The journey of Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, who introduced the Mongol empire to the West

We all know the journey of Marco Polo, who reached China in 1274. Marco, however, was not the only traveler of the Middle Ages. Among those who reached the East before him was Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, one of the companions of Saint Francis of Assisi. The reasons for the journey were different from those of Mark: John had been commissioned by the Pope to bring a letter to Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, in order to prevent the invasion of Europe. The Mongols, in fact, threatened to destroy the Christian world.

John set out in 1245 and reached the court of the Great Khan a little over a year later Karakoram, the capital of the empire. The diplomatic mission failed, but Giovanni wrote a work, the History of the Mongolswhich for the first time made oriental customs and the social and political structure of the Mongol empire known in the West.

Who was Giovanni da Pian del Carpine

Giovanni was born in Pian del Carpine (today Mansion, in the province of Perugia) towards the end of the 12th century. In 1215 he entered theFranciscan order, founded in 1209 by Francis of Assisi, of whom he was almost certainly one of his first companions. After the birth of the Order, the Franciscan friars dedicated themselves to propagation of the faith in the territories where Christianity had not yet established itself and John, who had a good knowledge of foreign languages, actively participated in the missions, staying in Germany and Spain.

A Franciscan missionary in India (14th century)

In 1245 Giovanni was entrusted with a very delicate task: deliver a letter from the pontiff to the Great Khan of the Mongol empire. The empire, in fact, was very scary.

The Mongol Empire

The rise of the Mongols had begun in 1206when a brilliant and ruthless leader, Genghis Khan, had begun expansion into Central Asia and northern China. Genghis reigned over the Mongols until his death in 1227. The expansionist policy continued under the emperors who ascended the throne after him, who were elected by kuriltai, the assembly of nobles. More precisely, the armies of Great Khan Ogodei, who succeeded Genghis, reached as far as Europe and conquered some territories in the eastern part of the continent. In 1241 the Mongols, led on the field by Batu Khanreached the Adriatic Sea, invaded the territory of Croatia and lapped the Friuli, carrying out devastation and looting wherever they passed. As luck would have it, they had to suddenly turn backbecause they received the news that Ogodei was dead and it was necessary to elect a successor. Batu Khan was one of the candidates for succession and hastened to return to Karakorum.

The Mongol Empire at its greatest extent. Credit: Ali Zifan

The embassy of Innocent IV

In Europe it was feared that as soon as the Mongols had settled their internal affairs, they would return en masse to occupy the continent. The Pope, who was the main European political leader along with the Holy Roman Emperor, had to find a way to stop them. In 1241 Innocent IV was elected to the office of pontiff, who decided to follow the diplomatic route and wrote the letter entitled Cum non solum, with which he invited the Khan to seek an agreement and threatened him with divine punishment if he did not accept. The attempt was part of one more vast Innocent's diplomatic strategywho also sent other embassies to the Mongols and put pressure on the patriarchs of the Eastern Christian churches to return under the aegis of the Catholic Church (from which they had separated in 1054 with the Great schism).

Innocent IV delivers his letters to the friars (miniature from around 1400)
Innocent IV delivers his letters to the friars (miniature from around 1400)

John's journey from Pian del Carpine

Innocent, aware of Giovanni's abilities, chose him as bearer of the letter to the Great Khan. The friar left on 16 April 1245 from Lyon in the company of another missionary, Stephen of Bohemia. When they arrived in Poland, a third priest, Benedict, joined them and the three crossed the Russia to the Volga River, where the territory controlled by the Mongols began. At that point Stephen, who had fallen ill, went back and John continued the journey with Benedetto. The two travelers did translate the letter into Persian of the pontiff and headed to Central Asia, crossing the route that later became known as the Silk Road. Travel at the time they were long and difficultbut Giovanni and Benedetto, moving on horsebackthey managed to reach their goal.

The failure of the diplomatic mission in the Mongol Empire

The 22 July 1246 the two friars arrived in Karakorum, where they discovered that Ogodei's successor had not yet been chosen and power was temporarily in the hands of one of his wives. However the new Great Khan, Guyukwas elected in the days following John's arrival and the friar was therefore able to give him the pope's letter.

John received by the Khan

Guyuk rejected the peace proposalarguing that the pontiff's claims to represent God had no foundation, and John, after four months of sojourn in Karakorum, had to take the road back. He arrived in Lyon in November 1247.

After the trip

Despite the failure of the diplomatic mission, Central-Western Europe it was not invaded by the Mongols, who preferred to complete the conquest of China and unsuccessfully attempted to invade Japan. Europe, after all, was a continent full of castles and fortified cities and to conquer it the Khan's armies, not experienced in sieges, would have encountered many difficulties.


Giovanni, for his part, after returning to Lyon was responsible for other diplomatic missionsincluding an embassy to the court of the French king of Louis IX, and was finally appointed archbishop of Bar (now Bar, in Montenegro), where he died in 1252.

The most important consequence of the trip: the History of the Mongols

The most important consequence of the trip to Karakorum was the writing of the History of the Mongols (Historia Mongalorum), a treatise in Latin which, despite its title, was not so much a history book as aOpera ethnographic. John described the Empire of the Great Khan in detail, focusing on numerous aspects: geography, ethnic divisions, religion, eating habits, lifestyles. The friar paid particular attention to military issuesexplaining that all Mongols, including women, learned to riding since childhood and which they were very skilled in using bows and sabers. Their goal, according to John, was dominion over the entire known world.

The History of the Mongols had wide diffusion (although less than that which it would have in a few years' time Million by Marco Polo) and allowed Europeans to learn about many aspects of the Mongol empire that had been ignored until then.

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