This week-end, we’ll be celebrating Independence Day, and all that it stands for: freedom, justice, democracy. Enjoy your cookout and fireworks. This year, we also celebrate another milestone in self-determination, the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England, acquiescing to the demands of the barons, and paving the way for future battles and statements of rights. But during that key year of 1215, something else was happening on the borders of Europe, something much more alarming to the citizens of Eastern Europe in particular: the Mongol Invasion.
These scrappy horsemen from the steppes, under the leadership of Genghis Khan as he is termed in English, determined in 1206 to begin their expansion. In fairly short order, they had conquered many of the other tribes of the steppes, spreading outward into northern China, up into Russia, and down into the Middle East. They sent emissaries offering alliances if the people ahead of their movement would surrender willingly, and they destroyed many cities and peoples who did not.
They moved so fast and attacked so furiously that the European border observers, who originally hoped that the strangers might join forces with them against the armies of Islam, became alarmed and began asking for aid from the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire. The Mongols eventually established the largest contiguous land empire in history, outdone in its size only by the British Empire of several centuries later.
The influence of the Mongolian invasions on history and culture are still being examined these many centuries later–they are both lasting and far-reaching. What might have happened to Europe if the Mongols had spread, as was their intent, all the way to the Atlantic? And what stopped them from doing so?
The Mongol system of governance was not simply a monarchy in which the eldest son of the current ruler automatically became the ruler next, and thus passed the leadership down the same bloodline. Instead, different tribes and factions had the right to put forth candidates, and the most suitable candidate (or the one who had the most allies in the Mongolian heartland) would be acclaimed as the Great Khan. When Genghis passed away in 1227, therefore, the leaders of the far-flung armies–princes of the blood–had to return to Mongolia to participate in the council to determine the next ruler.
Genghis had four officially recognized sons, but he had designated Ogodei to succeed him, and divided leadership of many parts of the new empire among the other sons and grandsons, and his wishes were obeyed fairly readily. When Ogodei passed away in 1241, many of the other princes were already unhappy, and the new council took longer, not accepting Ogodei’s chosen successor as they had his father’s. Eventually, leadership passed to his nephew, who died on the way to meet a challenger from the same generation, Genghis’s grandsons. This in-fighting among the candidates for leadership resulted in long gaps during which Europe could breathe more easily. And in the long-term, the system of governance which required gathering in council, debating and acclaiming a leader, rather than merely bowing to a clear successor, resulted in the fragmentation of Genghis’s great enterprise.
In-fighting, back-biting, candidates accepting alliances in exchange for power-sharing, struggles to gain enough support to win the council. . .the foundations of democracy, even in such a distant place and time.