The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck

March 3, 2015

51MpS2dTK5L._AA160_In 1253, Friar William and a companion set off on a journey into the unknown, which lasted two years. With an introductory letter from the king of France, they set off for the court of the son of Genghiz Khan, with the intention of preaching to him and, if possible, converting him to Christianity. That task itself was not quite as insane as the journey, as Nestorian Christianity was quite well established in those regions.

I’ve sometimes alluded to the differences between exploration, travel and tourism in my posts on travel writing, and this book helped clarify those differences for me.

Nowadays, we have a mental map of the world in our heads, with varying levels of detail according to our geographical education; we know of routes from place to place, the various nations and peoples of the globe, where particularly dangerous areas are; there are no blank spaces on our maps. Back in the mid-thirteenth century, some routes were known, some places and some peoples too; there were no maps as we know them, so distances were unknown; there were no compasses, so directions themselves were unclear. News as we know it did not exist, so there was no way of knowing if one were heading into the equivalent of twenty-first century Syria, or Libya, say… so Friar William had to trust to God and his fellow humans, and allow himself to be led by people he hoped were honest and well-meaning. And he went.

He observes details, and records them carefully, for his report to the French king: places and peoples, routes and distances, customs, what people eat and drink and how they marry and bury their dead. He relies on vague previous knowledge and legend at times; he makes some judgements and offers some opinions which show his Christian bias or prejudices, but overall he is pretty impartial and even scientific in his approach to reporting.

He got there and back, although he left behind his companion who was too ill to travel back; he failed in his intended mission although he seems to have received a courteous enough reception from the lord of the world. We know almost nothing about William himself except a small detail that reveals thar he must have been quite a portly man.

I find myself in awe of such a traveller, lost in the mists of time, his achievements and how his account has survived over 750 years. It’s partly thanks to the Hakluyt Society, who are dedicated to publishing accounts of travel and exploration which might otherwise disappear from our knowledge; their books are beautifully produced and edited, usually with helpful maps, and copious introductions and footnotes.

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One Response to “The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck”


  1. […] I first became interested in the legend after I read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, a novel I rate a close second to The Name of the Rose, and which shows off Eco’s mediaevalism brilliantly. I then hunted out John Buchan‘s Prester John, and started reading whatever I came across on the legend, including early travellers across the Silk Road such as William of Rubruck. […]

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