- Cultural Hierarchy in Sixteenth-Century Europe: The Ottomans and Mexicans by Carina L. Johnson
Carina Johnson’s new book analyzes how the transformation of cultural outlooks during the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation changed Europeans’ understandings of Ottoman Turks and Mexicans. In the early sixteenth century, ideas of European superiority were not “fixed.” Europeans viewed differences they ascribed to Ottoman Turks and Mexican Indians as fitting within an acceptable range of diversity manifested by human communities. As the Reformations unfolded in the sixteenth century, however, Europeans created a regime of exclusion based on restricted notions of pure faith and European identity. Both Protestants and Catholics, waging [End Page 690] battles over the boundaries of true religion and seeking purity and standardization of belief and practice, devalued Turkish and Mexican identity and religion, often labeling both their material culture and their beliefs as “idolatrous.” Johnson locates the subject of her study in the Habsburg realm, which, in the sixteenth century, united parts of central, northern, and southern Europe in at times closer and other times looser union, and whose span reached to the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire and Central and South America. Ties between members of the Habsburg dynasty enabled courtiers and officials, as well as information and artifacts, to circulate from Mexico to Vienna. Europeans distant from the frontlines of military and cultural encounters still grappled with the meeting of different peoples and their customs and beliefs.
Six chapters arranged into two parts, “Categories of Inclusion” and “Experiments of Exclusion,” constitute Johnson’s book. Despite the division, each chapter begins by addressing cultural forms that were initially inclusive and continues by discussing how these forms devolved into exclusion as Reformation forces reshaped cultural values. Johnson begins by examining fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century cosmographies and ethnographies that describe other communities through relatively neutral categories of geography, social organization, and economic production. Ethnographers examined religion more as practice, which in many cases was analogized with Christian customs, rather than spotlighting differences in belief as intrinsically heretical. The resurgent concept of universal monarchy, moreover, made the case that a Christian emperor could rule over Jewish, Muslim, and pagan peoples. Indeed, Emperor Charles V supported the Hafsid dynasty’s struggle against Ottomans for control of Tunis, and he hosted both Hafsid princes and Mexica notables, who received titles of nobility, stipends, and ceremonial offices, at his court. Aztec and later Inca treasures of precious metals and stones as well as artistically fashioned ornaments were shipped to court. Considered as the tribute of conquered territories, they were incorporated into the Habsburgs’ sacral treasure, which included Christian relics and regalia that served as symbols of imperial sovereignty and legitimacy.
Johnson opens part 2 by returning to ethnographies that, by the mid sixteenth century, distinguish between Christians observing the pure faith and a host of non-European Christians and non-Christians including Ethiopians, Jews, Muslims, and Indians. Conflated together, these latter peoples were oftentimes considered to practice odious customs influenced by the devil. The three chapters of this section then focus more closely on German perceptions of “the Turk,” shaped [End Page 691] by the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into central Europe in the mid 1520s. On this volatile frontier, Christians and Muslims raided each other’s territories and took captives. Protestant pamphleteers, many of whom had once looked upon icon-adverse Turks as the scourge of unreformed Christianity, reported the suffering of Christian captives and claimed that they were subject to a variety of physical and sexual abuses at the hands of their immoral captors. Printed accounts of an Ottoman diplomatic mission to the election of Emperor Ferdinand’s son Maximilian as king of the Romans in 1562 further set Ottomans apart as the ambassador was recognized to be a Polish renegade; the gifts he brought suggested the exotic, and his presence at a stage of the Holy Roman Empire’s orderly succession process brought to mind the fratricide, parricide, and even filiocide that at times played roles in Ottoman dynastic succession. The book...