- Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire by Anne F. Broadbridge
Anyone who looks into the history of the Mongol World Empire soon encounters three extraordinarily powerful and influential women who figured prominently in its rise—Hö’elün (Chinggis Khan’s mother), Börte (his principal wife), and Sorqoqtani (the mother of Khubilai Khan, grandson of Chinggis Khan). More advanced reading soon encounters two more powerful, if somewhat less widely known, women— Töregene (wife and later widow of Ögedei Khan, son of Chinggis Khan) and Oghul-Qaimish (wife and later widow of Güyük Khan, son of Ögedei and grandson of Chinggis). This reviewer found this line of powerful women striking in graduate school, hoping that someday someone would write a full-length monograph about elite and non-elite women as the sine qua non of the empire.
At long last, three such books have arrived; the other two are Jack Weatherford’s The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire (New York, 2010) and Bruno de Nicola’s Women in Mongol Iran: The Khatuns, 1206–1335 (Edinburgh, 2018). Broadbridge’s is the best of the lot.
Chapter 1, “Women in Steppe Society,” which is about women in Mongolian society in general, pieces together an informative and circumstantial account of the lives of elite and non-elite women alike in the thirteenth century. Broadbridge’s conclusion is that “without their logistical, managerial, and economic contributions, to say nothing of their daily labor, steppe life could not have functioned: men would not have been free to raid, or to fight, or even to hunt, and the histories [End Page 178] of the great steppe empires would be very, very short” (42–43). Else-where she points to a key advantage and force multiplier of the Mongol war machine: “[W]omen’s dominance on the ‘home front’ is what enabled Mongol men to specialize in war, and to muster a larger percentage of men as warriors than any other contemporary society” (2).
Broadbridge’s coverage of prominent and elite women begins in Chapter 2, “Hö’elün and Börte.” Her contention that “the stories of the two most important women in his [Chinggis Khan’s] life, his mother and his wife, deserve investigation on their own merits” is certainly on the mark, and she hits it squarely (71). Her innovative and insightful third chapter, “Conquered Women,” narrates how Chinggis Khan’s many secondary wives were from polities that the Mongols crushed. Their lives remind us that “the reverse of Temüjin’s [Chinggis Khan’s] triumphal narrative was the ugly fate of the defeated (73). But a few of these conquered women managed to make major contributions to Chinggisid conquests and institutions, including the imperial guard, the Mongol armies, and imperial succession after Chinggis death in 1227, topics that Broadbridge covers in Chapter 4. In subsequent chapters she covers Töregene, Sorqoqtani, Oghul-Aimish, and consort houses in the khanates. She ends the chapter about Sorqoqtani on a melancholy note: “Like Hö’elün and Töregene before her, Sorqoqtani did not live long past her own son’s enthronement and perished of a wasting illness” (223–223).
Broadbridge does not concentrate on constructing or critically evaluating a general theory of women wielding political power in thirteenth-century Mongolian society. Instead, she extracts what can be known about women within the Mongol World Empire by meticulously interrogating Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Chinese primary historical sources and challenging the prejudicial conclusions and preconceived notions contained in some of them and sometimes perpetuated in secondary scholarship in English, German, and French. She obviously knows Persian and Arabic well but consults mostly English translations of Mongolian and Chinese historical sources.
Reading this book can sometimes be a tough slog; many readers will struggle to keep up with, and avoid being overwhelmed by, all the fine detail. Nonetheless, the tedium of detailed description is necessary groundwork for more adventurous interpretive enterprises. Broadbridge...