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Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought (review)
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Reviewed by
Margaret Meserve. Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought. Harvard Historical Studies 158. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. x + 370 pp. index. append. illus. map. $49.95. ISBN: 978-0-674-02656-8.

Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought is, as the author notes, "primarily a book about history writing" (6), and it is one of considerable significance. In the burgeoning scholarship on the Crusades, on Europe's relations with the Ottoman Turks, and on Western perceptions of the Islamic Other, Margaret Meserve's book takes up an important and little studied theme: humanist histories of Islam. At the same time, it offers a signal contribution to studies of Renaissance historiography more broadly, and especially to the methods and motives of its practitioners. Elegantly written, convincingly argued, and humbling in its expansive learning, Meserve's monograph will capture the attention of a wide range of scholars, and it merits their highest praise.

Meserve's aim is twofold: to explore how fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century humanists (and mostly Italians) shaped their histories of the Turks and other Muslim empires; and to determine why they made the methodological choices that they did. She is particularly interested in charting and explaining the course they navigated between the traditions of medieval historians and the different, more critical, and more secularized approach commonly attributed to their humanist successors. Were these humanists faithful to the new historiographical principles? Far less than might be expected, Meserve contends, or than they themselves let on. More often than not, their historical narratives were shaped by personal ambition, scholarly rivalry, and shifting political attitudes toward the Ottoman Turks. To serve these interests, humanist historians typically read their sources selectively, and they routinely manipulated, misrepresented, and embellished some of them while entirely ignoring others. Moreover, if they frequently drew on classical sources, they also depended heavily on medieval chronicles and on what Meserve [End Page 1217] characterizes as a medieval interpretive spirit. Hardly full-fledged historiographical revolutionaries, Meserve concludes, most humanist historians of Islam were surprisingly close intellectual cousins of their medieval counterparts.

The territory covered in Empires of Islam is breathtakingly vast, historically, historiographically, geographically, and generically. It is also challenging terrain. Meserve, however, is clearly up to the journey and to shepherding her readers along the way. She paces herself as she travels along the humanists' vast information highways, pausing frequently to orient her audience and to ground her claims in sustained discussions of specific texts. Meserve scrutinizes illustrative passages with a sharp eye to language, subtleties of tone, and tensions in methodology. She carefully reconstructs the circumstances in which individual historians wrote (and sometimes recast) their views; and perhaps most impressively, she exhumes the sources and intellectual traditions on which their narratives were built. The result is a richly textured portrait of humanist historians at work, often thick in detail but never dense.

Empires of Islam is both informative and significant on several fronts. Readers will come away with an extensive knowledge of exactly what humanist historians were writing about the origins of Islam. Meserve discusses works of both well-known humanists —including Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, Poggio Bracciolini, Flavio Biondo, and Francesco Filelfo—and less familiar figures (Andrea Biglia, for example), and she details manuscript and printed sources that her audience might have difficulty accessing on their own. Still more important is the contribution of her argument. Meserve demonstates that Renaissance historians developed a wide range of attitudes toward Islamic empires, from unrelenting disparagement to explicit admiration. She also explains how and why these conceptions were often rooted in medieval precedent. Her arguments sometimes tweak and at other times directly challenge current scholarship in the field, and they do so in convincing manner. Meserve's text, in turn, complicates our understanding of Renaissance historiography. Her study is, of course, not the first to point up the political and polemical dimensions of humanist history writing or its debt to medieval traditions. But through a skillful excavation of her sources, Meserve documents these features in rare detail. Still more remarkably, she articulates and animates the real methodological dilemmas that faced Renaissance historians of Islam whenever they took up their pens. In so...