• Imelda Wei Ding Lo

“Othering” the Turk: Renaissance Orientalism and Paradoxical Conceptions of Constantinople in Europe

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

This essay was written back in 2013 for an upper-year undergraduate history course while I was reading history at the University of Toronto.

It was published in Volume IX of the undergraduate history journal, The Future of History, in 2014.

When Englishman George Sandys traveled to Turkey in 1610, he was faced with the daunting task of interpreting and explaining a foreign culture to the English press, who were increasingly interested in the “exotic” riches of the East. Incorporating classical references and mythology to describe these “terrifying Asians,” Sandys invoked many paradoxical portrayals of Turks in his four-book account of the Turkish East, The Relation of a Journey begun an. Dom. 1610.[i] One description in particular involved the comparison of Paris of Homer’s Iliad with the rather bellicose Janissary troops: a portrayal that, as classist Jerry Tomer put it, “raises all kinds of questions about the cultural identity of Paris’s effeminacy.”[ii] Specifically, by comparing these foreign troops to an effeminate Trojan, Sandys subtly elicited the East-versus-West dichotomy and denigrated the East as “backwards” by presenting it as pathetic, foppish, and weak as Paris.[iii] Nevertheless, Sandys’ account also revealed an admiration for Turkish society, as he portrayed the Janissaries as “gallantly armed” and “[retained] perhaps something of Antiquity.”[iv]

This paradoxical view of Turks was expressed not only in England, but also in numerous other European countries, especially Italy, as humanists often described Turks as “Scythian” barbarians all the while paralleling their disciplined armies and martial talents to mythological figures. With the spread of these conceptions of the Turk and the rapid spread of Turkish political power and influence, the European elite began to the Orient as the exotic “Other” and thus as the “eternal enemy” of the civilized West. In other words, the particular European reaction to rise of Turkish influence during Renaissance was foundational to what literary theorist Edward Said would later define as “Orientalism.”

[i] Jerry Toner, Homer’s Turk: How Classics Shaped Ideas of the East(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 4.

[ii] Ibid., 5. [iii] Ibid. [iv] George Sandys, The Relation of a Journey Begun An. Dom. 1610. Foure Bookes: Containing a Description of the Turkish Empire, of Egypt, of the Holy Land, of the Remote Parts of Italy, and Ilands Adioyning (London: Printed for W. Barrett, 1621), 51.

Read the rest of this essay here.

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