Fifteenth-Century Burgundy and the Islamic East
By Darren M. Smith
Diploma of Arts (Hons) Thesis, University of Sydney, 2016
Introduction: A manuscript commissioned by duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (1396–1467) and prepared by his secretary, Jean Miélot, in 1456, features a miniature that depicts a figure kneeling before the duke and presenting him with a book amidst a town siege. Book presentation scenes like these are ubiquitous in the iconographical program of medieval manuscripts, especially in a gift-oriented court such as fifteenth-century Burgundy. This
particular scene is curious because the figure kneeling before the duke is dressed in Ottoman attire and bears a scimitar.
The figure is Bertrandon de la Broquière and he has just returned from a journey to the Holy Land, travelling back to Burgundy through Ottoman Anatolia and the Balkans. This illumination appears on a full folio just before the copy of Bertrandon’s travel account. The identity of the book he is presenting is not entirely clear. Consistent with
illumination topoi, the book is the text that is to follow (in this case, the travel account). Yet, in Bertrandon’s account of this scene, the book presented is altogether different. He wrote that he entrusted to the duke all his Ottoman clothing, ‘together with the Qur’an and the deeds of Muhammad’. If we consider this image through Bertrandon’s account, the book presented to the duke was the Qur’an.
This moment of exchange, captured in illumination, is the starting point of this investigation. It represents a key point of contact between two worlds — one of the fifteenth century’s most powerful states in the Latin West, the duchy of Burgundy, and the Islamic East, specifically the Ottomans. This identity of the book is perhaps less important than the questions it prompts. What was the nature and scope of Burgundian contact with the Islamic world? How did Burgundians conceptualise the Islamic East? What were their frames of reference and how were they shaped by contemporaneous events, including further Ottoman penetration into eastern Europe and the fall of Constantinople? There exists an extensive corpus of scholarship regarding medieval Christian views of Islam since Richard Southern’s Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (1962), yet a fifteenth-century Burgundian perspective has remained largely absent. This present study addresses this by embedding an analysis of that Burgundian experience within this academic field.