In 1206, a confederation of Mongol and Turkish tribes accepted Genghis (or Chinggis) Khan as their leader. Genghis Khan whipped the warriors of the Mongolian tribes into a mighty steamroller of kingdoms, and by the time of his death in 1227, the Mongol Empire extended from Northern China to the Caspian Sea. The successors of Genghis Khan continued to expand the Mongol Empire, eventually crashing into the unprepared empires and kingdoms of Eastern Europe by the 1230s and 1240s. When the Europeans saw these formidable hordes of excellent warriors streaming in from the east, it must have felt to them as if they had been born into an apocalyptic era. As the Europeans muddled over how to label these powerful new arrivals, they somehow became drawn to the name of a single Turkish tribe in the Mongol Confederation—the Tartars.
Several ideas have been proposed as to why medieval Europeans applied the name, “Tartars,” to all of the various tribes and peoples that contributed to the Mongol Empire. According to one theory, European familiarity with the name may have arisen simply because Tartar forces were reportedly heavily present within the so-called Golden Horde, a section of the Mongol Empire that was the greatest threat to Eastern Europe. A more symbolic interpretation exists, however, that suggests that medieval Europeans latched onto the name of the Tartars because it evoked in their minds the idea of Tartarus, the hellish abyss of Greek mythology, reinforcing their belief that the Mongols were an army that came straight out of hell to torment them. Whatever the case, the name “Tartars” indeed became how 13th-century Europeans referred to the Mongols. Such labeling can be found in the journal of the friar, William of Rubruck, who traveled into the Mongol Empire on behalf of the French King Louis IX between 1253-1255, as well as The Travels of the famous Marco Polo, who reached the court of Khubilai Khan in 1275.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Khitan hunters from Mongolia, painted by Hu Gui c. 9th or 10th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Travels by Marco Polo and translated by Nigel Cliff. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.