Readings on the Barbarian Empire
Guns, Germs and Grain
Perhaps the most defining event in the European 14th century was the Mongol invasions that devastated Catholic Europe’s eastern regions and reached as far as Verona and Saxony. One aspect of this invasion that remains controversial is the role that the post-Byzantine states of Eastern Europe had in enabling one of the greatest catastrophes to befall Europe in the middle ages. Although some scholars will argue that the alliance with the Mongols was forced and the assistance rendered negligible (usually backed up by miniscule numbers of Russian troops involved in the expeditions), a differing opinion is that when other factors are considered, the role of Kiev and other states involved is simply indispensable to the success achieved by the Mongols.
A crucial consideration is the greatly changed nature of Mongol campaigns. Whereas the first Mongol invasions were devastating because of the inability of their opponents to deal with Mongol tactics (and, in the case of the Byzantines, being unable to wage campaigns after the bloody civil wars of the early 13th century), no massed horse archer tactic was a surprise to the Eastern Europeans in the 1340s. The Hungarians and the Poles prepared well, with chains of castles dotting the frontiers, and tough border populations such as the szekely being prepared to counteract Mongol raiding. Western partial plate armour was also on its way to overtaking Turco-Byzantine lamellars in efficiency, making western heavy cavalry much less vulnerable to their opponents’ primary weapon, the bow. The Mongols were well aware of the preparations, and this could well explain the nearly 50 years of peace on the Mongol-Hungarian border.
In the 1340s, the Batukhanids achieved a temporary dominance over the other branches of the Mongol Royal house. The uluses of Orda and Shayban were in close alliance, and the Chaghatids were subdued during the war with the Batukhanids, with the assent of the weakening Great Khans in China. Asep Timur Khan had at his disposal huge numbers, almost on par with what Batu himself had when he attacked the Volga Kimiaks. The power could have been projected in several directions, but the West is where he struck. One of the reasons was that the Eastern European crusaders in Anatolia had repeatedly trod on the toes of the Khans with conflicting interests; the other was that expansion West was possible, unlike expansion East where the Yuan dynasty was still supreme. The final and arguably most important reason is that expansion west was supportable by the network of alliances and dependencies the Khans established with Orthodox eastern states.
As is pointed out by many historians, the number of men from Russia and Lithuania involved in the campaign was minimal – a small Tmutarakan contingent, and a few hundred men in personal retinues of Oka-area princes. The contribution was mostly in logistics and support, as well as artillery. Chinese craftsmen, on loan from the Yuan Emperors, were brought over to Sarai and started what was arguably the first organized cannon yard in Europe. However, just a few years later, the craftsmen and the entire works were moved to a location just outside of Kiev, where production of powder, cannons and rockets grew from a modest, tightly-controlled wartime industry to a permanent foundry as Asep Timur’s successors launched campaign after campaign into Europe starting from the Rus capital. As the targets of raids and conquest moved deeper into Europe, so did the production of powder and rockets. Kiev’s woks increasingly specialized in cannon-casting. It is uncertain at which point Russian craftsmen were included in gun-making, but pay records from the time indicate several thousand craftsmen and menial labourers were involved in the works in the summer of 1339 alone.
Guns cast in Kiev were of several formats, but most of the ones produced were meant to knock down the numerous fortifications the Polish and Hungarians erected in anticipation of Mongol attack. The old-fashioned tall walls were unable to withstand concentrated cannon fire and Mongol advance was very quick despite heavy defenses constructed by their opponents. The Mongols destroyed part of the works as they lost ground in Europe, but dynastic uncertainty and civil conflict prevented them from completing the job, leaving the re-emerging Russian Tsardom with the means to carry on production; by the time Vsevolod IV and Yakub Boniak Khan clashed over Crimea in the late 14th century, both armies possessed a sophisticated and significant artillery component.
Grain was another consideration; the Mongol forces were heavy on cavalry, and used to feeding both themselves and their mounts off the land. However, the only large grassland in Europe – Hungary’s Alfold – could not have sufficed to keep the numbers involved fed. In addition, the Sarai and Caucasus Mongols increasingly used Russian horses for their heavy cavalry; the chargers were certainly unable to subsist on thin grass and had to be grain-fed. Since grain was the core product of the Russian economy of the period, food and fodder were collected by the Tsars of Kiev as war tax. The excess requirements was bought from friendly Lithuania and the Novgorodian republic, then shipped up the Danube or transported overland to supply the Mongols. To appreciate the value of this contribution, one has to remember that with Europe’s population rapidly oustripping its production base, grain prices were higher than they had been for centuries. Some sources estimate that up to 40% of Tsar Sviatopolk’s potential revenue was invested into supporting his Mongol allies.
The final nail in the resistance of Catholic Europe was the plague that spread with Mongol conquest. As already mentioned, overpopulation in Central and Southern Europe, as well as Eastern France, was producing chronic food shortages and generally weakened immune systems. New genetic evidence from researchers in the university of Dijon also shows that Western Europeans in general have lower incidence of a gene that provides some measure of resistance to the Plague. Refugees from the conquered areas fled to neighbouring countries, bringing plague with them, which cut through urban populations and thus the merchant and noble classes that provided most of the quality troops. Although plague affected the Mongols too, they seemed to have been better fed and had higher survival rates. Their 1342 campaign was arguably halted because of plague within the army, but they came back in the 1350s and invaded Saxony. The German population, largely urban or otherwise concentrated, was severely affected in the intervening years, and the region was powerless to resist the Mongols. It is unknown as to why Kiev, a transit point, remained relatively unaffected by the plague until after eight years of yearly campaign launched from it, but arguably the cooperation with the Mongols also finally set the conditions in Russia up for a serious epidemic.
As a lot of grain was diverted to feed the campaign, there was starvation in several areas of Russia’s notoriously high-risk agricultural zone. The major works and army supply business attracted Russians from outlying principalities, as well as foreign experts and merchants – Chinese, Syrian and Greek – from areas where the Plague was already on the rampage. High population density and induced food shortages did their job. In 1342 the first outbreak occurred, and although it was not nearly as serious as the three that followed in the next decades, it carried away Tsar Sviatopolk himself, as well as a large proportion of the court. It had the unexpected result of making his widow Premislava (of the Polish-Lithuanian Rawicz line) the unopposed regent; her faction was friendly to Poland, and Russian chronicles of the period insist that she intervened with the Khans on the behalf of Poland. As a result, the Mongols accorded Polish princes special vassal status, much like several Russian principalities before them, and warfare was directed towards the West and the South instead. This spared Poland from the wars, if not from the plagues, and allowed it to re-emerge as the dominant state in Central Europe after the Mongols were gone.
More serious outbreaks of plague in Kiev are, arguably, what finally defeated the Mongols as well. Grain supply was disrupted, and Kiev’s fluctuating population could not support large Mongol armies when used as a staging ground. This in turn led to several raids that were only minor in achievement, because of inadequate supply. The military prestige of the Khans decreased together with their conquests; in the end, their dominance over the Eastern hordes eroded to the point where Chaghatai, Orda and Shaybanid clans no longer felt it necessary to participate. Kochin Yakub Khan launched the very last campaign in 1357, raiding Verona’s countryside. The disintegration of Mongol power in Catholic Europe was as rapid as their conquest had been. Without spoils from raiding, the economy sharply declined, and the various tribes subject to the Khan could no longer be kept loyal with bribes. The army was reduced in numbers, by plague, casualties and tribal rebellions. Within a decade, the Mongols were involved in civil war and four Khans came and went in a space of four years. The Mongol army was the only means of control over the new populations; unlike in the Volga region, Central Europe was not regarded as a place that was worth serious investment into administration. After the Mongols left, surviving dynasties moved into the power vacuum (such as the Mazovian Piasts) or arose from the princes that were Mongol clients (as in Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary).
The Mongol invasions and the plagues that accompanied them are estimated to have cost the areas affected up to 40-50% of their population, most of it from German-heavy urban centers. In Kiev and other Mongol-allied territories, the effects were also serious; Kiev’s population dropped from an estimated seventy thousand to about half the number, and would not regain it until more than a century later, despite heavy immigration from other Russian principalities. Nonetheless, Russian cooperation with the Mongols eliminated serious threats from the West, allowing the resurgent Tsars to focus on the weakening Khans in Sarai.