Mongols and the plague

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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
.[16]

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. [262]

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. [263]

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.

 

Bibliography

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).  

The Wall project

I’m excited to see a project underway on a wall system that features in my novels:

perhaps the most enigmatic episode of ‘Great Wall’ construction in China and Mongolia: A wall system located in North China and Mongolia that covers a distance of over 3,500 km. The construction of this complex system, which includes long earthen walls and accompanying ditches, auxiliary structures and roads, is dated roughly to the 10th to 13th centuries CE, but it is unclear who built it, for what purposes, and how it functioned.

The Wall project, on the site of Gideon Shelach-Lavi:
https://gideonshelachlavi.huji.ac.il/wall-erc-project

This ‘enigmatic’ wall system has been wretchedly hard to research. Often referred to as the Jin walls on the guess they date to the Jurchen Jin dynasty, they are sketched in on maps, with sketchy accounts of them, and conjecture what they were for.

I make them Jurchen walls, and directed against Mongols — original Mongols, in the first place, and Great Mongols as Tchingis Khan sought to unify nomad peoples.

If you look at the map from the full project proposal:

The Northern Line on the map is known to Mongols as ‘the Tribute Wall’ in the first of my trilogy, Against Walls. This is an installation to police them, and where they have to bring their tribute in sheep to the Jin government.

The Southern Lines are half-built at the time of Against Walls. You can see on the map the southernmost of them, described by Temujin’s father Yesugei and friends — from the inside — as ‘jaws open wide’. These are placed to close off grass and divide steppe peoples from one another. The other activity on the Southern Lines I am currently writing about in the third of my trilogy, Scavenger City.

The Wall project has a fascinating working hypothesis:

Our research hypothesis is that the medieval wall system was not built as a defense against invading armies, but rather as a means to monitor and sometimes stop the movement of nomadic peoples and their herds. The Wall project will test this hypothesis against a more conventional view of this wall (and other long-walls in world history) as a military installation.

I have been guided before by work of Gideon Shelach-Lavi, and this hypothesis — that walls might function as ‘a means to monitor and sometimes stop the movement of nomadic peoples’ — seems a possibility on lines familiar to me from his previous. I did a post on nomads as state evaders (https://amgalant.com/nomads-state-evasion/), where I squee over a chapter he wrote on how people might choose a pastoralist lifestyle. Were walls, sometimes, to hem them in?

From the project proposal:

The motives behind the construction of the MWS [medieval wall system], its political context and ecological implications, are highly relevant for the understanding of the complex history of China and Mongolia on the eve of Chinggis Khan’s rise to power.

In the third of my Amgalant trilogy, the rest of the Southern Line is built in reaction once Tchingis stands as a champion of People in Felt Tents. Along this wall, nomads are forcibly settled in order to control them. It becomes a battle over lifestyles.

I eagerly await more news from the project, hoping I can profit by some of its research before I finish Scavenger City.

Temujin’s Jesus tribute act at Baljuna

It isn’t often we find a new primary source, with new material. The Akhbar-i Moghulan by Qutb al-Din Shirazi (1236-1311) is a collection of historical notes, discovered in a miscellany of papers and first published in Qum, Iran, 2009. George Lane has put out an annotated translation, available cheaply in ebook.

The work opens with a single episode chosen from the life of Chinggis Khan, at the muddy waters of Baljuna where Chinggis was in the trough of his fortunes. Legends and variant stories grew up around Baljuna, and the Akhbar-i Moghulan has one we have not heard before. The text runs:

Early accounts of Temujin record events in Wadi Baljuna, which is close to the lands of the Chinese. His followers had gone without food for a few days, when one amongst them succeeded in shooting down a desert sparrow. The bird was cooked and then it was presented to their leader. Temujin ordered that the bird be divided equally into seventy portions, and from that he took his own share that was no larger than any of the other portions. It was because of his willingness to share the tribulations of his men and because of his righteousness that people became his devotees and followers and were prepared to surrender their souls to him.

In his notes Lane says, ‘This episode recounting the magical feeding of the seventy is mentioned in no other source’. Lane has also written the entry for this work in the online Encyclopaedia Iranica, where he is more explicit on the ‘magical’ nature of the feeding:

The one anecdote concerning Čengiz Khan portrays the Great Khan in an almost biblical light, magically distributing the meager rations between his beleaguered faithful in the valley of Baljuna, dividing the meat of one desert sparrow among seventy and “from that sharing and righteousness the people became devotees and followers, and towards him they surrendered their souls”.
http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/akhbar-e-mogolan

By ‘biblical’ he obviously means miracles where Jesus feeds a crowd with five loaves and two fishes, that multiply.

Until I came to Lane’s annotations, I took the division of the sparrow to be an exaggerated/impossible rendition of a concern for equal shares of food (and other stuff). In Against Walls I wrote:

Luxury clothes and clothes-stuffs were a major item of trade, the major, if not the one and only item coveted by nomads that they do not make. It is lightweight wealth, easy to circulate, and infinitely divisible. A strip, a shred of cloth, sumptuous and opulent, can be sewn onto one’s felts and furs – as a sheep can feed an army if you have an army to feed. And the cutting-up thereof, and the counting-out of mutton inches, has a quasi-religious care and solemnity seen otherwise in apportionment of spoils.

I have only the translation to base on, but I think it might be either: an impossible but not miraculous splitting of a sparrow, so that seventy people each get a shred, or a tribute act to Jesus with the loaves and fishes.

I do Jesus tribute in my portrait of Temujin. On the way to Baljuna, at the bottom of his fortunes, Temujin offers to give himself up to an obsessed enemy, and have his head cut off on terms that save his people. Bo’orchu answers him that the enemy wants to ruin Temujin’s image, not help him to a grand self-sacrifice: ‘He wants to expose the effigy for a scruffy rag of felt. He doesn’t want Yesus Christ’.

At Baljuna, on the theme of fairness with food, I tell a variant story of Central Asian traders who arrive with sheep for sale. In his destitute state Temujin can’t pay for the sheep, but he stakes his life to the wary traders that his starving followers won’t steal.

“I see you fear my troops. For that you have no cause. They are hungry, but we won’t rob traders.”

“No insult, Your Majesty. Hungry troops have stomach for strong action. Hungry troops we know.”

He was insulted, nevertheless. “Mine you do not. I’ll be your hostage. Water your sheep, and if a sheep of yours is butchered by my troops, you can truss and butcher me.”

They hovered between a smile and another curtsy. “That… is an extreme guarantee.”

“It is nothing, for my life is in my soldiers’ hands, quite aside from the matter of your sheep. Robbery I won’t have in my army, and these, as you can see, have proved fast to me in my misfortunes. The fettle they are in – their gruesome visage – is the badge of their integrity and not a sign that they are rogues.”

On this promise the traders stay, since they need the water at Baljuna too, and Temujin has time for a charm campaign. He refuses to join them in a sheep feast with his officers, but instead sends his several amputees from their recently lost battle to eat a sheep. In the end the traders are impressed enough to give the flock of sheep to Temujin, and expect payment when his fortunes rise. They tell him this decision through a story about their Prophet Muhammad.

On the third day they came to him and Hasan said, “King, there is a story of our Prophet. He had marched on Mecca and was encamped outside. To judge how dangerous he was the Quraysh sent Urwa to him, who said, ‘Muhammad, you march to war against your own clan – the bluest blood of the Arabs – with slaves and scraps from this-and-that tribe. I warn you, the Quraysh have their milch camels out in leopard skins and swear you won’t enter Mecca. And this motley crew you call Muslims? I see them desert you tomorrow.’ Abu Bakr, who sat beside the Prophet, cried enraged, ‘Suck your moon idol’s nipples. We desert him?’ Urwa watched the Prophet among his companions, watched their treatment of him. When he washed they ran for the water he had used; if he spat they ran to that; if a hair shed from his head they pounced on it. After his observations he returned into Mecca and told the Quraysh, ‘On the one hand these Muslims of his amount to fifteen hundred and are only armed with swords. On the other hand, I have been to see Chosroes in Persia, and I have been to see Caesar in New Rome, but never have I seen a king treated by his subjects the way Muhammad’s companions treat him. The people I saw with him won’t drop off from him, no matter what. Come to your own conclusions.’”

Of course, they mean to say they have seen a similar spirit among those with Temujin while he’s down and out. The traders enter his service, ‘surrender their souls’ to him in Shirazi’s words. They are his first Muslims. He already has Christians, for steppe Christianity was a thing, and so the Jesus (‘Yesus’ on the steppe) references are allowed. Through these Muslims I have Temujin do a Prophet Muhammad tribute act as well.

Lane illustrates Shirazi’s Baljuna tale with two Dashi Namdakov sculptures of Chinggis Khan as visionary with closed eyes, Chinggis in his spiritual aspect (here’s a video of one of these sculptures introduced at Marble Arch, London). He thinks Dashi’s ‘Divine Chinggis’ conveys the ‘biblical style’ of the anecdote in the text. In other words, we need to think of his charisma, and accept from the sources that virtues of unselfishness and humility were a part of it. Another source quote that always struck me as Jesus-y is (as paraphrased in Imaginary Kings) ‘he’d give you the shirt off his back, or step down from his horse and hand that to you and go on foot’. Conscious that I had to create a figure who earned such devotion—earned in the reader’s mind as well as from his followers—I early on turned to religious imagery, and invoked Jesus both explicitly and indirectly.

You notice Muhammad doesn’t speak in that story of him; he sits there in the centre stage but in the background of the action. It’s all about his followers. Last week I read Naomi Standen on ‘followership’ in Inner Asian politics, ‘followership as practiced voluntarily and from positions of political strength’, that is, people’s preference to follow, even when qualified to lead. Instead of a ‘shoving match’ where everyone wants to climb to the top of the heap—a narrative she thinks laid over the sources by the Western political tradition—Standen suggests we imagine a more cooperative ‘dance’. Followers have agency; in premodern conditions on the steppe, followings confer leadership upon a person of their choice. Standen writes of the 7th-10th centuries, and sees traces of these Inner Asian attitudes around leadership ‘at least’ until the 13th century and the age of Chinggis Khan. I feel I have extended them into my Tchingis’ story. Followers make Tchingis, and this seemed to me evident in the Secret History’s tales about his rise. Certainly my young Temujin fits the ‘reluctant leader’ trope. Standen points out that leadership may not be sought by all potential contenders but seen as a ‘responsibility’ that individuals feel they are better off without. I have Temujin’s father describe the khanship to his son in exactly those terms: a heavy responsibility that nobody wants. But there’s more to it than the negative: it’s not only avoidance of leadership, it’s that followership is valued, is valourised. Scholars have observed that the Secret History’s heroes are his followers, not him. As I have him say, ‘Temujin is me; Tchingis is us’. In writing, I thought that religious movements were an analogue I can use to understand this group feeling around an inspirational figure.

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

Women and art in the ARB

I’ve reviewed two titles for the Asian Review of Books, with more in the works. These are two terrific titles to start out on. Please read and share the reviews.

“Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire” by Anne F Broadbridge

“Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art” by Roxann Prazniak

 

 

I offered to review Mongol history titles for them after they took my novel for review, the results of which are here:

against-walls-by-bryn-hammond

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

Mongols, Rape and Popular Culture

If most places in the world of George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire have a rape culture, still Dothraki are different; Dothraki have a society based on rape. Others rape in war, but only Dothraki rape at wedding celebrations – in the open, ‘like animals’, as the norm. Dothraki are meant to be reminiscent of Mongols and other steppe peoples. Why Mongols? Why rape? Our popular culture (I’ll use ‘ours’ in this post about largely English-language fiction, to own it, being a white woman, British-Australian. I don’t need to address PoC with a post like this.) – our popular culture equates Mongols with rape. It goes unquestioned. The Mongols raped their way through China, Iran and Europe, is the common wisdom, and the common material for fiction on or inspired by the Mongols. But how historical is this? In this post I look at the evidence, and at our habit of stigmatising the Mongols with rape, above other peoples – such as ourselves – in fiction.

Dothraki are animalised sexually: they have sex in public like their horses; the Dothraki sexual position is ‘dog-style’, from behind; the bestial sexual customs of Dothraki are kept front and centre in the story.

The Dothraki mate like the animals in their herds. There is no privacy in a khalasar, and they do not understand sin or shame as we do.

She was afraid of the Dothraki, whose ways seemed alien and monstrous, as if they were beasts in human skin and not true men at all.

Yet every night… Drogo would come to her tent… to ride her as relentlessly as he rode his stallion. He always took her from behind, Dothraki fashion…

Daenerys teaches her husband Khal Drogo to couple face to face – like human beings.

It is instructive to look at Martin’s first novel Game of Thrones (1996) alongside a novel of the same vintage, the 90s, Pamela Sargent’s historical fiction about Genghis Khan, Ruler of the Sky (1993). Possibly Martin read Sargent, both being in the American science fiction crowd, but I won’t hang an argument on that. Though dated to the 90s, of course, Martin’s fiction is still very much active in our culture, while Sargent’s has become a lesser-known. But Martin conceived of the Dothraki in the same decade that Sargent used the Mongols to tell a story about rape. Sargent has more frequent rape in her novel, and more violent, than Martin manages in his sections on Dothraki. Yet she comes from a very different place. I knew her as a feminist SF writer and editor of the Women of Wonder anthologies. Her reason to write about rape was a feminist one. Her choice of setting was the same as Martin’s: let’s use the Mongols.

To fail to ask why is racist. On racist stereotypes bell hooks says: ‘the sexual stereotype of black men [is] as overly sexual, manly, as “rapists”.’ Jeff Yang talks of American ‘stereotypes of Asian males as emasculated and nonsexual.’ When Black means hyper-sexual, while Asian means emasculated, where do the Mongols sit? They are Asian, but they are everybody’s rapists. They have been fantasized as a threat to white women. An old scare about the Mongol stain emerging in Europeans down the centuries has been replaced by a DNA meme – ‘1 in 200 men alive today descended from Genghis Khan’ – which on investigation (you can do this on the internet) is pseudo-scientific tripe.[1] The assumption behind both memes is a lot of rape. Never mind that when a similar percentage of modern European populations are attributed to Charlemagne, the case of the white Christian king is not immediately explained by the proposal that he had intercourse with every woman in sight.

Evidence?

Evidence for the early thirteenth century – Chinggis Khan’s conquests – is simply insufficient to say much about rape. Did Mongol armies rape in war more than other armies, so that they are justifiably associated with such stories? Did they rape at home, more than other societies? Was rape more prevalent among them than we call the baseline, so that we choose them to be the protagonists of such stories? The answer is: not to our knowledge. It can’t be proved either way.

Here’s a transcript of Jack Weatherford when questioned at a talk:

I know of no documented case where [rape in war] happened… The whole Mongol masculinity is so different than ours… Steppe culture in general – rape was not a part of it… To my knowledge, [rape in war] did not happen. I cannot prove this, but no-one can prove to me it did happen.[2]

Weatherford goes out on a limb, not for the first time, since we can scarcely imagine war without rape. Most obviously, he discounts the ‘horrid acts to women’ in Ibn al-Athir. Weatherford is not alone in this judgement. To Ibn al-Athir, who watched from Mosul out of the Mongols’ reach, as to Juzjani who escaped and wrote from Delhi, Mongols were evil and prone to every evil act. There is no possibility of scrutiny of what they heard and wrote down. How are we to distinguish rumour, news, and horror tales from the thirteenth century, when we can’t today? We can assess historians.

Juvaini is the most detailed source for the sack of cities in Chinggis Khan’s war against the Khwarazm Shah in Turkestan and Iran – for the worst of the massacres. In his description of sack and massacre, a city to be plundered has its residents ordered outside and kept under watch, ‘men and women’ the same. Where the population is to be punished with massacre, they are killed without distinction. Indiscriminately – but indiscriminately does not mean an unleashed slaughter. Massacres weren’t messy but done with discipline and efficiency, each soldier allocated an equal number to kill. Juvaini’s usual ‘men and women’ might be thought a pat phrase, if not for a single city where the procedure changes. At Merv, under Tolui’s command, Mongols put the men and women into separate groups. Juvaini takes the opportunity to sentimentalise the women’s situation:

The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out onto the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women from the men. Alas! how many peri-like ones [peris are fairies] did they drag from the bosoms of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!

If he had reason to write like this at other sites, he would. At Merv, both groups were massacred just the same, without mention of a sexual motive for splitting them up. Splitting them caused upset, however – we see from Juvaini’s sentiments. It would not be efficient to split them. Treatment of women was a flashpoint, likely to cause trouble. Juvaini and Ibn al-Athir have two different stories about the death of a well-known religious scholar at Bukhara. In Ibn al-Athir, the Mongols commit ‘horrid acts with women’ while people look on and weep; some, the scholar and his son among them, cannot accept the sight and choose rather to protest, fight and be inevitably killed. Juvaini has this same religious scholar give the local imam a speech of quiescence. It’s possible both have the right of it: pious resignation until he challenged Mongols on women. Protest did not have to be about sexual assault; it was enough that Mongols killed women just like men – they did not make the distinctions a chivalrous society was used to.

It is not that we don’t hear about women, it is not that they are ignored. The explicitness or vagueness of language is a problem. For example, the word ‘ravishment’ in the quote above at Merv. ‘Ravish’ means ‘to seize away’, like Juvaini’s other escalating sentences; it can also mean ‘to rape’. The word is an ambiguous translation of an imprecise original. Juvaini makes some use of the stock phrase ‘rapine and pillage’. Rape and pillage go together (‘like a horse and carriage’, Sinatra might sing) in our speech habits too. The Mongol army was alien to most of our witnesses. It behaved in ways unfamiliar to them. A stock phrase cannot be conclusive. Juvaini records a sentence from an eyewitness at Bukhara, circulated by survivors for its ‘succinct Persian’: ‘They came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed.’ Absent is ‘they raped.’

Silence is not evidence that a thing did not occur, but my aim here is to prove our lack of evidence. In a lack of evidence, our assumptions rush into the breach, with those auxiliaries our fantasies.

I’m going to attempt a general comment. In my view, industrial-scale rape alongside industrial-scale massacre can be ruled out. Silence is not evidence. Even so, Juvaini, who does not stint on description of the massacres, and who sentimentalises women victims, does not have rape as an official practice, and that is weighty. And if it wasn’t ordered, it wasn’t done, large-scale – not in an army whose discipline was inexplicable to witnesses from other societies. Mongols laid enormous stress on communal action. You did it in a group or you didn’t do it. This was the grounds of their efficiency. To exceed orders – to do violence where he had specified no violence – was severely punished by Chinggis. Rape, I think, at sacks or at the scene of massacres, was either ordered or frowned upon. No in between is likely.

What about captured women?

In the sacks I dealt with above, it is wives and daughters of the (Qangli Turk) garrisons who are taken into captivity, while women of the main city populations (Iranian) are not. Those led into captivity are lost sight of, even queens. The Khwarzm Shah’s mother eked out a ‘miserable existence’ (no details) among the Mongols for twelve years; Chinggis Khan gave other royal women of Khwarazm to Muslims in his service.

We should not think of captive women as necessarily in the custody of men. Often they were distributed to royal and noble Mongol women, who ran households (these may seem to us more like caravan convoys) staffed and well-populated by women.  Pascha, who by luck has her story told in the sources, is one of these.[3] Friar William of Rubruck is in the Mongol capital Karakorum:

We were discovered by a woman from Metz in Lorraine, named Pascha, who had been captured in Hungary… She belonged to the household of the lady who had been a Christian and whom I mentioned above, and told us about the unheard-of destitution she had suffered prior to her arrival at the camp. But now she was well enough off: she had a young Russian husband, by whom she had three very fine little boys, and he knew how to construct dwellings, which they regard as a worthy craft.

After a journey on foot from Europe – a journey the friar himself, on horseback with Mongol companions, found a harsh trial – she was given to an Oirat wife of Mongke Khan. Intriguingly, she has been wed to another captive. Did her mistress marry them, to make the useful household unit they are when the friar finds them? Friar William makes no inquiry or comment about sexual abuse of this young woman.

A more extraordinary captive’s story is that of Fatima. A Muslim woman captured in the Khwarazm campaign, she became a companion to Queen Toregene, who, once in charge of the state as a khan’s widow, made Fatima de facto prime minister.

Ordinary stories do not get preserved.

One thing we can say with certainty is that ‘miscegenation’, which disgusts Dothraki, did not bother Mongols in the least. They were exogamous to begin with, and Chinggis’s sons and grandsons had wives from the royal families of defeated enemies. Also, adoption of enemy children was common practice: Temujin does this with steppe enemies, and then with a Tangut boy too. When Dothraki after a victory are raping women over piles of corpses, Daenerys again tries to civilize them: ‘If your warriors would mount these women, let them take them gently and keep them for wives… let them bear you sons.’ Qotho, a cruel Dothraki, laughs: ‘Does the horse breed with the sheep?’ But Mongols did not need to have such a conversation.

And Chinggis Khan himself? Now I have words with Rashid al-Din. The more gaudy tales about Chinggis Khan often come from Rashid, whose account of Chinggis has a legendary flavour, in distinction from his coverage of the grandchildren’s times, where he is in sharp focus. It is Rashid who tells us Chinggis had ‘nearly five hundred wives and concubines, each taken from a different tribe. Some he requested after the Mongol fashion of marriage, but most he took as booty when he conquered a territory or tribe.’ Hundreds of wives and hundreds of children is not gospel, although it is an internet fact. Rashid al-Din, prime minister, ex-Jewish Muslim who wrote the first world history, was nothing if not representative of the new cultural mash-up of the Mongols in government in Iran and China. When he writes, Mongol rulers have harems and concubines, but these are not Mongol words, and Chinggis kept to a frugal Mongol lifestyle. True, Chinggis’ wives after Borte were political signals; he took one from each steppe people who joined him, and then demanded a princess in treaty with Tangut and China, this being a clause that signified he had the better of them in the treaty. Further than that we are in guesswork, and Rashid’s five hundred looks like an exaggerated brag that he conquered five hundred tribes and peoples. In addition to Borte’s nine children, Rashid names four others, from women of the steppe. He doesn’t claim there were more offspring, in spite of the number of wives. To lose track of offspring would be suspicious, what with the prestige of the Chinggis line. Children from a casual rape were not thought nothing of: twice in his genealogies of Chinggisids, Rashid tells us that a certain child – a named Chinggis descendent – was begotten when his father had sex, once, with a slave’s wife. In each case the father isolated the woman in a tent away from her husband to see whether a pregnancy resulted, afterwards returned her to her family, and brought up the child. Rashid al-Din doesn’t leave out of his Chinggis count two who died in infancy, and his practice is to include daughters as well as sons. Thirteen children looks like a complete list.

Most general histories of the Mongols repeat Rashid’s five hundred wives figure and repeat the DNA meme. They do not offer a specific discussion of rape. It isn’t for the sake of Chinggis’ reputation that I want more scrutiny, more caution; it’s because these claims foster a connection between ‘Mongols’ and ‘rape’. Wives acquired in conquest are not the same as later institutionalised harems. Historians who write jocularly – one recent history book has Chinggis ‘go forth and multiply’ – need to remember they are writing about rape. What ends up on the internet is that Genghis ‘f___d every woman in sight’.

Rashid, too, is responsible for a quote that has grown to be ubiquitous; you can scarcely read about Genghis Khan without it. Because it’s so perfect – too perfect, we ought to suspect.

A man’s greatest pleasure is to defeat his enemies, to exterminate them and seize everything they have; to watch their wives weep, to ride their smooth steeds, to treat their lovely queens and concubines as pyjamas and pillows, to gaze on and kiss their rose-tinted faces, to suck their sweet lips berry-tinted like their nipples.

This quote is very often put into plainer language, so as to sound more like a thing Genghis Khan might say and less like a Persian historian. You’ve met the flowery language of Persian historians with Juvaini and his peris, above. To fiddle with the quote may seem like a fair way to do history. It is not a fair way to do history. You can’t change the words into more believable ones and then present them as what Genghis is known to have said. I’m afraid that’s cheating with the evidence. Did Chinggis talk about pyjamas and pillows? No. Did he say this at all, in his own language? His own language can be found solely in the Secret History of the Mongols, the only extant primary source. It is where to hear how the early Mongols thought and spoke, what stories they told themselves, what figures of speech they used; where to study their imaginations. I can only answer that similar talk of the use of women’s bodies, or of war as a pleasure (rather than a condition of life) does not occur in the Secret History.

So what about that Mongol lifestyle, what about abduction of women in steppe society? On this our source is the Secret History and we know so much because both Temujin’s mother and his wife were abducted. Since it is Temujin’s family we tell the story, and what we do is add violence. Value-add is violence-add, to us. Almost always, we have Borte, Temujin’s chief wife, raped violently by the man she is given to in an enemy tribe. Both Pamela Sargent and Stephanie Thornton in her novel The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan (2014) make him rape her in public, for humiliation or as normal treatment of a captured wife. None of this is from the Secret History. The text only says that this man ‘cared for’ or ‘kept’ her, and he is given a conscience in the story. He is her husband by coercion, but he is not a violent type and does not insult her. Mongol society had its rules around abducted women, had its expectations. In our fictions, we imagine violence instead.

Two incidents of mass sexual violence

Note: These two stories, post-Chinggis, are not told in the Secret History either. Again I have to say they are not gospel.

The Oirat had flouted Ogodei’s instructions as to where to give away their daughters. His new instructions were to assemble the girls of Oirat, four thousand by report, and whoever was present had to rape them. For once – and I mean once – we have in our sources a scene out of Game of Thrones; this is the kind of thing that happened at the celebrations when ‘Daenerys Targaryen wed Khal Drogo with fear and barbaric splendour’. Now let’s notice the differences. The Mongols thought this a tyrannical act and a disgrace to Ogodei. It was an enormity and a one-off. Ogodei included it in his four misdeeds when near the end of his life he gave in public his own verdict on his khanship, with a list of four things he did right and four things he did wrong. For Dothraki, on the other hand, this is perfectly normal behaviour.

Tolui on campaign in China is being pursued by an army much bigger than his own.

Because of their own multitude and superiority and the fewness of the Mongols, pride and vanity had taken root in their brains and they looked with the glance of contempt upon the Mongol army and spoke big words, saying: ‘We shall encircle these Mongols and their king, and take them prisoner, and do this and that to their womenfolk.’ And they gave expression to shameful ideas and unworthy desires.

After a fraught few days the Mongols defeat the Chinese army.

And because they had jeered at the Mongols, speaking big words and expressing evil thoughts, it was commanded that they should commit the act of the people of Lot with all the Chinese who had been taken prisoner.

‘The act of the people of Lot’ — for Rashid al-Din, with reference to the Sodom story in the Quran — is anal intercourse. Tolui takes revenge for the enemy’s obscene threats to Mongol women, and he takes it on the bodies of those who threatened. He seems to have invented this revenge for the situation. We don’t know what he might have heard of as a precedent. By this time the Mongols have fought halfway around the known world, and been exposed to much in foreign practices in warfare. Although this campaign is in North China, the enemy threats had teeth because Mongol women operated near front lines, involved in the baggage and in custody and transportation of loot. We think ‘camp followers’, but this is Mongol wives and daughters in official function.[4] It is worth noting too that obscenity has not been found a Mongol speech habit, in times when we can attest such things; foreign obscenities might have been upsetting.

You notice these are both cases of ordered rape – not licensed abandonment. They were ordered to rape and they did, whether tribal comrades or Chinese men. Mongols’ obedience to orders astonishes outsiders. Obedience is a dangerous weapon, as we know.

Tales of our own masculinity

Where I have dots in my transcript of Jack Weatherford, he explains to the questioner that Mongolians do not have the ‘macho’ culture of the West. It’s typical that Temujin is younger than his wife, the other way round from the West. Weatherford briefly sketches out a masculinity his audience doesn’t recognise. Mongolia is having its Me Too moment, but the terms won’t be exactly the same. Masculinity is not a constant across cultures, although the ‘young men’ bracket towards which much Mongol fiction is aimed, aren’t asked to consider this. They want to see themselves. In the first of Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, Wolf of the Plains about young Genghis, masculinity is written as emotional lock-down and an absent father. Everything womanly is devalued and thought weak, down to the wives’ tribe Olqunot. There is no honour in this tribe living off giving wives to other tribes — unlike what’s in the Secret History, where the wife-giving tribes have prestige and boast of their peaceful relations to others. Instead, in Iggulden, they are debased, despised, and they bash their wives and daughters. Temujin’s father Yesugei cannot express his feelings, and his sons have to work very hard for a slight word of approval from him. It is a script of use to boys who have a difficult relationship with their fathers, and who see that men around them have trouble to emote. This isn’t criticism: it is right that our fiction be written for us. The bad thing is the ‘feedback loop’ whereby we believe this about Mongols – and disbelieve pictures that don’t resemble this.

Helen Young says that readers are caught in a ‘feedback loop’ in which George R.R. Martin’s work helps to create a neomedieval idea of the Middle Ages, which becomes their idea of what the Middle Ages ‘really’ looked like, which is then used to defend Martin’s work as ‘realistic’ because it matches their idea of the Middle Ages.[5]

If we come to acknowledge the simple truth that there is no reason to pin rape culture on the Mongols ahead of other medieval societies, that would be a great step forward. But at this point in the feedback loop, to disassociate Mongols and rape in the public mind frankly looks impossible. When we choose to portray Mongol men (against the evidence) as ultra-masculine, non-emotional and anti-weak, with a contempt for women, we prime them to be rapists. We prime ourselves to think of them as rapists.

Hyper-masculinity and its ills is Sargent’s main subject in her novel on Genghis Khan. Like Iggulden, she addresses a Western readership to say what she wants to say about men to them. She has a poignant story of a son, the consolation of the women’s quarters while he is a child, who at adolescence learns a shame of the womanly, acts from then on as if he despises his mother-figures, and takes his place in the ranks of men for whom rape is normal sex. This is a terribly sad story and told for a purpose. But whether we want to teach boys how to be men, or whether we want to spotlight toxic masculinity, in either case we write about Western culture. We displace Asian masculinities, we project ours into a Mongol setting. In a funny way this means we do examine our own rape culture when we write about the Mongols (or Dothraki). But we avoid admitting it’s ourselves. The distance of the Mongol setting lets us look at hyper-masculinity, emotional inability, and rape culture – our problems. Sargent was either aware that the masculinity she wrote about was Western or else she universalised. In her feminist fiction it is half-acknowledged that our toxic masculinity is the subject. She still badmouths the Mongols in order to do this, so I’m conflicted about her fiction.

You can see the difference if you watch English-subtitled films made in Mongolia about Chinggis Khan and his times. To grow up and be a man does not need that rejection of the mother, of the woman, seen in our fiction. The way Mongolian films portray grown men and their mothers – through the story of Chinggis Khan – would get a laugh, or an embarrassed titter, in Hollywood. These films are also far less violent than would float in Hollywood.

Jochi’s paternity makes a case study. Jochi is the child conceived around the time of Borte’s abduction and which man fathered him, Temujin or the enemy husband, was uncertain. The story we like to tell is about disputed paternity, and very often we have Temujin reject Jochi or hold his origins against him. The Japanese movie Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea (directed by Shinichiro Sawai, 2007) makes disputed paternity the crux of the plot. Temujin’s mother and wife were both abducted; in the film first Temujin has to prove he is a true son, and then Jochi has to prove the same to Temujin. Both were in danger of infanticide at the hands of their fathers. Infanticide, as far as I know, is not attested in Mongol life. We hear a great deal about adoption of children, which suggests the steppe’s problem was underpopulation, not an excess of mouths to feed.

A scene in the Secret History tells us differently. Chagatai, the next son, is disgruntled to be number two and calls Jochi a bastard. Chinggis and one of his oldest friends react with shock and dismay. Jochi answers Chagatai, ‘Our father has always treated me the same as his other sons, and now you…’ The Secret History, I say again, is the only extant primary source. But audiences (in Japan this time) want a tale about the importance to men of paternity. So Temujin’s generosity to Jochi becomes a grudge in the great majority of our fiction. An honourable exception is Sergei Bodrov’s movie Mongol (2007), which has Temujin cheerfully adopt not one but two children of Borte’s by other men.

The Stallion Who Mounts the World

Dothraki await ‘the stallion who mounts the world.’

The stallion is the khal of khals promised in ancient prophecy, child. He will unite the Dothraki into a single khalasar and ride to the ends of the earth, or so it was promised. All the people of the world will be his herd.

Clearly the Stallion references Genghis Khan, whom Juvaini calls ‘the world-conqueror’. Perhaps I have said enough to make you see how unMongol this imagery is. It is a sexualised image that certainly the Mongols did not use in any official capacity, such as this Dothraki prophecy and public acclamation. It is fantasy. It is of the same stuff as the DNA meme. I have seen newspapers tell us that the DNA study means Genghis Khan was the alpha male of rapists in world history. I have seen history books say almost as much. But this is our sexualisation of conquest. The Mongols, to my knowledge, never spoke in these terms, or inclined towards such images. This is us.

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Interested in a different view of the Mongols? Try my fiction.

Buy Amgalant One

image at WikiCommons
Description from the Commons: ‘The Bulgarian Martyresses, 1877 painting by the Russian painter Konstantin Makovsky, depicting the rape of Bulgarian women by Africanised Ottoman bashi-bazouks during the suppression of the April Uprising a year earlier, served to mobilise public support for the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) waged with the proclaimed aim of liberating the Bulgarians.’

I use this piece of propaganda because a writer whose work has been important to me, Dostoyevsky, fired up into one of his worst phases of ethnonationalism and issued racialised propaganda for this war himself, due to how newspapers wrote up the rape of Bulgarian women by Turks.

[1] You can begin here: http://nautil.us/issue/56/perspective/youre-descended-from-royalty-and-so-is-everybody-else

UPDATE
Prof Christopher Atwood gives a summary at 47:40 of this talk:
The Basics of the Mongol Empire

[2] ‘Jack Weatherford speaks about Genghis Khan at Embry-Riddle Honors Series’ on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v81_hm8T92c. Weatherford on rape begins at 1:06:24.

[3] Carolyne Larrington in Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (I.B. Taurus 2016) says that Pascha’s circle were voluntary visitors, ‘Europeans who had come to trade or work there’. No, this is a community of captives.

[4] Some primary sources on women here, translated by Paul D. Buell: http://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/7.1/buell.html

[5] Shiloh Carroll, Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Boydell & Brewer 2018), 6%.

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

Invent No Evil: hopepunk history

“The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.”  

 

For me, the above short message (sent on Tumblr) is self-explanatory. I had for years pulled faces, quietly, at grimdark, and ‘hopepunk’ is a fabulous name for its antidote. If you need more, the originator of the word wrote a blog post: One atom of justice by fantasy novelist Alexandra Rowland.

Grimdark has no room for human improvement. Hopepunk, by Rowland’s explainer, scarcely believes in improvement – it isn’t ‘noblebright’ where the world can be set right, but in spite of that, it’s activist.

My fiction practice is activist. An example that I care about: execution.

Mongols have a reputation for a cut-his-head-off approach to justice. They even had back then, when ‘to punish in the way of Chinggis Khan’s Jasaq’ meant a capital punishment. At once I have to tell you two items of information to mitigate this impression. One is, over the course of Mongol history punishments inclined towards fines. Another is, when in government in China the Mongols greatly reduced (or simplified) the preexistent list of capital crimes. [1]  Even so, execution was a visible feature of life and in my story of the rise of Tchingis Khan I had frequent close encounters with execution to write about. How does a grimdark author write about executions, and how does a hopepunk?

A hopepunk author who hates capital punishment today (me) won’t let go to waste those ‘mitigations’ I mentioned. Behind a trend towards fines, there must have been sentiments, attitudes, people who didn’t like execution altogether. A hopepunk author notices an extraordinary reluctance to execute known individuals in the Secret History of the Mongols. A hopepunk author is fascinated by the information that Mongols considered it a cruelty to let a sentenced person wait for death.

Unlike Texas today, where you can wait on death row for years. Are you astonished to hear that 13th century Mongols have a critique of present-day execution in Texas on grounds of inhumanity? You shouldn’t be. Medieval Europe also offers critiques of modern indifference, if you look for them, if you want to write about them. Grimdark doesn’t want to: grimdark paints it black, and Grimdark Genghis is ‘ruthless’, ‘merciless’ – adjectives demonstrably untrue, but nailed onto his name in grimdark history. Grimdark fiction (and I have a certain fiction in mind), makes up execution practices, as hideous as possible, and presents them as ‘steppe culture’.

Aside from the demonisation of steppe culture, what does this do, what does this contribute to? It lowers our expectations for humans; it leads us to think, when our ‘civilizations’ are stripped away, this is what we are. Dystopian SF or barbarian HF: the grimdarks of both teach this lesson.

In the hopepunk camp myself, I think the lesson is untrue. Both camps can dig up evidence, of course, and frankly, I’m persuaded it’s a matter of temperament, where you sit. I won’t convert a grimdarker with my little pieces of evidence about the humanity of Mongols, or Vikings, or us after the breakdown of society in the imminent apocalypse.

I use execution as an example because no author has been more influential on me than Dostoyevsky, and his own close call with execution often turns up in his fiction. He describes the psychological cruelty of a wait for execution. His descriptions are what Mongols saw and knew, when execution was so near at hand and not removed from public view. In Europe at the same time, we probably think of public spectacle and ghoulish crowds. In the midst of this, though, I am only the more struck by accounts of times when a crowd decided to be sorry for the criminal instead, and made a great emotional event of their grief and sympathy. In an incident recorded by Beyhaqi, an ex-vizier is executed in the streets of Balkh, 1059. ‘The order was shouted out for people to stone him, but no-one touched a stone and everyone was weeping uncontrollably.’ Silver coins were given out to bribe ‘the rabble’ into picking up stones, but they didn’t fancy it, and the executioner had to strangle him. Perhaps it’s because I’m hopepunk that I find this a rare insight, and deeply indicative.

Hopepunk doesn’t paint it black; hopepunk searches out those chiaroscuro shafts of light. To let readers know, a crowd once in 11th century Balkh didn’t want to throw stones on instructions from the state. For a hopepunker, this is important. You’d better believe I’m going to seize on these nuggets and feature them in my fiction. When they are true.

And that’s the thing. When they are true. I have a rule, hard and fast (unusual for my rules): Invent No Evil. It feels like slander to say a person who was once alive committed a bad act I know he didn’t, or one he might be accused of in the gossip of his enemies, but can’t be convicted of. He may not have recourse to a court but I can feel his ghost, reading over my shoulder. Why would I trash the reputation of a person, even if he’s centuries dead?

To make a good story? Good for who? Not for Mongols. Not for Mongol image. I won’t make up evils so that you can think the worse of Mongols. Yes, you know it’s fiction, but fiction sticks. Fiction affects your views, and the majority of people think Mongols were pretty much as they appear in popular fiction. You know this is true.

But it’s not just about the Mongols, is it, about my chosen subject? It’s hopepunk. It’s the question: Are you hopepunk? Or are you grimdark? If you’re grimdark, pile on the evils, revel in them, invent them freely – since to you they are the truth. They are fair invention. Details are made up for the story, but the bottom line is accurate, this is the base of how humans behave.

If you’re hopepunk, it isn’t.

Invent no evil. The grimdarks do. It’s rude to quote actual examples, but you can imagine the kind of thing: cannibalisation of live enemies, etc. I’ll include every piece of evil that is well-documented in the sources, but I’ll never make evils up. I feel I have a duty to the historical people I write about, but behind that, deeper than that, in my hopepunk bones… you just wouldn’t catch me adding unnecessarily to the world’s evils, telling people this is how it is. There is evil enough in my tale without inventions. It does a disservice to the evils that took place: how can you look real evil in the face when you’ve confused the real with inventions? Hopepunk isn’t about avoidance.

Take Dostoyevsky in the House of the Dead. After his sentence to hang was commuted at the place of execution, he was sent to hang out in Siberia. A few political prisoners, gentry class, in with the serf class who were criminals. You can read about what happened to him in The House of the Dead, his documentary-novel. This is what he thought going in:

‘There are bad people everywhere, but among the bad there are always some good ones,’ I hastened to console myself. ‘Who knows? Perhaps these people are in no way worse than those outsiders, those who are outside the prison.’ I thought this and shook my head at the notion; but – God in Heaven – if only I had known then to what extent it was true!

Dostoyevsky wasn’t hopepunk when he went in. He was liberal-minded, idealistic, and ‘perhaps the convicts are as human as my outside acquaintances’ was a piety that he felt he ought to believe. It fell away quickly, once inside, and he experienced the prisoners as monsters – for years. Nearer to the end of his prison term than to its beginning, he underwent a change. He came out with a deep conviction, a kind of conversion that stuck with him for his life: that frail liberal piety he had in his head when he went in, turned out to be the actual truth. Nobody else had grasped it, he thought – none of his old acquaintance who would have mouthed the same piety, but didn’t have his lived experience of individual convicts – murderers and worse – whom at last he perceived as fully human.

Dostoyevsky is my guiding light in writing people who do evil. From the redemption of the criminal on the last page of Crime and Punishment to the round of cheers that finishes off his last book, he is unabashedly hopepunk. I’ve had several conversations with people who assume he’s grimdark, because they have heard of his dark material. No, he’s one of ours. Let me link you to a piece on his radical empathy, written by a novelist: Dostoyevsky’s Empathy by Laurie Sheck.

I haven’t always had faith. I went through grimdark years fed by evolutionary psychology which I took to be the science of the day. The darkness was total, and in my anguish of spirit I reached out for Dostoyevsky, who fought tooth and nail against the unfreedoms of the science of his day. I don’t feel free in grimdark fiction; I feel trapped in a dark cell, otherwise known as its vision of humanity. Let the light in. There’s a window. Go hopepunk.

#

1. see the section on ‘Law’ in Sechin Jagchid and Paul Hyer, Mongolia’s Culture and Society, Westview Press, 1979, pp. 353-63.

images:
red door © CaoChunhai/istock
snow leopard © Rixipix/istock

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

Chinggis reception

One day — and I aim to be still alive for the event — there’ll be published a Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Chinggis Khan, to match the Reception of Alexander the Great I just saw announced (Table of Contents).

It must have 800 pages, like the Alexander. I was disappointed enough when Cambridge’s History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age came out at half the spine-width of one of its History of China volumes. Obviously my sin is envy.

I have slowly become as interested in Chinggis reception as in the history itself. Not only our reception today — his portrayal in popular and academic mediums; the study of that portrayal, its whys and wherefores, its habits and its tropes — but the history of reception. His portrayal, say, in 18th-century France and England, which is a high point (I dipped into this in my post Genghis Englishhed in the Eighteenth Century). His reception by Roger Bacon in the English 13th century, and in turn the use of Bacon and Mongols in John Cowper Powys’s 1956 novel The Brazen Head. His reception in biographies, like the one by Ralph Fox which I collected to see how a British communist in 1936 explains the Mongol conquests. (What for? Believe it or not, it sheds light on how we do. We are positioned too.) A year or two ago I outlined a vast research project on the reception of Turks and Mongols in Byzantine and Persian historians of the 11th to 13th centuries, and how the shapes they made of history might persist in centuries afterwards. And I’d love to fulfil that project, as far as I am equipped to… except my first task is the piece of reception I am writing myself: my novel.

One part of Chinggis reception that does attract attention is in modern-day China. The ‘Who owns Chinggis’ thing would be a controversial chapter in this prospective book.

No history is told straight. It is always received. And what Chinggis has been made to represent in different times and places, fascinates me. Reception history fascinates me: I collect those I find analogous, such as Emma Bridges on ‘imagining’ Xerxes and the Persian Wars. Because again, I want to see a similar for Chinggis and Mongols.

 

 

Resources on Race and Medieval Studies

The Mongol khan meets envoys. From Rashid al-Din’s world history.

2017 was a year of urgent attention paid to race and medieval studies, with resources made for general use as well as for teachers and researchers.

I followed these projects on Twitter, which has turned out a great venue for medievalists: news, crowdsourced efforts and scholarly engagement with the public.

There is now available a bibliography, facilitated by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski.
It has sections on ‘Academic publications’ and ‘Blog posts and journalism’.
Link to PDF:

Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography

Over 2017, The Public Medievalist website curated a series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. This series extended to forty posts by contributors. It is written to reach the general public, and is a great place to start on race issues. Here’s the final post of the year, from where you can browse through the subjects covered:

Race, Racism and the Middle Ages: Looking Back, Looking Forward

For those interested in medieval Mongols, it is exciting to have these resources and a new focus on race — as ‘race’ was then, and in the way we study the past today.

The School of Death and Chaos

In late Jurchen China, as the Jin dynasty slowly lost its war with the Mongols, a school of poetry came into existence, coalesced among intellectuals in Pien where the court, and cultural figures, retreated for the last few years. It’s called the School of Death and Chaos. Alternate translations: Death and Disorder, Loss and Chaos. Yuan Haowen, who was captured with the city in 1233, was its chief poet. In the week between the Mongols’ seizure into custody of the entire Jin court and his own removal as a prisoner, he wandered the empty royal chambers (as he was allowed) and wrote a suite, ‘In the Farcical Style’. There isn’t much of farce about these poems, beyond the savage irony of that title and the employment of an unusual measure, for serious verse.

Stephen H. West: ‘[Yuan Haowen’s poems] are seen by traditional and modern critics alike as some of the finest examples of historical poems ever written and are extolled for the way in which they carefully trace and lament the decline and subsequent extinction of the Jin.’ The above-mentioned cycle of fifteen ‘introduce the master tropes that will govern his poetry over the next two years: the cold seas of political chaos and the flowing rivers of cultural dissolution’. Everything was at stake in the view of Yuan Haowen: ‘…by the imagery of dissolution and exodus, he suggests a return to a precivilized state… the dispersal of Chinese civilization’. [1]

J.I. Crump: ‘Much poetry written during this period is called sang-luan verse, or “poetry of death and destruction,” and sang-luan verse in many ways is a far more accurate measure of the emotional battering the Chinese underwent at the hands of the Mongols than any amount of historical documentation.’ [2]

It’s a tragedy of Jin that this century-old foreign dynasty was finding its own distinctive voice, its unique arts, as the Mongols struck, and inspired unexpected loyalty in its last fight. I’m a fan of Jin China; being both short-lived and foreign, it hasn’t had much glory in the history books. Those books, too, disagree, by wide margins, on how much fight Jin put up against the Mongols. My answer: Jin put up enormous fight, and the loyalty of Han and non-Han – old chauvinism, often, set aside – was of great inconvenience to Temujin.

When Song China in the south went to war against Jin in the north, on the eve of its Mongol troubles – Song thought to exploit a difficult situation for Jin, that hadn’t used its once-frightening war machinery in years, that was meant to be crippled by floods and famine – Song sent out agitation for the native Chinese population to rise against the foreign rule. For Han officers to mutiny and kill Jurchen officers.

It didn’t happen. Jin discovered they had a unity that nobody knew for sure was there, until Song tested them. This is bad news for my Temujin. And that war machinery, which Song hoped had rusted in their forty-year peace? Functions pretty well.

Another tragedy of Jin: some historians say the dynasty didn’t come to terms with the Mongols the way a traditional Chinese dynasty might be expected to; they refused to pay the Mongols off, which perpetuated the war. That is, the fact they were foreigners and didn’t act to script led to confusion and unusual destructiveness. My story’s a little different to this. But the achievements of late Jin, as a culture and as a society, are found, are recognised, even as they are engulfed. And that is tragic.

I’m going to have to antedate the School of Death and Chaos, give them a slightly early start, because I end when Temujin ends and he’s not around for the win over Jin’s fallback capital at Pien. Artistic license: no way am I missing out on the Death and Chaos School. As an arts person, I notice that the story can be told through the fate of the arts, and isn’t well-told without. There are, of course, other tales. In enclaves of Chinese who had made peace with the Mongols under local leadership, zaju drama was hatched, even while the war went on, from a fusion of cultures, as creative people gathered to these safety areas too.

A week back I nearly disqualified myself from writing book three, as I watched Aleppo on Twitter and told myself, I haven’t been in an Aleppo. How do I have the nerve? Past couple of days, end-of-year existential angst hits and I feel, past two years, everything I hold dear is under threat. My only enemy is on the loose. And my mind reverts to the Death and Chaos School, which I was fascinated by as I’ve always been fascinated by ruin, but which I did not foresee I’d feel so close to.

Writers are vultures.

 

1 ‘Chilly Seas and East-Flowing Rivers: Yuan Haowen’s Poems of Death and Disorder, 1233-35’ in China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History, eds. Hoyt Cleveland Tillman and Stephen H. West, State University of New York Press, 1995.

2 Chinese Theater in the Days of Kublai Khan, University of Arizona Press, 1980.

Image  A.Y. Jackson, A Copse, Evening, 1918, from the Commons.

Racism again

Last year I wrote a post where I used the word racism of the state of affairs in Mongol studies. A year ago (but doesn’t a lot happen in a year, these days?) that felt almost daring, actually, because very few seemed to be addressing it, or calling it out, as I said. The skimpy bibliography I attached to the post was the most I knew of to point to.

Racism: In a history book near you

It was a crude post, because I don’t have the analytic tools on this subject of racism. But boy, have I been bothered by its obvious presence in Mongol history-writing.

Now a PhD candidate, Sierra Lomuto, has written a post that is being much shared, on ‘the utter lack of racial consciousness in our field of Medieval Studies’.

White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies

It’s a welcome post, and what excites me is that Lomuto says she is working on Mongols and race: ‘As a mixed-race Asian woman working on histories of racial structures in medieval European-Mongol relations, this lacuna in Medieval Studies is not news to me. I regularly read adjectives like “uncultured” and “barbaric” to describe Mongols in books published within the last decade. I still see “Oriental” used uncritically to refer to Asian peoples.’

I hope she publishes soon. I hope she or others address racism in the historiography on Mongols.