Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World Summary

Jack Weatherford

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World Summary

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Throughout much of modern history, certainly from the Enlightenment onwards, the Mongols have occupied a space on the fringes of Eurocentric histories of technology and development. Jack Weatherford challenges this conception in his 2004 revisionist history Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World; the central argument of Weatherford’s text being that the Mongols were not only instrumental in shaping the development of Asia, the Middle East and Europe, but that the Renaissance would not have happened without direct Mongolian influence.  Stylistically, the book is very engaging, reads like fiction, and has been touted by reviewers as to likely appeal to the layperson, rather than field specialists.  Underscoring the approachable nature of Weatherford’s writing style is the introduction to the rest of the text, which opens with one of history’s unsolved mysteries: the disappearance of the “Spirit Banner” believed to house the soul of Genghis Khan which took place during the Communist occupation of Mongolia in the 1930’s. This intriguing tale and others regarding the Khan’s appearance and the lost place of his burial all go unanswered, but serve to make the reader reconsider what we think we know of Genghis Khan.

From here, Weatherford—a professor of Anthropology—lays out his argument in relatively plain terms. Firstly, he enumerates the vast militaristic successes and the quality of this success by noting the size of the Mongolian empire at its height would have spanned the entire African continent. He compares this achievement to the more widely recognized Roman Empire, which did not comprise as much land or peoples in the entire 400 years of its expansion as the Mongolian Empire did in just 25 years. Weatherford also makes significant the relative benefits of Mongolian subjugation, which other than the systematic slaughter of the ruling classes of conquered areas, offered religious freedom, tolerance of existing local customs, distancing from torture as a form of punishment, increased availability of education for boys and the promotion of trade through unification. All of this is presented in sharp contrast to the practices of feudal Europe in the late Middle Ages. Weatherford goes on to argue that contact with Europe through trade or invasion was the driving force behind the spread of technology westward along the Silk Road.

The book is divided into three sections, including an introduction and epilogue, scholarly notes, a map and topographical description of Mongolia, and a family tree. In the introduction, Weatherford begins to explain how his own fascination with Genghis Khan developed from a trip he made to Mongolia while doing research on the economic importance of the Silk Road. Once there he formed a team of sorts with scholars of other disciplines—archaeology, political science, a specialist in shamanism and a member of the Mongolian army—in order to research the impact of the Khan and the lesser known history of the Mongolian Empire in a more comprehensive manner. Here, he also introduces a major source for his work which seems to encapsulate a Mongolian perspective contemporary to Genghis Khan and his extensive conquests. Weatherford explains that this source, The Secret History of the Mongols, remained un-translated for years after its discovery due to the Soviet repression of Mongolian nationalist sentiment. Thus, much of the information contained within could not be accessed by western scholarship until the 80’s and 90’s.

The following section details the Khan’s rise from his youth in which he killed his older half-brother, to his unification of Mongolia (largely in the 10th century). Weatherford is also careful to dispel the notion that he was always a strategic genius, noting that Genghis’ victories did not come without the occasional defeat, which he then learned from. The second section of the book examines Mongolian expansion into China, Central Asia the Middle East and Europe. It is here that Weatherford describes the effectiveness of Mongolian warfare and the influence of these tactics. For example, Weatherford states that Mongolian siege tactics were so effective they put an end entirely to the defensive measure of building walled cities. He also goes on to compare Mongolian conquest to the “civilized” practices of Europe at the time.  Finally, in the third section Weatherford gets to the crux of his argument, which is the importance of the Mongolian empire in facilitating trade, cultural diffusion through arts and sciences that would ultimately benefit Europe, and most significantly, the onset of the Renaissance. Weatherford argues that, within Europe, the Mongols were understood as contributors to the dispersal of then modern technology, even citing Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as evidence of European reverence for Genghis Khan’s unprecedented achievements. It was only subsequently, with the adoption and dissemination of more Eurocentric histories during the Enlightenment, that the Mongols became characterized as barbaric, unlearned and inferior.

While Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World did appear on the New York Times’ bestseller list, and has received many positive reviews both for its style and the questions it raises about historiography, contemporary caricatures of Mongolian culture and the significance of the empire in facilitating trade, Weatherford has also received criticism for the expansiveness of his claims. Notably, Professor Timothy May critiqued Weatherford’s lack of sourcing in sections of the book, general lack of dates of historical events and his broad-strokes approach to the argument that the Renaissance would have never happened without the Mongols. May insists that there are other historical events and movements to consider, and concludes by stating that while this text may not be suitable for historians, it is a good choice to get other readers interested in history.