A history written by the losers

It’s a quip that occurs to people: that the Mongols’ history has been written by the losers. I quipped in my author’s note; I’ve seen a blogger say so, I think I’ve spotted it in a book. History is written by the victors? No, not when the victors don’t write, and the losers do, and the losers are us or more familiar to us. There must be other cases than the Mongols, where victors don’t have a foothold in the historical record and it’s the losing side that’s heard.

The Secret History was the Mongols’ first ever book. It’s famously non-propagandist, in that it bags Temujin on several counts, and besides it was secret, not disseminated; it came to (our) light centuries later. The Mongols haven’t written our history of them. Who has? China, Persia, old Europe. Our historians are used to written sources, and until such as Gideon Shelach pushed the Chinese records aside to dig in the earth with a clear mind, the Chinese wrote our history of the steppe peoples to their north. When do you get past traditions like that? Not yet. I look at my library and think, not yet.

I am discontent with half my steppe library. Severely discontent or disgruntled or driven to despair. What researcher has to say that? Not talking about quibbles here; I’ve got quibbles with every one of them like any healthy researcher: I mean scholarly books I’d cringe to have you read.

“Can you rec me a general history of the Mongols?”


“Biography of Genghis?”


Outside the field (maybe inside) people must assume that Mongol studies is going strong. To me, it’s in a sad state, or just getting its legs. I have to think it’s one of the worst-written histories we possess. Not that I’ve done a great survey of others… but what other field’s novelist (poor me) has to wear a flak-jacket in her library, grow rhinoceros hide, and needs anger management as she researches?

Yes, I bet you’ve got rotten books that say rotten things. But I believe Mongol history, unto this day and age, retains the effects of a history seen through enemy eyes.

How ignorant were the European friars who journeyed among the Mongols in the 13th century? What, we expect them to understand the society they see? They are a major source for us. We fail to question them, we often fail to question our sources, step back and back again, deeper and deeper into question. Can it ever be enough?

Settled peoples won’t understand a nomad people, without the greatest efforts of mind. We’re rude enough to write their history. Our inclinations lead us to the Chinese records, the Persian, as if they were the ones acquainted with the Turks and Mongols. Yes of course they were. I’ve seen Chinese scholarship criticised as slow to shake off old prejudices. Easy for us to say, but I haven’t heard much about ours. Our history books have been slow to shake off old prejudices – let me state. You can read straight history on the Mongols and still wade through those prejudices, up to your knees.

One statement of this truth is in the David Morgan book, The Mongols, 2nd edition. For the 2nd edition, 2007, after the 1st of 1985, he adds a bibliographical chapter, on what has happened in the scholarship since. To quote:

The two decades since then have been, perhaps, more productive historiographically than any comparable period, and the subject now has a distinctly different feel to it. This is not, for the most part, because startlingly revealing new primary sources have been discovered and published… It is more that perspectives have changed: historians have begun to look at different issues. They have dug deeper into Mongol history, and their emphasis has shifted away from purely military aspects, away from the death and destruction which, while it did undeniably characterise the initial Mongol imperial expansion, is now seen as very far from being all, or even what is most important, that there is to say about the extraordinary Mongol phenomenon. The results of this new research are to be found in specialised monographs, collective volumes and journal articles. There has not as yet been any attempt at an overall scholarly synthesis…

Alas no: we don’t have a new general history. The David Morgan is still transmitted from person to person with the magic tag of the ‘standard’ history – even when the book itself acknowledges how out of date its ideas are. For he has not updated his main text, from 1985. That main text is old-school and lacks sympathy for its subject; I wouldn’t have you read it; read the added chapter, not the rest.

Sympathy’s a common-use word in my kit; perhaps it’s a novelist’s word, but I believe you can’t write history, either, without a sympathy for your subject. You can’t see your subject without a sympathy. David Morgan’s book is an example: perfectly valid history (more or less) but there’s a distance, a remove, you’re stuck in an outsider’s perspective, you’re blind to the inside story: there is no explanation. History too needs insight, needs to enter into the experience of its subjects – or else you come to wrong conclusions, as a hostile witness does. I did not like the Morgan book; my hackles rose; at the end I thought, wrong wrong wrong. Yet it’s not the history that’s wrong. In a narrow sense.

I don’t want to pick on David Morgan… it’s because he has that ‘standard’ tag. I’m every bit as unhappy with the ‘standard’ biography (Paul Ratchnevsky).

Not every old book is bad. By God no – just as there are old-school still in operation. How enlightened is Karl Wittfogel, in 1949? How sympathetic Rene Grousset, 1939? I chose Genghis as a subject after I read Rene Grousset, so that the fundamentals of my portrait I owe to him. Afterwards, the battering my brain took from the less sympathetic Genghises that stalk the history books; the walls of prejudice I met; the stupidities I saw, in histories of repute. One’s experience of history isn’t meant to be this way, is it? It must be that the Mongols’ history has largely been written with hostility. We’ve learnt; first to question old European reports, where they roast babies on stakes; next we saw that the Persian-language accounts of the war are indeed by the losers. But massacre figures from those accounts still get quoted, you know. They are quoted in the Cambridge History of Iran: Volume 5, a contribution on ‘The Socio-Economic Condition of Iran under the Il-Khans’. I’ll have to insist that if you read this, you’ll read George Lane. Me, I’ve marked this article to never read again, or if I have to, with a very stiff scotch by my chair (possibly the bottle). It’s in a Cambridge, which I only bought three years ago; old Bernard Lewis was oft-scoffed for cutting down to size those massacre figures; Paul D. Buell has an unpublished paper on their absurdity. Of course those figures get the Mongols onto the Wikipedia list of most destructive human events in history.

I named Paul D. Buell. He has the nearest thing to a general history, that I thrust on people whenever I can: The A-Z of the Mongol World Empire. It’s stuffed with new findings and is definitely new-wave, not old-school. Unfortunately not in a standard-history format, but he’s ideal to do us one, and he gives rumour of “my forthcoming general history, with the late Angelo Anastasio, and Eugene N. Anderson, Mongols and the Outside World. This will include recent Mongolian history, as well as that of the period of empire, all looked at from a unified, Mongolian perspective.” Eugene N. Anderson, on my investigations, seems just as with-it as Paul Buell; he’s a cultural ecologist; I cannot express how sorely we need this book.

In stronger terms than David Morgan, I call the last twenty years a revolution in the scholarship. Thomas T. Allsen, George Lane, Isenbike Togan. A general reader’s book that incorporates these: what a difference that might make. We have popularisers. In 2004 I walked into Abbey’s Bookshop Sydney and saw side by side in the new releases, John Man and Jack Weatherford on Genghis Khan. I bought both in hardback at once, took them home and thought, is 2004 the year of a tide-change, out there on the street? To continue in a reminiscent vein… I felt a discomfort with the Jack Weatherford at first. I’ll admit that, because I know those who won’t have a bar of him. I called him apologetics, I feared he went too far (me, with the most sympathetic Genghis in fiction, by miles). But you know what? That was defensive huddling, that was my psychic bruises, after I’d run the gauntlet of my bad-Genghis library for years. And now? The situation that I see is simple in the extreme. People read Conn Iggulden or they read Jack Weatherford. Conn Iggulden perpetuates stereotypes. Jack Weatherford is out to overturn stereotypes. My allegiances? As simple.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain about non-specialists, but they depend on Mongol scholarship, don’t they? The eminent John Keegan writes about English livestock farmers when he comes to explain the Mongols; Azar Gat is also guesswork: these seek to place steppe warfare within their histories of war. There is a gulf of understanding, and you cannot guess, to cross it. Historians’ only hope is to soak themselves in anthropology or other culture study, which old-school doesn’t do. Here’s a tip: if he/she has a French name you stand a better chance. Do the French have a tradition of more cultural awareness in their history? I swear I remember a fairer mind from the French when I used to read about Arabs.

The purpose of this post, I suppose, is to beg people to be aware, to be extra-wary, when they read history on Mongols. Know that Mongol scholarship remains inadequate and as if in its infancy (perhaps any scholarship worth its salt knows this of itself). Keep in mind how rude it is for settled people to write nomads’ history. Not that I want us not to try, but it’s healthy to see a fundamental impossibility there. I liked David Christian because he gave me a sense that the steppe way of life, since extinct, was almost a different evolutionary road. That overstates David Christian’s case, no doubt, but you need a radical sense of departure – or else you don’t have a history of nomads in your hands.

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I’m an amateur Mongolist with my home library of academic books (no expense spared, to feed the novel; I live on baked beans) but without a university library or journals. This is the view from here.

Links are to Goodreads, either my reviews, the book page or the author page. I’ve done two lists on Goodreads, The Mongols for Beginners and The Mongols In-Depth, with my suggestions.


about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

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