Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dear Khan, Dear Pope

Ögedei Khan, who never got the letter
Relations between the East and West have always been strained, generally because of radically different world views, and because neither saw any benefit in submitting to what the other offered.

One example is the letter sent from Pope Innocent IV (you can read about him setting down guidelines for torture) to Ögedei Khan. Word had reached Innocent that the Mongols were attacking Christian territories, and Innocent wanted to broach this subject. Dated on 13 March 1245, it goes a little like this:
Seeing that not only men but even irrational animals, nay, the very elements which go to make up the world machine, are united by a certain innate law after the manner of the celestial spirits, [...] it is not without cause that we are driven to express in strong terms our amazement that you, as we have heard, have invaded many countries belonging both to Christians and to others and are laying them waste in a horrible desolation, [...].
We, therefore, following the example of the King of Peace, and desiring that all men should live united in concord in the fear of God, do admonish, beg and earnestly beseech all of you that for the future you desist entirely from assaults of this kind and especially from the persecution of Christians, and that after so many and such grievous offences you conciliate by a fitting penance the wrath of Divine Majesty, which without doubt you have seriously aroused by such provocation;
Innocent makes clear in the letter that he expects the "King of the Tartars" to obey him in this. Before the letter could receive a reply, Ögedei Khan died and was succeeded by Güyük Khan (whose reign began 24 August 1246). Here is part of his message back to the pope:
A Letter from Kuyuk Khan to Pope Innocent IV
By the power of the Eternal Heaven, we are the all-embracing Khan of all the Great Nations.  It is our command:
This is a decree, sent to the great Pope that he may know and pay heed.
After holding counsel with the monarchs under your suzerainty, you have sent us an offer of subordination which we have accepted from the hands of your envoy.
If you should act up to your word, then you, the great Pope, should come in person with the monarchs to pay us homage and we should thereupon instruct you concerning the commands of the Yasak.
Furthermore, you have said it would be well for us to become Christians. You write to me in person about this matter, and have addressed to me a request. This, your request, we cannot understand.
There is more, but the essence is: "You want to talk? Then come here yourself and subordinate yourself to me, so I can explain things to you, like the Yasak (tribute) that you can give to me."

Neither of these rulers was about to "give in" to the demands of someone thousands of miles away, when each felt he had the god-given right to be doing what he was doing. Nor, given the distances involved, was it likely that either would ever be able to influence or affect the other.

Here's a question: given the distances involved, how does one deliver a letter across thousands of miles to someone whose address you probably don't even know? Tomorrow we will talk about the postman, a Franciscan named Giovanni da Pian del Carpine.

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