TWO WORLDS COLLIDE
Searching for traces of Benedict the Pole
By MONIKA ROGOZIŃSKA
They ventured into the heart of darkness, to a country that lay beyond the borders of the known world, from which hordes of death-bearing horsemen had come, predators and cannibals who left behind them the ruins of settlements and towns. “We encountered countless human skulls and bones lying in the fields,” recalled one of the expedition’s participants. The Franciscans who set out eastward for Asia at the behest of the pope 770 years ago in order to know and understand the threat facing Europe possessed remarkable courage. Today, their stories sound like a timely warning.
POSŁANIEC ŚW. ANTONIEGO
The lack of historical memory about these heroic Franciscans is astounding. They were the first Europeans to unveil the hitherto unknown civilizations of Asia, trailblazing and establishing intercultural contacts. Marco Polo, universally famous for his visit to the Mongol Khan’s court, was born nine years after they set out on their journey.
The envoys of hell
Contemporaries referred to the Mongol invaders who conquered Rus and Kiev in 1240 and subsequently ravaged Hungary and Poland as “envoys of hell.”
The core of their army consisted of Tatars. Their cruelty led to the common belief that they had come from Tartarus, the terrible subterranean abyss of Greek mythology. Never before had Europe known such sudden warfare or carnage on such a scale.
The Battle of Legnica. The Life of the Blessed Hedwig. Codex of Lubin (Ostrowski) from 1353
(J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)
On Ash Wednesday, 1241, the Mongols captured Sandomierz. They were led by Chingiz Khan’s grandson, Orda. They stormed through Kraków, Wiślica, Łężyca, and Wrocław before encountering
Polish forces under the command of Prince Henry II the Pious, supported by German, Templar, and Hospitaller reinforcements, near Legnica. The fate of the Christian world lay in the balance. At the battle of Legnica, those Christian forces faced a new type of weapon. It was encased within a dark head on top of one of the enemy’s banners.
“When the Tatars had retreated somewhat and were inclined to” - wrote the chronicler Jan Długosz - “the bearer of that standard began to shake the head that sat at the top of the pole as strongly as he could. Immediately a foul-smelling vapor, smoke, and fog spewed out and spread over the entire Polish army, and because of the terrible and unbearable stench, the Polish fighters almost fainted and, barely alive, grew weak and became incapable of fighting.”
The chronicler ascribed this use of chemical agents to witchcraft.
The Mongols won the battle. The road Westward lay open to them.
The prototype of napalm
Chingiz Khan’s blitzkrieg tactics of steppe warfare helped him forge a Mongol Empire stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea at the beginning of the thirteenth century. They remained a reference point for military strategists during World War II. The basic principle was that mobility could defeat strength. The Mongols, excellent horsemen from childhood, owed their victories to speed and the element of surprise. They struck like a thunderbolt, quickly dispersed their forces, and withdrew with lightening speed only to strike again. They faked retreats from the battlefield, provoking their enemies to give chase and luring them into traps. They unleashed a rain of arrows that were much stronger than their European equivalents. The shrill sound of their flight instilled panic in enemy forces. Columns of civilians from conquered populations were thrown into the first wave of battle as a type of living battering ram, while the Mongols protected themselves with human shields of women and children. They adopted technologies useful to further conquest from their vanquished enemies. They acquired siege engines from the Persians and the Chinese and used them to launch Greek fire, an incendiary mixture that can be considered a prototype for napalm. From the Chinese they plucked the mystery of gunpowder, which they used to fill iron and clay projectiles. They also employed a type of gas bomb, which blew irritating fumes in the direction of opponents through the use of bellows.
Thirteenth-century Europe was internally divided and preoccupied with squabbles for power, and could not comprehend this threat. It was unconcerned with the terrible fate of conquered Rus (modern-day Ukraine). The dreaded horsemen of the Apocalypse had come from lands unmarked on contemporary maps. After their victory at Legnica they unexpectedly withdrew. They disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.
A dangerous mission
Pope Innocent IV, an educated Genoan, decided to learn more about this threat. He sent four separate embassies, travelling by different routes, to the ruler of the Tatars, as the Mongols were known in Europe after their onslaught. Two expeditions were composed of Dominicans, two of Franciscans. The monks were entrusted with a religious-diplomatic-espionage-exploratory mission. They were to establish contacts and find out as much as possible about the invaders: where they were from, what their country was like, how many of them there were, how they lived, what their faith was, their customs, their intentions, their treatment of emissaries, whether or not they honored their agreements. And then attempt to convert them. The pope was in search of allies in defense against Islam. Arabs driven by Jihad had gained control over the Mediterranean basin and were establishing emirates, caliphates, and taifas on European territory.
One cannot help but admire the courage and the sacrifice of the monks who undertook this mission. They were to face many dangers and hardships. Two Franciscans, an Italian and a Pole, managed to reach the Khan’s court at the Mongols’ imperial capital of Karakorum (not to be confused with the Karakorum Mountains on the border of China, Pakistan, and India). And return!
The Italian, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, or John from the town of Pian di Carpine (present-day Magione) where he was born, not far from Perugia, referred to by his companion as “John called de Piano Carpini,” was one of the confreres of St. Francis of Assisi. His level of literacy indicates that he had mostly likely left a wealthy family to join the order. He served as a missionary in Germany at Francis’s command. The brothers chose him as warden in Saxony, and later as provincial of Germany. He initiated the establishment of the first Franciscan monasteries in the Czech lands, Poland, Norway, Denmark, and Hungary. When he set out from Lyon (where the pope had convened a council) on the back of a donkey as papal legate to the Mongols, he was about 65. Over the course of his journey, which was to last two years and seven months, he covered 19 thousand kilometers on horseback.
Benedict, about 45 years old, was “a native Pole,” as he introduced himself, and joined John in Wrocław. “He was a companion in our afflictions, and our translator,” John recounted. In addition to Polish and Latin, he also knew Ruthenian. He had lived in a Franciscan monastery originally funded by Henry II the Pious that was destroyed by the Tatars and rebuilt by the prince’s widow. The body of the monastery’s benefactor, a defender of Christendom, was buried within its walls. It had been found on the battlefield at Legnica. Henry’s naked remains, which were recognized by his widow, had been decapitated. The question of what had happened to his head remained unanswered until the Franciscans’ expedition reached the Mongol Khan.
Trotting from morning to night
Benedict the Pole wrote that he was the third Franciscan to join the embassy. He did not give the name of the second. In his account, commissioned by the provincial of Poland and the Czech lands after the expedition had been completed, C. de Bridia (most likely C. from Brzeg in Lower Silesia) mentions a Brother Czesław from among the Czechs, but that is the latter’s only appearance in the narrative.
Of key importance to the mission’s success was a Christmas Day visit to Prince Konrad I of Mazovia in Łęczyca, a major center of state power. From the twelfth century that city had hosted meetings of princes and dignitaries - the first Polish parliaments. The Franciscans most likely stayed at the archcollegiate church in Tum, the site of provincial synods.
Fot. Monika Rogozińska
More than 850 years old archcollegiate church in Tum where Benedict and Giovanni stayed
Vasilko, Prince of Volhynia, who was present at Łęczyca and had recognized Mongol suzerainty, recommended that they take many gifts, as these would open many doors to them.
Everyone who has participated in mountaineering expeditions in Asia knows how apt this advice is in a situation that requires permits from various local officials and crossing through numerous checkpoints. It is impossible to move forward without such “gifts.”
The nobles gathered in Łęczyca outfitted the beggar monks who were to serve as papal emissaries with lavish gifts of furs. Prince Vasilko took them to his country and then sent them on to Kiev, which was then under the “Tatar yoke.” The monks did not complain about the difficulties of a winter journey. John wrote only that when they were “deathly ill” they had themselves pulled in a sleigh, but their mission was not interrupted. They set out from Kiev with Tatar assistance, mounting Mongol horses. They nourished themselves by digging up grasses from under the snow. They sped along at a trot all day, and sometimes all night, changing horses several times a day. They ate millet with water and salt, sometimes drinking only water from melted snow. They crossed the Don and sped on towards Astrakhan. Their furs opened doors to them, and they frequently had to use them as payment. On Holy Thursday, in April 1246, they reached camp of Batu Khan, Orda’s brother, whose armies had ravaged Hungary, in the Volga River delta. According to Benedict, they presented him with “much desired gifts, namely 40 beaver pelts and 80 badger pelts.” He wrote that from a certain point he was accompanied only by John, as the third brother had become ill and they had left him along the way with their horses and servants.
They travelled through the steppes, deserts, and mountains of today’s Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. They saw “countless ruined cities and destroyed fortresses as well as many abandoned villages.” In July 1246 John and Benedict reach the headquarters of the Great Khan, half a day’s journey from the capital, Karakorum. But the Great Khan was not there. He had died much earlier, before they had even set out on their journey.
Contempt and hope
Benedict the Pole and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine with Guyuk Khan
XIV c. manuscript (National Library in Paris)
And so the Mongols’ sudden retreat from Poland and Hungary was explained. Upon receiving news of the death of the son and successor of Chingiz Khan, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had been poisoned by a woman, Batu and Orda returned to Karakorum in order to attempt to claim the throne. John and Benedict had to wait for the selection of a new ruler, who proved to be Guyuk, the grandson of Chingiz Khan. In October 1246, the new Khan allowed the Franciscans to set out on their return journey with a written response to the pope.
The trip to Lyon took a year and a month. Along the way they stopped at various courts, recounting what they had seen. They wrote three accounts. The shortest is that of Benedict the Pole. In his “Report,” he gives the route of their journey, enumerating the major events that transpired, and cites the letter of the “Tatar emperor” to the pope.
The pope’s questions were most exhaustively answered by John from Piano Carpini in his “History of the Mongols, whom we call Tatars.” From his description of the history of the empire, its fighting tactics, mores, and customs, there emerges an image of a state whose organization served engagement in constant warfare and conquest aimed at subjugating the entire world. The Great Khan ruled over all lives and all material possessions. Any disobedience to him was punished by death. The army was ruled by iron discipline. Prisoners of war and those who had surrendered were killed or taken into cruel captivity. The Mongols needed slaves: women, servants, artisans, scribes, interpreters. They did not keep their promises - those belonged to the tactics of conquest, as did cunning and treachery. The rulers of other lands were invited, humiliated, and sometimes killed so that their lands could be seized. They despised strangers, and hated the poor and the weak even more. They had respect for strength and respected only their own. Although they looted ruthlessly, they punished theft among their own by death. They kept their tents open.
In their accounts the Franciscans do not dwell on their own sufferings, although they almost died of hunger while they waited for the election of the khan, as emissaries and slaves were left uncared for. They looked for the best in their hosts. They tried to serve as a bridge between two alien civilizations.
“Among themselves they are quite humane and willingly divide their possessions amongst each other. They are also very patient. Often, even when they have not eaten for two or three days, they sing and joke as though they were completely satiated” - wrote C. de Bridia in his “History of the Tartars,” following the account of John. He also relied on information gleaned from Benedict. They emphasized that Tatars did not force anyone to give up their faith. The exception was the martyrdom of Prince Michael of Rus, who arrived at the court of Batu Khan in order to pledge fealty. When ordered to worship a statue of Chingiz Khan, he refused, saying that as a Christian he could not worship this figure. His head was cut off, as was that of the knight accompanying him.
John believed that the election of a new Khan gave reason for hope. "He himself maintains the Christian clergy. He also keeps in front of his biggest tent a chapel, where [clerics] sing in public according to Greek custom.”
The spirits of demons
C. also described the last moments of Henry the Pious. The Tatars, "when, as they related to brother Benedict, they wanted to retreat [from the battle of Legnica], the Christian forces suddenly rushed to escape. Then Prince Henry was captured by the Tatars and robbed, and ordered to kneel in front of his dead commander, who had died in Sandomierz. His head, like the head of a ram, was taken through Moravia to Hungary to Batu and shortly afterwards thrown among the heads of the other dead.”
The Franciscan indicates the cause of the European defeat during the Tatar invasion in 1241: “What jealousy accomplished for the Poles, brash arrogance did for the Hungarians.”
So the fault lay with pride, envy, and lack of unity. European civilization cannot defend itself if it does not unite its forces and display bravery and courage. John was acutely afraid that the khan would dispatch envoys to the pope on their return journey and that they would see Europe. "We were worried that they, having seen the discord and war that exists among us, would take on a greater desire to move against us” - he explained. “We were worried that they would be killed, as our peoples are largely prone to bravado and pride.”
A participant in one of the four missions sent east by Pope Innocent IV, the French Dominican Simon, claimed that before the invasion of Hungary in 1241, Batu Khan had made a sacrifice to demons. He asked them whether to begin the invasion. He received the reply: “Go easily, as I will send three ghosts ahead of you, and thanks to them your opponents will not be able to resist you,” which is indeed what happened. These spirits were discord, unbelief, and fear. These are three unclean spirits. "
These ghosts still carouse in Europe ...
UNCONVERING THE NARRATIVES
Upon his return, John di Piano Carpini became archbishop of Antivaria (now Bar in Montenegro). He died on 1 August 1252. In his Historia Mongalorum he cautioned that the draft of his account had been repeatedly copied. There are about 20 known manuscripts. One fourteenth-century version is held by the Ossolineum Institute in Wroclaw.
We know of two manuscripts of Benedict the Pole’s De Itinere Fratrum Minorum ad Tartaros. One is located at the Austrian National Library in Vienna, and the second in Paris. The first Polish translation by Andrzej Jochelson, a Wroclaw lawyer and a historian by avocation, was published in the "Diary of St. Anthony,” issued by the Franciscans Province of St.. Hedwig in 1986.
In 1993, the accounts of John, Benedict, and C. de Brigia were published in “Spotkanie dwóch światów. Stolica Apostolska a świat mongolski w połowie XIII wieku,” edited by Jerzy Strzelecki.
A special edition of Benedict the Pole’s account (in Latin, Polish, Kazakh and Russian) was published thanks to the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Poland (Oficyna Olszynka, Warsaw 2008). It contains a Polish translation of the letter of Pope Innocent IV to the Great Khan Gujuka and the latter’s answer, as well as a photograph of the original from the Archivio Segreto at the Vatican, discovered in 1920.
C. de Bridia’s Historia Tartarorum was completed on 30 July 1247. A manuscript dating from approximately 1440 is held by the library at Yale University in the United States. It was made public in 1965 and subsequently translated into English. A second copy, dating from 1339, has been found at the Zentral- und Hochschulbibliothek in Lucerne, Switzerland.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT Benedict the Pole
Benedictus Polonus, born approx. 1200.
Date of death and place of burial are unknown.
We do not know whether his name was given at baptism or a religious one.
He could have been a knight in his youth.
He was a Franciscan. He was probably ordained as a priest in 1236.
A participant of the expedition to the Mongol Khan (16 April – 18 November 1247) along with John of Piano Carpini, an Italian. He set out on the expedition set out from his monastery in Wroclaw. He developed his history, "De Itinere Fratrum Minorum ad Tartaros" in a convent in Cologne upon his return in 1247 (the text has been lost).
In 1252 he was guardian of the monastery in Krakow (or in Inowroclaw).
Fot. Monika Rogozińska
Franciscan monastery in Kraków
In that year (1252 - the death of John of Piano di Carpini) he testified as a witness to a miracle as part of the canonization process of St. Stanislaus of Szczepanów, who had been murdered in the eleventh century in Kraków.
THE BENEDICT THE POLE AWARD
In the Castle of Royal City of Łęczyca after signing an agreement on Benedictus Polonus Award.
Fifth from the right: Monika Rogozińska – the author of the article and the chair of the Polish Chapter of The Explorers Club
On May 28, 2014 in the Castle in Łęczyca an agreement was signed on the establishment of the Benedict the Pole Award. This was an initiative of the Polish Chapter of the Explorers Club, the society whose goals include promoting Polish discovers and explorers. The prize will be awarded each year to a Polish citizen for exploration, as well as to a foreigner for cooperation with Polish researchers. The jury comprises representatives of the Polish Chapter of the Explorers Club, the City Council of Łęczyca, the County of Łęczyca, and the Warsaw Scientific Society.
The aim of the Awards is to demonstrate the importance of Poland in intercultural dialogue, the promotion of Benedict the Pole and his companions as historical figures. Prize-giving ceremony will be held at the XII c. collegiate church in Tum and a knightly reception will be organized in the courtyard of the Castle in Łęczyca.
I would like to express my great gratitide to Ms. Maria Blackwood for English translation.
The Polish version was published in “Posłaniec św. Antoniego z Padwy” March-April 2015, bimonthly magazine of the Fransciscan OFM Province of Saint Anthony and Blessed Jakub Strzemię in Kraków.