paleo Ideofact

Friday, February 07, 2003
Speaking of Mongols...
...I found this story astonishing:
Early in the last millennium, the population of the world was, speaking very roughly, 1/20 as large as it is today. Therefore, the average man alive then has 20 descendants alive today in his direct male line. In contrast, with about 16 million direct descendants, this one mega-ancestor was something like 800,000 times more successful than the average.

The co-authors wrote, "Within the last 1,000 years in this part of the world, these conditions are met by Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227) and his male relatives. He established the largest land empire in history and often slaughtered the conquered populations, and he and his close male relatives had many children."
I was going to write more about the Mongols -- comparing their spread to that of other groups, considering the way archaeologists attempt to explain barbarian migrations and incursions, etc. etc., and then noting that such approaches (generally used with prehistoric societies) seem contradicted by the experience of the Mongols, who seemed to have been driven more by an exceptional man than by economic forces, but I think I'll leave Mongols for a while.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003
Mongols and assimilation 2
Xavier Basora of the excellent Buscaraons blog was kind enough to point out an idiotic mistake I made in the Mongol post below. I wrote:
For roughly 1,500 years, the man on a horse armored in chain mail or plate ruled the battlefield... which Xavier replies,
I disagree with your assessment that for 1500 years the armed horseman ruled the battlefield. He didn't; it was the grunt- aka the heavy infantryman that's dominated- at least in the west. Even the French had infantry. Even though the knights disdained them, it was the Gaston or the Jean that killed and was killed.
Considering that the stirrup wasn't even around (which made fighting on horseback possible) for roughly half of those 1500 years (something I've even written about before), I shouldn't have made the mistake -- I don't know what I was thinking. Thanks, Xavier, for pointing it out. I would say, though, that an armored man had distinct advantages over an unarmored man, or even men.

I raised the issue of soldiers because I suspect that the technological distance between Mongol armies (with their superb bowmen) and their opponents was negligible; the Mongols may even have been more advanced than their civilized rivals. The ability to inflict numerous casualties from a safe distance with archers before sending in your own armored troops was a huge advantage. It's also worth noting that the Mongol bow, which had a pull strength of about 160 pounds, wasn't something anyone off the street could fire -- it took a lot of strength to do so. English archers began training from the age of seven, and were required to practice every Sunday after Church. In 1595, when the English army abandoned the longbow in favor of the musket, the former was still a more dependable weapon, although the latter could be employed with some effect by those with little training.

But back to the Mongols -- the question isn't so much how individual Mongol soldiers (who were superb) conquer their opponents, but rather how did a disorganized nomadic society with a tribal and clan social structure suddenly become cohesive enough to put enough of those soldiers in one place at one time to conquer, rather than raid, their more populous, civilized neighbors. There were precedents...

Tuesday, February 04, 2003
Sorry for the long absence. I have to add some links, update others, do some other odds and ends, and but I especially wanted to thank Cinderella Bloggerfeller for his kind words the other day. To be honest, I've been so busy of late I didn't notice them until last night.

Mongols and assimilation
Some time back, reader R.G. Fulton asked a question about Mongols, to wit:
So you are interested in historical problems? I have never heard an adequate explanation of the rise of the Mongols. How could a people resist adaption to the culture of their Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Orthodox Christian neighbours, and yet acquire the social-technological strength to conquer massive territory from same and hold it for centuries? Application of current assimilation formulas are futile. Any ideas?
I suspect the answer is rather more complex than my first attempt at it, but here goes...

If there's one thing common to the Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Orthodox Christian neighbors of the Mongols, it's that they were "civilized" (I'm using the quotes not as scare quotes but because I mean civilized in a fairly limited form -- cultures whose populations have built cities), whereas the Mongols remained a nomadic people up to the time of the great conquest. I think the differing economics of the Mongols may have had something to do with the lack of assimilation. (And, it's worth noting, after beginning to rule some territories -- as opposed to just conquering them -- they became either sinized or Islamicized.)

The nomadic tribes of the great Eurasian steppe herded cattle and horses (I can't recall -- perhaps goats as well, but definitely not pigs since they don't travel well), carried all their possessions -- a felt tent, weapons, cooking utensils, etc. -- in an ox cart, and moved from place to place. They raided settled agriculturists when they had to for survival or for prestige goods they couldn't manufacture themselves, but generally had little to do with the ways of urban folks.

This, at least, provides some context for the question (although it's probably also worth noting that there was little enthusiasm on the part of the civilized to bring nomads within their borders). As to meat of it -- how, absent the advantages that civilizations provide (specialization of labor, history and literacy, greater aggregate wealth to pay for things like legions and great walls, etc. etc.), could a nomadic people acquire the social-technological strength to conquer such a massive territory -- well, there's two parts to that question, and I'll take them in turn.

Regarding the technological aspects, I'm fairly convinced that the Mongol horseman of the era (they eschewed infantry) was well-matched to just about any soldier. You begin with the Mongol horse, not especially fleet but incredibly well trained and agile, lower to the ground, sure-footed, intelligent, and disciplined. Add a rider with light armor, sword and spear, or no armor, javelin and bows and arrows (the Mongol bow had a pull strength of about 160 pounds and a range of 200 to 300 yards, about the equivalent of the English longbows that made such a difference at Agincourt -- although note that I've linked a contrarian view of the importance of longbows), and you have a fairly formidable fighting unit.

Light cavalry had triumphed over more technologically advanced foes before -- the Arab armies of the seventh century did fairly well against fortified Byzantine towns in Syria and Northern Africa, for example. And, like the Arabs, the Mongols initial successes were against fractured or declining polities that were unable to resist the first wave of conquests.

As the Mongol armies advanced, Ghengis Khan recruited (or conscripted on penalty of death) engineers and technicians who could build siege engines and more sophisticated weapons to add to his arsenal, although it's worth noting that the Mongol horseman remained the backbone of his armies.

I don't think you can underestimate the technological advantage conferred on the Mongols by their bow (although, for what it's worth, having the bow wasn't enough -- you needed men strong enough to pull the bow string and practiced enough to aim and hit targets at long range). For roughly 1,500 years, the man on a horse armored in chain mail or plate ruled the battlefield; as the finest flower of French knighthood learned at Agincourt, some well-trained archers standing well out of cavalry range could do considerable damage to your troops while suffering few losses of their own. The Mongol archers, incidentally, carried files to sharpen their arrows and dipped them in boiling brine before battle which hardened the points so that they could pierce armor.

On the flip side, what advantages did civilization give the armies that opposed the Mongols? You can build a wall around a city, but, excepting the Chinese, it's very difficult to build a wall around the fields which grow the food to support the city. Nevertheless, fortifications are important. You can also tax the peasants to equip, train and support a small, professional army, and conscript the peasants to act as cannon fodder in the event of a dire threat. But if your opposition can mobilize an equal or greater number of troops, with comparable weapons and high morale, and if they have good tactics as well, it's questionable to me the extent to which civilization confers an advantage.

But this begs the question, the real question, in my mind, of how it is that nomadic troops organized themselves into such a formidable force. And this is where, I think, the material interpretation falls short, and we have to look in part at culture, but more so at individual human beings...