Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr.

Defenders of the Faith

Defenders of the Faith
Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536
by James Reston Jr.

Hardback: 432 pages
Publisher: The Penguin Press
First Released: 2009

Author Website
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Source: Review copy from publisher

Back Cover Description:
A bestselling historian recounts sixteen years that shook the world— the epic clash between Europe and the Ottoman Turks that ended the Renaissance and brought Islam to the gates of Vienna

James Reston, Jr. examines the ultimate battle in a centuries-long war, which found Europe at its most vulnerable and Islam on the attack. This drama was propelled by two astonishing young sovereigns: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Turkish sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Though they represented two colliding worlds, they were remarkably similar. Each was a poet and cultured cosmopolitan; each was the most powerful man on his continent; each was called “Defender of the Faith”; and each faced strident religious rebellion in his domain. Charles was beset by the “heresy” of Martin Luther and his fervid adherents, even while tensions between him and the pope threatened to boil over, and the upstart French king Francis I harried Charles’s realm by land and sea. Suleyman was hardly more comfortable on his throne. He had earned his crown by avoiding the grim Ottoman tradition of royal fratricide. Shiites in the East were fighting off the Sunni Turks’ cruel repression of their “heresy.” The ferocity and skill of Suleyman’s Janissaries had expanded the Ottoman Empire to its greatest extent ever, but these slave soldiers became rebellious when foreign wars did not engage them.

With Europe newly hobbled and the Turks suffused with restless vigor, the stage was set for a drama that unfolded from Hungary to Rhodes and ultimately to Vienna itself, which both sides thought the Turks could win. If that happened, it was generally agreed that Europe would become Muslim as far west as the Rhine.

During these same years, Europe was roiled by constant internal tumult that saw, among other spectacles, the Diet of Worms, the Sack of Rome, and an actual wrestling match between the English and French monarchs in which Henry VIII’s pride was badly hurt. Would—could—this fractious continent be united to repulse a fearsome enemy?

Defenders of the Faith is a history covering 1520-1536 AD which mainly focused on the politics and wars in Europe (Charles V, Francis I, Henry VIII, the popes, Martin Luther, etc.). Only a fourth of the book focused on Suleyman's battles in Europe, European diplomacy efforts toward him, descriptions of feasts he held, and his internal politics...and very little was said about the Sunni/Shi'i conflict.

The book used quotes from people living at the time and gave nice details about how things looked which helped bring the events alive in my imagination. However, for all it's detail (describing the scene, the weather, numbers of people, maneuvers, etc.), the book gave only a surface assessment of the motives behind the actions. The author judges the actions from hindsight, knowing the results of the decisions, rather than giving a "this is how the situation might have appeared to them" view. He also assumes the worst motives behind the actions. This critical and cynical view of events results in a lot of negative language being used to describe the people and their actions.

There was a mild bias in this book. Whenever the author described cruel actions by the Turks against Christians, neutral language was used. If Christians did the same actions against Turks/Muslims, negative language was used. Also, the Hospitaller knights were called "fanatics," popes rarely had anything positive said about them, and the author used mocking language when describing how Martin Luther feared he might be killed when he had every reason to think he would be. Also, descriptions of people changed throughout the book. For example, a pope was described as sly/scheming when he was being sly/scheming and then described as gullible when his actions appear gullible. I didn't feel I could trust the author's assessment of the situations, but he also didn't give me enough information for me to draw my own conclusions.

The book included several nice black and white maps covering the areas described and black and whites pictures of the personages described in the book.

If you're interested in the Reformation (which made up a large portion of this book), then I'd recommend other, less biased books. History buffs wanting an overview of European politics during this time period might find this book interesting. If you've read this author's previous books and liked them, then I suspect you'll like this book as well.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Chapter One
In May 1520 a royal flotilla left Spain for the British Isles with precious cargo. He was the twenty-year-old king of Spain, Charles V, the grandson on his mother's side, of the "Catholic kings of Spain," Ferdinand and Isabella, the grandson on his father's side of Maximilian I, Holy Roman emperor. By his maternal lineage, he was also the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, the current wife of Henry VIII. Charles was now on his way to see the English king. The voyage would take seven days, ample time for the sober-sided, determine young monarch to ponder the extraordinary events of the past five years that had taken him from a cloister in the Netherlands to the pinnacle of power in Europe and to his new role as secular leader for all Christianity.

By birth, he was not Spanish but Flemish, born of Austrian parents in Ghent in the Jubilee Year of 100. His first crown had been that of the Netherlands, which he had acquired at the age of six upon the death of his father, Philip the Handsome. The Low Countries, especially their contiguous provinces of Burgundy, would always lodge deep in the sentimentalities of the youthful monarch. Then at the age of seventeen, the crown of Spain was conferred upon him as well through the line to his Spanish grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, though the Spanish nobility was none too pleased to have this dour youth of Austrian and Dutch background as their monarch.

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