Mongolia: St. Louis and the Alliance With the Mongols

September 05, 2023

In an article published on the Aleteia web site, Camille Delmas has recounted a little-known part of the life of St. Louis. In the middle of the 13th century, the holy king tried to forge an alliance with the Mongols, hoping for their conversion to Christianity. The enterprise was led by a Franciscan, Guillaume de Rubrouck, who recounts it in his little-known Voyage dans l’empire mongol.

“On the third day we found the Tartars; and when I had seen and considered them, it seemed to me that I was entering a new world.” In the year 1253, Franciscan Guillaume de Rubrouck, envoy of St. Louis, wrote these lines when for the first time he came into contact with the Mongols - called Tartars in his time - on the shores of the Black Sea.

The Mongols had just swept over Europe, taking Hungary in 1241. Pope Innocent IV sent them several ambassadors led by Franciscans and Dominicans. Khan Güyük's response was a scathing plea for submission: “If you do not follow God's order, and if you go against our orders, we will recognize you as our enemy.”

The Pontiff published a bull in 1248 in which he asked the invaders to cease their threats. In addition, the Mongols expelled from their territory the Kwarazm-Shahs, a Persian people allied to the Mamluks of Egypt, who had just retaken Jerusalem in 1244.

It was during this period that St. Louis went to the Holy Land for the Seventh Crusade (1248-1254). From Cyprus, he receives an unexpected missive: a Mongol warlord, Altigidai, offers the “King of the Franks” an alliance against the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt, asking that he attack the Mamluks directly in their country.

In order to evaluate the alliance, Louis IX sends a Dominican, André de Longjumeau, as ambassador to Altigidaï and its leader, the Khan Güyük. The latter was dead when the priest arrived in his capital in Karakorum, Mongolia.

A Difficult Mission

André de Longjumeau returned to France, claiming that Christians live in the Mongolian land, and that a certain khan named Sartaq would be baptized. St. Louis, defeated at Damietta, retreated to the Holy Land without having recaptured Jerusalem. He sends a new embassy to the supposed Christian khan as well as to the new leader of the Mongol empire, Möngke, in the hope of a new alliance.

It was under these conditions that Guillaume de Rubrouck was dispatched. His mission: to instruct the Mongolian people and their leaders in order to bring them to the Christian Faith. Once he completed his mission, he would then convince them to take the cross against the Mamluks. As a zealous servant, William showed, in his report on the religious situation of the Mongol Empire, an honesty without illusion.

“I will represent to your Majesty the way of life and morals of these people as best as I can,” explains the Franciscan at the start of his long account. He carried out his task with great talent and gave posterity a unique account of the life of the Mongols.

We owe him a wise description of the great geopolitical game that had shaken the empire and of its history since the rise of Genghis. He marveled at these princes, sons of the great khan, “who all have large courts today, and every day extend their dwellings a little more in this vast solitude, which is like a great sea.”

Incredible Anecdotes

Long before Marco Polo, he reported the sometimes implausible anecdotes that are told to him on his way: the Christian kingdom of King John, the Mountains of the Assassins, giant dogs, and “a thousand other strange and horrible stories.”

He described customs, funeral and matrimonial rites, and culinary habits. He reported on the rich trade that sustained this trading land: salt, animals, cotton paper, and silk fabrics from Cathay and Persia, rare and worked metals, furs needed to face the cold “so great that it often split the trees and stones,” but which he crossed barefoot.

Despite the difficulties, sometimes fearing dying of hunger or cold, Guillaume overcame the obstacles. He eventually reached the Mongol capital Karakorum, meeting on his way the peoples who stay in these immense lands: Naymans, Goths, Comans, Turks, Alans, Russians, Valans, Armenians, and Moals.

The Franciscan recounted with disappointment his stormy contacts with the heretical Nestorians, settled in all this part of Asia since the 7th-8th century. When he met Sartak, the warlord who claims to be baptized, he is still bitter. “I really cannot say whether he is a Christian or not”, before admitting: “It seems to me that he makes fun of Christians and despises them.

A Road Strewn With Pitfalls

On his way, the Franciscan made enemies, and had to confront, for example, a “Saracen diviner” who bothered him and, according to him, poisoned the sick by claiming to be a doctor. He is exasperated at having to share his home for many months with a Nestorian “false monk,” who turns out to be a liar, ignorant, and bawdy: “I was very sorry not to be able to leave him.”

In the capital Karakorum, the representative of St. Louis also met Guillaume, a Parisian goldsmith captured by the Mongols while he was staying in Belgrade. This craftsman, he reports, built for Khan Mongkok a strange silver fountain machine to pour four different beverages at the same time.

In an exchange with Chinese, he marveled that they “write with a brush made like that of painters” on cotton paper. In Karakorum, Guillaume de Rubrouck also realizes that Mongkok Khan is cynically taking advantage of the competition between the Buddhist clergy (whose rites he is one of the first to recount), Muslim, and Christian.

The sovereign, he notes, forces members of the various clergy to assist him in a form of syncretic paganism, then indulges in endless drinking and idol worship. The Franciscan is outraged by these “superstitions and follies.”

The Franco-Mongolian Alliance Did Not Happen

So, the alliance was not to be made, despite the insistence of the Mongols, who, years later, would fight with Christians in the Holy Land against the sultans of Egypt. Disappointed at not having had the faith necessary to perform “miracles” and convert the khan, Guillaume de Rubrouck ended up admitting his failure.

When he left, the khan gave him a letter in which he asked King Louis to submit to his authority before considering any form of alliance. The priest advised St. Louis not to continue the discussions: according to him, the Mongols never won “by force of arms, but only by trickery and deceit.”

Guillaume de Rubrouck finally left the Mongol Empire and returned to France. In his story, the Franciscan adventurer addresses these last words to his king: “May the peace of God, which surpasses all intelligence and all knowledge of men, enlighten your heart and your understanding with its light.”

In their fight against the Egyptian forces, the Mongols ended up being defeated at Aïn Djalout in 1260, the first historic blow for this people, but also the swan song for the Latin Kingdoms of the East.