Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Third Series)

Research Article

Christian Wives of Mongol Khans: Tartar Queens and Missionary Expectations in Asia

James D. Ryan

In the late thirteenth century the openness and religious toleration of the Mongol Empire created unique conditions which encouraged European missionaries to venture into Asia. The Franciscans and Dominicans who answered the call to evangelize in territories under Tartar dominion enjoyed such success by the early fourteenth century that the papacy created archbishoprics and suffragan sees in Central Asia and China, and entertained dreams of new Christian communities aligned with the Roman Church. This paper focuses on a special set of circumstances which briefly encouraged those expectations. Western missionaries to the Mongols found influential Christian women, the mothers and consorts of rulers, at the courts of several khans. Because these Mongol queens played powerful political roles, their prayers and example might encourage the conversion of their people and those subject to them. Faithful wives of pagan rulers, in times long gone, had played a dynamic part in the conversion of husbands or sons, and of their realms, thus contributing to the spread of Christianity in Europe. Once again, at the close of the thirteenth century, hopes were voiced that pious women might perform a similar task in Asia.