William of Rubruck


Guillaume de Rubrouck's "Account of the Mongols"

for the king

[note: I’ve been reading a German translation]

The story: in the middle of the 13th century, a Franciscan monk called William of Rubruck gets dispatched to Mongolia by his king, Louis IX of France. He is travels from Constantinople to Karakorum, where he is supposed to find out if the Mongolians (who have recently conquered large parts of the known world) can be persuaded to form an alliance against the Muslims.

Turns out they can’t. Rubruk learns that the Mongol Khans have no interest in accepting anyone as their equal, and that they really don’t care that much about other people’s religious sensitivities.

William of Rubruck’s truthful Medieval travelogue

Anyway, the book is awesome. Or rather: the realism of Rubruk’s account of his journey is awesome. Keep in mind that during his time, most travelogues were filled with fantastic creatures and legends. There is a certain degree to which Odorico da Pordenone and Johann Schiltberger seem to be more truthful in their storytelling than many other medieval travel writers, but Rubruk is on another level.

He gives detailed accounts of the surprisingly cosmopolitan environment in Karakorum, he talks about his discussions with representatives of different faiths, and sometimes he writes in a voice that seems almost breathtakingly realistic.

One time he is in the south of what is now Russia, traveling east under a hot sun, while being gawked at by people on the way:

To add to this, when we were seated in the shade under our carts, for the heat was intense at that season, they pushed in most importunately among us, to the point of crushing us, in their eagerness to see all our things.

This feels like it could have been written yesterday, not almost eight centuries ago.

no fantastic stories

You will not find any sightings of monsters or weird things in this book. Sometimes Rubruk will relay some information about something from the realm of legends, but he will not claim that they are true.

In fact, when he tries to inquire about some of the mythical creatures mentioned by antique writers Isidore of Seville and Gaius Julius Solinus, he learns that they had never been sighted, which makes him doubt the veracity of the antique accounts:

I asked these same priests about the monsters, or human monstrosities, of which Isidorus and Solinus speak. They told me they had never seen such, which astonished me greatly, if it be true; but I was told that such things had never been sighted, which makes us very much doubt whether the story is true.

I think there is a reason why this book is so different from the others: it was never aimed at a popular audience. Rubruk was not trying to come up with exciting stories that could entertain people, but with factual information for his king.

who might want to read this

Rubruk’s feat of traveling to Karakorum is very impressive. His storytelling is awesome, his style is, too. And the insights and observations he provides are pure gold.

If you’re into Medieval travelogues or into the history of the Silk Roads, read this one.

Also read: Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, for an account of a journey to Mongolia just a few years earlier.