History of International Relations Textbook

The Mongol khanates

The Mongol invasion of Europe

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In the winter of 1241 the Mongol armies had arrived at the doorsteps of Europe. The most direct reason was that the Cumans, a nomadic people who lived north of the Black Sea, had sought refuge in Hungary. The Mongols regarded the Cumans as their subjects and insisted that the king of Hungary return them. When he refused, the Mongols went on the attack. The Mongols had no problems operating during the winter — indeed, this was when rivers were frozen and easier to cross — but winter-warfare was something the Europeans were not used to. The Mongols operated with two separate armies —  one in Hungary and one in Poland. Altogether they may have been between 100,000 and 150,000 men. The came as far as the walls of Vienna and several towns under the control of the Hanseatic league of merchants. On March 24, they sacked Krakow in today’s Poland.

After the initial confusion, the Europeans eventually put together a common defense. The Mongols were met by a collection of Polish, Czech and German forces, together with a contingent of chivalric knights sent by the pope. Two battles ensued — at Legnica, Poland, on April 9, 1241, and, in a far larger controntation, at Mohi, Hungary, two days later. The Europeans were defeated on both occasions. In fact, the European armies seem to have been more or less obliterated and the chivalric order of knights never quite recovered from the blow. The Hungarians alone lost some 30,000 men and the country was in ruins. In the summer of 1241, Europe was defenseless against further attacks by the Mongols.

But the Mongols did not move further west. The most immediate reason was that news reached them from Mongolia that Ögedei Khan, Genghis Khan’s son, had died in December 1241, and that there was going to be a kurultai where his successor was going to be selected. Since several of the Mongol commanders in Europe had pretentions to succeed him, they needed to be back in Mongolia to protect your positions. It also seems Western Europe was of little interest to the Mongols. Europe had large forests which were difficult for their cavalry to penetrate and besides, compared with the prosperous cities of Persia and the Middle East, there was not much treasure here that could be looted. Although the Mongols conducted new raids in Poland in 1259, 1286 and 1287, they never again bothered with a large-scale invasion.

Matthew Paris, an English cleric, mentions how the fish rotten in the harbor of Great Yarmouth in the summer of 1241 since merchants from the Baltic did not dare to come and pick it up because of the presence of the Mongols in the vicinity of the Baltic Sea. The story goes that the word “hurray” entered European languages at this time. Apparently the Mongols used the exclamation during ceremonial prayers before their attack. The etymology is, however, quite uncertain.