- The Mongol Conquests in World History by Timothy May
This work is part of the Globalities series, which investigates big ideas, big changes, and big events in the context of the big picture. The Mongols are therefore natural for inclusion, and May has used them to write a synthetic work designed for a general audience. Thus, although he does refer to some academic controversies and occasionally offers his own scholarly opinions, his overarching aim is to give a broad picture of Mongol activities and their extraordinary impact on practically everyone. This he does very well.
The book is divided into two main sections. In the first, May narrates the rise of Chinggis Khan (d. 1227), the course of the Mongol conquests, and the establishment of the Great Mongol Empire. He then follows that empire through its dissolution in the 1260s, down to the politically fractured history of the subsequent Mongol-influenced [End Page 696] states. This section is clear and easy to read, which is no mean feat considering the convolutions of the historical material. May has therefore done a real service to general readers interested in Chinggis Khan.
In the second section, May models a theory of the “Chinggis Exchange” on Alfred Crosby’s 1972 concept of the Columbian Exchange, which explained the way Columbus’s discovery of the Americas led to the transmission of biological matter between continents, which in turn transformed politics, economics, and society. Although the comparison is compelling and the theoretical potential of a Chinggis Exchange significant, May does not fully elaborate this idea, even though it would have strengthened the second half of the book. Nevertheless, the material within these chapters reflects his conviction of the Mongols’ worldwide importance and does suggest the possibilities that the concept of a Chinggis Exchange could provide.
Chapter 4 (“Pax Mongolica and Trade”) provides a useful general survey of policy, routes, and developments in trade under Chinggis Khan and his son Ögedei (r. 1229–1241) and in the post-empire khanates. To highlight the global impact of the Mongols, May draws “international” connections, like noting that a London fish market collapsed after Russian merchants stayed home to prepare for Mongol invaders and reminding us that Columbus stumbled across the Americas while seeking the Grand Khan.
In chapter 5 (“New Forms of Warfare”), May analyzes the Mongols’ impact on warfare, especially during the Crusades, and in Eastern Europe and Russia, China, Japan, and the Muslim Middle East. He compares the roles of gunpowder versus naphtha weapons in the premodern era, and ends with Chinggis Khan’s influence on twentiethcentury warfare in Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel. This chapter is particularly strong and reflects May’s well-known expertise in all realms of Chinggis Khan’s military.
Chapter 6 (“The Mongol Administration”) tackles a topic that May acknowledges is both huge and little studied, but it achieves only mixed results. Although it does provide a nuts-and-bolts description of administration and administrative terminology in and after the empire, ranging even to the Crimean Tatars and Temür, some trends in Mongol administration (like the financial reforms of the 1230s) could have used elaboration, and questions of impact are (perhaps of necessity) left unanswered.
May opens chapter 7 (“Religion and the Mongols”) by asking why the Mongols did not immediately convert to a world religion, then hypothesizes about the reasons that Christianity made only modest [End Page 697] inroads on the Mongols while Islam and Buddhism eventually spread among them. Although an interesting point of departure, much of this chapter is speculative, and this reviewer would have liked to see these arguments fleshed out in more detail.
Chapter 8 covers the Black Death, which originated in the Mongol Empire and spread because of the empire’s robust trade, a fact known by Mongol specialists but not by many others. May spends this brief but gripping section detailing the rise of the plague and its enormous impact on Europe, the Middle East, and the Mongol khanates, two of which (the Yuan and the...