Monday, June 18, 2007

Numbers and the Mongols

William of Rubruck was a thirteenth century Christian missionary to the Mongols. A man of great intelligence and piety, his account ranks alongside the masterpieces of historical writing such as Juvaini, Rashiduddin (Rashid al-Din), and the Secret History of the Mongols as sources on the Mongol empire. (Good cheap edition here.)

Although his account is not studded with Biblical quotations, in three points he draws analogies between the Mongols' practice of nomadism and that described in the Old Testament in the patriarchal and Mosaic eras. Put together these descriptions highlight how Rubruck saw the Mongols as living out in his era the same practices of the Biblical past.

In chapter 2, "The Tartars and Their Dwellings," he begins:

The Tartars have no abiding city nor do they know of the one that is to come. They have divided among themselves Scythia, which stretches from the Danube as far as the rising of the sun. Each captain, according to whether he has more or fewer men under him, know the limits of his pasturage and where to feed his flocks in winter, summer, spring, and autumn . . .

The allusion is to Hebrews 13:14 ("For we have not here an abiding city, but we seek after the city which is to come," ASV). This passage is returning to the theme of the wanderings of Abraham and the patriarchs in Hebrews 11:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

In William of Rubruck's hands this allusion thus becomes an illustration of the paradox of the Mongol life -- they could be like the patriarchs, but they refuse to be. Song Chinese writers like Zhao Gong express at length the same theme, that the Mongols are like the archaic past of Chinese civilization, and yet rather than recapitulate that past and grow into the Song Chinese or Latin Christian present, they insist on being stubbornly attached to their own religion and empire. The very division of land underlines that the Mongol nomads are not going anywhere, just moving cyclically through the seasons in a set territory.

The other two passages are more ethnographic and less evaluatative:

When I saw Baatu's orda [great court or palace tent, the origin of the word "horde"] I was overcome with fear, for his own houses seemed like a great city stretching out a long way and crowded round on every side by people to a distance of three or four leagues. Just as the people of Israel knew, each one of them, where they should pitch their tents in relation to the tabernacle, so these know on what side of the orda they are to place themselves when they unload their dwellings (chapter 19).

Here the reference is to the description of the arrangment of the Israelite camp in Numbers 2: Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun to the east, Reuben, Simeon, and Gad to the south, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin to the west, and Dan, Asher, and Naphthali to the north with the center being the tabernacle. Here we have a simple comparative point that establishes an analogy between Israel's migration in Sinai and the Mongols' nomadism in "Scythia." All camping has to have an order and a hierarchy. Baatu is the center of the Mongols' great camp, just as the tabernacle is of the Israelites'. This hierarchy then extends down from that center.

Perhaps the most interesting passage is at the conclusion of chapter 25, where having described his conversations with the priests of the Uyghur idolators (which in medieval Eurasia always means Buddhists or Daoists, never unwritten pagan religions), he continues:

The Mongols or Tartars belong to their sect as far as their believing in only one God is concerned; they do, nevertheless, make out of felt images of their dead and they clothe these in most precious materials and place them in one or two carts; these carts nobody dares touch and they are in charge of their diviners who are their priests; I will tell you later about them [these priests are termed today "shamans"].

These diviners always go before the orda [palace tent] of Mangu [a.k.a. Möngke Khan] and other rich men; the poor, however, do not have them, only those of Chingis' stock [i.e. the descendants of Chinggis, or Genghis, Khan]. When it is time for them to move they go before them as a pillar of cloud went before the children of Israel and they inspect the place where the camp is to be measured out and first unload their dwellings and after them the orda. Then when it is a feast day or the first of the month they bring out the afore-mentioned images and place them in order in a circle in their dwelling. Then the Mongols come, enter the dwelling and bow to the images and venerate them. And no stranger may enter there, for I on one occasion wanted to go in and was roundly rated.

Here William of Rubruck works with an implicit "comparative religions" framework. The carts with the felt images are like the tabernacle (untouchable by outsiders), the priests or diviners are like the priests and Levites, and the spirit guidance they use to direct nomadization is like the divine guidance the Israelites received from the pillar of cloud. As we see in Numbers 10 (cf. Exodus 13):

So they set out from the mount of the LORD three days' journey. And the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the LORD was over them by day, whenever they set out from the camp. And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, "Arise, O LORD, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you." And when it rested, he said, "Return, O LORD, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel."

Since William of Rubruck elsewhere treats these diviners as flatterers of the royal family, sacrificing innocents to bogus witchcraft accusations in order to escape punishment themselves, it is striking that here he draws the analogy between the two so clearly.

As Margaret Hodgen described in her fascinating book Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, the Bible was the first resource of European ethnology, generating the basic framework of common origin we still work with today. Drawing analogies with the patriarchal and Mosaic Israel implied the future development of institutions like monarchy and "civility," thus implying social evolutionism. It is unfortunate, however, that the vast majority of medieval observers were so much less observant than William of Rubruck.

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