Two Families, Many Wars

Agents of Empireby Noel Malcolm

Oxford University Press. 640p $34.95

This deeply researched and wide-ranging study advances our knowledge of early modern history in diverse and yet complementary ways. On the one hand, Noel Malcolm makes some important contributions with regard to several recent scholarly trends, including studies of borderlands and frontiers between diverse cultures, religions and empires. These encounters typically included both collaboration and confrontation, whether on the individual or collective level, in these often fluid frontier zones, including much of the early modern Mediterranean world. On the other hand, Malcolm makes some significant new inroads in European and Mediterranean studies by focusing his lens, with increasing precision, on Eastern Europe, the Balkans and “Venetian Albania.” This region, between East and West, Islam and Christianity and the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, witnessed shifting religious, political and economic terrains in the dynamic but troubled 16th century.


This scholarly venture began with Malcolm’s discovery of a contemporary treatise by Antonio Bruni, a prominent member of a well-connected Albanian Catholic family. Inspired by that initial find, followed by extensive research in myriad archives and libraries, Malcolm has produced a detailed study of the eastern Mediterranean world, built around a collective biography of the interrelated Bruni and Bruti families. Several of these individuals had particularly eventful and influential lives. Giovanni Bruni became the archbishop of Bar, a city near the Albanian coast that was part of the Venetian commercial and maritime empire. Archbishop Bruni was a friend of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo and attended the Council of Trent. Yet, as a chilling example of how far even the mighty could fall, he was captured in a war between the Catholic Holy League and the Ottomans, made a galley slave and killed in the epic naval battle of Lepanto in 1571 (probably by Christian soldiers in a tragic case of mistaken identity). Giovanni’s brother, Gasparo, joined the Knights of Malta, a hybrid religious order whose members were also crusaders. Quite ironically, Gasparo Bruni went on to serve as captain of the papal flagship at Lepanto—probably close to where his brother met his tragic end.

Part of the attraction of Agents of Empire is that the author interweaves the lives of the extended Bruni family with the larger narrative of the sometimes clashing, sometimes cooperating greater and lesser 16th-century Mediterranean powers. To understand how complex a mix this could be, it is essential that one not draw a simplistic black and white divide between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Each side had its own divisions as well as connections to the other side, including some rather surprising ones. Within Christendom, the long-standing division between the Orthodox and Catholics was exacerbated by the Reformation and the resultant split in the West between Catholics and Protestants. Cutting across those religious fault lines were political ones, in particular between the Habsburgs (the Spanish and Austrian Habsburg Empires) and those who feared Habsburg preponderance, including France, Venice, England and even, at times, the Papal States. In the Islamic world, the Ottoman Empire was locked in a long-term struggle with Persia, resulting in intermittent, though often long and destructive, wars between these Muslim adversaries.

Malcolm does a good job demonstrating that while the intensive Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean has received a great deal of (deserved) attention, the Ottoman wars with Persia have not received comparable coverage, at least in the West. While this neglect is palpably true, and while the author does discuss some of the Habsburgs’ struggles elsewhere, he arguably underestimates that side of a complex equation. One or both branches of the Habsburg family, for example, fought major wars with France (until 1559), engaged in internecine struggles with Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire and elsewhere and had to expend considerable resources defending and governing a vast overseas empire, especially in the Americas.

These conflicts within both the Christian and Islamic worlds help to explain why, as Malcolm points out, there were alliances that not only transcended but seemed to betray religious loyalties. France, for example, justified its Ottoman alliance as a necessary reaction to the perceived threat of Habsburg encirclement. The Venetians and the Ottomans, while they sometimes fought each other, also continued to trade back and forth out of both economic necessity and political calculation. The West even made overtures to the Persians so as to tie down Ottoman resources in the East.

In addition to the big picture of power politics and religious struggles, Malcolm also incorporates social history, including the fate of captives, many thousands of them over time, who were swept up in the land and sea battles that raged across much of the Mediterranean world. Some captives, particularly the more prominent and wealthy, were highly valued, in part for the information they might provide but typically even more for the ransom that others were willing to pay for their safe return. Many captives, however, were enslaved and consigned to forced labor, often as galley slaves. Rowers were a vital component of premodern fleets. Some of the rowers were free men (either paid or conscripts), while many others were either convicts or slaves. Intriguingly, Malcolm draws a connection between slave-freeing or ransoming and possible espionage and sabotage. In general, practices relating to the treatment of captives and slaves, as well as ransoming, were similar across the Christian/Muslim divide.

The Jesuits merit mention in the subtitle of the book because they make intermittent but significant appearances, especially in the latter half of the narrative. Their groundbreaking role in education is highlighted, and they numbered among their students in Rome none other than Antonio Bruni. The Society also sponsored a number of missions in Central and Eastern Europe, including among the Orthodox, leading to the establishment of various so-called uniate churches, which kept their own rites but acknowledged papal primacy. We also see Jesuits serving as military chaplains and engaging in other ministries that came to the fore in the context of the Tridentine church. As the author states: “The Counter-Reformation, taken in its broadest sense, was possibly the most important development in this period of European history. Thanks to the patient work of the Jesuits and others, the culture and religious life of Catholic Europe were gradually but profoundly transformed.” Even more broadly, Malcolm gives us a convincing account of the numerous transformations that continued to reshape the complex 16th-century Mediterranean world.

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