Dursteler on Malcolm, 'Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World'

Noel Malcolm
Eric Dursteler

Noel Malcolm. Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 640 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-026278-5.

Reviewed by Eric Dursteler (Brigham Young University) Published on H-Diplo (April, 2016) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

In Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s influential 2000 book The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History, the authors draw a distinction between two primary strands in Mediterranean studies: histories of the Mediterranean, such as Fernand Braudel’s classic and still essential The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2d ed. (1996), and histories in the Mediterranean.  These latter, much more common monographic works have a narrower focus, treating a specific region, city, or topic without attempting to address broader Mediterranean debates and questions. Noel Malcolm’s Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World in many ways straddles these two camps. 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, because of the widespread movements of the family across the sea, and Malcolm’s richly developed contextual backdrop, the volume becomes, whether intentionally or not, a macrohistorical tale of the Mediterranean itself.

The text is organized in a chronological format, and surveys a broad swath of the sixteenth century. The approach is solidly narrative, and includes a large cast of characters who range widely throughout the region and participate in many of the defining events of the era. The focus is primarily on two Albanian families, the Brutis and the Brunis. They both hailed from the coastal town of Ulcinj (Dulcigno in Italian), in modern-day Montenegro, which was under Venetian rule for more than a century and a half before being conquered by the Ottomans in 1571.

The Brutis and Brunis were “cultural amphibians” (p. 34), who pop up all over the Mediterranean and play improbable roles in many of the century’s key moments. For instance, Giovanni Bruni was the archbishop of Bar and participated in the Council of Trent; Marcantonio Borisi, son of one of the families’ daughters, served as the Grand Dragoman of the Venetian diplomatic mission in Istanbul and played an outsized role in Veneto-Ottoman politics for several decades; Gasparo Bruni was the first Albanian knight of Malta and got caught up in the French wars of religion; Bartolomeo Bruti played a pivotal role in political machinations related to Moldavia. In short, for almost a century whenever and wherever something of significance happened in the Mediterranean, a member of some branch of these two quite remarkable clans was present, and indeed often at the center of events. Malcolm masterfully sketches the rich tapestry of this Mediterranean family history: we get an intimate sense of the Brutis' and Brunis' individual and collective experiences, but we also get a wonderfully detailed treatment of the broad Mediterranean political backdrop and key events such as the battle of Lepanto and the Habsburg-Ottoman rivalry.

Agents of Empire is also an absolutely terrific example of the historian’s craft, a tour de force of historical research. In his quest to track down the elusive clues left by his Albanian prey, Malcolm has visited seemingly every major archive in the Mediterranean and Europe, and numerous minor ones as well. His mastery of the secondary literature in numerous languages and historiographical traditions is also exemplary. This is particularly noteworthy because so many Mediterranean scholars are limited by their linguistic abilities to treating only a small sliver of the varied source base available in the region’s rich repositories. Malcolm has quite simply looked under every possible archival rock, and the result is that he is able to recreate an incredibly detailed yet expansive story that is both in and of the Mediterranean.

My primary quibble with this impressive book is also one of its strengths, namely its voluminous and exhaustive (exhausting?) coverage. 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 author seems to feel the need to explain every aspect of his story, no matter how peripheral or insignificant, and then in tremendous detail. This tendency to say everything about everything is also evident in the many highly detailed, narrative descriptions of diplomatic, political, and military maneuverings in which various family members find themselves involved. At times this approach can be effective and engaging; at others the experience can have a very nineteenth-century, Rankean feel. As a specialist I found many of these asides interesting but also distracting, and I fear for nonspecialists wading into this stream of information. The amount of space and depth of detail devoted to minor matters can obscure both the narrative and an understanding of the larger context. In sum, this seems a clear case of occasionally losing the forest for all the interesting trees.

I suspect that in part this was a necessary and intentional strategy, as Malcolm sought to flesh out his characters and their stories when faced with a paucity of sources that directly addressed these figures who often played minor a role, or were simply present, at larger events. The result, however, is that sometimes the main players and events fade into the background, as in chapter 3 where the central figure, Antonio Bruti, occupies significantly less space that a highly detailed, contextual discussion of Venice’s relationship with Ulcinj and Albania. In the same fashion, Gasparo Bruni disappears for lengthy stretches in the treatment of the knights of Malta in chapter 5.

There is additionally a deeply annoying aspect of the book for which the author cannot be entirely held to account, which is Oxford University Press’s decision to chain together the more than seventy-five pages of footnotes in one continuous paragraph for each chapter, rather than the usual practice of setting apart each note on its own separate line. While this no doubt saved a few pages and thus cut into the publisher’s bottom line, for a book coming in at over six hundred pages, what difference would a few dozen more have made? This choice makes it a terribly unpleasant task to navigate the notes for those scholars inclined to do so. In the same vein, the decision to stack citations in long notes at the end of each of the often lengthy paragraphs, rather than breaking them apart and linking them more clearly and directly to the relevant passages within the paragraph, compounds the difficulty for interested scholars in making heads or tails out of the rich scholarship at the core of this book, which is one of its major accomplishments and pleasures.

In the final analysis, while a virtuoso work of both research and historical recreation, I found this a difficult book to assess. Part of the challenge, I think, is a certain ambiguity about audience and objective. Malcolm clearly states at the outset that he wrote the book “with non-specialist readers primarily in mind” (p. xx). While such readers may well engage with the text, I think Malcolm sells his book short; there is more to it than he lets on. If it does not necessarily expand our understanding of the early modern Mediterranean, Agents of Empire provides a compelling example of the ways in which this world functioned on the ground level, which is something that is often lost in the debates and theoretical formulations to which the sea has often been subjected.

Beyond its admirable recovery of obliterated and overlooked lives, I believe that this book represents a valuable addition to recent Mediterranean historiography. The depth and originality of the archival research and the broad engagement with the most current work in the field, is a model of historical scholarship. The detailed recreation of an extended family’s history illustrates in vivid relief the flexibility of identity and political and religious allegiances, the endlessly shifting political loyalties often untethered from religious considerations, the intense mobility and connectedness of the early modern sea. In doing this, the book also gives the lie to the old saw of a Mediterranean characterized by a clash of civilizations. Although Malcolm does not explicitly say it, it strikes me that in some ways his book represents a response to one of the fundamental critiques of Braudel’s great work of structural history, namely the absence of human beings amid all the details on climate, geology, geography, etc. Malcolm’s Mediterranean, in contrast, is inhabited by individuals who are both a product of their setting, but also prove highly capable in navigating and manipulating its multiple boundaries. Another valuable contribution is that, by focusing on the periphery, Malcolm forces the reader to decentralize the state as the dominant entity in the premodern Mediterranean. As he notes, “the standard model of international history, based on the direct interaction of unit states, which the present naturally projects onto the past” (p. 329) obscures our ability to understand the complex and shifting relationships between regions, individuals, and entities in the prenational era, and this book makes clear the different ways in which this world functioned.

In sum, Agents of Empire is an important book. I would have liked to see the author engage more directly the scholars with whose work he is so clearly familiar, and I would have liked to see him be more ambitious in contemplating what his work brings to our understanding of the early modern Mediterranean. Notwithstanding these concerns, this is a magnificent piece of historical recreation and a valuable contribution to the field of Mediterranean studies.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=44980

Citation: Eric Dursteler. Review of Malcolm, Noel, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. April, 2016. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44980

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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.


URL: https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/reviews/120920/dursteler-malcolm-agents-empire-knights-corsairs-jesuits-and-spies



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.