Theresa M. Vann and Donald J. Kagay, eds.
(Routledge, 2015) 393 pp. $139.95
Admittedly, I did not know exactly what I was reading when I requested this book. From the title alone, I expected a scholarly examination of propaganda texts of the Crusades, where the Hospitallers had a prominent role. This book proved to be both broader and narrower than that expectation. It is to the credit of the co-editors that this book was able to explain the Ottoman siege of Rhodes in 1480 well enough and to provide enough obscure and worthwhile textual material that any reader who takes the time and effort to study it closely will be greatly informed by this text. This was not the book about the Crusades and the Hospitallers that I expected to read, but those scholars whose studies involve the post-Byzantine efforts of Christians to hold onto their possessions in the Mediterranean, or the Hospitaller order in general, or the island of Rhodes in particular, or even the Ottoman Empire during the late 15th century will find a great deal to appreciate in this work.
It is particularly worthwhile to examine the contents of this book in light of its importance for scholars of late medieval history in the Mediterranean. The first three chapters were written by the editors and set the context for the texts that make up the majority of this book, and introduce the relationship between the Hospitallers and the island of Rhodes and its inhabitants, the continual danger that the Hospitallers of Rhodes felt from the Ottoman Empire in the period between 1453 and 1480, and the origin of the Descriptio obsdionis Rhodae, the main text about the 1480 siege of Rhodes that we possess, a work of history that became a powerful and effective source of anti-Ottoman propaganda in the late 15th century and beyond. The remaining five chapters of the book consist of five works in their original language (with an extensive textual apparatus showing variants among manuscripts or original printed versions): Guillaume Caoursin’s Descriptio obsidionis Rhodiah, Pierre d’Augbusson’s Relatio obsidionis Rhodie, John Kay’s Description of the Siege of Rhodes, Ademar Dupuis’ Le siège de Rhodes, and Jacobo Curte’s De urbis Rhodiae obsidione a. 1480 a Turcis tentata. Also included as supplementary material are the Latin originals and English translations for some of the bulls sent by the Hospitaller Masters of Rhodes seeking assistance for the defense of Rhodes as well as a bibliography and index. Concerning the texts included, as Coaursin was the vice Chancellor of the Hospitallers and based on Rhodes and d’Aubusson was the Master of the Hospitaller Order and the other sources offer additional aids in understanding the siege as well, it is clear that the editors have brought a considerable and skillful effort in presenting these texts for scholars.
It is notable, though, that these texts present serious challenges to the reader. All of the texts are included in diglot versions, where the original text is on the left page and the contemporary English translation on the right page. Those scholars who wish to make the most of this substantial book will likely require at least some capacity to understand medieval Latin, late Middle English, and Middle French, as these are the original languages of the texts included. For their linguistic skills, the editors can be praised, although it should be noted that the editors themselves express an awareness of their exactitude in providing faithful original texts, in stark contrast to other scholars: “The letter to the pope survives only in an early eighteenth century imprint. Marios Philippides reprinted and translated d’Aubusson’s letter to the pope, with citations to the alternate text and spelling found in the letter to the emperor. He modernized the Latin spelling of the letter to the pope, but his citations to the letter have missing words and altered verbs (149).” Although gracious to Philippides for his work of translation, at several points in the book the editors point out his failings as an editor in what amounts to a genteel but serious scholarly competition.
Those interested in this book will likely find most enjoyment from this text if they take the duty of translation as seriously as the editors do: “Kay, like the authors of other English translations during the period, translated for the sense of the text, not the exact meaning. In the process, he made some significant emendations and presented his own interpretation of events. A direct comparison of Kay’s translation with Caoursin’s Latin original reveals numerous inconsistencies between the two, most notably, long sections where Kay inserted original commentary and interpretation. Kay altered Caoursin’s narrative, omitting some portions, inserting others, and interpolating additional information seamlessly into the text (178).” A reader of this text will be reminded over and over again of the seriousness in which the editors take their task of providing texts for other scholars and researchers. It is to be hoped that those who read this book are able to appreciate that skill as they cite the texts in their own research.
The intended audience for this book is without a doubt those who are scholars on the graduate or postgraduate level whose interests relate to the Turkish siege of Rhodes in 1480 in some fashion. Despite our contemporary preoccupation with threats from aggressive Islam, the authors do not attempt in any way to connect the propaganda of the Hospitallers and others contemporaries of the multi-ethnic anti-Ottoman coalition with analogous contemporary efforts. Presumably the reader is left to draw one’s own conclusions and inferences in this matter. Despite its deliberate lack of discussion of contemporary matters, this book is a stellar example of serious scholarly attention to original sources and their compilation for researchers, and ought to be well-respected and frequently cited in the future given the obscurity of the texts and their usefulness to a study of medieval history. As Ms. Vann is listed as a research associate, one hopes that the excellence of this work leads to greater promotion and professional success, as it is well earned by this book.