A diplomatic-pastoral-military-intelligence mission. Benedict of Poland moves to the East

777 years ago, he set off to the other side of the world to talk to beasts devoid of human feelings. He travelled 12,000 kilometres on horseback, spoke to the Great Khan and returned with descriptions of the local languages, foods and battle customs.

The situation in Europe in the Year of Our Lord 1245 was, to put it mildly, far from stable. The war between the Papacy and Frederick II was in full swing. The Saracens were entrenched in the kingdoms of Spain and there was no way of getting them out. The Latin states in the Middle East are faltering, the spirit of the crusades is waning, the last freedoms have been won by diplomatic means, one Louis IX still believes in the recapture of Jerusalem. And then there are the Mongols called Tatars...

They fell like God's whip, like a storm. They smashed the principalities of Rus, in 1240 Batu Khan sacked Kiev, in 1241 they swept through Poland, crushing into the ground near Legnica the best of the local knights and the Knights of Saint John, they raced through the kingdom of Hungary as far as the Adriatic Sea, they stood near Trieste and Vienna. "The abominable nation of Satan broke out of Tartarus," wrote the chronicler. They were terrifying, like the Huns, Avars and Longobards before them. Free not only from the ethos of chivalry, but from any seemingly human feelings: pity, weariness, fear. Eating raw meat, burning the conquered cities to the ground.

In 1242 the assault on Trieste did not take place, and soon afterwards they retreated as far as northern Russia and the Volga steppes. It was caused by a dynastic crisis (after the death of Ögedei in Mongolia a dispute over the throne started), then - distraction from the poor and distant European peninsula). But - how was it to be known on this poor and distant peninsula?

A crusade? The new pope, one of the titans of the Middle Ages, Innocent IV, on the throne since June 1243, first tried to mobilise European knighthood, but after a few months he realised that it was a doubly futile affair: some were licking their wounds after the defeat two years before, others were burnt by local rivalries and tournaments, while the merchants only cared about the Hanseatic League and the cloth trade, there was no one to talk to...

And there is nothing to talk about. No one knows what is beyond the Caspian Sea, successive invasions have wiped out the remnants of old merchant contacts. There is no scholarly circulation, the Hellenistic writings have not yet been restored to Europe, anyway - what good would they do? A map, given by Arabs to Roger II of Sicily a century and a half ago, some myths about Cynocephaluses - this is all the knowledge.

The only solution is: recognise. Talk. Maybe, if successful, to convert. Maybe, if successful, to learn shameful secrets. That is: a diplomatic-pastoral-military-intelligence mission is necessary.

The Vatican has been preparing it for two years, calling on the best it has, the two newly founded mendicant orders. Four missions will head east, two Dominican, two Franciscan. Four teams, four routes - a fourfold chance of success. A desperately small chance, to be honest.
Letter of the Great Khan Güyük to Pope Innocent IV, Persian version. Fot. Wikimedia
The mission, which finally succeeded, set off even 777 years ago, on 16 April 1245, from Lyon, where preparations were under way for the start of the Universal Assembly. It was headed by an experienced papal diplomat, the Franciscan Giovannni da Pian del Carpine. Jan of the Grabe Valley, who had created the structures of the Mendicant Order in Poland, began to deal with the Tartar question after the Battle of Legnica. And it was he who proposed that the secretary of the expedition should be a local friar, a former knight, who chose the habit: Benedict.

We know him only by this monastic name, to which the brothers affixed "of Poland", to distinguish his country of origin, whenever they mentioned his expedition and account. Nothing more is known, everything is a matter of speculation. A knight? Probably a knight, because he was excellent in the saddle, expertly described the weapons and tactics in his account, praised the arrows; besides, he had a certain inherent dignity, so necessary for a diplomat.

Did he previously own property somewhere in the east, in Podlachia or in Red Ruthenia? It could be so, as he was fluent in Ruthenian language, but could learn it also from servants. And he also had a talent for Mongolian, after a few months he could communicate with the language, which gave rise to most speculation among researchers: was he himself in captivity? He investigated the Mongolian captives? Or maybe just a natural philological talent?

Giovanni set off from Lyon without Benedict, only picking him up in Wroclaw on the spur of the moment, having already selected two members of the expedition in Bohemia, where there was also an audience with the aged Wenceslas I. And then it was off: Wrocław - Cracow (there an audience with Bolesław the Chaste and consultations with the Ruthenian prince Vasilko Romanovich). Łęczyca - where, at the home of Konrad I of Masovia, they spent a frosty Christmas and hired guides from Rus. And then it was off - first, as if they were travelling on the Mazovian Railway: Czersk, Liw, Drohiczyn, Zawichost... And on and on: Wlodzimierz, Luck, Kiev.

In Kiev they can already see the ruins of the recent Mongol invasion. Acid smoke, ruins, terrible wounds of beggars. But - in God's name! They have only changed their horses for Mongolian ones (bony, low, stout) and head east. Every night the Russian guides left them, until finally, probably in mid-March - they came upon the first Mongol patrol. Christmas was in Łęczyca? And Easter in Astrakhan.

They celebrated Pentecost in the grey desert, and only reached Karakoram - the summer seat of the Khan - on St Mary Magdalene's Day, the day after 20 July. On the way - snow (and a journey in a sleigh), then again spaced horse patrols of Mongols. Caravans of captives. Omnipresent corruption (from 40 furs from princess Kunegunda they brought to Mongolia only seven). To eat - millet with salt, a bowl of kumis to drink.

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The newly elected khan, Güyük, received them in August. Gracious, powerful and impenetrable, he deigned not to be angry at the proposal to accept the teachings of Christ; indeed, he recommended that the Pope, at the head of all the rulers of Europe, should come to pay him adoration, then we shall see... The official letter, issued by the Khan's court in mid-November, was equally firm in tone: homage as a condition for peace. But - they were let out of the walls of Karakoram, given a waiver for the road. And pearls were put in their pockets.

The way back took another year: Altai, desert, salt lakes, snakes, desert again, and already - the Volga, almost familiar! From Kiev onwards, bells accompanied them everywhere, they were welcomed as if they had returned from the beyond. They entered Lyon on 18 November 1247: two years, seven months and two days after the start of their mission, 2.5 times better than Phileas Fogg...

They brought back a letter from Güyük and their own notes. They became, without knowing it, the fathers of Oriental studies, ethnography and religious studies. They talked about Mongolian burial customs and the fact that steppe peoples do without vegetables, about Nestorians, Christians living under the khan's rule (this is where the legend of Father John would later come from, thrilling Europe until the end of the Middle Ages) and about cow's milk. They established contacts (the basis of the diplomat's profession!) with emissaries from the Delhi Sultanate, Korea, Georgia and China, who were guests at the khan's court.

While writing his treatise ("De Itinere Fratrum Minorum ad Tartaros"), Benedict did not spare himself from remarks about the Cynocephaluses, but he also described the Mongolian language and horses, the Volga and Amu Daria, and the formation of armies at Legnica. Then he completed his life as a brother guardian in Inowrocław.

He could become a patron of papal diplomacy: he described half the world, slept in a sleeping bag under the snow, did not renounce his faith, did not thank khan for the devastated Kiev. But you still, reader, think that the Far East was described first by Marco Polo...

– Wojciech Stanisławski
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: Itinerary of the expedition with the participation of Benedict of Poland. William Robert Shepherd - From the "Historical Atlas" by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition). Photo Wikimedia
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