By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Analyze the impact of the Mongol conquest on China
- Describe changes that took place in Mongol rule of the Middle East in the fourteenth century
- Identify the causes of instability in Europe in the fourteenth century
The fourteenth century was a period of great instability in Asia, North Africa, and Europe. Although much of this precariousness was caused by climate change, famine, and epidemic disease, these natural phenomena might not have been so devastating if strong political and social institutions had existed to provide support for the people affected by these events. However, in China, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, war and conquest, conflicts among rulers, and the weakness of political and religious institutions affected the ability of kingdoms and empires to respond effectively to these challenges.
China in the Early Fourteenth Century
By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Mongol realm had expanded its reach through a broad swath of Eurasia, effectively becoming the largest land-based empire in history. First uniting the Mongol tribes into a common fighting force with a goal of expanding their control beyond their homeland, the Mongols extended their conquest into China across the North China plain in 1212–1213, leaving many cities in ruin. It was not until Chinggis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan came to power, however, that the Mongol invasion of southern China was complete (Figure 16.3).
Having transferred his capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to what is now Beijing in 1264, Kublai Khan began his conquest of China by adopting the Chinese name Yuan for his empire in 1271. Meaning “origin,” the term Yuan cemented the Mongols’ political legitimacy in China by reinforcing their connection to the Mandate of Heaven, an ancient political philosophy that emphasized the divine source of governmental authority. After fully conquering the Song dynasty in 1279, Kublai Khan became the first ruler over all of China who was not of Chinese origin. In addition to his role as Yuan emperor, he claimed the title of “great khan,” asserting his claims to supremacy over the entire Mongol Empire, even though the Mongols had regional khans responsible for their own territories.
The Yuan dynasty not only incorporated China into the vast Mongol domain, but it also made it a nominal capital of the empire. China had long been a target of Mongol conquest. Its combination of strategic placement at the terminus of the interconnected Eurasian trade routes known as the Silk Roads, its abundant croplands, and a sophisticated bureaucracy provided a ready-made foundation for Mongol governance. The Mongols’ traditional nomadic ways had given them little experience in managing sedentary agriculture, so they began by absorbing many Chinese practices of taxation and administration into their government, which they staffed mainly with foreigners rather than with their Chinese subjects. Although some Chinese officials maintained their positions at the local level, the most lucrative and prestigious jobs were primarily held by Mongols and non-Chinese outsiders. Mongol leaders favored those of Mongolian descent, but they also exhibited tolerance for those they considered outsiders and supported the ethnic and religious diversity of Yuan China, particularly in urban areas. By developing policies favorable to trade, adopting the practice of Buddhism, and expanding the circulation of paper money, Mongol leadership fostered economic expansion and a cosmopolitan spirit that attracted many foreign traders to China (Figure 16.4).
Although Yuan rulers incorporated some elements of Chinese political culture into their governmental organization, such as the Confucian emphasis on filial piety and the veneration of ancestors, they also sought to maintain cultural distance from their Chinese subjects by forbidding them to adopt Mongol dress or learn the Mongol language. They enforced rigid hierarchies based on ethnicity and capitulation to their rule. Their four-tiered social structure placed Mongols at the top, followed by non-Mongol foreigners known as Semu ren. Their ethnic Chinese subjects were relegated to the bottom two categories; those who had submitted to Mongol rule earlier, the Han Chinese in the north, were ranked higher than those in the south who held out longer.
Although the social policy of the Mongols generated a great deal of resentment from their ethnic Chinese subjects, in other respects, the Yuan rulers instituted more benevolent policies. By creating granaries that provided food in times of famine, forgiving the tax burden for villages hit by natural disasters, and reducing the number of crimes that had traditionally resulted in the death penalty, for example, Mongol rulers likely alleviated the hardships faced by many of their subjects. By reducing banditry and making trade safer, particularly along the Silk Roads, they also boosted commerce and improved the lives and fortunes of merchants.
Despite Kublai Khan’s dominance in China, his attempts to hold a unified Mongol Empire together were largely in vain. The realm had already begun to unravel by the time he took the reins of power in China. Not only had a sharp divide occurred when some Mongols converted to Islam, but the empire itself had splintered into four separate sections known as khanates, each governed by a military ruler or governor known as a khan and who linked his ancestry to the sons of Chinggis. Yuan rulers also faced unrest from their Chinese subjects, particularly when a string of weak emperors after Kublai Khan’s death in 1294 resulted in a succession crisis that left Yuan leadership vulnerable to revolt.
Mongol taxation practices and the expropriation of agrarian land had proved financially ruinous for many Chinese peasants and farmers, though taxation benefited merchants and artisans. Despite modest efforts to shore up roads, bolster the postal service, and rebuild the Grand Canal, which provided a means of trade and transportation between northern and southern regions of China, Mongol attempts to bolster infrastructure did not reduce the resentment of their Chinese subjects. Aside from the implementation of some favorable economic and social policies, the notion of foreign rule was an affront to Chinese subjects, who were also offended by Mongols’ dietary and bathing practices. Many Chinese people likely felt affronted by their subjugation to a people they would have viewed as lesser for having such different cultural practices.
By the middle of the fourteenth century, aversion to Mongol rule had led to widespread local rebellions that ultimately hastened the collapse of the Yuan dynasty. Rapid inflation, the devastating impact of the bubonic plague, and intensifying Mongol factionalism all contributed as well. In 1368, the Yuan dynasty officially came to an end when rebel forces triumphed over the Mongol leaders and established the Ming dynasty in its stead.
The Middle East and North Africa in the Early Fourteenth Century
Although China served as the heart of the Mongol Empire, in the early fourteenth century, the Mongol presence also extended across the Middle East and central Asia. Political instability and shifting relationships with conquered peoples increasingly characterized the remaining khanates. For example, in the Il-Khanate, a division of the Mongol Empire that extended from the northern border of the Indian subcontinent to the eastern edge of Anatolia in modern Turkey, the nature of Mongol leadership had shifted from remote detachment to embedded assimilation by the early 1300s (Figure 16.5).
When the Mongols occupied portions of the Middle East, their regional leader, Chinggis Khan’s grandson Hulagu, used the title il-khan (lesser khan); his realm, therefore, became known as the Il-Khanate. Founded in 1256, the Il-Khanate was primarily centered in Persia, and its rulers resurrected the ancient title of “Iran” for this core of their domain, where they sought to maintain Mongol nomadic ways and generally neglected the khanate’s economic welfare. Early on, Mongol leaders largely imposed their traditions and practices as the dominant culture, little appreciating the cultural traditions of their subjects. In addition to experiencing this cultural alienation, many peasants found the first decades of Il-Khanate rule financially disastrous as they lost their livestock and farmlands to Mongol nomads. However, after Mahmud Ghazan, the seventh ruler of the Il-Khanate, converted to Islam in 1295, the il-khans became increasingly embedded within the Muslim communities they governed.
Although Ghazan’s conversion may have been based solely on religious conviction, it also enabled him to appeal to the growing numbers of Mongols and members of the Persian elite who had become Muslims. Mongols living in the Il-Khanate had already begun intermarrying with their Muslim subjects, but this practice greatly increased as they gradually became less culturally distinct from them. This transformation marked a significant shift in the cultural identity of Mongols, who now increasingly became part of the sedentary societies they conquered and eventually abandoned their roles as military conquerors.
Eventually the transition from foreign interlopers to fully integrated members of the community shifted Il-Khanate priorities. Although the northern regions of the khanate had been badly damaged in the early years of Mongol invasions, Ghazan and his successors focused on rebuilding the agricultural infrastructure in the southern portions of their territory, including the Iranian provinces of Fars and Khuzistan. They channeled resources into rehabilitating the empire’s economy and cosmopolitan urban life through the construction of schools, mosques, and bazaars. These policies not only enabled Islamic culture and scholarship to flourish, but they also further cemented the cultural bond between Mongol rulers and their subjects in Persia.
Despite the success of early attempts to rehabilitate the empire’s economy, by the middle of the fourteenth century, the Il-Khanate began to succumb to struggles for supremacy after the il-khan Abu Sa‘id died in 1335. Clashes between Mongol, Arab, Persian, and Turkic factions ultimately split the former Il-Khanate into several successor states. Although fragments of the Mongol Empire, such as the Golden Horde, persisted in name until the sixteenth century, after the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty in 1368, the Mongol Empire ceased to exist as a unified political entity.
Depictions of Royalty across Borders and Cultures
Portraiture has long served to legitimize political leaders and convey an image of their character as rulers. Each image in this selection (Figure 16.6) is associated with a ruler from a different region of the Mongol Empire in the fourteenth century: from left to right, Mahmud Ghazan of the Il-Khanate; Ayurbarwada, the fourth emperor of the Yuan dynasty in China; and Jani Beg, khan of the Golden Horde.
Although all three rulers were tied genealogically and politically to the Mongol Empire, they each adapted to the unique cultural contexts of their jurisdictions by recognizing and embracing the dominant religious and intellectual views of their subjects. This included having themselves depicted in a way that their indigenous subjects would see as befitting the power and status of their royalty. The differing character of their reigns and the distinctive relationship each developed with the traditions of their respective regions are reflected in the three images presented. Whereas Ghazan, who was born a Buddhist, converted to Islam shortly after ascending to the Il-Khanate throne, Ayurbarwada embraced the Confucian practices of his Chinese subjects. Jani Beg, by contrast, remained a Muslim, but he also granted concessions to the Christian Church toward the end of his reign when, according to tradition, his mother Taidula’s blindness was cured by a Christian bishop named Alexius. Look closely at the images, and consider the differing messages they might convey and the ways in which they reflect the unique circumstances of each region.
- How do these depictions of the rulers differ?
- Why might two of the images depict religious events? Drawing upon what you know about religion in China, explain why a Mongol ruler of that country might have chosen not to depict himself as affiliated with a particular religious tradition?
As the Il-Khanate regime began its steady decline in the fourteenth century, one of its chief rivals, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, rose to a position of greater influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Founded by formerly enslaved soldiers of Turkish origin who first emerged as elite fighters in the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mamluk Sultanate eventually became the foremost center of Muslim scholarship and learning in the fourteenth century (Figure 16.7). The Mamluks’ reputation for military prowess gained them the respect of Muslims throughout North Africa and the Middle East, especially after they repelled the Mongol army at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Syria in 1260, stopping Mongol southwestern expansion. The Mamluks, under their military commander Baybars, then gained control of Egypt and Syria. In the process, they not only managed to protect their empire from subsequent Mongol attacks, but they also made significant contributions to the Islamization of Africa.
During the period between 1260 and 1341, Cairo, the capital of the Mamluk Sultanate, became a prominent center of Muslim intellectual culture and architecture, drawing many merchants and scholars fleeing Mongol attacks in their Persian and Iraqi homelands. The age of Mamluk prosperity and prominence eventually came to an end with the death of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad in 1341, which initiated a period of instability worsened by the onslaught of the bubonic plague in the late 1340s. While the Mamluks remained in power until their defeat by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, a period of marked decline had begun.
Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century
While its eastern and southern neighbors struggled to overcome the challenges of the early fourteenth century, Europe was also undergoing widespread crises of authority and shifting axes of power in the face of famine, war, and eventually pestilence. At the beginning of the century, a period of worsening weather resulted in crop failures and food shortages that left Europe vulnerable to the ravages of the bubonic plague, a deadly bacterial disease. These crises resulted in demographic changes and economic troubles that signaled profound transformations in the religious and political foundations of medieval society. Not all regions of Europe experienced the same level of upheaval and economic decline—some areas such as the Italian Peninsula and the French city of Bourges continued to prosper—but the fourteenth century was generally an era of chronic conflict and instability for most of the continent (Figure 16.8).
In contrast to the stability that had defined much of the thirteenth century for the European Christian Church, it began experiencing significant destabilization in the beginning of the fourteenth century, when tensions between the pope and national monarchs led to a weakening of papal authority and division within the church. A notable conflict occurred between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France, after Philip sought to impose taxes on the clergy in his country without papal approval. As a result, Boniface issued an edict reinforcing papal supremacy over secular rulers, to which Philip responded by attempting to kidnap the pope in 1303. Although the papacy retained its political autonomy and independent bureaucratic structures after a series of pontiffs came to settle in Avignon, France, the time they spent there tarnished the pope’s spiritual prestige and led many to question the integrity of the church’s administrative structures.
Although Pope Gregory XI brought the papal court back to Rome in 1377, continuing disagreements between church factions about papal legitimacy led to the simultaneous appointment of three popes and inaugurated a period known as the Great Western Schism (1378–1417). Although this crisis of authority was eventually resolved when the Council of Constance (1414–1418) persuaded two of the popes to resign, by then the reputation of the papacy had deteriorated significantly.
The decline in respect for the Roman Catholic clergy can be seen in an English satirical poem known as The Land of Cockaigne. The poem calls attention to the church’s purported gluttony during a time marked by food insecurity by depicting a monastery made of mouthwatering pastries and breads. The image of a church made of food suggested the greed of the clergy: “There is a fair abbey for monks, white and grey, and its chambers and halls have walls made of pies filled with fish and rich meats, the most delicious man can eat. The shingles on the church, cloisters, bowers and hall are wheat cakes, and the pinnacles are fat puddings, rich enough for princes and kings. All may be rightfully eaten without blame, for it is shared in common by young and old, strong and stern, meek and bold.”
In the midst of the church’s crisis of authority and status, many areas of Europe were further racked by political and military conflict through much of the fourteenth century. The Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) erupted between England and France over claims to French lands held by the English monarch. The tension was heightened in 1328 when King Charles IV of France died without a son. The crown was given to his nephew Philip, the Count of Valois, the son of Charles’s younger brother. However, King Edward III of England, the son of Charles’s sister and the older of the two claimants, maintained that he had the greater right to the throne of France. The conflict caused widespread political factionalism and devastation, particularly in France where most of the fighting occurred.
Although the war lasted 116 years, its periods of conflict alternated with times of truce. The new military technologies of the late medieval period shaped much of the conflict and rendered combat especially savage. While the English longbow, prized for its ability to send arrows farther and faster than the French crossbow, dominated the first decades, later in the war the use of firearms and gunpowder became more widespread and more destructive, thanks to the ability of these weapons to dismantle the protective walls of castles and cities. Despite England’s dominance early in the conflict, the war’s conclusion in 1453 ultimately left France in control as the dominant kingdom of western Europe.
Another center of political instability during this period was the Holy Roman Empire. In the fourteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire, which had been founded by Charlemagne in 800, comprised four main entities—the Kingdom of Italy, the Kingdom of Germany (including lands that now are part of Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland), the Kingdom of Burgundy (a region in southeastern France), and the Kingdom of Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic and part of Poland) under the nominal control of an elected emperor. Each of these kingdoms, in turn, was composed of a loose coalition of independent territories with different hereditary rulers. The emperor was chosen by a handful of these rulers known as electors.
Competition between noble families vying for the role of emperor often created instability. In 1314, for example, one group of electors chose the ruler of Austria to be emperor, but another group gave the title to the ruler of Bavaria. Later in the century, the Golden Bull, proclaimed by the emperor Charles IV in 1356 (bull is the Latin word for “seal”), attempted to simplify and clarify the process by which the emperor was elected. The document asserted that emperors would be selected by seven specific prince-electors, the secular rulers of four principalities and the archbishops of three cities within the empire. This practice of electing emperors stood in stark contrast to the hereditary monarchies of other European kingdoms such as France and England.
Rather than adopting a common currency, legal system, or representative assembly, the Holy Roman Empire remained a patchwork of semiautonomous principalities. Although each of these became relatively stable, the empire itself was a weak and decentralized political entity. By the end of the fourteenth century, it included more than one hundred principalities, each with varying degrees of power and autonomy. The emperor was now beholden to both the rulers who elected him and the pope, who in theory bestowed the imperial crown.