Medieval History

Selected Sources Full Text Sources Saints' Lives Law Texts Maps Medieval Films Search Help

Selected Sources Sections Studying History End of Rome Byzantium Islam Roman Church Early Germans Anglo-Saxons Celtic World Carolingians 10 C Collapse Economic Life Crusades Empire & Papacy France England Celtic States Nordic Europe Iberia Italy Eastern Europe Intellectual Life Medieval Church Jewish Life Social History Sex & Gender States & Society Renaissance Reformation Exploration
IHSP Credits

Medieval Sourcebook:
Marco Polo:
On the Tartars

Marco Polo {1254-1324] is the most famous of medieval European travelers. His account of China inspired other Europeans, including Columbus, to both interest and greed. Serious questions have always been raised about the authenticity of the text. Most recently Frances Wood, head of Chinese language materials at the British Library, has pointed out that much of Polo's vocabulary is Persian rather than Chinese, and suggested that he got only as far as Persia. Others have noted that he omits descriptions of certain aspects of Chinese life which would seem unmissable - the Great Wall for instance, or the custom of foot-binding [which was well established by the 13th century].

Fact of fiction, the book was extraordinarily important and can be read now with pleasure and profit.



Chapter 44

Of the origin of the kingdom of the Tartars--of the quarter from whence they came--and of their former subjection to Un-khan, a prince of the north, called also Prester John.

The circumstances under which these Tartars first began to exercise dominion shall now be related. They dwelt in the northern countries of Jorza and Bargu, but without fixed habitations, that is, without towns or fortified places; where there were extensive plains, good pasture, large rivers, and plenty of water. They had no sovereign of their own, and were tributary to a powerful prince, who (as I have been informed) was named in their language, Un-khan, by some thought to have the same signification as Prester John in ours. To him these Tartars paid yearly the tenth part of the increase of their cattle. In time the tribe multiplied so exceedingly that Un-khan, that is to say, Prester John, becoming apprehensive of their strength, conceived the plan of separating them into different bodies, who should take up their abode in distinct tracts of country. With this view also, whenever the occasion presented itself, such as a rebellion in any of the provinces subject to him, he drafted three or four hundred of these people, to be employed on the service of quelling it, and thus their power was gradually diminished. He likewise despatched them on other expeditions, and sent among them some of his principal officers to see that his intentions were carried into effect. At length the Tartars, becoming sensible of the slavery to which he tried to reduce them, resolved to maintain a strict union amongst themselves, and seeing that he planned nothing short of their final ruin, they adopted the measure of leavingthe places they then inhabited, and proceeded north across a wide desert, until they felt assured that the distance afforded them security, when they refused any longer to pay to Un-khan the accustomed tribute.



Chapter 45

Concerning Chingis-khan, first emperor of the Tartars, and his warfare with Un-khan, whom he overthrew, and of whose kingdom he possessed himself.

Some time after the migration of the Tartars to this place, and about the year of our Lord 1162, they proceeded to elect for their king a man named Chingis-khan, one of approved integrity, great wisdom, commanding eloquence, and eminent for his valor. He began his reign with so much justice and moderation, that he was beloved and revered as their deity rather than their sovereign; and as the fame of his great and good qualities spread over that part of the world, all the Tartars, however dispersed, placed themselves under his command. Finding himself thus at the head of so many brave men, he became ambitious of emerging from the deserts and wildernesses by which he was surrounded, and gave them orders to equip themselves with bows, and other weapons they were expert at using from the habits of their pastoral life. He then made himself master of cities and provinces, and such was the effect produced by his character for justice and other virtues, that wherever he went, he found the people disposed to submit to him, and to esteem themselves happy when admitted to his protection and favor. In this manner he acquired the possession of about nine provinces. Nor is his success surprising, when we consider that at this period each town and district was either governed by the people themselves or had its petty king or lord; and as there was no general confederacy, it was impossible for them to resist, separately, so formidable a power. Upon the subjugation of these places, he appointed governors to them, who were so exemplary in their conduct that the inhabitants did not suffer either in their persons or their properties. He likewise adopted the policy of taking along with him, into other provinces, the principal people, on whom he bestowed allowances and gratuities. Seeing how prosperously his enterprises succeeded, he resolved on attempting still greater things. With this view he sent ambassadors to Prester John, charged with a specious message, which he knew at the same time would not be listened to by that prince, demanding his daughter in marriage. Upon receiving the application, the monarch indignantly exclaimed: "Whence arises this presumption in Chingis-khan, who, knowing himself to be my servant, dares to ask for the hand of my child? Depart instantly," he said, "and let him know from me, that upon the repetition of such a demand, I shall put him to an ignominious death." Enraged at this reply, Chingis-khan collected a very large army, at the head of which he entered the territory of Prester John, and encamping on a great plain called Tenduk, sent a message desiring him to defend himself. The latter advanced likewise to the plain with a vast army, and took his position at the distance of about ten miles from the other. In this conjuncture Chingis-khan commanded his astrologers and magicians to declare to him which of the two armies in the approaching conflict should obtain the victory. Upon this they took a green reed, and dividing it lengthways into two parts, they wrote upon one the name of their master, and upon the other the name of Un-khan. They then placed them on the ground, at some distance from each other, and gave notice to the king that during the time of their pronouncing their incantations, the two pieces of reed, through the power of their idols, would advance towards each other, and that the victory would fall to the lot of that monarch whose piece should be seen to mount upon the other. The whole army was assembled to be spectators of this ceremony, and whilst the astrologers were employed in reading their books of necromancy, they perceived the two pieces begin to move and to approach, and after a short time, the one inscribed with the name of Chingis-khan placed itself on top of its adversary. Upon witnessing this, the king and his band of Tartars marched with exultation to the attack of the army of Un-khan, broke through its ranks and entirely routed it. Un-khan himself was killed, his kingdom fell to the conqueror, and Chingis-khan espoused his daughter. After this battle he continued during six years to render himself master of additional kingdoms and cities; until at length, in the siege of a castle named Thaigin, he was struck by an arrow in the knee, died of the wound, and was buried in the mountain of Altai.



Chapter 46

Of six successive emperors of the Tartars, and of the ceremonies that take place when they are carried for interment to the mountain of Altai.

To Chingis-khan succeeded Cyhn-khan; the third was Bathyn-khan, the fourth Esu-khan, the fifth Mongu-khan, the sixth Kublai-khan, who became greater and more powerful than all the others, inasmuch as he inherited what his predecessors possessed, and afterwards, during a reign of nearly sixty years, acquired, it may be said, the remainder of the world. The title of khan, or kaan, is equivalent to emperor in our language. It has been an invariable custom that all the grand khans and chiefs of the race of Chingis-khan should be carried for interment to a certain lofty mountain named Altai, and in whatever place they may happen to die, even if it should be at the distance of a hundred days' journey, they are nevertheless conveyed there. It is likewise the custom, during the progress of removing the bodies of these princes, for those who form the escort to sacrifice such persons as they chance to meet on the road, saying to them, "Depart for the next world, and there attend upon your deceased master," believing that all they kill do actually become his servants in the next life. They do the same also with respect to horses, killing the best of the stud, in order that he may have the use of them. When the corpse of Mongu was transported to this mountain, the horsemen who accompanied it, having this blind and horrible persuasion, slew upwards of twenty thousand persons who fell in their way.



Chapter 47

Of the wandering life of the Tartars--of their domestic manners, their food, and the virtue and useful qualities of their women.

Now that I have begun speaking of the Tartars, I will tell you more about them. The Tartars never remain fixed, but as the winter approaches remove to the plains of a warmer region, to find sufficient pasture for their cattle; and in summer they frequent cold areas in the mountains, where there is water and verdure, and their cattle are free from the annoyance of horse- flies and other biting insects. During two or three months they go progressively higher and seek fresh pasture, the grass not being adequate in any one place to feed the multitudes of which their herds and flocks consist. Their huts or tents are formed of rods covered with felt, exactly round, and nicely put together, so they can gather them into one bundle, and make them up as packages, which they carry along with them in their migrations upon a sort of car with four wheels. When they have occasion to set them up again, they always make the entrance front to the south. Besides these cars they have a superior kind of vehicle upon two wheels, also covered with black felt so well that they protect those within it from wet during a whole day of rain. These are drawn by oxen and camels, and convey their wives and children, their utensils, and whatever provisions they require. The women attend to their trading concerns, buy and sell, and provide everything necessary for their husbands and their families; the time of the men is devoted entirely to hunting, hawking, and matters that relate to the military life. They have the best falcons in the world, and also the best dogs. They live entirely upon flesh and milk, eating the produce of their sport, and a certain small animal, not unlike a rabbit, called by our people Pharaoh's mice, which during the summer season are found in great abundance in the plains. They eat flesh of every description, horses, camels, and even dogs, provided they are fat. They drink mares' milk, which they prepare in such a manner that it has the qualities and flavor of white wine. They term it in their language kemurs. Their women are not excelled in the world for chastity and decency. Of conduct, nor for love and duty to their husbands. Infidelity to the marriage bed is regarded by them as a vice not merely dishonorable, but of the most infamous nature; while on the other hand it is admirable to observe the loyalty of the husbands towards their wives, amongst whom, although there are perhaps ten or twenty, there prevails a highly laudable degree of quiet and union. No offensive language is ever heard, their attention being fully occupied with their traffic (as already mentioned) and their several domestic employments, such as the provision of necessary food for the family, the management of the servants, and the care of the children, a common concern. And the virtues of modesty and chastity in the wives are more praiseworthy because the men are allowed the indulgence of taking as many as they choose. Their expense to the husband is not great, and on the other hand the benefit he derives from their trading, and from the occupations in which they are constantly engaged, is considerable; on which account when he receives a young woman in marriage, he pays a dower to her parent. The wife who is the first espoused has the privilege of superior attention, and is held to be the most legitimate, which extends also to the children borne by her. In consequence of this unlimited number of wives, the offspring is more numerous than amongst any other people. Upon the death of the father, the son may take to himself the wives he leaves behind, with the exception of his own mother. They cannot take their sisters to wife, but upon the death of their brothers they can marry their sisters-in-law. Every marriage is solemnized with great ceremony.


This text is widely available on the Internet, but without indication of its printed origins. If you have such information, please contact me at the address below.

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.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 31 May 2024 [CV]