When I skipped through the internet site http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ I clicked on Johannes de Plano Carpini – never heard of him - and was immediately fascinated: I found a 13th century description of the Mongols . As I have studied comparative religion, I have an interest in cultural anthropology, so I started reading the chapter on burial customs and decided to write post.
Johannes de Plana Carpini (around 1185 - 1252) was a companion of St. Francis and much involved into preaching the gospel. It was probably for that reason that he was chosen by pope Innocent iv to complain to the Grand Khan of the Mongols – invading parts of Europe at that moment – about the unfairness of harassing Christian countries and also for converting the Grand Khan to Christianity. It goes without saying that the attempt of conversion was an utter failure. The Grand Khan demanded instead allegiance of the pope…
His travel took place between 1245 and 1247. In 1246 he reached Karakorum, the capital of the Mongols and 3000 miles away from where he started. At that time no one in Europe had any idea that Mongolia was that far away and for Johannes, being for that time at age and quite a bit obese, the journey must have been painful.
He was the first westerner ever to visit that place and after he returned he wrote a detailed account of this journey. This account exists in two versions: Ystoria Mongolorum quos nos Tartaros appelamus and Liber Tartarorum. The latter is an abridged version and this text is on internet. His travel account is important for our knowledge of the Mongols at that period and for the Mongols themselves too, as apart from The Secret History of the Mongols, they have no vernacular accounts of their own history from that period.
Johannes must have been a man with an open mind, trying to see what is good and not condemning a priori the Mongols as devils. In the following account he tells about the burial customs of the wealthy Mongols. Reading this, I was struck by the similarities with other nomadic peoples, like the Scythes, the Huns and the Kurgan culture, the alleged origin of the Indo-Europeans.
Note: the Tatars (wrongly spelt Tartari) are a sub-branch of the Mongols with a strong Turkish influence, actually a combination of Mongol and Turkish tribes. In the 14th century they mingled with the Volga-Bulgarians and modern Tatars have more European traits than Mongolian. So the equation of Tatars with Mongols is wrong in mediaeval sources.
JOHANNES DE PLANO CARPINI
LIBELLUS HISTORICUS IOANNIS DE PLANO CARPINI,
qui missus est Legatus ad Tartaros anno Domini 1246. ab Innocentio quarto Pontifice maximo.
Ritus funebri (pars capitis iii)
Quando aliquis eorum infirmatur, ponitur in statione eius una hasta, et contra illam filtrum circumvoluitur nigrum: et ex tunc nullus audet alienus postes stationum intrare. Et quando incipit agonizare, omnes recedunt ab eo; quoniam nullus de iis qui morti eius assistunt, potest ordam alicuius ducis vel imperatoris usque ad novam lunationem intrare. Cum autem mortuus est, si est de maioribus, sepelitur occulte in campo ubi placuerit: sepelitur autem cum statione sedendo in medio eius, et ponunt mensam ante eum, et alveum carnibus plenum, et cyphum lactis iumentini: Sepelitur autem cum eo unum iumentum cum pullo, et equus cum freno et sella: et alium equum comedunt et stramine corium implent, et super duo vel quatuor ligna altius ponunt, ut habeat in alio mundo stationem ubi moretur, et iumentum de quo lac habeat, et, possit sibi equos multiplicare, et equos etiam in quibus valeat equitare. Aurum et argentum sepeliunt eodem modo cum ipso. Currus in quo ducitur frangitur, et statio sua destruitur, nec nomen proprium eius usque ad tertium generationem audet aliquis nominare. Alius etiam est modus sepeliendi quosdam maiores. Vaditur in campo occulte, et ibi gramina removent cum radicibus et faciunt foveam magnam, et in latere illius foueae faciunt unam sub terra, et illum servum quem habet dilectum ponunt sub eo, qui iacet tam diu sub eo donec incipit agonizare, deinde extrahunt eum ut valeat respirare, et sic faciunt ter. Et si evadet, postea est liber, et facit quicquid ei placuerit, et est magnus in statione, ac inter parentes illius. Mortuum autem ponunt in foveam, qua est in latere facta cum his qua superius dicta sunt. Deinde replent foveam qua est ante foueam suam, et desuper gramina ponunt, ut fuerant prius, ad hoc, ne locus ulterius valeat inueniri. Alia faciunt ut dictum est. In terra eorum sunt coemeteria duo. Unum in quo sepeliuntur imperatores, duces et nobiles omnes: et ubicunque moriuntur, si congrue fieri potest, illuc deferuntur. Sepelitur autem cum eis aurum et argentum multum. Aliud est in quo sepeliuntur illi qui in Hungaria interfecti fuerunt: multi enim ibidem occisi fuerunt. Ad illa coemeteria nullus audet accedere praeter custodes, qui ad custodiendum positi sunt ibidem. Et si aliquis accesserit, capitur, spoliatur et verberatur, et valde male tractatur. Unde nos ipsi nescientes intravimus terminos coemeterii eorum qui in Hungaria occisi fuerunt, et venerunt super nos sagitta volantes: sed quia eramus nuncii consuetudinem terrae nescientes, nos liberos dimiserunt abire.
statio –onis (f): (here) a yurt or ger, the movable house of Central-Asian nomads
contra illam = circum illam
filtrum: felt (indeed connected with filter: early 15c., from Old French filtre and directly from Medieval Latin filtrum "felt," which was used to strain impurities from liquid, from West Germanic *filtiz (see felt (n.)). Of cigarettes, from 1908. (Copied from the Online Etymology Dictionary. As for the cigarettes, I don’t smoke filter, but roll them myself.)
agonizo: to struggle, fight for one’s life, die
orda: In an earlier chapter Johannes explains this as sic enim stationes imperatoris apud eos et principum appellantur, so: `camp, residence (with various yurts)-‘. This word entered Western languages through Polish as horde, with the meaning `troop, crowd’. In the beginning of the 17th century the expression Zolotája Ordá (Golden Orda) was used in Russian as name for the capital of the Mongols - who by then had lost their power. Later this term was used as designation for the whole Mongolian empire. The word orda is also related with Urdu, the language of Pakistan. Originally this language was known as zabån-e-urdu `language of the army’, designating a mixed language of the local Hindi dialect with a strong influence of Turkish and Persian words.
alveus: a hollow, deep vessel, basket
cyphum = scyphum (a drinking vessel)
lactis iumentini: genitivus partitivus. iumentinus is an adjective from iumentum
comedo: to eat
stramen straminis (n): straw
corium: skin, hide
lignum: wooden bar, beam
nomino: to give a name to
parentes illius: his superiors
spolio: to strip
verbero: to beat
As there is no translation of the Liber Tartarorum on internet, I have taken the trouble to make one myself. It has no literary pretension, but is meant to understand the Latin.
When one of them weakens, a spear is placed on the yurt, and around that a black felt is wound, and from that moment no stranger is allowed to pass the entrance of the yurt. And when he is about to die, all go way from him, as no one of those who are present at his death, can enter the orda of some nobleman or leader till new moon. When he is dead, if he belongs to nobles, he is buried secretly on the steppe wherever it pleases. He is buried with a yurt, sitting in the midst of it and they put a table in front of him and a basket full of meat and a bowl with the milk of a mare. A mare with a foal is also buried with him, and a horse with bridle and saddle, and they eat another horse and fill the skin with straw and put it two or four bars high up, so that he has in the other world a yurt to dwell in and a mare from which he can have milk and, if it is possible for him to multiply the horses, he has also horses on which he can ride. In the same way they bury gold and silver with him. The chariot in which he is transported, is broken and his own yurt is destroyed and no one dares to give the proper name of him (to a child)) up to the third generation.
There is also another way of burying some nobility. They go secretly into the steppe and there they remove grass with root and all and they dig a large pit and in the side of that pit, they dig one (other) and they put the slave whom he has as favourite, under it. He lies there so long till he starts to suffocate and then they draw him out in order that he can take breath again and they do this thrice. And when he survives this, he is free afterwards and he does whatever he likes, and he is held in high esteem in the yurt and also by his superiors. But they put the deceased in the pit which is dug in the side with the items mentioned above. Next they fill the pit in front of his pit and above that they put the grass as it had been before, so the place can not be found anymore. They do the other things as said.
In their land there are two cemeteries: one in which emperors, leaders and all nobles are buried , and wherever they die, if it possible to do that, they are brought there. A large amount of gold and silver is buried with them. The other one is where those who have died in Hungary are buried. Many indeed have fallen there. No one dares to approach cemetery, except the guardians who are placed there for guarding at that place. And if someone would approach, he is captured, stripped and beaten, and very badly treated. For that reason, when we - unaware of that - entered the cemetery of those fallen in Hungary, arrows came flying over us, but because we came as envoys, unaware of the customs of the country, they sent us away free to go.