Reviews

The topic of diplomatic correspondence between the Mongols and the Latin West in the thirteenth century is an old one, as reminds us Denise Aigle in the first lines of her study, quoting eighteenth-century Laurent Mosheim or nineteenth-century Abel Rémusat.  She indeed also reminds us of the more recent studies produced by Paul Pelliot, Antoine Mostaert, Francis Woodman Cleaves or Jean Richard.  Yet, close scrutiny of documents always has something to teach, especially in this case, where many of the answers one has about the often second-hand Latin versions of Mongol letters (are they reliable translations?) can find answers if one compares them for instance to other letters of the same kind, kept in their original form, that is written in Mongolian.  D. Aigle focuses on three letters, on one side the letter sent by Eljigidei to the King of France Louis ix in 1248, and, on the other, the letters sent by Khan Hüleghü to the West in 1262 and by Khan Abaqa to Pope Gregory x in 1274, both of which share a number of common elements.  The close study of the text of these letters itself takes all its value through the constant reference to Mongolian or Persian diplomatic habits and formulas, which D. Aigle is familiar with.

Actually, D. Aigle can distinguish an evolution in Mongol rhetoric, when the letters she has chosen to study are compared to the sheer orders of submission send the previous years by Great Khans.  A first step is taken in 1248, and D. Aigle gives a brief account of the Mongol mission and the numerous rumours and hopes it aroused.  Though Eljigidei’s letter is somewhat odd compared to usual standards of redaction by Mongol chancelleries, mainly because it uses Persian pattern and rhetoric, a Mongol bias is nevertheless clear in its thought, and the King of France, though not called openly to submission, is referred to as a sovereign inferior to the Great Khan of the Mongols.  D. Aigle insists on the role of the Nestorian entourage of Eljigidei, clearly demonstrated by the personality of the ambassadors, two Christian Arabs who did not fail to carry news about Prester John to the court of Louis ix.  Another example lies in the emphasis on the liberty of all the oriental Christian churches under Mongol rule carried out by this letter.  Nevertheless, that first overture by Eljigidei, later disapproved at the court of the Great-Khan, came to nothing.  However, the major failure of khan Hülegü against the Mamluks in 1260 changed the situation.  Hülegü called openly on an alliance in 1262, though, in a very classic Mongol style, he did not miss to refer to the mandate of universal power conferred to the Mongols by God.  Following the same line, Abaqa’s 1274 letter is even more conciliatory. Both the letters, written directly in Latin by the notary Richard enhance Mongol ideology, softened as it is by circumstances, with biblical quotations, and rephrase the Mongol political language with ‘Christian’ language.  Add that to stimulate its European counterparts, Abaqa again refers to the legendary figure of the Prester John, his alleged ancestor, besides alluding once more to the liberties of oriental Christians in its kingdom: clearly there is also a Nestorian influence.

Indeed, the point of the study consists of the close examination of this ‘Christian’ rephrasing of Mongol thought, which has its parallel in the later Muslim rhetoric of Khan Ghazan.  It is thus possible to tie up these three letters to the general pattern of Mongol chancellery rules, and hint at its numerous varieties, even when remote from its basic standards.  The study dispenses yet another teaching: it proves through the texts the influence taken from 1248 onwards by Oriental Christians at the court of the Il-khans of Persia, and their role as cultural traders between Mongols and Westerners—biased traders, however, interested in the building of that failed alliance between the Franks and the Mongols, and sometimes spreading convenient misconceptions (such as that of Prester John).

Thomas Tanase, Paris-Sorbonne University
CER: I-3.1.B-162