The Turk in English Renaissance literature

Gönül Bakay
14 February 2003

‘…to destroy the written word you need only a torch and a Turk.’
(The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo)

16th century miniature map of the Ottoman Empire, or Turcicum Imperium as it is called here.

Turkey is a geographical and cultural bridge between the east and the west: a modern Mediterranean country that aims to provide a high standard of living for its members according to European norms, while still preserving its rich eastern and Islamic cultural heritage. With nearly 70 million people, two-thirds under the age of 35, Turkey has one of the largest and youngest populations of the continent.

Turkey formed her new secular republic under the leadership of Atatürk in 1923, who aimed to create a modern and stable country. This was in the aftermath of the First World War, a period in which the map of Europe was being radically redrawn. Several countries won their independence, and, with the rise of communism, the boundaries of ‘east’ and ‘west’ began to shift once again. Turkey’s relations with the rest of Europe entered a new era, and the image of ‘the Turk’ changed in turn.

However, today, when this entity ‘Europe’ is still viewed by some as a ‘Christian club’, it is worth looking into the image of the Turk in European imagination. It is an image that has its origins in a mixture of fact, fantasy and fear.

Many of us are aware of the Late Victorian and imperialist projections of the Turkish people as a threatening race, culminating in the notorious reference by the European powers to Turkey as the ‘sick man of Europe’ in the Congress of Berlin in 1878. What we may not realise is that these attitudes are based upon a long pre-history in which the Western image of the Orient was shaped by a considerable body of literature, stretching from Christopher Marlowe to Thomas Carlyle. It is this glimpse of a colourful and deep pre-history which I wish to explore here.

Battles between moors and Christians in the Middle Ages

Two French depictions of the Moor: LEFT: the Saracens flee before Charlemagne at the battle of Pamplona (778); RIGHT: Siege of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1204)

Religion and power

During the middle ages, Europe’s perception of the east was centred on questions of religion. What kind of religion was Islam? Indeed could it be considered a religion at all? At that time the answer was unequivocal: ‘Mahomet’ was the Antichrist, and the spread of Islam was a success for the devil.

The Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299. By the 14th century it was rapidly gaining in power, pushing its boundaries as far west as the Danube. Increasingly, Islam was to be associated exclusively with this new and threatening political presence.

Suleyman the Magnificent (1520–66) as a young man

European countries tried to couch the advance of the Ottoman armies in strictly religious terms, although the Ottoman conquests were economic and military ventures. The Ottomans were a soldierly nation and new conquests provided the soldiers with booty, quickening their thirst for territorial expansion. The Ottomans also extracted taxes from the newly conquered lands, which in turn invigorated the empire’s economy. The Christian response was to call for a new crusade – resistance to the Ottoman advance.

The might of ‘the Magnificent’

Between the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and the treaty of Karlofça in 1699, the Ottoman Empire continued to expand rapidly. During the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520–66) in particular, the Empire’s frontiers were pushed to the gates of Vienna, precipitating a confrontation between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottomans.


The culminating siege of Vienna in 1683 through different eyes: TOP& BOTTOM LEFT: The decisive battle, in all its chaos, in a contemporary Austrian painting, and RIGHT: transposed into an Ottoman manuscript celebrating the deeds of the Sultan - the Sultanname

To his own people, Suleyman was known as ‘Kanuni’, meaning ‘law giver’, but it was during the reign of ‘the Magnificent’ that Europe truly learned about Ottoman military force.

Suleyman captured Belgrade in 1521, and Rhodes in the following year. He defeated the Hungarians and added the south-central portion of Hungary to his empire. He waged wars against Persia and conquered the region around Erzurum. The naval strength of the Ottomans by 1538 was formidable. His trusted admiral Barbarossa (Hizir Hayreddin Pasha) won a sea battle against the combined naval forces of Venice and Spain.

England’s imagined empire

Meanwhile, the English literary imagination had been creeping east. Writers, such as Sir John Mandeville with his travel tales (circa 1366), and Lydgate with his Fall of Princes (1431), were drawing literary attention to the eastern world – already offered to the European imagination as lands of mystery and exoticism.

But it was only with the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that any concrete relationship between the Ottoman Empire and England developed.

Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) rests her dainty shoes on a map of the world
Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) rests her dainty shoes on a map of the world

At that time the Venetians were losing their power as the main traders in the Mediterranean. Not only had they lost the trade ports of Cyprus, Crete and Corfu to the Turks, but trade in the Mediterranean was brought to a standstill by Spanish–Portuguese, Spanish–Ottoman and Ottoman–Iranian wars.

The way was open for a country to exploit these trade routes. England was able to capitalise on its naval power, and with this unprecedented motion beyond the borders of Christendom, English literature began to depict the Turk in earnest.

The spread of ‘knowledge’

With the invention of the printing press and the rise in literacy, the English public had come to believe in the authority of the printed word, in the knowledge they received from books. Printed texts became important tools for spreading knowledge, true and false.

Histories were invested with a particular aura of veracity, and it is on the mixture of fact and stereotype purveyed by these works that the fictional presence of the Turk in English literature was largely based. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare and Dryden all draw upon a limited corpus of material to generate their overwhelmingly negative images of the Ottomans.

In his play Tamburlaine, Marlowe gave his Christian public the Ottomans they really wanted to see. Marlowe depicted the 14th century king of Samarkand as a ruthless monarch, utterly without mercy, but endowed with the requisite courage and will to subdue the Moslem world of Turks, Syrians, Persians and Tartars.

Bejazet is based on the historical Ottoman Sultan Beyazit. In a dramatic moment of Christian wish-fulfilment, the Mongol Tamburlaine puts the Ottoman Sultan in a cage and parades him around the stage. Rather than suffer such an indignity, Bejazet takes his own life by banging his head against the iron bars.

Marlowe’s main historical sources were the Vita Magni Tamerlanis (1551) by Petrus Perondinus and Pedro Maxia, whose Life of Timur in his Silva (Madrid, 1543) was anglicised by Fortescue in his Foreste (1571).

<i>Tamerlaine lays siege to Baghdad</i>

Tamerlaine lays siege to Baghdad

From Maxia’s work he took information about the career and defeat of Bejazet and from Perondinus, information about Tamburlaine’s origins, career and character. Further details were supplied by the works of Poggio Bracciolini and Combinus’s Origin of The Turks – sources which unanimously stress Tamburlaine’s negative qualities, his pride and cruelty.

Schismatics and Mahometans

With the rise in Protestantism, the image of the Turk became embroiled in sectarian polemics. As Europe’s non-Christian ‘other’, the Turk was often compared to the opposing Christian sect.

The military threat of the Ottomans attracted two main responses, both subsumed into the sectarian polemic: the call to crusade and the call to recognise Muslims as a scourge sent from God. Thomas More observed of Martin Luther and his followers that:

‘…among their other heresies [they] hold for a plain conclusion that it is not lawful to any Christian man to fight against the Turk… though he come into Christendom with a great army and labour to destroy all.’Hence, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is the scourge of God par excellence, albeit in the context of bringing down divine retribution upon the Ottoman Sultan. Bejazet: First, thou shalt rip my bowels with thy sword, And sacrifice my heart to death and hell. Before I yield to such slavery.
Tamburlaine: Base villain, vassal, slave to Tamburlaine, Unworthy to embrace and touch the ground, That bears the honour of my royal weight. Stoop, villain, stoop! Stoop, for he bids, That may command thee piecemeal to be torn, Or scattered like the lofty cedar-trees Struck with the voice of thundering Jupiter

Marlowe’s depiction of Beyazit’s cruelty may have been influenced by John Fox’s Acts and Monuments, published in 1570, in which Bejazeth is seen as deserving punishment for his cruel treatment of Christians:

Ottoman Sultan Beyazit I surveys the massacre of Christian prisoners after the battle of Nicopol, from a contemporary French manuscript. © Bibliotheque Nationale de France

‘Bejazeth, the cruel tyrant, after this victory won and the tyranny showed upon the Christians, returned again to his siege of Constantinople. Fully bending himself to conquer and subdue the same; which thing no doubt he had accomplished, but that the providence of God had found such a means the Timurlanes king of Perth, which with a hundred thousand horsemen and swarms of footmen, like a violent flood overrunning Asia and pressing upon Syria and Sebastia, had taken Orthobules, the son of Bejazet prisoner, and afterward slew him, exercising the cruelty upon his prisoners as Bejazet had done before upon the Christians in so much that he neither spared sex nor age of the Turkish multitude.’

Tamburlaine, although infidel himself, is chosen as God’s scourge against the Turks. His infidelity is total, since it includes an infidelity also to Islam itself:

‘Now, Casane, where’s the Turkish Alcoran, And all the heaps of superstitious books Found in the temples of that Mahomet Whom I have thought a god? They shall be burnt.’

Here, Marlowe follows the custom of the day in his conflation of Islam and Turkishness. Islam is represented by Marlowe as an absence of faith – an ‘other’ defined purely by opposition. The Ottoman, by clinging to this non-faith can only be seen as inferior to the apostate Tamburlaine.

The other face of the ‘other’

But 16th century images of the Turks were not all negative. Although they were always mentioned in texts as the ‘other’ or the adversary, their military tactics and nature of government were much admired. As early as 1513 Machiavelli in The Prince extolled the wisdom of Turkish rule, colonising a conquered country to maintain direct rule:

Moorish costume from Vecellio's 16th century study of world costumes

‘Such was the course adopted by the Turk in Greece, who even if he had respected all the institutions of that country, yet could not possibly have succeeded in holding it, if he had not gone to reside there.’

The valiant knight of Rhodes in Kyd’s Soliman and Perseda (1592) says of the Soliman, ‘I must confess Soliman is kind/ Past all compare, and more than my desert’, while George Peele in his Battle of Alcazar (1588) describes Amurath’s soldiers as brave and honourable.

Shakespeare, writing at the same time, often exploited the common image of Turks as licentious, deceitful womanisers. But, in common with Machiavelli, he too allowed a sense of admiration for Turkish military prowess to creep in. In Othello one of the senators of the Venetian state recognises the strategic expertise of the Turks, saying that the Turks are most probably bent on conquest of Cyprus not Rhodes: ‘We must not think the Turk is so unskilful/ To leave that latest that which concerns him first.’

Aleppo was a Syrian city in the Ottoman Empire. According to Sir Anthony Sherley, ‘George Manwering had suffered a humiliating experience in Aleppo where a Turk had taken him by the ear and had marched him up and down the street while the bystanders threw stones at him and spat upon him.’

Othello, 1827

It was probably this incident that resurfaced in Othello: ‘And say besides, that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk Beat a Venetian, and traded the state I took by throat the circumcised Dogge And smote him thus’

This again is an example of the literary imagination re-circulating material drawn from a finite store of common ‘knowledge’ about the Turk. Again and again in Shakespeare, the Turks appear as exemplars of ‘unchristian’ behaviour:

‘What! Think you we are Turks or infidels? Or that we would, against the form of law, Proceed thus rashly in the villain’s death.’ (Richard III) ‘Wine Loved I deeply, dice dearly, and in woman out-paramoured the Turk.’ (Edgar in King Lear) ‘Why, Tis a boisterous and a cruel style, A style for challengers; why she defies me, Like Turk to Christian’ (Rosalind in As You Like It)

Seventeenth century

The sultan receives guests

Courtly visits: LEFT:German ambassador Freiherr von Schwarzen’s appearance to the presence of Sultan Mehmet IV, painted by an European artist.(1651) RIGHT: A contemporary Ottoman depiction of the grand vizier receiving an Austrian delegation

In the 17th century, several translations of the Koran appeared, as well as lives of the prophet Mohammed and histories of the Turks. This was more to do with a curious interest in the exotic than a sudden interest in comparative religion, but it is notable that the corrupting influence of Islamic material was deemed to be weaker than in the past.

In the introduction to his translation of the Koran (1649), Alexander Ross argues that there is nothing in ‘so manifest a forgery’ as the Koran that could possibly attract a Christian, and therefore reading it is not dangerous. Thomas Fuller says in The Historie of The Holy Warre published in 1639,

‘…to give the Mohammadans their due, they are generally good fellows in this point [the virtue of tolerance] and Christians among them may keep their consciousness if their tongues be fettered, not to oppose the doctrine of Mohammad.’

Negative images of the Turks are seen in works such as the sermon of the famous preacher Isaac Barrow, ‘Of the Impiety and imposture of Paganism and Mohammedanism’, and Humphrey Prideaux’s ‘The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet’.

Richard Knolles’ Hystorie of the Turks (1603) reflected this sharp hostility. Knolles wrote

‘…by craft the Turk first passed over into Europe; by little and little he crept into that kingdom; he never kept faith with any; he grew to this height rather by cunning than strength: and are you become so blind as to think it better to keep your promise with the Turk devoid of all faith and humanity rather than the faithful Christians and especially the most holy Bishop.’

But in the sphere of historical writing, more objective material was also beginning to circulate. Sir Paul Rycaut who had spent six years in Turkey produced a seriously informative work named The Present State of the Ottoman Empire, Containing the Maxims of The Turkish politic, The Most Material Points of The Mohammedan Religion (1668).

Frontispiece to Dryden’s Aureng–Zebe (1675)

Meanwhile, literary imagination lagged behind. At the start of the Restoration period, Dryden projects the image of the Turk as a rude, ruthless, licentious barbarian, observing in his poem, Astrea Redux: ‘Such as he Meccan prophet used of yore, To whisper councils in their patron’s ear And veiled their false advice with zealous fear.’

Dryden’s Aureng–Zebe (1675) presents the Orient as a battleground; but this time it is the Mongol King’s sons that fight with each other. In Don Sebastian (1689) the Muslim world is again described as cruel, tyrannical, and sensual. The Mufti, the highest authority among Muslims, appears as the comic character in the play. Nevertheless, Dryden uses the eastern element in his play to give it that exotic air that was still so in demand.

Eighteenth century

With the start of the 18th century, the interest in the Middle East and Turkey increased. On a political level, the Turks no longer presented such a fearful threat. When the Karlofça treaty was signed on 26 January 1699, the Empire lost most of its European possessions, and Ottoman branches of influence in Europe began to wither.

The empire’s military forces were weakened by the wars with Austria and Russia, while the question of control of the eastern trade was causing major unrest in the Middle East.

While the influence of the Ottomans in Europe receded, the European powers pushed their influence aggressively eastwards. The East India Company promoted the idea that in order to develop the commercial deals with the east one had to first study their culture and language.

The English public still enjoyed the exotic ‘other’ of Turkish Tales and the Tales of the Arabian Nights.

However, amongst the many writers dealing with the Turkish theme in their books, we see a more authentic picture of the East emerging in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters (1716–18), Beckford’s Vathek (1786) and Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759).


TOP LEFT: A souvenir from Constantinople: an English visitor posing in Turkish costume (1742/3) BOTTOM LEFT: Vision of the Arabian Nights, by Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt RIGHT:A portrait in Turkish dress of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was so impressed by Turkish medical practices that she fought for the introduction of smallpox vaccinations in Britain, in defiance of the medical establishment. Read her account of Dining with the Sultana

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu came to Istanbul when her husband was appointed ambassador. In her letters she draws attention to the fact that the ‘knowledge’ of Turkey available in England was generally biased.

This redoubtable woman confessed herself more interested in the Turkish way of life and people than the architecture and the setting, remarking in one of her letters, ‘I took more pleasure in looking on Fatima than on the finest piece of sculpture.’ She also draws attention to the fact that many religious leaders ‘have invented out of their own heads a thousand ridiculous stories in order to decry the law of Mohammed.’ She wrote admiringly about the inoculation against smallpox used by the Turks for many years, introducing the practice to England.

The heroic in history In the 19th century, it became easier and easier to travel: touring to the Middle East became very popular. The atmosphere of the ‘real’ east in Byron’s works, for example, have the grounded knowledge of one who has lived in and experienced the east before he wrote about it.


LEFT:'Travellers Crossing the Pindus', by Louis Dupré. Copyright: The British Library, TAB.1237.a.RIGHT: Lord Byron portrayed in Oriental dress, c.1835. National Portrait Gallery, London

But a more balanced appraisal of Islam and its prophet had to wait for Thomas Carlyle. Although not among his most popular works, his lecture ‘The hero as Prophet. Mahomet: Islam’, given in a series entitled ‘Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History’, argued that the stature of a hero depends on the number of his believers and the length of time he has been believed. He wrote:

‘The word this man spoke has been the life-guidance now of a hundred and eighty millions of men these twelve hundred years…A False man found a religion? Why, a false man cannot build a brick house.’ At this point, the history of Turkey's projected image entered a new stage, becoming absorbed into Atatürk's modernisation of the Ottoman Empire.

The understanding of a different culture is preceded first of all by an objective interest followed by an effort of will. The correction of false 'knowledge', however commonly held, is possible. For the interested, modern technology facilitates access to the sources of true knowledge. Learning about a foreign culture, besides being a fascinating pursuit, is also one of the major ways one can help create world peace and understanding, an understanding that is of vital importance in our troubled times. If we cultivate this desire and will, it will truly be worth the effort.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData