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  • The Mongol Conquests in World History by Timothy May
  • Colleen C. Ho
Timothy May, The Mongol Conquests in World History (London and Chicago: Reaktion Books 2012) 320 pp.

Study of the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire is exciting and challenging for all historians, whether a regional or global perspective is taken. It is an appealing topic for students as well, who tend to gravitate towards the enigmatic figure [End Page 303] of Genghis Khan. Even Hollywood is not immune to his charisma, with a movie on the life of the founder of the Mongol Empire supposedly coming out in 2014, starring Mickey Rourke as the great khan himself. It is timely, then, that The Mongol Conquests in World History demonstrates how important the creation of the Mongol Empire was to world history, with a continuing legacy even today. Timothy May argues that the only way to understand the Mongol Empire is to look at it as a whole, through the lens of world history. It is with this approach that we can see how the “conquests that created the Mongol Empire were a direct cause for monumental historical changes in world history” (21). The book is made up of an introduction plus ten chapters, organized into two sections. The introduction has a particularly useful survey of significant primary and secondary sources for the study of the Mongol Empire, though, surprisingly, Peter Jackson’s The Mongols and the West, 1221–1410 does not receive any attention.

Part 1, “The Mongol Conquests as Catalyst,” consists of a broad narrative of Mongol history. Chapter 1 outlines the formation of the Mongol Empire. Chapter 2 does the same for the dissolution of the empire into four khanates—the Empire of the Great Khan (also known as the Yüan Dynasty), the Ilkhanate, the Chaghatayid Khanate, and the Jochid Khanate (more commonly known as the Khanate of the Golden Horde). In the effort to present these two chapters as a historical survey, May misses key moments to further his argument about how the Mongol expansion catalyzed historical moments. Both chapters, however, are welcome references for scholars and students looking for succinct but thorough summaries of the complex bookends of Mongol history. Chapter 3 surveys Eurasia post-Mongol conquest. There are times when May’s analysis of the Mongols’ impact lacks nuance. He notes that the subsequent Ming Dynasty in China maintained some Mongol institutions and “functioned differently from the Chinese kingdoms prior to the Mongols” (94), but it is not clear which pre-Yuan Chinese kingdoms May is referring to, especially as he notes that northern China had been ruled by foreign dynasties since the 900s. The section titled “Lingering Mongol Influence” is the most interesting portion of Part1. May’s discussion of how twentieth century Japanese, Chinese, and Soviet politicians and academics have strategically and propagandistically used the figure of Genghis Khan demonstrates how long-lived the Mongol Empire’s legacy really is, and makes Mongol history especially relevant for current study of world history.

Part 2, titled “The Chinggis Exchange,” examines how the Mongol Empire and its post-dissolution khanates facilitated the movement of people, goods, and ideas to nearly every corner of Eurasia. Chapter 4’s excellent explanation of how Mongol khans encouraged and promoted trade shows how the Mongols did not bring only death and destruction. Chapter 5 draws on May’s first book The Mongol Art of War: Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System (2007), and discusses how Mongol military techniques changed Eurasian warfare. Chapter 6 is a brief review of how the Mongols governed their empire. This is where May’s research focus on Arabic and Persian sources is most obvious. He does not cite fundamental works on how the Mongols governed China by Elizabeth Endicott-West and David Farquhar. Discussion of how the [End Page 304] Yüan administration relied predominantly on non-Mongol and non-Han Chinese administrators would also have been valuable.

The Mongols’ relative religious tolerance had been oft-noted, and chapter 7 examines their specific interactions with Islam, Nestorian and Latin Christianity, and Buddhism. May attributes the lack of Catholic missionary success in part to the papacy’s attitude...


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