The Medieval Review 16.06.11

Vann, Theresa M., and Donald J. Kagay. Hospitaller Piety and Crusader Propaganda: Guillaume Caoursin's Description of the Ottoman Siege of Rhodes, 1480. Dorchester: Ashgate, 2015. pp. xiv, 311. £80.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-7546-3741-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Helen Nicholson
Cardiff University

The 1480 Ottoman siege of Rhodes is one of the most famous events in the conflict between Latin Christian Europe and the expanding Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. Guillaume Caoursin's account of the siege depicted the story of the Hospitallers' defence of their island-state as a heroic achievement worthy to stand alongside the heroic deeds of the Trojans or the Romans. Theresa Vann and Donald Kagay present the original Latin text of Caoursin's account accompanied by other contemporary translations and accounts, and an appendix of bulls issued by the Grand Masters of Rhodes, which not only illustrate the influence of Caoursin's Descriptio but provide other views of events leading up to and during the siege.

Vann's introduction to the texts puts both the siege and Caoursin's Descriptio into context. The Descriptio was printed and circulated around Christian Europe as the Hospitallers' official account of the siege, forming part of a fund-raising drive to enable the Order of the Hospital to rebuild the defences of Rhodes after the siege. Written in a humanistic style, Caoursin's work deliberately avoided the Latin neologisms developed by medieval writers to describe modern and not-so-modern military technology, so "milites" (the longstanding medieval term for knights) was replaced by "equites" (the classical Latin term for mounted warriors); gunpowder weapons were referred to by the catch-all classical Latin term "machinae" rather than by the various more precise terms developed in more recent years, and the grand master of the Hospital, Pierre d'Aubusson, was described as being born in Gallica Celtica, rather than the more modern region of Francia.

Beautifully written, carefully constructed and persuasive, Caoursin's work circulated widely, was translated into English, Italian, Danish and German, and has remained the most important primary source on the siege of 1480 ever since. Yet, as Vann's introductory chapters explain, although Caoursin was present on Rhodes throughout the siege the Descriptio is not a simple eye-witness source: it was carefully constructed to present the Order of the Hospital and Grand Master d'Aubusson in appropriate heroic mode. The history opens with the information that Sultan Mehmet had earlier besieged Rhodes on four separate occasions: Vann's introduction and notes to the text explain that this is not true. The Descriptio mentions that Mehmet and the Order had been negotiating peace, but indicates that the initiative lay solely with Mehmet, which was not the case. Again, it indicates that only Grand Master Pierre d'Aubusson had foreseen the danger of attack and attempted to fortify Rhodes: Vann traces how a succession of grand masters had built up the defences of the island.

Once the siege is underway, the Descriptio presents a well-structured story. The enemy is presented as terrible and terrifying, yet fails repeatedly against much smaller and apparently inadequate Christian forces. One after another crises arise and are defeated. Divine intervention occurs at appropriate points. Relief arrives from overseas only after the Rhodians have defeated the Turks and the withdrawal has begun. The story ends with the arrival of a letter from Pope Sixtus IV to the people of Rhodes.

In addition to explaining the historical context, Vann's introduction describes the surviving published editions and the manuscripts of the Descriptio, explaining that the Latin text varies from one printed edition to the next. The beautifully-illuminated manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, ms. lat. 6067, which was probably commissioned by Guillaume Caoursin for Pierre d'Aubusson, was produced after the first printed edition had appeared in August 1480. Vann points out the important role played by the illustrations in both the printed edition and the manuscript, and that neither woodcuts nor illuminations are "accurate" depictions: both distort the actual landscape to fit the space available and to emphasise the point required. Each of the additional texts in the volume is also introduced by Vann with a list of published editions.

Of the remaining texts in the volume, Vann explains that Pierre d'Aubusson's Relatio obsidionis Rhodie was probably not written by the Grand Master himself but by the chancery of Rhodes. It uses more modern military terms than the Descriptio, giving the impression that it is a straightforward military account, but in fact, like the Descriptio it is a carefully constructed interpretation of events rather than a simple report of events. John Kay's English translation of Caoursin's Descriptio used modern rather than classical terms: Grand Master Pierre d'Aubusson is now from France, and the enemy uses "bombards" rather than "machinae". Kay introduced some additional detail to make the account more understandable to his readers, but his book effectively follows Caoursin. Ademar Dupuis (who called himself "Mary de Puis") wrote in French and claimed to be an eyewitness of events, but the structure of his account is very like Caoursin's. Only the final account in the volume, by the Augustinian friar Jacobo Curte, gives a different account of events. He tells us that relief arrived throughout the siege, not only at the very end; and he gives more credit than the other accounts to Anthony d'Aubusson, the brother of the Grand Master.

This is an invaluable collection of sources for scholars and students studying the Hospitallers, the crusades, and western depictions of the Ottoman Turks during the second half of the fifteenth century. It not only provides new editions of the texts but also translations into modern English for all texts except for John Kay's work. Although another modern edition of these works has recently appeared in Jean Bernard de Vaivre's and Laurent Vissière's Tous les diables d'enfer: relations du siège de Rhodes par les Ottomans en 1480 (Geneva: Champion, 2014), scholars will find it useful to compare the editions and analysis of these previously overlooked texts. Anglophone students and scholars will love the translations.

Copyright (c) 2016 Helen Nicholson

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login