It happened today - February 16, 2016

Tony Robinson, né Baldrick in Blackadder, once did a series on the worst jobs of the Middle Ages. It would you’d think be a crowded field, so to speak, and I remember with great distaste his description of the process and particularly the contents of wattle and daub construction. The daub particularly was quite nasty.

I suppose it beats “leech collector”. But it also probably beats the curious job given to one André de Longjumeau by King Louis IX of France on February 16 of 1249: Go make friends with the Mongol Khan and see about converting them to Catholicism while you’re there.

In a way it was his own fault. On a previous visit to the Mongols on behalf of Pope Innocent IV (who apparently wasn’t, by the way), Longjumeau claimed, he’d received some sort of offer of an alliance against Muslims in Syria. Always game for a cunning plan, the French king sent André with rich presents of a distinctly Christian tinge to impress the Emperor.

It didn’t work. For one thing, by the time he arrived at the Mongol court the khan in question, Güyük Khan, had been poisoned by a rival. The regent khan-mother seems to have dismissed Longjumeau with insulting gifts and an insulting letter for the French king, after forcing him into a humiliating ritual (“Passing between two fires” which honestly sounds better than the likely alternative of being flung into both, either sequentially or simultaneously after being amusingly cleaved in twain).

I consider it a narrow escape. Trying to make an alliance with the Mongols was probably a far worse idea than trying not to get noticed by them, and not saying anything rude or flippant about the piles of bones lining the major roads in their territory. (You: “Wow. You sure have lots of bones.” Them: “We’re always on the lookout for more.” Sliiiiice!).

It is remarkable to ponder the impossibility, regardless of the skill of the translators, of communication between a medieval French court and a Mongol one. Even the giving of gifts, regarded as a sign of friendly strength in Paris, was seen as groveling tribute on the Imyl river or near Karakorum or wherever the Mongols were currently celebrating a slaughter.

Longjumeau came back with suitably impressive and utterly invented tales of Mongol history including the struggles of the all-too-real Genghis Khan against the invented Prester John and the Mongol homeland being near the prison of Gog and Magog (don’t ask), plus exaggerations of the Mongol Christian community and reasonably accurate stories of Mongol ferocity and culture generally.

He then passed out of history, and this life, at some uncertain date. That it wasn’t at the hands of the Mongols might be counted an improbable narrow escape, given the job he’d managed to land himself in.