The Invention of the Clash of Civilizations. A review of Nancy Bisaha’s CREATING EAST AND WEST

On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481), also known as Mehmed the Conqueror. Even though the relationship between Latin Christianity and Greek Christianity (today known as Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox Church, respectively) had been complicated since their messy break up in the middle of the 11th century, the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks came as a shock to the rest of Europe. Secure in their conviction that the fortified capital of the Byzantine Empire could withstand a long-term siege, allies had been slow to muster forces and send aid. And now, it was too late. The last bastion of the Roman Empire was no more.

In traditional history writing, the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE marks the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Behind this narrative lies the idea that Rome was the pinnacle of human civilization, and nothing has been the same since. After the light of Rome was extinguished, darkness fell on the world until light was kindled once more with the rebirth of Roman culture in fourteenth-century Italy.

We find evidence of this view of history in the Dark Ages, an outdated name for the time period otherwise known as the Middle Ages, which, incidentally, is also a pejorative name for the time period between the end of Rome and Rome born again. And, we find this view in the name of the time period that in Italy followed the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, which literally means “rebirth.”

This simplistic narrative hides several complicated truths. For one, Rome didn’t suddenly collapse and leave the world in darkness. Nor was it the end of the entire Roman Empire. What happened was that to save the Empire from collapsing, Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) divided the massive realm into two halves along a north-south axis, which created a Latin-dominated western half and a Greek-dominated eastern half, ruled by an emperor in the east and a co-emperor in the west. As it turned out, the eastern half dominated over the western half, most notably after Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) founded a new imperial capital where the Mediterranean meets the Black Sea. He named this city after himself–Constantinople.

As the eastern half of the Empire flourished, the western half struggled to stay together. In 476 CE, Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by Ostrogothic king Odoacer and the Roman Empire in the west is considered to have come to an end. The debate on why the Roman Empire disintegrated in the west is a lively one, but suffice it to say, that when the Roman Empire went away in the west, it continued to exist in the east. We call that Rome the Byzantine Empire. Its capital remained Constantinople.

Whereas it can be debated whether or not the Renaissance is a time period of its own or if it is a cultural, political, and artistic movement among the elites of a fractured Italian peninsula that spread its influences over Europe for the next three centuries, the fact remains that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy, new ideas flourished with inspiration from the Ancient world. These ideas built on their medieval predecessors, but as Nancy Bisaha argues in her excellent book Creating East and West. Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks, they were distinguished enough to warrant the label “new.” And, as Bisaha goes on to prove, one of the main catalysts for these new ideas was the Ottoman Turks taking Constantinople for themselves.

Whereas the relationship between Latin Christendom and the Muslim world at times was contentious during the Middle Ages, it is in the work of the Italian Renaissance humanists that Bisaha traces the invention of a clash of civilizations. People of the medieval world harbored prejudices and cultivated stereotypes about those who were not Christians, but the chauvinism, superiority, and vitriol that can be found in the writings of the Italian Renaissance humanists is of a different kind. The dichotomy between civilizations is more clearly drawn; the Othering of initially the Turks, but later all Muslims, is more marked; and the identity of Europe as something distinct and superior to the rest of the (Muslim) world is in the process of being formed.

By delving deep into a very large corpus of primary sources from Renaissance Italy, Bisaha convincingly demonstrates that these attitudes were not expressed by a chosen few of the Italian Renaissance humanists, but that they were widespread, and that the intellectuals who participated in the debate, which the fall of Constantinople sparked, were many.

Suffice it to say, Creating East and West is an excellent book. The research is extensive and meticulous. The writing craft is exemplary. The historical analysis is on the highest level.

If I were to criticize this book for anything it would be how it positions itself in the existing research at the time of its publication in 2004. As a scholar who has worked in different European countries and in the United States, I am well aware of how difficult it is to obtain books from abroad. I am also well aware that much has changed as to what was available in 2004 compared to today when libraries and book publishing is increasingly digitized.

All that being said, I still need to point out that the majority of the books and articles referenced by Bisaha are Anglo-American publications. A handful are European, even fewer are Italian. Of the Italian publications, two are from 1999 and 2002, respectively. The rest are older, some significantly so.

Moreover, in the book’s otherwise impeccable introduction chapter, the historians whose works that Bisaha discusses as the most relevant research that the book is positioning itself against are all either British or American (and they are all men). Publishing this type of book is an important step in the recruiting process towards tenure at an institution of higher education in the United States. Therefore, positioning yourself within the field where you intend to have your career is crucial.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a book on Italian and European history that does not position itself against the work of Italian and European historians. This would be the same as if an Italian historian would write about the American Revolution and then only position their work against that of other Italians.

This is not to criticize Bisaha or her credentials as a historian; it is merely an observation about a systemic issue within academia.

However, this observation does beg the somewhat uncomfortable question: how relevant are Bisaha’s findings in the larger context of European history and historical research? The Italian Renaissance is not my field of expertise, and because of that I am unable to determine whether something of importance did take place in Italian humanist thought following the fall of Constantinople, or whether the writings of the humanists come across as important because they look important in the primary sources.

Or, perhaps the geriatric publications in Bisaha’s references are evidence of the fact that what Bisaha highlights in her book is under-researched among Italian historians, and her findings are something that shakes life into a research field that has stagnated?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, because the book doesn’t tell me.

These reservations aside, Bisaha’s results do demonstrate that a shift did take place among Italian Renaissance humanists after 1453, and these new thoughts that developed are of significance because of Italy’s cultural influence over the rest of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. They are also of significance because we are still living with them today. The roots of Islamophobia and the Othering of people in what used to be the eastern half of the Roman Empire can be found here, in the impressive amounts of centuries-old texts that Bisaha has dedicated herself to.

If you are curious about the roots of the ideas of the clash of civilizations, Western exceptionalism and chauvinism, Creating East and West is the book for you.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.