Author’s response to Eric Dursteler’s Review of Noel Malcolm, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, published in April 2016.
Author’s Response by Noel Malcolm, University of Oxford
I am very grateful to Professor Dursteler for all the positive things he says in his review of my book Agents of Empires. I value such praise highly, coming as it does from someone who has made major original contributions to the Mediterranean history of this period. My reason for writing this response, however, is to comment on what seems to me a basic misunderstanding about the nature of the book.
Professor Dursteler writes:
On the one hand, the author attempts a sort of a microhistorical family history of several Albanian clans situated solidly within their Adriatic context. On the other […] the volume becomes, whether intentionally or not, a macrohistorical tale of the Mediterranean itself
And later, he comments:
The author seems never to have met a tangent he did not like. The central narrative is constantly interrupted by what feels like an unending queue of highly detailed excursuses into seemingly every imaginable aside. Pages are devoted to ancillary matters such as the grain trade, the Council of Trent, slave ransoming, the Jesuits, Moldavian history, dragomans, and many, many other topics.
The impression thus given is that I have, ‘intentionally or not’ filled the book with ‘excursuses’ – the implication being both that these matters are more or less irrelevant to the real purpose of the book, and that I was so instantly blown off course by every topic I encountered that I found myself writing about them without even intending to. I would like to assure Professor Dursteler, and other readers, that I did not write large parts of this book by mistake; I wrote the book which I intended to write, and had reasons for doing so.
The reasons were set out in the Preface, as follows:
Gradually […] I pieced together some of the family history, and began tracing the stories of several of Antonio Bruni’s closest relatives – his father, his uncles and his cousins – until, eventually, there came a point where I realized that I had a much larger project on my hands.
Here was a family story of particular richness, and occasional real drama, which was closely intertwined with some of the major events of sixteenth-century European history, especially where relations between the Christian and Ottoman worlds were concerned. For many years I had been studying the ways in which those two worlds both clashed and connected in the early modern period. The full spectrum of interactions between Western Christians and Ottomans ranged from war and corsairing at one end, via espionage, information-gathering and diplomacy (including the essential work of the ‘dragomans’ or professional translators), to trade, collaboration and actual employment by the Ottomans at the other. And now I could see that members of Antonio Bruni’s family occupied, at different times and in different places, every one of those places on the spectrum. Thus the idea for this book gradually took shape. I had two basic aims: to describe the experiences, adventures and achievements of an unusually interesting set of people; and at the same time to use their collective biography as a framework on which to build some broader, more thematic accounts of East-West relations and interactions in this period. The themes here are many and various, involving not only the large-scale diplomatic and strategic issues that shaped those international relations, but also topics such as the grain trade, piracy and corsairing, the exchange and ransoming of prisoners, galley warfare, espionage in Istanbul and the role of the dragoman. Each time that I turn aside from a biographical narrative to discuss one of these issues, this is not a digression; it is part of the substance of the book.
I had hoped that that explanation would be sufficient to prevent the sort of misunderstanding of the whole nature of the book that is apparent, I feel, in Professor Dursteler’s review. To recapitulate: the book operates on two levels, personal and thematic. The personal level involves the life-stories of members of a single extended family over three generations. These in themselves are of real interest, I think; but I would not have written the book just to tell stories. I wrote it because I saw that almost every one of these people occupied a different position on that ‘spectrum’ of East-West activities, from warfare and espionage to diplomacy and commerce. Hence the second level: I use these individuals as the entrées into the relevant themes, gradually building up what I hope is an account that almost systematically spans that long spectrum of interactions between Christendom and the Ottomans. (When I say ‘systematically’, of course I do not mean that I am giving an account of every aspect of trade, diplomacy, warfare, etc.; I just mean that I am trying to build up an interconnected picture that will give the reader a good sense of each topic in turn.) Several of the ‘tangents’ listed – with, I cannot help feeling, an air of somewhat impatient dismissiveness – by Professor Dursteler are absolutely central examples of these topics: ‘the grain trade … slave-ransoming … dragomans.’
There is another way in which this book extends, very intentionally, beyond the immediate life-stories of the Bruni-Bruti family members. Again, I explained this in my Preface, as follows:
The other, and greater, difference between this book and some of the well-known examples of ‘microhistory’ is that many of the people I describe here were heavily involved in the macrohistory too. To recover the mental and social world of a peasant or a miller is always a fascinating enterprise, but that world will be necessarily a limited one, having no contact with international affairs, military leadership or major developments in religion. Taken together, the people whose lives I reconstruct here were bound up in all of those things – befriended by cardinals and corresponding with popes and monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth I. One was an archbishop, active in the reshaping of Catholicism at the Council of Trent; another was the right-hand man to the commander of the papal fleet in three campaigns; one was involved in negotiations for a Spanish-Ottoman truce and a Polish-Ottoman peace treaty, as well as being chief minister of Moldavia and commander of its army; another almost succeeded in preventing a particularly destructive Habsburg-Ottoman war, and yet another went on a dangerous mission to the Emperor Rudolf in order to end it. So telling the story of these individuals has also meant painting, on quite a broad canvas, the international history in which they were involved.
So I am surprised to find Professor Dursteler also listing ‘the Council of Trent’ and ‘Moldavian history’ as examples of ‘tangents’ or ‘asides’. These are vital parts of the macrohistory which is an integral part of the subject-matter of the book.
Where some other topics are concerned, the immediate reason for discussing them is that they form essential elements of the background to a person’s life-story – for example, the discussion of Jesuit education arises because one of my individuals went to the most important Jesuit school in Italy. But overall, one of the things I have tried most carefully, and most intentionally, to do is to weave together connections between the various themes, international developments and ‘background’ points. For example, the Counter-Reformation gradually emerges as a vital factor in the international history which I discuss; this connects the Council of Trent, the Jesuits, Papal efforts to coordinate anti-Ottoman campaigns, and the programme of drawing Eastern Christians into ‘Uniate’ arrangements with Rome (as exemplified by the energetic attempts of one of my individuals, the chief minister of Moldavia, to do this for the Moldavian Orthodox Church).
So I am reluctant to accept the idea that I have produced a mass of ‘tangents’ distracting the reader from the book’s real purpose. Such an idea involves adopting a view of that purpose which not only strikes me as strangely narrow, but also was explicitly rejected in the first few pages of the book. The actual purpose, as I explained there, was to create an account which carefully interconnects the personal and the thematic, gradually building up an unconventional (but original and, I hope, informative) account of a half-century of ‘East-West’ international practices and international relations. Perhaps I have not succeeded; that is for others, including reviewers, to judge. But still I would like them to understand what I was trying to do.