#PodcastingHistory 3: To See the Mongols 4: A William Leaves Town

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Welcome to Guest Post 3 of #PodcastingHistory! This week I get to hand this blog over to Devon Field, creator and host of The Human Circus, a podcast dedicated to journeys in the medieval world. In this post, Devon takes us through the process of creating his episode "To See the Mongols 4: A William Leaves Town", and as a result we get to travel with his subject, Friar William, from Europe to visit the Mongols:

When I prepare a podcast episode, I’m preparing to tell a story. In particular, I’m preparing to tell a story about a medieval traveler, whether they be a monk, crusader, merchant, pilgrim, ambassador, or some combination thereof. Probably the most important part of my process then is choosing what story to tell. For me, that means finding texts that are dramatic, contain an element of surprise, and teach me something.

I’m looking first for stories that have some dramatic element to them because, obviously, I don’t want to bore the listener any more than I want to bore myself. Here, it tends to help to find narratives that can be summed up in a kind of elevator pitch. My first subject left Bavaria in his mid-teens to fight the Ottomans but didn’t come home for 30 years because he was serving first the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid and then Timur the Torco-Mongol ruler. Another had never left England until he sailed for Constantinople with a gift from Queen Elizabeth to Sultan Mehmed III, and he performed a concert for Mehmed with the sultan’s knees at his back, fearful that his head was about to be cut off. A third was over 60 years old when he journeyed overland from France to witness a Mongol Khan’s ascension and deliver a letter from the pope. And so on. They’re all immediately gripping stories, to me at least, and they all let me speak to my main theme of unexpected interconnectivity.

I think there’s still a fairly popular picture of the medieval world as made up of homogeneous islands existing pretty much in isolation from one another and as being exemplary of an imagined purity (cultural and/or racial) that once existed. I like to tell fun stories, but I also like to tell stories that serve as ways into both their characters’ broader contexts and the wonderfully interconnected medieval world. I think people are surprised to learn about the history of Anglo-Moroccan diplomacy, Parisian craftsmen in the Mongol capital, and English-born employees of the Ottoman Empire (as they clearly are surprised by diversity in Roman Britain for example).

Finally, I’m looking for stories I want to learn more about. Medieval travel narratives are not in my academic background (my graduate thesis was on Luigi Giussani), and a PhD is still just a future possibility (one I’m not sure I can justify in my current situation). This podcast gives me an outlet for my own research. It lets me take a text and related background materials and create something satisfying.

What I try to do with all of this is present it in the form of a narrative. A question I sometimes get stuck on is when and where to break with that format. Is it better to break the flow of the story to emphasize a point or provide analysis and to make sure it doesn’t all merge into a more historically grounded “once upon a time,” or can good storytelling communicate the themes adequately by itself? It’s something I’m still experimenting with.

There are other questions also, and a big one, as with any writing, is what to include and what to throw away. Sometimes I’ll come across a tidbit of information that just seems too delicious to leave out, but it doesn’t fit and it ends up cut, or rather copied and pasted to the bottom of the document for potential future use. I think I’ve gotten a little better in this respect. Not every related aside that makes me think “well, this is cool!” makes it in anymore.

Sometimes, the scale of a story changes as I get into it. I initially started with Thomas Dallam (16th/17th century organ builder and unlikely representative to the Ottoman Sultan) because I thought it would make a good one-off episode, a nice, light palate cleanser after the violence of Timur. It turned into a nine-part series on Elizabethan diplomacy, the trade companies, and Dallam’s own delightfully opinionated account of his travels. Podcasting is pretty flexible that way.

In a way, this episode came out of a similar process. I started with the topic of another friar, Giovanni Carpine (sadly I cannot remember where or why I came across him), who was sent to the Mongols by Pope Innocent IV to learn all about them and to deliver a letter to their khan, but I soon realized that Friar Giovanni was just one of several Franciscans and Dominicans to go east on religio-diplomatic missions to Mongol khans and commanders, and part of a whole travel narrative sub-genre all their own.

This is the first of three episodes on the 13th century journey of William of Rubruck to the court of Mongke Khan and part of a longer (and still ongoing) series on the exchanges between Latin Christendom and the Mongol Empire, from the papal missions of characters like Giovanni Carpine to the merchant expeditions of the Polos. Friar William was a Flemish Franciscan who has often been seen, and was often seen by the Mongols, as travelling on behalf of King Louis IX of France as a diplomatic envoy, but by his own account he had a much more religious motivation: to convert the Mongols to Christianity, a prospect for which there had been some Mongol encouragement (the earlier Mongol envoys to Louis IX and the presence of Christians in senior Mongol positions) but which would ultimately result in failure.

We follow Friar William as he navigates the early stages of his journey. We get to see him flung suddenly, jarringly, into a world that is to him alien and barbaric. He negotiates his status in that world and is frustrated in his religious efforts at almost every turn. He is disturbed at the actions and beliefs of his fellow Christians. He is endlessly surprised and appalled at the Mongols’ noses. Though the written account is largely a report for the benefit of Louis IX, these personal reactions make a nice occasional window into William’s own personality and bring him to life for us a little.

For me, the story of Friar William ticks all the boxes I mentioned at the start. We see him struggle to overcome the physical demands of the journey, navigate the complications of his own uncertain diplomatic status, attempt missionary work through the barriers of language and an apparently incompetent translator, and eventually (though not in this episode) take part in an incredibly cinematic religious debate scene before the khan.

His account contains detailed observations on the Mongols, his engagement with ideas of the unknown world (has anyone seen the dog-headed men?), and difficult interactions with his nominal coreligionists in Mongke’s camp. There’s drama in the rock-splitting cold, the nearness of starvation, and the penalty of death for diplomatic faux pas. We get a peek into Mongol diplomacy and politics, William’s attempts to make sense of Buddhists and Buddhism, and throughout his journey, the surprising diversity (often, but not always, involuntary and the result of violent displacement) of the characters he meets in the Mongol Empire: an Armenian weaver pretending to be a monk, a woman from Metz who has married a Russian builder, and a Christian from Damascus who represents the Ayyubid Sultan, all at Mongke Khan’s camp alone.

For all that, perhaps my moment of peak enjoyment during the series was pulling out my The Voyages of Marco Polo board game for the first time in a while and being delighted to discover I now knew all the characters. History provides satisfaction in unexpected places sometimes.

Devon Field is the creator of Human Circus, a narrative history podcast about medieval travel. He received his BA and MA in humanities from Simon Fraser University, and currently reads and writes with elementary age ESL students.

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