Accounts of the Mongols in The Medieval Record

Hackett Publishing has kindly given permission to reproduce the following source selections from my friend and senior colleague Alfred J. Andrea’s excellent sourcebook, The Medieval Record: Sources of Medieval History (Second Revised Edition). This more than 500-page book contains numerous important sources from Ancient Rome to the discovery of the New World, with many of them original translations by Professor Andrea. The sources provided here include:

Matthew Paris, The Greater Chronicle: An Entry for 1241

Ivo of Narbonne’s Confession

Matthew Paris’ Illustration of The Tartar Feast

Each of the sources offers fascinating insights into how European Christians during the thirteenth century understood the Mongols and the ferocity of their attacks on various peoples. The depictions are detailed, graphic, and fearful. Of special interest is the image of The Tartar Feast provided at the end of Ivo of Narbonne’s letter. Professor Andrea’s helpful introductory text and “Questions for Consideration” precede the sources immediately below:


“A Detestable Satanic People” Source 90, The Medieval Record, 2nd rev ed., pp-336-39.

As early as 1221, word of the Mongol menace reached Western Europe, and by the late 1230s what had been at first rumors became a flood of news, much of it fanciful, some of it quite accurate, and almost all of it frightening. In 1238, the English Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, who served as the Abbey of Saint Albans’s official chronicler, began to record in his Chronica majora (The Greater Chronicle) what became an almost-obsessive series of accounts of the actions of and threats posed by the Mongols (or Tartars, as they were called in the West).

In 1240, during which time Mongol forces in western Eurasia were focused largely on the conquest of Christian Eastern and Central Europe and not so much on Islamic lands, Matthew returned to the issue of the Mongols. That account appears below as our initial narrative source. In addition to offering his own words, Matthew recorded roughly 350 documents in the Greater Chronicle and an accompanying appendix. Eleven of the documents concerned the Mongols. One of them, which Matthew incorporated into his chronicle in 1243 and which is excerpted below as our second narrative source, is the sole surviving copy of a letter from Ivo of Narbonne to Archbishop Gerald of Bordeaux. Much of the letter, which is known as “Ivo of Narbonne’s Confession,” deals with Ivo’s dalliances with an anticlerical group of religious and social reformers in northern Italy known as the Patarines, whom the Church branded as heretics. In the course of his lengthy account, Ivo recounted the Mongols’ attack upon the duchy of Austria in 1242.

Accompanying the letter is an illustration that has become known as “The Tartar Feast.” Matthew was a gifted illustrator as well as a prolific chronicler, and he illuminated his three manuscripts of the Chronica majora with many pen-and-ink line-drawings and maps as well as small colored paintings. The caption on the left within this illustration reads: “The heinous Tartars, or Tattars, feasting on human flesh.” The caption on the right informs us: “When Tattar horses, which are most rapacious, lack better pasturage, they are content with the branches and leaves and even the bark of trees.”

As you study these three sources, you will see that there are surprising parallels and connections among them.

Questions for Consideration

  1. What are the major points that Matthew makes about the Tartars in his 1240 entry? What do those points suggest about the level of the West’s knowledge of the Mongols at that time?
  2. Ivo claimed to recount only what he knew from experience and with certainty. Test that claim. Which parts of Ivo’s letter appear to be a firsthand account by an eyewitness? Do any parts seem to be based upon rumors? What conclusions follow from your analysis?
  3. Consider the illustration. What are the ages and sexes of the person being roasted, the person tied to the tree, and the three heads without bodies? And how does the horse fit in? In light of Ivo’s letter and the entry for 1240, what is the message here?
  4. Describe the actions, facial features, and postures of the three Tartars. How has the artist conveyed the message that they are “a monstrous race of inhuman men”?
  5. Consider the hat worn by the Tartar who is roasting a person on a spit. Have you seen such a hat before? Where? Does any other feature of this Tartar match any other caricature that you have seen elsewhere in this book? Compare his dress and actions with those of his companions. All pieces of evidence considered, who or what does he appear to be, and what is Matthew’s apparent message?

Matthew Paris, The Greater Chronicle: An Entry for 1241

How the Tartars, having recovered their power, burst out of their mountains, terrorized the East by devastating many lands, and even now terrified Christians.

So that mortal joys might not continue and the delights of the world might no longer be enjoyed without mourning, in this very year a detestable satanic people, namely an immense army of Tartars burst out their mountain-encircled land, which had been made fast with an impassable mass of rocks.[1] Escaping like demons released from Tartarus[2] (so they are well called Tartars, as if they are inhabitants of Tartarus), they swarmed out and, like locusts, overwhelmed the face of the Earth. They devastated the lands of the East with dreadful destruction, laying waste with fire and carnage. Traveling through the lands of the Saracens, they leveled cities, cut down forests, tore down fortresses, ripped up vineyards, destroyed agricultural fields, and massacred city dwellers and rural folk. And if, by chance, they spared anyone who begged them, they compelled them, like the lowest of slaves, to fight in front of them against their own people. If they pretended to fight or, perhaps, secretly warned them so that they might flee, these Tartars, who followed in their rear, killed them. If they fought bravely and conquered, they gained no thanks as a reward. And so they used up their captives as if they were beasts of burden.

For the men are inhuman and bestial. They should be called monsters rather than human beings, thirsting after and drinking blood, tearing apart and devouring the corpses of dogs and humans. They are clothed in the skins of bulls, are armed with iron lances, short in stature, stocky and compact in body, vigorously strong, invincible in war, untiring in labor. Their backs are unarmored, but their fronts are protected by armor. As a delicacy, they drink blood flowing from their cattle. They have large, strong horses that eat leaves and even trees, which because of the shortness of their legs, they mount by means of three steps, which is like using three stirrups in sequence. Devoid of human laws, they have no knowledge of clemency; they are more ferocious than lions and bears…. They have swords and daggers with one cutting edge. They are marvelous archers, not sparing sex, age, or rank….

These Tartars, the memory of whom is hateful, are believed to have been from the ten tribes who followed after golden calves, having abandoned the Law of Moses.[3] It is also they whom Alexander of Macedon is known to have initially shut up in the sheer Caspian Mountains with walls cemented with bituminous mortar.[4] Given that the work seemed to be beyond the capacity of human labor, he called upon the aide of the God of Israel. And the mountain peaks joined one another, and the place was made inaccessible and impassable…. The issue arises, however, that it is doubtful that they are these Tartars who are now emerging, as they do not speak the Hebrew language, nor do they know the Law of Moses. Neither do they use nor are they ruled by legal institutions. The reply to this is that it is, nevertheless, credible that they are part of those who had been enclosed, of whom mention was made earlier. Also, in the time of Moses’s leadership, their rebellious hearts were turned to a depraved way of thinking[5] so that they followed after alien gods and unknown rites. And thus, what is even now more strangely wondrous, in order that they might be unknown to every other people, their heart and language are mutilated and, in accordance with God’s vengeance, their way of life is transformed into feral and senseless cruelty.

They are, moreover, called Tartars from a certain river, which is called Tartar, that runs through their mountains, through which they have now passed through.

Ivo of Narbonne’s Confession with the accompanying image of The Tartar Feast

To Gerald, archbishop of Bordeaux by the grace of God, from Ivo, called the man from Narbonne, formerly the most novice of his clerics, greeting….

Up to this point, it is well known only to those in the know, how great the danger is to Christians from the overwhelming onslaught of the Tattars.[6] For one cannot sufficiently defame the cruelty and artful ability for deception of that people. In briefly informing you of their nefarious habits, I will recount nothing of which I am doubtful or that I hold [only as] an opinion, but only that which I have experienced and that I know with certainty.…

Therefore, because of this[7] and the many other sins that have arisen among us Christians, an angry Lord has been made, as it were, into a hostile devastator and a fearful avenger. I can say this because a certain ill-bred breed of inhuman humans,[8] whose law is lawlessness, whose wrath is furious, that serves as the rod of the Lord’s fury, is overrunning countless lands, which it is dreadfully devastating, killing and horribly exterminating by fire all who stand in their way. And only this summer, this aforementioned people who are called Tattars, departing from Pannonia,[9] which they had taken through treason, cruelly laid siege with countless soldiers to the aforesaid fortified town[10] in which I was then securely residing. As regards men-at-arms on our side, there were no more than fifty knights whom, along with twenty crossbowmen, the commander had left in the garrison. All of these looked down from certain high point on the army that was spreading out around them. They abhorred the monstrous cruelty of the accomplices of the Antichrist,[11] and they heard the pitiful cries of Christians that were arising to God—Christians in the adjoining province who suddenly had been taken captive. Without consideration of class, fortune, sex, or age, they indiscriminately destroyed them all by various forms of torture. The leaders, along with their dinner guests and other lotus eaters,[12] fed on their corpses as though they were bread, leaving nothing for the vultures except bones. And it is a wonder, but the famished and gluttonous vultures, who abounded above in great numbers, did not deign to feed upon the remains. The old and deformed women they gave to the cannibals[13] (as they are known world-wide) as food, as if it were a daily ration. They did not eat the beautiful women [immediately]. Rather they suffocated them under a mass of rapists as they cried out and wailed. They raped virgins until they died, and then their breasts were cut off, which they kept for their leaders as delicacies, and they feasted on their virginal bodies in a more splendid manner.

The Tatars suddenly retreat back into Hungary at the approach of a large Christian army. Several of the former besiegers are captured, including a multi-lingual English outlaw, who had served the Tatars as an interpreter and envoy, since they needed such talents in order to attain their goal of conquering the world. He then begins to tell his captors about his former masters.

Regarding their manners and superstitious belief, their physical disposition and stature, their homeland and method of fighting, he swore that they, beyond all other people, are avaricious, easily provoked, deceitful, and merciless. However, in light of the severity of the punishment and the cruelty of the punishments that would be inflicted by their leaders, all of them are restrained from disputes, cheating, and violence toward one another.

They call the forefathers of their tribes “gods,” and at set times they hold solemn festivals for them. Many of the festivals are local, and only four are for all the tribes. And they believe all things have been created for them alone. They believe it is no sin to exercise cruelty against rebels.

They have strong and robust chests, lean and pale faces, hard and upright shoulders, deformed and short noses, sharp and prominent chins, upper jaws that are low and deep, teeth that are long and few, eyebrows that grow from the hairline to the nose, eyes that are shifty and black, countenances that are hostile and fierce, extremities that are bony and sinewy, also legs that are thick but short below the knee. In stature they are our equals because what they lack below the knee is compensated for by a larger upper body.

Their homeland was long ago a wasteland and a vast wilderness, far beyond the land of all the Chaldeans,[14] from which they drove out lions, bears, and other wild beasts with their bows and other weapons. From their boiled leather hides they have fashioned for themselves light but impenetrable armor. They are accustomed to riding firmly seated on horses that are not large but strong and that are satisfied with little forage. They fight without tiring and bravely with lances, maces, double-edged axes, and swords, but they prefer bows and are skilled in fighting with them. Their backs are lightly armed lest they flee. They do not retire from battle before they see the main standard of their leader in retreat. Vanquished they beg no favors; victorious they show no mercy. All of them as one man persist in their desire and purpose of total dominance over the world. Yet they do not number a million.

Matthew Paris’ Illustration of The Tartar Feast

Feast of Tartars

Illus. 11.4 Matthew Paris, “A Tartar Feast.” An illustration by the author in the Chronica Majora II. The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, MS 16, fol. 167r.


[1] See note 4.

[2] The classical Latin name for Hell. Therefore, Tartar was a pun.

[3] The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were taken into captivity and distributed throughout the Neo-Assyrian Empire around 722 B.C.E.; golden calves were biblical symbols of polytheistic worship: Exodus, 32:4; 1 Kings, 12:26–30.

[4] The Gates of Alexander, also known as the Caspian Gates, is a myth that originated no later than the first century C.E. and evolved with numerous variations. The most popular version is that Alexander the Great shut up a narrow mountain pass in the Caucasus Mountains with an iron gate in order to deny passage to barbarians from the north.

[5] Romans, 1:28.

[6] Ivo more correctly uses “Tattars,” a variant of “Tatars,” rather than “Tartars.” The Tatars were actually a Turkic people whom the Mongols had conquered and with whom they had intermarried. Although called Tatars by many, especially in East and Central Asia, the Mongols called themselves Mong, the Mongol word for “brave.”

[7] The Paterine “heresy,” for which he is repenting.

[8] A rhetorical flourish: gens ingens, homines inhumani.

[9] The kingdom of Hungary.

[10] Neustadt in the duchy of Austria.

[11] The archenemy of Christ who will appear toward the end of time.

[12] Lotofagi. An ironic twist. According to Homer, the lotus eaters lived in a perpetual state of torpor and forgetfulness due to their eating the lotus plant. The correct Latin word for “cannibals” is anthropophagi (eaters of humans).

[13] Ivo uses the non-ironic antropfagi here.

[14] The people of Mesopotamia.