Tom Burman

title.none: Bisaha, Creating East and West (Tom Burman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.012 06.02.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Tom Burman, University of Tennessee, Knoxville,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Bisaha, Nancy. Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. ix, 309. 59.95 0-8122-3806-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.12

Bisaha, Nancy. Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. ix, 309. 59.95 0-8122-3806-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Tom Burman
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In her careful, textured study of humanist attitudes toward the Ottoman world, Nancy Bisaha portrays a culture shot through with apparently contradictory impulses. On her telling, humanist orators, historians, and letter writers were just as likely to attack the Turks as their age's barbarians as they were to admire the Ottomans' great achievements in secular terms. Even as many drew on the wide medieval tradition of religious polemic against Islam, others began to re-imagine the Turkish world through the lens of the classical texts that they so admired. There is no single humanist discourse here, as she sees it, but rather several overlapping ways of thinking about and categorizing the Turks (and the larger Islamic world which they increasingly came to represent in the European mind). In my view Bisaha is surely and persuasively right about all this, and her attractively written book will therefore be essential reading for all scholars of Christian-Muslim relations. If there is a weakness, it is perhaps only in how she sometimes characterizes the earlier, medieval tradition of thinking about Islam.

The Turks were clearly a serious matter. Italian humanists wrote about them in so many works from such a wide variety of genres that there is no doubt that they "were discussing and publicizing a timely and serious issue that drew a sizable readership". (5) While Bisaha contends that in doing so they reshaped Western thought on Islam by "transforming an old enemy of the faith into a political and cultural threat to their growing sense of 'Europe'" (5), she never loses sight of the fact that humanists also never lost the traditional Christian zeal for seeing Islam as a great enemy of the faith.

She constructs her book, which focuses primarily on fifteenth- century Italian humanists, around four themes, to each of which she dedicates a chapter. Chapter One, "Crusade and Charlemagne: Medieval Influences", examines key humanist continuities with medieval thought on Islam. While humanists were in love with classical sources, Bisaha emphasizes--as much other recent scholarship on humanism does--the ways in which medieval learned traditions continued to shape humanist thought. Since Renaissance scholars lived in a world which, in general, was more threatened by Islam than the high-medieval Latin world was, Bisaha sees them as tending to draw, in fact, on the more hostile medieval works on Islam. Many happily called for Crusades in terms as strident as any medieval propagandist. Poggio Bracciolini, for example, described the Turks as "infidels" and "enemies of the faith", such language demonstrating, Bisaha observes, "the resonance of the crusade ideal even in fifteenth-century humanist circles". (24) And they were not afraid to seize the possibilities presented by the figure of Charlemagne as a sort of role model for crusade against Islam, something even a learned scholar such as Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini did when, in a letter of 1453, he alluded to Charlemagne's supposed conquest of the Holy Land which, once lost, had later to be reconquered by the warriors of the first Crusade. He and others who may well have known better nevertheless "invoked [this] myth for its rhetorical and inspirational applications". (37)

Chapter Two, entitled "The New Barbarian: Redefining the Turks in Classical Terms", elegantly examines how their return ad fontes gave humanists a new set of images and terms with which to think about the powerful Turkish-Muslim empire that so clearly threatened Christian Europe. Since they used the classical tradition as a guide for how they thought about all other topics, we can hardly be surprised that they turned to classical models to help them come to terms with Islam. The most important consequence of their doing so was that their ways of talking about the Turks took on a secular tone that, Bisaha contends, was absent before. This secularity can be seen most vividly in how often the Turks are examined primarily in ethnic and political rather than religious terms, and through the resurrected concept of "East and West or Europe and Asia as hard and fast cultural and political boundaries". (44) Such an approach could, on the one hand, culminate in a relatively positive view of the Turks. Salutati, for example, admired the Ottomans for embodying Roman virtue: by comparison, Latin Christendom seemed to him weak and divided. But this approach could also, especially after 1453, evolve into an image of the Turks as the new barbarians who were radically different from the civilized Latin Christians. This conception could be pressed surprisingly far: once the Turks had been identified as the embodiment of barbarism, "the door was open to other Muslim populations". By 1492 Ugolino Verino was characterizing even the Moors of Spain, seen often in medieval Europe as exemplars of sophistication and learning, as "barbarians". (78)

Entitled "Straddling East and West: Byzantium and Greek Refugees", the third chapter provides an overview of the role that expatriate Greeks, such as Chrysoloras, Bessarion, and George of Trebizond, played in the elaboration these humanist discourses on the Turks. Of considerable interest here is not only how important such figures were in impressing upon the humanists the dire threat to the Greeks that the Turks represented, but also how the ambivalent views of humanists toward the Byzantines themselves interacted with their views on the Turks. Italian scholars continually vacillated between seeing Byzantium as the home of cultural and religious cousins and as the habitation of rather annoying outsiders. For this reason the loss of Byzantium in 1453 was sometimes seen as the Latin-Christian world's own (quite grievous) loss, but at others as the Greek's deserved punishment. Expatriates, however, attempted energetically to repair the poor image of Greece among the Italians, choosing to focus on how the conquest of Constantinople was an aggressive assault on the "heritage of ancient Greece as the home of democracy, liberty, and especially learning" (113), a spin transparently designed to appeal to humanist self identity. Despite such appeals, humanists continued to debate whether the Greeks merited their conquered fate, and "[t]he same humanist who bemoaned the fall of Constantinople in one text might attack their religious error or greed in another". (118) Nevertheless, while humanists continued to attack the Greeks occasionally, after 1453 such hostility began to decline noticeably, humanists more and more seeing them as undeservedly oppressed by Turkish barbarians who were "capable of devastating the highest forms of learning and culture". (134)

The final chapter, "Religious Influences and Interpretations," makes clear to us "how important the divine continued to be in discourses on the Muslim East". (136) These religious preoccupations and the more secular, classically inspired ways of imagining the Turks often appeared in the same works. The humanists' religious interpretations of the Turks, moreover, varied considerably, ranging from polemical conceptions not much different from those found in the medieval period to rather apocalyptic or pacifist trends of thought. George of Trebizond, for example, went out of his way after 1453 to praise Mehmed II as a great ruler, and to attempt, through the means of humanist rhetoric, to persuade him to become a Christian, for he was the only man "who might bring together all religious groups". (153) Other humanists conceived of the Turks primarily as a deserved punishment for a Latin Christendom sadly in need of reform. Yet conceiving of the Turks as a positive part of God's plan--whether in unifying the peoples of the world, or in punishing wayward Christians--was far less common, Bisaha stresses, than rather more traditional polemic, such polemical conceptions in many cases having been strengthened by the very humanist classicism that figured the Turks now not just as non-Christian, but also as barbarian. Such a dynamic is implicit in Leonardo Dati's Carmen ad Nicolaum Papam V in Thurcum Mahomet, for example, which presented Islam as thorough-going Satanism, but did so in an epic fragment, or epyllion, inspired by Ovid or Catullus. "This genre allowed Dati to incorporate mythical classical elements, such as the river Archeron, Cerberus, and the Furies, and to mimic the poetic language of epic without having to match the length of an Iliad or Aeneid". (162) Not surprisingly, the humanist embrace of classical culture only strengthened the kind of cultural chauvanism already widespread in the Middle Ages. As Bisaha shows quite effectively, the medieval-Christian wheeze about learned Muslims not really believing in Islam--Islam thriving, therefore, on ignorance--was taken much further by humanist controversialists.

In her concluding chapter ("Epilogue: The Renaissance Legacy") Bisaha reflects on the fortunes of these Italian humanist ways of coming to terms with the dynamic and expanding Turkish world that stood so close to their doorstep. Erasmus and a few other sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers continued "the more relativistic methods of earlier humanists". (174) While Erasmus himself indulged from time to time in the discourse of Turkish barbarism, he was also a committed opponent of Christian violence and Crusade, and urged Latin Christians to try to win souls through piety and charity. Machiavelli's keenly secular direction of thought led him to take great interest in Turkish politics, and in The Discourses argued that the virtue that had once dwelt in Rome now dwelt in the Ottoman world, among other places. But "[a]ppealing though they are to a twenty-first century audience," Bisaha observes, "the more liberal pronouncements of Erasmus and Machiavelli were atypical for their time." (178) Far more common were conceptions of the Turks that, echoing a major strand of fifteenth-century Italian humanist thought, viewed them as threats to both Christian faith and humanist culture. While contemporary scholars have paid a great deal of attention to the praise of Turkish justice, morality, and military organization by writers such as Ogier de Busbecq and Guillaume Postel, they nevertheless have often failed to notice how many travel writers returned from the Ottoman lands "with blinders intact and prejudices confirmed; they also minimize how ardently even writers of more liberal treatises on the Turks supported crusade". (180)

It is the humanists' elaboration of a secular, classically inspired way of imagining the Turks that Bisaha sees as their most important contribution to Western ways of viewing Islam. On the one hand it could--and often did, both among the humanists and later--issue in a triumphal sense of Latin, humanist civilization's superiority over Eastern barbarism. Yet on the other hand, their very secular vision allowed humanists "to discuss their longtime adversaries without the bite of religious hostility". (187) Both these fruits of secular, humanist thought on Islam have survived to the present, and Bisaha draws intriguing connections between them and the tendencies of Orientalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is a cogent and well-presented argument. Certainly in the medieval-Christian imagination, Islam was many things: a dangerous heresy, a bellicose religion, a sexually deviant and immoral society in the thrall of a sexual deviant and immoral pseudo-prophet. But it was not generally seen as culturally backward. Quite the contrary. For medieval Latin-Christians the Arab-Islamic world was the home of the most sophisticated philosophical and scientific thought and the most attractive consumer goods, cultural riches that Latin intellectuals went out of their way to acquire. Furthermore, while the medieval world itself had more than one discourse on Islam, religious language tended to predominate in all of them. It is an argument, moreover, that tends--very insightfully--both to draw humanist and medieval ways of thinking about Islam closer together, even as it articulates a crucial difference. Bisaha rightly stresses, as some other recent literature has, how thoroughly most humanists perpetuate a series of hostile images about Islam that have their origin in the Middle Ages. There was no radical divide here. Yet, the sort of secular analysis of the Turks that classical models allowed humanists to undertake really was a rather new thing under the Latin sun, at least in the intensity with which humanists undertook it.

Of course there are facets of this book, like any other, that one could criticize. Bisaha sometimes relies on out-of-date scholarship on both the medieval interaction with Islam and the non-Italian reaction to it in the fifteenth century (she appears not to have consulted John Tolan's recent, and very important, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval Imagination [Columbia, 2002], or essential scholarship on Nicholas of Cusa by Ludwig Hagemann for example). Though I think she intends quite the opposite, moreover, she sometimes caricatures medieval-Latin attitudes to Islam, such as when she suggests that medieval thinkers typically advocated the "extinction" of Muslims. And why no discussion of that widely read medieval classic, the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, with its quirky, surprisingly non-hostile view of Islam? Surely it merits mention in a discussion of medieval Europe's ways of conceiving Islam. But none of these oversights, however, undermines the essential solidity of the argument that Bisaha develops in this impressive and engaging book that will, I think, become a standard work among scholars for many years to come, and nevertheless is accessible enough to use in an undergraduate classroom.