*Genghis Khan*, by Frank McLynn

by on October 25, 2015 at 12:55 am in Books, Economics, History, Political Science | Permalink

The subtitle is The Man Who Conquered the World, and this is one of the very best non-fiction books of the year, quite possibly the best.  Virtually every page is fascinating and should be read carefully.  It makes intelligible a period of history which is so often a blur to the unfamiliar Western reader,and rather than just throwing a bunch of dates and facts at you it tries to make them intelligible in terms of underlying mechanisms.  Here is one summary bit:

The harshness of the Mongolian habitat and the complexities of nomadic pastoralism help to explain the many potentialities of Mongol society eventually actualised by Genghis Khan.  Care of massive and variegated herds and flocks produced a number of consequences: adaptability and ingenuity of response and initiative; mobility and the capacity for rapid mobilisation; low levels of wealth and of economic inequality; almost total absence of a division of labour; political instability.  Migration meant constant alertness and readiness to fight, since wealth in livestock is almost by definition highly vulnerable to raiding, reiving and rustling. Managing large animals was inherently more strenuous and dangerous than tending crops, so the very nature of pastoral life produced a hardier breed than would be generated by the peasantry.  Migration in peacetime also produced martial qualities via the surplus energy available for fighting, since in a pacific context warriors could leave the minutae of herding and droving to women and children.  when the fighting came, it was less destructive than for sedentary societies that had to defend fields of crops, cities, temples and other fixed points.

There were other military ‘spin-offs’ from pastoralism.  Moving huge herds of animals generated logistical skills and the capacity to navigate through uncertain terrain, coordinating with far-flung comrades while doing so.

Strongly recommended, you can buy the book here.

1 Nikhil Sonnad October 25, 2015 at 1:20 am

How does this compare to Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World? http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/93426.Genghis_Khan_and_the_Making_of_the_Modern_World

2 Edgar October 26, 2015 at 9:32 am

Weatherford is better according to my Mongolian history expert as are any number of other authors in this crowded field. She slams McLynn on three counts:

(1) he pays little attention to what David Morgan has called ‘the cultural turn’ in Mongol scholarship of the last twenty years (he reported on this in: Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change). Even though McLynn has the begetter of the cultural turn, Thomas Allsen, in his extensive bibliography, this area, that is spoken of as a revolution in how we look at Mongols, doesn’t figure in his assessment of them in conclusion, and his assessment is severely afflicted by its absence.

(2) he comes to opinions about things and presents them as if they are matters of fact. She uses an example that did the circuit of the web, one he cites in interviews: that the Taoist master Qiu Chuji was a fraudster and Temujin, late in life, his gullible victim. She says “That Qiu Chuji was a fraud is an opinion (you can find an alternate opinion in Wang Ping’s 2013 movie, An End to Killing or Kingdom of Conquerors – decent movie and even educational, to offset McLynn). The guy is known for his frankness in the face of Genghis Khan, for dropping the bad news that he doesn’t have or know of a magic elixir, and contrary to rumour he is not 300 years old. Let’s not hear about gullible Mongols, either, because it’s a few of Temujin’s more educated Chinese advisers who recommended Qiu Chuji to him. That leads me to the observation that this Taoist adept behaved and believed no differently to others, and to call him a big fraud is to tarnish the lot of them, isn’t it? I think we need to accept more the strangenesses of medieval religions. Addendum: on Mongol religion he says, ‘shamanism was a classic instance of the mystifying and obfuscating role of religion’, which is rather judgemental too.”

(3) On the personality of Genghis, McLynn is very negative.

3 TGGP October 25, 2015 at 2:49 am

Funny, since I’d earlier heard of pastoralism as being inherently associated with inequality. Considering how many wives and descendants Khan had (and the association of pastoralism with polygamy elsewhere), I remain skeptical of McLynn’s characterization.

4 TGGP October 25, 2015 at 2:50 am

Forget to add a link on pastoralism & inequality.

5 Kris October 25, 2015 at 6:50 am

Me too. The theory of Indo-European origins in the Eurasian steppes (as pastoral nomads) also posits that they were intensely patriarchal societies. I don’t see how a pastoral society enables one to compete with, and overcome, vested interests, any easier than in an agricultural society. Hunter gatherers have that characteristic, and so does a truly free market society.

6 E. Harding October 25, 2015 at 11:54 am

Yeah, where did Islam come from?

7 JonFraz October 27, 2015 at 2:31 pm

Trading towns on the edge of a desert. Islam was initially a religion of middleman merchants

8 Ray Lopez October 25, 2015 at 3:21 am

The ‘pastoral lifestyle makes for strong warrior theme’ (which sounds like an ex post rationalization) has been said before about the Mongols, namely by John Keegan I believe, who points out the ability to slaughter animals makes for hearty, non-squeamish men (I’ll point out parenthetically that I have learned to slit the throats of chickens with relish, constantly keeping my knife well-honed and–this is key–putting the bird at ease before dispatching it with quick, clean strokes).

More important than culture and logistics is military hardware, as Keegan points out, the feather light arrow shot from a composite bow enabled the mounted Mongols to stay just out of reach of their enemies, typically on a level plain, though the Mongols did good work in dispatching the infamous Assassins sect in mountainous territory in Persia. However, when the Mongols had to fight the Poles in heavily forested lands in Poland, they did less well, I believe they even lost (or withdrew).

Another example of military hardware dispatching your enemies is firearms and armored vested Spanish conquistadors in Central America (aided by allies and by disease), Jan Huss and the Hussite war wagon, a form of early tank that kept Hussies in command longer than expected during the Reformation, and, last but not least, the Constantinople walls of the Byzantine empire, together with a chain across the Bosporus and “Greek Fire” (a sort of napalm, that could not be extinguished with water), that kept the enemies of the Greeks at bay for a couple of centuries until siege warfare was perfected.

A lot of people claim ‘culture’ as an answer but it’s often just a convenient shortcut for hand waving.

Another example of a superior military tactic beating your enemy is Epaminondas unbalanced line formation that defeated the Spartians (Sparta! not. Even the Athenians bested the Sparta marines, though in general, like the Romans, they hardly ever lost) at the Battle of Leuctra, details found in Wikipedia.

Speaking as an amateur armchair war historian.

9 Chuck October 25, 2015 at 6:32 am

They beat the Poles at Legnica and raided several more times with mixed success.

10 Ray Lopez October 25, 2015 at 11:15 am

@Chuck – Thanks for that correction, but it seems the Mongol victory at Legnica was a Pyrrhic Victory as the Mongols never incorporated the Poles into their sphere of influence, unlike they did the Russians.

Bonus trivia: the one-time Polish model and 1%-er Martha Stewart supposedly has Asian ancestry, and you can see she does have some Asiatic features.

11 Cliff October 25, 2015 at 11:58 pm

Europe was mostly avoided because it was so impoverished. I believe by the time they decided to go to Europe Genghis was already gone and the Empire had been split? Also I recall they were defeated by an army including 40,000 slaves they had sold some time earlier.

12 JonFraz October 27, 2015 at 2:38 pm

The Mongols got word from back home that he Khan (Genghis’ son, I forget his name) had died and they were recalled to choose a new khan, so they abandoned the European campaign. By the time the business was settled, the empire had been divided among Genghis’ four grandsons, and the western Khan (again, I’m not sure the guy’s name) had no interest in campaigning as long as could sit fat, dumb and happy in his palatial tents with his harem and squeeze the Russians and assorted others for tribute.
It’s also worth nothing that in the Middle East the Mongols were dealt a stinging defeat in the Syrian desert which they less acclimatized or experienced with, thus halting their westward advance in that region. They also had little luck with invading India or Vietnam, and they were very famously defeated by “kamikaze” storms when they tried to conquer Japan.

13 Thiago Ribeiro October 25, 2015 at 6:34 am

“John Keegan I believe, who points out the ability to slaughter animals makes for hearty, non-squeamish men.”
My mom used to kill chickens to make cabidela for my father and she wasn’t a Mongol warrior. I think this dish being so popular in Brazil, a country with no history of wars of aggression and barely a standing army for most of its history disproves the link between slaughtering animals and being ready for war. If it is no true for the fifth biggest population of the world…

14 Peter Akuleyev October 25, 2015 at 7:32 am

The Chinese also slaughtered animals regularly, including pigs. I have witnessed the manual slaughter of cows, sheep and pigs, and pigs are by far the worst. They actually scream n an almost human way. Killing pigs should make one far more “hearty and non-squeamish” than killing cattle.

15 Thiago Ribeiro October 25, 2015 at 7:58 am

Killing people should be an even better preparation, yet Brazilian anthropophagi (German explorer Hans Staden lived among them and learned they were proud men-eaters who likened themselves to jaguars) were no match in ferocity for the various European invader. I think all cultural explanations for the Mongols conquests are post factum rationalizations.

16 Ray Lopez October 25, 2015 at 11:01 am

@PA – yes, I hear the (non) silence of the pigs all the time here in the Philippines, especially around fiesta time, which is nearly every month. I’ve not seen pigs be killed, but I suspect they use exsanguination (slitting of an artery) only, like in chickens, which is cheap and easy, and less capital intensive than using electric stun guns or shotgun stun guns then exsanguination as in the USA.

Bonus trivia: it’s a fact that a humane society for fowl in the UK has expressly said that chopping the head off a chicken is NOT humane and *is* cruel, because (I kid you not) their scientists claim that the chicken head is alive up to ten seconds after being severed from the body, and can feel pain (though it can’t scream). Kind of like the sci-fi slogan “I have no mouth but I must scream” (or was that Steven King? [no, it was this guy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Have_No_Mouth,_and_I_Must_Scream ]). They recommend electric stunning followed by exsanguination, but quickly, before the chicken wakes up from the stunning. Needless to say lethal injection is out of the question…

17 JonFraz October 27, 2015 at 2:38 pm

Pretty much all farming people butcher animals.

18 Ray Lopez October 25, 2015 at 10:52 am

Hola TR–but, if your mom was a fearsome chicken slaughterer, surely you must consider her at least an Amazonian, no? She’s tougher than most men.

19 Thiago Ribeiro October 25, 2015 at 11:48 am

I think it was standard for women from her time and place. Except my grandmother, who became a kind of conscientious objector and a kind of social embarrassment– vegetarian and spiritist– and gave up killing chicken, I never heard of a woman from her region not killing chicken. I guess the secret to wring the chicken’s head must be steady hands and fast movements.

20 carlolspln October 25, 2015 at 6:34 am

“(I’ll point out parenthetically that I have learned to slit the throats of chickens with relish, constantly keeping my knife well-honed and–this is key–putting the bird at ease before dispatching it with quick, clean strokes)” [snip]

You really ARE the Frank Perdue of Luzon! 😉

21 Affe October 25, 2015 at 5:51 pm

It takes a tough man to make a tender teenager.

22 Nathan W October 25, 2015 at 7:10 am

I was led to believe that one of their biggest military advantages was surprise.

They developed the habit of cutting into horses while riding to drink blood, therefore not needing to take as much supplies on their way to battle, allowing them to launch an attack before even the fastest of scouts could possible have sounded the alarm. Most battles were won before they even started, facing next to no organized opposition.

23 chuck martel October 25, 2015 at 8:13 am

You’re pretty gullible.

24 Nathan W October 25, 2015 at 9:32 am

About what?

25 dearieme October 25, 2015 at 10:20 am

“one of their biggest military advantages was surprise.” Nobody expects the Mongol Expedition.

26 Nathan W October 25, 2015 at 12:15 pm

Maybe you hear vague rumours about attacks against places you’ve barely ever heard of (recall, information and geographical knowledge was very poor then). You start to wonder if you might be attacked this year or next and start making arrangements with nearby nobles for mutual defense in the case of attacks.

Then, you hear that they are five days ride away (according to what you perceive as normal speeds for a large army with supply trains and all) and coming in your direction, so frantically start preparations, probably already too late but at least you can try.

And then attack comes pre-dawn the next day. Basic defensive structures outside the city not yet built, reinforcements three days march distant, hopelessly outnumbered and unprepared.

Surprise doesn’t need to imply that you are completely ignorant, all that is necessary is that you’re not ready for battle when the attack arrives.

27 sort_of_knowledgeable October 25, 2015 at 3:04 pm

I’ve heard they drink horse blood as well, but I would assume that it is from spare horses they brought with them while dismounted. Cutting into a horse and drinking its blood while riding it seems needlessly complicated, and it seems to be a bad practice to weaken a horse by bleeding a horse before battle.

28 sort_of_knowledgeable October 25, 2015 at 3:44 pm

I imagine the mongols defeated enemies who weren’t significantly mobilized, but they won many battles against significantly mobilized enemies. Look up mongol invasion and you can see many battles with significant opposition. A favorite tactic was to feign withdraws to lure the enemy to overextend itself and then destroying the advance parts.

29 Sanjay October 25, 2015 at 9:59 am

Yeah, I was going to chime it with Keegan’s brilliant “History of Warfae” from maybe 20 years ago where he basically ascribes Mongol military success to pastoralism, even liking their tactics to large-scale herding and butchering of animals.

30 T. Shaw October 25, 2015 at 10:46 am

I read from others sources that a feature of Mongol society was the periodic massive mounted hunt wherein thousands of horsemen in unison hunted down almost every game animal in an area. That practice translated into light cavalry tactics and warfare. In his day the Mongol was the (Greek centaur myth comes to mind) finest horseman and archer. Genghis Khan was the leader to unify and mass them and wield them as effectively in conquest as others such as Alexander of Macedon.

31 JWatts October 25, 2015 at 4:43 pm

“I read from others sources that a feature of Mongol society was the periodic massive mounted hunt wherein thousands of horsemen in unison hunted down almost every game animal in an area.”

Are you sure you read that?


32 s October 25, 2015 at 3:48 am

Wasn’t there a lot of pastoralists at the time? What made the Mongols different? Was it Genghis or technology as Ray asserts?

33 Ray Lopez October 25, 2015 at 5:18 am

I say technology. Look at the Mitanni ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitanni) and Hittites. While they had a monopoly on iron production,they enjoyed their golden (or is it iron?) age, for about 200 years each, which coincidentally is an “iron law” for how long most civilizations last (1776 + 200 = 1976, about the time productivity slowed down). But, after the secret of smelting iron leaked out, the Mitanni and Hittites lost influence.

Guns, Germs and steel (or iron, which is not quite the same thing but close enough) are the hard lessons of history. Soft factors like “culture” are ex post fudge factors.

Another analogy: a grandmaster will always beat an inferior player, like a mere expert or ordinary master, *unless* there is a tactical shot that the grandmaster overlooks. Think of the technical shot as “new technology”. In this way an “inferior” civilization like the Vandals can overtake a “superior” civilization like the Romans. Hence the loss by the Romans on September 4, A.D. 476 to the barbarian named Odoacer (a Germanic leader in the Roman army), who deposed the last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, opened the door to the conquest of the western Roman empire. The Eastern Romans, who had superior fortifications technology, deflected all barbarians at their gates, even the mighty Huns. You could say the Eastern Roman Empire had “superior culture” to the Western Roman Empire, and thus lasted longer, but this is just an ex post shorthand hand waving argument.

34 Chris October 27, 2015 at 1:28 pm

Ray, the Western Roman Empire was already in shambles by the time Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus. The western empire had already lost Gaul, Spain, and North Africa to the barbarians and had abandoned Britain to its own fate. 476 was the culmination of events, it did not “open the door”.

The eastern Romans did not have any additional technological (or cultural) advantage in fortifications or anything else over the western Romans. It is true Constantinople was situated ideally and its walls were crucial for preserving the city from attack, but the west had access to the exact same technology. The real difference between the two was probably the disparity in their economies, the eastern empire was much richer and populated and the larger tax base was an advantage.

The fall of the western Roman empire has its origins to the immense barbarian invasions of the late fourth and early fifth centuries that overwhelmed the Roman ability of the time to fight them all. Maybe if the Rhine River hadn’t froze in 406 AD the western empire might have survived for centuries more, or if the Romans had won the Battle of Adrianople even earlier. The most important lesson? Defend your borders.

35 JonFraz October 27, 2015 at 2:45 pm

What iron law? China has had its ups and downs, but it’s been a going concern for 3500 years. Japan has been an ongoing nation for most of the present era. Europe has been up and running for about 1200 years (I’m dating it from the age of Charlemagne when Europe had definitely recovered from the fall of Roman and the demographic collapse of the 6th century). The Ottoman Empire was the biggest threat to Europe (and assorted other Middle Eastern lands) from the 14th century (conquest of Bulgaria and Serbia) until the late 17th– and was at its height in the 1500s, the 200 year mark when it should have been on the way out.

36 Chris October 27, 2015 at 1:15 pm

There were several waves of nomadic raiders invading the civilized world and conquering a lot. Tamerlane did it after the Mongols, and the Seljuks, Arabs, and Huns did it before them. The frequency is relatively rare, but repetitive. It depends on leadership of the barbarians, institutional strength of the civilized empires at the time, and the ability of the steppes to support a large enough military force. The danger of nomadic peoples to the civilized peoples was a constant throughout much of human history – it wasn’t until (European) technology accelerated after the 1500s that civilized societies clearly outraced the power of the steppes.

There was no appreciable increase in military technology among the Mongols at the time of Genghis and before him. The Mongol success has everything to do with Genghis’ leadership and his military genius, and the organization he passed down to his heirs after his death.

37 So Much For Subtlety October 25, 2015 at 4:01 am

I am very dubious about the enormous number of apologetic works on the Mongols that have come out lately. It is like genocide doesn’t matter if the victims as Asians.

Personally I think it does.

Managing large animals was inherently more strenuous and dangerous than tending crops, so the very nature of pastoral life produced a hardier breed than would be generated by the peasantry. Migration in peacetime also produced martial qualities via the surplus energy available for fighting, since in a pacific context warriors could leave the minutae of herding and droving to women and children.

Either herding sheep is strenuous or it can be left to women and children. It can hardly be both.

38 Cyrus October 25, 2015 at 6:14 am

Or, the Mongol womenfolk are hardier than the farming menf.

39 Chuck October 25, 2015 at 6:35 am

There are no apologies in the excerpt. Just explanations.

40 Kris October 25, 2015 at 6:54 am

It is like genocide doesn’t matter if the victims as Asians

Didn’t they massacre Russians too?

41 Cliff October 26, 2015 at 12:03 am

They basically were Russians

42 Nathan W October 25, 2015 at 7:14 am

“Either herding sheep is strenuous or it can be left to women and children. It can hardly be both.”

Interesting point. Anywhere I’ve seen people herding goats it seems like quite the walk in the park (almost literally), and Africa is full of five-year old children taking care of 1-3 cows.

43 Peter Akuleyev October 25, 2015 at 7:53 am

Looking at excerpts available on the Amazon preview, McLynn agrees that Genghis Khan’s conquests led to the deaths of some 37.5 million people. But he is eager to blame the victims stating that “This enormous toll is partly attributable to the ‘surrender or die’ policy and the stiff-necked opposition of populations who had been bequiled by their own rulers’ propaganda and did not know what they were getting into…There are no signs in Genghis of a mindless or psychopathic cruelty; everything was done for a purpose”.

Arguably the greatest disaster precipated by Genghis was destroying what had been a fairly progressive, prosperous, intellectually open, culturally Persian dominated Islamic world, allowing the worst tendencies of Islamic xenophobia and religious fundamenalism to grow under the Ottomans and into the present day. Not sure if McLynn adresses that. Certainly in the Islamic world Khan should be viewed as one of history’s greatest villains, especially in Central Asia, which has never recovered.

44 Cyrus October 25, 2015 at 8:03 am

Arguably though, the Caliphate’s decline was a gradual process that had begun in the tenth century, and the Mongols toppled something left standing more from inertia than strength.

45 JonFraz October 27, 2015 at 2:47 pm

The Caliphs had become figureheads, living lives of luxury, hashish and harem girls, by the 900s. Real power had devolved to a number of Turkic warheads.

46 Kris October 25, 2015 at 8:27 am

Arguably the greatest disaster precipated by Genghis was destroying what had been a fairly progressive, prosperous, intellectually open, culturally Persian dominated Islamic world, allowing the worst tendencies of Islamic xenophobia and religious fundamenalism to grow under the Ottomans and into the present day.

This is profoundly misguided and ahistorical. Genghis Khan was following in the footsteps of various Turkic tribes and warlords who had already committed their depredations in Central Asia and beyond (South and West Asia). The old Persian kingdoms of Khwarezm, Bactria, Sogdia, and the Tocharian-speaking region of Xinjiang had been taken over by Turks long before the Mongols formed dreams of grandeur. Seljuks invaded and occupied Anatolia by the late 11th century (Manzikert, 1071). Afghanistan had been a mix of principalities until the 9th century, some rules by Persians, others by Indians. These were overthrown by Turkic warlords, culminating in the reign of one Mahmud of Ghazi, who carried out persistent raids and massacres throughout north-western India; he is remembered as fondly in India as the Vikings were in the countries surrounding the North Sea. Genghis, though far from being the first, was not the last of the nomadic barbarians who committed butchery in more civilized societies. The terrible Timur (Tamerlane) followed.

allowing the worst tendencies of Islamic xenophobia and religious fundamenalism to grow under the Ottomans and into the present day

What on earth are you talking about? Religious fundamentalism and Islamism have, in every era they have been dominant, had roots in the Arabian peninsula. The modern jihadist movement traces its intellectual foundations to Wahhab, an 18th century preacher from the Hejaz (today: Saudi Arabia). This happened many centuries after incursions from Central Asia had died out.

47 Peter Akuleyev October 25, 2015 at 8:45 am

Sure, I am oversimplifying. But Arab fundamentalism tends to pop up when the more tolerant non Arab elements of the Muslim world are in decline, and Khan did massive damage to the Persian world, which has never really bounced back. The lack of any viable indigenous alternative or model in the Muslim world is a large part of why Arab fundamentalism enjoys popularity. The Turkic incursions into Central Asia pre-Genghis were nowhere near as destructive as the Mongols. For the most part the Turkic rulers swiftly adopted the local culture. Even the Ottomans mostly tried to adopt Persian ways. The Mongols simply laid waste to entire cities. Whether the Abbasid Caliphate was really in permanent decline in the 13th century is an argument that is hard to resolve, but certainly the Mongol invasion did not lead to its replacement by anything superior.

48 JonFraz October 27, 2015 at 2:50 pm

The difference is that the Turks had become “civilized” Muslims, much as the Persians in antiquity adopted the “civilized” customs of the people they had conquered under Cyrus. The Mongols remained brutal and contemptuous of their subjects for a good long time– except in China where by the third generation under Kublai Khan they bean to adopt Chinese ways.

49 bandw October 25, 2015 at 11:54 am

You left out the enormous damage done to the Chinese civilization. This man was civilization killer.

50 Bruce Cleaver October 25, 2015 at 8:46 am

“Either herding sheep is strenuous or it can be left to women and children. It can hardly be both. ”

Came here to say this, the contradiction is stark. The whole thing *is* interesting, but smacks of Evolutionary Psychology Just So plausible stories.

51 jdm October 25, 2015 at 9:43 am

I agree. The claim (Managing large animals was inherently more strenuous and dangerous than tending crops) seems dubious.

52 Cliff October 26, 2015 at 12:06 am

The main difference was diet and lifestyle. Millions of Chinese peasants persisting on a diet of thin gruel with rotting teeth vs. Mongols well-fed on high-protein, high-fat diets of horse milk and meat with active nomadic lifestyles.

53 Chuck October 25, 2015 at 6:39 am

The Huns and Magyars fought in a manner similar to the Mongols.


54 Kris October 25, 2015 at 6:43 am

Virtually every page is fascinating and should be read carefully

All of you who think Prof. TC doesn’t read through the books he recommends, take note!

55 Peter Akuleyev October 25, 2015 at 7:28 am

If that passage is representative, than either TC hasn’t read the book carefully or the book is just atrociously written all the way through. “…the many potentialities of Mongol society eventually actualised by Genghis Khan” – that is academic jargon, not original thought. “Variegated” really means “marked with patches or spots of different colors.” People who use it as a fancy synonym for “diverse” or “varied” without good reason are generally being pretentious. “reiving” is Scots, not English (we would use “reaving”). “Droving”? Drove is not a verb in modern English, it is fine to say “driving”. And all that in one paragraph. This book seems painful.

56 Kris October 25, 2015 at 8:32 am

“Droving” seems to be an Australian term for herding. I heard that in a recent movie, appropriately named “Australia” (Hugh Jackman played the drover).

The language might be bad, but what about the content? Does it present accurate facts? Does it make a logical case? Perhaps the professor was impressed with that?

57 Martin Keegan October 25, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Droving is indeed straightforward contemporary English in Australia. It connotes moving cattle over long distances. It is not a synonym of herding, which is a related activity.

58 Deek October 25, 2015 at 9:04 am

In English we would say “colours”.

It seems very hypocritical of you to slate McLynn, a Scotsman, for using a Scottish word rather than an English one in the same paragraph where you use an American word instead of an English one.

59 David Walker October 26, 2015 at 4:08 am

As an Australian I’m all for “droving”, but my reaction to the quoted passage was the same as Peter’s: Frank may know it all, but he can’t write about it for nuts. It’s quite an accomplishment to take all the excitement and vigour out of Genghis Khan.

60 what would sigrid undset do October 26, 2015 at 11:20 pm

When fast readers go through a book, they do not generally assess style. As they read, their foremost consideration is “have I seen these facts before? if I not, how do they relate to the other facts I know? are these facts worth collecting?”. It is like fishing – are the bass here, are the bass there? A few hundred thousand answers to that and you understand the bass. I am not a fast reader, and prefer to get my facts from the world (have I seen this number and average grayish tints of moths around an ordinary evening streetlight before? did anyone I know say something today – in the elevator, at lunch, in my office, even on the – dread word – radio, that reveals a truth about the human soul that I have never heard before?). I imagine that TC, who is a fast reader, read the book carefully enough to appreciate the several hundred or thousand facts that he has added to whatever compendium of facts he regards as useful for judging the truth of falseness of what he will hear or want to say in the future about the world. The rarity and value of those facts and details have little to do with style – the world is a big place and those of us who try to describe it are not always grammatically skilled. For the record, if Genghis Khan were born in 1950 – not so long ago to be a baby, when you think about it – he would have been a very very young man in the 70s, in his early middle age during the second Bush presidency, and would be dead today. He is still dead, thank God. God is not mocked, as Nietzsche might have said. That (italicize the that, please) being said, your description of what atrocious style consists of seems very true.

61 BPK October 25, 2015 at 7:53 am

What really set the Mongol Khanate under Genghis apart from previous Mongol and Turkish Khanates was the Touman organization he was able to impose on them after unifying them, but before he embarked on his attacks on China. Basically, he adopted a decimile organization that broke the subsidiary tribes up for military purposes, which made it very hard for the Chinese to use bribes and raids to play divide and conqueror with the northern tribes. I think what the quoted passage is getting at (I have not read the book, though I just ordered it) is that the steppe nomads had always had tremendous military potential, which they spent on each other. Only under Genghis and his immediate successors where they able to harness it on a sustained basis and direct it out of the steppes in many directions at once. (Steppe nomads had been successful before; Hungary, Turkey, the T’ang dynasty, etc. – but not like the Genghis Khanate).

In Douglass North’s telling, it would be a case of a society with extreme internal and external exit options, which led to a great deal of fluidity, equality, and instability. When they finally (and temporarily, they where only unified for 100 or so years) were able to impose a central government for a while, they exploded out in all directions, until the natural dynamics of their society and its political system reasserted itself, and they went back to being a nuisance (Tamerlane excepted).

62 Dan in philly October 25, 2015 at 8:19 am

I am coming to the conclusion that the main reason the Mongols conquered so effectively is they were just much more vicious than those they went against. Reading about them in the safety of my 21st century armchair, I thank God I never had to worry about facing that horde.
Their bows helped and their horses helped, but they also were opportunistic about using their opponents technology to further their goal of world conquest. Their complete lack of regard for the lives of anyone non Mongol allowed them to achieve amazing successes against cultures who were unprepared for this.

63 Hazel Meade October 25, 2015 at 9:58 am

Speaking of which… the Netflix Marco Polo show has a really excellent portrayal of Kublai Khan. Actually the show is about
Kublai Khan – Marco Polo seems to be there kind of as a white-person-observation-point character. Whenever he starts doing Kung Fu the show gets really silly. But when Benedict Wong is on screen he owns the show.

64 Jojo October 25, 2015 at 10:02 am

The subtitle at Amazon is “His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy”

65 dearieme October 25, 2015 at 10:15 am

“many potentialities … eventually actualised”: is it all written in that sort of shite English?

66 dearieme October 25, 2015 at 10:17 am

“Managing large animals was inherently more strenuous and dangerous than tending crops … warriors could leave the minutae of herding and droving to women and children.”

Make up your bloody mind, son.

67 chuck martel October 25, 2015 at 10:41 am

What would you rather do all day, ride around on a horse counting your cows and sheep or hoe seemingly endless rows of semi-productive wheat? The attraction of a nomadic pastoral economy is that there is minimal manual labor for the menfolks. Women take care of all the household chores, adolescents mind the herds and the men go hunting. What a terrible life! Thank goodness “advanced” societies have remedied that situation and full-grown males now get to spend most of their neutered lives behind a desk while their women explore their potentials and never get any dirt under their fingernails. The next horde of barbarians will just pull the plug on the electrical grid, disabling the air-conditioning, washers and dryers that make modern life possible and take over the place without loosing an arrow.

68 msgkings October 25, 2015 at 10:22 pm

You’re not going back far enough. We had it made when we were apes just eating, sleeping, and making ape love all day. Of course, throw in chicken slaughter and internet commenting and you’re Ray Lopez.

69 Cliff October 26, 2015 at 12:09 am


70 Los Ranchos October 25, 2015 at 11:21 am

This type of historical analysis is very useful for 1. Making the case for a much more than skeletal defensive military and 2. Making the case for division of labor which inevitably leads to substantial inequality.

71 Ethan Bernard October 25, 2015 at 12:02 pm

Those interested in things Mongol will find many interesting parallels in the Comanche.

72 chuck martel October 25, 2015 at 1:39 pm


73 Cliff October 26, 2015 at 12:09 am

Yet the Comanche were spectacularly infertile and therefore ultimately unsuccessful.

74 dave p v October 26, 2015 at 8:40 am

strange comment … on infertility … based on what?

75 Sergey Kurdakov October 25, 2015 at 2:12 pm

This research http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3970536/ gives some more food for thought

1. there was a drought period starting 1180 – which led to unrest in Mongolia
2. in 1211-1225 there was extremely wet weather which presumably allowed to build large stock of horses which facilitated conquest

76 Dan in Philly October 25, 2015 at 5:52 pm

I have suspected that they had to have had some kind of boom in the population of their horses for their conquest to have worked. Where they could not bring their horses, they did not go.

77 Alexp October 25, 2015 at 4:10 pm

These were all cultural feature of the Scythians, Xiongnu, Huns, Kipchaks, Pechenegs, Cumans, Turks, and just about every steppe nomad tribe.

The Mongols had something extra.

78 mkt42 October 26, 2015 at 1:30 am

Yes to both of those points.

Europe, the Middle East, India, and China for millennia were subjected to periodic waves of nomadic warriors emanating from the steppes of central Asia. The Mongols were the most successful (in terms of conquering a lot of territory in a small amount of time), but all of them had several common characteristics, chief among them being fierce horsemen armed with bows of increasing sophistication.

It is somewhat interesting to study what made the Mongols different. Maybe it was Genghis Khan’s leadership; or the climate change that allowed their horse herds to increase; or technological superiority (compound bows made of composite materials); or organizational innovation; or etc.

But it’s not as is the Mongol invasions were some unique unprecedented phenomenon. Somebody had to be the most successful of the many many central Asian invaders, and it turned out to be the Mongols.

79 Hopaulius October 25, 2015 at 4:50 pm

There is a novel series about Gengis Kahn’s son, Ogedei, his invasion of Europe, and his demise, called the Mongoliad. Available here. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1612182364?keywords=mongoliad%20book%201&qid=1445806141&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

80 blades October 26, 2015 at 2:05 pm

I’ve already read one poorly written book about the Mongols: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Weatherford). Not likely to read this one based on the quote given by TC. Weatherford’s book is just awful; he is an anthropologist, not a historian and is an apologist for the Mongols.

81 mike October 26, 2015 at 3:54 pm

Looks like a pretty badly written book if excerpt is a reliable indicator.

82 jorod October 26, 2015 at 7:42 pm

The people who wanted the war fought in the war. This was very unlike politics today. It would be interesting to see Senators lead the troops into battle.

83 Horhe October 30, 2015 at 6:35 am

I’m surprised at the cognitive dissonance exhibited in endorsing the environmental pressure explanation for the Mongol society’s traits and eventual success in their narrow focus, but strenuously refusing to give the same benefit to European societies for their development of industry, science and capitalism. So long as any society or person from that society (saaaay, from Africa) is expected to do as well as the Europeans in these matters without having the benefit of hundreds of years of incremental selection or change to such a state seems to be, in itself, an invalidation of any merit Europeans may have in how they turned out and why the world lagged behind them.

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