'Visions of the Ottoman World in Renaissance Europe'

'Visions of the Ottoman World in Renaissance Europe'

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
Visions of the Ottoman World in Renaissance Europe 'Visions of the Ottoman World in Renaissance Europe' by Andrei Pippidi (Oxford University Press, $50, 288 pages)

During the Renaissance, Europe regained self-confidence and underwent rapid social changes, despite of course being wracked with division and discord. It was also during the 16th century that the Ottoman Empire was at the pinnacle of its power, and lurked as a constant hostile presence on Europe’s eastern frontiers. Andrei Pippidi’s “Visions of the Ottoman World in Renaissance Europe” isn’t a political history of relations between the Ottomans and Western European states, but rather a history of the image of “the Turk” in Europe during the first stages of its evolution. Nevertheless, the vicissitudes of political fortune naturally had a big impact on the ideas that gained currency at the time. With the Ottoman expansion, the moral and religious challenge that Islam has presented to European culture since the 9th century became a serious menace, and the effects were felt both intellectually and emotionally.

Pippidi skips happily around, whimsically deciding whether or not to translate whichever nugget (usually Latin) that he’s referencing. His book covers the years from 1453 to 1618, from the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople to the eve of the Thirty Years’ War, sketching responses to the Ottomans by various prominent Renaissance personages. It focuses on three broad phases – the initial response to the conquest and the Ottoman advance in Europe; the imperative to mobilize against the Saracenic eastern foe and reconquer its territory; and the eventual settling into stalemate after the 1593-1606 war between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs.

The Renaissance mind considered the late Byzantines with little more than contempt, and the Greeks under the Ottomans were generally seen as debased, unworthy descendants of the glories of ancient Greece. The Turks were seen as little better. Perhaps the single most important event that fixed enmity for them in the Renaissance mind was the “Bibliothecae combustae,” the destruction of Byzantine libraries that followed the Ottoman conquest of Byzantine lands. The contemporary Graeculi may well have been unworthy inheritors of the Classical tradition, but it was the Turks who destroyed the Byzantine libraries, and who thus severed Europe from a huge amount of Classical texts. Ultimately, interest in the further survival of the Classical tradition was enough to fuel the support of many Renaissance humanists to forcefully bring the East back into Latin Christendom. However, the Latin Church was bitterly divided. Despite the genuine sense of threat, the city states of Italy were never able to unite in a strong enough alliance - headed by the Emperor and the Pope - that would have been able to match the military discipline of the Ottomans in the field. Unable to unite to retake Constantinople and repel the Turks from Europe, the situation slipped into stalemate, with the Ottomans pushing into Eastern Europe but the Christian forces able to hold the frontline east of Vienna.

Of course, the Reformation complicated things further. The section of the book on Luther – merrily described by Pippidi as the “Wittenburg Ayatollah” - is particularly fascinating. Perhaps more than anybody else, Luther demonstrates how perspectives on the Turks were always defined by domestic considerations. Luther’s number one foe, of course, was Rome, so he initially used the Turks instrumentally, in favorable contrast with the Latins. Sure, the infidel Turk was vile, but Luther’s sharpest condemnation – at first - was reserved for Rome: “Christendom is being destroyed not by the Turks, but by those who are supposed to defend it.” Indeed, using the Turks as a vehicle for self criticism became quite a trope among Reformation thinkers, fixated as they were with the apparent moral failure of Western Christendom. At other times, Pippidi writes, Protestants “sympathized with the Turks because the Ottoman Empire served to check the progress of the Catholic powers.”

It was therefore Reformation thinkers who perhaps most clearly demonstrate how European responses to the Ottoman advance were always refracted through the prism of domestic considerations. Still, particularly after the fall of Constantinople, the reaction to “the Turk” in Europe was unanimously hostile; even when those Turks were being compared favorably with the Latins, they were still considered essentially diabolical and certainly unwelcome in Europe. The book ends before the European powers became aware of their growing position of strength over the Turkish empire, and before hostility would be gradually replaced with something perhaps even worse for the recipient – condescension.

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William Armstrong,