John of Piano Carpini

The Italian traveler and Franciscan monk John of Piano Carpini (ca. 1180-1252) journeyed across central Asia and was the first European to write a detailed account of the Mongol Empire.

John was born in Umbria, probably at Pian' di Carpini (now Piano della Magione). He was attracted by the preaching of Francis of Assisi, and by 1220 he was a member of Francis's order. Friar John's practical sense and his capacity for long and hard work soon led him to be placed in charge of Franciscan efforts in other parts of Europe, and for several years he was superior of the order in Germany.

In 1241 the Mongols, or Tatars, came across Russia and invaded eastern Europe, causing great destruction in Poland, Hungary, and parts of Germany. Four years later Pope Innocent IV decided to send a formal protest to them. He chose Friar John, in his mid-60s but still vigorous and determined, for the mission.

John and two companions set out from Lyons on Easter Sunday 1245. They crossed Germany and Poland and were allowed to go to the camp of the western commander of the Mongols on the shores of the Volga River in Russia. After explaining his mission, John was allowed to proceed to Mongolia. On Easter Sunday 1246 the three friars began a long and difficult journey across central Asia, their bodies tightly bandaged to protect against the hardships of their ride. They reached Karakorum in eastern Asia, center of the Mongol kingdom, on July 22, making the trip of 3,000 miles in just 106 days.

A month after they arrived, the friars witnessed the formal installation of Genghis Khan's grandson as the new emperor, and it was to him they presented the Pope's message. The Khan sent them back with a brief reply in which he completely dismissed the Pope's protest and asserted that he would continue to act as the scourge of God against Christian Europe. The three left the Khan's court in November and returned through the harsh winter months, taking more than twice as long as they had to journey to the Mongol kingdom. When they reached Kiev in western Russia on June 9, 1247, they were greeted by the Christian community as men risen from the dead.

After making his report to the Pope at Lyons, John wrote a long, clear, clam book about the Mongols. This work, which provided the Middle Ages with the first authoritative account of the mysterious people from the East, still ranks among the finest journals of exploration. Nearly 70, John was made bishop of Antivari in Dalmatia and continued his diplomatic missions until his death on Aug. 1, 1252.


Further Reading on John of Piano Carpini

The best English translation of John's description of the Mongols is in The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Christopher H. Dawson (1955). An account of his journey and its importance is in Willem van Ruysbroek's 13th-century The Journey of William of Rubruck … with Two Accounts of the Earlier Journey of John of Pian de Carpini, translated and edited by William Woodville Rockhill (1900). More recent works which discuss John are Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe (1 vol. in 2, 1965), and R. A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, and George D. Painter, The Vinland Map and Tartar Relation (1965).