The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 1/Chapter 54

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Concerning the Tartar Customs of War[edit]

All their harness of war is excellent and costly. Their arms are bows and arrows, sword and mace; but above all the bow, for they are capital archers, indeed the best that are known. On their backs they wear armour of cuirbouly, prepared from buffalo and other hides, which is very strong.[1] They are excellent soldiers, and passing valiant in battle. They are also more capable of hardships than other nations; for many a time, if need be, they will go for a month without any supply of food, living only on the milk of their mares and on such game as their bows may win them. Their horses also will subsist entirely on the grass of the plains, so that there is no need to carry store of barley or straw or oats; and they are very docile to their riders. These, in case of need, will abide on horseback the livelong night, armed at all points, while the horse will be continually grazing.

Of all troops in the world these are they which endure the greatest hardship and fatigue, and which cost the least; and they are the best of all for making wide conquests of country. And this you will perceive from what you have heard and shall hear in this book; and (as a fact) there can be no manner of doubt that now they are the masters of the biggest half of the world. Their troops are admirably ordered in the manner that I shall now relate.

You see, when a Tartar prince goes forth to war, he takes with him, say, 100,000 horse. Well, he appoints an officer to every ten men, one to every hundred, one to every thousand, and one to every ten thousand, so that his own orders have to be given to ten persons only, and each of these ten persons has to pass the orders only to other ten, and so on; no one having to give orders to more than ten. And every one in turn is responsible only to the officer immediately over him; and the discipline and order that comes of this method is marvellous, for they are a people very obedient to their chiefs. Further, they call the corps of 100,000 men a Tuc; that of 10,000 they call a Toman; the thousand they call...; the hundred Guz; the ten....[2] And when the army is on the march they have always 200 horsemen, very well mounted, who are sent a distance of two marches in advance to reconnoitre, and these always keep ahead. They have a similar party detached in the rear, and on either flank, so that there is a good look-out kept on all sides against a surprise. When they are going on a distant expedition they take no gear with them except two leather bottles for milk; a little earthenware pot to cook their meat in, and a little tent to shelter them from rain.[3] And in case of great urgency they will ride ten days on end without lighting a fire or taking a meal. On such an occasion they will sustain themselves on the blood of their horses, opening a vein and letting the blood jet into their mouths, drinking till they have had enough, and then staunching it.[4]

They also have milk dried into a kind of paste to carry with them; and when they need food they put this in water, and beat it up till it dissolves, and then drink it. [It is prepared in this way; they boil the milk, and when the rich part floats on the top they skim it into another vessel, and of that they make butter; for the milk will not become solid till this is removed. Then they put the milk in the sun to dry. And when they go on an expedition, every man takes some ten pounds of this dried milk with him. And of a morning he will take a half pound of it and put it in his leather bottle, with as much water as he pleases. So, as he rides along, the milk-paste and the water in the bottle get well churned together into a kind of pap, and that makes his dinner.[5]]

When they come to an engagement with the enemy, they will gain the victory in this fashion. [They never let themselves get into a regular medley, but keep perpetually riding round and shooting into the enemy. And] as they do not count it any shame to run away in battle, they will [sometimes pretend to] do so, and in running away they turn in the saddle and shoot hard and strong at the foe, and in this way make great havoc. Their horses are trained so perfectly that they will double hither and thither, just like a dog, in a way that is quite astonishing. Thus they fight to as good purpose in running away as if they stood and faced the enemy, because of the vast volleys of arrows that they shoot in this way, turning round upon their pursuers, who are fancying that they have won the battle. But when the Tartars see that they have killed and wounded a good many horses and men, they wheel round bodily, and return to the charge in perfect order and with loud cries; and in a very short time the enemy are routed. In truth they are stout and valiant soldiers, and inured to war. And you perceive that it is just when the enemy sees them run, and imagines that he has gained the battle, that he has in reality lost it; for the Tartars wheel round in a moment when they judge the right time has come. And after this fashion they have won many a fight.[6]

All this that I have been telling you is true of the manners and customs of the genuine Tartars. But I must add also that in these days they are greatly degenerated; for those who are settled in Cathay have taken up the practices of the Idolaters of the country, and have abandoned their own institutions; whilst those who have settled in the Levant have adopted the customs of the Saracens.[7]










  1. 1.0 1.1 The bow was the characteristic weapon of the Tartars, insomuch that the Armenian historians often call them "The Archers." (St. Martin, II. 133.) "CUIRBOULY, leather softened by boiling, in which it took any form or impression required, and then hardened." (Wright's Dict.) The English adventurer among the Tartars, whose account of them is given by Archbishop Ivo of Narbonne, in Matthew Paris (sub. 1243), says: "De coriis bullitis sibi arma levia quidem, sed tamen impenetrabilia coaptarunt." This armour is particularly described by Plano Carpini (p. 685). See the tail-piece to Book IV.

    [Mr. E. H. Parker (China Review, XXIV. iv. p. 205) remarks that "the first coats of mail were made in China in 1288: perhaps the idea was obtained from the Malays or Arabs."--H. C.]

  2. 2.0 2.1 M. Pauthier has judiciously pointed out the omissions that have occurred here, perhaps owing to Rusticiano's not properly catching the foreign terms applied to the various grades. In the G. Text the passage runs: "Et sachies que les cent mille est apelle un Tut (read tuc) et les dix mille un Toman, et les por milier et por centenier et por desme." In Pauthier's (uncorrected) text one of the missing words is supplied: "Et appellent les C.M. un Tuc; et les X.M. un Toman; et un millier Guz por centenier et por disenier." The blanks he supplies thus from Abulghazi: "Et un millier: [un Miny]; Guz, por centenier et [Un] por disenier." The words supplied are Turki, but so is the Guz, which appears already in Pauthier's text, whilst Toman and Tuc are common to Turki and Mongol. The latter word, Tuk or Tugh, is the horse-tail or yak-tail standard which among so many Asiatic nations has marked the supreme military command. It occurs as Taka in ancient Persian, and Cosmas Indicopleustes speaks of it as Tupha. The Nine Orloks or Marshals under Chinghiz were entitled to the Tuk, and theirs is probably the class of command here indicated as of 100,000, though the figure must not be strictly taken. Timur ordains that every Amir who should conquer a kingdom or command in a victory should receive a title of honour, the Tugh and the Nakkara. (Infra, Bk. II. ch. iv. note 3.) Baber on several occasions speaks of conferring the Tugh upon his generals for distinguished service. One of the military titles at Bokhara is still Tokhsabai, a corruption of Tugh-Sahibi, (Master of the Tugh).

    We find the whole gradation except the Tuc in a rescript of Janibeg, Khan of Sarai, in favour of Venetian merchants dated February 1347. It begins in the Venetian version: "La parola de Zanibeck allo puovolo di Mogoli, alli Baroni di Thomeni, delli miera, delli centenera, delle dexiene." (Erdmann, 576; D'Avezac, 577-578; Remusat, Langues Tartares, 303; Pallas, Samml. I. 283; Schmidt, 379, 381; Baber, 260, etc.; Vambery, 374; Timour Inst. pp. 283 and 292-293; Bibl. de l'Ec. des Chartes, tom. lv. p. 585.)

    The decimal division of the army was already made by Chinghiz at an early period of his career, and was probably much older than his time. In fact we find the Myriarch and Chiliarch already in the Persian armies of Darius Hystaspes. From the Tartars the system passed into nearly all the Musulman States of Asia, and the titles Min-bashi or Bimbashi, Yuzbashi, Onbashi, still subsist not only in Turkestan, but also in Turkey and Persia. The term Tman or Tma was, according to Herberstein, still used in Russia in his day for 10,000. (Ramus. II. 159.)

    [The King of An-nam, Dinh Tien-hoang (A.D. 968) had an army of 1,000,000 men forming 10 corps of 10 legions; each legion forming 10 cohorts of 10 centuries; each century forming 10 squads of 10 men.--H. C.]

  3. 3.0 3.1 Ramusio's edition says that what with horses and mares there will be an average of eighteen beasts (?) to every man.
  4. 4.0 4.1 See the Oriental account quoted below in Note 6.

    So Dionysius, combining this practice with that next described, relates of the Massagetae that they have no delicious bread nor native wine:

                "But with horse's blood
       And white milk mingled set their banquets forth."
           (Orbis Desc. 743-744.)

    And Sidonius:

                "Solitosque cruentum
       Lac potare Getas, et pocula tingere venis."
           (Parag. ad Avitum.)

    ["The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man he overthrows in battle." (Herodotus, Rawlinson, Bk. IV. ch. 64, p. 54.)--H. C.] "When in lack of food, they bleed a horse and suck the vein. If they need something more solid, they put a sheep's pudding full of blood under the saddle; this in time gets coagulated and cooked by the heat, and then they devour it." (Georg. Pachymeres, V. 4.) The last is a well-known story, but is strenuously denied and ridiculed by Bergmann. (Streifereien, etc. I. 15.) Joinville tells the same story. Hans Schiltberger asserts it very distinctly: "Ich hon och gesehen wann sie in reiss ylten, das sie ein fleisch nemen, und es dunn schinden und legents unter den sattel, und riten doruff; und essents wann sie hungert" (ch. 35). Botero had "heard from a trustworthy source that a Tartar of Perekop, travelling on the steppes, lived for some days on the blood of his horse, and then, not daring to bleed it more, cut off and ate its ears!" (Relazione Univers. p. 93.) The Turkmans speak of such practices, but Conolly says he came to regard them as hyperbolical talk (I. 45).

    [Abul-Ghazi Khan, in his History of Mongols, describing a raid of Russian (Ourous) Cossacks, who were hemmed in by the Uzbeks, says: "The Russians had in continued fighting exhausted all their water. They began to drink blood; the fifth day they had not even blood remaining to drink." (Transl. by Baron Des Maisons, St. Petersburg, II. 295.)]

  5. 5.0 5.1 Rubruquis thus describes this preparation, which is called Kurut: "The milk that remains after the butter has been made, they allow to get as sour as sour can be, and then boil it. In boiling, it curdles, and that curd they dry in the sun; and in this way it becomes as hard as iron-slag. And so it is stored in bags against the winter. In the winter time, when they have no milk, they put that sour curd, which they call Griut, into a skin, and pour warm water on it, and they shake it violently till the curd dissolves in the water, to which it gives an acid flavour; that water they drink in place of milk. But above all things they eschew drinking plain water." From Pallas's account of the modern practice, which is substantially the same, these cakes are also made from the leavings of distillation in making milk-arrack. The Kurut is frequently made of ewe-milk. Wood speaks of it as an indispensable article in the food of the people of Badakhshan, and under the same name it is a staple food of the Afghans. (Rubr. 229; Samml. I. 136; Dahl, u.s.; Wood, 311.)

    [It is the ch'ura of the Tibetans. "In the Kokonor country and Tibet, this krut or chura is put in tea to soften, and then eaten either alone or mixed with parched barley meal (tsamba)." (Rockhill, Rubruck, p. 68, note.)--H. C.]

  6. 6.0 6.1 Compare with Marco's account the report of the Mongols, which was brought by the spies of Mahomed, Sultan of Khwarizm, when invasion was first menaced by Chinghiz: "The army of Chinghiz is countless, as a swarm of ants or locusts. Their warriors are matchless in lion-like valour, in obedience, and endurance. They take no rest, and flight or retreat is unknown to them. On their expeditions they are accompanied by oxen, sheep, camels, and horses, and sweet or sour milk suffices them for food. Their horses scratch the earth with their hoofs and feed on the roots and grasses they dig up, so that they need neither straw nor oats. They themselves reck nothing of the clean or the unclean in food, and eat the flesh of all animals, even of dogs, swine, and bears. They will open a horse's vein, draw blood, and drink it.... In victory they leave neither small nor great alive; they cut up women great with child and cleave the fruit of the womb. If they come to a great river, as they know nothing of boats, they sew skins together, stitch up all their goods therein, tie the bundle to their horses' tails, mount with a hard grip of the mane, and so swim over." This passage is an absolute abridgment of many chapters of Carpini. Still more terse was the sketch of Mongol proceedings drawn by a fugitive from Bokhara after Chinghiz's devastations there. It was set forth in one unconscious hexameter:

       "Amdand u khandand u sokhtand u kushtand u burdand u raftand!"
       "They came and they sapped, they fired and they slew, trussed up their loot and were gone!"

    Juwaini, the historian, after telling the story, adds: "The cream and essence of whatever is written in this volume might be represented in these few words."

    A Musulman author quoted by Hammer, Najmuddin of Rei, gives an awful picture of the Tartar devastations, "Such as had never been heard of, whether in the lands of unbelief or of Islam, and can only be likened to those which the Prophet announced as signs of the Last Day, when he said: 'The Hour of Judgment shall not come until ye shall have fought with the Turks, men small of eye and ruddy of countenance, whose noses are flat, and their faces like hide-covered shields. Those shall be Days of Horror!' 'And what meanest thou by horror?' said the Companions; and he replied, 'SLAUGHTER! SLAUGHTER!' This beheld the Prophet in vision 600 years ago. And could there well be worse slaughter than there was in Rei, where I, wretch that I am, was born and bred, and where the whole population of five hundred thousand souls was either butchered or dragged into slavery?"

    Marco habitually suppresses or ignores the frightful brutalities of the Tartars, but these were somewhat less, no doubt, in Kublai's time.

    The Hindustani poet Amir Khosru gives a picture of the Mongols more forcible than elegant, which Elliot has translated (III. 528).

    This is Hayton's account of the Parthian tactics of the Tartars: "They will run away, but always keeping their companies together; and it is very dangerous to give them chase, for as they flee they shoot back over their heads, and do great execution among their pursuers. They keep very close rank, so that you would not guess them for half their real strength." Carpini speaks to the same effect. Baber, himself of Mongol descent, but heartily hating his kindred, gives this account of their military usage in his day: "Such is the uniform practice of these wretches the Moghuls; if they defeat the enemy they instantly seize the booty; if they are defeated, they plunder and dismount their own allies, and, betide what may, carry off the spoil." (Erdmann, 364, 383, 620; Gold. Horde, 77, 80; Elliot, II. 388; Hayton in Ram. ch. xlviii.; Baber, 93; Carpini, p. 694.)

  7. 7.0 7.1 "The Scythians" (i.e. in the absurd Byzantine pedantry, Tartars), says Nicephorus Gregoras, "from converse with the Assyrians, Persians, and Chaldaeans, in time acquired their manners and adopted their religion, casting off their ancestral atheism.... And to such a degree were they changed, that though in former days they had been wont to cover the head with nothing better than a loose felt cap, and for other clothing had thought themselves well off with the skins of wild beasts or ill-dressed leather, and had for weapons only clubs and slings, or spears, arrows, and bows extemporised from the oaks and other trees of their mountains and forests, now, forsooth, they will have no meaner clothing than brocades of silk and gold! And their luxury and delicate living came to such a pitch that they stood far as the poles asunder from their original habits" (II. v. 6).