by Jack Weatherford
You may be forgiven for first thinking that this book might be stuffed with tales of wild orgies and weird perversions; you probably don’t know that the primary source for our history of the Mongols is a work that calls itself The Secret History of the Mongols. This document was an ongoing work that kept track of the deeds of the Mongol khans; one of its primary purposes was to keep track of the genealogies so that people could know who deserved to rule. Mongol traditions put enormous weight on genealogy; at one point a child was chosen to be khan because he was something like eight generations down the line from a brother of Genghis Khan, even though none of his intervening ancestors had been khans. Whoever controlled this document controlled the succession to the rule of the Mongol clans, so they kept it secret. I know, it doesn’t quite make sense, but that’s how they did it.
This author had previously written a book about Ghengis Khan that was well received. By the way, if you’re wondering about how his name is pronounced, I can tell you that I have seen it spelled as Jingis and Chingis. Anyway, he had thoroughly researched all possible sources, travelled to Mongolia to see the original documents himself, and spent considerable time tapping the people about folktales about their history. As he gathered information, he began to realize that women had played a more important role in Mongol history than had previously been suspected. This launched a new line of research resulting in this book.
In most cultures, the general pattern has been that women run the household and men run everything else. Put another way, the wife runs domestic policy for the family and the husband runs foreign policy – except that the husband also has primacy in all decisions. He permits the wife to run the petty stuff that he doesn’t much care about. This is most clearly demonstrated by the handling of money in many cultures. The husband earns it and allots the bulk of it to the wife to spend on food, clothing, etc.
But Mongol society assigned much greater power to the wife, because it was a nomadic culture. The wife stayed home and the husband went off to war, to long hunts, or to move the flocks around the vast emptiness of Mongolia. The husband was home so rarely that his existence was almost ephemeral. The wife owned the home, a moveable tent-like structure called a ger. Her ownership was so absolute that nobody, not even the husband, could enter without her permission. She owned all the camp property; he owned only what he carried: clothing, weapons, horse, and so forth.
The system had been refined over thousands of years and was working quite well when Ghengis Khan set off on his wars of conquest in 1206. As his empire grew, he needed people to actually run the newly-conquered areas, somebody whom he could trust not to use those territories as a springboard from which to challenge his rule. He turned to the women of his family, naming them as khatun (queen) of that territory. The standard arrangement was as follows: once a group surrendered, he kept its khan, king, or ruler in place, but married one of his daughters to that fellow, who then moved in with the old king and took over the royal household. The old king, under Mongol tradition, was required to accompany Ghengis Khan on his wars, so he was never home to organize trouble. That left the Mongol khatun in charge back home, ruling in the name of both the old king and Ghengis Khan; that guaranteed strict obedience to her rule. This was how Ghengis Khan was able to assemble a huge empire that didn’t fall apart from its own centrifugal forces.
Of course, once Ghengis Khan died in 1227, things started to change. The women whom he had set up continued to rule, but ambitious men now began to connive about how they might seize power. One by one, the women were picked off. The women fought back by marrying male descendants of Ghengis Khan, thereby re-establishing their legitimacy, so it took a few hundred years to purge the last woman from the last position of power.
That woman, however, went out with quite a splash. In the late 1400s, Queen Manduhai fought, maneuvered, conspired, betrayed, and wormed her way into control of a large area centering on Mongolia. She physically led her army into battle, fighting alongside the men. She tracked down the last surviving male member of the clan of Ghengis Khan, a young frail boy, took control of him, and ruled as regent. When he came of age, she married him and continued her rule. She died of old age, still ruler of a large territory. But Manduhai was the last Mongol khatun of any power.
Ghengis Khan hit upon a brilliant scheme for managing his empire, but once that empire shrank, the women no longer had an important role to play. As the Mongol polity reverted to its previous system of tribal anarchy, the women fell prey to male ambition and the Mongols retreated to their barren, frigid homeland around the Gobi Desert.