As my indecisive caps lock above indicates, this post is an attempted balance between reasoned caution in approaching the study of history, and impotent nerd-rage.
Some of you dear Burrowers may recall that I was in school for a degree in Historical Studies up until recently, with my area of interest being medieval Inner Asia. Ergo, I'm a huge nerd for the Mongol Empire, as well as any and all pastoral steppe nomads who came before or after.
The Mongols tend to get a bad rap across most of Western Europe. And Eastern Europe. As well as Western Asia- especially Western Asia in a lot of respects... Parts of the Indian Subcontinent, too...
Alright, they get a bad rap in most places that they encountered in their hay day.
Not all of it is unmerited either, because their sometimes very brutal tactics on the battlefield or in administration resulted in them fashioning together the largest contiguous land-based empire in history, and that empire produced a lot of unhappy historians from victimized groups. On the other hand, their warriors practiced violence in what was already (and would continue to be) a very violent world. But that's not what I'm here to argue about, because one trogloxene college student on a rinky-dink fantasy blog isn't going to resolve over 800 years of ethnic and cultural tension.
What I am here to talk about today is one of the secondary beliefs about the Mongols, which contributed to but wasn't central to others' perception of them as the quintessential barbarian. This was the idea that the Mongols never bathed, and never changed their clothing until it literally rotted off of their bodies.
Here is a discussion of the topic on reddit which I originally stumbled upon for reasons I can't recall, and which initially got me thinking about that idea, how popular it is, and how true it may actually be. I quickly took a skeptical stance, as you will see if you manage to slog through this whole thing.
The basic idea is that these unhygienic behaviors were enforced by the Mongols' own rulers for some reason or another, and that the two practices came together to contribute to a rank smell that was allegedly so horrible that an approaching Mongol army could be smelled before it could be seen.
The original reports of these decrees against washing or bathing come to us in highly fragmentary form from various 13th-to-15th century historians and travelers, primarily of European and West Asian/North African background, who were attempting to describe the character of the Mongol Empire's Yassa Code.
The Yassa Code was a private customary law code which was used by the Chinggisid rulers of the Mongol Empire and its successor Khanates to inform their decisions on public policy. Allegedly, the Yassa was compiled from the scattered reports of the deeds and sayings of Chinggis Khan so that those who came later could benefit from his wisdom- almost like a secretive, non-religious Hadith.
Because the Yassa was secret, intended only for the nobility of the Mongols who sometimes followed it and sometimes did not, it was never made public in a clear, written form. The only indicator that the actual laws of a region in the Mongol Empire were written with the logic of the Yassa in mind was if the authorities of the time said so. Thus, even contradictory edicts could plausibly be said to have been informed by the contents of the Yassa.
That didn't deter outsiders from trying to understand it like an actual written body of laws, so any practice which could be said to be derived from the nebulous Yassa was written down by the visitor as if it was a law. Because of this, it wasn't difficult for misunderstandings or plain fiction to enter into these accounts. And again, these accounts were themselves fragmentary, with none describing the entirety of what it called the Yassa, and not all of them even corroborating the same laws.
So, our current understanding of the Yassa is formed by bringing all of those reports together and comparing their consistency, as well as taking into account the reliability of the people who originally wrote them down.
This leads to two issues. The first is that actual laws or customs could have been taken out of context and exaggerated in their reproduction. The second is that not all of these writers had what we would consider perfect intellectual integrity.
The evidence that Mongols never washed themselves or their clothes comes from fragments written by a Mamluk Egyptian historian from the 14th-15th centuries, named Taqi al-Din Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn 'Ali ibn 'Abd al-Qadir ibn Muhammad al-Maqrizi. We will stick with just al-Maqrizi for now, as most other sources do.¹
The logic for this prohibition, according to what al-Maqrizi either wrote or repeated from earlier scholars (more on that later) was that the Mongols did not wish to pollute sources of running water and thereby anger the powerful spirits or "dragons" who controlled the water cycle. The Mongols were (and to a degree still are) a shamanic and animistic people, and belief in spirits who influenced natural elements like water is not out of the question. But the conflation of spirits with dragons is unusual, because of the rarity or almost complete absence of dragons from the native mythology of Turko-Mongols. Dragons are prominent in Tibetan and especially Chinese beliefs however, which makes me suspect that if it is authentic, this prohibition was recorded in a region where Chinese or Tibetan Buddhist cultural influences had already been embraced by resident Mongols, as much as a century after the life of Chinggis Khan. This presents the reality of Mongols living in and around increasing numbers of Chinese and Persian cities which often had public baths. It also may have been that the prohibition was developed in a non-Mongol context by some other subjects of the Empire.
Further, the original edict might have been mangled in translation, a bit like a game of telephone. A later historian and French Orientalist named François Pétis de la Croix (17th-18th century) with access to Al-Maqrizi's work formulated that the original prohibition may only have been against washing or bathing in water during a thunderstorm, due both to the inherent danger of that act, and a need to respect the power of the Mongols' supreme sky god, Tengri. Russian-American historian George Vernadsky, writing in the 20th century, agrees with Pétis and argues that the original prohibition was not nearly as restrictive as the fragments we've received would indicate, and that it originally served a "partly ritualistic" but also "realistic, or scientific" goal.² And even if this law should be read as referring to the use of water for washing at all times, it still only specifies running water- therefore, water collected in a vessel and used indoors would probably be omitted from this rule.
Water could be very scarce on the steppe or in the surrounding desert-like environments of Inner Asia, and conservation of existing water sources is a totally valid concern, and I don't mean to diminish that reality. One would probably save most available water to drink or water animals with, if the choice was between that and bathing. But a traditional nomad who performed military service but did not experience urban luxuries alongside the imperial elite would probably not need to bathe that many times in a year to be comparable in cleanliness with the rural populations of much of the rest of Europe and Asia. I say this being aware of the misconception that people of the middle ages "never" washed, but also aware of the reduced availability of bathing facilities outside of large towns or the private homes of the wealthy, in a time when the majority of people belonging to a polity or state were still rural and directly concerned with food production, whether agrarian or pastoral.
The specific myth that Mongol armies could be smelled before they could seen could probably be chalked up to a combination of folk belief, and the reality that all soldiers on campaign tend to get pretty ripe, especially if they are cavalrymen.
Once again taking issue with al-Maqrizi, I point to the fact that both he and his sources may not have been trustworthy. Maqrizi allegedly received all of his information on the Yassa Code from a contact of his by the name of Abu-Hashim, who insisted that he had seen a copy of the entirety of the Yassa housed in the libraries of Baghdad, during his brief political exile there. We know little about the accomplishments of Abu-Hashim today, and nothing about the materials he supposedly studied, if they existed at any point. But what he toted as the entirety of the Yassa Code was a comparatively small list of offences and punishments (including bathing and clothes-washing) from the supposed criminal law of the Empire, so either Abu-Hashim was wrong or lying, or al-Maqrizi only paid attention to a very narrow section of what he was given.³
Further, al-Maqrizi does not acknowledge that in his writings on the Mongols, he borrowed heavily from a scholar named Ibn Fadl Allah al-Umari, who in turn wrote his material based off of what he knew from the even earlier historian, Ata-Malik Juvayni. Juvayni was an accomplished official in the Mongol Ilkhanate, as well as the author of the History of the World Conqueror, which is famous for being one of the most complete and unbiased accounts of the Mongol conquests under Chinggis Khan of the 13th century, despite much of the subject matter pertaining to the conquest of Juvayni's own homeland.
Juvayni does include the Yassa stipulation about bathing in his work, but it specifies that it could not be done during a certain time of day during the spring and summer months, which is when thunderstorms are most common, and is not repeated in al-Maqrizi's work. Additionally, the entire edict is presented so that Chagatai Khan could throw the law straight out the window and demonstrate his mercy and wisdom as a ruler by pardoning and then giving property to the poor Muslim man who was caught bathing in midday.⁴ This gives the entire entry something of a didactic or praise-literature character that was, despite Juvayni's admirable attempts at historical accuracy, one of his primary responsibilities in writing his History for the Mongols of the Ilkhanate. So, it may be that the law was present only in a small portion of the post-division Mongol Empire, little-known and little-enforced in its hay day, if it did exist at all. Juvayni, after all, was working with the same limited knowledge of the real, secret Yassa Code that most other historians were.
The section plagiarized by al-Maqrizi, dealing with criminal justice, seemed also to be chosen for a very particular purpose which has to do with the political climate in which al-Maqrizi was involved at the time of his writing. Al-Maqrizi, as an aristocrat and historian living under the Egyptian Mamluks from 1364-1442, had perhaps an understandably sour opinion of the Mongols, and the Ilkhanate and Golden Horde in particular, who represented the aftermath of some of the most brutal conquests of Muslim-majority states by the first waves of Mongol invasion. But the Mamluk elite itself, derived from administrators and slave-soldiers taken from areas of Turkic Central Asia, possessed numerous Mongol influences. This included their own law code called the Yasaq. As the similarity in names might indicate, there was a line of influence and continuity, or at least a perceived line of continuity, between the Mongolian Yassa and the Mamluk Yasaq.
When the political tensions between the Mamluks and the religious scholar elites of Egypt resulted in the Yasaq being applied to cases which were normally under the exclusive jurisdiction of Muslim judges and the interpretation of Shari'a law, al-Maqrizi was very vocal in defaming the practice. He even referred to the original Yassa from which the Yasaq was derived as being "Satanic" (lit. shaytaniyya).⁵ Therefore, al-Maqrizi's already plagiarized and de-contextualized observations on the Yassa Code have a distinctly negative, propagandist attitude, as he attempted to diminish the Yassa in comparison to the schools of jurisprudence favored by the religious scholars of Egypt, whom al-Maqrizi was strongly in support of.
To try and form a concise thought out of all of this, we know next to no complete details about the Mongol Empire's Yassa law code. We should be extremely cautious in treating any fragmentary writings by outsiders pertaining to it as if they accurately depict it and apply equally to the entirety of the Empire and its lifespan. Historians such as al-Maqrizi (who could be a very attentive and respectable historian otherwise) were not above using the Yassa to take a political stance, and the popular myths which have sprung up around these centuries of scholastic smack-talking should not be taken at face-value as truth.
The Mongols probably did not smell much worse than any other political group in medieval Eurasia. To our modern senses of hygiene, they may have smelled unpleasant, but this would have been the same for any other imperial power of the day possessed of large numbers of soldiers and even larger numbers of horses.
¹ Vernadsky, George. "The Scope and Contents of Chingis Khan's Yasa." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 3, no. 3/4 (1938): 337-60. Pages 340-341.
² Ibid, 352-353.
³ Ayalon, David. "The Great Yāsa of Chingiz Khān. A Reexamination (Part A)." Studia Islamica, no. 33 (1971): 97-140. doi:10.2307/1595029. Pages 101-104.
⁴ Juvaynī, ʻAlāʼ al-Dīn ʻAṭā Malik, John Andrew Boyle, and David Morgan. 1997. Genghis Khan: The History of the World Conqueror. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Pages 204-206.
⁵ Ayalon, David. "The Great Yāsa of Chingiz Khān. A Reexamination (Part A)." Page 105.