World History 1 223 - 14.2.1 The Yassa and Mongol Life

To allow bitter feelings to subside after years of struggle, Chinggis waited until 1206 to call a kurultai to consolidate and confirm his rule over all Mongols. A kurultai was a meeting of those loyal to the leader of a seminomadic confederation, convened to confirm acceptance of a major change the leader wanted to make in relations within the group or between the group and others. Attendance signaled acceptance, and not attending meant not just disagreement but possibly withdrawal of loyalty to the leader. Temujin’s kurultai was unprecedented in its scale. The Secret History of the Mongols records that nearly all the million or so People of the Felt Walls attended, setting up encampments that spread for miles. Unlike almost all previous coronations in recorded history, Temujin’s was a highly inclusive event, not just for the elites and population of the capital. A shaman proclaimed him Chinggis Khan and confirmed that Tengri, a god revered by many central Asian peoples, granted him authority and would bless his people with prosperity and good fortune as long as he governed wisely and fairly, an idea similar to the Confucian Mandate of Heaven.

To prevent conflict over succession and maintain the democratic spirit of the kurultai where members had a say in selection, Chinggis Khan decreed that any future great khan, that is, any leader over the entirety of what he began to refer to as the “great Mongol nation” and the superior of all lesser khans, could be chosen only by a kurultai and not familial succession alone. Chinggis Khan now filled the role of clan and tribe leader. He put forth rules known as the yassa to govern relations between households; later, as the empire grew, he ordered the development of a written script for the Mongol language—based on that used by Uyghur tribes from areas north of China and Mongolia—so the yassa and records pertaining to it could be recorded (Figure 14.8).

An image is shown in a yellow, double frame with décor in pale white. Two frames are shown – the one on the left shows an off-white background with three long rows of Asian script at the right with two shorter columns on either side. The left side of the image is blank. At the right, an image is shown on a gray speckled background. A man with a round face, brown eyes, thin eyebrows, and gray and white vertical lined beard wears a white cap draped behind his head to his shoulders and white robes. He has round earrings and bits of hair show from under his headdress.
Figure 14.8 This oversized portrait of Chinggis Khan was made with paint and ink on silk and comes from a fourteenth-century album of royal portraits that is today held in the National Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. The description on the left page provides brief details about Chinggis, primarily about when he reigned. (credit: “Emperor Taizu of Yuan, better known as Genghis Khan” by National Palace Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The yassa made theft and robbery—the objectives of incessant raiding between clans—capital offenses. Enslaving Mongols was outlawed, as were adultery and kidnapping women and selling them for marriage. No one could kill more animals than their household could use, hunting was banned during animals’ mating seasons, and specified butchering methods ensured that maximum use was made of the animal. The yassa favored no religion and prohibited discrimination and favoritism on the basis of religion, perhaps the first law code to do so. Chinggis Khan, who continued to worship Tengri, granted tax and labor service exemptions to all religious leaders and holders of church lands, privileges later extended to those in secular occupations requiring literacy, such as medicine and law.

The family was the center of life for a Mongol woman, yet she had little if any say about how her family was formed. Marriages were arranged, and polygamy was common, although a man was not supposed to have more wives than he could support. Adult males in the household could sleep with any of the women in the household if this did not violate incest taboos, and it is unclear the degree to which a woman’s consent was necessary. Because the yassa defined adultery as occurring only between married people of different households, it codified the potential for sexual assault within households.

Mongol women did have some power, however. They were often left to oversee the household when the men went to herd, hunt, and raid. A widow beyond childbearing years was often considered a household head and took her husband’s place in the clan’s collective decision-making institutions. When Chinggis Khan was away on extended campaigns, his wife Borte was the de facto leader of the civilians of the Mongol Empire, and the wives and mothers of later Mongol rulers could hold significant power over a khanate following this model. Such instances of female leadership were far, far rarer—or entirely unheard of—in most other Afro-Eurasian societies of the same period.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax