". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Friday, February 24, 2017

1453 -- The Holy War for Constantinople + The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History

     . . . . Constantinople has finally fallen. 

This month I've been listening to 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West (2005) by Roger Cowley. The book isn't finished yet, but the city that had survived every siege and attack for over a thousand years, with the shameful exception of those who one might have thought her allies, the Christians of the Crusades in 1204 has finally been taken. And that too happened due to an error, not an actual breaching of the walls by force. 

Which of these are Minas Tirith and which Constantinople?

More than ever I am convinced that Tolkien carefully read the first hand witness accounts, particularly the diary of the Venetian Nicolò Barbaro, of this battle that went on day and night for almost two months, and drew on those accounts heavily for the siege of Minas Tirith. 

However Gandalf's magic worked while the Christian magic that had so long kept the protective dome of God and the Virgin over the Great City failed. Rohan and the armies of the dead came to save the White City, whereas the living armies from the west never did, fighting as they were among themselves. Finally the massive numbers of the orcs overwhelmed the walls. The warriors within the walls that had never before been breached, though valiant beyond comprehension, were too few, too few. 

But in the end it was truly the conflicting Churches' theologies and commercial greed on the part of the West that took down the ancient Red Apple, The City of the World's Desire -- not Islam.

I'm beginning to wonder that Mehmet II's success in taking the ancient Christian capital of the east, when all others had failed (and he nearly did himself -- the continual turning tides of fortune for both sides makes so much of this story's drama and tension) had so much to do with his successor, Süleyman the Magnificent, obsession to take Vienna, within the heart of the not holy or imperial Roman empire. He must equal his forefathers' achievements, and taking Vienna would even outdo Mehmet's conquest of Constantine's city (which he tried and failed at in 1529). 

And from that victory which didn't happen, Süleyman expected to move on to take Rome. The Ottomans been trying to conquer Rome from the south in previous decades, thereby terrifying Queen Isabella, and solidifying Spain's belief that Islam was coming for them very soon. After all, the Ottoman emperor had announced to the world that it was. (So, as many moriscos as possible were expelled, to prevent them from becoming a third front in the Iberian peninsula.) In the meantime the Ottomans had occupied a significant extend of Italy's boot.

Cowley's book has made fine companion to the audio book that engaged me in January the outraged philosphical history of what did not happen (and could not then,, have happened), James O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (2008) -- which outrages most readers, particularly his presentation of Justinian as the effective villain.

In-between the falls of Rome and Constantinople, I remain occupied with the Merovingians. El V got himself a book to read on the plane to Miami and back and in the Hampton Inn room, a history of the Middle Ages. It begins with Charlemagne, as these things all do; it has not a single Henri Pirenne cite, which I allowed boded well for the book's value.* It's fairly elementary, meaning that I pretty much know this outline quite well, but he knows nothing, but has gotten interested via my interest in the Merovingians and the Carolingians. 

He's promised though to get me some more up-to-date histories of the Merovingians because I'm frustrated by what we've got. None of the contributions to this history by archeology are included, thus we get nothing of the people: only the power elites. Nothing about the buildings, or agriculture. And hardly anything about trade and commerce.  Additionally, as a Belgian, Pirenne was more than willing to always rank the Carolingians as the most important development in the transition.\


*    The Pirenne Thesis concerning the change from the Roman world to what some call Late Antiquity, others, the Dark Ages. was promulgated to its fullest in 1935, in his Mohammed and Charlemagne. That was nearly a century ago, based in scholarship older than that.  Research and scholarship has moved on significantly since then.  Full text of "The Pirenne Thesis Analysis and Criticism" here.


Foxessa said...

Among what one learns as to the Pirenne Thesis getting things wrong -- particularly no trade from the east and in the Mediterranean from the 7th - 14th centuries because, he says, Islam.

I do not mean that part of Pirenne's thesis which is Roman culture, administration continued in these centuries in the west -- even, as mentioned above, Mehmet considered himself the legitimate heir of the Roman Empire. What I mean is arguments about trade and commerce into and out of the east into the west stopped because of the Arabs in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries.

I haven't accepted this in my later years of dealing with more recent scholarship. Islam itself in the east and the Mediterranean had trouble with trade and commerce in the 7th and 8th and 9th centuries due to many elements, including they didn't have the naval expertise in those centuries yet. It took the Ottomans to master this. The reduction in trade, as far it was reduced, was caused by many things, but Islam was far from being the principle reason. And in these centuries Venice (it was in 450 C.E. that the lagoons were settled with significant population, and by 697 they raised their official flag of founding) and the North (the Hansa's muscle was fully formed at the start of the 12th century) begin trading in combinations of overland and water routes with the east -- the "Vikings" played a big role. As we at least recall, they were trading overland down south long before they even went a-viking in the world's classic image of Vikings trashing the Christians of England and France -- and they formed special guards and units for the Moors in Spain too, as well as in Constantinople.

And especially by the time of the Carolingians -- particularly Charlemagne -- the Venetians were doing trade, commerce and taxation with the Muslims of Iberia and in Gaul great guns. At least as far as the technology of the time allowed for it.

But neither the Gallo-romans nor Saracens had the technologies and resources in that era to do that kind of global trade, particularly the Saracens.

It took the Ottoman mind and organizational skill to admire and understand naval technology (and gun powder and cannon) well enough to develop an effective Islamic military navy -- which, of course the west had to deal with in the Mediterranean as well as the other seas.

Lepanto . . . Venice wanted the trade but they protected their own trade first second third and last, and were happy enough to have the Ottomans out of the game if possibly.

But soon there were other options, and in other directions, and Spain and England, among others, were in the game and even on top of it. The Venetians (and Ottomans) were nowhere. Which of course we all understand when we just consider history after the first voyages west.

Foxessa said...

Constantinople''s conquest by the Ottomans did far more to divide east and west than the Saracens were able to do.

The extraordinarily lucrative trade with the east, carried on through Constantinople and that old empire, even in the 12th and 13th centuries, was enormous (see, for instance, the Polos). The Genoese and others as well as the Venetians had mercantile empires throughout the Black, Caspian, Aegean Seas, and ports in Greece and coastal areas of what we now think of as Turkey. In the north, the Hansa was in the game.

The Conquest shut this off for while -- the Venetians had an embassy and ambassador at Istanbul soon after the Conquest. They were deeply entrenched by the 16th century. Elizabeth had diplomatic and trade relationships with Sulyeman, as well as with the Hansa.

The Church tried to preach Crusade after the conquest in 1453. But Europe wasn't that interested. The secularization of culture contributed no small part. Their own religious controversies, fueled by the printing press and the stirrings of the Reformation also played a large role.

The cities and people who were involved in Europe fighting the Turks in these centuries were those Italy, Spain and France hardly considered Europe at all. The front lines holding back the Turks -- and the Tartars -- were Poland and the Balkan - Hungarian - Russian states. They did so much to hold back the constantly threatening storm of Ottomans as they eyed and coveted both Vienna and Rome.

Mehmet overtly saw himself the inheritor of the Roman Empire, and he believed he could and should unite the entire world into one empire under Ottoman and Allah's rule.

It's all so interesting, if also tragic. We're still dealing with all of it even now.

Foxessa said...

Trade and commerce are the most important element for even the smallest group moiety that claims rulership. Without them there is no taxation. Pirenne claims all this Roman administrative infrastructure for both military rulers and the monasteries -- so what were they taxing, if not goods?

Which is why it took until the rise of the nation-state to bring down the power of the Hansa. The pool for taxation that the French in particular could call up, could support armies and navies powerful enough to take down even the fabulously wealthy Hansa cities. They couldn't compete financially with a nation state and its capacity to tax.

The Ottomans, it has been argued, also had one of the very few slave societies, and even did slave-breeding in the way the antebellum south did.

I'm not sure this is true. The evidence I've seen is quite slight, and comes principally out of the Spanish court of Isabella. She was obsessional about the Turks, for good and real reasons, of course. But she was willing to believe anything about them.

Considering the enormous numbers of slaves that were always imported from the wars they and their client states engaged in so constantly, there hardly seems reason to do so. Slaves were CHEAP in Instanbul, with exceptions of course for the exceptionally talented, skilled and beautiful.