The Mongols: Barbarians, Conquerors, and Renaissance Enablers, Reviewed by Anisha


“Europeans experienced a Renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn: It was the Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to meet their own needs and culture.”[1] In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford portrays the Mongols as a civilization that espoused religious toleration, diversity, and military prowess. While he successfully tells the history of the Mongols based on Mongolian sources and uncovers a previously silenced perspective, Weatherford’s work is weakened by the prevalence of unsubstantiated claims, and suffers as he overstates the degree to which the Mongols caused the Renaissance in Europe.

Weatherford aims to change the perception of the Mongols, shifting the emphasis from their barbarity to their lasting impacts on the rest of the world. The first part of the book deals with the life of Genghis Khan, from his birth in 1162 through the founding of the Mongol Empire to his death in 1227. Then, Weatherford examines the numerous conquests that made the Mongol Empire the largest empire in history, as well as the domestic policies that made it history’s largest free-trade zone, a region of religious tolerance, and a provider of universal education. Finally, he looks at how the Mongols influenced the rest of the world by facilitating the westward movement of various ideas and technologies. Throughout his work, Weatherford’s underlying argument was that the Mongols played an essential role in developments in innovation in Europe because their trade routes allowed for the movement of goods from east to west. He argues that the “new technology, knowledge, and commercial wealth” that travelled along Mongol trade routes “created the Renaissance.”[2]

Weatherford’s attempt to redeem the Mongol image can be seen as a response to the silencing of certain aspects of this history. This process was described by fellow anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past. Trouillot explores how choices made during the crafting of a history can silence some perspectives, particularly when these choices are based on preconceived ideas about a population. Weatherford looks at how this has occurred in Mongolian historiography, and tries to amend these past misrepresentations. The stereotypical image of the Mongols is that of savage barbarians and this view informed many of the choices made in crafting Mongol history. Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk, described the Mongols as “inhuman and of the nature of beasts, rather to be called monsters than men, thirsting after and drinking blood, and tearing and devouring the flesh of dogs and human beings.”[3] Depictions of the Mongols in popular media usually show them as, in Weatherford’s words, “savage hordes lusting after gold, women, and blood.”[4] Weatherford’s redress of these stereotypes is balanced, acknowledging the Mongols’ brutality while presenting their refined military prowess and progressive domestic policies.

Trouillot examines the process of the creation of history and identifies several opportunities for the silencing of certain perspectives, starting when evidence is created and assembled into archives.[5] Weatherford provides an effective example of this silencing as he shows that most sources in Mongolian history were created by foreign travellers, while a group of Mongolian documents chronicling the history of the Mongols, referred to as the Secret History of the Mongols were largely ignored.[6] Trouillot argues that the foreign actors who create the body of evidence that becomes the basis for a country’s history have the power to influence how their past is seen. Weatherford argues that in Mongolian historiography, historians imbued with “prejudice and ignorance” based their histories not on Mongolian sources but on “political rhetoric, pseudoscience, and scholarly imagination.”[7] Weatherford seeks to rectify this by telling the story that was uncovered in the Secret History.

Trouillot also identifies the process of the selection of facts and the subsequent crafting of narratives as an opportunity for silencing. Much of past Mongolian historiography sought to create narratives in which the Mongols were seen as ruthless warmongers, thus historians mainly selected evidence that showed the ferocity of their military tactics, ignoring the motivations behind their actions. An event often viewed as a ruthless Mongol invasion was the battle against three Russian armies in 1223, which was the first successful Asian invasion of a European army in one thousand years. While this event is normally seen as a strategic decision to expand their empire, Weatherford portrays it as a mission of vengeance against the Russians for executing ten Mongolian ambassadors. In Weatherford’s narrativization of the incident, he writes that the Mongols wanted to “reaffirm to their own men the extent to which they would always be willing to go to avenge the unjust killing of a Mongol.”[8]

Weatherford’s bold overarching argument, that the Mongols created the Renaissance in Europe, is exaggerated. To suggest that the Renaissance would not have occurred had the Mongol trade routes not existed goes too far. Weatherford argues that the Mongols did not contribute to the Renaissance through their inventions or technologies, but that they facilitated the movement of these technologies, specifically printing, gunpowder, and the compass, to Europe. While the Mongol trade routes surely aided and facilitated the diffusion of the ideas which were important to the Renaissance, Weatherford does not adequately prove that these ideas would not have eventually moved from East to West without them.  It is likely that they would have been transported eventually, especially given that people were beginning to travel between these regions more frequently. As Weatherford states, “The Mongols made no technological breakthroughs, founded no new religions, wrote few books or dramas, and gave the world no new crops or methods of agriculture.”[9] Since they did not make any unique contributions, it is difficult to claim that they played an indispensable role in the Renaissance.

Weatherford’s portrayal of the Mongol conquests is balanced. He acknowledges that they “killed at an unprecedented rate and used death almost as a matter of policy and certainly as a calculated means of creating terror.” Yet he also emphasizes that their actions were not brutish cruelty carried out for their own enjoyment, noting that they “did not torture, mutilate, or maim.”[10] However, at times his narrativization of the events causes him to make unsubstantiated claims that further his argument but cannot be proven. He makes the claim that “unlike other generals and emperors in history who easily ordered hundreds of thousands of soldiers to their death, Genghis Khan would never willingly sacrifice a single one,” but does not provide any evidence to prove that this was actually a belief of Genghis Khan.[11] Further, he says that “for the Mongols, the law was more a way of handling problems, creating unity, and preserving peace rather than just a tool for deciding guilt of administering punishment,” yet he does not cite any sources showing the intentions of the Mongols in creating their laws.[12] Without proof to support them, these claims are speculation.

Weatherford’s writing skills make this book a compelling read, and the fact that he does not spend time dwelling on minutiae such as dates and military tactics makes it very accessible to the large audience he intended. This approach can be useful in disseminating an awareness of a topic across a wide population, and it is particularly appropriate in Weatherford’s case as his goal was to change public opinion and alter a stereotype. However, in many cases Weatherford failed to provide adequate evidence for his claims. Weatherford’s declaration that the Mongols’ annual use of the death penalty was, at 2,500 in thirty years, lower than that of the modern United States, appears exaggerated.[13] However, as there is no source to support this claim, readers must accept it at face value. Weatherford presents all of his speculations as though they are accepted truths, and while this made for an engaging read, readers without the means to recognize these speculations and verify his assertions will trust them automatically.

Weatherford invites his audience to discover Genghis Khan and the Mongols from a new perspective, one which had been silenced in the past by historians who based their narratives on their preconceived notions of the Mongols. While Weatherford overstates the Mongol influence on the Renaissance, and makes many speculative claims, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World successfully remedies the stereotype of the Mongols as a barbarous, murderous tribe of nomads, giving readers a balanced account of the exploits of the Mongols.

[1] Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Three Rivers Press: New York, 2004), 316.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Ibid., 212.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press: Boston, 1995), 51.

[6] Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan, 25.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 204.

[9] Ibid., 19.

[10] Ibid., 172.

[11] Ibid., 114.

[12] Ibid., 276.

[13] Ibid., 274.

2 responses to “The Mongols: Barbarians, Conquerors, and Renaissance Enablers, Reviewed by Anisha”

  1. Kathryn says:

    Hi Anisha, thank you for this review. Weatherford’s book seems like an accessible, interesting read. In many ways, my reaction to your analysis proves your argument about silences: I was surprised to read that Weatherford argued the Mongols were “a civilization that espoused religious toleration, diversity, and military prowess.” Military prowess is definitely the attribute that receives the most emphasis in any other account. With this being said, your discussion of Trouillot was helpful (how are silences created, throughout what processes) in understanding the book and its utility as a popular history. Although Weatherford’s core argument may be a bit “bold”, it sounds as if he does a thorough job of identifying where and how misconceptions about the Mongols were formed (through foreign, third-party accounts, selection of facts). Even if his thesis is far-fetched, as a reader, I am definitely motivated to look more into the topic to perhaps see where his argument is coming from and to re-educate myself about the topic. Thank you again for the review, I will definitely be picking up a copy!

  2. Emma Awe says:

    Hi Anisha! I would like to begin by saying that I think your review of Weatherford’s popular history about the Mongols is very comprehensive and provides a compelling argument concerning the omission of certain facts, as well as the ‘silencing’ of history as Trouillot discusses. Based on your review, it sounds like Weatherford’s history is very much what Trouillot feared – that is, the selection of certain facts to suit an overarching claim, at the expense of perhaps more crucial or integral ones.

    While it sounds like Weatherford’s account provides an uncommon perspective of the Mongols – which I find to be refreshing and would be intrigued to read, I agree that the making of unsubstantiated claims invalidates his attempt to present a true or honest version of Mongolian history. Your provision of examples in which Weatherford lacks proof or evidence is well-done and reinforces your argument strongly.

    I do appreciate your inclusion of the positive aspects of Weatherford’s history, demonstrating to us why his account is popular, but overall, based on your review, I would definitely be sure to take his version of history with a grain of salt: careful not to fall under the spell of his narrative.

    I, like you it seems, am appalled that Weatherford would write a history with so many loose ends and dubious facts, but I would maybe like to know in greater depth which sources he did in fact use. A bit more analysis or explanation concerning the research he did do, and from which sources he was drawing his conclusions, could have perhaps supported your argument further. However, in sum, your review was clear, and very thoughtfully explained how “The Mongols: Barbarians, Conquerors, and Renaissance Enablers” was lacking in reliability.

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