Climate and the Mongol Invasions


It seems then that the Nomads, in so far as they remain pure Nomads, are really a “people without a history” after all. Their eruptions out of the Desert into the Sown, like the eruptions of a Vesuvius or an Etna, are the mechanical resolutions of vast but inanimate physical forces.

 Toynbee, p. 452.

 To explain the great invasions we must look for the cause in the life of these peoples itself, in that history which is supposed not to exist.

 Lattimore, p. 248, citing Fox’s Genghis Khan, 1936.

 Although most of the above direct migration records have not given descriptions of the causes of the migration except those of the migrations caused by war losses….”

 Fang / Liu, p. 163.

 Anyone with even a moderate interest in world history will usually know of the various theories holding that nomad invasions are a function of weather and climate – most commonly, that droughts cause desperate nomads to pour into the civilized world. This kind of theory was popularized by Toynbee’s Study Of History (vol. 3, 2nd ed. , 1935) and first developed in Huntington’s 1907 Pulse of Asia. These theories were never empirically well-supported, and they also had serious conceptual deficiencies, but they were taken very seriously for a considerable period and have proven to be surprisingly resilient; they motivate research even today.

On the one hand, I believe that these theories have received much more attention than they have deserved, and are symptomatic of pathologies of method and approach; on the other, it may be that we finally now are on the point of having enough facts to seriously test them (though I doubt that what comes out of the new researches will much resemble the earlier theories).

After discussing the climatic explanation itself, I will speculate about the motivations for these explanations: primarily the modern historian’s desire to provide scientific-seeming deterministic, causal, reductionist explanations; and secondarily, civilization’s need to dehumanize its nomadic enemies.


According to Toynbee, the nomads do not act, but only react. Nomadism itself is “a response to the searching challenge of dessication” (p. 8), and all the recorded eruptions of nomads….

…. are not, as a matter of fact, the spontaneous expressions of the Nomads’ human initiative, but are all produced mechanically by the action upon the Nomads of either one or the other of two alternative external forces: either a pull exerted by one of the sedentary societies in the neighborhood of the Steppes, or else a push exerted by the climate of the Steppes themselves (p. 396. It must be noted that the “pull” of the wealthier cultures is not a mechanical cause like climate or weather, but a motive, and that it is also the motive for most civilized wars).

The “push” is dessication. Toynbee quotes Huntington as follows:

In the deserts, the Nomads increase in number, and their flocks attain great proportions. The crest of a climatic wave is reached. …. [but if there is a reduction of rainfall ] soon he comes into conflict with his fellow Nomads, for all move to the best pasturage and the most permanent waters…. The weaker party is driven out, and begins to wander in search of new pastures and springs. Conflict follows conflict. At length the tribes which have been driven forth grow desperate. Impelled by despair, they pour forth in wild hordes upon the nations round about (p. 435).

Furthermore, Huntington had claimed that these climate changes were global and occurred in a regular cycle, and Toynbee followed him, claiming that

 …. our table of Nomad eruptions is beginning to reveal a regular pattern of movements which are periodical in Time and uniform in Space over the whole extent of the Steppes from the Atlantic coast of the Sahara to the Great Wall of China…. if we think of explaining our six-hundred-year cycle of Nomad eruption as the effect of a climatic push and not of a human pull, we shall find that our hypothesis is reconcilable to the climatic theories of at least one modern school of climatologists. This school, whose most eminent representative is Dr. Ellsworth Huntington, believes that there is a periodic shift of the successive climatic zones that encircle the globe latitudinally, so that the arid subtropical zone…. is oscillating all the time, with a regular periodicity, between two extreme geographic positions” (p. 430; see also p. 437, p. 440).

 The outcome is a grandiose theory that sees, between 2025 BC and 2175 AD (sic), neatly repeating 600 year cycles of nomad invasions from from Morocco to Manchuria. In 1928 Owen Lattimore wrote sympathetically of Huntington’s thesis (p. 62), but he was much more skeptical in 1938 (p. 243):

By piling one assumption on another it is possible to tabulate a history of successive migrations in a manner that looks astonishingly accurate and convincing. It is well to remember that the results that look so solid are based largely not only on a chain of speculative causes and assumed effects, buy often on original details which are much too fragmentary to carry so solid a superstructure.

While no one advocates the Huntington-Toynbee thesis in its pure form any more, I am not really beating a dead horse. Toynbee was a giant in the field, and I suspect that the frequent, seemingly obligatory references to the possibility of climatic causation whenever the steppe is discussed, perfunctory though they often are, are monuments to his past influence, and attempts to revive some adapted version of this theory are, in my opinion, unnecessarily common. And as is often the case, regardless of this theory’s status among specialists, it still thrives among generalists and popular writers.


 I have examined seven recent versions of the climate thesis (Meyer, Lamb, Jenkins, Jacoby, Buell, Atwell, and Fang / Liu). Three of them (Jacoby, Jenkins, and Fang / Liu) actually include data. However, Jacoby’s and Jenkins’ data disagree, and Jacoby’s data seem better:

 In conclusion it is, ex hypothesis, my contention that a major climatic downturn did much to encourage an end to the infighting and vendettas among the Mongol clans and make possible their reorganization under Chinggis’ military authority (Jenkins, p. 226).

Jenkins’ hypothesis that unusual cold continued during Genghis Khan’s actual reign (1206-1228) is not supported by modern tree-ring paleoclimate studies for northern Mongolia after the very early 1200s…. Genghis Khan’s consolidation and expansion of empire coincided with a period of increased growth (warmer) (Jacoby, p. 55).

 The Fang and Liu paper is more promising: it shows that the climate during the Tang dynasty, when China was united and dominant over the steppe, to have been warm and wet, whereas the preceding and following periods of Chinese disunity and nomad power were colder and drier — i.e., during the pre-Tang era when the Toba and the Turks were powerful, and during the post-Tang period of Uighur, Khitan, Jurchen, Tangut, and Mongol rule). However, these data, taken as such, tell us nothing about the later Uighur-Khitan-Jurchen-Mongol succession during a fairly uniform cool period, when the later nomad groups conquered the earlier nomad states, and in point of fact, the Uighur ascendancy began during the warm period. Nonetheless, it is an interesting result, and should be followed up.

Besides being weak in empirical support, climate-causation theories are also often confused about the mechanism. The original Huntington – Toynbee theory combined demographics and climate change: population increased during a period of good climate, and then a climate change for the worse sent desperate nomads into the sedentary world. (This theory is a strange composite, because demographics during any period could create population pressure even without climate change, though climate change could enhance this effect and trigger outbursts). Of the authors listed, Lamb speculates about this “trigger” theory for the Mongol invasions, with a climate downturn at the end of a prosperous period leading to population pressure, steppe disunity and warfare:

 The pastures were in better than usual shape [but there is a] suspicion that some more sudden event connected with the cooling triggered it off (pp. 184-5)….. The Mongol homelands in central Asia seem to have been thriving and overpopulated (p. 317) ….

 Jenkins, however, holds that deteriorating climatic conditions had the opposite effect, forcing steppe unity under Genghis Khan and leading to an enormous outburst of steppe aggression:

 It can hardly be doubted that the cause of these huge displacements of whole populations must be sought in climatic changes (p. 219, citing Lattimore from 1928).

 ….a major climatic downturn did much to encourage an end to the infighting and vendettas among the Mongol clans and make possible their reorganization under Chinggis’ military authority (p. 226)

 Atwell, on the other hand, holds that declining climate conditions weakened the sedentary world and made it vulnerable to attack:

 Of interest here is the fact that virtually everywhere that the Mongols attacked during this brief period recently had experiences, or was just then experiencing, significant economic problems caused, at least in part, by “anomalous” climatic conditions. The extent to which the Mongol homeland itself was being affected by these same anomalies remains to be studied…. (p. 45)

 Finally, Buell (2003, pp. 19-21 and 197) proposes a version of Hudson’s note in Toynbee (also endorsed by Lattimore): improving weather conditions led to sedentary encroachment on grazing lands and made the whole border area into a conflict zone.

But after a century we still don’t have what we would hope for, and what would seem essential for a theory of this type: two correlated time series (one of climatic conditions and one of nomad movements) together with a specific theory explaining the correlations. All we are left with is McGovern’s satirical composite theory – “It got cold / hot / wet / dry and they died / flourished / migrated / multiplied / intensified” – and Ladurie’s question: “But what is one to conclude from such contradictory and unprovable speculations?” (both cited in Meyer, p. 289).

In her Prehistory of the Silk Road (Pennsylvania, 2007, pp.13-14) E.E. Kuzmina surveyed the literature on the climatic theories of steppe history for the several millennia preceding the nomadic era. She concluded as follows: “Unfortunately we do not have conclusive evidence for the climatic and geographical changes in the Eurasian Steppe and the contiguous areas during the Holocene….” She mentions a long series of unresolved questions: a.) discrepancies of as much as two thousand years in conclusions about periods of expansion of the Caspian Sea; b.) conclusions about change vs. lack of change in the Central Asian climate between the sixth and the third millennium B.C.; c.) disagreements about whether the arid steppe landscape emerged around 3000 B.C. or was much more ancient than that; d.) disagreements about whether the boundary of the steppe and the forest-steppe to the North were stable or shifting; e.) discrepancies ranging from several centuries to millennia about the absolute chronology of the Atlantic and Sub-boreal epochs; and f.) disagreements about the time period within which warming occurred within the Sub-boreal epoch.

It is possible that these problems raised by Kuzmina raised have been resolved, just as it is possible that the questions I have raised have been or sometime will be answered. However, it is clear enough that when she wrote the book Kuzmina (not herself a climatologist) did not feel that that discipline had given her usable answers.
If one climatic explanation is the opposite of another can simply mean that one theory is good and the other bad, but one is left with a lingering suspicion that the hypothesis that important historical events of a certain kind are the result of changes in climate is an autonomous enforced paradigm entirely impervious to the demand for evidence.


 Nomad invasions / migrations are not mysterious and puzzling events, and climatic explanations of nomad behavior need to be integrated with what is already known. Historians’ generalized discussions of nomad movements frequently confuse several different kinds of event: actual invasions with the goal of conquest, e.g. the Mongol invasions; more or less organized frontier raiding intended to extract plunder and tribute (e.g., the Xiongnu in China); migrations within the steppe, e.g. the Yuehzhi migrations after their defeat by the Xiongnu, or the Torgut migrations from China to the lower Volga and back; and finally, the flights of small groups to the sedentary world, where they are sometimes accepted as subjects and sometimes slaughtered as invaders. The lines between these categories are not always clear and the category a given movement ends up in can be quite fortuitous, but in many cases the differences are clear enough to make a single-cause explanation doubtful. Military defeat on the steppe is the primary push, and the primary pull is the enormous wealth differential between the steppe world and the sedentary world — the result of the denser sedentary population, the more diversified sedentary economy, the peasant’s relative helplessness in the face of violence, which facilitates the collection of taxes and rents and the accumulation of concentrations of wealth and steep social hierarchies. Neither of these requires a climatic explanation, and the pull of sedentary wealth is is always there regardless of climate.

Given this general explanation of steppe military activities, what is the significance of the climatic factor? First of all, as Lattimore explained, the steppe / sown line is defined to a great extent by climate: areas too dry for crops can still provide excellent pasture. At the same time, climate is not the sole factor drawing that line, since some potential croplands end up reverting to pasture simply because of military pressure from nomads during periods of disorder. But it at least can be said that long- and medium-term climate changes sometimes move the steppe / sown line in one direction or the other, thereby changing the military relationships in various ways — for example, as suggested by Buell.

Second, in the near-subsistence economies of the past, even one or two years of drought or other disaster could cause an economic crisis. This is true both in the pastoral and in the sedentary areas, but it happens more quickly in pastoral areas since pastoralists are not able to store much food except on the hoof. This is the “trigger” explanation which, however, can only be used to explain a specific movement following a sudden dramatic change during the brief period of one or two years, or even just a single spring and summer; the general long-term trends do not trigger anything. And the drought has to be bad enough to motivate movement, but not bad enough to cripple the group in question.

Third, the density of population and military strength both of the steppe world and of the sedentary world are substantially dependent on climate, with warm wet weather making both worlds more prosperous and stronger. The military consequences of this are uncertain, however. They were probably greatest when good conditions in one of the two worlds was accompanied by bad conditions in the other, but most climatic theories so far have assumed general climate change, without specifying variation between different areas.

Fourth, the specific motivational effects of either good or bad conditions on the steppe peoples are uncertain. By and large, nomads went to war when their ponies were fat, and the major, successful nomad military campaigns (the ones which have forced historians to think about this topic) do not at all fit Huntington’s model of desperate tribes pouring forth in wild hordes” The trigger explanation might fit some of the migrations within the steppe or some of the flights of defeated peoples taking refuge in the sedentary world. But even these cases, military defeat is always the proximate cause.

Finally, while unity or disunity on the two sides of the line is the major factor deciding which side gets to play “divide and conquer”, and which side will emerge victorious, neither Huntington’s theory (that declining weather conditions cause disunity) nor Jenkins’ opposing theory (that declining conditions make unity possible) is convincing.


 The climatic theory of the nomad invasions was developed during the era of high positivism, when ambitious determinist-reductionist theories, often cyclic, were uncritically welcomed; in the extreme cases the goal of these theories was to describe all human behavior in terms of external causes, leaving no place for any human agency at all. Often these theories were also shaped by grand geopolitical theories of the rise and fall of empires and European dreams of world dominance — stories that had to be simple and vivid in order to be effective. And a final strand was the age-old civilized suspicion that there was something uncanny, unnatural, mysterious, and inhuman about the nomads and their triumphs. At a certain point some version of the climatic theory became a required, obbligato part of any discussion of nomad history, always good for a speculative paragraph and requiring at least a nod even from skeptics.

At the same time, however, this discussion may now be entering a new era, when the theory can actually be tested against data and refined or rejected accordingly. If the data keep coming in, at some point it should be possible to produce a nuanced case-by-case history of the two millennia of nomad incursions within which the role of climate change and weather variations can be plainly seen, in some cases driving desperate refugees from the steppe to become either bandits and raiders or mercenary defenders of civilization depending on their reception, and in other cases allowing the nomads to build up enormous, well-fed armies capable to sweeping all before them. But it seems highly unlikely that these new histories will include grand universal theories of the Huntington-Toynbee type, which seem to me so weakly grounded that they should just be forgotten.


 A recently-published study seems to be a good example of the kind of limited, fact-based study that I’ve called for. It is based on actual climate data about a specific period, and it correlates this data with a specific event. And while it speaks rather vaguely of a new climate regime as “the key which made possible” the rise of the Mongol Empire, whereas the earlier regime had “contributed to” weakness and disunity, the mechanisms in question are clear enough. As they theorize, before 1190 low rainfall caused military weakness, whereas after 1211 heavy rainfall led to military strength. Thus climate, without being “the cause” of the Mongol rise, might have inhibited it during the earlier period while enabling it aduring the later period. In particular, they make the valid point (also made by others) that under drought conditions steppe peoples come close to mere subsistence and thus lack the kind of surplus that makes foreign adventures possible.

More specifically, there was a drought 1180-1190, normal weather (apparently) 1190-1211, and very wet weather 1211-1226. The drought supposedly contributed to Mongol disunity, but some degree of disunity was more the rule than the exception on the steppe, and in any case the eastern Mongols after 1190 were reasonably well unified under the rule of Temujin’s patron Ong Khan. After about 1196 Genghis Khan increased in strength and eventually displaced the aging Ong Khan and became the ruler of most of his ulus,  adding newly-conquered peoples until 1206 when he unified the eastern steppe and was proclaimed Genghis Khan. He spent the next 12 years adding Manchuria, Xixia, and the western steppe to his ulus, beginning his raids on Jin China in 1211(at the very beginning of the wet period). In 1218 he attacked Khwarizm (today’s Uzbekistan and neighboring areas), which fell with remarkable ease, and after that on the Mongols went from success to success for about 60 years.

It is possible that the weakness and disunity of the steppe before 1190 can be partly attributed to drought, Genghis Khan’s unification of the eastern steppe in 1206 may have been helped along  by normal conditions, but it was the outcome of a series of purposive actions and contingent events and there was certainly no necessity to it. But it is true that the added military strength after 1211 certainly would have been advantageous.

Warm, Wet Times Spurred Medieval Mongol Rise (Smithsonian)

From 1180 to 1190, Central Mongolia experienced an intense drought that probably contributed to the political instability of that time. Established patterns of leadership were disrupted, and the region saw continuous warfare. “The worsening dry conditions…would have been an important contributing factor in the collapse of the established order and emergence of a centralized leadership under [Genghis] Khan,” the researchers write.

 In 1211, Central Mongolia then entered its most unusual period in the millennium-long record: a 15-year stretch that was warm and, more importantly, incredibly wet. Those conditions would have provided a surplus of grass for both the horses for the Mongol army—each trooper would bring three to five horses so that he always had a fresh ride—and the livestock that followed the army to keep the warriors fed.

 (Original source of Smithsonian article: Pluvials, droughts, the Mongol Empire, and modern Mongolia: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)


 The Retreat of the Elephants

 In Mark Elvin’s book The Retreat of the Elephants there is what I believe to be an unnecessary pro forma reference to the climatic thesis. As part of his explanation of the disappearance of elephants from China, we read this:
What were the causes of this disaster (from the elephant’s point of view)? In part it was likely to have been the cooling of the climate, as referring back to the last column in Table 1 in the previous chapter will suggest. Elephants do not resist cold well (p. 9)….

 and this:

 Climatic change must have been a factor in their long and eventually fatal southward retreat…. (p. 32)

 But Elvin also gives four other causes: the elephant-hunts of the nobility and the king, private commercial ivory-hunting, habitat destruction by agriculturalists, and hunting by farmers protecting their crops. Furthermore, the climate data he gives are not convincing. His Map 2 (”The Retreat of the Elephants”, p. 10) shows the constant retreat of the elephants from 5000 BC onward, and there is little correlation with the climate conditions shown in his Table 1 (“Time-marks in Chinese environmental history”, p. 6). The largest single retreat was between 580 A.D. and 1050 A.D., but according to the Fang / Liu article, cited by Elvin, as well as the Jacoby article I have referenced above, that was was a warm period.

With regard to the disappearance of the very last elephants in SW China around 1400, Elvin (2006, p. 117) cites a paper by Robert Marks (1998, p. 46). “In the case of the forest elephant of Lingnan in South China, its disappearance around 1400 can be explained by either hunting, climatic change, or habitat destruction”. However, while Marks acknowledges the possiblity of a climatic explanation, he does not commit himself to it, and in fact he leans toward the theory that the human factor is most important. In any case, Marks is only writing about the last three centuries of a 2000 year process.

Thus, between 900 BC and 1100 AD at least, and probably all the way until the elephants’ final disappearance in 1400 AD, it seems to be the case that the various sorts of human pressure were an adequate explanation for the retreat of the elephants, and that in the absence of much more data there is little real reason also to speak of climate at all.


 Atwell, William, “Volcanism and Short-term Climate Change in East Asian and World History”, Journal of World History, Vol.12, #1, Spring, 2001, pp. 29-98.

Boodberg, Peter A., Selected Works of Peter A. Boodberg, California, 1979: “Turk, Aryan, and Chinese in Central Asia”, pp. 1-21.

Buell, Paul D., “The Role of the Sino-Mongolian Frontier Zone in the Rise of Chinggis-Qan”, pp. 63-76, Studies on Mongolia, ed. Schwarz, Bellingham, 1979.

Buell, Paul D., Historical Dictionary of the Mongol Empire, Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Curtin, Jeremiah, The Mongols, Combined Books 1996 / Little, Brown 1908: “Foreword”, Theodore Roosevelt, pp. ix-xv.

Douglas, Mary, “Passive Voice Theories in religious sociology,” In an Active Voice, Routledge Kegan Paul, 1982.

Elvin, Mark, The Retreat of the Elephants, Yale, 2004.

Fang Jin-Qi and Liu Guo, “Relationship between Climatic Change and the Nomadic Southward Migrations in Eastern Asian During Historical Times”, Climatic Change, Vol. 22. 1992, pp. 151-169.

Frank, Andre Gunder, VU Press, The Centrality of Central Asia, 1992.

Frank, Andre Gunder, The World System, Routledge, 1993.

Gellner, Ernest, Anthropology and Politics, Blackwell, 1995.

Heather, Peter, Empires and Barbarians, Oxford, 2009.

Ibn Khaldun, tr. Rosenthal, The Muqaddimah, Bollingen / Princeton, 1967.

Jacoby, Gordon, “Tree Rings, Climate History, and Genghis Khan”, in   Fitzhugh, Rossabi, Honeychurch, eds., Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian, n.d. (2007 or later), pp. 53-55.

Jenkins, Gareth, “A Note on Climatic Cycles and the Rise of Chingiss Khan.” Central Asiatic Journal, Vol. 18, No. 4(1974): pp. 217-226.

Khazanov, Anatoly, Nomads and the Outside World, Wisconsin. 1994.

Kuzmina, E. E., Prehistory of the Silk Road, Pennsylvania, 2007.

Lamb, H.H., Climate, History, and the Modern World, Routledge, 1995.

Lattimore, Owen, Studies in Frontier History, Oxford, 1962 (especially “The Geographical Factor in Mongol History”, pp. 241-258).

Lattimore, Owen, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, 1962, Beacon: pp, 238-251, “The ‘Reservoir’ and the Marginal Zone”.)

Marks, Robert, Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt, Cambridge, 1998.

Meyer, William B., “Climate and Migration”, in Bell-Fialkoff, ed., The Role of Migration in the History of the Eurasian Steppe, St. Martin’s, 2000, pp 287-294.

Pederson, Hessl, Baaterbileg, Anchukaitis,and  di Cosmo, “Pluvials, droughts, the Mongol Empire, and modern Mongolia”, PNAS, February 11, 2014.

Sinor, Denis, Inner Asia and its Contacts with Medieval Europe, Ashgate/ Variorum, 1977, I: “Central Eurasia”.

Sun Tzu, tr. Lionel Giles, CMC / Ch’eng Wen reprint, 1978.

Steensgaard, Niels, “Violence and the Rise of Capitalism”, Review (of the Braudel Center), V. 2, Fall, 1981, pp. 247-73.

Steensgaard, Niels, Coercion, Capitalism, and European States, Blackwell 1992.

Toynbee, Arnold, A Study of History, vol. III, 2nd ed., 1935.

Wolf, Eric, Europe and the People Without History, California, 1982.

Zielinski, Sarah, “Warm, Wet Times Spurred Medieval Mongol Rise”, Smithsonian, March 10, 2014.

Published in: on February 16, 2014 at 4:39 am  Leave a Comment  

The Glories of the Fin de Siècle

The premature death of Morny [the half-brother and right-hand man of Napoleon the Third] has been attributed by some to his habit, common among fashionable Parisians, of taking not only “blue pills” (mercury with glycerin and honey of rose, widely used in the 19th century both as an anti-depressant and as a purgative) but also arsenic, reputed to be a youth preserver.”

Virginia Rounding,Grandes Horizontales, Bloomsbury, 2003, pp.211-213

Judith Gautier had complimented Pierre Loti on the rare proportion — only to be found in Greek statues — of the second toe to in relation to the big one; according to the canon, it should be considerable longer. By wearing sandals on his bare feet, Loti had succeeded in emphasizing that detail, of which he was, in fact, very proud.

Joanna Richardson, Judith Gautier, Quartet, 1986, p. 152.

Catulle Mendės never talked to me about Judith, except when one summer day when a big fly was buzzing between the curtain and the window panes. “Judith was very clever at swatting flies”, he murmured, “they used to say that that was connected with Satanism. The demoniacs called Beelzebub Lord of the Flies”.

Richardson, p. 167.

Suzanne Meyer-Zundel was intellectually lazy, she had small interest in books, and she could not write acceptable French. Her only gift appears to have been the unusual gift of modeling flowers out of breadcrumbs, an occupation at which she showed an unchallenged skill.

Richardson, pp. 185-186.

Published in: on February 8, 2014 at 10:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Dolores Haze was normal, poor Dora was sick.

Sigmund Freud,
Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,
Collier, 1963.

He then came back, and, instead of going out by the open door, suddenly clasped the girl to him and pressed a kiss upon her lips. This was surely a situation to call up a distinct feeling of sexual excitement in  a girl of fourteen who had never been approached. But Dora had at that moment a violent feeling of disgust…. In this scene,…. the behavior of this child of fourteen was already entirely and completely hysterical. I should without question consider a person hysterical in whom an occasion of sexual excitement elicited feelings that were preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable (pp. 43-44).

Published in: on January 15, 2014 at 3:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Monomania as Philosophy

(People who like “Monomania as Philosophy” will probably also like “Where Both Philosophy and Sex Went Wrong“)

René Descartes, tr. Clarke, Discourse on Method, Penguin, 1999.

René Descartes,tr. Ariew / Cress, Meditations, Hackett, 2006.

I was then in Germany, where I had been drafted because if the wars going on there, and as I was returning to the army from the emperor’s coronation, the arrival of winter delayed me in quarters where, finding no company to distract me and, luckily, having no cares or passions to trouble me, I used to spend the whole day alone in a room that was heated by a stove, where I had plenty of time to concentrate on my own thoughts…. DM p. 11

If this were the beginning of a short story, we would know what to expect next: cabin fever, dementia,  haunting by ghosts, murder, suicide, or hopeless insanity. And in fact, Descartes did experience quite considerable distress:.

As I consider these problems more carefully, I see so plainly that there are no definite signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep. As a result, I am becoming quite dizzy, and my dizziness nearly convinces me that I am asleep….. Yesterday’s meditation has thrown me in such doubts that I can no longer ignore them, yet I fail to see how they are to be resolved. It is as if I had suddenly fallen into a deep whirlpool; I am so tossed about that I can neither touch bottom with my foot, nor swim to the top. M 10/13 (more…)

Published in: on December 28, 2013 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Where philosophy and sex both went wrong

Plato’s Phaedrus, tr. Hackforth, Library of Liberal Arts, 1952.

Plato, tr. Hamilton,The Symposium, Penguin, 1951

According to Plato philosophy is eros, but it is an entirely non-carnal eros which is not the desire for physical consummation, but instead the desire for the knowledge of abstract, invisible Ideal Forms. It was upon this lucus a non lucendo that Western philosophy was founded. Plato’s description of the carnal eros (from which philosophy developed in stages) hardly prettifies it — eros, after all, is the desire or need for a Beauty which is absent, and is not itself beautiful.

The obsessed lover is driven almost mad with desire, and must misperceive the beloved as a god:

[The lover] beholds a godlike face or bodily form that truly expresses beauty, first there comes to him a shuddering and a measure of that awe which the vision inspired, first there comes on him reverence as at the sight of a god ….with the passing of the shudder, a strange sweating and fever seizes him; by reason of the stream of beauty entering through his eyes comes a warmth…. [he] throbs with ferment in every part…. (Phaedrus pp. 96-7).

Lovers are broken and desperate, driven helplessly by their need:

Each of this is thus the broken tally of a man…. and each of us is perpetually in search of his corresponding tally (Symposium p. 62). (more…)

Published in: on December 7, 2013 at 2:31 am  Comments (5)  

The μακελοσ Queen

Queen Christina was a very serious coin collector and commissioned a series of 118 coins commemorating her life, which she called her “histoire metallique”, though only 8 of them were actually struck before her abdication.

One of them is a recognizable image of Christina wearing the helmet of Athena, the Athenian virgin goddess of wisdom. The logo on the reverse side, μακελοσ, puzzled scholars until they realized that it was the Swedish word “makelos”, which means “peerless or unmatched”, “unmarried”, and perhaps (by a stretch) “undefeated”.

This word is seen in Middle English in the form of “makeles”, and is an epithet of the Virgin Mary :

I synge of a mayden
That is makeles:
Kyng of alle kynges
To hir son she ches.

Christina was without false modesty or, it would seem, any other kind.

NOTE: In German makellos means “unblemished”, “without stain”, “immaculate”, meanings I cannot find in English (OED) or  Anglo-Saxon. Etymologically it is a completely different word, from the Latin macula. But the Virgin Mary was also immaculate, , though the Immaculate Conception is a fairly recent dogma.

Queen Christina of Sweden, 1659 Makelos coin.

Published in: on November 29, 2013 at 7:47 pm  Comments (1)  

The Comanche Empire

The period of Comanche domination of Texas, New Mexico, northern Mexico, and much of the American West between 1750 and 1850 is just a passing footnote in American and Mexican history, but it provides an interesting perspective on many important historical questions, notably the history of the Eurasian steppe and the role of violence in long-distance trade. 

My information about the Comanches comes from Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire and Gwynn’s Empire of the Summer Moon [Update: with James Brooks’s Captives and Cousins added in an appendix]. Of these authors, Gwynn especially emphasizes  the brutality of the Comanches, and Jared Diamond and others have recently revived tha claim that life in prestate societies is usually bloody and violent.  However, with a better understanding of the historical status of violence and of  aristocratic men of violence in human history, the violence of the Comanches will be seen to  have been pretty much normal.

Completely secure in their home territory on the Llano Estacado in northwestern Texas, western Oklahoma, and neighboring areas of Kansas, New Mexico, and Colorado, the Comanches held Spanish New Mexico as a tributary vassal, raided northern Mexico and lowland Texas with impunity, and controlled trade in much of the American West, within which Comanche became the trade language.  For many Native Americans in the West Comanche markets were the main source for the goods of European America, while for European America they were a source of such goods as buffalo robes, buffalo meat, and slaves, but especially horses: the Comanche territory included the best pasture in North America.

From the perspective of Asian history Comancheria seems very similar to the various small, short-lived nomad / Chinese states which would fill power vacuums in north China during the periods of division, passing from existence once a strong Chinese dynasty arose. A comparison can also be made as well the Bulgar and Khazar trade states that arose north of the Black and Caspian seas during the second half of the first millenium AD. These states were founded by nomad raiders akin to the Huns, but they  eventually became nodes in a relatively peaceful trade network reaching from Greenland to China, the Middle East, and India, and ultimately to the Mongol trade empire that dominated  half of Eurasia. These states were much larger and longer-lived than Comancheria, but they suggest a development trajectory which might have been possible under different historical circumstances.

Spain was the first of the Western powers to lay claim to Comancheria, but Spanish control of New Mexico and Texas after the 1680 Pueblo revolt was very insecure . Starting about 1720 the French (who claimed the Mississippi valley) challenged Spanish control, but in 1763 France lost almost all of its North American possessions and Spain acquired most of French Louisiana (the west bank of the Mississippi and points west).  By this time, however, Spanish New Mexico was more or less under Comanche control and Spanish Texas was at the Comanches’s mercy, and the Spanish claim to Louisiana was virtually meaningless.

In 1783 the British claims east of the Mississippi and south of Canada passed to the United States, and in 1803 France recovered Louisiana from Spain and immediately sold it to the US.  However, the American claim was initially hardly more real than the Spanish claim had been, especially because the United States had to deal almost immediately with the British invasion of 1812. Whatever plans Spain had to gain control of its territory were ended by the Mexican Revolution of 1820, and the new Mexican state’s plans in that regard were quickly challenged by the rise of the Republic of Texas and by the Mexican War. The Mexican War was followed almost immediately by the Civil War, and in 1865 the victorious Union Armies had their hands full pacifying Texas, and for that reason signed a treaty favorable the Comanches. Finally, as soon as the Texans were quiet, the full power of General Sherman’s army was directed at the Comanches, and by 1874 their century of power was ended.

Despite the various European claims, during this period Comancheria controlled a large area and functioned as a state, signing treaties with the French in 1746, with the Spaniards in Santa Fe in 1754  and 1786, with Texas Republic in 1836 and 1843, and with the United States in 1865. These treaties were mostly favorable to the Comanches, since the Comanches were  the stronger party up until 1865 (and in fact, according to a visitor, believed that they were the most powerful people in the world), they interpreted the treaties as they saw fit. This is the explanation for a puzzling and bothersome thing about Comanche behavior: How could they negotiate so reasonably at one moment, and then at a later time behave with appalling brutality? There is really no mystery: the Comanches were the stronger party granting favors, and the westerners were their subject peoples, and from time to time imperialists have to get strict with their subjects. For the moment, it was the European-Americans who were the victims of unequal treaties unfairly enforced,as if Comancheria were a legitimate sovereign state like Spain, France, or England.

After the 1680 Pueblo revolt the Native American peoples had acquired horses, and the Comanches were the first to master their use.  Very quickly they developed a pastoral way of life (complete with cavalry warfare) which sharply contrasted with their earlier hunter-and-gatherer lifestyle in the Great Basin. From their new homeland in the Llano Estacado they became the major power over a large area and remained so for most of two centuries.  Their cavalry armies were almost irresistible and their raids could be horrifyingly savage, but (like the Vikings, the Mongols, the Venetians, the Hellenes, and 19th century Europeans) they were not merely raiders and plunderers, but also the center of a large trading network which included St. Louis, New Orleans, Santa Fe,  Pembina on the Canadian border, and a number of smaller towns. Roughly speaking, they held Comancheria as their homeland, dominated the areas north and west of them as their sphere of influence, held the Santa Fe area as a vassal, and plundered Texas and North Mexico (possibly as a step on the way toward making them vassals too), and engaged in foreign trade at Pembina, St Louis, New Orleans, and a few other places.

Not only were the material culture and lifestyle of the Comanches similar to that of the Mongols and other Asian steppe nomads, so were their foreign relations: a diplomacy of shifting alliances, the alternation of sudden cavalry raids from a safe haven and peaceful trade, and the adoption of captive children to be raised as Comanches. The Comanches hunted buffalo rather than raising sheep, but all the evidence is that, even if the US Army had not destroyed their nation, they would eventually have been forced to shift from hunting to some sort of pastoralism. There is an old argument in anthropology about whether or not (and to what degree) cultures are formed by their physical environments and the kinds of economies that these environments make possible, and the development of Comanche nomadism seems to support the thesis that this influence is very considerable.

Frederick Lane, Niels Steensgaard, and Charles Tilly have written about the role of violence in the formation both of of international trading networks and of nation states. Lane described Venice’s Middle Age trade network in the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, China and the Middle East; Steensgaard discussed early modern trade empires of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English; and Tilly wrote of the rise of the states of early modern Europe. Traders on the steppe or in international waters either had to have a capacity for violence, or local protectors with such a capacity, and if they could do so they not only protected their own traders but captured and plundered competing traders in order to gain a monopoly. Likewise, if trading partners refused to trade, traders could simply plunder them. Lane distinguishes between “negative protection” of trade (protecting your own traders) and “positive protection” (destroying competition the and giving your own traders an advantage), and he also develops a continuum model of trade based on power relations, with pure plunder at one end, free gifts at the other, pure free trade in the middle, and extortion, protection payments, tributes, taxes, and forced trade (semi-free exchange) lined up between plunder and free trade. The ideally non-violent free trade which free marketers take as typical is merely one particular form, and really can only occur when  power relations are such that neither side can benefit from the use of or the threat of force.

The state is “protection” writ large, and Tilly described the rise of the modern nation state in terms of the accumulation and centralization of wealth, on the one hand, and of military power on the other. It is to be noted that the states he studied with wealth but little centralized military power (the northern Italian city states and the Dutch Republic) eventually receded into the second rank, whereas Russia, always a poor nation per capita but with a huge, centralized military, remains powerful today. In any case, once these states were securely established they sent out their own raiders to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and in the course of time succeeded in destroying, among others, the Comanches.

There is no nonviolent theory of the international relations or of the state, but theorists of these topics do not go into detail about the cruelty and brutality of the necessary violence. Gwynn stresses the Comanches’ cruelty, but the Comanches did not do to Texans anything that Europeans did to each other during, e.g., the Thirty Years War or the Inquisition. The Comanche atrocities are not about “barbarism”. What they did in Texas, an area whose control was being contested, were within the normal range of violence for the various earlier empires, nations, and states and must be viewed in that larger context. On the blood-drenched stage of world history  Comanche violence was well within the normal range . We are more aware of the Comanche violence because the victims were people like us, and because the survivors were literate in English. From this same period we have much less testimony from the African victims of the slave trade (or as far as that goes, from 20th-century Congolese), and unsurprisingly the testimony we do have is not as widely circulated.

Lane tentatively suggests the four-stage development of states. According to this theory, the Comanches were already at Stage Two with regard to their Santa Fe dependency and the Native Americans to their north and west, but still at Stage One (“anarchy and plunder”)  in the contested areas of  Texas and Northern Mexico. An alternate history could be written in which Comancheria passed through the other stages to become civilized frontier trading state like Bulgar, Khazaria, or Xixia, all of which were founded by nomadic trader-raiders. In order for this to have happened, a large number of things would have had to have been different, but if, for example, there had been no railroads or firearms, and if the United States still had to contest control of North America with an equally-powerful state, Comancheria might still be with us today.


Brooks’ Captives and Cousins describes the cross-border relationships between Comancheria, Santa Fe, and Texas in more detail than do my other two sources. From this book it is possible to get a feeling for the alternation of raiding and peace treaty; in this zone peace was hoped for by the settled peoples, but it could not be expected, and if a group within the decentralized Comanche nation offered peace and friendship, the settled peoples would be glad enough to accept it even though Comanche raids were a very recent memory, and even though the peace might end up being fragile.

Brooks also shows the hybrid nature of these societies, with captives, slaves. and renegades from the other side of the line comprising a considerable part of the population of each people. Furthermore, in this mixed society, the loyalties of many Anglos and Hispanics could be divided, and in some circumstances some of them would prefer to affiliate with the Comanches than with their “own” government in Mexico City or Washington D.C.

According to Owen Lattimore, the Chinese walls were not meant merely to protect against the barbarian hordes, but also to mark the limits of Chinese power and keep Chinese subjects within those limits, thus preventing the formation of Comancheria-type hybrid societies with mixed loyalties.


Many years ago I read Joseph Schumpeter’s “Sociology of Imperialism” for an undergraduate class, and his line of thinking still seems popular among economists and libertarians. Ideal capitalism is “unwarlike” and the imperialism of capitalist nations is  “motivated by primitive aggressive instincts”, “non-rational and irrational”, “atavistic in character” – “the heritage of the autocratic state” which will  inevitably disappear. In the light of Lane, Steensgaard and Tilly this seems like special pleading, the projection of a  Platonic ideal has never been actual. The medieval “peaceful bourgeois” of whom Schumpeter speaks was a subjugated bourgeois, dominated and intermittently dispossessed by his noble rulers. Capitalists normally work within the coercion  regime that is in place, and do not need to participate actively in the violence themselves as long as their activities are protected; they will be happy delegate the task and ride free if they can (treating law and order as a “free good”, in Lane’s words).

Furthermore, as Adam Smith pointed out, every individual capitalist is perfectly willing to undermine the capitalist system (for example, by gaining a monopoly or promoting a war) if there is profit in it for him personally. In uncontrolled international waters and frontier lands where traders needed to protect themselves (as in the cases of medieval Venice, ancient Athens, the medieval Vikings, or 19th century Comancheria), they made their own law, and nothing forces them to limit themselves to self defense or to eschew  “positive protection” and forced trade (piracy and plunder). And it might be added that traders who trade in slaves or weaponry, as most of the early long-distance traders did, cannot be called “peaceful” even if they themselves do not use weapons.


Gwynn informs us that (much to the displeasure of some of his Texan admirers) Theodore Roosevelt cultivated the friendship of the once greatly feared Comanche war chief Qanah Parker. This is not surprising: like many others in the 19th and the early 20th century, Roosevelt was a war lover  and success worshipper who only regretted the comic opera flavor of his own military exploits during the Spanish American War. In his foreword to Jeremiah Curtin’s 1907 book The Mongols,  after a long, worshipful recitation of the Mongol triumphs (and a comment about historians’ Eurocentrism), Roosevelt explicitly compares the Mongols to the Comanches. (Of course, Roosevelt does end the piece with the usual comments on the Mongols’ “ant-like or bee-like” power of joint action, the “maddening” Chinese bureaucracy they imposed, and the “hideous and noxious” consequences of their triumph).


Lane (p. 416) on “forced trade”:

“To the objection that a “forced sale” is really no “sale” at all, and that the concepts of exchange do not apply, it may be answered: (a) “Forced “is a matter of degree”. At one extreme the buyer may have the alternative of payment or death, or taking extreme chances of dying. This choice faces not only those who pay for “protection”, but also those who depend for water on a supplier who has a monopoly of the supply. During a desperate famine buyers of food have only this choice.  In some cases of illness patients are in this sense practically forced to agree to the fee asked….. (c) Calling the taxpayer a purchaser of protection is no more inadmissible than saying that the servile laborers of an eastern German landlord were ‘selling’ their labor service to their landlord, yet an economist describes that situation by saying: ‘The Lord of the manor was a monopsonist with a closed demand’…. When laborers had to work for the landlord at the wage he offered or else have no means of livelihood, there was a ‘forced sale’ with force in the hands of the buyer”.


Brooks, James ,Captives and Cousins, North Carolina, 2002.

Gwynn, S.C., Empire of the Summer Moon, Scribner, 2010.

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire, Yale, 2008.

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, War and State Formation in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, 2005.

Sechin Jagchid, Peace, War, and Trade along the Great Wall, Indiana, 1989.

Frederick Lane, Venice and History, Johns Hopkins, 1966.

Louis Proyect, “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”,

Theodore Roosevelt, “Foreword” to Jeremiah Curtin, The Mongols, Combined Books, 1996 (1908).

Joseph Schumpeter, Imperialism and Social Classes, World Publishing Co., 1961.

Niels Steensgaard, The Asian Trade Revolution, Chicago, 1973.

Niels Steensgaard, “Violence and the Rise of Capitalism, Review of the Braudel Society, vol. V, #2, Fall 1981, pp. 247-273.

Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, Blackwell 1992.

Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, California, 1982.

Published in: on November 27, 2013 at 10:10 pm  Comments (2)  

Sexual Customs of the Icelanders

Blefkenius (a 16th century explorer) reported that young Icelandic women (“very beautiful but poorly dressed”) offered travelers sexual hospitality much like the Babylonian temple prostitution reported by Herodotus. Marco Polo reports the same custom in two places he visited —  a city in what is now Xinjiang, and a place which he calls Tibet. (Blefkarius’s report was stoutly denied by Arngrimus Jonas, a coadjutor to the bishop of Iceland who, Bayle informs us, married a young woman when he was in his late 80s and lived well into his 90s.)

In The Fate of Shechem Pitt Rivers discusses customs of this type, especially the sexual hospitality offered to the Pharoah and Abimelech by Abraham and Isaac, which was also discussed by Bayle).  However, he emphasizes the nomadism of the early Hebrews, which was not a factor in the other cases.

Blefkenius also reported that it is forbidden to leave the table during Icelandic drinking bouts, so that young girls would bring chamber pots and hold them under the tables so that the celebrants could relieve themselves. Marco Polo reported a similar custom among the Rus, who during the 13th century were not as different from Scandinavians as the Russians are today. And Kepler reported that Tycho Brahe’s death was the result of “courtesy”:  “even though he felt the tension in his bladder increasing ….he put politeness before his health”. (However, others have suggested that it was a contest, and that Brahe died because his fierce competitiveness).

What are we to make of this? Did Blefkarius plagiarize Polo? (If he did, Bayle didn’t catch it; perhaps he hadn’t read Polo, a non-classical author). The first story resembles the timeless joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. It may be that a certain kind of person (represented by Blefkarius, Polo, Herodotus, and Abimelech) makes sure to find this custom wherever he goes, whether it was already there or not.

We should also note that during this era blonde people were not necessarily “white”. Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Battuta, and Marco Polo all describe both the pale northern peoples and the black Africans as lewd, filthy, superhumanly strong barbarians.

Dumb Swedes.

Judge William Cant declares Finns to be white (1908).

Bjork on ancient Icelandic customs

Sources: Marco Polo, Moule tr., pp. 269-270, 476; Tycho (per Kepler), Koestler’s Sleepwalkers, p. 311; Blefkarius, Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, pp. 104-106.

Published in: on November 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Marco Polo and Diversity

Marco Polo not only discovered Asia (for Europe), he discovered diversity. And he told us so:

Toutes gens que volés savoir les deverses jenerasions des homes et les deversités des deverse region dou monde, si prennés cestui livre et le feites lire. Et qui trovererés toutes les grandismes mervoilles et the grant diversités de la grande Harminie et de Persie et des Tartars et de Inde….

Marco Polo, Chapter One

(Everyone who wants to know the diverse nations of men and the diversities of the diverse regions of the world, take this book and read it. And here you will find all of the greatest marvels and the great diversities of Greater Armenia and of Persia and of the Tartars and of India…..)

This is from the Franco-Italian version of Marco Polo, written in a non-standard mixed dialect at a time when even Court French wasn’t really very standardized: “Old French doesn’t have rules, but only tendencies” (Kibler, Introduction to Old French).

There are about seven texts of Marco Polo which are regarded as in some way “original”; all are early versions of a series of texts which have been lost. The Franco-Italian text is thought to be closest to the original, and it’s noticeably badly written. This is unsurprising, since vernacular literature in French was only a little more than a century old, Marco Polo was not a writer at all and may have been illiterate in European languages, and his co-author Rustichello was an Italian trying to write French. The dialect used was a compromise language related to the lingua franca of the crusaders and Mediterranean sailors, adapted as much as possible to the language of the literary romances. (Besides translating, Marco Polo’s translators also cleaned up the writing a bit — the Tuscan version uses the word “diverse”, in some form), only three times instead of four, and the Court French translation uses it only twice.)

Serious literature during that period was written in Latin, whereas vernacular literature of that period was secular, profane, and often rather trashy. (Unfortunately, Polo’s contemporaries Dante and Cavalcanti were already working to change this by producing tiresome vernacular work.)  Marco Polo’s book fits loosely into the era’s “Wonders of the East” genre, and Rusticello folded in as much heroic romance as he could. While these genres may seem naive, folkish, and low class to us today, they were intended for the nobility and their hangers-on.

I can’t think of another book in world history where the form-content imbalance was as great as it is in this one.

Published in: on May 28, 2013 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Renaissance Wogs

The Problem of Unbelief in the 16th Century: The Religion of Rabelais (Lucien Febvre, 1942)

They were simple people who gave way to their feelings. We repress ours…. (p. 100)

Here, too, was the “underdevelopment of sight”.  He was content to “feel” — like his whole age (p. 454).

Who was Febvre talking about? Martin Luther, and with him, the entire Renaissance: Erasmus, More, Montaigne, Pico, Rabelais, the whole shebang. This is the Annales school’s famous histoire des mentalités. Where did it come from?

A while ago our teacher Lévy-Bruhl investigated how and why primitives reasoned differently from civilized men. Yet a good part of the latter remained primitives for a long time (p. 6).

But  Lévy-Bruhl was refuted by Lévi-Strauss, and there’s no such thing as “la mentalité primitive”!  And anyway, you’re not supposed to talk about white people that way — Luther and Erasmus were not wogs! (Paging Edward Said).

During the first half of the 20th century French rationalism and scientism were fierce and savage. Febvre was diligently refuting an even more rationalistic earlier book by Abel Lefranc which had claimed that Rabelais himself was a pure rationalist, centuries ahead of his time.

Published in: on April 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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