Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004.
Where earlier scholars have oft neglected the plentiful writings of Humanists on the Ottoman Turks, as these seemed to echo Mediaeval ideals and to stand outside the typical concerns of their intellectual movement, Bisaha sees in their work a fundamental shift in the way in which the Christian West began to conceive of itself and its relations with the wider world. She argues that the Humanist response to the rise of Ottoman power in Europe was instrumental in the formation of a Western cultural identity, and that in fact the “Humanist reactions to the Ottoman Turks are a legacy of the Renaissance not less important than the dignity of man, republican thought, and three-point perspective in painting.” (11)
She traces the myth of ‘East’ and ‘West’ as opposites to the ancient Greeks (e.g., to Herodotus). It was adopted and expanded under the Romans, particularly with the rise of Christianity, which used the physical reach of the Eastern Roman (later Byzantine) Empire to define the limits of civilization. In Bisaha’s thesis, the Byzantines take on a central rôle in delineating East from West, for with Arab armies having swallowed much of the old Rome, and the Turks having poured into Anatolia, Constantinople and its immediate hinterlands began to be seen as the dividing line between a culturally coherent entity—Europe—and the foreign, ‘infidel’ Other. She argues that the Humanists’ “intimate association, or ‘active relationship’, with the ancient past” allowed then the develop a “transformative” reading style which fit ancient models to present reality. (43) The advancement of the Turks was read as a continuation of the Greco-Persian Wars, and Greek rhetoric about the Easterners’ threat to ‘civilization’ was simply updated to fit the political struggles of the Renaissance.
This increasing identification of Western culture with the Greco-Roman past would prove a double-edged sword. The explosion of respect for, and direct engagement with, the Greek legacy within the Latin West made possible an unprecedented cultural efflorescence. And yet, as appreciation for Greek learning expanded, views of the Turks deteriorated, and made the loss of Constantinople in 1453 seem especially traumatic. (133-4, 62) Having elevated the Greeks so far, the Humanists came to see the loss of Byzantium as a general threat to “Christendom, Europe, and Western culture” (134), which lead increasingly to calls for new Crusades, and inspired writers to revive Mediaeval polemic to justify this stance.
The new approach to the Turks quickly spilled over into relations with Islam. Arabs had hitherto escaped the epithet ‘barbarian’ on account of their cultural achievements, but the Ottoman Turks, about whom much less was known, found this ancient slur resurrected and applied to them. (73) It would not be long before this association was transferred to Muslim civilization as a whole, and new religious polemics were “even employed as a means to minimize the intellectual foundations of Islam and, hence, the great… achievements of Muslim scholars.” (135) From the earlier recognition that Islam had “produced some of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages”, prominent Humanists came “completely [to dismiss] Arab learning as valueless and even harmful to Western readers.” (170) Mediaeval texts were uncritically mined to develop images of Islam which, in many cases, still persist.
And yet this is only half of the story, as Bisaha credits the Humanists with initiating a revolution which would introduce a multicultural perspective to scholarship on the non-Western world. The classical legacy was just as important here as in forming the East-West binary, for by “engaging pre-Christian concepts of foreign cultures and adversaries, humanists were able to see the Turks as more than just ‘enemies of the faith’.” (8) She identifies a parallel discourse which invoked comparison between the Ottomans and the Romans, on account of their considerable technical and administrative achievements. Some time is also profitably spent on a handful of figures who bucked prevailing trends to carve out a more nuanced or ambivalent perspective on the Turks, from the neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino, to Erasmus and Machiavelli. Significantly, though, she does stress that these and other authors still wrote from a purely Christian perspective, and that whilst they tended to point out the interconfessional similarities and the need for mutual tolerance and dialogue, their ultimate goal remained conversion of Muslims to the ‘one true faith’. In this way, the rhetoric of the Humanists becomes a mirror of tension in our own time: “By simultaneously fashioning both a chauvinistic sense of ‘Western civilization’ and a more relativistic approach to other societies, humanists would shape the early modern and modern perceptions of not only the Muslim East but also other non-Western cultures. The negative impulse was the more dominant of the two legacies…” (174)
This brings us to the relevance of Bisaha’s work to current scholarship. She usefully observes that not only are “Humanist interpretations of Christian thought regarding the Turks… a microcosm of later Christian attitudes towards Islam” (173), but that their works laid the intellectual foundations for the colonialist enterprise. She suggests “that European assertions of intellectual superiority over Native Americans did not spontaneously arise on the first contacts between the two cultures. In many ways the Turkish advance provided compelling conditions under which humanists constructed a coherent vision of Western culture and its inherent superiority to other societies.” (183) In this way, her book is an effective intervention in the debate over characterisation of Muslim and Western cultures and conflict, and in particular the reflexive chauvinism still permeating media coverage and political rhetoric about the Islamic world’s supposed deficiencies.
However, as an intellectual history it is aimed at a strictly academic audience, and is unlikely to receive the readership it deserves. In particular, assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of Catholic Humanism may be off-putting to those without a basic grasp of the cultural, political, and intellectual dynamics of the Renaissance, which is especially vexing given her many well-contextualized and detailed examples. Had she offered a more gentle introduction, this thoughtful and well-grounded text could be used with undergraduates well outside early modern European and Middle East studies.