The Ottoman Empire and the “Turkish Danger” in 15th Century Europe





by Christian Schaller

The Ottoman Empire and the “Turkish Danger” in 15th Century Europe





by Christian Schaller

From the 15th century at the latest, the ongoing conquests and expansions of the prosperous Ottoman Empire entered the consciousness of the Christian countries of Europe. They were quickly stylised – especially by the Pope – into a public image of the enemy. The term “Turkish danger” itself, however, is not contemporary; it only appeared in the historiography of the 19th century. Above all, the conquest of the old Byzantine imperial city of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 can be considered an epoch-making event. The expansion of their empire to the north and west, i.e. deep into the countries of Europe, projected by the Sultans, led to the so-called Turkish Wars or Ottoman Wars until the 17th century, and against the Russian Empire in the north even into the 18th century.

The 15th century in Europe was marked by a growing and consciously perceived spread of Islam, which, along with many other states, first and foremost directly threatened the Hungarian Empire. After his early successes and victories, the Hungarian statesman and army commander Johann Hunyadi established himself over the years as an important beacon of hope for his homeland, but above all in Byzantine circles. He was able to counter the danger posed by the Ottomans far better than many of his contemporaries. Hunyadi achieved his rise and his reputation as an “athleta Christi” through his numerous merits and his skill. However, the myth that was to surround him from then on after his death was only fully formed by his actions in the siege of Belgrade by the Ottomans in the summer of 1456.  After the fall and conquest of the prestigious city of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, an outcry went through the Christian Western world.

The spread of Islam and the Ottoman Empire filled the Occident with concern, and soon the Turkish threat was a fixed concept at the courts of European princes and kings and especially within the walls of the Vatican. After long negotiations, a church union was achieved in Florence in 1439. The Western Church in Rome thus committed itself to all possible help for the Eastern Church of the Byzantines in their defence against the Turks, despite the low popularity of the Catholic Church in Constantinople. Even more threatening, however, appeared the Ottomans. As early as 1444, an initially hopeful crusade failed, halted by defeat at the Battle of Varna on the Black Sea. When the siege of the old imperial city of Constantinople was finally initiated by the Ottomans, attempts were made once again to proclaim and revive the Union of 1439. But it was too late.

War campaign of Emperor Charles V against Tunis (1535): An unsuccessful raid by the Turks from La Goletta;cardboard as a pattern for tapestries made on behalf of the governor Mary of Hungary; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0; ©KHM-Museumsverband; link to image

The fall of Constantinople is defined by historians to this day as a turning point in world history, marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II then chose the conquered city as the new heart of his empire, choosing not only a prestigious but also a cleverly located place, on “the border of the two continents” of Europe and Asia. Thus the Ottomans finally became a threat in south-eastern Europe that was as acute as it was constant, and Constantinople became a symbol for the concept of the Turkish threat. It must be mentioned that Constantinople was by no means a western outpost in the middle of Christian enemy territory when it was conquered in 1453. In fact, the Ottomans had already added vast territories in what is now Bulgaria and northern Greece to their growing empire. From 1368 to 1453, the Ottoman capital was also the ancient Adrianople, today’s major Turkish city of Edirne in the far west of Turkey. The city is 220 kilometres west of Constantinople and thus much closer to the warfare of the time, which demanded the sultan’s attention and presence.

Successful conquests allowed the Ottoman Empire to flourish in the 14th and 15th centuries. The history of this country began with the numerous principalities that were founded in Anatolia after the disintegration of the Rum Seljuk Empire – brought about by the Mongol advances of the 13th century. The founder of the Ottoman dynasty, Osman, succeeded in creating an efficient administration and a standing professional army. The foundation of the Ottoman Empire is traditionally placed at 1299, when the Turks conquered territories of the neighbouring empire of Byzantium, which had become weak. From this point on, therefore, different cultures, ethnicities and denominations were already found within its borders – a feature that distinguished the Ottoman Empire throughout its history. When Osman died, his territory was almost three times as large as it had been at the beginning of his rule. This is another important part of the Ottoman identity: expansion. This ambition is certainly also related to the people’s sense of mission. The Ottomans were Muslims, and due to the geographical location of their territory right next to the Byzantine Christian empire, they quickly developed into champions of their faith who – like their predecessors, the Seljuks – followed the idea of jihad, thus making their empire a “centre of ideological struggle in the name of Islam”. This religious mission made them quite comparable to the Christian crusaders. Constantinople, which had to withstand several attacks and sieges, became a symbol of resistance against Islam. It was also the hub for shipping traffic between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. When Mehmed II finally conquered the city, it was not only a divine wish and heavenly providence for him, but also a turning point in Ottoman history, a symbol of the coming rise to a great empire. Mehmed moved the seat of government and the capital to Constantinople, rich in tradition, and also adopted elements from Byzantine culture, for example the way the administration was now increasingly centralised and bureaucratised, as it had been with the emperor. The sultan was the absolute head and centre of the empire, but the focus of state power was on the army. Their great fortune in war greatly encouraged and motivated the Turks and, in return, frightened Christendom.

Schild, Rundschild, Kalkan; Osmanisch 16. Jahrhundert; Schloss Ambras Innsbruck; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0; ©KHM-Museumsverband; Link zum Bild

But the Ottomans were not exclusively an enemy. Mehmed deliberately restocked the decimated population of the city of Constantinople after his conquest. Although there was an Ottoman majority among the inhabitants, the city was quite cosmopolitan and was inhabited by many people from other states, just as the entire empire had been since its founding. There was no conversion or proselytising, only the supremacy of Islam and the Sultan had to be recognised. The Ottomans copied and adapted many elements of the conquered territories, but also adapted when necessary.

Constantinople was and remained the centre of the Orthodox Church, for example, but the cityscape was to be Muslim. In addition, the country was very closely linked to the other Islamic states and attracted many people from all over the Orient. Many Christians also moved in from the West. The Ottomans were very tolerant of immigrants, probably also because of the comparatively low population density in their territories.

After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, intensive planning began in the West. The popes in Rome, even more than the secular rulers, had an outlined image of the new great power from the East. They appeared to them as the arch-enemy of Christendom. The planning and execution of the struggle against the Ottomans, who were regarded as heathens, was a kind of affair of the heart of the Holy See. However, the papacy could not achieve anything against the Ottomans with its resources alone. The condition for a successful crusade was therefore an alliance of several, if not all, Western states. Political, ecclesiastical and social upheavals and reforms can be found in crusade treatises as early as the 14th century. The necessary condition of peace in the European-Christian world of states was not only conscious to the popes, but also to many contemporary rulers and writers. Italy at this time consisted of several small states and republics. The Christian country was well aware of the Turkish threat, but was still far too caught up in regional disputes and internal intrigues. It was not until the Peace of Lodi in 1454, probably also concluded under the impression of the fall of Constantinople, that the great upper Italian powers of Milan and Venice and other Italian states achieved a superficial peace. However, the Maritime Republic of Venice concluded a treaty with Mehmed II and the Ottoman Empire in the same year. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was also almost unable to act, as were the territories of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Serbian Empire directly bordering the Ottomans. All in all, therefore, most of the popes’ crusade efforts failed, even though there was no lack of planning and attempts. The reason for this was the internal and external conflicts of most European states, which at this time was already too advanced to form a homogeneous Christian alliance. The few initiatives against the Ottomans that were carried through were crowned with varying success, but were not decisive for a final victory.

In summary, the Ottoman Empire was an efficient state apparatus that was not the enemy of Christian Europe from the outset, nor was it ever the all-encompassing enemy, but it remained a threat to the “Occident” for centuries, also due to its energetic and persistent expansionist ambitions, which were sometimes religiously based. Despite the inevitable clash between Christianity and Islam, between the Occident and the Orient, it was difficult for the fragmented European states of the 15th century to come to a common denominator and stand united in order to take effective action against the Ottomans. The kinship relations of Central and Eastern Europe were closely intertwined, the fronts and constellations were interwoven and in constant flux. There was a lively exchange, cultural transfer and also friendships and alliances between the supposed enemies.

There is more by Christian Schaller in his book – Augsburger Kulturgeschichten. You can get reading samples and an order form via the link.


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