Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks

Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks

Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks

Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

In the spring of 1453 mehmed ii, the clever and ambitious young sultan of the Ottoman Empire, was laying siege to Constantinople, the stillformidable capital of the waning Byzantine Empire. Despite some help from Western European fighters primarily from Venice and Genoa, the Greeks were heavily outnumbered: approximately seven thousand fighting men within the city faced an army of eighty thousand camped without and armed with powerful cannons. Despite the city’s redoubtable three sets of land walls and seaward walls, the courageous leadership of its emperor, and the military expertise of its soldiers and sailors, Constantinople could not resist Mehmed’s overwhelming assault power. After an intense, yet brief siege the city fell to the Ottomans on 29 May and was brutally sacked. in keeping with Islamic tradition, a three-day pillage was granted to the soldiers. Hundreds of citizens and soldiers managed to escape by ship, but most of the population were enslaved and their houses and churches looted. Approximately four thousand inhabitants were killed in the siege; countless women and boys were raped. the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine xi Palaeologus Dragases, died while attempting to defend the walls of his city, dramatically hurling himself into the fray rather than fleeing, according to several accounts. (Mehmed reportedly had his head stuffed and sent around to Muslim courts to regale them with his victory.) a few hours after the city was taken, Mehmed entered in triumph. in only seven weeks the twenty-one-year-old sultan had accomplished a feat that had eluded numerous commanders before him. Given its strategic and symbolic import, the city became the new capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Western powers slowly mustering relief forces, secure in the belief that the city could withstand a siege of several months, were stunned by the news. the broader populace, particularly in Italy, was equally horrified; Roman citizens were so shocked that they refused to believe the news at first. Accounts circulating in the West fed popular anxiety by depicting the sack as one of the bloodiest and most inhumane acts of history. the . . .

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