Identification and Evaluation of SourcesThe question being asked for investigation is, “To what extend did Genghis Khan contribute to Mongol military success between 1209 – 1227?” The sources used for examination include a secondary source, Timothy May’s The Mongol Art of War and a primary source, which is a firsthand report from Friar John of Plano Carpini written following a journey he spent in the Mongol Empire.

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May’s The Mongol Art of War evaluates military tactics and strategies used by Genghis Khan throughout his conquests. The author of the text is a historian whose main academic area of study is Mongol conquests. Although the text is a secondary source, May makes frequent use of primary sources in his own research; for instance, much of the analysis stems from reports written by a variety of Khan’s contemporaries, including the English chronicler Mathew Paris, who described Mongolian conquests in the year 1240. The focus of the text is on specific military tactics and strategies used by Genghis Khan. The Mongols under Khan were notorious for the brutality in which they waged war, but from a purely strategic level, the Mongols’ absolute destruction of their enemies often garnered the most efficient results: as Genghis Khan and his reputation for savagery grew, many conquered territories submitted themselves before conflict ensued, forgoing the need for war. Limitations of the source are rooted in its classification as a secondary, rather than primary source, and therefore not as reliable as a primary source. Nevertheless, May makes ample use of his own sources in order to legitimize his claims.

The primary source used is a passage written by a Franciscan recounting his journey with the Mongol Empire, with whom he spent some time observing military strategies. The accounts paint vivid detail of Mongolian conquests, often describing the carnage left behind following an invasion. As a primary source written by someone who witnessed several conquests firsthand, the document should be considered an authentic account; however, one possible limitation of the source is that the retelling of these accounts may have been embellished for an audience. Nevertheless, even if the document includes embellished details, it provides a clear account of how Genghis Khan was at least perceived by others in the 13th century.

Much of what is known about Genghis Khan’s early life is speculative, as all accounts of his youth were written after he had ascended to power. Thus, even contemporary histories written while Genghis Khan was in power may have been written with an intent to portray Khan in as favorable a light as possible. Nevertheless, whether factual or hyperbolic, primary historical accounts of Genghis Khan’s youth provide insight on the culture in which he would have been raised.

One aspect of his early life, corroborated through several primary texts, as evidenced in Timothy May’s The Mongol Art of War, is that Genghis Khan (named as Temujin, with the title of ‘Genghis Khan’ being an honorary title meaning ‘great leader’) was raised in a region of Northeast Asia populated largely by nomadic tribes. Collectively, these tribes formed the territory of Mongolia, although Mongolia itself was not a sovereign state at the time. Tribes would often feud with one another, and leadership in the tribe was largely hereditary, although challenges to leadership were not uncommon. One account describes how Temujin, after witnessing the murder of his father by poison, attempted to reclaim his father’s right to rule the tribe although he was summarily rejected (Ratchnevsky 24). Following this rejection, Temujin’s family was exiled from the tribe and lived in poverty. When Temujin’s older half brother claimed leadership over the family, Temujin and his other brother murdered the half-brother.

Another popularized account of notable events in Genghis Khan’s youth include a daring escape after being captured by a rival nomadic tribe. His first wife was also kidnapped, and summarily rescued by Genghis Khan. These two events are notable in the recorded histories because they appear to emphasize heroic leadership qualities. However, as these events occurred before Genghis’ rise to power, and therefore not a part of any official documentation, these accounts remain largely speculative.

Temujin’s rise in political power began when he forged alliances with his father’s former associates. A series of successful raids against neighboring tribes soon gave Temujin a reputation as a gifted military leader, known for his brilliant tactics. As he rose in rank, he was soon directing his tribe against other tribes, forcing them into submission. As other tribes declared their allegiance to Temujin, he was eventually elected as the Mongolian leader, or Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan is notable for his goal in unifying the nomadic Mongolian tribes, which previously had no aspirations for building an empire. Psychoanalytic histories of Genghis Khan posit that Khan’s motivation for unifying the Mongolian tribes was based on his experiences as a youth witnessing the violence and infighting between tribes: in order to maintain peace, unification of the tribes was a desired goal (Weatherford 57). He was also able to gain allegiance among many conquered Mongolian tribes, particularly among soldiers who sought to join his armies. Thus, the unification of the Mongolian tribes is Genghis Khan’s first notable series of conquests.

Following unification, and therefore a consolidation of power throughout Mongolia, Genghis Khan turned his armies toward neighboring territories. Here, primary sources of the time are more credible due to these events being part of several official recorded histories, both sympathetic and hostile toward Khan. Genghis Khan’s strategy was about control, rather than spreading terror: he would often propose a neighboring territory or city-state enter a relatively one-sided agreement, whereby the territory would be largely left alone as long as it recognized Khan as their leader and payed tribute (De Hartog 14). If they agreed, they would be included in the larger Mongolian Empire, and would remain at peace. However, if they refused, Genghis Khan would order his troops to destroy the city in as brutal a fashion as possible. Thus, Genghis Khan’s ideal tactic was intimidation.

As described in Timothy May’s The Mongol Art of War, Mongol successes under Genghis Khan in the years 1209 – 1227 were largely won via strategic intelligence, rather than brute force. In the vast majority of conflicts, Mongol armies were outnumbered, yet superior training and tactics resulted in Mongol victories. Military conquests under Genghis Khan often began with intelligence gathering: Mongol spies would scout enemy territories, identifying vantage points such as hills and other areas that would provide high ground. These were tactics that he had learned during his initial campaign of unifying the Mongolian tribes. While other armies would often assemble as large a force as possible, there was often little military understanding on strategy other than using the size of a force to achieve victory. Khan understood that large, assembled forces had the problem of being immobile, requiring substantial resources, and being relatively slow. Thus, much of his initial attacks involved harassing the enemy’s larger force, then once the enemy had become confused, launching his main force to attack a weakened enemy. Once the campaign was launched, Mongolian soldiers would occupy high ground in order to better observe the battlefield, while individual armies would often use flanking methods to surround and confuse the enemy.

In addition to their tactical advantages, the Mongols also incorporated new technologies, such as Chinese siege warfare tools, to levy against their opponents. As more territories were conquered, these technologies were incorporated into campaigns if they were deemed to have strategic value. Beyond purely militaristic warfare, the Mongols also employed psychological warfare: as their reputation became more feared, they would leverage their reputation by demanding that cities either pay tribute or be destroyed. If the offer was accepted, there would be no need for bloodshed, representing a peaceful annexation. However, if the offer was refused, the Mongols would move in and destroy the city, killing both soldiers and civilians alike without discrimination. Women and children were not spared in the ensuing occupation. Thus, the Mongols were able to bolster their reputation as a brutal and efficient force, creating fear among any who would oppose them.

The accounts of Mongol brutality are largely described in the accounts of an English chronicler, Mathew Paris, who wrote about Mongol conquests in 1240, following the period of Genghis Khan’s initial invasions. Thus, although this is a primary source, it was itself written as a recent historical account. The descriptions in the text provide a view of Genghis Khan as a tactical and military genius who was able to conquer much larger armies in their own territory. This is due to Khan’s strategy of employing a highly mobile army: while other territories would value the size of a military force, Khan paid more attention to identifying specific choke points, occupying high ground as a more defensible position, and flanking the enemy to cause confusion. Khan also understood the value of military intelligence: before each conflict, he would send spies to gather as much relevant information as possible, and then use the information to optimise the campaign. Paris’ accounts of Khan also include the aftermath of a Mongol invasion: soldiers would be instructed to destroy anything that did not have direct value for the Mongolian empire. A city’s infrastructure and key buildings would be destroyed, and civilian lives were not spared.

The challenge of research for a historian, as opposed to a scientist or mathematician, is that investigations of history invariably rely on qualitative, rather than quantitative, research. Even primary accounts may sometimes differ, as they rely on an individual’s interpretation or observation. However, historical research becomes more complete the more thorough one examines common subtexts and threads. For this research, for instance, the common thread throughout both the secondary and primary sources used is the brutality of Mongolian conquest. While specific information such as the exact size of Mongolian armies may differ, all accounts identify that the Mongols often laid waste to anyone who opposed them without remorse. Thus, the challenge for the historian is identifying and drawing connections between sources while ensuring the information presented is accurate.

  • De Hartog, Leo. Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the world. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1989.
  • Friar John of Plano Carpini. Description of Mongol Warfare. 1240. Web. Accessed 13 May 2017.
  • May, Timothy. The Mongol Art of War. Pen and Sword Books, 2016. Print.
  • Ratchnevsky, Paul. Genghis Khan: His life and legacy. Wiley-Blackwell, 1993.
  • Weatherford, J. McIver. Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world. Broadway Books, 2004.