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Medieval Sourcebook:
Brother John of Monte Corvino: Letter to the Minister General of the Friars Minor in Rome, c. 1280

[Tappan Introduction]: In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Franciscans made their way to the East. One of them, the John of Corvino who gives the following account of his efforts, worked entirely alone for eleven years.

I BROTHER JOHN, of Monte Corvino, of the order of Minor Friars, made my way to Cathay, the realm of the emperor of the Tartars, who is called the Grand Khan. To him I presented the letter of our lord the Pope, and invited him to adopt the Catholic faith of our Lord Jesus Christ; but he had grown too old in idolatry. However, he bestows many kindnesses upon the Christians, and these two years past I am abiding with him. I have built a church in the city of Peking, in which the king has his chief residence. This I completed six years ago; and I have built a bell-tower to it and put three bells in it. I have baptized there, as well as I can estimate, up to this time some six thousand persons.

Also, I have gradually bought one hundred and fifty boys, the children of pagan parents, and of ages varying from seven to eleven, who had never learned any religion. These boys I have baptized, and I have taught them Greek and Latin after our manner. Also I have written out Psalters for them, with thirty Hymnaries and two Breviaries. By help of these, eleven of the boys already know our service, and form a choir, and take their weekly turn of duty as they do in convents,whether I am there or not. Many of the boys are also employed in writing out Psalters and other things suitable. His Majesty the Emperor moreover delights much to hear them chanting. I have the bells rung at all the canonical hours, and with my congregation of babes and sucklings, I perform divine service, and the chanting we do by ear because I have no service book with the notes.

I beg the Minister General of our Order to supply me with the Antiphonarium, with the legends of the saints, a Gradual, and a Psalter with the musical notes as a copy; for I have nothing but a pocket Breviary with the short lessons and a little missal. If I had one for a copy, the boys of whom I have spoken could transcribe others from it. Just now I am building a church with the view of distributing the boys in more places than one.

I have myself grown old and gray, more with toil and trouble than with years, for I am not more than fifty-eight. I have got a competent knowledge of the language and character which is most generally used by the Tartars. And I have already translated into that language and character the New Testament and the Psalter, and have caused them to be written out in the fairest penmanship they have; and so by writing, reading, and preaching I bear open and public testimony to the Law of Christ.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Volume I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 147-148.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, October 1998


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