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“Following Victory at Lepanto, Philip II offers Prince Ferdinand to Heaven”, 1572-75, by Titian

“Religión es la caballería,”
wrote Miguel de Cervantes: “Religion is knight errantry.” The author of Don Quixote — himself a soldier who lost the use of his left arm at the Battle of Lepanto— set himself the task of simultaneously lampooning chivalry and lamenting its passing. That tradition had endowed Christianity with its warrior ethos — not unlike that of Graeco-Roman or Germanic paganism, or indeed of Shinto or Sikhism — but the faith had lent its own gentler qualities of mercy and gallantry to become knightly virtues too. Against the formidable challenge posed by Ottoman Islam, however, the old knight errantry stood no chance. The Church militant of the 16th century required a modernised and more ideological form of warfare in which a Don Quixote cut a ridiculous, antiquated figure. Lepanto marked the climax of Europe’s three hundred years’ war with the Ottoman Empire, the outcome of which would determine the relationship between Christianity and Islam until our own time.

War and religion had thus become as intertwined in Cervantes’s day as in ours. Throughout Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the belligerents of belief developed a siege mentality that was reflected in everything from the martial spirit of the Jesuits to the millenarian zeal of the Puritans. But the mortal danger to all Christians — Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — came from the Turks. The defence of Christendom between the sieges of Constantinople in 1453 and Vienna in 1683 necessitated the creation of pan-European military alliances unprecedented even in the age of the Crusades.

The question, then as now, was: how do you negotiate with an enemy whose religion obliges him to fight you to the death? Nations engaged in holy war require diplomacy, intelligence and propaganda that differ not merely in degree, but in kind, from times of greater tranquillity. The services of intermediaries, over and above the official channels, become essential to such tasks as intelligence gathering, hostage exchanges or enforcement of treaties. The priority is survival in tempore belli. This is the background to Sir Noel Malcolm’s Agents of Empire. The word “magisterial” is overused, but for once it is properly applied to this latest offering from a scholar who is as prolific as he is polymathic. Agents of Empire is magisterial because its  author really has mastered his subject, having scoured the archives and libraries of Europe to collect everything that matters, then distilled it into a highly readable, almost picaresque study of men who sought to interpret the Ottoman “Other” for their variously Venetian, Spanish and Papal masters. Its lengthy subtitle barely does justice to the range, erudition and fascination of this chronicle of two remarkable families from Ulcinj, a minor Albanian port.

The world that Malcolm depicts is that of Fernand Braudel’s structuralist classic La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, and he deploys the techniques of “micro-history” used by more recent scholars such as Natalie Zemon Davis in her studies of Martin Guerre and Leo Africanus. But Malcolm is more original than either: working not with historical celebrities, but with individuals virtually unknown even to specialists, he moves from the microcosm of the Bruti and Bruni clans onto the larger canvas of Venetian-Turkish relations in the Adriatic, and ultimately to the macrocosmic level, where Holy Roman emperors confronted sultans who also (since their conquest of Constantinople) laid claim to the title of caesar. Where Braudel lacks detail and Zemon Davis lacks context, Malcolm offers both.

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