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Erik Flint, writing in the voice of a heroine who is a professional historian, quipped:

Mongols, having already conquered half of Europe, decided the other half wasn't worth it (emphasis added)

How historically accurate is that quip, specifically the bolded second part?

  • Is there evidence that Mongols justified their own stopping their conquest of Europe after winning the battles of Legnica and Mohi by assessing that further conquest was possible but "wasn't worth it"?

  • Is there a historical consensus that this was the main or at least one of the main reasons, as opposed to some others?

Link to quote

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    The idea is silly. I had the impression they stopped mainly because it would be harder to move and feed their horses in the forests of Europe than on the steppe. – Tomas By Jul 15 '18 at 17:30
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    @Tomas By: Err... And how exactly does that not equate to "not worth it"? That is, the effort of changing their style of warfare (and perhaps their entire culture) in ways that would be needed to conquer the rest of Europe wasn't worth what they'd gain. – jamesqf Jul 15 '18 at 17:57
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    @jamesqf Err...aren't you moving the goalposts? For that to be on the table you'd need evidence they considered changing their tactics. More seriously, you're imposing a specific meaning onto "not worth it" that isn't supported. – Spencer Jul 15 '18 at 19:35
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    The short answer is: political factors, not military or economic. (The long answer is really too long). Political factors referring to not just Mongols, but also Mamluks, Byzantine and China, political events overtaking the need/want for world domination re W. Europe. Peter Jackson's chapter here provides best short summary of these events. – J Asia Jul 15 '18 at 20:16
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    @Spencer: On the contrary, the meaning I gave is exactly what I (and I think most other fluent English speakers) think the author intended to say. Whether s/he was accurate or not would require an answer - one I'm not qualified to give :-) – jamesqf Jul 16 '18 at 5:33
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History is about understanding past events, not a place for polemic. There's another place and time for that, and it's called "propaganda" (by politicians). For those who tries to appreciate history, however uncomfortable the process might be, its benefits far outweighs the cost because history helps us learn how we got here, the 21st century. I believe this is the commonwealth we all want in a fairer, better world.


The statement:

"Mongols, having already conquered half of Europe, decided the other half wasn't worth it"

Let me just say from the outset, of course this statement is not just arrogant and presumptuous, it is also silly for any modern historian to consider this question seriously if it were phrased precisely this way.

First, Frankish knights were not paper soldiers, the Crusades showed that. Any attack on the West is not cost-free. I will make a point about evaluation of "worth it" at the very end (below).

Second, this statement is a literary device for dramatic effect.

Finally, for those who truly want to understand the statement and how it might apply to the Mongol Empire, the details include not only facts about warfare (one damn fight after another), political leadership (the key players), their culture (which might help frame their intention), and, not least, the state of affairs in south-west Asia (Middle East) and eastern Europe.


Mongol Rulers (1206-1260 BCE) and the Final Ultimatum of 1261

*Qaghans* (Great Khans) shown in bold

Diagram: Qaghans (Great Khans) shown in bold (source).


Ultimatum of 1261

Only with detailed knowledge can we reasonably understand the events the Mongols undertook with regards their desire to invade the Latin west. By Peter Jackson, The Mongols and Europe:

These struggles marked the dissolution of the Mongol empire into four regional khanates: the Golden Horde in the west, which traditionally enjoyed a good deal of autonomy; the khanate of Chaghadai in central Asia, ruled by the progeny of Chinggis Khan’s second son; the state founded by Hülegü in Persia and ruled by his descendants, the so-called Il-khans; and the dominions of the qaghan in China and Mongolia, under Qubilai, who emerged victorious from his struggle with Arigh Böke in 1264. But even after his triumph, Qubilai, who abandoned Qaraqorum to reside in China, was recognised only by Hülegü and his successors, to whom he was more closely bound by ties of blood. From 1269, moreover, he was confronted in central Asia by another anti-qaghan, Ögödei’s grandson Qaidu (d. 1303). The Mongol world did not acknowledge a single emperor again until 1304.

The Mongol campaigns of 1259-60 in eastern Europe and in Syria were therefore the last military efforts of the united empire: significantly,the ultimatum received by Louis IX of France in 1261 (from Berke in all probability) is the latest recorded in western sources. The outbreak of hostilities in the Caucasus meant that neither the Il-khan nor the Khan of the Golden Horde was able to give his external frontiers single-minded attention. Now, moreover, for the first time, Mongol princes were ready to ally with foreign powers against fellow Mongols. From 1261-2 the Muslim Berke was engaged in reaching an understanding with his co-religionists the Mamluks, who were Hülegü’s chief external enemies and whose Qipchaq origin gave them a common ethnic back- ground with the majority of his own nomadic subjects.

Source: The New Cambridge Medieval History, Part VI - The Northern and Eastern Frontiers, Cambridge, 1999, p.710.

From Jackson's passages, it should be obvious Berke's ultimatum of 1261 for Louis IX raises three crucial points:

  1. William of Rubruck's exploration of Central Asia was no coincidence. He was sent by Louis IX. Rubruck's report gave the Latin west (some) insight into the Mongol Empire. Today, it's considered a "masterpiece of medieval geographical literature".
  2. Berke, successor of Batu Khan -- in 1261 alone, he gave an ultimatum to Latin west, whilst also negotiating on an alliance with the Mamluks because of his Islamic conversion. Was he solidifying his position (that of the Golden Horde) or was he really prepared to attack the west?
  3. Did Louis IX take Berke seriously, given that he knew the qaghan was Möngke? More pertinent, was the 1261 ultimatum from Möngke, or was it Berke's?

(point 3: There was no qaghan in 1261, because Möngke passed away suddenly in 1259, whilst Kublai's throne was not yet secure -- Toluid civil war, 1260–1264. Did Louis IX know this? Was he that up-to-date?)

(Please keep the last question in mind as you read the points raised below)


A Useful Answer?

Having said this, and how tediously long a reasonable answer should be (in my comments to OP, above), I will try to do so (hopefully, Central Asia specialists and Chinggisid-scholars will not flinch).

Let me start with a simple note: Mongol's relation and experience with China is of a totally different nature with that of Latin west.

1. Qaghan

To my knowledge, there is no direct evidence of any decision made regarding campaigns into Western Europe, post-Ögedei. All other evidence of any decision to invade the West was not made at the level of the Emperor, the Qaghan. As the direct successor of Chinggis, he had the authority to do so. Ögedei's general into the western sector was Eljigidei.

All other khans post-Ögedei did not possess such authority, therefore, also did not have at hand the necessary military resources.

This is a crucial point, because when united, the Mongols (with a lot of help from other Central Asian tribes & confederations, especially the Turks) were unprecedented military conquerors. Recall how the Huns (& other barbarians) brought the Roman Empire to its knees, starting with Battle of Adrianople (378 CE). Compared with the Huns who were based in the western steppe, Chinggis Khan united the entire Central Asia, the resources available to him was of a totally different scale. Pax Mongolica is not a figment of our imagination.

2. Möngke

Ögedei's passing in 1241 put paid to any idea of further expanding west, all other successors -- Güyük, Möngke, and even the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai -- cannot/should not be considered qaghan, with entire resources of the Mongol Empire and political support for further expansion into the West.

Möngke was enthroned in 1251, by a quriltai, which also directed Hülegü to extend Mongol control into Iran and Iraq (not the Latin west). By this stage, the Mongol Empire was not as united as it once was. The evidence: Hülegü's protracted trip to Iran and Iraq. He left in 1253 (Ked Buqa, his advanced guard general left a year earlier). He finally arrived at Alamut Castle in 1256.

From decision to invasion, this is a 5-year gap. The delay was due to time required for raising necessary manpower & settling logistical needs (according to Allsen). However we look at it, Hülegü's campaign was not up to the normal standard of Mongol warfare & mobility.

For those familiar with Subedei, the acclaimed general of Chinggis khan with countless campaign experience who served the Empire so well - is this the modus operandi of the Mongols? Why didn't Batu Khan (d. 1255) of the Golden Horde lead/assist directly, since all he needed to do was attack south into the Caucasus, to help Hülegü and his qaghan, Möngke? No recce required, Mongols were there just two decades earlier, led by Subedei.

Which bring us to, whilst Hülegü was still campaigning in Iraq (Iran was achieved), Möngke passed in August 1259, on his campaign against China (Song). Kublai was also there, conducting a flanking movement in Yunnan, China.


3. A Question

To end, on whether it was worth it, allow me to ask: Why would the Mongols want to invade the Latin west, once trade relation was established? In context, given the west did not support the Mamluks, i.e. the Crusades. (Mongols were brilliant warriors and even better strategists, imho).

In fact, a better question is: Why didn't the Franco-Mongol alliance work out?


My comments on Great Wall of China

From Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road, Princeton, 2011, p. 27 (additional links and emphasis mine):

In the east much of the best pastureland had been captured by Chinese invasions beginning in the Warring States period. The territory was held by Chinese fortresses and walls built right through the steppe, including the Great Wall, which mainly connected earlier walls together and strengthened them. These walls were not built to protect the Chinese from the Central Eurasians but to hold Central Eurasian territory conquered by the Chinese (Di Cosmo 2002a: 149–158). That is, they were offensive works, not defensive ones. The purpose of the nomadic raids or warfare against the Chinese was undoubtedly mainly to remove the Chinese from the seized pastureland and restore it to nomadic control, as indicated by the fact that the nomads almost exclusively took animals and people as booty on these raids (cf. Hayashi 1984). The theories ultimately based on the idea of the Chinese as victims of Central Eurasian aggression, and the nomads as poverty-stricken barbarians greedy for Chinese silks and other products, are not only unsupported by the Chinese historical sources, they are directly contradicted by them, as well as by archaeology. The same applies all along the frontier between Central Eurasia and the periphery of Eurasia, from east to west.


(If not useful, I hope it has been fun!)

  • "Why would the Mongols want to invade the Latin west?" Because it was there? However, it was not on the steppe. – Tomas By Jul 16 '18 at 13:06
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    @TomasBy - Lol, that's one way to look at it. But neither was Song China, nor Japan, nor Annam or the others. On Mongol invasions of Southeast Asia, a quick read. – J Asia Jul 16 '18 at 13:11
  • Japan & Annam, ok, but I thought China was readily accessible for mounted barbarians? Or why did they build that big wall. – Tomas By Jul 16 '18 at 13:19
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    @TomasBy - (Here we go) ... the Great Wall of China was built to attack and hold the steppe territory (Xiongnu). The Wall was not, in any meaningful way, defensive. -- see map of Inner Mongolia, now under China, is part of the steppe. The rest of China is not. – J Asia Jul 16 '18 at 13:27
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    @PieterGeerkens: my point exactly? – Tomas By Jul 16 '18 at 13:31
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I started writing this to argue in favor of the quote, but after looking into it deeper, I've seen it really isn't very accurate at all.

First off, half might technically be an overestimate, but they invaded as far west as Poland and the Balkans and raided the hinterland of Vienna. Add some of that to all the Russian territory west of the Urals, and a case could be made that it was nearly half of Europe. So its arguable, but I'll give him that one.

But as far as the rest goes, the fact is they did try to come back for the other half, and got spanked.

Generally what the Mongols were looking for was one of two things: Good grasslands for their herds, or big rich empires they could take over the top spot of to milk off the proceeds for themselves.

The only place in Europe west of Russia that had the former was the plains of Hungary, which is why that's the first place they came back to. Their initial devastating foray was in 1241, the second (mostly failed) one in 1285.

However, in the first foray what the Europeans discovered was that, while lightly armed forces got slaughtered by the Mongol horse archery tactics, their heavy Calvary were nearly immune to it, and could just chew the Mongols up.

During the Battle of Mohi for example, while the Hungarian light cavalry and infantry were decimated by Mongol forces, the heavily armored knights in their employ (such as the Knights Templar) fought significantly better. During the Battle of Legnica, the Knights Templar that numbered between 65-88 during the battle lost only three knights and 2 sergeants. Austrian knights under Duke Frederick also fared better in fighting the Mongol invasion in Vienna.

Another tactic that showed promise due to Mongolian hopelessness against heavily fortified places was scorched earth combined with castles.

One thing Europeans, with all their petty squabbling kingdoms, were not was dummies about warfare. Militarily stupid European rulers didn't tend to keep their territory very long. So by the time the Mongols came back 40 years later, most of the threatened states had significantly beefed up their Heavy Cavalry arms and Castle networks, which they used to make short work of the next invasions.

The results of the invasion could not have contrasted more sharply with those of the 1241 invasion. The invasion was repelled handily, and the Mongols lost much of their invading force due to several months of starvation, numerous small raids, and two major military defeats. This was mostly thanks to the new fortification network and the military reforms. No major invasion of Hungary would be launched after the failure of the campaign of 1285, though small raids from the Golden Horde were frequent well into the 14th century. Less than two years later, the Third Mongol invasion of Poland occurred. This invasion was also repulsed, with the Poles using a similar strategy to the Hungarians in 1285.

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    Kinda hate saying this, because Eric Flint is my favorite author, but facts are facts. – T.E.D. Jul 16 '18 at 16:37
  • I've noticed you 'spanking' a couple of your favourite authors the past two years. Just that Napoleonic author who still believes the French attacked in column remains to be dispensed with. ;-) – Pieter Geerkens Jul 16 '18 at 16:45
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    The very high density of European castles in place by the mid-1200's might deserve a mention as well. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 16 '18 at 16:46
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    @PieterGeerkens - Well, that was also Eric Flint... – T.E.D. Jul 16 '18 at 17:44
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    @PieterGeerkens - I actually had mentioned the castle networks at least obliquely, and in one of the quotes. However, I think you're right that the point deserved more emphasis, so I've edited a bit. – T.E.D. Jul 17 '18 at 14:40
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Question: How accurate is the quip: “Mongols, having already conquered half of Europe, decided the other half wasn't worth it”?

  • Is there evidence that Mongols justified their own stopping their conquest of Europe after winning the battles of Legnica and Mohi by assessing that further conquest was possible but "wasn't worth it"?
  • Is there a historical consensus that this was the main or at least one of the main reasons, as opposed to some others?

Short Answer:

I always heard this question asked with one other component attached to it. Incorporating the fact that after the Mongols ceased their invasion of Europe they subsequently invaded the Moslem Empire which was user going a golden age. As such it was wealthier, more advanced, and more prosperous at the time than was high middle ages(AKA dark ages) Europe. Anyway the answer remains the same.

Not Accurate, and no historical consensus. The two different hordes (the Blue Horde, and Ilkhanate Horde) which invaded Europe and the Middle East respectively were independent of each other and the two invasions were removed from each other by decades. They did not represent coordination which the quip assumes. The predominant historical view as given by Winston Churchill in his "history of the English Speaking Peoples" below is Europe was saved by the timely death of the Great Khan, and was entirely at the Mongol's mercy prior to that.

Winston Churchill in "A History of the English Speaking Peoples"
But Asia too was marching against the West. At one moment it had seemed as if all Europe would succumb to a terrible menace looming up from the East. Heathen Mongol hordes from the heart of Asia, formidable horsemen armed with bows, had rapidly swept over Russia, Poland, Hungary, and in 1241 inflicted simultaneous crushing defeats upon the Germans near Breslau and upon European cavalry near Buda. Germany and Austria at least lay at their mercy. Providentially in this year the Great Khan died in Mongolia; the Mongol leaders hastened back the thousands of miles to Karakorum, their capital, to elect his successor, and Western Europe escaped.

After the retreat of 1241, The Mongols never again ventured that far west and shortly afterwards were involved in a series of civil wars and fractured into multiple states. The Golden Horde which included Russia and the parts of Europe which the Mongols held onto never threatened Europe again, and had their hands full holding onto Russia.

Longer Answer:

A few things came to mind when I read this question.

  1. The legend of Prester John the mythical christian leader and his kingdom in the far east. The flawed European belief was supported by the biblical three wise men who attended Jesus upon his birth that had come from the east.

  2. The related but also flawed European hopes and Papal Messages soliciting Mongol assistance with Europe's Muslim problem from what many believed was that large Christian ally yet undiscovered in the East. Along with the terse Mongol responses calling for European submission.

  3. How the Mongols invaded Eastern Europe (Russia, Poland, Hungary) an devastated the numerically superior(*) European knights arrayed against them. Also mongol successes against German knights.

(*) The Mongols upon invading Europe divided their forces into four smaller groups to attack multiple countries simultaneously. This conceded a numeric superiority in such battles as

  • Battle of Mohi April 11th, 1241, where 140,000 Hungarians were routed by a significantly smaller number of Mongols. (20 - 70,000 mongols).
  • Battle of Legnica April 9th, 1241, where 8,000 combined European forces were wiped out almost entirely by a similarly sized Mongol army.

    1. How the Mongols abruptly stopped progressing further into central and western Europe after having so much success in eastern Europe.

    2. How the Mongols eventually invaded and devastated the Caliphate twenty years after the invasion of Europe. The Caliphate or Moslem Empire at the time in it's golden era, and more prosperous, wealthy and advanced scientifically/medically than dark ages Europe.

The answer to your question though is not very accurate.

Other than Egyptian Momaluks, only one thing ever stopped the advance of Mongol armies and that was news of the death of their Khan. Upon the news of the death of a Khan the generals in charge of a Mongol Army would turn around and march home to elect(Kurultai) the next Khan. This is what saved Europe from further Mongol advancement after their invasion and conquest of Russia, Poland and Hungary. Great Khan Ögedei's of the golden horde died on December 11, 1241. The Mongol armies which invaded the Caliphate and harassed the middle east for forty years(1260 and 1300), were from a different Horde(*); different Khan (Khan Hulagu) and decades removed from those which had invaded Europe.

(*) After Ghengis Khan died 1227, the Mongol empire broke up into four khanates, or hordes. Civil war followed. Thus the Golden Horde which invaded Europe was literally at war with the Ilkhanate Horde which later invaded the Caliphate. It's not possible their actions coming decades apart and under different rival khans could be considered coordinated. The two invasions rather represent independent actions.

Sources:

  • One thing that comes to my mind here is: Prester John is very unconnected in this answer to the rest of the text. You might want to spell out what else came into your mind? – LangLangC Jul 16 '18 at 22:27
  • @LangLanC I think that's true. The way I was initially taught the pertinent facts in Under Grad was the Mongol Invasion of Europe began with Prester John and the Pope seeking allies against the Muslims. The terse Mongol response to Papal overtures. That was followed by the abortive Mongol invasion of Europe and eventually the invasion of the Muslim Empire. I was taught the Mongols invaded the M.E. because Europe didn't have much to offer. In graduate school I learned they were distinct, unrelated events taken by two separate aggressive Mongol entities; which is why I included them. – JMS Jul 16 '18 at 22:35

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