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We find evidence of this view of history in the Dark Ages, an outdated name for the time period otherwise known as the Middle Ages, which, incidentally, is also a pejorative name for the time period between the end of Rome and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.

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12 Things You Should Know about the Silver Bible

On December 1, 2015, I published the following post on Book Riot.

12 Things You Should Know about the Silver Bible

The Silver Bible


The Silver Bible, or Codex Argenteus, was created in Italy in the early sixth century. Soon after its creation the book went missing. One thousand years later, it resurfaced in Germany. The story of the Silver Bible is a remarkable one that involves war, theft, unpaid librarians, book collectors, kings, emperors, and queens. On top of all this, the Silver Bible provides insight to the culture and language of one of the most enigmatic ancient peoples, the Goths.

Here are twelve things you should know about the Silver Bible.

If you would like to read the post in its entirety, please click here.

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

 

World War Z and the Definition of War

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Zombies are all the rave and no one knows the zombie apocalypse better than Max Brooks, lecturer on zombie apocalypse survival skills and author of the best-selling books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. An Oral History of the Zombie War.

World War Z is a compelling read, inspired by the journalism of Studs Terkel. But there is something that bothers me with this book and that is how the story brings the zombie apocalypse to an end. The brave, new post-apocalyptic existence is difficult to believe in because the solution to end the war is not plausible.

As an historian I study what it is that makes us human. One of the things that separates human beings from other living creatures is that we wage war against one another. In other words, a big part of an historian’s job is to study warfare.

World War Z chronicles the world war against a zombie infestation through survivor testimonials. We follow the spread of the global epidemic from its outbreak until its fragile containment through stories told by all kinds of people, from the teenager who watched her parents’ reaction to the outbreak to the government representative who was given the task of finding a solution to an insoluble situation.

To understand the problem we must first look at what war actually is. On the surface level “war” is two entities fighting each other with lethal means by using specialized groups. In other words, war is soldiers, guns and ammo.

PEO_Fires_Inaugural_Light_Machine_Gun_Shot
Source: http://www.pica.army.mil/PicatinnyPublic/news/images/highlights/2011/Maddux_gunrange.jpg

But for there to be soldiers, guns and ammo, there needs to be a society whose sole purpose is to support the ongoing war. That is to say, a society’s entire economic and political structure needs to be geared towards war. Industrial production, food distribution, financial investments and recruitment of the work force need to be adjusted to provide a steady supply of soldiers, guns and ammo until the conflict ends. This is why we talk of a society being in a “state of war”.

The turning point of the zombie war in North America comes when the government decides to change its war tactic. Backed up against the wall of the Pacific Ocean, what remains of the United States of America decides to strike back by supplying unlimited guns and ammo to those of the remaining population who are willing to fight. Piece by piece the lower 48 are reconquered from the zombies and the United States then goes on to offer other countries help in their fight against the plague.

The problem with this end to the war is that the zombies have turned North America into a wasteland. In other words, there are few soldiers and there is no industry, no agriculture and no financial sector to secure the production of guns and ammo.

Brooks admits this to be the case but goes ahead with the solution anyway, drawing a parallel to World War II. According to one of the testimonials, during the zombie apocalypse, the United States were in the position of the Axis Powers (Japan, Germany, and Italy) whose resources were limited in comparison to the Allies (mainly the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Soviet Union), here represented by the zombies. However, this parallel is not sustainable since the Axis Powers did have resources to maintain an offensive war strategy as long as the United States and the Soviet Union stayed out of the conflict. The Axis Powers ran into trouble after 1941 when new strength and new resources (combined with Italy defecting to the Allies) were added to the already ongoing conflict. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the Allies took over or destroyed Japanese and German industrial facilities, some of which were located in areas taken by force and staffed with slave labor.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/PERSONALITIES
The leaders of the Allies — Winston Churchill (UK), Franklin Roosevelt (USA), Joseph Stalin (USSR) – at Yalta, Crimea, 1945.
Source: DefenseImagery.mil (US Department of Defense)

In World War Z, it would be as if the North American reconquest began at the point in time when the Red Army was knocking on the door to Berlin and the United States were about to launch their final offensive against Japan. By that time the days of the Axis Powers were numbered and everybody with their heads screwed on right knew it.

It is obvious that Brooks has a passion for history and I’m glad that he has chosen this way of expressing it because World War Z is a good book. But still, as a writer of fiction you can’t skip over certain facts. In this case that the state of war engages a society’s entire structure and that soldiers, guns and ammo are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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

Note:
Images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.