Het'um the Historian's

History of the Tartars

[The Flower of Histories of the East]


Translator's Preface


The Flower of Histories of the East first appeared in 1307 in the city of Poitiers. Dictated in French by the Cilician Armenian statesman and general, Het'um, and then translated into Latin the same year by his secretary, Nicholas Falcon, the work is contained in four books. Book I is a geographical survey of fourteen countries of the Far East, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Asia Minor, and parts of the Near East. Book II is a brief account of Muslim military history, including the rise of the Saljuqs and Khwarazmians. Book III, the longest, describes the early history of the Mongols, information on the Great Khans, the Il-Khans of Iran, and Mongol warfare in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus to ca. 1304. Book IV contains Het'um's suggestions to Pope Clement V (1305-14) on initiating a crusade to retake Jerusalem and parts of Cilician Armenia, Lebanon and Syria from Muslim powers, using the combined forces of the Europeans, Cilician Armenians and Mongols. Some scholars have suggested that Book IV was not part of the original French composition, but was added to the Latin translation and then translated into French and appended to the French text. Without Book IV, Het'um's work is an interesting account of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mongol history and geography, to be categorized with accounts of 13th century European visitors to the East. With Book IV, Het'um's History enters the ranks of Crusader literature, but with the difference that its author, rather than being a pious and limited cleric, was instead a successful and influential general and tactician who had participated with his troops in numerous Mongol campaigns against the Mamluks.

Het'um, born sometime in the mid 1240s, was a son of prince Oshin, lord of Korikos in Cilician Armenia. Though biographical details of his early life are lacking, his family clearly enjoyed great influence in Cilicia. His father, Oshin, was the younger brother of King Het'um I (1226-69) and of the kingdom's Constable, Smbat Sparapet (commander-in-chief of the army) (d. 1276). Of the author's own children, several were also deeply involved in Cilician affairs of the late 13th century: Baudoin became governor of Tarsus; Constantine became Constable; Oshin became regent of Cilicia during the reign of Levon III (1305-07); and daughter Zabel (born 1282) was the wife of King Oshin (1307-20).

There is uncertainty about Het'um's official functions throughout the late 13th century. He states in chapter 46 of the History that he cherished the dream of retiring from political and military affairs and becoming a monk. However, it was not until 1305 that he accomplished this. Here, too, there is ambiguity, with some suggesting that Het'um was forced out of Cilicia after losing in a power struggle with his enemy, King Het'um II (1289-93, 1294-97, 1299-1307). The Cypriot chroniclers paint a very negative picture of Het'um's activities after he had become a canon regular of the Roman Catholic Praemonstratensian order. In their accounts, Het'um's aim was anything but religious. Rather, it was to promote the career of Amalric of Tyre and his own favorites in Cilicia; his visit to the papal court at Poitiers in 1306 was to enlist the Pope's support for Amalric's ambitions in Cyprus, and he attempted to bribe papal legates to achieve this. The Cypriot chroniclers also note that Het'um returned to Cyprus in 1308 and, within six days, had removed his cowl and departed for Cilician Armenia where he presumably resumed his political activities. His death has been placed between 1310 and 1320.

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What sources did Het'um use in creating his History? In chapter 46, he himself characterizes them as written, oral, and personal (from 1263 on):

I, who wrote this book, know all that is in the third part in three ways. Events which transpired from the time of Chingiz-Khan, first emperor of the Tartars, to Monge-Khan, the fourth emperor, were taken from the histories of the Tartars. Events from Monge-Khan to the death of Hulegu, I heard from my honorable uncle King Het'um of Armenia who was present at all of them. With great diligence he retold them to his sons and nephews, and had us put it in writing for a remembrance. From the beginning of the reign of Abagha-Khan, son of Hulegu, to the third part of the book where the history of the Tartars ends, I speak as one who was present in person; and what I have seen I have recorded accurately.
In chapter 10 Het'um refers vaguely to the "histories of the kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia" for a confused story not known from any of them. In chapters 13 and 14 he references unidentified "histories of the eastern regions," which he followed in designating Trabizond as a district rather than a kingdom, and for the territorial divisions of Syria. Chapter 15 several times refers the reader to the histories of the crusader Godfrey of Bouillon (d. 1100). Chapter 17 mentions the "histories of the Tartars", one of which, perhaps, was Juvaini. Chapter 32 references a "chronicle of the Holy Land" which may be the same work as the "book of the conquests of the Holy Land" mentioned in chapter 52.

Het'um's uncles, Smbat and King Het'um I, would have been extremely rich and accessible oral sources. During the initial period of Mongol-Cilician contact, both had made the multi-year journey to the Far East: Smbat in 1247-51 and King Het'um I in 1254-55. Smbat described some of his observations in a letter in French to his brother-in-law Henry I of Cyprus [See the Letter of Smbat Constable to King Henry I of Cyprus]. King Het'um's journey, which our author describes briefly, also was described in detail by an eastern Armenian historian, Kirakos of Gandzak [See Gandzakets'i's History, Chapter 58. Concerning the trip of the pious king of the Armenians, Het'um, to Batu and Mongke-Khan]. Eastern Armenian and Cilician Armenian clerics would have been an invaluable source as well, since there were numerous Armenian clerics serving as translators at the stopping places en route to Mongolia and at the courts of the khans in Iran and Mongolia throughout the second half of the 13th century. The author himself appears to have visited the Caucasus (chapter 10), and states that he was present at the installment of two Mongol khans (chapter 16), though it is believed that he is referring to the Il-Khans of Iran rather than the Great Khans of Mongolia. Het'um, as a general, also participated in Mongol military campaigns in various parts of the Middle East for at least three decades (chapters 42, 44, 46).

Prior to the appearance of Het'um's History in 1307, western Europeans knew about the Mongols primarily from the accounts of clerical travelers to the Far East. Among this determined group were John of Plano Carpini and Brother Benedict the Pole (1245-47), Ascelin and Andrew of Longjumeau (1247-48), William of Rubruck (1253-55), and John of Monte Corvino (1289-1328). As papal envoys, their observations on the daily life of the Mongols and the details of their own harrowing journeys are priceless. However, their often ill-prepared travels were viewed with great suspicion by the Mongols, who found their stated aims puzzling. In any case, with the possible exception of John of Plano Carpini, the envoys' focus was primarily religious, a circumstance which led to many shocking and painful encounters with the shamanist reality of the Mongols, and to much unintended (and unappreciated) humor. A noteworthy exception was Marco Polo's Travels (1298). Written by an observant and energetic merchant who spent twenty years in the Orient, Polo's work was intended to inform and to entertain, which it continues to do. Intertwined with invaluable ethnographic and historical information is a considerable amount of fantasy, including Amazons, dog-headed men, fantastic plants and other marvels.

If Polo's aim was to write an entertaining best-seller, Het'um's aim was to start a war. There is no fantasy in Het'um's History. In the geographical section he describes the countries' borders, major cities, rivers, mountains, agriculture, exports, religions, and military capabilities. The historical portions (Books II and III) which are remarkable for their breadth, are generally accurate, though Het'um occasionally conflates similar battles fought in the same area, or similar legends (such as the two icons of Edessa), and occasionally, though rarely, is off a year or two in dating events. His shrewd and detailed battle plans in Book IV contain estimates of required troops and materiel; while the preconditions for starting any war, which he lays out in chapter 49, are still valid today. As Het'um had fought Muslim powers diplomatically and on the battlefield for most of his adult life, his work is characterized by a hatred and denigration of Islam and shows a concomitant tendency to emphasize (or overemphasize) Christian currents among the Mongols. This latter, perhaps, was a deliberate exaggeration to further interest or influence Pope Clement V, at whose request the work was written.

Filling a gap in Europe's knowledge of the Mongols, Het'um's Flower of Histories of the East quickly became a popular work and remained so for several hundred years. The large number of extant manuscripts and translations attest to this. Fifteen copies of the original French text and thirty-one copies of the Latin text have survived. In the mid 14th century, the Latin text was translated back into French twice, while a vernacular Spanish text appeared at the end of the century. Printed editions soon followed. The French text was published three times in the early 16th century, and editions of the Latin text appeared in 1529, 1532, 1537, 1555, and 1585. Between 1517 and 1520 Richard Pynson published A Lytell Cronycle, an English translation he made from the French. Translations also were made into German (1534), Italian (1559, 1562), Spanish (1595), and Dutch (1563 and three times subsequently in the late 17th century). By this time, Het'um had become known as Hetoum/Hethum, Haiton/Hayton, Haithon/Haython, and Brother Anton. An Armenian edition was published by M. Awgerean in 1842, based on a Latin text. The only modern edition of the French and Latin versions appeared in 1906, C. Kohler et al, in Recueil des historiens des croisades: Documents arméniens, II. The Spanish text, with a study, was published by Wesley Robertson Long, La Flor de las Ystorias de Orient (Chicago, 1934).

In 1988 Glenn Burger published Hetoum, A Lytell Cronycle, Richard Pynson's Translation (c. 1520) of La Fleur des histoires de la terre d'Orient (c. 1307) (Toronto, 1988). This is a corrected Old English text based on several surviving manuscripts of A Lytell Cronycle accompanied by an extensive introduction, commentary, bibliography, textual notes, French-English variants, indices of proper names and places and a glossary (Old English to modern English). Burger's work is a fine piece of scholarship, without which the present edition would not have been attempted.

In 1977, while assembling material for a study of the Turco-Mongol invasions of the Caucasus, I made an English translation of Awgerean's text [Het'um patmich' t'at'arats' (Venice, 1951, reprint of 1842 edition)]. It was through the Awgerean edition that Het'um's work became accessible to several generations of Armenists who, like myself, lacked the linguistic competence to deal with medieval forms of French, Latin, or English and/or access to the original texts themselves. Unfortunately, Awgerean's edition has numerous shortcomings. There are a large number of typographical errors, some of which the editor of the 1951 reprint noted parenthetically. Moreover, there are problems of faulty translation. In a brief introduction, Awgerean himself lamented the poor quality of the Latin text he was working with. As a result, he occasionally summarized especially thorny passages, sometimes misinterpreting them. There are also omissions. Apparently Awgerean's Latin text lacked Book IV, since it is absent from his edition. Awgerean also relocated the colophon of Het'um's secretary, Nicholas Falcon, which appears at the end of Book IV in other versions, to the front of Book I. In this colophon Nicholas Falcon claims that Het'um had dictated the book without using notes of any kind. If applied solely to Book IV, the claim is quite believable, since the battle plans in Book IV were Het'um's own. But if applied to the entirety of Books I, II, and III, as Awgerean's rearrangement implied, the claim is unbelievable. Last but not least, whether due to a poor text or poor eyesight, Awgerean (almost) consistently confused the lower-case Roman numeral l (50) with i (1), which affects many of the numbers provided. Thus, for example, where the French, Latin, and English texts give troop strengths of xl (40) thousand, Awgerean's edition has xi (11) thousand. Not surprisingly, among Armenists relying solely on Awgerean, Het'um and his History gained a notorious reputation for unreliablity, even though the fault was Awgerean's and not Het'um's. [For more on this see (in Armenian): A. Galstyan, "On the Question of the Characterization of Het'um's History of the Tartars" in Teghekagir 9(1958) pp. 63-72; and V. A. Hakobyan, "On the Translation of the Book History of the Tartars" in Lraber 1(1971) pp. 80-89.]

The present edition, which is intended for the general reader, is a translation of the Awgerean text, corrected and expanded with passages from Burger, and including our modern English translation of Book IV. Inserts from Burger's Old English edition appear in square brackets containing translations of the alternate or expanded text and pagination of the Old English, for example [text, oe12].

For additional information and bibliography on Het'um and the various texts and translations, see Glenn Burger, Hetoum, A Lytell Cronycle, Richard Pynson's Translation (c. 1520) of La Fleur des histoires de la terre d'Orient (c. 1307) (Toronto, 1988). For a detailed study of the Mongol invasions, see volume five of the Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge, 1968 ); for eastern Armenia in particular, see R. Bedrosian, The Turco-Mongol Invasions and the Lords of Armenia in the 13-14th Centuries (New York, 1979), and especially Appendix C: Notes on the Relations between the Mongols and the Armenian Church in the 13th Century. For Cilicia, see S. Der Nersessian, "The Kingdom of Cilician Armenia" in History of the Crusades, K. M. Setton, ed. vol. II (Philadelphia, 1969) pp. 630-59, and Ani Atamian Bournoutian, "Cilician Armenia" in The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, R. G. Hovannisian, ed. vol. 1 (New York, 1997), pp. 273-291. Additional bibliography is available in C. Toumanoff's article, "Armenia and Georgia," [Chapter XIV in The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. IV, The Byzantine Empire, part I, (Cambridge, 1966), pp. 593-637].

Available on other pages of this website are Chronologies and Maps.


Robert Bedrosian
Long Branch, New Jersey, 2004

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