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  • Allies with the Infidel: The Ottoman and French Alliance in the Sixteenth Century
  • T. G. Otte (bio)
Christine Isom-Verhaaren: Allies with the Infidel: The Ottoman and French Alliance in the Sixteenth Century. London: I. B. Tauris and Co., 2011. 274 pages. ISBN 978-1-848-85728-5. $75.96.

Faced with the irresistible progress of Ottoman power in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean in the sixteenth century, Christendom faced a Turkengefahr or Turkish Peril. That, at any rate, was the view advanced by Habsburg rulers at the time, and by a whole host of propagandists who subsequently took up the Habsburg cause. It was an early modern version of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” — a beleaguered Central and Western Europe acting in defense of Christian values and locked in a fierce struggle for survival with an alien, semi-barbaric, and non-Christian enemy. This view has enjoyed a remarkable longevity in the historiography of relations between the occident and the orient, and — in various guises — the Habsburg view has dominated historical accounts until recent times. That it was rooted in a sixteenth-century propaganda exercise for political purposes, and that, in fact, East-West relations then were more complex and nuanced, is the central argument of Christine Isom-Verhaaren’s illuminating Allies with Infidels.

Of course, in more recent years scholars of the period, such as Halil Inalcik, have reversed this element of bias. It is now widely accepted that the Ottoman Empire was not at all marginal to European affairs, but was, in fact, an integral part, more especially, of the Mediterranean world. The contacts between the Ottomans and various European states were not confined to commercial ties and cultural exchanges. Diplomatic relations were intense, and these sometimes evolved into formal alliances. In turn, these entailed military and naval cooperation.

The sixteenth century is a period particularly well suited to demonstrating this dynamic. Under Sultan Suleyman II, who ruled from 1512 to 1566 — known in the West as “the Magnificent” and in Turkey as kanuni (the law-giver) — Turkish rule [End Page 107] reached the zenith of its power. The empire extended from Aden to Vienna and from the Atlantic Coast of Morocco to the Caspian Sea. The Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean were Ottoman lakes. In the volatile Great Power politics of the day, the sultan’s principal rival for power and influence in southern and southeastern Europe was the Habsburg ruler Charles V (ruling from 1519 to 1556), Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, the preeminent early modern ruler upon whose empire the sun was said never to set. The Turkish advance in the Balkans, however, cast a shadow over Charles’s territories. In the autumn of 1521, Ottoman forces captured the fortresses of Sabac and Belgrad, thereby securing the Danube frontier for the empire. Ottoman domination of the eastern Mediterranean, meanwhile, was placed on an even firmer footing in the following year with the conquest of Rhodes, once the seat of the Knights of St. John.

Charles also had a rival in the West. King François I of France had fought a series of Valois-Habsburg wars, and in the 1520s he was locked in a struggle for control of Italy with the emperor. That Valois-Habsburg antagonism was central also to Ottoman-Western diplomatic relations. Defeated in 1525 at the battle of Pavia, the French king sought to establish closer contacts with Suleyman with the aim of opposing Charles on two fronts. The resulting Ottoman-French treaty granted French merchants extensive commercial privileges. Crucially, it also paved the way for the Ottoman invasion of Hungary in the spring and summer of 1526, swiftly followed by the conquest of large swaths of the country after the decisive battle of Mohacs. As the Hungarian king Lajos II was killed in that battle, Charles’s brother, King Ferdinand of Austria, laid claim to the Hungarian crown. Hungary was now effectively divided between Habsburgs and Ottomans, and the foundations had been laid for the Austrian-Turkish antagonism that was to last for nearly the next three centuries. By the autumn of 1529, Ottoman forces laid siege to Vienna for the first...


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