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Christian Wives of Mongol Khans: Tartar Queens and Missionary Expectations in Asia


In the late thirteenth century the openness and religious toleration of the Mongol Empire created unique conditions which encouraged European missionaries to venture into Asia. The Franciscans and Dominicans who answered the call to evangelize in territories under Tartar dominion enjoyed such success by the early fourteenth century that the papacy created archbishoprics and suffragan sees in Central Asia and China, and entertained dreams of new Christian communities aligned with the Roman Church. This paper focuses on a special set of circumstances which briefly encouraged those expectations. Western missionaries to the Mongols found influential Christian women, the mothers and consorts of rulers, at the courts of several khans. Because these Mongol queens played powerful political roles, their prayers and example might encourage the conversion of their people and those subject to them. Faithful wives of pagan rulers, in times long gone, had played a dynamic part in the conversion of husbands or sons, and of their realms, thus contributing to the spread of Christianity in Europe. Once again, at the close of the thirteenth century, hopes were voiced that pious women might perform a similar task in Asia.

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1 Gregory of Tours observed “the Queen without ceasing urged the king to confess the true God, and forsake his idols.” History of the Franks, ii, 21, trans. Dalton O. M. (Oxford, 1927), p. 68.

2 Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, eds. and trans. McNamara J. A., Halborg J. E. and Whatley G. (Durham and London, 1992), p. 38. Her vita is found on pp. 39–50.

3 Christianity and Paganism, 350–750, The Conversion of Western Europe, ed. Hillgarth J. N. (Philadelphia, 1986), p. 80.

4 Princess Olga had been converted about 955. See Vemadsky G., Kievan Russia (New Haven, 1948), pp. 60–5.

5 Good introductions to the Mongols and their assaults on Europe include Chambers J., The Devil's Horseman: The Mongol Invasion of Europe (London, 1979);Saunders J. J., The History of the Mongol Conquests (London, 1971); and Grousset R., The Empire of the Steppes, trans. Walford N. (New Brunswick, 1970). In transliterating Mongol names, which vary widely in translations, the style adopted by Morgan D., The Mongols (Oxford, 1986) is followed whenever possible.

6 For a good overview for medieval mission activity see Latourette K. S., A History of the Expansion of Christianity (7 Vols., New York, 19371945), ii,The Thousand Years of Uncertainty (New York, 1938). For western diplomatic and missionary contact with the Mongols, see Richard J., La Papauté et les missions d'Orient au moyen âge (Xllle-XVe siècles) (Rome, 1977);de Rachewiltz I., Papal Envoys to the Great Khans (Stanford, 1971); and Phillips J. R. S., The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford, 1988), pp. 57140. Collections of surviving primary sources for these missionary encounters include: Biblioteca Bio-Bibliografoa delta Terra Santa e Dell'Oriente Francescano, ed. Golubovich G., i, ii (Quaracchi, 1906 and 1913);Sinica Franciscana, ed. van den Wyngaert A., i (Quaracchi, 1929);Mission to Asia, ed. Dawson C. (originally published as The Mongol Mission, London, 1955, reissued by Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, Toronto, 1980); and Cathay and the Way Thither, eds. Yule H. and Cordier H., 2nd ed., 4 vols (London, 19131916).

7 The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, trans. Jackson P., with introduction and notes by Jackson P. and Morgan D. (Hakluyt Society, ser II, no 173, London, 1990) [hereafter Mission of Rubruck], introduction, p. 44.

8 Chinese, Muslim and European observers all commented on the position of women in Mongol Society. See Rossabi M., “Kubilai Khan and the women in his family” in Sino-Mongolica: Festschrift für Herbert Franke, ed. Bauer W. (Wiesbaden, 1979), pp. 153–80.

9 Mission to Asia, ed. Dawson , p. 60. Jochi was the father of Batu, founder of the khanate of the Golden Horde (Qipchaq khanate).

10 Mission of Rubruck, p. 178.

11 The Travels of Marco Polo, ed. Komroff M., (Revised from Marsden's translation, New York, 1926), p. 8. For the historicity of Polo's book see Moule A. C. and Pelliot P., Marco Polo: The Description of the World, 2 vols (London, 1938); and Olschki L., Marco Polo's Asia: An Introduction to his “Description of the World” Called “II Milione”, trans. Scott J. A. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1960).

12 Although the batde of “Ayn Jālūt: Mamlūk success or Mongol failure?Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, XLIV (1984), pp. 307–45), this defeat was a turning point in the Īlkhān's approach to the West.

13 The embassy arrived at the papal curia shortly after the death of Alexander IV (1254–61), probably delivering Hülegü's letters to Urban IV (1261–64); see Grousset , Empire of the Steppes, pp. 353–67 and 397–8 and de Rachewiltz , Papal Envoys, pp. 150–3. This was the first of at least eight embassies from Persia between the years 1263 and 1292.

14 For the Second Council of Lyons see 1274 — Annèe chamièere — Mutations et continuités (Paris, 1977), transactions of an international colloquium; and Franchi A., II Concilio II di Lione (1276) secondo la Ordinatio Concilii Lugdunensis (Rome, 1965).

15 The Latin text of relevant parts of Abaqa's letter is given in Setton K. M., The Papacy and the Levant (1204–1571), i (Philadelphia, 1976), p. 115; A fascimile is reproduced in Borghezio G., “Un Episodio della relazione tra la Santa Sede e i Mongoli (1274),” Roma: Rivista di studi e di vita romana, XIV (1936), p. 369–72.

16 July 16, 1274. Dressed in red, “according to the Latin manner”, they were laved by the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, the future Innocent Setton V., The Papacy and the Levant, i, p. 118.

17 Raynaldus O., Annales ecclesiastici ab anno 1998, XXII (1870) ad ann 1274, nos 21–23, pp. 329–30.

18 A. Geneose, Buscarello of Gisulfo, delivered these letters to the French king in 1289, see Chabot J. B., “Notes sur les relations du roi Argun avec l'Occident,” Revue de l'Orient latin, ser. II, X (1894), pp. 566638 [hereafter “Relations”], pp. 608 seq.

19 This promise was made in 1287–8, during the embassy of Rabban Sauma.

20 The most famous of these is David of Ashby, O.P., chaplain to the papal legate Thomas Agni of Lentini (Bishop of Bethlehem, 1255–67; Patriarch of Jerusalem, 1272—77). Apparendy sent to Persia by Thomas Agni, Ashby became a prominent figure in the Ilkhanate; he and some confrere accompanied the Mongol delegation to the Second Council of Lyons. See Richard , La Papauté et les missions d'Orient, pp. 100–1; and Setton , The Papacy and the Levant, i, p. 116.

21 Documents from Urban IV (a papal brief Exultavit cor meum, 1264) and Nicholas III (1277–80) survive. See Richard , La Papauté et les missions d'Orient, pp. 100 and 103, and works cited therein.

22 Franchi A., Nicholaus Papa IV 1288–1292 (Girolamo d'Ascoli) (Ascoli Piceno, 1990) has filled the long-standing need for a biography of this important but neglected pope. Daniel R. E., Franciscan Concept of Mission in the High Middle Ages (Lexington, 1975) amply documents the intense commitment of the Franciscans to mission activity.

23 The journal of Sauma is known in detail from an account probably written by the monk himself, preserved as part of a Syriac biography of Catholicus Yaballaha, his patron. The most recent critical translation is Altheim F. and Stiehl R., “Rabban Saumas Reise nach dem Westen, 1287–88,” Geschichte der Hunnen, (Berlin, 1961), iii pp. 190217. Still useful are Chabot J. B., “Histoire de Mar Jabalaha III et du moine Rabban Çauma,” Revue de l'Orient Latin, I and II (18931894);Moule A. C., Christians in China Before 1550 (New York, 1926), who translates extracts as a narrative on pp. 94127;Montgomery J. A., History of Yaballaha III (London, 1930), a partial translation; and Budge W., The Monks of Kublai Khan (London, 1928).

24 Moule , Christians in China, p. 103.

25 Montgomery , History of Yaballaha, pp. 5556.

26 Ibid., pp. 56–57.

27 Ibid., p. 68.

28 Ibid., pp. 68–9 and 89. Chabot,“Histoire de Mar Jabalaha III,” points out that Sauma's account certainly contains exaggerations. Although Sauma's assertion that the pope and cardinals endorsed his rite as “the same” as their own may be questioned, there is litde reason to doubt the substance of the material included here.

29 For the role of the Keraits in the creation of the Mongol empire see, among others, Grousset R., The Conqueror of the World, trans. McKellar M. and Sinor D. (New York, 1966), pp. 2732.

30 Secret History of the Mongols, Cleaves F. W. (trans.), i (Cambridge, Mass, 1982), p. 114. See also Spuler B., History of the Mongols Based on Eastern and Western Accounts of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, trs H. and Drummond S. (Berkeley, 1972), pp. 21–2.

31 According to Rashīd ad-Dīn (Ta'rīkh-i mubārak-i Ghāzānī, translated in Spuler, History of the Mongols, p. 121), because Tolui had never consummated his marriage to Doquz Khatun her relationship with Hülegü went beyond customary Mongol levirate, whereby a son was obliged to accept his father's wives as his own.

32 Maria Palaeologina even brought a Greek bishop with her to Tabriz. See Richard , La Papauté et les missions d'Orient, p. 102.

33 This was Öljeitü (ruled 1304–16), who later converted to Islam. See Morgan , The Mongols, pp. 160–2 and 170–1.

34 Hebraeus Gregorius Bar, Chronicon Syriacum, ed. Bedjan P. (Paris, 1890) reproduced in part in Spuler, History of the Mongols, p. 40. This is listed as the second yasa.

35 Idem. The chronicle also notes “But, later their affections turned to hatred; they could no longer approve the behaviour of the Christians when many of them changed over to the Muslim faith.”

36 Rashīd-al-Dīn, Ta'rīkh-i mubārak-i Ghāzānī, in Spuler, History of the Mongols, p. 121.

37 Ibid., p. 122.

38 Atiya A., History of Eastern Christianity (London, 1967) provides a good introduction to the eastern Churches. For Ilkhanid governmental policies vis-à-vis Christians and their religious toleration, see Fiey J. M., Chrétiens syriaques sous les Mongols (Louvain, 1975);Morgan , The Mongols, pp. 158–63; and Richard , La Papauté et les missions d'Orient, pp. 98seq.

39 Ad summi praesulatus in Pontificia commissio ad redigendum codicem juris canonici orientalis. Fontes, series III [hereafter Fontes], vol. V, t. 2, eds. Delorme F. M. and Tautu A. I. (Rome, 1954) no. 66, and Registres de Nicholas IV, ed. Langlois E. (Paris, 1905) [hereafter Reg Nich IV], no. 570 (April 2, 1288). The text of this letter is also reproduced in Wadding L., Annates Minorum (16 Vols., Rome, 17311736) [hereafter An Min], v, pp. 189–91.

40 Fontes, vol. V, t. 2, no. 68;An Min, v, p. 191; and Reg Nich IV, no. 575, April 2, 1288, addressed to “Tuctan, the illustrious Tartar Queen, most dear daughter in Christ.” Nukdan Khatun was widow of Abaga and mother of Karkatuchani, Arghun's successor.

41 Reg Nich IV, no. 576. According to Soranzo G., Il Papato, L'Europa Christiana e i Tartari (Milan, 1930), p. 268, “Elegag” was a consort or wife of Arghun. Chabot, “Relations,” pp. 584–5, identifies her as Olgaitu, the daughter of Arghun and his Christian wife, Uruk khatun.

42 For the political context within which this mission unfolded see Ryan J. D., “Nicholas IV and the evolution of the eastern missionary effort,” Archivium Historiae Pontificiae, XIX (1981), pp. 7995.

43 Ibid., p. 91. Acre was largely destroyed and its defenders slaughtered on May 18, but word did not reach the papal court until August 22–23, 1291.

44 Representative of the letters to western kings is Reg Nich IV, no. 6778, that informed Philip of France of Acre's fall and urged that galleys be quickly sent to defend the Holy Land. Six eastern rulers (the kings of Armenia, Georgia, Iberia, the emperors of Trebizond and Constantinople and Īlkhān Arghun) were sent Praecurrentis fame relatibus (Fontes, vol. V, t. 2, no. 113; and Reg Nich IV, nos. 6809–14, which lists the separate copies). The bull laments Acre's fill and promotes future crusade activity. All copies are dated August 23, 1291.

43 Solita benignitate recepimus, Reg Nich IV, no. 6722 (August 21, 1291), apparently written the day before the news concerning Acre arrived at the papal court.

46 Exultat cor nostrum, Fontes, vol. V, t. 2, no. 112; and Reg Nich IV, no. 6833 (August 21, 1291). The text can also be found in Chabot, “Relations,” pp. 625–6.

47 Reg Nich IV, nos. 6815–6 (in separate copies, both dated August 13, 1291), to “Anichohamini” (Uruk khatun) and “Dathanaticatum.” The text can be found in Chabot, “Relations,” pp. 623–4.

48 Reg Nich IV, nos. 6817–8 (August 23); Chabot reproduces the text, “Relations,” p. 627. These are shadowy figures, perhaps sons of Arghun's ninth wife, Kuduk Ikadgi, It is impossible to determine why they were signled out.

49 Franciscans reported from Qipchaq that a king of the Tartars, “Coktoganus,” probably indicating Toqta, had received baptism, as had his mother, wife, two sons, and several Mongol chiefs. See Gulobovich, ii, pp. 170–1; and Richard, p. 157.

50 Bihl M. and Moule A. C., “Tria nova documenta de missionibus F. M. Tartariae Aquilonaris,” in Archivum franciscanum historicum, XVII (1924), pp. 65seq.; and Richard , La Papauté, pp. 92–3. Franciscans in Qipchaq had received such a yarliq at least as early as the reign of Möngke Temür (1267–80).

51 Jerome of Catalonia was consecreted at Avignon on December 20, 1310 and sent east in the next year. Regestrum dementis Papae V, vol. vi (Rome, 1890), no. 7480 and An Min, vi, p. 184. The title episcopus Caffensis can be found as early as 1317, see Fedalto G., La chiesa latino in Oriente, i (Verona, 1973), pp. 441–2. John XXII elevated the church of St Agnes in Kaffa into a cathedral, creating that vast diocese on Feb. 26, 1318, see Fontes, vol. VII, 2, Joannis XXII, ed. Tautu A. L. (Vatican City, (1952)) no. 8. John XXII's attention may have been focused on Qipchaq because Jerome of Catalonia's career at Kaffa was very stormy. There he had troubles with Dominicans, Armenians, and other Eastern churches. See Richard , La Papauté, pp. 157–9, and the sources cited therein.

52 Richard , La Papauté, pp. 159–60.

53 The first was Considera, quaesumus fili, November 22, 1321, Fontes, VII, 53 and Bullarium franciscanum, ed. Eubel K., v (Rome, 1898), no. 450. The second, Ingentem nec minim, February 28, 1322, granted the Mongol prince an indulgence. Fontes, VII, 56.

54 Laetanter audivimus, September 27, 1323, in Fontes, VII, 74.

55 An Min, vii, p. 213, see also Muldoon J., “The Avignon Papacy and the frontiers of Christendom: the evidence of Vatican Register 62,” Archivuum Historiae Pontificiae, XVII (1979), pp. 125–95, 178. For Marignolli's travels see Recollections of Travel in the East, in Cathay and the Way Thither, iii, pp. 177269.

56 An Min, vii, p. 217. Dundum ad notitiam was also addressed to Cangshi, khan of Chaghatai.

57 Ibid., p. 218, Laetamur in Domino.

58 Idem, Fide dignorum.

59 Ibid., pp. 227–8, Letanter et benigne. See also Muldoon , “The Avignon Papacy,” p. 179.

60 Venientem nuper, in An Min, vii, p. 229.

61 Ibid., pp. 229–30, Pridem ad nostram.

62 According to Pelliot P., Notes sur l'Histoire de la Horde d'Or, Oeuvres posthumes de Paul Pelliot, II, ed. Hambis L. (Paris, 1950), pp. 101–2, Täi-Dula had shown favour to the Russian clergy. See also Richard , La Papauté, p. 156.

63 Four volumes of The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, trans. Gibb H. A. R. and Beckingham C. F., have been published by the Hakluyt Society, with one more in preparation. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa's adventures in Qipchaq are in volume ii (Cambridge, 1962).

64 Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, ii, p. 377.

65 Ibid., pp. 383–5.

66 Ibid., pp. 389–90. Gibb renders her name, from Arabic, as “Taidoghli.”

67 Ibid., pp. 393–4.

68 Ibid., p. 413.

70 Ibid., p. 414.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
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