Could The Mongols Have Conquered Europe?

One of the most frequently asked questions in alternate history discussions concerns whether China could have been first to the Industrial Revolution had Europe also – or instead – been conquered by the Mongols.

Answer: It’s sort of a moot question. It seems to be quite unlikely that the Mongols were capable of conquering Europe in principle.

In one of the finest comment-essays on the Internet, back in 2002, the commenter Lord of Hosts explained why not.

The Mongols were very much interested in conquering Europe. The squabbling potentates of Europe – the principle actors would have been Pope Innocent IV, Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire, Louis IX of France, and Henry III of England – were certainly no more united than the squabbling princes of Rus. And while each of the principle actors at the time were capable of raising armies comparable to Mongol host, there is no reason to think that they would not have been tactically outmatched and swept aside, just like the Poles were at the Battle of Liegnitz in 1241.

However, none of this would have mattered in the big picture because of fundamental ecological constraints. The heavily forested geography of Western Europe could not support the hundreds of thousands of horses needed to sustain the Mongol tumens. He draws out his brilliant statistical reasoning in what is essentially a condensed Wages of Destruction for the 13th century.

That post is now 17 years old, and languishes on what is today a largely disused discussion board. I am reprinting it since it would be a shame if it was to one day vanish without trace in ancient cyber detritus.


Lord of Hosts

When Batu Khan and his 150,000 horsemen set off on their great ride into the West in 1235, they clearly had annexation in their mind. The Mongolian empire was a universalising enterprise. Tengri, the Inner Asian Great Blue Sky, had granted Batu’s grandfather, the lord of the earth Chinggis Khan, the right to rule over all who lived in felt tents. The expansionist Chinggisid ideology had already welded together a confederation of Uralo-Altaic peoples, and its divine mandate had spread beyond the steppe. The Inner Asian empire of the Pax Mongolica was rapidly winning control of the continental caravan routes from China to Persia. And we know that the Mongols were resolved to conquer the Christian West because in his account of the quriltai which decided on the invasion, Juwayni says that the khans “deliberated together concerning the extirpation and subjugation of all the remaining rebels (tughat)” [M. M. Qazwini (ed.) Ata Malik Juvayni, Ta’rikh-i Jahan Gusha, vol. 1, pp. 268-9]. The khans considered any nation outside their rule to be a rebel state.


For their part we all know that the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire could allow no mere Tatar apocalypse to intrude on their own struggles for power, and if Batu hadn’t turned back in 1242 he wouldn’t have had to overcome a coordinated pan-European defence. Ultimately his principal opponents would have been …

  • Pope Innocent IV, The Vicar of Christ

… and the three great Kings of the West:

  • Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire
  • Louis IX of France
  • Henry III of England

Each was capable with his allies of fielding a host that was numerically equal or superior to the enemy’s, but arguably tactically outmatched. The Franks of the West after all fought like the Poles, whom Kaidu and Baidar had swept aside at Liegnitz.

The favourite countermeasure often talked about on this forum, the fearsome English longbow, was still a rarity in continental warfare in this period, and wouldn’t have been employed in quantity until the 1290s, and the mounted English arcarii capable of the type of rapid movement seen in the Hundred Years’ War didn’t appear until the French campaigns of Edward III in the 1350s, after the increase in the horse population with the universal adoption of the horse collar in English agriculture. In 1242 Henry III was still relying on his Gascon crossbowmen.

Hence in theory, had any of these lumbering forces advanced to meet Batu’s main force in Italy, they had an excellent chance of being annihilated by the preternatural volleys of the nomad horse archers.


Nonetheless, had Batu stuck his finger into their honey-pot in 1242, the Christians would have looked with grief at the defilement wrought by his passage. Then they would have swarmed. Surprising though it may seem at first in the light of his preceding victories, the remaining Mongol forces would have been hard-pressed even to hang onto Hungary. Subsequent events would seem to confirm this. After the succession to the khakhanate was settled, and with the chivalry of eastern Europe massacred in the field, why did the Tatars on the Kipchak steppe never again try to include the bountiful Hungarian plain in their empire? Three surpassing reasons:

1. The length of Mongolian communications was excessive if campaigns were to be sustained in Europe. At least in theory horse archers could live off the land, but siege trains with all their oxen, draught horses, carts, and baggage wagons couldn’t. If we lay aside logistics for a moment, the tactical analysis supports the idea that, as the undisputed masters of Asiatic warfare, the Mongol ordu could have won an impressive string of pitched battles in Europe. But it’s what would have happened next that would have been decisive. Christendom wasn’t China or Persia or Arabia, where entire kingdoms could fall with the stroke of a sword or the thrust of a lance.

In the West the extinction of a ruling dynasty had long ceased to spell the end of a state, and the fate of the free peoples was not bound to the life of their kings. To prevent the social order from capsizing under the barbarian surge in the Dark Ages, feudalism had refitted the European ship of state with a hull of watertight compartments. The political leadership of Italy, France and Germany was diffuse, and the governing institutions were resilient. With local rulers still overshadowing the centralised states, and the power of organised religion providing the shared sense of identity, when decapitated, the institutionalised leadership simply sprouted a new head, like a hydra. (An early instance of thinking globally but acting locally.)

Batu’s descent on Europe in 1241 amounted to a portyák, the kind of operation, albeit on a grander scale, which the finest horsemen in Europe, the Hungarians, regularly conducted into Turkish territory, and what the contemporary English called a chevauchee: a massed armed raid. This was an Edwardian strategy Henry V would abandon two centuries later when he realised the key to permanent conquest in France was not annihilating Valois armies in the field, but by laying siege to their strongholds and cities.

In 1285 the Kipchak Tatars returned to Europe and occupied Transylvania. As before they were unsupported by Chinese or Persian artillery. In 1286 the Mongol Prince Nogai advanced against Cracow and Tole-Buka attacked Sandomir. But the Poles showed they had learnt by their sobering experience at Liegnitz half a century earlier. This time the garrisons weren’t tempted to engage the horse archers in the field. They clung to their walls and both cities held out against the Tatar assaults. So the Poles faced the same evil and they defeated it, and the defences of civilisation failed to crumble. The Mongols once again withdrew, first to Volhynia, and then to the longitudinal belt of steppes north of the Black Sea: the empty expanses of European Scythia. And they never came back.

So even assuming Batu had crushed the leagued Italian, German and French armies on the plains of Italy, and struck off the heads of Gregory IX, Frederick II, Louis IX, and Conrad the Crusader, and then proceeded to rape and pillage the city of Rome, everybody else would have retreated behind the unassailable walls of their castles and cities, raising the drawbridges and lowering the portcullises to await the judgement of fate. Kolovrat will tell you that no nation on earth has as many fortresses as Italy, and we all know from Barbarossa how many castles Germany boasts. In the early 13th century the Count of Provence controlled 40 castles, and the King of France had over 100, including 45 in Normandy. The Duke of Burgundy owned 70. In 1216 King Henry III had inherited from his father 93 royal castles in England, and had secured 10 more in Guyenne by 1220, while for their part the English barons held 179.

Of course, in his wisdom the great Chinggis Khan had understood that mounted archers were not enough to defeat sedentary societies, and his successors ensured that all metalworkers, carpenters and gunpowder makers in northern China were registered as p’ao-shou catapult operators. We know that Batu had brought a train of minghan engineers, since he was able to field seven ho p’ao catapults to hurl firebombs against the unfortunate Hungarians at the Sajo bridge, teaching them a deadly lesson in the tactical use of artillery. But events showed that these weren’t heavy enough to breach the high stone walls of the Hungarian castles, which Batu had to skirt. Gunpowder wasn’t used during the Mongol campaigns in Russia and Europe, and the primitive projectile technology then in use wouldn’t have made much of an impression. On a later campaign it would take Hülegü three years to transport a thousand crews of Chinese artillerymen and their siege equipment two and a half thousand miles from the steppes of western Mongolia in 1253 to Khurasan in 1256, and another two years before they could topple the walls of Baghdad a thousand miles farther west.

The lands of Western Europe were even more remote, over four thousand miles from Mongolia as the crow flies, and boasted an array of fortifications even more formidable than those of Persia or Mesopotamia. Even had the Kipchak khanate had access to Chinese and Persian artillery (which it never did), the logistical problems of transporting and supplying a sufficient train would have been still more immense, and since no such attempt was ever made, even in the face of hostilities, such a stupendous leaguer would appear to have been quite beyond the khanate’s strategic capabilities.

2. Divided leadership. With Khakhan Ögödei’s death in 1241 the Mongolian leadership fragmented.

Batu had already quarrelled with Büri, the grandson of Chagatai. A breach had opened up between him and Güyüg, Ögödei’s son and likely heir. Batu would be in a better position to safeguard his own interests from Güyüg settled in the Kipchak steppe than if he were to continue fighting in distant Europe. It was not until 1246 that Güyüg was installed, and he reigned only for two years. Ironically Khakhan Güyüg’s threats to Pope Innocent IV, delivered by Carpini in 1247, were empty words because his accession had made Batu’s own political position vulnerable to the point that he could not think of moving against the West.

On Güyüg’s death Batu became Möngke’s kingmaker.

William of Rubruck quoted the Khakhan: “Just as the sun spreads its rays in all directions, so my power and the power of Batu is spread everywhere.” But this boast could not disguise the fact that, through strategic over-extension and greater commitments in the East, the nomad threat to Christendom no longer came from the herdsmen of Mongolia, but only from Batu’s Kipchak khanate (Golden Horde), whose boundaries extended over the Upper Volga, the territory of the former Volga Bulgar state, Siberia to the Urals, the northern Caucasus, Bulgaria (for a time), the Crimea and Khwarizm in Central Asia. Its core was the Pontic and Caspian steppe.

After the initial attack of 1241 there was a series of political crises within the Mongolian Empire which made it impossible to concentrate in Kipchak territory an invasion force capable of threatening Europe. The wealth of the Kipchak rested on the international trade of the caravan routes. Silk and spices to the Mediterranean and Europe passed through Sarai and the other Mongol cities on the lower Volga, while the fur trade was diverted to the Caspian. As C. J. Halperin points out in `Russia in the Mongol Empire in comparative perspective’, in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 43/1 (1983), p 250-1: `Horde foreign policy focused overwhelmingly upon acquisition of the rich pastures and caravan routes of Azerbaijan … Russia itself was peripheral to the Horde, not only geographically but also politically and economically.’ With scarcely six million people Russia could contribute only a modest amount of manpower and taxes to the Azerbaijan campaigns.

Batu’s Muslim brother Berke became the Kipchak Khan in 1257 and imposed on the khanate a strategic reorientation. Berke disapproved of Hülegü’s murder of the ‘Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad. In 1262 this contributed to the outbreak of the first of a long series of wars between the khanate of Kipchak and the Ilkhanate. The Kipchak khans wished to possess themselves of north-western Persia and the Caucasus occupied by the Ilkhans. Berke created an alliance between his Kipchak khanate and the Mamluks of Egypt. Turkish replaced Mongolian on coins as early as the reign of Tödei-Möngke (1280-1287), and after 1260 the Ilkhans of Persia began to see Christian rulers, notably Philip the Fair of France and Edward Longshanks of England, as potential allies against the Mamluks and the allied khanate of Kipchak.

In later times the Kipchak Mongols intervened in Hungary, especially in the 1280s and 1290s, when Prince Nogai was virtual co-ruler of the Kipchak khanate. Nogai took an active interest in the affairs of south and south-east Europe. But for the same strategic weaknesses as before there was no effective attempt at occupation. Under Özbeg (1313-1341) the Kipchak khanate became officially Muslim. The rulers identified themselves with their Turkish subjects and with peoples to the south rather than with the Christian Russians to the north. Unlike the Yüan dynasty or the Ilkhanate, Kipchak couldn’t draw on the quantity of artillery necessary for the reduction of the great towers and cities of Christendom. Weapons of sufficient quantity and quality could only have been manufactured and maintained by a sedentary population with the kind of advanced engineering skills available to China or Persia. While Kipchak continued to be an effective power for longer than any of the other Mongol khanates, its survival was also due to its remoteness from civilisation. Greater contact with densely settled societies like Europe could only have accelerated its decline and demise.

3. Geography. Undoubtedly the killer fact generally overlooked by advocates of the Mongol conquest scenario is that nomadic warfare was incompatible with the forest vegetation and agronomy of mediaeval Europe, which had a much more densely wooded landscape from the rolling fields and pastures we associate with modern commercial farming in Europe today.

Even if Ögödei hadn’t died, it’s doubtful whether Batu could have continued much further west, and if not then the conquest of the continent would surely always have been beyond his power. And the modern scholarly consensus established by Professor D. Sinor in `Horse and Pasture in Inner Asian History’, Oriens Extremus, 19 (1972) and Rudi Paul Lindner of the University of Michigan in `Nomadism, horses and Huns’, Past and Present, 92 (1981), is that the meagre pasture of Europe was never going to be sufficient to support a nomad invasion force of sufficient strength to cast an ominous shadow over Christian civilisation.

The key to Mongolian victory was speed, range and mobility. Without these the ordu would have been bogged down, encircled and obliterated by weight of numbers of the scope which only settled agriculture could support. The Mongols’ unparalleled success in steppe warfare required a string of remounts, often as many as eighteen. Horse-power required pasture, superabundant in the great pastoral belts of Mongolia, China, Russia and the Middle East, but almost non-existent in the dark forests and arable lands of Europe. While the tough Mongol horse of the thirteenth century was between thirteen and fourteen hands high, rather larger than the twelve hands of the wild Przhevalsky, and requiring a heavier dietary intake, as a pony it still would have cropped grass more closely and exhausted the habitat at a faster rate than its heavier European counterpart.

The Alföld — the great Hungarian plain — was the largest unbroken pasture on the continent of Europe, in fact the only one of any extent. It was therefore the main target of Batu’s invasion. Prior to urbanisation in the twentieth century, it contained some 16,371 square miles of pasture, barely sufficient to sustain 150,000 wiry steppe horses. So even had the herders restricted themselves to ten remounts, the Alföld couldn’t even have sustained two tüman: only 15,000 nomads against an active Western military reservoir of millions.

By Asiatic standards, then, the Alföld was a postage stamp, about four percent of what’s available in the territory of the Mongolian People’s Republic, which boasts some 409,275 square miles of pasture capable in theory of supporting as many as 3,750,000 steppe horses. Even after centuries of overgrazing, degradation and desertification, Mongolia today still supports 3.1 million horses, making it the country with the highest number of horses per capita in the world.

This means a smaller Mongol force for the invasion of Europe than the two tüman recorded in Möngke’s 1252 census for the single small north Chinese province of Shantung. That’s also less than a third of Batu’s total ordu of six tüman which had won victories in Poland and Hungary, dry, thinly-settled, semi-Asiatic pastoral plains with only a fraction of the military strength available to the vast populations supported by the agricultural economies of the West.

The Alföld’s carrying capacity for 150,000 steppe horses is also less than half of that for the pasture of Syria and Mesopotamia, recorded as having supported 325,000 steppe horses during the Mongols’ campaign of destruction in the Middle East in 1299. To compensate for the arid conditions as they swept south from the rich pastures of Azerbaijan and the Mughan steppe, the Mongol cavalry were ordered to restrict themselves to five remounts, compromising their speed and mobility even in that open country.

In theory, by accepting that five-horse limit, which still enabled 65,000 Mongols to spread their terror through the deserts of the Middle East, Batu Khan could have maintained on a permanent basis in Europe only three tüman or 30,000 troops, half the number that he had brought with him on his initial foray into Poland and Hungary, and only a fifth of the number with which he had crossed the Volga and overcome Russia, an empty steppe country with a pastoral economy suitable for nomadic warfare, and with only a tenth of the population and military potential of the West.

Three tüman (slowed by the five-remounts limit) would also have been less than a tenth of the military strength Khubilai Khan in Khanbalik would later require for his concentric attack against the Southern Sung only seven hundred miles from his capital, and whose conquest would take the Great Khanate a generation of continuous fighting and fortuitous internal strife within the Sung imperial court. And Khubilai would have all the resources and all the engineering and signalling expertise directly on hand in northern China. In 1275 Chia Ssu-tao’s great army defending Yangchow mustered 130,000 men under arms, indicating that late Sung military strength was comparable to that of 13th-century France, where in theory between 285,000 and 380,000 men could have been raised for the defence of the Capetian, Plantagenet, Burgundian and Provencal territories. Logistical restrictions dictated that of these a full third, about 100,000, should have been deployable outside of France, on crusade in Italy to meet the Mongol advance, with the remainder as garrison, while between them the Italian states in the operational theatre would have raised between 135,000 and 180,000 troops for their defence.

But in Italy the Mongols would have had more to worry about than numerical inferiority as they shambled into battle on skeleton horses starved of feed. While the whole of China, north and south, with seventy million people, had a comparable population to Europe, with perhaps sixty million, and had been similarly politically divided at the time of invasion, there was insufficient unbroken pasture beyond the Carpathians to sustain even a single ordu. Anybody who’s wandered through the Italian countryside in the summer can tell you that there’s no grazing to be had, which is why earlier pastoral nomads like the Huns and Magyars seem to have left their horses behind and invaded on foot. Once dismounted, bow-legged nomads who had spent their entire lives in the saddle could barely have walked a few hundred yards without resting, let alone out-marched the local levies of professional infantry.

To support its vast population on pre-industrial farming technology in a landscape covered with mixed broadleaf and coniferous forest, the civilisation of mediaeval Europe had developed on the basis of an agricultural rather than a pastoral economy. Oats had a notoriously low yield. Consequently there was no possibility that the West could have supported the sudden introduction of hundreds of thousands of new grazing animals from the steppes that a nomadic invasion would have required.

So even assuming the Mongols and their horses survived the Italian campaign (which is doubtful to say the least given their logistical shortcomings), as they swept north and west through the mountain passes and by long devious ways into the forests of France and Germany, the ordu would have disintegrated to graze on the small broken pastures that existed in the western lands prior to the intensive clearing of the great forests and the enclosure of mediaeval arable lands for paddock in modern times. Simply to keep their mounts alive the Mongols would have been forced to scatter through the endless woodlands as they searched for the few patches of meadowland to devour. With no significant grazing the nomads would have been quite unable to reassemble in one place and in the kind of force necessary to sustain the military effort. Instead the isolated minghan and jagun would be cut off and annihilated by the plodding and limitless armed multitudes of a sedentary agrarian-based civilisation fighting in its own element. After butchering their emaciated ponies, the hunted remnants would be tracked down, cut off and trapped. The heavy hooves of the Frankish horse would trample the bones of the khans, while those marauders depleted but not destroyed would have had little choice but to flee back into the East.

Lack of grassland meant that the nomads would have to conquer the West by siege and on foot, not on horseback. A horse eats twenty-five acres of pasture or 168 bales of hay per year. Raising fodder and gathering hay for stockbreeding was a time-consuming business, since it took a man with a scythe two days just to mow a single acre in May: twice as long with a sickle. This had compelled the Huns, Avars and Magyars to settle down and make the transition to a much more complex social organisation based on mixed farming on the open field system with three-year crop rotations on the wooded plains and valleys. Reducing the numbers of mounts to boost total troop strength in agricultural conditions would have meant Europeanising, diluting and assimilating the Mongols, robbing them of their mobility in terrain where military manoeuvres were already heavily restricted by the rivers, mountain valleys and the vert, and decisively limiting their destructive potential. To fight in European conditions the Mongols would have to leave their unique advantages behind them when they quit the steppes, bring an end to their nomadic existence, and reinvent themselves as a small conventional force on European lines, a process which would have been as self-defeating for the 13th-century invaders as it had been for earlier nomads from the East.

The dearth of European pasture was such that any horse nomad army was always going to be too small to sustain a war of conquest, and Batu’s ordu was really beaten, as its Hunnic, Avar and Magyar predecessors had been, not by the enemy, but by the absence of any viable logistical base. Aware that a single defeat beyond the Danube might cost him everything he’d gained on his rampage through Hungary, Batu remained east of the river throughout the summer and autumn. Having once gazed upon the Danube, three khans, Möngke, Güyüg and Büri, withdrew with their men and horses to the greener pastures of Russia and Mongolia.

Needing a quick kill, Batu bypassed the siege of Gran and went for the jugular at Vienna. The farthest point west the Mongols reached was Wiener Neustadt, and from here, with the ordu probably haemorrhaging horses from lack of grazing, retreat seems to have become the most attractive option. According to tradition, it was concern over the possible consequences of Ögödei’s death which compelled Batu to withdraw to the Kipchak steppe, making his capital at Sarai on the Volga. But I rather suspect the reconnaissance conducted by the Mongol yurtchi, responsible for provisioning, would also have alerted Batu to the real danger of starvation and disintegration the ordu was facing had it pressed on to the West, and that this contributed to his decision to turn back, and never return to wreak his vengeance on the Christians for insolence of their Pope. If so it was a sound strategic decision, perhaps the best Batu ever made.

Sübodei was arguably the greatest commander of the thirteenth century. And yet his strategic genius goes largely unrecognised, even by the Mongolists on this forum. Make no mistake, if the conquest of Europe had been within the bounds of human possibility, Sübodei would surely have been the man to accomplish it. But it was not within the bounds of human possibility. The Carpathian mountains marked the end of horse warfare and Mongol military supremacy. They were the mighty rock against which the nomad waves must always crash in vain.

In the light of all this number-crunching it would appear that the fate of Europe was never in the hands of the Mongols, that the papal hysteria was as unjustified as it was indecorous, and that the kings of the West were not betrayed by what their better instinct told them: that it was not the Mongol incursion which posed the greater threat to their security. Instead, as always, the warlords of Europe had more reason to fear each other.

So the probability assessment indicates that a Mongol invasion of Christendom would have failed on logistics. They didn’t have a big enough siege train with them in 1241, and even if they had somehow managed to hold onto Hungary before regrouping and returning with reinforcements, the ecology of Europe could never have supported the sudden introduction of a million or so new horses consuming the 168 million more bales of hay a year that would have been necessary to sustain the Mongolian system of nomadic warfare on the basis of low-yield mediaeval agriculture. Even the intensive cultivation of the day could only have foddered a tiny fraction of this number, which after all is why infantry had always been the mainstay of the Western militaries. Within a year of the invasion Mongol horse numbers would have crashed simply from starvation. But from Batu’s point of view, climbing out of the saddle and adapting to European conditions would mean surrendering the fighting qualities which had made Mongol armies successful in the first place, and with a hundred thousand improvised infantrymen he still wouldn’t have the manpower and the resources to prevail.

The hard data suggests that Batu Khan and Sübodei had about as much chance of conquering Europe as they had of conquering the moon, and if the ordu had continued west in 1242 it would most likely have been on a one-way recon to decimation and dispersal. But fortunately for all concerned, the Mongols showed keener judgement than many armchair generals of these latter days, who on the one hand imagine a world empire that might have stretched all the way to the Western Ocean, and yet on the other hand are unable to explain why the dream of nomad dominion failed to become reality.

If there’s a lesson in of all of this, it’s that Western infantry armies were as perfectly adapted to their broadleaf forests and agricultural economy as nomad armies were to the steppes and their pastoral existence. The operational environment and logistical base dictated the composition of each kind of force and the nature of the warfare that it undertook.

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