"The Most Vile and Barbarous Nation of All the World": Giles Fletcher the Elder's the Tartars or, Ten Tribes (Ca. 1610)*

By Cogley, Richard W. | Renaissance Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

"The Most Vile and Barbarous Nation of All the World": Giles Fletcher the Elder's the Tartars or, Ten Tribes (Ca. 1610)*


Cogley, Richard W., Renaissance Quarterly


A year or so before his death in 1611, Giles Fletcher the Elder--civil lawyer, parliamentarian, diplomat, minor poet, and historian (1)--wrote a brief work which argued that the Tartars of central and northeastern Asia were the ten lost tribes of Israel. (2) Fletcher was by no means the first western European to advance this argument. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the English Benedictine Matthew Paris (d. 1259) publicized the idea in his Chronica Majora, and in the sixteenth century the French humanists Gilbertus Genebrardus (1537-97) and Guillaume Postel (1510-81) advocated it as well. (3) Nevertheless, Fletcher's tract may have been the first endorsement of the Israelites-as-Tartars theory composed in English; more importantly, it was almost certainly the first statement written in England in any language that incorporated into the theory the additional provisions that the Tartars would become Christians and then return to Palestine, where, in partnership with the repatriated and converted Jews, they would inaugurate the millennium in Jerusalem.

Fletcher's work remained in manuscript until 1677, when the Puritan minister Samuel Lee (1625-91) published it in London as The Tartars Or, Ten Tribes. Lee printed Fletcher's book, along with his own recently completed Dissertation Concerning the Place and State of the Dispersed Tribes of Israel, in a volume he entitled Israel Redux. Then in 1749 William Whiston (1667-1752), the celebrated mathematician and theologian who succeeded Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, published a second edition of The Tartars under the title A Discourse concerning the Tartars, proving (in all Probability) that they are the Israelites, or Ten Tribes. (4)

Fletcher's fascination with the Tartars almost certainly began during a brief period of residence in Moscow from the fall of 1588 through the summer of 1589, when he served as an ambassador from Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) to the Russian court. (He also held diplomatic posts in Scotland, in several cities of the Hanseatic League, and in the United Provinces.) Fletcher's time in Russia familiarized him with the history of the Golden Horde, the Mongol-Turkish confederation which controlled southern and central Russia, as well as Kazakhstan, from the mid-thirteenth century until the late fourteenth century, when it began to slowly disintegrate through external pressure from the Timurids under Tamerlane or Timur the Lame (d. 1405) and then through internal secessionist movements under Muscovite leadership. Remnants of the Golden Horde, generally known as Tatars (and sometimes, rather misleadingly, as Cossacks) today, continued to live in Russia and neighboring regions after the confederation's collapse, and hence were part of the Russian world that Fletcher encountered during his stay in Moscow. (5) As we shall see in part 3, Fletcher and many others in Tudor-Stuart England (1485-1714) viewed the Mongols, the Turks, the Tatars, and the Timurids simply as Tartars.

Fletcher's residence in Moscow led to one prose publication before he drafted The Tartars. Shortly after his return to London in 1589, he wrote Of the Russe Common Wealth, one of the few sixteenth-century English-language histories of Russia, and a source consulted by many later authors, including Sir Walter Raleigh (1554?-1618), Ben Jonson (1572-1637), John Milton (1608-74), and possibly William Shakespeare (1564-1616). (6) Of the Russe Common Wealth was published in London in 1591, but was promptly suppressed by the English government because the merchants of the Russia Company thought that Fletcher's many comments about the tsar's tyranny and debauchery might jeopardize trading relations. (7) The book was later reprinted in less provocative versions in the 1598 edition of Richard Hakluyt the Younger's The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation and also in Samuel Purchas's Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625); it was then republished in full form in 1643, 1656, 1657, and 1675 as The History of Russia, or the Government of the Emperour of Muscovia. …

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