History: Mongols and their Horses

There are conflicting theories about the Mongols and their horses. One post said: The barbarians who descended on Europe from the east, like the Mongols, owed their victories to their horses and horsemanship. One theory is that Attila the Hun was forced to give up his conquests because his horses were attacked by a disease.  Some suspect malaria,but it may have been spavin. George Sassoon says: One reason for the success of the Mongols (I was told) was that they cut some meat from the horses' hindquarters, sewed up the wound, ate it raw, remounted, and rode on. This survives today as 'steak tartare', a raw meat dish of beef, not horse-flesh.  Maybe other WAISers can confirm this.

RH: George's story seems dubious. In a Google search I found this: As we can see in Panetti’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things,” this dish has its origin as a culinary practice popular in medieval times among warring Mongolian and Turkic tribes known as Tartars. These violent fellows derived their name from the infernal abyss of Greek mythology, Tartarus. Their meal was low-quality, tough meat from Asian cattle grazing on the Russian steppe, shredded to make it more palatable and digestible. It was introduced into Germany sometime around the dawn of the 14th century, where it was prepared either raw or cooked.
And this: "Tartars! We also call them the Mongolian tribes . . . " Their appearance was not at all what we call Mongoloid, Asiatic. Drawings of the tartars look more like the Russian Cossacks or the Turks. In the fifth century, the Tartars were well known in Western Europe.  The name tartar originated from the people's scared voices, the announcing of the arrival of the horsemen, the sound of many horses and the distinct trrrrtrrrrr of the hoofs on the ground." "People of all ages whispered in fear ‘trrrttrrrs'!"  Knowing they could not outrun the barbarians, "trrrtrrr" meant possible horror and often loss of life. "Trrrtrrr" became a regular word in the people's vocabulary, soon pronounced "Tar-tar." Everybody who lived between Tibet, and the east, and Italy, to the west, knew the meaning of "Tartar."

Few of the people in the invaded countries understood and spoke the horsemen's language. Even fewer was the number who knew the difference between the one and the other Mongolian tribe. Common people did not know if these fast moving men on horseback were Turks, Mongolians, Avars, Huns, Ephthalites or Hephthalites, who marauded their villages. Yet none of the surviving victims was ever going to forget the trrrrtrrrr sound of the galloping horses, drumming the soil, announcing the armies who moved faster than anything then known to humankind.

While it seems that the steaks we always beef, we now have a reason to study horse meat as part of a wider study of meat and food generally.  Is Glenye Cain an authority on horse meat or only on horse flesh?

Our discussion of the origin of steak tartare, or tatare, led to a Google search which provided a number of explanations of the word tartare (tatare).  Ed Jajko comments: The World Wide Web is full of fanciful misinformation, among which is the etymology of the name "Tartar," supposedly drawn from "the people's scared voices, the announcing of the arrival of the horsemen, the sound of many horses and the distinct trrrtrrrrr of the hoofs on the ground."  The Tatars were so named before they reached Europe.  There are conflicting scholarly explanations for the name, some basing it in Chinese and others in Mongolian, but not on a "trrrtrrrr" sound of galloping horses.  When they reached Europe, Europeans added an "r" to their name.  This was either to identify them as coming from the realm of Tartaros or simply to make the name easier for European mouths to pronounce.

Your comments are invited. Read the home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on:   http://wais.stanford.edu Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: November 24, 2004