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Carpini an Unlikely Explorer

May 03, 2010
Carpini an Unlikely Explorer

For centuries, Europe lived with almost no knowledge of the huge realms of east Asia. But one day a Mongol chieftain knocked on Europe's door and changed that. Genghis Khan's hordes slaughtered so many people in such horrible ways that Europeans could no longer ignore Asia. And thanks to Genghis Khan, the way to the East opened, because Moslem nations which had formerly blocked Christians from going east, crumbled under the invasions.

Giovanni da Plano Carpini was a fat, sixty-year old Franciscan friar when Pope Innocent IV summoned him to carry a message to the great Khan. Although Carpini seems an unlikely choice for such a mission, the pope knew him as a zealous preacher, a good organizer and an astute people-watcher. In the letter that Carpini carried for him, the pope urged the Khan not to attack Europe, lest he fall under divine wrath. Innocent gave Carpini further instructions. He was to keep his eyes open and pick up whatever knowledge he could obtain. It would be good to get a hint of the intentions of the Mongol warriors.

Barefoot, because he was a begging friar, Carpini set out for the heart of Mongol Asia on this day, February 2, 1245. The early parts of the journey were not hard. Because they went as friars and papal couriers, Giovanni and his companions received great courtesy in Christian lands. But the Asian stages of the journey were every bit as difficult as expected. The little party of Christians were exposed to every kind of bad weather, to days of hunger, attacks by bandits, forced marches, threats, and long waits at the hands of suspicious men. Without a good interpreter, Giovanni was hard pressed to make himself understood. Evidences of recent Mongol ferocity were everywhere, a grim reminder of terrors the Christians might face before they fulfilled their commission. "[We] found many skulls and bones of dead men lying upon the earth like a dunghill..." the brave friar wrote.

When Carpini reached a Mongol camp on the Volga River, Batu, an under-Khan, sent him forward by the imperial post system. His progress then was swift, because the imperial post changed horses as many as six times a day. The Khan needed to know what was taking place in his vast realm. The post took Carpini across Asia above the Aral and Caspian Seas almost to Karakoram where Güyük Khan was about to be crowned Emperor.

Güyük kept the insignificant Christian ambassador cooling his heels. But Carpini spent the time well, creating a family tree of the khans that was remarkable for its accuracy. The genealogy needed only slight modification when new details came to light six hundred years later. Carpini also gathered material for a report on the land and its rulers. When he finally met the khan, he tried to convert him to Christianity. Courtiers pretended the great ruler was considering it, but in the end the khan refused baptism. He sent Carpini back with a message for the pope.

The return journey was even more difficult than the journey coming. Carpini did not ride the imperial post this time! He was buried in snow drifts and spent nights without shelter on the open steppes of Asia. He traveled all winter, not reaching Kiev until June 1247. The people of Kiev greeted him as a man risen from the dead.

The Vatican has preserved the reply of the khan. The Pope was ordered to present himself at the Mongol court at the head of all his kings. "[I]f you disregard the command of God and disobey Our instructions, We shall look upon you as Our enemy. Whoever recognizes and submits to the Son of God and Lord of the World, the Great Khan, will be saved, whoever refuses submission will be wiped out." Not very comforting, those words. For decades Europe lived in terror of another invasion. Fortunately, it never came.

Giovanni da Plano Carpini became an archbishop. He lived to be sixty-seven.


  1. Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. The Pelican History of the Church #6. (Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England: Pelican Books, 1964).
  2. New Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York : Thomson, Gale, 2002).
  3. Short mentions in various histories of travel and exploration.

Last updated May, 2007.


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