Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks
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As the Ottoman Empire advanced westward from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, humanists responded on a grand scale, leaving behind a large body of fascinating yet understudied works. These compositions included Crusade orations and histories; ethnographic, historical, and religious studies of the Turks; epic poetry; and even tracts on converting the Turks to Christianity. Most scholars have seen this vast literature as atypical of Renaissance humanism. Nancy Bisaha now offers an in-depth look at the body of Renaissance humanist works that focus not on classical or contemporary Italian subjects but on the Ottoman Empire, Islam, and the Crusades. Throughout, Bisaha probes these texts to reveal the significant role Renaissance writers played in shaping Western views of self and other.
Medieval concepts of Islam were generally informed and constrained by religious attitudes and rhetoric in which Muslims were depicted as enemies of the faith. While humanist thinkers of the Renaissance did not move entirely beyond this stance, Creating East and West argues that their understanding was considerably more complex, in that it addressed secular and cultural issues, marking a watershed between the medieval and modern. Taking a close look at a number of texts, Bisaha expands current notions of Renaissance humanism and of the history of cross-cultural perceptions. Engaging both traditional methods of intellectual history and more recent methods of cross-cultural studies, she demonstrates that modern attitudes of Western societies toward other cultures emerged not during the later period of expansion and domination but rather as a defensive intellectual reaction to a sophisticated and threatening power to the East.
But, positive or negative, humanists maintained certain medieval perceptions of Islam and crusade and helped bring them into modern Western thought.l'" Sometimes the use of medieval ideas of crusade and chivalry might obscure the realities of the Ottoman threat and European disunity. But this is not to say that the humanists absorbed and reproduced the medieval heritage uncritically, without adding their own unique nuances. They frequently applied classical rhetoric, history, and literature to
imaginations-stereotypes that were reinforced by the later repudiation of the union by the citizens of Constantinople. Mter this development, in addition to other epithets, the Greeks were commonly labeled perfidious and unfaithful-unfair charges Straddling East and West 107 since the people were not consulted when the union was being discussed. Mark of Ephesus refused to sign the declaration of union and became a prominent voice of antiunion sentiment in Constantinople." But Mark of
complex web formed by Greek attitudes toward the Turks and Western Europeans and Western attitudes toward Straddling East and West 133 the Greeks and the Turks. The development of these perceptions is not easily summarized or explained, given their marked ambivalence, but some common patterns do emerge. Greek attitudes toward the Turks in the decades surrounding the fall of Constantinople ranged from hostility and fear to accommodation and even admiration.s'" By "Greek attitudes" here I mean
historical authority, its literary embellishment, and its broad readership. Muhammad appears in Villani's account as a cunning impostor who fabricated a heretical offshoot of Christianity, set himself up as a prophet of God, and converted the masses through violence and coercion;" Both Muhammad and his religion are depicted as concupiscent and luxurious. One of the prophet's supposed laws, Villani claims, decreed that a woman caught in adultery was sentenced to death, unless, of course, she was
because of our plundering, our lust because of our debauchery, our cruelty because of our oppressive rule, how shall we press upon them the doctrine of Christ, so contrary to all these things?"5 After centuries of crusade thought in which Islam was treated as the problem, Erasmus offers a fresh and introspective approach: the Christians are a greater threat to their own tarnished faith than any outside force-an idea briefly discussed by Laura Cercta." If Christians truly desire to convert the