“Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire” by Anne F Broadbridge

Mongol Empresses (WikiMedia Commons) Mongol Empresses (WikiMedia Commons)

Steppe women had a greater participation than their settled sisters in politics, war and daily work. With Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire, Anne F Broadbridge sets out to substantiate this general observation in the case of the Mongols, from Chinggis (Genghis) Khan to the Great Mongol Ulus and its successor.

With a whole book on the subject of Mongol women, Broadbridge is preceded only by Jack Weatherford’s Secret History of the Mongol Queens and Bruno De Nicola’s Women in Mongol Iran, published last year. It is hard to move beyond a view of Mongol women based on anecdotes in the sources, such as examples of the influence of Chinggis Khan’s mother Hö’elün and chief wife Börte. Broadbridge is determined to study “systems” behind the anecdotal evidence. Chinggis biographies have not been slow to acknowledge that the women in his family seem to have had particular sway over the great man. But is this particular to him, or can we extrapolate to Mongol society?

Women’s participation in Mongol politics reached a peak with the widow queens left in charge on the death of Chinggis’ sons and grandsons. For this phase, a title of “women in the unmaking of the Mongol empire” might have been more apt, since the Great Mongol Ulus lost its unity and split into four khanligs, often at loggerheads. Yet Mongol mothers, as Broadbridge points out, were expected to teach unity and cooperation as a value to their children. What went wrong?

Broadbridge is not content to answer at a level of personalities, of rival queens. Power struggle, our default motif, is a sort of non-explanation. Instead, this book’s consistent examination of how Mongol society functioned for women uncovers in the widow queens a motivation and a logic of behavior previously missed by scholars.

Key to a more structural look at women in the Mongol world is to understand the ordos. Bruno de Nicola, in his book, reports on his investigation into ordos owned and managed by elite ladies. An ordo was a palace-camp, with its own treasury, staff and guard: repositories of wealth, they grew to huge proportions, tent towns that might be largely inhabited by women. Broadbridge agrees with De Nicola on ordos as hubs of the Mongol economy – trade and accumulation in peacetime, logistics on campaign—although at times she is more sceptical about a woman’s authority over an ordo. The big palace-camps seem to be based on ordinary life, where women drove the home wagons, in charge of assets not on four legs. In Chinggis Khan’s campaigns, we know women were near the front lines, and they may have had much to do with the handling of spoils—not excluding captives, great numbers of whom ended up in ladies’ ordos.

Even war, then, was less a male preserve than depictions in the West have it. Broadbridge begins her book, “To date, scholarly and popular histories of the Mongols have been dominated by the seemingly masculine topic of Mongol warfare…” An enthusiasm for warfare, well ahead of other aspects, has skewed Mongol reception in the West, which can be worryingly masculine. Ordos ran on women’s wheels. Corruption of the word into “horde”, with its vision of savage men on horses, might stand as a metaphor for Mongol reception in general.

 

Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire, Anne F. Broadbridge (Cambridge University Press, July 2018)
Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire, Anne F. Broadbridge (Cambridge University Press, July 2018)

Although Broadbridge seeks to study “systems” in Mongol society, this does not mean she leaves out the stories of individual lives. On the contrary, her biographies of nearly every figure who features in the sources must be now the last word on these women. To resurrect inner lives from such sources as we have for the Mongols may be impossible. Still, we can look at actions and attempt to discover a person’s guiding lights, principles, aims. Broadbridge avoids the phrase “inner lives” and substitutes “mental energy”, or the efforts women made, arguing that we can trace mentalities in the sources through actual results. Results, she thinks, are more honest than what the sources say, for contemporaries had limited insight into women’s motivations and tend to present them in either conventional pieties or derogatory types. Whether women’s efforts succeeded or failed, Broadbridge believes we can see what at least the elite ladies mentioned in the sources tried to do with their lives.

Perhaps the most intriguing tale in Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire  concerns the loyalties of captured wives—a theme the written sources themselves cannot be expected to have a true view of. Broadbridge writes,

 

the realities of women’s experiences, and the ways they actually behaved, suggest that their real loyalties were far more complex than has been previously assumed.

 

Töregene, Oghul-Qaimish and Sorqoqtani, the three queens who tore apart Chinggisid unity, had once been enemy women. Enemy princes, subject to death and not to marriage, never faced the conflicts of a captured queen, prestigiously installed with a Chinggisid. In the case of the two Tatar sisters Chinggis took as wives, Broadbridge finds intercession on behalf of Tatars the sisters’ main objective:

 

Although ostensibly Yisüi was helping two downtrodden orphans, her real goal must be understood as larger and more subversive: to ameliorate the wretched situation of her people, the Tatars her father had ruled and her mother had managed. She was thus using her status as Temüjin’s wife and her position in his favor to act on her first loyalties, which were certainly not to him.

 

Other captured wives did not manage to salvage their home clans or revive a slaughtered people. The trauma of these women Broadbridge points to, but cannot describe, because of a lack of testimony in our sources. After Sorqoqtani, who left “two Chinggisid houses gutted” and yet was praised to the skies by Grand Khan Ögedei (it is he who considers her “the most intelligent woman in the world”, as recorded by Rashid al-Din), we start to wonder whether Chinggisid husbands were naïve to trust their captured wives.

This book has exhaustive inventories of women’s participation in Mongol public life, and thirty-three family trees. It isn’t always a pleasant read. It is, of course, a necessary book, with much more content than I can gesture towards in this review.


Bryn Hammond is a writer living in Australia. She has out the fiction titles Against Walls and Imaginary Kings (Amgalant series on the Mongols) and the non-fiction Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe.