Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Sir Thomas Browne, Paolo Giovio, and the Tragicomedy of Muleasses, King of Tunis

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Sir Thomas Browne, Paolo Giovio, and the Tragicomedy of Muleasses, King of Tunis

Article excerpt

This article has two aims: to tell the remarkable story of the Tunisian king Muley al-Hasan, or 'Muleasses' (1484-1550), whose cruelty and luxury astounded Europeans of the 1540s, and to trace his depiction in a range of humanist works over the century or so following his death. The latter part focuses especially on the physician and moralist Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), situating a manuscript passage on al-Hasan against Browne's broader literary strategies and attitudes toward oriental figures. The whole story, finally, is taken as a case study of the relationship between the portrayal of character in humanist scholarship and literature; I argue that our understanding of the latter will be improved by a return to the study of the former with increased critical nuance.


And surely there goes a great deale of conscience to the compiling of an History, there is no reproach to the scandall of a Story; It is such an Authenticke kinde of falsehood that with authority belies our good names to all Nations and Posteritie.

--Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (1)

"I say," says Richard III, "without characters, fame lives long." Many explanations of the line have been put forward, as an old, long Arden footnote makes plain. (2) According to one nineteenth-century critic, Richard's meaning was double: first, that a ruler's fame could survive by word of mouth, without need of written reports, and second, that his fame--his, Richard's, fame--would last despite his lack of good character. He would be, as Alexander Pope said of Oliver Cromwell, "damned to everlasting fame." (3) These themes of posterity and character had a healthy Renaissance pedigree. The Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini, in a 1436 letter to Leonello d'Este, had taken the opposite view, arguing that even the greatest conquerors needed men of letters--men like Poggio--to preserve their reputations. His example was the Turko-Mongolian warlord Timur, or Tamerlane (d. 1405), whose memory, he claimed, was already almost extinct. (4) Whether this was true or not, Poggio and his humanist successors conspired not only to revive Timur's memory but also, as Eric Voegelin demonstrated in 1937, to reframe his life and deeds as a morality tale about martial valor and good fortune, and later about Machiavellian princehood and the providential defeat of the Ottoman Turks. (5) Starting with Poggio, Voegelin unpacked one biography of Timur after another, revealing the endless repetition, embroidery, and reshuffling of canonical episodes, later applicable to other life stories. In the West, then, Timur's career was damned to everlasting fame by a process of analysis and moral schematization, the early historiography already aspiring to the condition of didactic drama, of Tamburlaine the Great.

Much has been written about the Renaissance depiction of Timur as a background to Tamburlaine; (6) recent work has addressed the representation of Turks, Muslims, and Asians more generally. (7) Scholars such as Daniel J. Vitkus and Nabil Matar have challenged Edward Said's simplistic notion of "Orientalism," arguing that early modern perceptions of the East, enriched by firsthand encounters through travel, trade, and diplomacy, were far more nuanced than Said's binary picture would suggest. (8) In this article I want to resurrect a forgotten character much discussed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with political and religious allegiances homologous (in western eyes) to those of Tamerlane and appearing in many of the same sources, but with quite the opposite dramatic trajectory. He was, we might say, an inverted Tamerlane, or perhaps a Tamerlane-Beyazid hybrid--an emblem not of fortune but of tragic misfortune. In one of Sir Thomas Browne's manuscript notebooks, among drafts for what would be published after his death as Christian Moralls (1716), lies a cancelled fragment:

Most vanities have mett with taunting contraries, and found occurrences which jeeringly speake their rebukes. …

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