1902 Encyclopedia > Rubruquis (William of Rubruk)

(also known as: William of Rubruk)
Franciscan missionary friar and traveller
(fl. 13th century AD)

RUBRUQUIS, the name which has most commonly been given to William of Rubruk, a Franciscan friar and the author of a remarkable narrative of Asiatic travel in the 13th century. Nothing is known of him save what can be gathered from his own narrative, with the exception of a word from the pen of Roger Bacon, his contemporary and brother Franciscan, indicating personal acquaintance. The name of Rubruquis has adhered to him, owing to this form ("Willielmus de Rubruquis") being found in the imperfect copy of the Latin original printed by Hakluyt in his collection, and followed in his English translation, as well as in the completer issue of the English by Purchas. Writers, again, of the 16th and 17th centuries have called the traveller Risbroucke and Rysbrokius, for which there is no authority,—an error founded on the too hasty identification of his name of origin with Ruysbroeck in Brabant (a few miles south of Brussels). This error was probably promoted by the fame of John of Ruysbroeck or Rysbroeck (1294-1381), a Belgian mystic theologian, whose treatises have been reprinted as late as 1848 (see vol. xvii. p. 133). Our traveller is styled "Guillaume de Rysbroeck" and "Ruysbroek" in the Biographie Universelle and in the Nouv. Biog. Générale. It is only within the last twenty years that attention has been called to the fact that Rubrouck is the name of a village and commune in what was formerly called French Flanders, belonging to the canton of Cassel in the department du Nord, and lying some 82 miles north-east of St Omer. In the library of the latter city many mediaeval documents exist referring expressly to Rubrouck, and to persons in the 12th and 13th centuries styled as "de Bubrouck." It may be fairly assumed that Friar William came from this place; indeed, if attention had been paid to the title of the MS. belonging to Lord Lumley, which was published by Hakluyt (Itinerarium fratris Willielmi de Rubruquis de Ordine fratrum Minorum,. Galli, Anno Gratiae 1253, ad partes Orientates), there need have been no question as to the traveller's quasi-French nationality; but this (erroneously) has always been treated as if it were an arbitrary gloss of Hakluyt's own.

Friar William went to Tartary under orders from Louis IX. (St Louis). That king, at an earlier date, viz., December 1248, when in Cyprus, had been visited by certain persons representing themselves to be envoys from a great Tartar chief Elchigaday (Ilchikadai), who commanded the Mongol hosts in Armenia and Persia. The king then despatched a return mission consisting of Friar Andrew of Lonjumel and other ecclesiastics, who carried presents and letters for both Ilchikadai and the Great Khan. They reached the court of the latter in the winter of 1249-50, when there was in fact no actual khan on the throne; but in any case they returned, along with Tartar envoys, bearing a letter to Louis, which was couched in terms so arrogant and offensive that the king repented sorely of having sent such a mission (li rois se repenti fort' quant il y envoia, Joinville, § 492). These returned envoys reached the king when he was at Caesarea, therefore between March 1251 and May 1252. It was, however, not very long after that the zealous king, hearing that a great Tartar prince called Sartak was a baptized Christian, felt strongly moved to open communication with him, and for this purpose deputed Friar William of Bubruk with companions. But it is evident that the former rebuff had made the king chary as to giving these emissaries the character of his royal envoys, and Friar William on every occasion, beginning with a sermon delivered in St Sophia's (on Palm Sunday, i.e., April 13, 1253), formally disclaimed that character, alleging that, though he was the bearer of the king's letters and presents, he went simply in fulfilment, of his duty as a Franciscan and preacher of the gospel.

Various histories of St Louis, and other documents which have come down to us, give particulars of the despatch of the mission of Friar Andrew from Cyprus, but none mention that of Friar William; and the first dates given by the latter are those of his sermon at Constanti-nople, and of his embarkation from Sinope (May 7, 1253). He must therefore have received his commission, at Acre,, where the king was residing from May 1252 to June 29, 1253; but he had travelled by way of Constantinople, as has just been indicated, and there received letters to some of the Tartar chiefs from the emperor, who was at this time -- Baldwin de Courtenay, the last of the Latin dynasty.

The narrative of the journey is everywhere full of life and interest, but we cannot follow its details. The vast conquests of Jenghiz Khan were still in nominal dependence on his successors, at this time represented by Mangu Khan, reigning on the Mongolian steppes, but practically those conquests were splitting up into several great monarchies. Of these the Ulus of Juji, the eldest son of Jenghiz, formed the most westerly, and its ruler was Batu. Khan, established on the Volga. Sartak is known in the history of the Mongols as Baku's eldest son, and was appointed his successor, though he died immediately after his father (1255). The story of Sartak's profession of Christianity may have had some kind of foundation; it was currently believed among the Asiatic Christians, and it is alleged by Armenian writers that he had been brought up and baptized among the Russians.

Rubruk and his party landed at Soldaia, or Sudak, on the Crimean coast, a port which was then the chief seat of the communication between the Mediterranean states and what is now southern Russia. Equipped with horses and carts for the steppe, they travelled successively to the courts of Sartak and of Batu, respectively on the hither and further banks of the Volga, bandied from one to the other, and then referred to the Great Khan himself, an order involving the enormous journey to Mongolia. The actual travelling of the party from the Crimea to the khan's court near Karakorum cannot have been, on a rough calculation, less than 5000 miles, and the return journey to Ayas in Cilicia would be longer by 500 to 700 miles. The chief dates to be gathered from the narrative are as follows:— embark on the Euxine, May 7, 1253; reach Soldaia, 21; set out thence, June 1; reach camp of Sartak, July 31; begin journey from camp of Batu eastward across steppe, September 16; turn south-east, November 1; reach Talas river, 8 ; leave Cailac (south of Lake Balkash), 30; reach camp of Great Khan, December 27; leave camp of Great Khan on or about July 10, 1254; reach camp of Batu again, September 16; leave Sartak's camp, November 1; at the Iron Gate (Derbend) 13; Christmas spent at Nakhshivitn (under Ararat); reach Antioch (from Ayas, via Cyprus), June 29, 1255; reach Tripoli, August 15.

The camp of Batu was reached near the northernmost point of his summer marches, therefore about Ukek near Saratoff (see Marco Polo, Prol., chap. iii. note 4). Before the camp was left they had marched with it five weeks down the Volga. The point of departure would lie on that river somewhere between 48° and 50° N. lat. The route taken lay eastward by a line running north of the Caspian and Aral basins ; then from about 70° E. long, south (with some easting) to the basin of the Talas river; thence across the passes of the Kirghiz Ala-tau and south of the Balkash Lake to the Ala-kul and the Baratula Lake (Ebi-niir). From this the travellers struck north across the Barluk, or the Orkochuk Mountains, and thence, passing south of the modern Kobdo, to the valley of the Jabkan river, whence they emerged on the plain of Mongolia, coming upon the Great Khan's camp at a spot ten days' journey from Karakorum and bearing in the main south from that place, with the Khangai Mountains between.

This route is of course not thus defined in the narrative, but is a laborious deduction from the facts stated therein. The key to the whole is the description given of that central portion intervening between the basin of the Talas and the Lake Ala-kul, which enables the topography of that region, including the passage of the Hi, the plain south of the Balkash, and the Ala-kul itself, to be identified past question.

The return journey, being made in summer, after retraversing the Jabkan valley, lay much farther to the north, and passed north of the Balkash, with a tolerably straight course probably, to the mouths of the Volga. Thence the party travelled south by Derbend, and so by Shamakhi to the Araxes, Nakhshivan, Erzingan, Sivas, and Ieonium, to the coast of Cilicia, and eventually to the port of Ayas, where they embarked for Cyprus and Syria. St Louis had returned to France a year before.

We have alluded to Roger Bacon's mention of Friar "William of Rubruk. Indeed, in the geographical section of the Opus Majus (c. 1262) he cites the traveller repeatedly and copiously, describing him as "frater Wilhelmus quem dominus rex Franciae misit ad Tartaros, Anno Domini 1253 .... qui perlustravit regiones orientis et aquilonis et loca in medio his annexa, et scripsit haec praedicta illustri regi; quem librum diligenter vidi et cum ejus auctore contuli" (Opus Majus, ed. Jebb, 1733, pp. 190-191). Add to this William's own incidental particular as to his being (like his precursor, Friar John of Pian Carpine, see vol. v. p. 132) a very heavy man (ponderosus valde), and we know no more of his personality except the abundant indications of character afforded by the story itself. These paint for us an honest, pious, stout-hearted, acute, and most intelligent observer, keen in the acquisition of knowledge, the author in fact of one of the best narratives of travel in existence. His language indeed is Latin of the most un-Ciceronian quality,—dog-Latin we fear it must he called; but, call it what we may, it is in his hands a pithy and transparent medium of expression. In spite of all the difficulties of communication, and of the badness of his turgemannus or dragoman, he gathered a mass of particulars, wonderfully true or near the truth, not only as to Asiatic nature, geography, ethnography, and manners, but as to religion and language. Of his geography a good example occurs in his account of the Caspian (eagerly caught up by Roger Bacon), which is perfectly accurate, except that he places the hill country occupied by the Mulahids, or Assassins, on the eastern instead of the southern shore. He explicitly corrects the allegation of Isidore that it is a gulf of the ocean: "non est verum quod dicit Ysidorus nusquam enim tangit oceanum, sed undique circumdatur terra" (265). Of his interest and acumen in matters of language we may cite examples. The language of the Pascatir (or Bashkirds) and of the Hungarians is the same, as he had learned from Dominicans who had been among them (274). The language of the Ruthenians, Poles, Bohemians, and Slavonians is one, and is the same with that of the Wandals, or Wends (275). In the town of Equius (immediately beyond the Hi, perhaps Aspara) the people were Mohammedans speaking Persian, though so far remote from Persia (281). The Yugurs (or Uigurs) of the country about Cailac (see note above) had formed a language and character of their own, and in that language and character the Nestorians of that tract used to perform their office and write their books (281-2). The Yugurs are those among whom are found the fountain and root of the Turkish and Comanian tongue (289). Their character has been adopted by the Moghals. In using it they begin writing from the top and write downwards, whilst line follows line from left to right (286). The Nestorians say their service, and have their holy books, in Syriac, but know nothing of the language, just as some of our monks sing the mass without knowing Latin (293). The Tibet people write as we do, and. their letters have a strong resemblance to ours. The Tangut people write from right to left like the Arabs, and their lines advance upwards (329). The current money of Cathay is of cotton paper, a palm in length and breadth, and on this they print lines like those of Mangu Khan's seal:— "imprimunt lineas sicut est sigillum Mangu" — a remarkable expression. They write with a painter's pencil and combine in one character several letters, forming one expression:— "faciunt in una figura plures literas comprehendentes unam dictionem," — a still more remarkable utterance, showing an approximate apprehension of the nature of Chinese writing (329).

Yet this sagacious and honest observer is denounced as an ignorant and untruthful blunderer by Isaac Jacob Schmidt (a man no doubt of useful learning, of a kind rare in his day, but narrow and wrong-headed, and in natural acumen and candour far inferior to the 13th-century friar whom he maligns), simply because the evidence of the latter as to the Turkish dialect of the Uigurs traversed a pet heresy, long since exploded, which Schmidt entertained, viz., that the Uigurs were by race and language Tibetan.

The narrative of Rubruk, after Roger Bacon's copious use of it, seems to have dropped out of sight. It has no place in the famous collections of the 14th century, nor in the earlier Speculum Historiale of Vincent of Beauvais, which gives so many others of the Tartarian ecclesiastical itineraries. It first appeared imperfectly in Hakluyt (1600), as we have mentioned. But it was not till 1839 that any proper edition of the text was published. In that year the Recueil de Voyages of the Paris Geographical Society, vol. iv., contained a thorough edition of the Latin text, and a collation of the few existing MSS., put forth by M. D'Avezac, with the assistance of two young scholars, since of high distinction, viz., Francisqiie-Michel and Thomas Wright. But there is no commentary, such as M. D'Avezac attached, in his own incomparable fashion, to the edition of Friar John of Pian Carpine in the same volume; nor has there ever been any properly annotated edition of a traveller so worthy of honour. Richthofen in his China, i. 602-604, has briefly but justly noticed the narrative of Rubruk. A French version with some notes, issued at Paris in 1877, in the Bibliotheque Orientale Elzevirienne, if named at all, can only be mentioned as beneath contempt. The task is one which the present writer has long contemplated, but now with but slender hope of accomplishment. (Since this was in type the writer has received from Dr. Franz Max Schmidt an admirable monograph by him, Ueber Rubruks Reise (Berlin, 1885), extracted from vol. xx. of the Ztschr. Geog. Soc. Berl., and has greatly profited by it in the revision of the article in proof.) (H. Y.)

The above article was written by: Col. Henry Yule, C. B.

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