Beautiful Daughters and Rich Tournaments: Pleasures of the East in Correspondences between Ottoman Sultans and Christian Princes in the 14th and 15th century

Pope Pius II (the humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini), by Joos van Wassenhove

Beautiful Daughters and Rich Tournaments: Pleasures of the East in Correspondences between Ottoman Sultans and Christian Princes in the 14th and 15th century

By Karoline Döring

Paper given at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds (2013), in session 112: “Medieval Letters and Letter-Collections (1000–1500): A Pleasurable Reading?!”

Introduction: When I was working on Anti-Turkish print products of the 15th century I came across a most curious little letter written by a certain Morbisanus to pope Pius II. It was printed on three quarto pages at the end of a late 15th century edition of the pope’s Epistola ad Mahumetem, his famous but much disputed attempt in 1461 to convert the Ottoman sultan to Christianity. Since the conqueror of Constantinople was called Mehmed, the second of his name, I wondered whether Morbisanus could be simply a corrupted form. Anyway, I was interested what this Morbisanus might have to say to the pope’s offer. When reading the letter I soon realized that this was not much. Instead of responding to the elaborate ideas in Pius’s letter the sultan curtly advised the pope to refrain from propagating a crusade against the Ottoman Empire. He argued the legitimacy of his purpose: He, the successor of Priamus, Antenor, Aeneas, revenged ancient Troy and rightfully reconquered Greek lands that have always lawfully belonged to him. Besides, he opts for peaceful coexistence, clarifying that the Turks had played no part in the murder of Christ. On the contrary, they would consider him indeed a great prophet. Should Pius not abandon his crusade plans, the sultan threatened him with mighty alliances, immediate invasion and utter destruction.

Could this really be the sultan’s answer to the pope’s offer of conversion? Needless to say, that it could not. Morbisanus’ letter belongs to a group of letters known as “Sultansbriefe”. These very short letters of hardly more than one or two pages only pretended to have been written by an Egyptian or Ottoman sultan to a Christian prince and were highly popular in the 14th to 16th centuries. Giles Constable has told in his typology of letters and letter-collections real from fictional letters apart, saying that “the term ‘fictional’ will be used for letters, like model letters and treatises in epistolary form, which were not intended to be sent but which were considered letters by contemporaries.” Hans Martin Schaller argued in his study of humour in medieval letters that “among the numerous medieval forgeries forged or rather fictional letters belong to the most harmless. In general, they did not pursue improper aims, but served as religious and moral edification, were used for political purposes, such as church propaganda, or just provided entertainment.” In this sense the Sultansbriefe were popular epistolary fiction. However, with regard to the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire they touched on serious historical realities. This paper reviews the Sultansbriefe in the light of anti-Turkish propaganda and literary entertainment. First I give an overview of the extant sources and introduce different versions and main topics of the Sultansbriefe. Then I look into the transmission history of these texts. I want to put forth some thoughts on the handwritten collections in which they were passed down and contrast these with the contexts in which the printed copies circled. In a final step I position the Sultansbriefe within the anti-Turkish discourse of the 15th century, considering particularly the role of the printing press.

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