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Monday, December 17, 2012

“Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536”, by James Reston



432 pages, Penguin Press, ISBN-13: 978-1594202254

Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536 by James Reston is a wonderfully entertaining reading experience that focuses on a number of leaders at a crucial historical nexus: the protestant movement is beginning to gain force (Martin Luther and Zwingli); absolutist nation-states are replacing the more loosely controlled feudal empire (Francis 1, Henry 8, et al.); and the Ottoman Empire is reaching the limits of its expansion and about to begin its decline. The great virtue of this book is that it tells it all in an enthralling story, with bits of analysis thrown in, vivid characterizations that some argue is novelistic, and an evocation of what it might have felt like to live at that time. For what it is worth, I enjoyed every single page like it was a film. This is popular history par excellence, for the general reader and not the scholar. If the reader knows this and has the right expectations at the start, it is great fun. If the reader expects something more academic, they will not find it here.

There were a number of developments at this time that created fundamental precedents, all inter-related. First, the northern German states were ready to exit from the yoke of the Catholic Church. They were developing the means (predominantly military) to do so and found their intellectual justification in the hands of a great firebrand, Luther, who supplied them with arguments and powerful writings that spread via the movable-type press. Second, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sees himself as the defender of the Catholic orthodoxy, underpinning as it did (via the Pope) his legitimacy as the pre-eminent secular lord of a vast feudal empire that was supposed to be spiritually united. However, he also had the task of defending all of Christendom, which preoccupied much of his career. He also had to fight the Pope from allying himself with Francis 1. Third, in Suleyman, you have the last Turkish leader-conqueror of genuine genius. His armies were advancing into Europe, fighting the Shiite "heresy" in Persia, expanding into Northern Africa, and developing naval dominance of the entire Mediterranean. Suleyman takes Hungry and threatens Vienna. Fourth, you have proto-nation states in Britain and France, whose kings are consolidating power in narrower borders in ways that will enable them to forge armies far stronger than the loose feudal coalitions of knights and mercenaries under the command of Charles V. The chivalric era is clearly on its way out, to be replaced by tightly disciplined armies under unified command, armed with firearms and canons for blanket-area killing rather than only swords and pikes for individual-style combat.

While Charles V wanted to burn Luther at the stake, he had to allow the Protestants time in order to unite Christians to repel the Turks. Once he turned his attention back to Northern Germany, it was too late to dislodge them either militarily or against their deeply engrained beliefs. Meanwhile, Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon (who also happened to be Charles V's niece), but faced bureaucratic delays (of special dispensation from the Pope) due to the wars over control of Italy, first by Francis 1 and later by Charles V; eventually, Henry went his own way, opening England to Protestantism in the next generation. This was context that I didn't know. Reston weaves these developments together as if in a novel. While I am familiar with much of the history already, it was a delicious re-telling of events that served as a review of things I began to study long ago.

Warmly recommended. Books like this make history fun, helping to spark a young mind to further inquiry in more seriously academic sources. It does end a bit abruptly, even arbitrarily, but after most of the action had set forces in motion that we feel to this day. This is a perfect snapshot in time.

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