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"... an imaginative and dispassionate re-examination of the significance of the Mongol Conquest and its aftermath for Russia’s historical development." —Slavic Review
"On all counts Russia and the Golden Horde infuses the subject with fresh insights and interpretations." —History
"Combining rigorous analysis of the major scholarly findings with his own research, Halperin has produced both a much-needed synthesis and an important original work." —Library Journal
"Halperin’s new book combines sound scholarship and a flair for storytelling that should help publicize this all too unfamiliar tale in the West." —Virginia Quarterly Review
"It is a seminal work that will be repeatedly cited in the future... " —The Historian
"... ingenious and highly articulate... " —Russian Review
Indiana University Press
"...an imaginative and dispassionate re-examination of the significance of the Mongol Conquest and its aftermath for Russia's historical development."--Slavic Review
The Medieval Ethno-Religious Frontier
DURING THE MIDDLE AGES TWO UNIVERSALISTIC CREEDS, CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM, struggled for control of Europe, the Mediterranean world, and the Middle East. Christians and Muslims believed devoutly that all peoples would eventually convert to their own faith, the only true one, and that all false religions would be swept from the earth. In the meantime, theologians of both religions condemned infidels to eternal damnation. Religious doctrine proscribed all (nonviolent) contact, even the breaking of bread, as an abomination. Inevitably, the religious conflict was accompanied by mutual bad feelings, ranging from contempt and suspicion to outright hatred.
Enmity between the two faiths was based, of course, on more than theological differences. Though both Christians and Muslims spent much time fighting their coreligionists, sometimes over matters of doctrine, they also made war on one another. The forces of Islam swept out of the Arabian desert in the seventh century to conquer the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Spain and the Balkans and soon threatened all of Europe. Christian Europe retaliated, with varying success, and through the fifteenth century sought to stem and reverse the Muslim tide. In these wars the sack of towns, the massacre of populations, and all the inhumanities of medieval warfare exacerbated the acrimony between the two cultures and reinforced their prejudices.
Even hostilities, however, require a certain degree of intimacy. The efficient prosecution of the wars depended on accurate knowledge of the enemy's political organization, social habits, and economic resources, not to mention his military strategies and the nature of his lands and defenses. Ironically, the fighting necessitated occasional peaceful contacts, if only for negotiating surrenders, exchanging prisoners, and arranging truces. Such delicate interactions called for at least a modicum of understanding of each other's cultures to avoid potentially dangerous faux pas. For the same purposes interpreters and bilingual emissaries had to be found, or if necessary, trained. While Christians felt assured that in the long run all Muslims would be brought into the Christian ecumene, and Muslims were confident that someday all Christians would bow to Allah, the fact remained that in the short run both inhabited the same earth, often in close propinquity. Unable to exterminate one another, the two sides were forced to develop some sort of modus vivendi.
On the frontiers between Christendom and the world of Islam it was inevitable that a wide variety of suspiciously friendly contacts would arise. It was often expedient for each side, when warring with one group of infidels, to make alliances with another; politics has always made strange bedfellows. Convenience and economic need often dictated that Muslims and Christians trade with one another, and traveling merchants from both sides penetrated into the lands of the unbelievers. In the interest of profit, visitors and hosts alike learned to make concessions to each other's faiths, diets, and customs. The obvious benefits of cooperation demanded social and cultural accommodation that was difficult to reconcile with religious doctrine and religious prejudices.
Cordial personal relationships unavoidably arose between individual Christians and Muslims. Rulers and warriors grew to respect the political acumen, military prowess, and integrity of their adversaries. Merchants were impressed with the business sense or honesty of their counterparts of the other faith. Christian clergy and Muslim theologians studied the languages and scriptures of their opponents the better to refute their doctrines and win over their adherents. Research of this kind could lead to grudging admiration for the other side's philological skills or analytical abilities. In theory, of course, it was possible to recognize in an infidel good qualities that did not change his essential wickedness. (Thus a Christian could consider a Muslim a good man, but only compared to other Muslims.) However, in practice the personal bonds created by intercourse between the two faiths obscured the pristine simplicity of religious bigotry.
The ebb and flow of Christian-Muslim warfare led to the creation of conquest societies in which the two faiths lived side by side. Islam from its inception had had to deal with significant religious minorities, including Christians, in the Middle East. Some Christian states in the outlying areas of Europe—the Iberian peninsula, the Balkans, Eastern Europe—faced the same problem in reverse. The territories of the Umayyad Arab Empire and the early Ottoman Empire included large Christian populations, and at times the Byzantine Empire won back lands that had in the interim acquired sizable Muslim populations. Usually conquerors were greatly outnumbered by their subjects, as the French crusaders were in Palestine. When King James's Spanish Catholics took Valencia in the thirteenth century, the kingdom was eighty-five percent Moorish.
Massacre or expulsion of the entire taxpaying populace of a conquest state would have deprived its rulers of the economic wherewithal to continue to wage the holy war. Yet these multireligious societies faced practical problems of cooperation far beyond those of two cultures making selective contacts across a common border. As a result, though the avowed purpose of Christian conquest was the spread of Christianity, and the aim of the Jihad the spread of Islam, the rulers of conquest societies were often forced to tolerate or even adopt parts of the culture of their subjects. To lessen the strain of foreign domination, it was expedient to retain local political divisions, bureaucracies, and taxing systems. Conquest invariably depleted population, and many states turned to the infidels to recoup these demographic losses. King James, in the thirteenth century, invited Muslims to settle in Valencia, and Sultan Mehmed II ordered Orthodox Christians to relocate in Constantinople after he had made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Social intercourse between Muslims and Christians rose precipitously in precisely those conquest states created to eliminate the need for, or even the possibility of, such contact. In addition the ruling elite had some tendency to imitate the customs of the indigenous population. Catholics in Valencia took to the communal baths; the French in Jerusalem adopted the local diet; Umayyad rulers lived in Byzantine palaces decorated with very un-Muslim representational art. To be sure, religion and politics set very sharp limits on social assimilation. Political supremacy depended on maintaining social divisions, and religious prejudices precluded much cultural osmosis. Nevertheless, the very existence of conquest societies where Christians and Muslims dwelt together confounded the logical basis of religious warfare.
Muslim and Christian clergy attempted to some degree to adjust their theologies to the realities of life on the ethno-religious frontier. Both agreed that involuntary conversion lacked conviction, and that forcible proselytization violated religious ethics. (In practice the line dividing persuasion and coercion frequently became blurred, and religious enthusiasm often overrode such scruples.) Muslims were obliged to wage Jihad, the holy war, only when success was guaranteed. Therefore truces with Christian states, if not eternal peace treaties, could be justified. The theologians of both cultures conceded the unavoidable if unpalatable necessity of permitting the infidel to continue to exist both within and without one's borders. Christian theorists argued that a Muslim state might have natural legitimacy if it did not oppress Christians, did not inhibit missionary activities, did not impede pilgrimages, and did not occupy non-negotiable Christian zones such as Palestine and perhaps any territory once part of the Roman Empire. According to Islamic doctrine, Peoples of the Book, such as Christians, could live among Muslims if they refrained from insulting the Muslim faith, did not ring church bells, did not interfere with conversion to Islam, paid special taxes, and accepted inferior legal and political status. Of course, no self-respecting Muslim or Christian community under foreign rule could live up to the excessive and unrealistic demands of these convoluted theories consistently or for long. Similarly, they were of little practical value to the rulers of conquest states in dealing with their infidel subjects. Nonetheless, theologians had tried to accommodate the de facto coexistence in the frontier world.
Not even the flimsiest theological rationale could be found to justify borrowing institutions from unbelievers. Yet it occurred in every frontier conquest state in medieval times. The Arab and Ottoman conquerors may simply have lacked alternatives. Neither had previous experience with advanced political institutions. But the Catholic Spaniards in Valencia, for example, had their own Arago-Catalonian institutions but simply chose at first not to impose them on the preponderantly Islamic population. The sheer numbers of their potentially hostile subjects dictated that existing political structures be left in place, and they were. To do so was shrewd and pragmatic but this strategy could not possibly be reconciled with the religious foundations of the Christian cause. Muslim states, too, confronted, or rather avoided confronting, this same problem.
In some areas the conquerors were able to maintain distance from the subjugated culture by using as intermediaries interstitial ethnic groups that spoke both languages. In Spain, for example, Jews who spoke both Arabic and Spanish were used as officials, clerks, translators, and interpreters. In Crusader Jerusalem Eastern Christians (Semites such as Nestorians, of heretical or schismatic Christian sects) played an analogous role. Such groups helped minimize direct contact between the dominant elite and the bulk of the population. Thus they softened the disparity between the proclaimed goal of spreading the faith and the glaring fact that many Muslim states were Muslim, and Christian states Christian, in only the most technical of senses. The paradoxes posed by the very nature of the frontier states could be only slightly mitigated by such buffer systems, which after all merely substituted contacts with one unbelieving people for those with another. Wherever Muslim and Christian populations overlapped they could not remain unaware of the contradiction that campaigns undertaken in the name of conversion or extermination had led instead to cohabitation. The emptiness of theological attempts to rationalize this distasteful state of affairs was self-evident. Nor did the conquest societies of the frontier have the leisure and economic resources to subsidize such pursuits. Instead, to deal with the discrepancies between their prejudices and aims on the one hand and their experiences and accomplishments on the other, Muslims and Christians all along the frontier resorted to a different method—the ideology of silence.
The mixed Christian and Islamic societies of medieval times in effect resolved—by common consent or mass conspiracy or social convention—not to draw conclusions from the evidence around them. The realities of daily life simply were not allowed to intrude into the realms of religious ideology or to disturb religious prejudices. The sacred tenets that defined unbelievers as deadly foes were never questioned; nor were they allowed to interfere with peaceful social, political, and economic relations between the faiths. Alien institutions were borrowed or adopted but not acknowledged. Only the old names betray the origins of the Moorish tax structure used in Valencia or the Byzantine bureaucracies in the Umayyad and early Ottoman Empires. Sixteenth-century Ottoman histories pass over in silence the widespread use of Christian soldiers, farmers, artisans, and bureaucrats in the early Ottoman Empire. Thirteenth-century Church documents from Valencia record in glowing terms the creation of a Christian infrastructure. New orders of nuns and friars were established and monasteries, religious hospitals, and churches built. The archives discreetly omit to mention that only fifteen percent of the people worshipped the Christian god. The churches were paid for by people who never entered them.
In a Christian state, the less said about alliances with one group of Muslims against another, about the use of Muslim mercenaries, trade with Muslim merchants, importation of Muslim settlers, consultation of Muslim doctors, the better. In Islamic states, of course, friendly contacts with Christians caused comparable embarrassment. If one could not speak ill of the enemy, it was better not to speak of him at all. For both faiths, explicit acceptance of any aspect of the other's civilization was potentially very dangerous. Any suggestion that the other faith might have political or religious legitimacy undermined the exclusivist claims of one's own religion and hence the very foundation of one's own political and social order. Christians and Muslims alike went on with business as usual, kept quiet about it as much as possible, and waited for circumstances to improve.
Eventually they did. When the Abbasids had absorbed enough Persian bureaucratic expertise, they dispensed with the Byzantine apparatus used by the Umayyads. The later Ottoman Turks came to feel sufficiently confident of their bureaucratic skills and orthodox religious credentials to do away with Christian officials and institutions. When the Spaniards had accumulated enough resources, they expelled or converted the Moors. (There were so many Christians in the Middle East and the Balkans that no Arab, Persian, or Turkic empire could seriously hope to exterminate them, though rare extremists were willing to try.) No ideological adjustments needed to or could possibly accompany these efforts to bring reality into line with religious doctrine. To acknowledge that the gap had existed would be unseemly. Thus the true nature of the medieval ethno-religious frontier remained historically without intellectual articulation.
The delicate balance of hostility and peaceful cooperation characteristic of the frontier simply outlived its usefulness. Yet in its time it constituted a major historical phenomenon. The pervasive reluctance to draw unwanted conclusions from self-evident facts made it work. This could perhaps be dismissed as regrettable evidence of human hypocrisy. However, in certain times and places the ideology of silence made possible pluralistic societies far more tolerant than many modern states.
In the Kievan period that preceded the Mongol conquest, from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, relations between Russians and the Turkic peoples of the steppe resembled those of the ethno-religious frontier in all essential respects (though Russia's conversion to Christianity came only at the end of the tenth century). Islam was only one of a variety of faiths practiced by the nomads, but Russian ethnic and religious prejudice did not discriminate among unbelievers. Although Russian sources from the Kievan period excoriate the nomads in no uncertain terms, relations followed the pattern just described. The East Slavs and their Turkic neighbors traded with each other, borrowed institutions, and even intermarried.
With the Mongol conquest began that period of Russian history known as the "Tatar Yoke." The Mongol successor state to the vast empire of Chingis Khan, the Golden Horde, ruled over Russia from 1240 to 1480. Mongol conquest and exploitation provided the thoroughly antagonistic basis for relations between the two cultures. Contemporary Russian sources spare no effort in portraying and lamenting Mongol pillage, destruction, and oppression. Yet with prolonged contact, the Russians inevitably became intimately acquainted with Mongol administration, politics, society, and language. Commercial and social interaction arose, joint military campaigns were undertaken against East Europe and Persia, and institutional borrowing and intermarriage occurred.
The Mongols who arrived on the Pontic and Caspian steppe in the thirteenth century practiced various forms of shamanism, as did most of the indigenous Turkic population into which they became assimilated. The newly agglomerated Turko-Tatars converted to Islam during the second half of the century, and Islam, at the turn of the fourteenth century, became the state religion of the Golden Horde. With this the Russo-Tatar conquest society entered the mainstream of medieval Christian-Muslim frontier life.
Excerpted from Russia and the Golden Horde by Charles J. Halperin. Copyright © 1985 Charles J. Halperin. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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I The Medieval Ethno-Religious Frontier
II Kievan Rus’ and the Steppe
III The Mongol Empire and the Golden Horde
IV The Mongol Administration of Russia
V The Mongol Role in Russian Politics
VI The Russian "Theory" of Mongol Rule
VII Economic and Demographic Consequences
VIII The Mongols and the Muscovite Autocracy
IX The Mongols and Russian Society
X Cultural Life
Indiana University Press