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Reviewed by:
  • Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought
  • Thomas J. Dandelet
Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought. By Margaret Meserve (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2008) 359 pp. $49.95

In this carefully researched and well-written book, Meserve makes a rich contribution to a growing body of Renaissance history that focuses on Western Europe's relationship with the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic world more generally. It is a timely work with a contemporary resonance that goes beyond the chronological boundaries and themes of Renaissance historical thought. Whether in the ongoing negotiations about the entry of Turkey into the European Union or the national debates regarding European military involvement in the current Middle Eastern wars, the question of Europe's relationship with the Islamic world, and most especially with the Mediterranean Islamic world, is one of the central international-relations issues of our time; this work provides essential historical foundations for understanding it.

First and foremost a work of intellectual history, this book takes as its main focus the sizeable number of Renaissance humanist texts that were devoted to the growing threat of the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean world during the fifteenth century, especially after their conquest of Constantinople in 1453—specifically, the "letters, historical treatises, political commentaries, biographies, geographical tracts, and even epic and elegiac verse" of a largely Italian group of fifteenth-century scholars (3). The basic interpretive assumptions that inform the analysis are summed up in Meserve's claims that "this is primarily a book about history writing" and that "Renaissance humanist history writing was a political act" (6).

Meserve's point is that authors like Aeneas Sylvias Piccolomini (the future pope Pius II), Theodore Gaza, Francesco Filelfo, and Giorgio Merula researched and wrote about the Turks "for political and polemical reasons, not scholarly ones" (117), particularly when these humanists linked the ancient history of the Turks to the ancient Trojans. Although this motif, the subject of Chapter 1, had some attraction for classicizing humanists, the majority of them argued against it, constructing instead [End Page 82] an often obscure ancient history of the Turks that was rooted in Sythia and the Caucasus. Notwithstanding a few references in ancient texts (Strabo's Geography, for one) to the Tourkoi or Turcae in antiquity, evidence for the history of the Turks before the eleventh century was extremely meager.

But the literary story that Meserve tells reveals, in Chapter 2, how the Renaissance humanists, responding to accounts of the sacking of Constantinople (the new Rome), preferred to create an ancient history of the Turks that depicted them as savage barbarians, uncivilized people without a real history. The humanists neglected earlier medieval European chronicles that included a good deal of historical material about the rise of the Seljuks, the real ancestors of the Ottomans, in the eleventh century. Meserve, however, does not make this mistake. She interrogates such medieval authors about Islam as William of Tyre, Hugh of Fleury, and Sigebert of Gembloux, among others. She also looks at early humanists—for example, Andrea Biglia and Flavio Biondo—who were more sympathetic to the medieval view of the Turks as the heirs to a long, Islamic tradition of competition for empire.

The dominant humanist literary tradition presented in this fine book, however, is political. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the largely imagined portrait of the Ottomans as a barbarian people without civilization and history, distant and separate from the grand imperial traditions of Europe and even Persia, is still alive and well today.

Thomas J. Dandelet
University of California, Berkeley