William of Rubruck (ca. 1210-ca. 1270), a Flemish Franciscan monk who took part in the Seventh Crusade led by King Louis IX of France (ca. 1214-1270) from 1248 to 1254, was a protagonist of the first encounters between Christianity and the Far East. William learned of the Mongols when, in Palestine, he met the Dominican missionary Andrea of Longjumeau (13th cent.), one of the pontifical delegates tasked with recruiting Mongol power in the crusade. Called “the Golden Horde”, the Mongols constituted a fearsome military power, having conquered much of western Asia. Pursuant to papal strategy, Louis IX commissioned Rubruck and his fellow Franciscan Bartolomeo da Cremona (?-ca. 1255) to travel to the Golden Horde’s territory to attempt to promote Mongol conversion to Christianity and an alliance against the Muslims of the Near East.
Setting out from St. John of Acre in 1253, the two men reached Constantinople, crossed the Black Sea to Rostov-on-Don, and then proceeded on into Mongol territory along the Volga River. Local sovereigns, lacking the authority to make a decision as momentous as conversion, encouraged Rubruck to go to the court of Möngke Khan (1208-1259) in Karakorum. In their eastward journey the monks traversed the immense southern steppes of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan. It took approximately a year to arrive in Karakorum, the Mongol capital on the Orkhon River.
Only a few years after the voyages conducted and recounted by his Franciscan brother Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (1185-1252), Rubruck was the first European to visit and describe Karakorum. Having been granted admittance to the royal court, he described Mongol customs, rituals, language, writing, and the syncretism and plurality of religious practice among Nestorian Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, with whom he participated in debates in the presence of the Great Khan. He made precise observations about the military tactics of Mongol armies and many aspects of the daily lives of the nomadic peoples.
He remained in Karakorum only for a few months, setting out thereafter on a difficult return voyage to the Caspian Sea and then across Anatolia, finally reaching Acre in the summer of 1255. He recounted his travels and the history of the Mongols in a detailed volume composed for the King of France known as the Itinerarium. Although its circulation was quite limited, some extracts of this manuscript were carried over into the Opus maius by Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-ca. 1294), one of the most important medieval encyclopedias.