This is episode 10 in the on-going epic saga of the Chinese Marco Polo – Rabban Sauma.
Realizing he couldn’t get anything done in Rome since there was no Pope, and that the dozen cardinals charged with the task of selecting him were competing for the post, Sauma decided to take his request for a military alliance between Christian Europe and Mongol Persia against the Muslims Mamluks in the Middle East, directly to the Kings of France and England.
Leaving Rome, he stopped in Genoa on his way to North. Since Genoa had for some years maintained a thriving trade with the Ilkhanate, that is the Mongols in Persia, Sauma had every reason to expect a warm welcome. He wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t hurt that one of the interpreters who’d accompanied him from Persia was a native-born Genoese merchant.
Genoa was at the height of its prosperity when Sauma visited, boasting a population of 70,000, one of the largest in Europe. Its merchants were savvy negotiators who’d been able to arrange deals not only around the Mediterranean but reaching into the Far East. While other Italian City-States like Naples and Venice set up lucrative trade routes with select partners, Genoa was able to walk a tight-rope of diplomacy across dozens of partners who were otherwise in conflict with each other. Because of their wide-ranging connections, many realms of thought and practice combined to influence the intellectual life of Genoa. It was a truly cosmopolitan city whose routine wasn’t knocked off kilter by the arrival of an Embassy form the Far East.
While the commerce of Genoa was well established, its government was another matter. Genoa seemed unable to find a political system that satisfied the city’s need for longer than a decade. At the time of Sauma’s visit, the city’s ruler was called a Captain of the People, or Citizens. He rallied the population of Genoa to officially welcome Sauma’s party. Sauma was confused; not able to understand how such a large city wasn’t ruled by a king. Knowing how far-reaching Genoa’s trade was, Sauma wondered if it might even have been better ruled by an Emperor.
Once settled into the accommodations made available to him, Sauma plotted his next moves. If it occurred to him to ask the Genoese to join an alliance against the Mamluks, he quickly put it aside. The Genoese would not be drawn into a war with a force that dominated the entire Eastern Med. In fact, forging treaties was what they were known for. When they went to war, it was with their rival Italian City-States, all for the golden prize of increasing trade with everyone else. And Genoa was at that time gearing up for a campaign against their major rival Venice, which it would soon best.
So, after visiting the religious sites in an near Genoa, Sauma once again packed up and headed north toward France.
Sauma’s hope of help from the French was keen. After all King Louis IX, known to history as St. Louis, had played a major role in 2 Crusades to liberate the Middle East from the Muslim presence. But his son, Philip III, known as Philip the Bold, had been more concerned with securing his control of France and her neighbors. His son, Philip IV, known as Philip the Fair and later as The Iron King, had only been on the throne for 2 yrs when Sauma arrived in Paris. Barely 20 yrs of age, everyone wondered if he’d reprise the career of his famous grandfather or his more mundane father. It seemed a most propitious time for the Rabban’s embassy, as setting out on a new Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the Mamluks would appeal to the energy and ambitions of a young ruler seeking to make his mark.
Arriving at the French border in August of 1287, Sauma’s party was greeted by a large force sent by the King to escort him to Paris. They entered the City at the end of September to much pomp & circumstance. Sauma was then ushered to palatial digs provided by King Philip. And it was time for a break for the Chinese Monk-ambassador.
The trip from Genoa to Paris took a month. While the journey was nowhere near as arduous as that which he’d undertaken a decade before from China to Persia, he was now in his 60’s and the entire adventure was taken a toll on his aging body. He’s been traveling for the past 6 months from Persia, to the Black Sea, Constantinople, Naples, Rome, Genoa, and now Paris. Keep in mind there were no Holiday, Ramada or Quality Inns along the way. The caravanserais they’d enjoyed earlier were far away in Asia. They overnighted either along the roadside or in small public houses where the bedding was rarely changed. The quality of the food was most often abysmal because it was the only thing to be had by travelers.
So by the time Sauma arrived in Paris, he was exhausted and needed to rest. Philip recognized that and set aside three days for him to recoup. Then he sent a formal invitation for the Nestorian monk to attend an official audience with his majesty. When Sauma arrived at court, Philip rose to greet him; an unusual gesture for a European monarch at that time. Guests at court were usually required to process a long path to the dais holding the throne, stopping at the foot of the stairs, they then bowed and remained thus in a posture of supplication until told to stand. The entire time the king remained seated. Rising to greet Sauma was a surprising move on Philip’s part because it signaled the court the French King viewed Sauma as an equal.
Then, it was down to business. Why, Philip asked, as Sauma there? What did he want? Why had he come and who’d sent him?
If Sauma was surprised by the bluntness of the king’s query, he recovered quickly and responded in kind. He told Philip that while originally set on a religious pilgrimage endorsed and sponsored by the Great Khubilai Khan in China, he’d been made the Mongol Ilkhanate in Persia’s official envoy back to Khubilai’s court. But before returning to China to fulfill that task, he’d been given a special assignment: Travel West to the Christian rulers of Western Europe, asking them for an alliance with the Ilkhanate against the Mamluks and recovery Jerusalem from Muslim control. Sauma then handed Philip the letter and gifts from Ilkhan Arghun. These gifts were most likely the kinds of things that would convey the seriousness of the embassy, but could be easily transported by individuals traveling light; jewels, small packages of luxurious silk cloth, so highly prized by the elite of Western Europe.
Sauma reports the French King was favorable toward the proposed alliance. Philip was moved by the Mongols desire to free Jerusalem from Muslim hegemony, even though those Mongols weren’t officially Christian. Philip remarked that Christian Europe ought to rise to the challenge presented by the Ilkhans. Rabban Sauma was equally impressed by the King’s devotion to the Faith and his interest in embarking on a new Crusade. For the first time, Sauma’s mission to the West seemed to be bearing fruit.
BUT: Sauma wasn’t hip to European politics which had shaped Philip’s exuberant response. Philip was less interested in a Crusade to recapture the Holy Land as he was in securing his control over the contested domains of his north. Ever since ascending the throne, he’d been in contention with England’s King Edward I who owed him fealty in Gascony. In the Spring of 1286, Edward went to Paris to pay Philip honor as his suzerain. But Philip never bought this show of fealty. He had reason to distrust Edward since England backed France’s enemies in the contentious affairs in Aragon. Tensions between the two rulers grew until war broke out in 1294.
Another trouble Philip dealt with was a degenerating relationship with the Roman Church. Needing funds in his campaigns to secure the North, the French monarch confiscated the tithes destined for Rome. His nobles already struggled with the burdensome taxes the crown had levied. The only place to secure the much-needed funds was the Church. So in an appeal to nationalism, Philip said French gold and silver ought to stay in France, not shipped off to Rome and the interests of the Pope, whose schemes were cast as contrary to French well-being. All of this would later lead to the major rift that occurred between the French crown and Papacy that we covered in Season One of CS.
While Philip’s enthusiastic response to Sauma’s appeal was no doubt sincere, on further reflection, Philip realized mounting a new Crusade wasn’t practical. At least not in the short term. Maybe after movement on his domestic fronts, a Crusade could be staged.
On Sauma’s part, having achieved seeming success on the official phase of his embassy, he turned to his personal adventure; visiting the religious sites of Paris and its environs. Philip assigned him an escort and off they went visiting churches and shrines; Sauma once again focusing on relics rather than the marvelous architecture and art.
The Rabban was stunned by the large number of students in Paris, which was one of the sites of the new centers of learning called universities. He reports there were 30,000 students in the City.
And that brings up a point of historical tension it might be wise for us to skim the surface of.
As many subscribers know, the value of numbers in reporting of history has been a contentious issue for a long time. The tension comes over the almost universal tendency of ancient historians to give big numbers while many modern historians are committed to reducing those numbers to a tenth of the original. We see that here. Sauma says Paris had 30,000 students. Modern historians say the City of that time had maybe 3,000. This assumed inflation of numbers by the ancients and chroniclers of yore is just about universal among modern historians. Some wonder if that skepticism is valid. The fact that nearly ALL pre-modern accounts give much larger figures than modern historians allow is provocative. Recent archaeology has caused historians to revise their estimates of population upwards in some cases, significantly.
It’ll be interesting for those of us who are historically interested, to watch what happens in the realm of statistics over the next few years as researchers review past assumptions in light of new evidence. Since I tend to give the ancients more credit for veracity, I suspect we’ll see a revising of the numbers upward, dramatically.
The University of Paris’s primary course of study was theology. But the school quickly branched out into other areas, including law, medicine, philosophy, rhetoric, and math. The pursuit of these subjects was boosted by a renewal of interest in the recently-published works of Aristotle.
As a self-taught scholar who’d studied everything he could get his hands on back in China, Sauma quite impressed with Paris’ schools.
Sauma’s chronicle relates his impression of the gorgeous Church of Saint-Denis where French monarchs were interred. He mentions the Chapel of Sainte-Chapelle, but he gives no mention of the nearby Notre Dame; the pride and joy of Paris whose spire could be seen from anywhere in the city. Indeed, Notre Dame and Paris become synonymous. So why does the Rabban omit it from his account? Several opinions are given, probably the best of which is the most obvious. Sauma was a Nestorian monk. He belonged to the Church of the East, a branch of the Faith severed from the West over the identity of Mary. Was she Theotokos, the Mother of God as the West said, or Christotokos, Mother of Christ, as the East said? The Cathedral of Notre Dame was all about the Virgin Mary. Sauma most likely left off mentioning his visit to Notre Dame because of his desire to not end up saying a bunch of critical things about his stay.
We’ll finish up his time in Paris and get into his trip north to meet the King of England in our next episode as we move to conclude the amazing tale of Rabban Sauma.