By Lorris Chevalier
In the annals of history, the name Bertrandon de la Broquière may not resonate as loudly as those of Columbus or Marco Polo, but his travels and writings offer a unique window into the world of medieval exploration. Bertrandon de la Broquière embarked on a remarkable journey across the heart of the Ottoman Empire, for one year in 1432, documenting his experiences in a detailed account that continues to fascinate historians today.
Little is known about his early life, but he would later become a squire in 1421 in the service of Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy. In 1432, Bertrandon de la Broquière, in his 30s, embarked on a daring expedition, setting out from his home in Burgundy with the blessing of Duke Philip. His mission: To deliver a letter from Philip to Sigismund Kęstutaitis, the Duke of Lithuania, who was an ally of the Burgundian court. However, this is the official version. His journey was far from ordinary.
There are four reasons to doubt the official version of why he went on such a perilous journey :
1. Intriguing Route: Bertrandon’s journey took him through the heart of the Ottoman Empire, which was then under the rule of Sultan Murad II. This route was far from the most direct or secure path to Lithuania. His decision to traverse the Ottoman territories raises questions about his true objectives.
2. Detailed Observations: Bertrandon’s book, Le Voyage d’Outre-Mer, is known for its meticulous observations of the Ottoman Empire, its people, culture, and military. His detailed descriptions of the Janissaries, the Ottoman elite infantry, and his meetings with various officials are striking. These observations go beyond what one might expect from a simple messenger.
3. No Formal Diplomatic Credentials: Bertrandon was not a trained diplomat, and he lacked formal diplomatic credentials. His ability to gain access to key Ottoman figures and military installations suggests that he possessed a unique set of skills or a hidden agenda.
4. Secrecy Surrounding the Mission: Historians have noted that there is a lack of official records or letters documenting the true purpose of Bertrandon’s mission. This secrecy has fueled speculation about the nature of his role.
Bertrandon begins his journey with a meeting with the Pope, then leaves Venice towards the Holy Land. Among a few Burgundian pilgrims, he embarked in a galley from Rhodes to Cyprus to finally arrive in Jaffa and then from Jaffa to Jerusalem. He details his meeting with local officials who made him pay the fees owed by the pilgrims.
From Damascus, he then returned to Beirut where he attended an Arab night party which made a strong impression on him. It was from this moment that Bertrandon really went off the beaten track by deciding to return to Burgundy by land. Pilgrims of the time avoided these dangerous routes by taking a boat back to Italy.
In Damascus an unexpected opportunity to travel in complete safety is offered to Burgundian: he witnesses the arrival with great fanfare of a caravan coming from Mecca and heading towards Brousse. The wealth of the convoy and the splendour accompanying this event do not leave Bertrandon indifferent. He jumps at the opportunity and arranges to meet the leader of the caravan: Kodja Barqouq. After negotiations, he was finally accepted into the caravan but on the condition of dressing in Turkish fashion so as not to endanger his fellow travellers.
During this trip within this caravan, Bertrandon shares special moments with the Turks who accompany him. He meets a Mamluk with whom he establishes a friendship and travels to Konya. The latter protects him and introduces him to certain aspects of his culture, such as how to travel, eat and fight. The traveller even tries to learn basic Turkish. Bertrandon is already very interested in anything to do with the military.
The convoy initially heads towards Antioch, then heads towards Little Armenia along the Gulf of Alexandretta. The crossing of Asia Minor, although trying, was relatively quick.
In Konya, Bertrandon seizes the opportunity offered to him to join an embassy to meet the sovereign of Karaman. It is also at this place that he leaves his Mamluk friend whom he praises on this occasion. He finally arrived in Brousse where he stayed with a Florentine for 10 days.
Bertrandon leaves this city in the company of European merchants, a Spaniard and three Florentines and heads towards Pera. He then went to Constantinople, where he stayed with a Catalan merchant. La Broquière, who attends, among other things, a joust and certain ceremonies, describes the city of Constantinople but provides very few details on the architectural elements of the city which is very peculiar because every traveller who went to this city fell in awe of the beauty of the city.
From Constantinople, which he left on January 23, 1433, La Broquière joined the ambassador of the Duke of Milan, Benedict de Fourlino, to go to the Ottoman sultan Murad II (1421-1451). He meets the latter in Adrianople towards the end of February. Bertrandon then attended the sumptuous audience granted to the ambassador of the Duke of Milan.
On March 12, Bertrandon left Adrianople in the company of the ambassador. They arrived on April 12, 1433, in Belgrade. Bertrandon dwells a lot here on the tactical possibilities of the conquest of the Ottoman Empire. He presented a project that would bring together France, England and Germany against the Turks. From Belgrade, he rides across the plains of Hungary to Budapest.
Bertrandon then took five days to travel to Vienna where he was warmly welcomed by Duke Albert II of the Holy Empire, a cousin of Philip the Good. He then heads to Burgundy stopping at Basel where he attends an ecumenical council.
The Return and Legacy
After successfully completing his mission, Bertrandon returned to Burgundy in 1433. His account of his journey, titled Le Voyage d’Outre-Mer, was written in 1435 and remains a valuable source of information about the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. His work offers a European perspective on a region that was largely unknown to Westerners at the time.
Bertrandon’s journey is also notable for his observations on Islam and the customs of the Ottomans. While his perspective was undoubtedly shaped by his Christian faith and European upbringing, his writings reflect a genuine curiosity and openness to understanding the cultures and peoples he encountered.
Bertrandon de la Broquière’s journey through the Ottoman Empire may not have had the same level of historical impact as the voyages of Columbus or Marco Polo, but it is a testament to the spirit of medieval exploration. His travels and writings provide a valuable glimpse into a world undergoing profound political and cultural changes.
The true nature of Bertrandon de la Broquière’s mission to the Ottoman Empire remains shrouded in mystery. We know that Bertrandon was very close for ten years to the Duke of Burgundy. Although the expedition only lasted a year, its cost must have been excessive and very risky; an undercover agent had to be a very trustworthy man. Did the duke, whose wealth could allow him to consider a new crusade, have a plan to go to southeastern Europe and attack the Turks? Was it just the Duke of Burgundy who financed his expedition? it is true that most of the European rulers met Bertrandon who, I remind you, is not a diplomat. Why was Bertrandon so well received everywhere, when he was officially simply a messenger commissioned to deliver a letter?
Bertrandon’s book was immediately illuminated by the best artists of the time, the book had such an impact on the spirit of the time that many years later, during a banquet, Philip the Good and a number of the Order of the Golden Fleece took the vow of crusade against the Turks in 1454.
Dr Lorris Chevalier, who has Ph.D. in medieval literature, is a historical advisor for movies, including The Last Duel and Napoleon.