Emulation and evisceration

Noel Malcolm tells the story of western intellectual fascination with the Ottoman empire from the fall of Constantinople in 1453

David Womersley

In 1681 the Commonwealthman Henry Neville published a second edition of his Plato Redivivus, a set of three dialogues between a Venetian nobleman, an English gentleman, and a physician. Neville’s intention in this work was to nudge his countrymen towards a much more radical political re-modelling of the constitution than was envisaged even by those who wished to exclude the Duke of York, the future James II, from the succession. 

The second edition of Plato Redivivus clarified Neville’s intentions through some additional material explaining why he did not support recognising the Protestant but illegitimate Duke of Monmouth as Charles II’s heir, while other inserted passages gave a freer rein to Neville’s pungent anti-clericalism. However, Neville also inserted a short booklist of 12 titles between the preface and the text of the dialogues, entitled “Political Discourses and Histories worth reading”.

Much relating to this little booklist deserves comment, but it is the inclusion in it of two titles relating to the Ottoman empire, Sir Paul Rycaut’s History of the Turkish Empire (1679) and the same author’s The Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1666), that is relevant to the subject of this review. What on earth are these titles doing in a text designed to impel Englishmen towards embracing a republican form of government? How could Rycaut’s books possibly play a role in such a project, from which their subject matter seems so remote?

Noel Malcolm’s richly researched and commendably lucid new book helps us answer those questions. Although Malcolm does not discuss Neville’s booklist and its inclusion of these works by Rycaut, the story he tells of Western intellectual fascination with the Ottoman empire from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the publication of Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des loix in 1748, and the various roles played by accounts of the Ottomans and their institutions in western political thought over the intervening three centuries, allows us to understand Neville’s strategy.

The fall of Constantinople provoked heart-searching and introspection amongst the nations of Christendom. On the one hand it energised attempts to incorporate this setback into existing providential accounts of human history. On the other, it encouraged renewed investigation of the Turks, and of the religion that they practised. The result was, in the first instance, an intensifying of the existing perception, current since the Crusades, that Islam and its potent political embodiment, the Ottoman empire, had “a special—and negative—role to play in God’s plan for the entire history of humankind”. The 16th century saw greater efforts being made to describe and understand this superpower poised so alarmingly on Europe’s eastern borders. At the same time, and after the Reformation, an affinity with the Turks was a convenient instrument with which to blacken your religious adversaries. Both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism proved, in different ways, to be vulnerable to this charge, and so the polemical weapons of Calvinoturcism and Turcopapalism were forged and deployed. Where positive verdicts on the Ottomans are found, they are frequently implicit castigations of corresponding failures in the mores or institutions of Christendom—a practice Malcolm christens “shame-praising”.

But ideology had, on occasion, to bow to realpolitik. The French alliance with the Ottomans, entered into by François I to shore up his position against the Hapsburgs, caused scandal in the courts of Europe, but it had at least one positive if unintended consequence. French writers might now travel to the Ottoman territories, and they brought back accounts of that empire which were more accurate and better informed than the sometimes wild traditions they replaced. The result was a “new paradigm” which made possible more positive evaluations of the Ottomans:

To say that all these positive points, taken together, helped to fashion a new paradigm is not to imply that the old paradigm—of a malevolent and oppressive regime, inspired at least in part by an evil religion—was simply replaced thereby; it was not. But a new model did become available, a way of seeing the governmental, judicial, and civil (as well as military) conditions of Ottoman rule as features of a comparatively well-ordered system.

An interesting division then opened up. Politically, the Ottoman empire became the most vivid embodiment of a new and strongly negative political category, “despotism”. This concept, sketched briefly in Aristotle’s Politics, was developed and elaborated so as to refer to the arbitrary rule of the Ottoman sultan, which however could not adequately be captured by the concept of tyranny
inherited from the political thought of antiquity. For one thing, the sultan was not a usurper. The story was different, however, in respect of Ottoman religion. The old accusations of fanaticism, sensuality, and violent coercion continued, particularly of course amongst the orthodox. But heterodox writers began to explore other possibilities, and it is in their writings that we encounter “the fictional figure of the wise Muslim” invoked to “teach rational principles to unreasonable and intolerant Christians”. Malcolm’s overall conclusion is compelling, and is amply supported by the previous discussion:

For many Western thinkers, the Ottoman Empire and Islam played an important part in their own mental world, not as mere “others” to be put in their subordinate place, nor simply as threats to be conceptually isolated and neutralized, but as active ingredients to be worked into their theories.

The subtleties and variations that Malcolm has so carefully traced on the summits of political thought were not always in evidence further down the intellectual slopes. In England, at least, and confining ourselves to the later 17th century, colloquial or casual invocations of the Turks or the Ottomans tended to be strongly negative. The Turks provided ordinary English writers with a colourful, simple vocabulary of emphatic blame. In 1628, in the debates preceding the Petition of Right, deputy-lieutenants were regularly compared to “janizaries” (an élite corps in the Ottoman army). During the Civil War the parliamentary army was frequently stigmatised in similar terms, by both Royalists and also some on the more radical fringes of the Parliamentarian cause itself, such as William Thompson, who in 1647 attacked those “Grandee Janisaries, to wit Sultan Cromwell, Bashaw Ireton, &c”. It was a language that lasted in the popular memory. In 1674 Samuel Butler would still recall “Cromwell and his Janisaries”.

The title by which the Ottoman Sultan was often referred, the “Grand Signor”, also lent itself to vigorously pejorative use, and became a shorthand for oppressive, despotic rule. Sometimes it was applied to Louis XIV, “the Grand Seignior of Versailles”. But when in 1673 Charles II (according to Gilbert Burnet) assured the Earl of Essex that “he did not wish to be like a Grand Signior, with some mutes about him, and bags of bow-strings to strangle men, as he had a mind to it”, it was with these negative connotations in mind that he spoke, and from which he wished to dissociate himself. Charles’s brother, alas, was not so subtle. The suppression in 1685 of Monmouth’s rebellion in the west country was so severe that, according to Sir Robert Cotton speaking in the House of Commons in May 1689, “those in the West did see such a shambles as made them think they had a Turk, rather than a Christian, to their King”. Nor was this language of political and moral censure reserved for the Stuarts. In 1731 the anonymous Jacobite pamphlet, A Specimen of Arbitrary Power; in a Speech made by the Grand Seignior to his Janizaries, retorted it upon their Hanoverian successors.

The situation was more complicated in the realm of material culture. The 20-year peace between the Ottoman empire and the Holy Roman Empire was due to lapse in 1684, but already in the previous year ominous Ottoman troop movements had been reported. In July 1683 a Turkish army of 150,000 men crossed the border in a vigorous offensive and laid siege to Vienna. The Emperor Leopold I, who had woken up to the Ottoman threat only belatedly, now sought allies. One who answered the call, albeit reluctantly, was the Elector Johan Georg III of Saxony. He contributed Saxon troops, fought bravely in the front lines, and shared in the glory when on 12 September 1683 the Imperial relief forces under the Polish king Jan III Sobieski inflicted a decisive defeat on the Turks. The booty was immense. Weapons, impedimenta, and (according to Sobieski) at least 100,000 tents, some wonderfully luxurious and ornate, were seized by the victorious Imperial troops, and were carried back in triumph to more westerly districts. Some of these sumptuous objects ended up in the Türckische Cammer of the Schlossresidenz in Dresden, where an interest in Saxony’s powerful near-neighbour to the East had been cultivated since the 16th century.

Johan Georg’s son, Augustus the Strong, continued and deepened the Ottoman collections that his father had enriched. He sought also to emulate the heroism his father had shown at the siege of Vienna. In 1695 and 1696 Augustus led the Imperial army in Hungary against the Turks. The campaigns were inconclusive, but Augustus was nevertheless celebrated (in Saxony at least) as the “Conqueror of the Turks”. Paradoxically, Augustus combined this title with an enthusiasm for Ottoman style and furnishings. In 1712 he sent Johann Georg Spiegel to Istanbul on a diplomatic mission which was also a massive shopping trip. Many of the objects Spiegel and his successor, Colonel La Marr, sent home in fulfillment of Augustus’s instructions adorned Saxon state occasions, and can still be seen in the Türckische Cammer. During the early 1700s one of Augustus’s mistresses was Fatima, re-named Maria Aurora von Spiegel on her marriage to Johann Georg Spiegel in 1706. She was a Turkish captive taken prisoner after the battle of Buda in 1686. Augustus’s liaison with Fatima produced two children, whom Augustus acknowledged, and who went on to take their place in Saxon and Polish society.

Augustus adopted the custom of high Ottoman officials, of having horsetails carried in front of him on ceremonial occasions. Saxon state ceremonial also acquired a Turkish flavour. The marriage in 1719 of Augustus’s son, the Prince Elector Friedrich August, to the Austrian Archduchess Maria Josepha, included as part of the three-week long festivities a Turkish camp on the banks of the Elbe, troops of Janissaries, and a Turkish banquet. At the Zeithaner Lager in 1730 the military parade gave prominence to Augustus’s “Janissary battalion”, 600 strong, all dressed in Ottoman armour and bearing Ottoman-style weapons, including specially-made Janitzscharen Sebel, designed to imitate the Turkish sabre. Even the regular troops were encamped in more than 800 tents copied from Ottoman designs. At the Campement of Czerniakóv in 1732, Augustus went further and himself assumed the role of Sultan. Inevitably, this adoption of Turkish style by the court percolated further down and more widely in Saxon society. The carving above the doorway to the historic coffee-house ‘Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum’ in Leipzig shows a Turk receiving a dish of coffee from a smiling, and clearly European, putto. It is a charming emblem of the cultural cross-fertilisation between Saxony and Turkey, which might involve courteous exchange as well as vigorous military campaigning.

As with all Malcolm’s work, the power of the underlying scholarship in Useful Enemies—the archives visited, the languages mastered—is deeply impressive. Perhaps still more impressive, however, is the way Malcolm has organised and shaped his material into a subtle, many-faceted exposition that is always clear and never feels forced or sophisticated, which is always closely responsive to the texts under discussion, and which resists the siren-call of a single, reductive thesis. The mildly expressed yet devastating pages Malcolm devotes to Edward Said’s dismayingly influential Orientalism can, in this light, be read as a powerful rebuke aimed at an earlier writer who fell terribly short.


Useful Enemies:
Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750
By Noel Malcolm
Oxford, 488pp, £25

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"