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19.04.09. Döring, Sultansbriefe

19.04.09. Döring, Sultansbriefe

Beginning in the late thirteenth century, a new genre emerged, so-called letters from the Sultan, allegedly mailed to various European rulers or the pope, in which the Ottoman author appealed to the Christian audience to abstain from a crusade, to question its own moral and ethical standing, and to establish peaceful relations. The theme also appears in fifteenth-century Shrovetide plays (Hans Rosenplüt) and served specifically as a medium to criticize European society in its own shortcomings. In other words, those letters were projected to be by the Sultan, but in reality they were composed by Christian authors who thus used this new perspective to shed light on the moral and religious conditions back home. Those letters were also of particular importance for the contemporary audiences during the late Middle Ages because the Turks expanded very aggressively and successfully throughout the Balkans, then attacked Hungary, and finally also Austria, before they were slowly beaten back. So there was great urgency in the air, and those letters reflect poignantly what the audiences hoped to witness, namely a peaceful settlement with the Ottomans. However, the specific purposes were really to criticize the Europeans through the voice of the Sultan.

While previous research has not paid much attention to this genre, both Bettina Wagner (in various publications) and now Karoline Dominika Döring have done much to unearth this actually quite significant corpus of texts. The latter has now been able to identify a total of 158 manuscripts, and she also tracked down a mountain of printed versions. These documents are all presented and carefully described in the first chapter, grouped into the following text categories: Epistola Soldani, the Epistola Morbosani, the German translations of the latter, the Fehdebrief (feud letter), and the invitation letter by the Sultan to the Europeans to come visit him in Babylon and to participate in a tournament, being guaranteed safety, awards, and honor. The author demonstrates her expertise in handling medieval manuscripts and early modern incunabula and prints, and the truly long list of items indicates how much library research she had to carry out in order to find all those manuscripts and prints. It seems surprising that there is only one manuscript from Rome (Biblioteca Vallicelliana, Ms. C 91); none seems to be in London.

Döring deserves great respect for her extensive and detailed library research, but there is a nagging question whether other libraries, especially outside of Europe, might not hold additional manuscripts and prints. Searching in the Morgan Library, New York, I discovered, for instance, Itinerarium per diversas mundi partes. Add: Divisiones decem nationum totius Christianitatis; Epistola Johannis Soldani ad Pium II papam cum epistola responsoria papae Pii ad Soldanum. Johannes Presbyter: De ritu et moribus Indorum, printed in Cologne around 1500 by Cornelis de Zierikzee (, which Döring lists on p. 39, but without a reference to the Morgan Library. There might be many further cases like this, especially print versions. But Döring's interest is, to be fair, not directed at locating all copies still extant today, but toward identifying the manuscripts and then the original print versions in Latin and German produced as independent publications from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries.

I wished that this slim volume would have also included at least sample editions and translations. Instead, Döring concludes her impressive bibliographical efforts with a chapter in which she examines the phenomenon itself, situating those letters, generically speaking, between the world of literature and historical documents, indicating thereby how difficult it can be to determine exactly the nature of a narrative text from the Middle Ages and the early modern age, especially when composed as a "letter." Once these texts were printed and thus became a much sought-after item on the early modern book market, they began to follow increasingly the same precepts and met the same expectations, meaning that they were streamlined and followed similar models.

The author also alerts us to a significant difference between the first two groups of texts. While the EpistolaSoldani tended to identify the Ottomans' origin in Scythia, hence at the very end of human civilization, the EpistolaMorbosani connected them with Troy, thus creating a direct line of shared origin between the Europeans, especially the Italians, and the Turks. This was a rather serious attack against the dominant anti-Turkish sentiment favored by many major fifteenth-century Humanists who wanted to disqualify the Turks as barbaric and uncivilized. Nevertheless, both genres established a rather unique and new approach to the Ottomans and the Sultan, since the latter was suddenly identified as a significant and highly learned eastern ruler who had to be regarded with qualified respect. This did not lead to toleration or even tolerance, but made it possible at least to imagine ordinary conversations with the Ottomans, and thus to create functioning diplomatic relations with them instead of fighting them all the time, which seemed to be a losing proposition for the Christians. Döring also observes that the EpistolaMorbosani revealed a certain contempt of the Greeks and Byzantines who were the first to be defeated by the Turks, which is here explained with a reference to their obstreperous rejection of the Pope as the leader of all Christians.

The conclusion of this excellent study consists of a list of variant versions and two registers, one for manuscripts and printed copies according to their modern location, and one for names of people and locations.