Medieval Mongolian Powdered Milk and Other Wonders: The Works of Samuel Purchas

History is a journey. Known paths are trekked and new ones are explored as we travel towards understanding our past. This theme –historical research as a pilgrimage- was recognised and propagated by the cleric Samuel Purchas, who in the 1620s published the four large tomes which constitute Purchas His Pilgrims. Offering a wide array of “Pilgrims delivering a historie of the world in their own travels”, what seems at first to be a collection of holiday journals (some are primary accounts; some are sections summarised by Purchas and other academics) turns out to be a thorough encyclopaedia of the world. History, ethnography, cartography, philology and other disciplines are covered in a piece of scholarship which, with many beautiful pictures, is as exquisite as it is extensive.

Worcester Cathedral Library

As well as describing humans and geographical features, Purchas also includes descriptions of animals and, occasionally, pictures of them. Pictured here is a clearly recognisable zebra; the artist’s source for the creature’s wry smile is less clear. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Peering back in time and across the continents the boundaries between the historical and the mythical blur. Purchas presents a rich and exotic host of explorers, as history, religion and legend mingle. In a section on ‘Antiquities’, the travels of Greek philosophers, Biblical figures and mythological heroes appear side by side, so a reader jumps from King Solomon , to Aristotle, to Ninus the Assyrian king, to Hercules, and to many more fabulous tales. Just as obstacles and false trails can impede physical journeys, however, travelling through history poses similar issues. The myths are prime examples, and Purchas is frequently scathing of the tales and those who craft and disseminate them. In a robust attack on his philosophical enemies (a healthy mix of “Poets… Idolatries of Ethnikes… Rabbins [Jews]… Heretikes… Papists”) there is an astute observation about the potent propagandic value of myth for the writer: “when Histories cannot make them good, Mysteries are sought to cover their badness” after which they suddenly acquire worth. Purchas then launches into further religious polemic. Peddlers of myth have “raised the very Faith of infidels… this is the Devil’s triumph”. Nevertheless, Purchas maintains the worth of studying mythology, seeking “that truth which lieth under poetical rubbish… [for] nothing but nothing can rise of nothing”. Acerbic language aside, Purchas makes sound historiographical arguments.

Worcester Cathedral Library

At one point, Purchas gets frustrated describing the travels of Ancient Greek mythological heroes, dismissing Aeneas out of hand. “I am weary of travelling in such a loose sandy soil, where so few footeprints and paths of truths are to be found”. In lieu of writing any further on what he clearly sees to be a frivolous and hopeless subject, he offers a map of the Aeneid instead. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Travelling involves immersing oneself in local cultures, after which it is only natural to report what has been discovered. Because of this, Purchas His Pilgrims is a veritable encyclopaedia. Purchas offers, among many other subjects, a brief overview of the concept of Europe, finding only uncertainty in accounts of its borders and etymology (he discards the ideas that it was named after the Phoenician princess Europa, or after a prince of an unknown people, as equally useless). Linguistics appear in an ethnography of the Turks by the 17th century diplomat Thomas Glover. He is disdainful of their language, decrying it for taking political terms from Persian; religious terms from Arabic; and maritime names from Greek (clearly, English, where one could choose via democracy to sail to the Eucharist in a trireme, would never stoop to such linguistic appropriation). Glover is also not exactly glowing with praise for another Turkish staple. In “Coffa-houses”, Turks drink a liquid “as hot as they can suffer it: black as soote, and tasting not much unlike it”. A walk down Worcester high street suggests Glover was not on the right side of history over this.

A far reaching study comes from the scholar Edward Brerewood (1565-1613), who in one chapter covers such minor subjects as the world’s religions, detailing the spread of Christianity, “Mahumatisme” (Islam) and Judaism. Of the last, he dedicates much time to addressing the question of whether the Tartars (Mongols) were one of the Ten Tribes of Israel, a “phantasie of many learned men”. This was based primarily off the term ‘Tartar’ sounding like a word found in Syriac and Hebrew, and the Mongols’ custom of circumcision. He rejects this theory completely, namely because the Tartars, in their vast multitude (he deduces that they were related to the Native Americans, by dint of their colour and lack of “relish” for culture) far outnumbered the Israelite tribes.

Of those who had travelled to “Tartaria”, as northern Asia was known, Marco Polo is perhaps the most famous, but was by no means the first. Purchas included the account of Friar William of Rubruck, who in 1253 travelled to the semi-mythical Orient at the behest of King Louis IX of France. His account is too rich and extensive to go into much detail here, but several things are of note. In contrast to his highly critical contemporaries, like Matthew Paris, who described the Mongols as inhumane “people of Satan”, Rubruck paints them as the humans -albeit ones alien to him- that they were. He notes their religion, clothes, familial roles, houses (large portable tents, gers) and social structures, as well as a very potted history. Rubruck is particularly taken with food and drink. As well as wine and standard foods, milk products feature heavily. He writes approvingly of “Cosmos” (koumiss), fermented mares’ milk, which is “indifferently sharp” and leaves a taste like almond-milk. Koumiss is still made and enjoyed today; the historian and traveller John Man praises its qualities, especially the brandy that koumiss can be distilled into. Rubruck also notes this ‘Caracosmos’ (‘black koumiss’) and its status as the elites’ tipple of choice. Cows’ milk is used for butter, and leftover curds from the churning process are dried in the sun until they are hard like “iron”; hese are stored. In the winter when fresh milk is scarce, hot water is added and the mixture is beaten, “which is thereby made exceedingly sowre, and that they drink instead of milk”. Bad taste aside, it seems Rubruck admired the ingenuity behind this 13th Century Mongolian powdered milk.

Worcester Cathedral Library

As befits a work dedicated to travels, Purchas includes many maps across his four weighty tomes. Shown here is a map of the Holy Land to accompany a section on the Crusades (west is at the top of the map). Jerusalem’s label is just under the ‘A’ of Judaea. Few of the pilgrims mention the sea monster basking in the Mediterranean. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

William of Rubruck’s account is just one of hundreds covered in this extraordinary work, which travels across the globe and through time to deliver an extensive representation of humanity’s understanding of its world. There is much here to be fascinated and absorbed by; this is perhaps one journey that it is no bad thing to get lost in.

Chris Rouse

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