AP World History Source Book

Medieval Age

Compiled by Chad Hoge


A description of the Kingdom of Ghana

by Al-Bakri, a member of a prominent Spanish Arab family who lived during the 11th century


            The city of Ghana consists of two towns situated on a plain.  One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in which they assemble for the Friday prayer.  There are salaried imams and muezzins, as well as jurists and scholars.  In the environs are wells with sweet water, from which they drink and with which they grow vegetables.  The king’s town is six miles distant from this one….

            Between these two towns are continuous habitations.  …In the king’s town, and not far from his court of justice, is a mosque where the Muslims who arrive at his court pray.  Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live.  In them too are their idols and the tombs of their kings.  These woods are guarded and none may enter them and know what is there…. The king’s interpreters, the official in charge of his treasury and the majority of his ministers are Muslims.  Among the people who follow the king’s religion only he and his heir apparent (who is the son of his sister) may wear sewn clothes.  All other people wear robes of cotton, silk, or brocade, according o their means.  All of them shave their beards, and women shave their heads.  The king adorns himself like a woman (wearing necklaces) round his neck and (bracelets) on his forearms, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton.  He sits in audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials.  Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the (vassel) kings of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold.  The governor of the city sits on the ground before the king and around him are ministers seated likewise.  At the door of the pavilion are dogs of excellent pedigree who hardly ever leave the place where the king is, guarding him.  Round their necks they wear collars of gold and silver studded with a number of balls of the same metals.  The audience is announced by the beating of a drum which they call duba made from a long hollow log.  When the people who profess the same religion as the king approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their head, for this is their way of greeting him.  As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands….

            Their religion is paganism and the worship of idols….

            On every donkey-load of salt when it is brought into the country their king levies one golden dinar and two dinars when it is sent out. … The best gold is found in  his land comes from the town of Ghiyaru, which is eighteen days’ traveling distance from the king’s town over a country inhabited by tribes of the Sudan whose dwellings are continuous…

            The king of Ghana when he calls up his army, can put 200,000 men into the field, more than 40,000 of them archers.


Al-Bakri, The Book of Routes and Realms, cited in Levitzion and Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, (Cambridge University Press, 1981) pp. 79-81.


Examples of Masks from Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa

Buffalo Mask

Nuna peoples, Burkina Faso

Wood, pigment

Hampton University Museum

Female Mask, Okuyi or Mukudj

Punu peoples, Gabon

Wood, pigment


Behold, the Ancestor

Mask, Ndeemba

Yaka peoples, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Wood,fiber, pigment


Royal Sister and Wife

Ngady amwaash

Kuba Kingdom, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Wood, paint, beads, cowrie shells, fabric

Mapiko masquerade of the Konde

Makonde People of Mozambique


The Art of the African Mask, Exhibition Catalog, Bayly Art Museum, University of Virginia.

Project by San Jose State University Students Art History 197 (Spring 2002)




Islamic Confession of Faith





The Qu'ran

Surah 47

47: 1. In the name of ALLAH, the Gracious, the Merciful.
47: 2. Those who disbelieve and hinder men from the way of ALLAH - HE renders their works vain.
47: 3. But as for those who believe and do righteous deeds and believe in that which has been revealed to Muhammad - and it is the truth from their Lord - HE removes from them their sins and sets right their affairs.
47: 4. That is because those who disbelieve follow falsehood while those who believe follow the truth from their Lord. Thus does ALLAH set forth for men their lessons by similitudes.
47: 5. And when you meet in regular battle those who disbelieve, smite their necks; and, when you have overcome them, by causing great slaughter among them, bind fast the fetters - then afterwards either release them as a favour or by taking ransom - until the war lays down its burdens. That is the ordinance. And if ALLAH had so pleased, HE could have punished them Himself, but HE has willed that HE may try some of you by others. And those who are killed in the way of ALLAH - HE will never render their works vain.
47: 6. HE will guide them to success and will improve their condition.
47: 7. And will admit them into the Garden which HE has made known to them.
47: 8. O ye who believe ! if you help the cause of ALLAH, HE will help you and will make your steps firm.
47: 9. But those who disbelieve, perdition is their lot; and HE will make their works vain.
47: 10. That is because they hate what ALLAH has revealed; so HE has made their works vain.
47: 11. Have they not traveled in the earth and seen what was the end of those who were before them ? ALLAH utterly destroyed them, and for the disbelievers there will be the like thereof.
47: 12. That is because ALLAH is the Protector of those who believe, and the disbelievers have no protector.
47: 13. Verily, ALLAH will cause those who believe and do good works to enter the Gardens underneath which streams flow; While those who disbelieve enjoy themselves and eat even as the cattle eat, and the Fire will be their last resort.
47: 14. And how many a township, mightier than thy town which has driven thee out, have WE destroyed, and they had no helper.
47: 15. Then, is he who takes his stand upon a clear proof from his Lord like those to whom the evil of their deeds is made to look attractive and who follow their low desires ?
47: 16. A description of the Garden promised to the righteous: Therein are streams of water which corrupts not; and streams of milk of which the taste changes not; and streams of wine, a delight to those who drink; and streams of clarified honey. And in it they will have all kinds of fruit, and forgiveness from their Lord. Can those who enjoy such bliss be like those who abide in the Fire and who are given boiling water to drink so that it tears their bowels ?


Internet Medieval Source Book, Paul Halsall, Jan 1996



Sermon was delivered on the Ninth Day of Dhul Hijjah 10 A.H in the Uranah Valley of mount Arafat


"O People, lend me an attentive ear, for I don't know whether, after this year, I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore listen to what I am saying to you carefully and TAKE THIS WORDS TO THOSE WHO COULD NOT BE PRESENT HERE TODAY.

O People, just as you regard this month, this day, this city as Sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust. Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners. Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you. Remember that you will indeed meet your LORD, and that HE will indeed reckon your deeds. ALLAH has forbidden you to take usury (Interest), therefore all interest obligation shall henceforth be waived...

Beware of Satan, for your safety of your religion. He has lost all hope that he will ever be able to lead you astray in big things, so beware of following him in small things.

O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have right over you. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and comitted helpers. And it is your right that they do not make friends with any one of whom you do not approve, as well as never to commit adultery.

O People, listen to me in earnest, whorship ALLAH, say your five daily prayers (Salah), fast during the month of Ramadhan, and give your wealth in Zakat. Perform Hajj if you can afford to. You know that every Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. YOU ARE ALL EQUAL. NOBODY HAS SUPERIORITY OVER OTHER EXCEPT BY PIETY AND GOOD ACTION.

Remember, one day you will appear before ALLAH and answer for your deeds. So beware, do not astray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.

O People, NO PROPHET OR APOSTLE WILL COME AFTER ME AND NO NEW FAITH WILL BE BORN. Reason well, therefore, O People, and understand my words which I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the QUR'AN and my example, the SUNNAH and if you follow these you will never go astray.

All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me direcly. BE MY WITNESS O ALLAH THAT I HAVE CONVEYED YOUR MESSAGE TO YOUR PEOPLE."


Internet Medieval Source Book, Paul Halsall, Jan 1996


The Sunnah


The Sunan, or "traditions" of Muhammad, are now gathered in six books, though two of these are more specifically called the Sahihs, or "sincere books." These six works bear to Islam much the same relation as the Four Gospels do to Christianity. That is to say, they are the accounts of the prophet's life as handed down by his disciples. Of course to the Muslims the Sunan are not the main source of teaching. That is the Qur'an, which as we have seen, is Muhammad's own book, dictated by the prophet himself. Moreover, the Sunan do not approach Mohammad with anything like the same accuracy and closeness with which the Gospels approach Jesus. The Sunan are slight and fragmentary traditions, gathered from every possible source at an interval of more than two centuries after their prophet's death. They have, however, been accepted as holy books of the Muslim faith. Much of Islam today is founded on them; and they are taught in all the schools made the basis of many a hair-splitting argument about right and wrong.

Of Women and Slaves

The world and all things in it are valuable, but the most valuable thing in the world is a virtuous woman.

I have not left any calamity more hurtful to man than woman.

A Muslim can not obtain (after righteousness) anything better than a well-disposed, beautiful wife: such a wife as, when ordered by her husband to do anything, obeys; and if her husband look at her, is happy; and if her husband swear by her to do a thing, she does it to make his oath true; and if he be absent from her, she wishes him well in her own person by guarding herself from inchastity, and taketh care of his property.

Verily the best of women are those who are content with little.

Admonish your wives with kindness; for women were created out of a crooked rib of Adam, therefore if ye wish to straighten it, ye will break it; and if ye let it alone, it will be always crooked.

Every woman who dieth, and her husband is pleased with her, shall enter into paradise.

That which is lawful but disliked by God is divorce.

A woman may be married by four qualifications: one, on account of her money; another, on account of the nobility of her pedigree; another, on account of her beauty; a fourth, on account of her faith; therefore look out for religious women, but if ye do it from any other consideration, may your hands be rubbed in dirt.

A widow shall not be married until she be consulted; nor shall a virgin be married until her consent be asked, whose consent is by her silence.

When the Prophet was informed that the people of Persia had made the daughter of Chosroes their queen, he said The tribe that constitutes a woman its ruler will not find redemption.

Do not prevent your women from coming to the mosque; but their homes are better for them.

O assembly of women, give alms, although it be of your gold and silver ornaments; for verily ye are mostly of hell on the day of resurrection.

When ye return from a journey and enter your town at night, go not to your houses, so that your wives may have time to comb their disheveled hair.

God has ordained that your brothers should be your slaves: therefore him whom God hath ordained to be the slave of his brother, his brother must give him of the food which he eateth himself, and of the clothes wherewith he clothes himself and not order him to do anything beyond his power, and if he does order such a work, he must himself assist him in doing it.

He who beats his slave without fault, or slaps him in the face, his atonement for this is freeing him.

A man who behaves ill to his slave will not enter into paradise.

Forgive thy servant seventy times a day.

Of Government

Government is a trust from God, and verily government will be at the day of resurrection a cause of inquiry, unless he who hath taken it be worthy of it and have acted justly and done good.

Verily a king is God's shadow upon the earth; and every one oppressed turneth to him: then when the king doeth justice, for him are rewards and gratitude from his subjects: but, if the king oppresses, on him is his sin, and for the oppressed resignation.

That is the best of men who dislikes power. Beware! ye are all guardians; and ye will be asked about your subjects: then the leader is the guardian of the subject, and he will be asked respecting the subject; and a man is a shepherd to his own family, and will be asked how they behaved, and his conduct to them; and a wife is guardian to her husband's house and children, and will be interrogated about them; and a slave is a shepherd to his master's property, and will be asked about it, whether he took good care of it or not.

There is no prince who oppresses the subject and dieth, but God forbids paradise to him.

If a negro slave is appointed to rule over you, hear him, and obey him, though his head should be like a dried grape.

There is no obedience due to sinful commands, nor to any other than what is lawful.

O Prophet of God, if we have princes over us, wanting our rights, and withholding our rights from us, then what do you order us? He said, "Ye must hear them and obey their orders: it is on them to be just and good, and on you to be obedient and submissive."

He is not strong or powerful who throws people down, but he is strong who withholds himself from anger.

When one of you getteth angry, he must sit down, and if his anger goeth away from sitting, so much the better; if not, let him lie down.

From: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 11-32


('Qur'an,' XVII, 104-9)


And We gave Moses nine signs, clear signs. Ask the Children of Israel when he came to them, and Pharaoh said to him, 'Moses, I think hou art bewitched.' He said, 'Indeed thou knowest that none sent these down, except the Lord of the heavens and earth, as clear proofs; and, Pharaoh, I think thou art accursed.' He desired to startle them from the land; and We drowned him and those with him, all together. And We said to the Children of Israel after him, 'Dwell in the land; and when the promise of the world to come comes to pass, we shall bring you a rabble.'


With the truth We have sent it down, and with the truth it has come down; and We have sent thee not, except good tidings to bear, and warning, and a Koran We have divided, for thee to recite it to mankind at intervals, and We have sent it down successively.

Say: 'Believe in it, or believe not'; those who were given the knowledge before it when it is recited to them, fall down

upon their faces prostrating, and say, 'Glory be to our Lord! Our Lord's promise is performed.'



('Qur'an,' V, 50-3)


And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus son of Mary, confirming the Torah before him; and We gave to him the Gospel, wherein is guidance and light,and confirming the Torah before it, as a guidance and an admonition unto the godfearing.


Translation by A. J. Arberry, http://www.mircea-eliade.com



Procopius, 532

The emperor and his court were deliberating as to whether it would be better for them if they remained or if they took to flight in the ships. And many opinions were expressed favouring either course. And the Empress Theodora also spoke to the following effect: "My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety. . . . For one who has been an emperor it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, here the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud." When the queen had spoken thus, all were filled with boldness, and, turning their thoughts towards resistance, they began to consider how they might be able to defend themselves if any hostile force should come against them. . . .All the hopes of the emperor were centred upon Belisarius and Mundus, of whom the former, Belisarius, had recently returned from the Persian war bringing with him a following which was both powerful and imposing, and in particular he had a great number of spearmen and guards who bad received their training in battles and the perils of warfare. . . .

from Procopius, History of the Wars, I, xxiv, translated by H.B. Dewing (New York: Macmillan, 1914), pp. 219-230, slightly abbridged and reprinted in Leon Barnard and Theodore B. Hodges, Readings in European History, (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 52-55

The Varangians (Normans) and the Origins of the Russian and Ukrainian States.

860-862 (6368-6370) The tributaries of the Varangians drove them back beyond the sea and, refusing them further tribute, set out to govern themselves. There was no law among them, but tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against another. They said to themselves, "Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to the law." They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Rus: these particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, Angles, and Goths, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, and the Krivichians then said to the people of Rus, "Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us." They thus selected three brothers, with their kinfolk, who took with them all the Rus, and migrated. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod; the second, Sineus, in Beloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgored became known as Russian (Rus) land. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but aforetime they were Slavs. After two years, Sineus and his brother Truvor died, and Rurik assumed the sole authority. He assigned cities to his followers, Polotzk to one, Rostov to another, and to another Beloozero. In these cities there are thus Varangian colonists, but the first settlers were, in Novgorod, Slavs; in Polotzk, Krivichians; at Beloozero, Ves; in Rostov, Merians; and in Murom, Muromians. Rurik had dominion over all these districts. With Rurik there were two men who did not belong to his kin, but were boyars. They obtained permission to go to Constantinople with their families. They thus sailed down the Dnepr, and in the course of their journey they saw a small city on a hill. Upon their inquiry as to whose town it was, they were informed that three brothers, Kii, Shchek and Khoriv, had once built the city, but that since their deaths, their descendants were living there as tributaries of the Khazars. Oskold and Dir remained in this city, and after gathering together many Varangians, they established their domination over the country of the Polianians at the same tiine that Rurik was ruling at Novgorod.

863-866 (6371-6374) Oskold and Dir attacked the Greeks during the fourteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Michael. When the emperor had set forth against the Saracens and had arrived at the Black River, the eparch sent him word that the Russians were approaching Constantinople, and the emperor turned back. Upon arriving inside the strait, the Russians made a great massacre of the Christians, and attacked Constantinople in two hundred boats. The emperor succeeded with difficulty in entering the city. The people prayed all night with the Patriarch Photius at the Church of the Holy Virgin in Blachemae. They also sang hymns and carried the sacred vestment of the Virgin to dip it in the sea. The weather was still, and the sea was cahn, but a storm of wind came up, and when great waves straightway rose, confusing the boats of the godless Russians, it threw them upon the shore and broke them up, so that few escaped such destruction. The survivors then returned to heir native land.

Source: The Russian Primary Chronicle, http://www.dur.ac.uk/a.k.harrington/vikings.html

Carolingian Capitularies on Serfs & Coloni, 803-821


Capitulary given at Diedenhofen (Thionville), c. 803-813.

4. That fiscalini or coloni or serfs dwelling on the domain of another, on being required by their former lord, shall not be given to him except for the former place; where it was first seen that they had lived, thither they shall be returned, and diligent inquiry shall be made concerning their status and the status of their relations.


Capitulary at Diedenhofen (Thionville), 821.

1. If a crowd of serfs assembles and disobediently does violence to any one, i.e., homicide, arson, or destruction of anything, let the lords whose negligence permits this be compelled to pay our ban for it, i.e., sixty solidi, since they are not willing to restrain them from daring to do such things.

7. As for the conspiracies of serfs concocted in Flanders, Brabant, and other maritime places, we wish it to be made known to the lords of those serfs by our missi, that they should restrain them from presuming to make more plans of such a nature. And if the lords themselves of these serfs know that the serfs of any one have presumed to conspire in this way, after our order has been made known to them, the lords themselves ought to pay our ban, i.e., sixty solidi.


From: A. Boretius, ed., Monumenta Germaniae Historiae, Legum, (Hanover, 1883), Sectio II, Tome I, p. 143; J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, (Paris, 1862), Vol. XCVII, pp. 443-445; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 273-274



Horse, China, Tang dynasty (618-907) late 7th-8th Century

Cleveland Museum of Art


Popul Vuh, Inca Flood Story


Over a universe wrapped in the gloom of a dense and primeval night passed the god Hurakan, the mighty wind. He called out "earth," and the solid land appeared. The chief gods took counsel; they were Hurakan, Gucumatz, the serpent covered with green feathers, and Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, the mother and father gods. As the result of their deliberations animals were created. But as yet

man was not. To supply the deficiency the divine beings resolved to create mannikins carved out of wood. But these soon incurred the displeasure of the gods, who, irritated by their lack of reverence, resolved to destroy them. Then by the will of Hurakan, the Heart of Heaven, the waters were swollen, and a great flood came upon the mannikins of wood. They were drowned and a thick resin fell from heaven. The bird Xecotcovach tore out their eyes; the bird Camulatz cut off their heads; the bird Cotzbalam devoured their flesh; the bird Tecumbalam broke their bones and sinews and ground them into powder. Because they had not thought on Hurakan, therefore the face of the earth grew dark, and a pouring rain commenced, raining by day and by night. Then all sorts of beings, great and small, gathered together to abuse the men to their faces. The very household utensils and animals jeered at them, their mill-stones, their plates, their cups, their dogs, their hens. Said the dogs and hens, "Very badly have you treated us, and you have bitten us. Now we bite you in turn." Said the mill-stones (metates ), " Very much were we tormented by you, and daily, daily, night and day, it was squeak, screech, screech, for your sake. Now you shall feel our strength, and we will grind your flesh and make meal of your bodies." And the dogs upbraided the mannikins because they had not been fed, and tore the unhappy images with their teeth. And the cups and dishes said, "Pain and misery you gave us, smoking our tops and sides, cooking us over the fire burning and hurting us as if we had no feeling. Now it is your turn, and you shall burn." Then ran the mannikins hither and thither in despair. They climbed to the roofs of the houses, but the houses crumbled under their feet; they tried to mount to the tops of the trees, but the trees hurled them from them; they sought refuge in the caverns, but the caverns closed before them. Thus was accomplished the ruin of this race, destined to be overthrown. And it is said that their posterity are the little monkeys who live in the woods.


Told by Lewis Spence, Published by David Nutt, at the Sign of the Phoenix, Long Acre, London, 1908.



Cortés's Account of the City of Mexico


This great city of Temixtitan [Mexico] is situated in this salt lake, and from the main land to the denser parts of it, by whichever route one chooses to enter, the distance is two leagues. There are four avenues or entrances to the city, all of which are formed by artificial causeways, two spears length in width. The city is as large as Seville or Cordova; its streets, I speak of the principal ones, are very wide and straight; some of these, and all the inferior ones, are half land and half water, and are navigated by canoes. All the streets at intervals have openings, through which the water flows, crossing from one street to another; and at these openings, some of which are very wide, there are also very wide bridges, composed of large pieces of timber, of great strength and well put together; on many of these bridges ten horses can go abreast. Foreseeing that if the inhabitants of the city should prove treacherous, they would possess great advantages from the manner in which the city is constructed, since by removing the bridges at the entrances, and abandoning the place, they could leave us to perish by famine without our being able to reach the main land-as soon as I had entered it, I made great haste to build four brigatines, which were soon finished, and were large enough to take ashore three hundred men and the horses, whenever it should become necessary.

This city has many public squares, in which are situated the markets and other places for buying and selling. There is one square twice as large as that of the city of Salamanca, surrounded by porticoes, where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise that the world affords, embracing the necessaries of life, as for instance articles of food, as well as jewels of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin, precious stones, bones, shells, snails, and feathers. There are also exposed for sale wrought and unwrought stone, bricks burnt and unburnt, timber hewn and unhewn, of different sorts. There is a [p.319]street for game, where every variety of birds in the country are sold, as fowls, partridges, quails, wild ducks, fly-catchers, widgeons, turtle-doves, pigeons, reed-birds, parrots, sparrows, eagles, hawks, owls, and kestrels; they sell likewise the skins of some birds of prey, with their feathers, head, beak, and claws. There are also sold rabbits, hares, deer, and little dogs, which are raised for eating. There is also an herb street, where may be obtained all sorts of roots and medicinal herbs that the country affords. There are apothecaries' shops, where prepared medicines, liquids, ointments, and plasters are sold; barbers' shops, where they wash and shave the head; and restaurateurs that furnish food and drink at a certain price. There is also a class of men like those called in Castile porters, for carrying burdens. Wood and coal are seen in abundance, and braisers of earthenware for burning coals: mats of various kinds for beds, others of a lighter sort for seats, and for halls and bedrooms. There are all kinds of green vegetables, especially onions, leeks, garlic, watercress, nasturtium, borage, sorrel, artichokes, and golden thistle; fruits also of numerous descriptions, amongst which are cherries and plums, similar to those in Spain; honey and wax from bees, and from the stalks of maize, which are as sweet as the sugar-cane; honey is also extracted from the plant called maguey, which is superior to sweet or new wine; from the same plant they extract sugar and wine, which they also sell. Different kinds of cotton thread of all colors in skeins are exposed for sale in one quarter of the market; which has the appearance of the silk-market at Granada, although the former is supplied more abundantly. Painters' colors, as numerous as can be found in Spain, and as fine shades; deerskins dressed and undressed, dyed different colors; earthen-ware of a large size and excellent quality; large and small jars, jugs, pots, bricks, and and endless variety of vessels, all made of fine clay, and all or most of them glazed and painted; maize or Indian corn, in the grain and in the form of bread, preferred in the grain for its flavor to that of the other islands and terra-firma; pates of birds and fish; great quantities of fish, fresh, salt, cooked and uncooked; the eggs of hens, geese, and of all the other birds I have mentioned, in great abundance, and cakes made of eggs; finally, everything that can be found throughout the whole country is sold in the markets, comprising articles so numerous that to avoid prolixity, and because their names are not retained in my memory, or are unknown to me, I shall not attempt to enumerate them. Every kind of merchandise is sold in a particular street or quarter assigned to it exclusively, and thus the best order is preserved. They [p.320]sell everything by number or measure; at least so far we have not observed them to sell anything by weight. There is a building in the great square that is used as an audience house, where ten or twelve persons, who are magistrates, sit and decide all controversies that arise in the market, and order delinquents to be punished. In the same square there are other persons who go constantly about among the people observing what is sold, and the measures used in selling; and they have been seen to break measures that were not true.


Description of the Tatars, 1243

But concerning their manners and superstitions, of the disposition and stature of their bodies, of their country and manner of fighting etc., he protested the particulars following to be true: namely, that they were above all men, covetous, hasty, deceitful], and merciless: notwithstanding, by reason of the rigor and extremity of punishments to be inflicted upon them by their superiors, they are restrained from brawlings, and from mutual strife and contention. The ancient founders and fathers of their tribes, they call by the name of gods, and at certain set times the do celebrate solemn feasts unto them, many of them being particular, & but four only general. They think that all things are created for themselves alone. They esteem it none offence to exercise cruelty against rebels. They are hardy and strong in the breast, lean and pale-faced, rough and hug-shouldered, having flat and short noses, long and sharp chins, their upper jaws are low and declining, their teeth long and thin, their eye-brows extending from their foreheads down to their noses, their eyes inconstand and black, their countenances writhen and terrible, their extreme joints strong with bones and sinews, having thick and great thighs, and short legs, and yet being equal unto us in stature: for that length which is wanting in their legs, is supplied in the upper parts of their bodies. Their country in old time was a land utterly desert and waste, situated far beyond Chaldea, from whence they have expelled lions, bears, & such like tintarned beasts, with their bows, and other engines. Of the hides of beasts being tanned, they use to shape for themselves light but yet impenetrable armor. They ride fast bound 'unto their horses, which are not very great in stature, but exceedingly strong, and maintained with little provender. They used to fight constantly and valiantly with javelins, maces, battle-axes, and swords. But specially they are excellent archers, and cunning warriors with their bows. Their backs are slightly armed, that they may not flee. They withdraw not themselves from the combat till they see the chief standard of their General give back. Vanquished, they ask no favor, and -vanquishing, they show no compassion. They all persist in their purpose of subduing the whole world under their own subjection, as if . they were but one man, and yet they are more then millions in number. They have 60000. Couriers, who being sent before upon light horses to prepare a place for the army to encamp in, will in the space of one night gallop three days journey. And suddenly diffusing themselves over an whole province, and surprising all the people thereof unarmed, unprovided, dispersed, they make such horrible slaughters, that the king or prince of the land invaded, cannot find people sufficient to wage battle against them, and to withstand them They delude all people and princes of regions in time of peace, pretending that for a cause, which indeed is no cause. Sometimes they say, that they will make a voyage to Colen, to fetch home the three wise kings into their own country; sometimes to punish the avarice and pride of the Romans, who oppressed them in times past; sometimes to conquer barbarous and Northern nations; sometimes to moderate the fury of the Germans with their own meek mildness; sometimes to learn warlike feats and stratagems of the French; sometimes for the finding out of fertile ground to suffice their huge multitudes; sometimes again in derision they say that they intend to go on pilgrimage to S. James of Galicia. In regard of which sleights and collusions certain undiscreet governors concluding a league with them, have granted them free passage through their territories, which leagues notwithstanding being violate, were an occasion of ruin and destruction unto the governors &c.

from Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Ten vols. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1927. Vol. 1, pp. 91-93. reprinted in Warren Walsh, Readings in Russian History, (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 1948)

On The Tatars

Ibn al-Athir, 1220-1221CE


For even Antichrist will spare such as follow him, though he destroy those who oppose him, but these Tatars spared none, slaying women and men and children, ripping open pregnant women and killing unborn babes. Verily to God do we belong, and unto Him do we return, and there is no strength and no power save in God, the High, the Almighty, in face of this catastrophe, whereof the sparks flew far and wide, and the hurt was universal; and which passed over the lands like clouds driven by the wind. For these were a people who emerged from the confines of China, and attacked the cities of Turkestan, like Kashghar and Balasaghun, and thence advanced on the cities of Transoxiana, such as Samarqand, Bukhara and the like, taking possession of them, and treating their inhabitants in such wise as we shall mention; and of them one division then passed on into Khurasan, until they had made an end of taking possession, and destroying, and slaying, and plundering, and thence passing on to Ray, Hamadan and the Highlands, and the cities contained therein, even to the limits of Iraq, whence they marched on the towns of Adharbayjan and Arraniyya, destroying them and slaying most of their inhabitants, of whom none escaped save a small remnant; and all this in less than a year; this is a thing whereof the like has not been heard. And when they had finished with Adharbayjan and Arraniyya, they passed on to Darband-i-Shirwan, and occupied its cities, none of which escaped save the fortress wherein was their King; wherefore they passed by it to the countries of the Lan and the Lakiz and the various nationalities which dwell in that region, and plundered, slew, and destroyed them to the full. And thence they made their way to the lands of Qipchaq, who are the most numerous of the Turks, and slew all such as withstood them, while the survivors fled to the fords and mountain-tops, and abandoned their country, which these Tatars overran. All this they did in the briefest space of time, remaining only for so long as their march required and no more…

Moreover they need no commissariat, nor the conveyance of supplies, for they have with them sheep, cows, horses, and the like quadrupeds, the flesh of which they eat, naught else. As for their beasts which they ride, these dig into the earth with their hoofs and eat the roots of plants, knowing naught of barley. And so, when they alight anywhere, they have need of nothing from without. As for their religion, they worship the sun when it rises, and regard nothing as unlawful, for they eat all beasts, even dogs, pigs, and the like; nor do they recognise the marriage-tie, for several men are in marital relations with one woman, and if a child is born, it knows not who is its father.

From: Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1902), Vol. II, pp. 427-431.

On the Tartars

Marco Polo, 1254-1324


Of the wandering life of the Tartars--of their domestic manners, their food, and the virtue and useful qualities of their women.

Now that I have begun speaking of the Tartars, I will tell you more about them. The Tartars never remain fixed, but as the winter approaches remove to the plains of a warmer region, to find sufficient pasture for their cattle; and in summer they frequent cold areas in the mountains, where there is water and verdure, and their cattle are free from the annoyance of horse- flies and other biting insects. During two or three months they go progressively higher and seek fresh pasture, the grass not being adequate in any one place to feed the multitudes of which their herds and flocks consist. Their huts or tents are formed of rods covered with felt, exactly round, and nicely put together, so they can gather them into one bundle, and make them up as packages, which they carry along with them in their migrations upon a sort of car with four wheels. When they have occasion to set them up again, they always make the entrance front to the south. Besides these cars they have a superior kind of vehicle upon two wheels, also covered with black felt so well that they protect those within it from wet during a whole day of rain. These are drawn by oxen and camels, and convey their wives and children, their utensils, and whatever provisions they require. The women attend to their trading concerns, buy and sell, and provide everything necessary for their husbands and their families; the time of the men is devoted entirely to hunting, hawking, and matters that relate to the military life. They have the best falcons in the world, and also the best dogs. They live entirely upon flesh and milk, eating the produce of their sport, and a certain small animal, not unlike a rabbit, called by our people Pharaoh's mice, which during the summer season are found in great abundance in the plains. They eat flesh of every description, horses, camels, and even dogs, provided they are fat. They drink mares' milk, which they prepare in such a manner that it has the qualities and flavor of white wine. They term it in their language kemurs. Their women are not excelled in the world for chastity and decency. Of conduct, nor for love and duty to their husbands. Infidelity to the marriage bed is regarded by them as a vice not merely dishonorable, but of the most infamous nature; while on the other hand it is admirable to observe the loyalty of the husbands towards their wives, amongst whom, although there are perhaps ten or twenty, there prevails a highly laudable degree of quiet and union. No offensive language is ever heard, their attention being fully occupied with their traffic (as already mentioned) and their several domestic employments, such as the provision of necessary food for the family, the management of the servants, and the care of the children, a common concern. And the virtues of modesty and chastity in the wives are more praiseworthy because the men are allowed the indulgence of taking as many as they choose. Their expense to the husband is not great, and on the other hand the benefit he derives from their trading, and from the occupations in which they are constantly engaged, is considerable; on which account when he receives a young woman in marriage, he pays a dower to her parent. The wife who is the first espoused has the privilege of superior attention, and is held to be the most legitimate, which extends also to the children borne by her. In consequence of this unlimited number of wives, the offspring is more numerous than amongst any other people. Upon the death of the father, the son may take to himself the wives he leaves behind, with the exception of his own mother. They cannot take their sisters to wife, but upon the death of their brothers they can marry their sisters-in-law. Every marriage is solemnized with great ceremony.

Internet Medieval Source Book, Paul Halsall Mar 1996

Chu Yuan-Chang:
Manifesto of Accession as First Ming Emperor, 1372 C.E.
(Sent to Byzantine Emperor)

"Since the Sung dynasty had lost the throne and Heaven had cut off their sacrifice, the Yuan [Mongol] dynasty had risen from the desert to enter and rule over Zhongguo [China] for more than a hundred years, when Heaven, wearied of their misgovernment and debauchery, thought also fit to turn their fate to ruin, and the affairs of Zhongguo were in a state of disorder for eighteen years. But when the nation began to arouse itself, We, as a simple peasant of Huai-yu, conceived the patriotic idea to save the people, and it pleased the Creator to grant that Our civil and military officers effected their passage across eastward to the left side of the River. We have then been engaged in war for fourteen years; We have, in the west, subdued the king of Han, Ch'en Yu-liang; We have, in the east, bound the king of Wu, Chang Shih-ch'eng; We have, in the south, subdued Min and Yueh [Fukien and Kuang-tung], and conquered Pa and Shu [Sze-chuan]; We have, in the north, established order in Yu and Yen [Chih-li]; We have established peace in the Empire, and restored the old boundaries of Zhongguo. We were selected by Our people to occupy the Imperial throne of Zhongguo under the dynastic title of 'the Great Ming,' commencing with Our reign styled Hung-wu, of which we now are in the fourth year. We have sent officers to all the foreign kingdoms with this Manifesto except to you, Fu-lin [Byzantium], who, being separated from us by the western sea, have not as yet received the announcement. We now send a native of your country, Nieh-ku-lun [Fra. Nicolaus de Bentra, Archbishop of Peking], to hand you this Manifesto. Although We are not equal in wisdom to our ancient rulers whose virtue was recognized all over the universe, We cannot but let the world know Our intention to maintain peace within the four seas. It is on this ground alone that We have issued this Manifesto."

From: F. Hirth, China and the Roman Orient: Researches into their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records (Shanghai & Hong Kong, 1885), pp. 65-67.

Zheng He's Inscription


This inscription was carved on a stele erected at a temple to the goddess the Celestial Spouse at Changle in Fujian province in 1431.


Record of the miraculous answer (to prayer) of the goddess the Celestial Spouse.

The Imperial Ming Dynasty unifying seas and continents, surpassing the three dynasties even goes beyond the Han and Tang dynasties. The countries beyond the horizon and from the ends of the earth have all become subjects and to the most western of the western or the most northern of the northern countries, however far they may be, the distance and the routes may be calculated. Thus the barbarians from beyond the seas, though their countries are truly distant, "with double translation" have come to audience bearing precious objects and presents.
              The Emperor, approving of their loyalty and sincerity, has ordered us (Zheng) He and others at the head of several tens of thousands of officers and flag-troops to ascend more than one hundred large ships to go and confer presents on them in order to make manifest the transforming power of the (imperial) virtue and to treat distant people with kindness. From the third year of Yongle (1405) till now we have seven times received the commission of ambassadors to countries of the western ocean. The barbarian countries which we have visited are: by way of Zhancheng (Champa), Zhaowa (Java), Sanfoqi (Palembang) and Xianlo (Siam) crossing straight over to Xilanshan (Ceylon) in South India, Guli (Calicut), and Kezhi (Cochin), we have gone to the western regions Hulumosi (Hormuz), Adan (Aden), Mugudushu (Mogadishu), altogether more than thirty countries large and small. We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails loftily unfurled like clouds day and night continued their course (rapid like that) of a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare. Truly this was due to the majesty and the good fortune of the Court and moreover we owe it to the protecting virtue of the divine Celestial Spouse…
                We, Zheng He and others, on the one hand have received the high favour of a gracious commission of our Sacred Lord, and on the other hand carry to the distant barbarians the benefits of respect and good faith (on their part). Commanding the multitudes on the fleet and (being responsible for) a quantity of money and valuables in the face of the violence of the winds and the nights our one fear is not to be able to succeed; how should we then dare not to serve our dynasty with exertion of all our loyalty and the gods with the utmost sincerity? How would it be possible not to realize what is the source of the tranquillity of the fleet and the troops and the salvation on the voyage both going and returning? Therefore we have made manifest the virtue of the goddess on stone and have moreover recorded the years and months of the voyages to the barbarian countries and the return in order to leave (the memory) for ever.

I. In the third year of Yongle (1405) commanding the fleet we went to Guli (Calicut) and other countries. At that time the pirate Chen Zuyi had gathered his followers in the country of Sanfoqi (Palembang), where he plundered the native merchants. When he also advanced to resist our fleet, supernatural soldiers secretly came to the rescue so that after one beating of the drum he was annihilated. In the fifth year (1407) we returned.

II. In the fifth year of Yongle (1407) commanding the fleet we went to Zhaowa (Java), Guli (Calicut), Kezhi (Cochin) and Xianle (Siam). The kings of these countries all sent as tribute precious objects, precious birds and rare animals. In the seventh year (1409) we returned.

III. In the seventh year of Yongle (1409) commanding the fleet we went to the countries (visited) before and took our route by the country of Xilanshan (Ceylon). Its king Yaliekunaier (Alagakkonara) was guilty of a gross lack of respect and plotted against the fleet. Owing to the manifest answer to prayer of the goddess (the plot) was discovered and thereupon that king was captured alive. In the ninth year (1411) on our return the king was presented (to the throne) (as a prisoner); subsequently he received the Imperial favour of returning to his own country.

IV. In the eleventh year of Yongle (1413) commanding the fleet we went to Hulumosi (Ormuz) and other countries. In the country of Sumendala (Samudra) there was a false king Suganla (Sekandar) who was marauding and invading his country. Its king Cainu-liabiding (Zaynu-'l-Abidin) had sent an envoy to the Palace Gates in order to lodge a complaint. We went thither with the official troups under our command and exterminated some and arrested (other rebels), and owing to the silent aid of the goddess we captured the false king alive. In the thirteenth year (1415) on our return he was presented (to the Emperor as a prisoner). In that year the king of the country of Manlajia (Malacca) came in person with his wife and son to present tribute.

V. In the fifteenth year of Yongle (1417) commanding the fleet we visited the western regions. The country of Hulumosi (Ormuz) presented lions, leopards with gold spots and large western horses. The country of Adan (Aden) presented qilin of which the native name is culafa (giraffe), as well as the long-horned animal maha (oryx). The country of Mugudushu (Mogadishu) presented huafu lu ("striped" zebras) as well as lions. The country of Bulawa (Brava) presented camels which run one thousand li as well as camel-birds (ostriches). The countries of Zhaowa (Java) and Guli (Calicut) presented the animal miligao. They all vied in presenting the marvellous objects preserved in the mountains or hidden in the seas and the beautiful treasures buried in the sand or deposited on the shores. Some sent a maternal uncle of the king, others a paternal uncle or a younger brother of the king in order to present a letter of homage written on gold leaf as well as tribute.

VI. In the nineteenth year of Yongle (1421) commanding the fleet we conducted the ambassadors from Hulumosi (Ormuz) and the other countries who had been in attendance at the capital for a long time back to their countries. The kings of all these countries prepared even more tribute than previously.

VII. In the sixth year of Xuande (1431) once more commanding the fleet we have left for the barbarian countries in order to read to them (an Imperial edict) and to confer presents.
               We have anchored in this port awaiting a north wind to take the sea, and recalling how previously we have on several occasions received the benefits of the protection of the divine intelligence we have thus recorded an inscription in stone.


Sources: Teobaldo Filesi. David Morison trans. China and Africa in the Middle Ages. (London: Frank Cass, 1972). 57-61.


Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354


Ibn Battuta prepares to cross the Sahara pp. 317-323.

At Sijilmasa [at the edge of the desert] I bought camels and a four months' supply of forage for them. Thereupon I set out on the 1st Muharram of the year 53 [AH 753, February 13, 1352] with a caravan including, amongst others, a number of the merchants of Sijilmasa.


The saltworks at the oasis of Taghaza

After twenty-five days [from Sijilmasa] we reached Taghaza, an unattractive village, with the curious feature that its houses and mosques are built of blocks of salt, roofed with camel skins. There are no trees there, nothing but sand. In the sand is a salt mine; they dig for the salt, and find it in thick slabs, lying one on top. of the other, as though they had been tool-squared and laid under the surface of the earth. A camel will carry two of these slabs.

No one lives at Taghaza except the slaves of the Massufa tribe, who dig for the salt; they subsist on dates imported from Dar'a and Sijilmasa, camels' flesh, and millet imported from the Negrolands. The negroes come up from their country and take away the salt from there. At Iwalatan a load of salt brings eight to ten mithqals; in the town of Malli [Mali] it sells for twenty to thirty, and sometimes as much as forty. The negroes use salt as a medium of exchange, just as gold and silver is used [elsewhere]; they cut it up into pieces and buy and sell with it. The business done at Taghaza, for all its meanness, amounts to an enormous figure in terms of hundredweights of gold-dust…



Life at Walata

My stay at Iwalatan lasted about fifty days; and I was shown honour and entertained by its inhabitants. It is an excessively hot place, and boasts a few small date-palms, in the shade of which they sow watermelons. Its water comes from underground waterbeds at that point, and there is plenty of mutton to be had. The garments of its inhabitants, most of whom belong to the Massufa tribe, are of fine Egyptian fabrics.

Their women are of surpassing beauty, and are shown more respect than the men. The state of affairs amongst these people is indeed extraordinary. Their men show no signs of jealousy whatever; no one claims descent from his father, but on the contrary from his mother's brother. A person's heirs are his sister's sons, not his own sons. This is a thing which I have seen nowhere in the world except among the Indians of Malabar. But those are heathens; these people are Muslims, punctilious in observing the hours of prayer, studying books of law, and memorizing the Koran. Yet their women show no bashfulness before men and do not veil themselves, though they are assiduous in attending the prayers. Any man who wishes to marry one of them may do so, but they do not travel with their husbands, and even if one desired to do so her family would not allow her to go.

The women there have "friends" and "companions" amongst the men outside their own families, and the men in the same way have "companions" amongst the women of other families. A man may go into his house and find his wife entertaining her "companion" but he takes no objection to it. One day at Iwalatan I went into the qadi's house, after asking his permission to enter, and found with him a young woman of remarkable beauty. When I saw her I was shocked and turned to go out, but she laughed at me, instead of being overcome by shame, and the qadi said to me "Why are you going out? She is my companion." I was amazed at their conduct, for he was a theologian and a pilgrim [to Mecca] to boot. I was told that he had asked the sultan's permission to make the pilgrimage that year with his "companion"--whether this one or not I cannot say--but the sultan would not grant it.


The town of Mogadishu in Somalia

On leaving Zayla we sailed for fifteen days and came to Maqdasha [Mogadishu], which is an enormous town. Its inhabitants are merchants and have many camels, of which they slaughter hundreds every day [for food]. When a vessel reaches the port, it is met by sumbuqs, which are small boats, in each of which are a number of young men, each carrying a covered dish containing food. He presents this to one of the merchants on the ship saying "This is my guest," and all the others do the same. Each merchant on disembarking goes only to the house of the young man who is his host, except those who have made frequent journeys to the town and know its people well; these live where they please. The host then sells his goods for him and buys for him, and if anyone buys anything from him at too low a price, or sells to him in the absence of his host, the sale is regarded by them as invalid. This practice is of great advantage to them.

We stayed there [in Mogadishu] three days, food being brought to us three times a day, and on the fourth, a Friday, the qadi and one of the wazirs brought me a set of garments. We then went to the mosque and prayed behind the [sultan's] screen. When the Shaykh came out I greeted him and he bade me welcome. He put on his sandals, ordering the qadi and myself to do the same, and set out for his palace on foot. All the other people walked barefooted. Over his head were carried four canopies of coloured silk, each surmounted by a golden bird. After the palace ceremonies were over, all those present saluted and retired.


Ibn Battuta sails to Mombasa pp. 112-113.

I embarked at Maqdashaw [Mogadishu] for the Sawahil [Swahili] country, with the object of visiting the town of Kulwa [Kilwa, Quiloa] in the land of the Zanj.

We came to Mambasa [Mombasa], a large island two days' journey by sea from the Sawihil country. It possesses no territory on the mainland. They have fruit trees on the island, but no cereals, which have to be brought to them from the Sawahil. Their food consists chiefly of bananas and fish.The inhabitants are pious, honourable, and upright, and they have well-built wooden mosques.


Kulwa on the African mainland

We stayed one night in this island [Mombasa], and then pursued our journey to Kulwa, which is a large town on the coast. The majority of its inhabitants are Zanj, jet-black in colour, and with tattoo marks on their faces. I was told by a merchant that the town of Sufala lies a fortnight's journey [south] from Kulwa and that gold dust is brought to Sufala from Yufi in the country of the Limis, which is a month's journey distant from it. Kulwa is a very fine and substantially built town, and all its buildings are of wood. Its inhabitants are constantly engaged in military expeditions, for their country is contiguous to the heathen Zanj.

The sultan at the time of my visit was Abu'l-Muzaffar Hasan, who was noted for his gifts and generosity. He used to devote the fifth part of the booty made on his expeditions to pious and charitable purposes, as is prescribed in the Koran, and I have seen him give the clothes off his back to a mendicant who asked him for them. When this liberal and virtuous sultan died, he was succeeded by his brother Dawud, who was at the opposite pole from him in this respect. Whenever a petitioner came to him, he would say, "He who gave is dead, and left nothing behind him to be given." Visitors would stay at his court for months on end, and finally he would make them some small gift, so that at last people gave up going to his gate.

Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, tr. and ed. H. A. R. Gibb (London: Broadway House, 1929)


Jean Froissart: on the Jacquerie, 1358

The period following the Black Death saw a number of political and social upheavals, caused by the disease itself, as well as wars and other insecurities. There were a number of peasant rebellions. That in France in 1358 was known as the Jacquerie - since a common name for a peasant was a "Jacques". Here it is described of 1358 was described by the chronicler Jean Froissart.


Anon after the deliverance of the king of Navarre there began a marvellous tribulation in the realm of France, as in Beauvoisin, in Brie, on the river of Marne, in Laonnois, and about Soissons. For certain people of the common villages, without any head or ruler, assembled together in Beauvoisin. In the beginning they passed not a hundred in number they said how the noblemen of the realm of France, knights and squires, shamed the realm, and that it should be a great wealth to destroy them all: and each of them said it was true, and said all with one voice: "Shame have he that cloth not his power to destroy all the gentlemen of the realm!"

Thus they gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. And they then went to another castle, and took the knight thereof and bound him fast to a stake, and then violated his wife and his daughter before his face and then slew the lady and his daughter and all his other children, and then slew the knight by great torment and burnt and beat down the castle. And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein. These mischievous people thus assembled without captain or armour robbed, brent and slew all gentlemen that they could lay hands on, and forced and ravished ladies and damosels, and did such shameful deeds that no human creature ought to think on any such, and he that did most mischief was most praised with them and greatest master. I dare not write the horrible deeds that they did to ladies and damosels; among other they slew a knight and after did put him on a broach and roasted him at the fire in the sight of the lady his wife and his children; and after the lady had been enforced and ravished with a ten or twelve, they made her perforce to eat of her husband and after made her to die an evil death and all her children. They made among them a king, one of Clermont in Beauvoisin: they chose him that was the most ungraciousest of all other and they called him king Jaques Goodman, and so thereby they were called companions of the jaquery. They destroyed and brent in the country of Beauvoisin about Corbie, and Amiens and Montdidier more than threescore good houses and strong castles. In like manner these unhappy people were in Brie and Artois, so that all the ladies, knights and squires of that country were fain to fly away to Meaux in Brie, as well the duchess of Normandy and the duchess of Orleans as divers other ladies and damosels, or else they had been violated and after murdered. Also there were a certain of the same ungracious people between Paris and Noyon and between Paris and Soissons, and all about in the land of Coucy, in the country of Valois, in the bishopric of Laon, Nyon and Soissons. There were brent and destroyed more than a hundred castles and good houses of knights and squires in that country.

From G. C. Macauly, ed., The Chronicles of Froissart, Lord Berners, trans. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1904), pp. 136-137.

A Medieval Holocaust:

The Cremation of the Strasbourg Jews

In their attempt to explain the widespread horrors of the Black Death, medieval Christian communities tooked for scapegoats. As at the time of the crusades, the Jews were blamed for poisoning wells and hence spreading the plague. This selection by a contemporary chronicler, wntten in 1349, gives an account of how Christians in the town of Strasbourg in the Holy Roman Empire dealt with their Jewish community. It is apparent that financial gain was also an important factor in killing the Jews.


Jacob von Konigshofen, "The Cremation of the Strasbourg Jews"

In the year 1349 there occurred the greatest epidemic that ever happened. Death went from one end of the earth to the other.... And from what this epidemic came, all wise teachers and physicians could only say that it was God's will.... This epidemic also came to Strasbourg in the summer of the above mentioned year, and it is estimated that about sixteen thousand people died.

In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wellsthat is what they were accused ofand for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany....

[The account then goes on to discuss the situation of the Jews in the city of Strasbourg.]

On Saturday . . . they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. [Some say that about a thousand accepted baptism.] Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt....

Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg, and in the same year in all the cities of the Rhine, whether Free Cities or Imperial Cities or cities belonging to the lords. In some towns they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others, without a trial. In some cities the Jews themselves set fire to their houses and cremated them selves.

It was decided in Strasbourg that no Jew should enter the city for a hundred years, but before twenty years had passed, the council and magistrates agreed that they ought to admit the Jews again into the city for twenty years. And so the Jews came back again to Strasbourg in the year 1368 after the birth of our Lord.



Plague in Art


Black Death, 14th Century



Mass Burial, Plague, Belgium 1349.  Unknown artist





 Gutenberg and the Koreans



Did East Asian Printing Traditions Influence the European Renaissance?

Thomas Christensen







Left: Jost Amman, The Printer’s Workshop, from the Book of Trades, woodcut, 1568. Right: Qing dynasty illustration of a small print workshop (Ying Chih Wen Thu Chu).

Johannes Gutenberg’s development, in mid fifteenth-century Mainz, of printing with movable metal type was enormously consequential—it made texts available to an increasing percentage of the population and helped to spark the European Renaissance.1 So it is surprising how much remains unknown about Gutenberg and his invention, such as its year of creation, what the press looked like, what tools were used to prepare the type, or what financial structure supported the print operation.

Another question also remains unanswered: Was Gutenberg aware that he was far from the first to print with movable metal type, and that printing in this manner had been done in Asia since the early thirteenth century? “The question if there was a direct influence from the orient on the invention of printing with movable type in Germany around 1440,” says Eva Hanebutt-Benz of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, “cannot be solved so far in the context of the scholarly research.”2 What is certain, however, is that that printing with movable wooden type is documented from the eleventh century; that printing with movable metal type had been an active enterprise in Korea since 1234; that other printing technologies had Asian origins and were subsequently transmitted to the West; that a single empire (the Mongol khanates) stretched from Korea to Europe through much of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, facilitating cross-cultural exchange across a large region; that there was considerable East-West travel, contact, and exchange during this period; that the written record of such contacts records only a fraction of what actually occurred; and that there was awareness of Asian printing in Europe in the centuries before Gutenberg.

For all these reasons it is likely that Europe’s print revolution did not occur independently but was influenced or inspired by similar printing in Asia.


Passport (paiza) enabling travel through the Mongol empire. (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Gutenberg is rightly lauded for his resourcefulness, inventiveness, and skill, but the impact of printing was more a manifestation of social change than of a single technological innovation. Print technology fueled or accelerated social developments, but at the same time it was as a response to them. Moreover, print technology is a complex system of interactions rather than just a single machine — it involves technologies of paper-making, ink production, metal-casting, distribution, and so on. These technologies differed between East and West, in part because of the materials available, so movable-type printing differed as well.3

What is printing for? Printing is above all a duplicating process, and Gutenberg was the Xerox of his time.4 Printing does not directly produce knowledge, it facilitates the spread of existing knowledge. Therefore, the first requirement for the development of printing is a demand for texts and for duplication of documents. In Gutenberg’s Europe such demand was exploding, and printing responded to this existing market — demand for books was so great in the mid-fifteenth century that a single bookseller might employ 500 scribes; by the end of the century there were 150 printing presses in Venice alone, and nearly 15 million books had been printed. The happy result for many publishers was a dynamic in which increasing supply fed increasing demand.

But there is another, perhaps less evident, function of printing. This is standardization. To generalize, the duplicative function was given more weight in the West and the standardizing function more weight in East Asia. The reason for this lies in the different social contexts of printing in the two areas. In the West, early Renaissance printing had a subversive tinge—in the Italianate states where it first caught hold in a major way it was associated with capitalist enterprise that tended to undercut the authority of church and nobility by creating new sources of wealth and by extending publications beyond the inner circles of the traditional literate elite.5


Pages from the Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Son Masters (Pulcho Chikchi Simch’e Yoyol), the earliest extant book printed with movable metal type, dated 1377, Hungdok-sa Temple, Korea (Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris; Koreana 7, no. 2, 20-21).

In East Asia, and especially in Korea, where printing with movable metal type was perfected, the situation was different. During the period when this process was regularly used, Korea was governed by the Goryeo dynasty, which had made Buddhism a state religion. In the face of a looming Mongol threat, Goryeo scriptoria were charged with making copies of the Buddhist canon (called the Tripitaka) in order to preserve the Buddhist dharma. (This was a large project — the first Korean woodblock printing of the Tripitaka, from about 1014, consisted of 5,058 chapters, and later editions substantially enlarged the total. This required more than 130,000 blocks, for which a special storehouse had to be built.) But copyists sometimes imposed, whether intentionally or accidentally, differences in rendering the texts. Since the documents represented Buddhist scriptural orthodoxy it was important for doctrinal reasons that they be standardized. Movable type may have been seen as contributing to such standardization by codifying the character set and enabling multiple documents to be produced from the same set of materials rather than being assigned to different carvers.


Scholars waiting for the results of the civil service exam to be posted. Handscroll attributed to Qiu Ling (active 1530–1552) (National Palace Museum, Taiwan).

The Chinese-style civil service examination system, which was exported to Korea at least by the time of the unification of its states in the seventh century, also contributed to a demand for standardization. A national institute for higher education was established, and private schools existed in various parts of the country to prepare students for the state-run exams. When a provincial school complained about the unreliability of texts, the government ordered copies of books made and delivered to the provincial capital.6 Thus in East Asia, both for reasons of state and reasons of religion, printing was not subversive but state-mandated, and its primary motivation was as much standardization as duplication.

The Mongol empire spread knowledge of printing. Chinese book production was described in detail by one of the most important chroniclers of the Mongol period, the Persian official Rashid al-Din, in his early fourteenth-century history. According to Rashid, “when any book was desired, a copy was made by a skillful calligrapher on tablets and carefully corrected by proof-readers whose names were inscribed on the back of the tablets. The letters were then cut out by expert engravers, and all pages of the books consecutively numbered. When completed, the tablets were placed in sealed bags to be kept by reliable persons, and if anyone wanted a copy of the book, he paid the charges fixed by the government. The tablets were then taken out of the bags and imposed on leaves of paper to obtain the printed sheets as desired. In this way, alterations could not be made and documents could be faithfully transmitted.”7 Rashid’s report confirms that control of texts was a primary motivation for Chinese printing. It also establishes beyond any doubt that detailed knowledge of woodblock printing was transmitted across the Mongol empire from East Asia to West Asia. It is likely that information about cast-type printing would have been similarly conveyed.


From a letter from the Il-khan Arghun to Philip the Fair of France, in Uighur script, dated 1289.

The Persian Ilkhanate (one of the four states of the Mongol empire) was at this time in regular contact not just with East Asia but also with Europe (in part because the Persian and the European states shared a common enemy in the Mamluk Sultanate), frequently exchanging emissaries and documents. Indeed, Rashid himself gives a full account of the arrival of the embassy with which Marco Polo reported returning from China.8 Rashid also demonstrated the Ilkhanate’s interest in Europe by writing a History of the Franks, which reveals a fair understanding of Western Europe, considering that “the Muslims regarded Europe as a remote and barbarous area, hardly worth the attention of a civilized man.”9


Popes (left) and emperors (right), from Rashid al-Din, History of the Franks, ca. 1307.

In the face of such evidence it seems more likely that news of Asian innovations in printing reached Europe, and the record of that news has been lost to us, than that no hint of these highly developed technologies traveled the well-worn routes of land and sea.

The Development of Printing in China, and Its Transmission to the West

Before looking more closely at movable-type printing in Korea, we need to review the development of printing in China. Since early print technologies arose in Asia and traveled from there to the West, it seems a reasonable surmise, in the absence of evidence otherwise, that this process continued as printing developed.10


The earliest writing in China was usually on wood or bamboo; silk was also used. The invention of paper is attributed to Cai Lun, a Hunan official of the Han dynasty, in the year 105. Archeologists have, however, discovered examples of paper dating from before the common era; there are also literary references to paper predating Cai Lun. Cai Lun’s paper was made from silk rags, but many different fibers (notably bark and hemp) were later used.

Paper technology may have arisen from the process of felting. It seems logical that printing as a means of creating repeating patterns on textiles was a forerunner to printing on paper. “Whether European textile printing was influenced by the Chinese is not clear,” according to Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin, “but some patterns of Chinese origin, borrowed by Persian weavers, are said to have been transmitted to Western Europe, and certainly many Chinese decorative motifs had been successfully copied by European makers of figured fabrics before 1500.”11 Stamps similar to those for printing textiles were also used by the Chinese for seals and religious charms from an early date.

By the Tang dynasty (618–907) papers of the highest quality were being produced and sent to the capital as tribute. The paper industry was an enabling factor in the Chinese style of centralized government, with its bureaucracy making huge demands for paper. Annual tax assessments alone required more than half a million sheets (each about 12 by 18 inches) a year.12

Like other print-related technologies, paper making was gradually transmitted from China to other regions. Paper making spread throughout Central Asia by the end of the fourth century and to Korea apparently somewhat later. By the end of the eighth century paper was being produced in Baghdad. Although it reached Europe by the eleventh century, its use was still spotty at the time of Gutenberg, who printed some of his bibles on parchment (an expensive process, requiring the skins of 300 sheep for a single bible).

In later dynastic China Cai Lun was assimilated into the popular pantheon as the patron deity of papermaking.


Cai Lun as the patron saint of paper making, ca. 18th century



Block with image reversed for printing, for a Mongol-period bank note, 1264–1340.

Printed paper currency was developed in China in the eleventh century, in part to compensate for a shortage of copper coin in Szechwan, where the printing industry flourished.13 The Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan had a sophisticated understanding of paper currency. Rather than invalidate the existing Sung currency—which would have devastated the Chinese economy—he allowed it, for a period of ten years, to be converted to a new currency that he standardized throughout his empire. “To facilitate trade and to promote the welfare of the merchants, Khubilai initiated the use of paper currency throughout his domains,” notes Morris Rossabi, adding that “Khubilai was the first Mongol ruler to seek a countrywide system of paper currency.”

The earliest existing European report of paper currency is a mention from 1255 by William Ruysbroeck, a French missionary to the Mongol court.14 The accounts of Marco Polo include a detailed description of the Chinese currency, which was briefly adopted by the Persian Ilkhanate. The Persian version was clearly based on the Chinese model, for it was called by the Chinese word chao, and it even included words printed in Chinese.15 In the case of paper currency, as in other aspects of printing, the route of transmission was from China to the West.

Playing cards


Left: Chinese playing card found near Turfan, fifteenth century. Right: Queen of Wild Men, ca. 1440, engraving by the Master of the Playing Cards, with whom Gutenberg is thought to have worked (Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden).

Printed playing cards were used in China from an early date, probably the ninth century. Cards were an early subject of printing because they were popular with all classes and thus demanded reproduction in quantity, and they require standardized backs so that the contents of the face cannot be known. In Europe too cards were one of the earliest applications of printing, “doubtless because of the early and widespread use in the East,” in the judgment of Tsien Tsuen-Hsuen. “Probably they were brought to Europe by the Mongol armies, traders, and travellers.”16 Helmutt Lehmann-Haupt has produced evidence indicating that Gutenberg (who is said to have begun his career as an goldsmith) created copper engravings for playing cards prior to developing his printing press, apparently working in association with the artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards.

Woodblock b ook printing

In China a commercial book trade existed as early as the first century of the common era. Books were also commissioned by religious institutions and by the state. The earliest dated printed book was discovered in a cave temple at Tun-huang.17 A scroll about sixteen feet long, it is a a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, bearing a date equivalent to 868. The quality of the printing is remarkably high, suggested an established print industry.


Frontispiece of the earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra, dated 868.

The entire Buddhist canon was printed by imperial decree around 1000, and it was reprinted several times in following centuries. One of these is the Jisha edition, named for the island where the monastery that commissioned the printing was located. The printing was begun in 1231 but completed under the Mongol rule of the Yuan dynasty. The complete edition consisted of 6,362 printed volumes containing 1,532 texts entailing the carving of more than 150,000 woodblocks.


Chapter 2 of the Magical Charm Scripture of Great Splendor, 1231–1322, Yenshengyuan Monastery, Jisha, Suzhou, Jiangsu province. (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco).

Woodblock printing became popular in Europe in the fourteenth century. The blocks used were remarkably similar to Chinese woodblocks. Robert Curzon (1810–1873) was one of the first to pursue the similarity between Asian and European block books to its logical conclusion, arguing that “we must suppose that the process of printing them must have been copied from ancient Chinese specimens, brought from that country by some early travelers, whose names have not been handed down to our times.” “Since all the technical processes are of Chinese rather than European tradition,” adds Tsien Tsuen-Hsien, “it seems that the European block printers must not only have seen Chinese samples, but perhaps had been taught by missionaries or others who had learned these un-European methods from Chinese printers during their residence in China.”18

The Development of Movable Type


Revolving type table from the Nung-shu of Wang Chen, 1313.

The invention of movable type in China is attributed to the Sung dynasty inventor Bi Sheng (ca. 990–1051; spelled Pi Sheng in the Wade-Giles transliteration system used in the extract below) in the eleventh century. His process was described by Shen Kua (ca. 1031–1095). Bi’s types were made of baked clay. They were set in an iron form, their position stabilized with heated resin and wax. After the printing was completed the wax and resin were melted to release the type for later reuse, as Shen Kua explains:

Pi Sheng, a man of unofficial position, made movable type. His method was as follows: he took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.

If one were to print only two or three copies, this method would be neither simple nor easy. But for printing hundreds or thousands of copies, it was marvelously quick. As a rule he kept two formes going. While the impression was being made from the one forme, the type was being put in place on the other. When the printing of one form was finished, the other was then ready. In this way the two formes alternated and the printing was done with great rapidity.

For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page. When the characers were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases.19

Shen Kua reports that “When Pi Sheng died, his font of type passed into the possession of my nephews,” and Bi Sheng’s type was still being used to print philological primers and neo-Confucian documents during the rule of the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan, by one of his personal councilors.20

A report by Wang Chen in 1313 adds that tin type was also used. (The Chinese abandoned tin as a material for type because it would not hold the water-based Chinese ink.) Wang Chen spent more than two years cutting 60,000 type for use in his own wood-based movable-type printing. An illustration of his technique of laying type with a revolving table has survived.

Cross-Cultural Currents under the Mongol Empire


Left: Chinggis Khan pursuing enemies, from Rashid al-Din’s history (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Ebrey, 170). Right: Khubilai Khan, by the Chinese painter Liu Guandao, 1280 (National Palace Museum, Taiwan; Ebrey, 174).

Under Chinggis Khan (prob. 1167–1227) the Mongols unified an enormous geographic territory—it is still history’s largest contiguous empire—under central rule. To accomplish this the Mongol army was ruthless to the point of genocide. In this climate the opportunities for cultural and technological exchange must have been limited. But by the time of the rule of Chinggis's grandson Khubilai Khan (1260–1294) the situation was different. Khubilai Khan established the capital of his khanate in Beijing, where he assumed the Chinese "mandate of heaven” and established the Yuan dynasty. Not viewing China merely as an opportunity for plunder by nomadic warriors, he saw the value of agriculture and urbanism, and he retained many Chinese traditions.


Khubilai Khan as the first Yuan emperor, 13th century, National Palace Museum, Taiwan

Beijing was not central enough for unified rule of the entire empire, and the Mongols were often troubled by contentious issues of succession, with the result that the empire was divided into regional khanates. But Khubilai maintained good relations with his brother Hulegu, the Ilkhan of Persia. Hulegu, even more than Khubilai, had in many respects assimilated into the culture of his subject people, and he had converted to Islam. The result was a lively exchange between West Asia and East Asia. It was this climate that encouraged contact between Europe and East Asia.

Muslim traders were active across much of the Mongol realm, including Korea. "Confucian Chinese officials had perceived commerce as demeaning and traders as parasites, but the Mongols did not share that attitude,” notes Morris Rossabi. “Khubilai removed many of the previous limitations imposed on trade, paving the way for Eurasian merchants and for the first direct commercial contacts between Europe and East Asia.”21 The Uighur people of Central Asia — a Turkic people (whose language is believed to be related to both Turkish and Korean) who had governed a large empire in the eighth and ninth centuries — helped to facilitate this trade.

Khubilai Khan sought to temper the influence of the native Han Chinese by peppering his court with Uighurs and other Muslims. Khubilai enacted regulations giving a variety of special privileges to Muslims, such as exemption from taxation and the right to private ownership of weapons. “Small wonder, then,” notes John D. Langlois, Jr., “that the Muslims were found in all regions of China in Yuan times.”22 Continuous Muslim settlement stretched from Central Asia across northern China. Muslim scholars founded a school in present-day Hopei, near the Yuan capital of Beijing. Muslim settlement extended to Korea, where historical records document the existence of established Muslim communities.

Centered along the Silk Road in Turfan in northwestern China, the Uighurs had been conquered by Chinggis Khan. He adopted the Uighur script for writing the Mongolian language. By this time many Uighurs had converted to Islam (some adopted Tibetan Buddhism). They included among their number a scholar class. Movable-type Uighur prints have been discovered in the Turfan area, along with wooden type fonts. The Uighurs were thus both ideally informed and ideally situated for transmitting information about printing from China and Korea to the Islamic territories of West Asia. “The introduction of printing farther to the west was probably accomplished by the Uighurs during the Mongol period,” Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin maintains. “After the Mongol conquest of Turfan, a great number of Uighurs were recruited into the Mongol army; Uighur scholars served as Mongol brains, and Uighur culture became the initial basis of Mongol power. If there was any connection in the spread of printing between Asia and the West, the Uighurs who used both block printing and movable type had good opportunities to play an important role in this introduction.”23


Wooden types and impressions in Uigur script, prob. early 14th century (Tsien, 306)

The most famous of the European travelers to Yuan China was Marco Polo, a teller of tales whose account is notable for its omissions and fabrications but does restrain some of the more fantastic elements common to some other travel narratives of the Mongol period (that of John Mandeville, for example). Polo claimed—how truthfully it is difficult to say—to have had an audience with Khubilai himself. However that may be, it is certain that European travelers visited the Yuan court in Beijing. There they would have been well situated to learn of Korea’s perfection of printing with movable metal type.


Latin tombstone, 1342, from Yang-chou, China.

Cast-Type Printing in Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392)

The Goryeo dynasty (from which the name “Korea” comes) was founded by Wang Geon, who unified the country in 918 and established Buddhism as its state religion. Because China was in transition after the collapse of its Tang dynasty in 906, Goryeo was able initially to flourish without undue concern about external affairs. A Song envoy, Xu Jing, produced a travel account in 1123 that depicted Goryeo as a sophisticated and well-managed society. Already, however, the country found itself forced to respond to threats from Central Asian peoples. Finally, in 1231, Mongol forces invaded. They were repulsed, but launched five more attacks over the next thee decades, forcing the Goryeo court to withdraw to the island of Ganghwa. In 1270 the Goryeo king formally surrendered, and Mongols assumed control of Korea. Many native Koreans continued to oppose the Mongol occupiers, however, and since military resistance had failed, spiritual power was summoned through the printing of Buddhist texts.

Korea had a long and distinguished woodblock printing tradition. According to Kumja Paik Kim, “The oldest extant woodblock printed text on paper in East Asia is the Dharani sutra discovered in the Seokka-tap (Shakyamuni pagoda) in 1966 in Bulguk-sa Monastery in Gyeongju. Since this pagoda was completed in 751, the printed sutra placed within has the terminal date of 751.” Kim also notes the remarkable Goryeo dedication to reproducing the Tripitaka, leading up to the first printing with movable metal type:

This period is especially famous for carrying out monumental projects of carved woodblocks containing the complete set of Buddhist canon, the Tripitaka (sutras, laws, and treatises), not just once but twice. The first set, which was burned during the Mongol invasion in 1232, had been completed in 1087 to expel the invading Khitans through prayers to Buddhas. The second set, known today as Tripitaka Koreana, was completed in 1251 as prayers to the power of Buddhas for the protection of the nation from the invading Mongols. The second Tripitaka set, containing more than 8,000 woodblocks, is now housed in the repository in Haein-sa Monastery near Daegu. Goryeo is also credited with inventing movable metal type in the first half of the thirteenth century to meet the heavy demands for various types of books, both religious and secular. Prescribed Ritual Texts of the Past and Present (Sangjong Gogeum Yemun) was printed with the movable metal type in 1234.24

Under Mongol rule “Korea and China also grew closer, as the Mongol-enforced peace throughout their conquered territory allowed envoys and traders to move freely between the two countries. Goryeo officials served in the Yuan government, where because of their literary skill and knowledge of Confucian statecraft, they made contributions to governance.”25 There was also a sea trade that connected Korea to China and points beyond (when Giovanni di Marignolli arrived at the port of Zhengzhou in 1346 he found a depot for European traders ready to receive him). Wang Geon served as an admiral in the Korean navy. Fifty-seven official diplomatic sea voyages, each carrying 100–300 emissaries, were recorded to Song China in the 160 years following the establishment of the dynasty. For a joint Goryeo-Mongol expedition to Japan in 1274 the Koreans built an armada of 900 ships in four and a half months.26 Under Goryeo rule private merchants actively traded by sea with mainland ports—several arrivals of West Asian trading ships were recorded during the eleventh-century.27 Consequently all of the conditions existed for the transmission of significant technological information from Korea to Europe.


Haein-sa Temple in Hapchon County, North Kyongsang Province, is home to the most complete and best preserved woodblocks of the Buddhist Tripitaka. Top left: the temple entrance. Bottom left: storage rooms. Right: Some of the more than 80,000 woodblocks used to print the Tripitaka (Park Seung-U, Koreana 7, no. 2, 34–35, permission pending).

While the development of Korean metal type anticipated or responded to the need to replace documents abandoned or destroyed during the Mongol invasions, a contributing factor was the relative scarcity of appropriate hardwoods comparable to the pear wood and jujube used in China. The Korean mold-casting method of producing fonts was probably based on their experience with bronze coins; Koreans were also accomplished in bronze casting of bells and statues. The “excellent workmanship,” “dignified form,” and “clear and even characters” of Korean coins were admired by Song dynasty Chinese scholars.28 A fifteenth-century description of the Korean font casting process was recorded by Song Hyon:

At first, one cuts letters in beech wood. One fills a trough level with fine sandy [clay] of the reed-growing seashore. Wood-cut letters are pressed into the sand, then the impressions become negative and form letters [molds]. At this step, placing one trough together with another, one pours the molten bronze down into an opening. The fluid flows in, filling these negative molds, one by one becoming type. Lastly, one scrapes and files off the irregularities, and piles them up to be arranged.

Much of our knowledge of Goryeo printing is based on written records, as Korea's turbulent history has prevented many works from surviving. But one surviving book, the Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Soen Masters (Pulcho chikchi simch'e yojol) contains a date equivalent to 1377, making it the earliest extant book printed with movable metal type. It was printed at Hungdok-sa Temple near Chongju (the ruins of the temple, including a typecasting foundry, were discovered during building excavation in 1985). The book was clearly printed with metal type for, among other telling features, some characters were printed upside down, their alignment is not always straight, and the inking is uneven in a manner not characteristic of block printing.29

It might surprise the heirs of Gutenberg to learn that a woodblock version of this same book was printed just a year after the metal type printing. Today we are accustomed to think of movable-type printing with metal type as dramatically superior to woodblock printing, and certainly the European alphabets are ideally suited to this technique. But in East Asia the advantages were less clear-cut. The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci noted in the early seventeenth century that Chinese cutters could produce wood blocks as quickly as European typesetters could make up their pages. What’s more, the wood blocks could be stored for later use, unlike the printers’ forms used in the West, which were disassembled and the type returned to its cases when the printing had been completed. Woodblock technology also facilitated book illustration, which was far more advanced, and more common, in East Asia than in the West.


Printing plates from Song of the Moon’s Reflection on a Thousand Rivers and Episodes from the Life of the Buddha (Worin ch’on-gang chi kok), Korea, Joseon dynasty. In the fifteenth century, during the Joseon dynasty that succeeded the Goryeo, a new system of writing Korean was introduced, which was better suited to movable type than the Chinese character system used during the Goryeo period (Park Seung-U, Koreana 7, no. 2, 27, permission pending).

Movable-type printing, as Shen Kun had already noted in the eleventh century, was of most value when a large number of copies were desired. The practicality of woodblock printing meant that in East Asia books could be produced in very limited runs, while the adoption of movable-type printing in the West meant that only commercial or underwritten publications could be published without great difficulty (a situation that has endured to this day). Thus in the West printing actually caused “an impoverishment of the written tradition,” in the view of Jacques Gernet, “because publishers could not take the risk of bringing out works which were not assured of a fairly large sale.”30

But being a late-comer to printing was also a kind of blessing for Europe. The entire development of printing was highly compressed: Europe adopted paper in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; by the thirteen century good-quality paper was being made in Italy. In the fourteenth century woodblock printing became widely adopted, and the following century saw the development of typographical printing, which spread with astounding rapidity. By contrast, China had used paper as the principal material for writing since the Han period, and the proto printing techniques of stamping and rubbing were also widely used during the Han. Woodblock printing was employed at least from the eighth century. All of these technologies were a routine part of East Asian culture by the end of the first millennium, so printing did not carry the shock of the new for East Asia as it did for Europe . Put another way, the impact of printing in East Asia, though in its way just as dramatic as in Europe, had long since occurred, contributing to the result that East Asian culture was in many respects more advanced than that of Europe; the Gutenberg boom amounted to a kind of catching up with the East.

So was Gutenberg influenced or inspired, directly or indirectly, by Asian printing? As Eva Hanebutt-Benz properly observes, “We do not know if Johannes Gutenberg had any kind of knowledge of the fact that long before his invention printing with moveable type was done in East-Asia.”31 Still, as new information is discovered "the notion that knowledge of printing in the Far East could have found its way to Strasbourg or Mainz," in the view of one Western scholar of printing, "becomes more insistent and persuasive."32 While there is no “smoking gun” to establish a direct connection, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence suggesting that East Asian printing influenced early Renaissance Europe, and we may ask why movable-type technology should have differed from other print technologies in its development. While the continuous line of transmission from East Asia to Europe was for a time interrupted, under the mature Mongol empire widespread trade and exchange resumed, and this occurred around the same time that Korea perfected movable-type printing. The continuous line of cultural connection that existed between Korea and Europe through the fourteenth century would have enabled this technology to follow a similar route of transmission as those that preceded it.



1 Although Gutenberg is widely acknowledged as the first European to print with movable metal type, that honor is sometimes claimed for a handful of other printers. In addition, researchers Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas have recently suggested that Gutenberg did not in fact use movable type as we understand it (Princeton Weekly Bulletin 90, no. 16). This dispute has little bearing on the present argument. [return]

2 Hanbutt-Benz, 41. For full bibliographical information on citations see the selected readings. [return

3 See Hanbutt-Benz for a discussion of some of the technical differences. [return]

4 Photocopying is a type of printing. The internet, on the other hand, inverts printing’s solution to the replication of documents. While printing creates many copies, each providing one view at a time, the internet enables one document to have multiple simultaneous views. Therefore it can be regarded as a profound technological development, comparable in magnitude to printing. [return]

5 According to Marshall McLuhan, “Print created national uniformity and government centralism, but also individualism and opposition to government as such” (255). The democratizing element of printing may seem inevitable from the perspective of the European tradition — to Helmutt Lehmann-Haupt, for example, “it seems quite understandable that printing … should have become associated with popular and democratic rather than aristocratic levels of cultural expression” (75). But this is not as strongly the case from the Asian perspective. [return]

6 Sohn (1959), 96–97. [return]

7 Tsien, 306–307. [return]

8 His account completely confirms Marco Polo’s—except that nowhere is Polo mentioned. [return]

9 Morgan, 193 [return]

10 Printing was developed early in Korea and Japan as well as in China—eighth-century printed charms have been found in all three locations—but its story is easiest to trace in China, which is of importance as the main conduit to the West. The complex stories of the development and spread of ink and glue technologies are beyond the scope of this essay. [return]

11 Tsien, 313. [return]

12 Twichett, 12. [return]

13 Twitchett, 43. By the end of the century problems of inflation and currency devaluation resulted from overprinting of currency. [return]

14 Tsien, 293. [return]

15 Morgan, 165. [return]

16 Tsien, 310. [return]

17 A printing of the Dharani sutra, discovered in Korea in 1966, is undated but must have been produced before 751. The development of Korean printing will be discussed below. [return]

18 Tsien, 313. [return]

19 Tsien, 201–202. [return]

20 Tsien, 203. [return]

21 Berger, 32. [return]

22 Langlois, 273. [return]

23 Tsien, 306 [return]

24 Kim, Kumja Paik (2003), 13. [return]

25 Edward Shultz, “Cultural History of Goryeo,” in Kim, Kumja Paik, 30. [return]

26 Young, “Korea’s Sphere of Maritime Influence,” 18. [return]

27 Kim, Kumja Paik, 19f2 [return]

28 Pow-key Sohn, 100. [return]

29 Ch’on, 20. [return]

30 Gernet, 336. [return]

31 Hanebutt-Benz, 41. [return]

32 Kapr, 109. [return]