Petrarch’s Vision of the Muslim and Byzantine East
By Nancy Bisaha
Speculum, Vol. 76:2 (2001)
Introduction: Born just thirteen years after the fall of the last of the crusader kingdoms, and forty-three years after the end of Latin rule in Constantinople, Petrarch witnessed a time when Western losses in the eastern Mediterranean were perceived as both a fresh wound and a temporary setback. While modern scholars tend to see the defeats of 1291 as the abrupt end of an era, it is crucial to note that the mood in western Europe in the following years was far from desperate or pessimistic. On the contrary, a sense of determination and responsibility to recover the Holy Land prevailed. During Petrarch’s adult years, the gains of the Ottoman Turks in Anatolia and the Balkan Peninsula brought a new sense of urgency to the “Eastern problem.” As Petrarch himself starkly put it, the Turks were “crossing over from there [Greece] toward us and true Catholicism.”
Throughout Petrarch’s writings, the East appears repeatedly as a topic of interest, concern, and historical curiosity; moreover, it is frequently employed as a literary motif or an apocalyptic theme. In that respect he inaugurated a trend that would become even more pronounced among quattrocento humanists, who demonstrated a lively interest in the Ottoman Empire. While many scholars have called attention to Petrarch’s undeniable love of the West, particularly Italy and the Roman heritage, they rarely consider the broader horizons of his world view. This perspective presents an image, not only of Petrarch, but of humanism itself as culturally myopic, creating a false impression of early humanists as having little concern for the larger world around them.
This article will demonstrate the broadness of Petrarch’s worldview by examining two aspects of Petrarch’s writings on crusade and the East. On one level, an examination of these writings will be useful to historians as a rich case study on views of crusade, Islam, and Byzantium in fourteenth-century Europe.
Petrarch provides a uniquely good source for two reasons: his excellent connections kept him abreast of events in the East soon after they occurred, and the volume of his preserved works allows us to create a detailed map of his shifting attitudes over the years. His letters and works reflect eagerness for news of the progress of Christian and Muslim forces and feature emotional responses. In his works we receive an intimate and candid view of the rising and plummeting hopes in western Europe regarding the crusade front, showing how vital a theme crusade still was amidst the turmoil of the fourteenth century. Petrarch also presents a fascinating range of opinions regarding the Byzantines, which encapsulates the broader Western tensions regarding the Orthodox Greeks.