Here comes The Mongols

The recent death of my mentor and friend, David Morgan (1945-2019), scholar of the Mongol Empire and the author of The Mongols (1986, 2007) compels me to reflect on the reasons why I wrote my book, also titled The Mongols. Professor Morgan’s The Mongols was the first academic book I read concerning the Mongols. Like many, my initial interest in the Mongols came as a result of popular histories, such as Harold Lamb’s biographies of Chinggis Khan and James Chambers’ The Devil’s Horsemen—exciting narratives, but with little scholarly apparatus. While these were enjoyable to read, The Mongols truly introduced me to the complexities of the Mongol Empire, revealing that it was not simply a wave of marauders pillaging their way across Asia. Indeed, it introduced me to what became my career as well as doing the same for a number of other scholars and students to the serious study of the Mongol Empire.

First published in 1986, it was both erudite and accessible to those who knew very little about the Mongols. David also included a touch of humor—just enough to elicit a chuckle and a smile from the reader. Undoubtedly, he influenced my own work and writing style. While his book would undergo 30 printings and see six or more translations, and the second edition in 2007, he often said he awaited a book to replace his as the standard.  Despite his deep erudition, he remained a genial and humble man. His declaration was not out of humility, but the uncomfortable realization that a book written decades ago should never remain the “standard”.  His second edition added a chapter discussing the historiography since its first appearance in 1986, which also corrected some outdated views. In terms of historiography, the historian Morgan’s The Mongols will always be important and foundational to the study of the Mongol Empire.  Yet, as a book to introduce readers to the Mongols, it can be outdated.

When ARC Humanities first approached me to write The Mongols for its Past Imperfect series, I had some reservations as I was writing another book (The Mongol Empire) for another press that would eventually finish at 150,000 words.  I had very little interest in writing a book that might be construed as an abridged version of that much longer book.  Also, I had some reservations about a book titled The Mongols for obvious reasons. Yet, the idea of writing a book of approximately 35,000 words did have appeal. Therefore, I discussed my reservations with Erin Daley, then the commissioning editor of the series. I asked if that instead of writing a more traditional narrative, I could frame the workaround two questions that I deemed rather important not only for the study of the Mongol Empire but also for the study of any empire.  Why did the Mongol Empire succeed?  And then, why did it end?   These two core questions also fit the needs of any teacher who might teach on the Mongols, whether a full course or perhaps a week or two in a world history course.   As for the title?  In this age of keyword searches, it’s difficult to think of a better title, especially one that suited an introductory purpose.

While I always want students to understand the Mongol impact on world history, I wanted to avoid getting involved in that question as I wrote a book on that a few years before (The Mongol Conquests in World History, 2012). Although no one can fully escape this topic when working on the Mongols, I had no desire to revisit that topic in detail. I do have a chapter on it in the book, but it is brief and I hope it entices the reader to pursue the books in the suggested reading section.

I wrote The Mongols with two audiences in mind. The first was first and second-year students in a world history class that might only encounter the Mongols for a fleeting week or two and perhaps for the first time. The second audience would be that well-known public figure, General Reader.  Two lofty but not always achievable goals. Aided by the brevity of the books in the series (100 pages or so), it proved to be an achievable aim. With this size, the General Reader would not be intimidated while the book was also a length that an instructor could assign to a class for that module and reasonably expect the students to digest the information. Furthermore, the pricing of the book would not give the instructor any qualms about assigning it as too expensive for the student budget—an increasing concern in higher education.

While my focus was on these two aforementioned questions, I still needed to provide enough of an overview that it would be sufficient for classroom use.  Furthermore, it needed to be satisfactory enough for General Reader that would not leave too many looming questions.

I believe the book achieved these goals. I must confess that working with ARC-Humanities was a pleasant experience every step of the way.  It is a singular joy when they allow the author the latitude to begin the book with “It was a dark and stormy night…”.  I am grateful for this courtesy as I can now remove it from my bucket list.

With luck, I hope this book will become the introduction to the world of the Mongols for many students.  We, as scholars, should never forget what brought us into the field of history and attracted our curiosity.  While academic monographs are nice and necessary, no one became a historian because of them. I make no claims that my own The Mongols surpasses David’s.  I do hope, however, that its intended audience will find it useful and that it will interest them sufficiently to then read other books on the Mongol Empire.

by Timothy May (University of North Georgia)