Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (1185-1252) was one of the earliest followers of Saint Francis of Assisi (ca. 1182-1226). Having entered the Order of Friars Minor in 1215, he was sent by Francis to Saxony, where he preached in many German cities before establishing a Franciscan Order in Lotharingia and becoming a provincial minister there. He was summoned to Rome in 1243 by Pope Innocent IV (ca. 1195-1254), who two years later gave him the task of conveying two papal bulls to the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Güyük Khan (ca. 1206-1248), the nephew of Genghis Khan (1162-1227).
The aim of the diplomatic mission was to sound out the possibility of an alliance against the Turks for the “liberation” of the Holy Lands. The mission did not achieve its hoped-for success, but the voyage of Giovanni da Pian del Carpine was decisive in blazing a path for subsequent explorers and missionaries, from Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324) to Giovanni da Montecorvino (1247-1328). After his return, Giovanni described his travels in the Historia Mongalorum, furnishing highly detailed information about Mongol practices and customs. His voyage began in Krakow, from which he and two fellow Franciscans set out for Kiev and the Caspian Sea. Once arrived at the Lake of Aral, they proceeded to Lake Balkash and then on to Karakorum, where he encountered the Great Khan and his court. He returned to Kiev in the summer of 1247 after two adventurous years of travel through previously unknown lands of the East, over which the Great Khan’s Tartars held dominion up to the very threshold of Europe.