The Mongol threat to the Latin West down to 1323

In its interventions in each of these areas, the Golden Horde was active on behalf of, or exerting pressure upon, schismatic rulers, and hence constituted an additional obstacle to the ambitions of popes and Western secular princes. But to what extent did the Mongols threaten the security of Latin states themselves? The incidence of Mongol raiding during the first two decades after 1260 is difficult to gauge: as we saw, even when the Tartars are expressly mentioned this does not necessarily indicate operations by the forces of the Golden Horde. Hungary may have suffered a series of raids from the Horde after 1272, since András III’s charter of liberties (1291) tells how the Mongols and Cumans had taken advantage of the minority of his predecessor, László IV, to attack the kingdom on frequent occasions. For what it is worth, Rashīd al-Dīn’s informants around the turn of the century were likewise under the impression that Noghai had launched repeated inroads into Hungary.

These were probably only minor raids; but the mid-1280s appear to have witnessed a shift in policy, with major attacks upon both Hungary and Poland in succession, which as we saw coincided with advances in the Balkans and should possibly also be viewed against the background of the Golden Horde’s relations with other Mongol powers. In Hungary, the dispute between King László and the Church, and subsequently the upheavals caused by the Cuman revolt, furnished new opportunities for the Mongols to exploit, and in the fourteenth century it was believed that they had been summoned by elements among the defeated Cumans who had taken refuge among them. The khan may also have been provoked by King László’s action, during the campaign to suppress the Cumans, in leading his forces into what would later become Wallachia – in the sonorous words of his charter, ‘beyond the mountains, around the confines and frontiers of the Tartars, which none of our predecessors had penetrated’.

If the Mongol invasion of Hungary at the onset of Lent 1285 was not on the scale of 1241–2, it was nevertheless a major enterprise. It was led by two prominent figures – Noghai and the future khan Töle Buqa – and was accompanied by Lev Daniilovich and others from among their Rus′ satellites. Even though the figures given by German annalists smack of hyperbole, the language of Hungarian charters certainly indicates that the numbers involved were considerable. The invaders ravaged as far as the Danube and entered Pest; and László’s consort Elizabeth, from the safety of the walls of Buda, witnessed a spirited and effective sally by members of her household. The Mongols may still have been present in the kingdom in June. Although László himself headed an expedition into Transylvania from May to August, he probably did no more than harass their withdrawal; according to a contemporary letter and reports that reached Germany, it was the local troops – Saxons, Vlachs and Székely, the last fighting as light cavalry – who cut off their retreat in Transylvania and inflicted on them a serious reverse. Polish sources allege that the Mongols also suffered considerably from famine and some kind of epidemic.

In 1287 Noghai and Töle Buqa invaded Poland; according to the fourteenth-century Vita of St Kynga (Kunigunde, widow of Bolesław the Chaste), they were in the country from 6 December until early February 1288. Töle Buqa failed to take Sandomir, while Noghai headed a similarly unsuccessful attack upon Cracow, which Polish annals place around Christmas. For their spirited resistance the citizens of Cracow would later be rewarded by Leszek the Black with tax exemptions. We learn more about the campaign from a charter of László IV of Hungary, dated 1288, in which the king rewarded György, son of Szymon, for his services. While Leszek sought refuge in Hungary from the Mongols, his kinsman László had despatched a corps of Hungarian troops under György to aid the Poles. György engaged a force of about a thousand Mongols near Sandecz (now Stary Sącz), killing their commander. In February 1288 Leszek in turn expressed his gratitude by giving György a villa in Sandecz. It was perhaps in reprisal for the aid given by László that the Mongols attacked the Szepes (Zips) region of Hungary later in the year, albeit on a smaller scale; here György again distinguished himself.

During those years when the Golden Horde was prey to civil war between Töle Buqa and Noghai (1290–1) or between the latter and Toqtoʾa (1298–9), the Latin world seems to have been spared Mongol raids; but they recommenced each time the Mongols’ internal conflicts had been resolved. A diploma of András III relates how, around winter in the second year following his coronation (i.e. 1291–2), the Mongols raided the Mačva (‘Macho’) region and he had despatched troops against them. This incursion, from the south, indicates that Noghai’s forces were now using Bulgaria, or perhaps Serbia, as a base to attack Hungary. A charter of 1296 refers to a recent raid on Hungary, though it furnishes scant detail and in any case could conceivably refer to the inroad of 1291–2. There is documentary evidence, lastly, of a Mongol attack on the Leles region in Zemplén (in present-day Slovakia) in 1305. As for Poland, Mongol troops are found ravaging Sandomir in 1293, doubtless profiting from Łokietek’s war with King Václav of Bohemia. After this episode, no more Mongol incursions into Poland are mentioned until Uzbek’s reign (1312–41).

Frontier conditions and mentalities

If, by the last decades of the thirteenth century, Ilkhanid diplomacy was turning the Mongols of Persia into potential allies, no such aura attached to those of the Golden Horde. In Europe fear of the Mongols was widespread, surfacing on one occasion in the most incongruous of places. During a widespread popular rising in the Utrecht region in 1274, it was apparently natural for the citizens, confronted by an unexpected and formidable attack by the rebels, to assume that the assailants were the Tartars. As late as 1330 Marino Sanudo, like some latter-day Carpini, was warning that the divisions in the Latin world would enable the Mongols to advance into France, Germany and Italy. In Eastern Europe, apprehensions of an imminent Mongol attack reverberated along a vast frontier – Latin Christendom’s longest land frontier with a pagan enemy. In 1286 the Teutonic Knights evacuated four of their Prussian strongholds on reports of the Mongols’ approach, sparked off, in all likelihood, by the preparations to invade Poland. The same invasion of Poland in 1340–1 that spawned rumours of an attack on Brandenburg also elicited an urgent appeal to the pope on the part of Prussian bishops and prompted a papal collector in western Hungary to despatch his funds to the greater security of Zagreb. The manner in which, alongside this Mongol campaign, contemporary chroniclers describe a near-simultaneous attack on Christian Spain by the Muslim ruler of Granada and his Moroccan allies and an Ottoman Turkish advance against the Greeks, suggests a general sense of crisis. Late in August 1340 Pope Benedict XII himself juxtaposed these other enemies with the Mongol threat in a letter urging the French king to make peace with Edward III.

The Hungarians alone shared an eastern and south-eastern border with the Mongol world that extended for hundreds of miles. For them, the ‘frontier’ was likely to be a yawning wilderness, from which the enemy might appear with no warning. In 1264 Pope Urban IV assigned the parish of Wynch (Felvincz, in Aranyos) to the archdeacon of Szatmár (now Satu Mare in Rumania), on the grounds that he was based ‘in the furthest part of the realm of Hungary, so that between him and the Tartars’ territory there is absolutely no human habitation’. The city of Milcov, once the centre of a bishopric, was described as ruined and devoid of Christian inhabitants in 1278. These eastern regions were bleak terrain for Latin forces. When the Hungarian King Louis (Lájos) crossed the Carpathians early in April 1352, on his way back from a campaign against the Lithuanians and Mongols, his horses had to feed on branches and for an entire week the men ate nothing but beans. According to the Franciscan János of Eger, the king’s confessor, who has left us an account of this expedition, he and a colleague were so weakened by hunger that they were unable to mount or dismount without help. The climate did not necessarily smile upon the enemy either, of course. During the Mongol retreat from Hungary in 1285, Noghai made off to the safety of his winter quarters, but Töle Buqa’s troops were decimated in the freezing cold and were reduced to eating their mounts, dogs and dead comrades. The Volynian Chronicle has him arrive back with few survivors of his original force after crossing the Carpathians.

Documents from thirteenth-century Hungary bear vivid testimony to the psychological impact of Mongol inroads. Nora Berend has drawn attention to the way in which the experience of 1241–2 had seared itself on the Hungarian collective memory, to the extent that it inaugurated a new semi-official chronology. Throughout the rest of his reign Béla IV’s chancery employed phrases like ‘at the time of the Tartar persecution’ or ‘at the pestilential advent of the Tartars’; and the simple words ‘at the time of the Tartars’ became entrenched in the language of record. During the process for the canonization of Béla’s daughter Margaret in 1276, a number of witnesses established their ages by reference to the Mongol invasion. Subsequent onslaughts intensified the sense of disruption and loss, particularly that of 1285, which passed into Hungarian historiography as ‘the second Tartar assault’ and obliged chancery scribes to devise phrases like ‘the time of the first’ (or ‘former’) ‘Tartars’ – or even, in one case, ‘the main Tartars’ – for the invasion of 1241. In Poland the emotional imprint of Mongol devastation is less clearly discernible; but it manifests itself, perhaps, in the way that annalists regularly couple the name of Duke Henry II of Lower Silesia, for some years after 1241, with the poignant formula ‘who was slain by the Tartars’.

There is no shortage of documentary evidence for the material and economic damage perpetrated by Mongol attacks after 1242. In 1296 the church of St Mary in Sandomir, which had been burned down in 1259, was still not fully rebuilt, and Pope Boniface VIII granted indulgences to anybody who assisted in the task. Pope Clement VI was told in 1343 that the abbey of St Andrew near Visegrád (in western Hungary), which had flourished before the Tartar invasions, had housed no monks for more than forty years. At some point in the later 1280s László IV remitted half the revenue due from the inhabitants of Beszterce (Bistritz), ‘in very great measure annihilated or impoverished by the devastation and burnings of the Tartars’. Whether mounting lightning raids or, as in 1285, wide-ranging campaigns of devastation, the enemy were intent on acquiring able-bodied captives in large numbers, and Hungarian charters regularly give great prominence to the liberation of some thousands of their unhappy countrymen by those notables who defeated the Mongols. Serfs whom the invaders abducted, but who subsequently escaped back to their homes without the aid of a ransom, were legally free in the duchy of Sandomir, though an appeal addressed to Pope John XXII in 1327 suggests that their lords (in this case the church of Sandomir) were but imperfectly acquainted with this custom. Arrangements were made, presumably, for the ransoming of Christian prisoners (and would have imposed an additional burden on local communities); but regrettably the only extant charter documenting such efforts, in Hungary, is an eighteenth-century forgery.

Naturally the Mongols were not the only agents of destruction and sacrilege in Hungary. Many elements within the kingdom profited from the upheavals caused by the Mongol attacks to misappropriate ecclesiastical property, so that Clement VI would complain in 1344 that more than forty Benedictine houses had been illegally occupied over the past hundred years. In 1277 the archbishop of Kalocsa recounted the bloodthirsty career of a Saxon rebel whom he accused of adopting ‘Tartar’ practices; and eight years later King László himself referred to the mutual strife of the Hungarians in the same breath as Tartar and Cuman attacks. For a Hungarian cleric writing in 1321, past decades were an era of wickedness characterized by ‘both Tartar invasion and oppression by the tyrants of the land’ – a situation that, in his view, Divine Grace combined with King Carobert’s energies had done much to ameliorate. Other churchmen were less ready to discriminate among Hungary’s various afflictions and less fulsome about the king’s role. Protesting to Pope Benedict XII in 1338 about Carobert’s erosion of ecclesiastical rights, the kingdom’s prelates spoke of the vulnerability of their churches. Their sole means of resisting the encroachments of the lay power was to produce written privileges which had in fact been destroyed by fire in the course of two Tartar invasions. There were those in Eastern Europe who had clearly learned to turn Mongol visitations to good account.