carpini in a section ‘Of their character’ wrote,
They rarely or never contend with each other in word, and in action, never. Fights, brawls, wounding, murder are never met with among them.
Homegrown spirits, I extrapolate, have the anger displaced onto them as with Urgunge’s Daur Mongols of the 20th century; so that home-known diseases, even plague, become a theatre for social conflicts. But what happens when a new plague is met away from home, a more vicious plague?
I think my conclusion here is, we can’t do better than to read historical anthropology like Humphrey & Onon’s, to try to see how Mongols thought about the causes, the course and the cure of infectious disease. Urgunge constantly refers back to the 13th-century Mongols as a classic age, and relates his 20th-century lived experience to what he knows of them. The early 20th century was a disturbed time, and ethnography on how war, spirits and new diseases interacted then, can help us imagine the situation for 13th-century Mongols.
Such mental landscapes of disease-understanding are essential background for study of the Mongols and plague.
Image: Turner, Death on a Pale Horse, from the Commons.
This is the picture I had on my first cover for Amgalant Two. It didn’t signify plague, it signified Jamuqa. I still love it.
Bolormaa Galdan, Undraa Baatar, Baigalmaa Molotov, and Otgonbaatar Dashdavaa, Plague in Mongolia, Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases, Volume 10, Number 1, 2010, pp. 69-75. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/vbz.2009.0047
Monica H. Green, The Four Black Deaths, The American Historical Review, Volume 125, Issue 5, December 2020, Pages 1601–1631, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/rhaa511
Hymes, Robert (2014) “Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy,” The Medieval Globe: Vol. 1 : No. 1 , Article 12.
Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/tmg/vol1/iss1/12
Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon, Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Daur Mongols (Oxford UP 1996).