Book Review of Allies with the Infidel: The Ottoman and French Alliance in the Sixteenth Century

Christine Isom-Verhaaren. Allies with the Infidel: The Ottoman and French Alliance in the Sixteenth Century. London, England: I.B. Tauris, 2011. ISBN 978-1-84885-728-5. Tables. Maps.  Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiii, 274. $95.00.

In this study, Dr Christine Isom-Verhaaren, an Instructor in Middle East history at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, examines the alliance between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of France in the sixteenth century.  The Franco-Ottoman alliance, in which a Christian king allied with a Mulim sultan, against another Christian monarch “has been regarded as a sensational aberration from the norms of Renaissance Diplomacy” (p.4).  The author says that this is not an accurate portrayal of of actual events.  She stresses that historians have traditionally used the historiographical viewpoint of nineteenth century historians, and those historians ignored contemporary French and Ottoman sources in favor of Habsburg propaganda.  To rectify this situation Isom-Verhaaren relies on Ottoman and French primary sources to discuss the reality of the Franco-Ottoman alliance in the sixteenth century.

The Franco-Ottoman alliance began to take shape in the late fifteenth century.  The Ottoman Empire, as Isom-Verhaaren professes, was an integral part of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European Mediterranean world.  France was engaged in a series of conflicts known as the Italian Wars (1494-1559).  After his defeat at Pavia (1525), Francis I of France’s fear of the Emperor Charles V, who ruled over the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and controlled vast territory in Italy, led him to seek an alliance with the Ottoman Empire (p.34).  The Ottomans, one of the Great Powers of the era, had captured Belgrade (1521), conquered the island of Rhodes (1522), defeated Louis II of Hungary at the battle of Mohács (1526), besieged Vienna (1529), and controlled most of the eastern and central Mediterranean.  The Ottomans faced Charles V in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.  The author downplays the role of religion, and shows that the Ottomans and French viewed each other from political, diplomatic, and military standpoints that led to them pursuing joint military action against their mutual enemies.  In this case, Francis I and Süleyman the Magnificent formed a formal alliance against the powerful Charles V.  As the author points out, a Christian alliance with the Ottomans was nothing new:  “The pope, Naples, Venice, and Milan had all previously requested Ottoman aid against their Christian enemies” (p.28).  The Ottomans were seen as an integral part of the balance of power among the European powers.  France cooperated with Ottoman naval operations in the 1530s, kept a permanent diplomatic representative at Istanbul, and agreed to a commercial treaty (1536).  Isom-Verhaaren describes Franco-Ottoman joint naval and military operations during the siege of Nice (1543) and the Ottoman fleet spending the winter in Toulon (1543-1544) in the western Mediterranean.  She points out that Francis I, despite promises, provided limited support to Ottoman forces and was reluctant to place significant forces in the south while Imperial and English forces threatened northeastern France in 1544.  Nonetheless, Francis I kept the alliance with the Ottomans as the best way to confront Charles V on several fronts.  Henry II, Francis I’s son and successor, continued to keep close relations with the Ottoman Empire.  The author points out that the Ottoman fleet, with French assistance, captured the island of Corsica in 1552.  Henry II would continue to use the Ottoman alliance to gain diplomatic and military advantages for the rest of the Italian Wars.

Isom-Verhaaren provides an important revision in the diplomatic and military history of the sixteenth century.  The author describes aspects of the Franco-Ottoman alliance in detail and points out the alliance’s importance for French and Ottoman foreign relations.  She shows that the Ottomans were accepted as diplomatic partners by the French and other parties.  This is a valuable study that should be read by scholars of the sixteenth century.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota


About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Europe in the 16th Century (1494-1598), French Foreign Policy, French Military History, Ottoman Foreign Policy, Ottoman Wars, Renaissance Europe and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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