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review 2018-04-07 06:30
A limited portrait of a monarch and his age
Suleiman the Magnificent - André Clot,Matthew J. Reisz

By nearly every measure, the sixteenth century bore witness to a remarkable number of extraordinary monarchs.  Rulers such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I of England, Francis I of France, the Habsburg emperors Charles V and Philip II, Ivan IV of Russia, ‘Abbas I of Persia, and the Mughal emperor Akbar reshaped their realms through their ambitious policies and forceful rule.  Yet even in this august group the name of Suleiman stands out.  As sultan of the Ottomans, Suleiman led the empire during what is generally regarded as the pinnacle of its glory and power.  Under his rule the empire flourished and extended its control over three continents.  Yet in spite of this Suleiman has received far less attention form biographers than most of his contemporaries, present more often as an opponent or an ally in many accounts than as a figure worth of attention in his own right.

 

Given this, Andre Clot’s biography of the sultan is to be welcomed.  A longtime journalist, Clot divides his book into two parts.  The first is a straightforward narrative of Suleiman’s life that addresses on the political and military aspects of his reign.  This section focuses heavily on Suleiman’s interactions with Christian Europe, even to the point of having an entire chapter addressing the sultan’s relations with Francis I.  The second part of the book is an examination of the Ottoman empire during Suleiman’s reign, one that describes the economy, urban life, and culture that existed during his reign.  Though the two sections compliment each other, each part stands alone to the point of being able to be read separate from the other, a lack of integration that ultimately weakens the effort to present a rounded overall picture of Suleiman and his times.

 

In the end, the focus and structure of the book prevent it from achieving Clot’s stated goal of providing a fuller understanding of Suleiman and his empire.  The Eurocentrism of Clot’s narrative slights the considerable campaigns Suleiman conducted on his eastern borders against the Safavids, to say nothing of his considerable contributions to the empire’s internal development in such areas as the law.  Mixing the two sections might have counterbalanced this, but their separation inhibits an easy understanding of his role and impact within the broader empire.  These problems limit the usefulness of Clot’s book, which is recommended for anyone seeking to learn about the sultan only because of the disappointing lack of anything better.

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review 2018-04-07 01:20
A detailed account hobbled by a dense text and poor maps
The Williamite Wars in Ireland, 1688-1691 - John Childs

The overthrow of King James II during the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 is one of the key events of not just English history but Irish history as well.  As king, James had pursued a policy of “Catholicization” in Ireland, allowing Catholics to serve in the army and the government, which fueled anxieties among the Protestant population.  When news reached them of the dramatic events in England, the Protestants began defying the Catholic authorities, who responded to what soon became an uprising against Catholic rule.  The result was three of the bloodiest and most destructive years in Irish history, as the island served as the battlefield on which broader struggles were waged.  This war is the subject of John Childs’s book, which details the campaigns from the initial unrest to the conclusion of the conflict.

 

Childs traces the success of the rebellion to the two-week period in 1688 when Derry was without a garrison, arguing that had the town been continuously occupied and the Protestants there suppressed the rebellion could not have prospered.  Yet even with Derry the Protestants faced a difficult first year, as the more numerous Catholic forces gradually asserted control throughout the island.  By the summer, only Derry and Enniskillen remained as Protestant holdouts, yet the arrival of forces under the command of the Duke of Schomberg managed to secure most of Ulster before the end of the campaigning season.  The new year saw an increased commitment of forces against the Catholics, one led by King William III himself.  With William’s army pressing down from the north, the two sides clashed at the Battle of the Boyne, which broke James’s fragile resolve.  His flight left his supporters with no other option than an attrition campaign that could buy them time in the hope that William might suffer defeats elsewhere that would salvage the situation for them.

 

Childs recounts the conflict in considerable detail, carefully tracing the numerous skirmishes that characterized the “war of posts and ambuscades”.  This results in a dense text, one that makes it challenging to follow the sequence of events.  Making matters worse are the inadequate maps provided, which provide only basic geographic details, rendering them less than helpful in following the various battles and campaigns.  Better maps and subheadings within the chapters would have gone far into providing a more accessible history of the war than the one Childs has written, in which the value of his examination of the conflict is offset by its inaccessibility.

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review 2018-04-02 19:47
The institutions of the Ottoman state
The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power - Colin Imber

For the past several decades, readers seeking an introduction to the Ottoman empire have turned to Halil Inalcik’s seminal book The Ottoman Empire; The Classical Age.  Written by the dean of Ottoman history, it provided an overview of its history and an examination of its components that has stood the test of time.  Over the three and a half decades since its publication, however, a wealth of new scholarship has emerged that has refined and developed our knowledge.  The fruits of this can be seen in Colin Imber’s study, one that treads much of the same ground as Inalcik but does so with the benefit of an additional generation of study.

 

The layout of Imber’s book is similar to that of Inalcik’s (which Imber helped translate); an initial section chronicling the political and military history of the period followed by chapters providing an analytical overview of various aspects of the empire.  But whereas Inalcik’s book provided a broad‑ranging survey that included its cultural and religious elements, Imber focuses more narrowly on the institutions of state: the palace, the bureaucracy, and the military.  This allows him to provide a more detailed examination of the military state, one that describes its development and shows how it both conquered and governed the lands of three continents.

 

Clearly written and well grounded in the literature of the field, Imber’s book is a detailed and up-to-date account of the factors underpinning Ottoman power in the first centuries of its existence.  Anyone seeking an introduction to the Ottoman empire would do well to start with it.  With its concentration on imperial institutions and its closer examination of such things as the Ottoman navy (which has received far more scholarly attention in recent decades than it had when Inalcik wrote his book), it complements rather than replaces Inalcik’s longstanding survey, providing readers with a good foundation for exploring in more detail the last and greatest of the Muslim empires.

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review 2018-03-29 01:35
A useful introduction to an important monarch
Charles V: Elected Emperor and Hereditary Ruler (Men in Office) - Manuel Fernández Álvarez

Charles V stands as one of the greatest monarchs in history. As king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, he ruled over an empire that stretched over four continents to total over 1.5 million square miles. His reign included innumerable wars, dynastic struggles, and the growing challenges posted by the Protestant Reformation to the religious stability of Europe. Yet for all of Charles's prominence there are few biographies available in English about him, leaving readers with few options when it comes to studying the life of this fascinating figure.

 

This problem only enhances the value of Manuel Fernández Álvarez’s short study, which provides a concise description of Charles’s life and reign for interested readers. Álvarez presents Charles as a devout ruler who struggled to manage such a diverse and far-flung empire. Much of his reign was spent in transit, having to deal with various expensive crises at one end of his European realm or another. Succeeding to the Spanish throne after the death of his grandfather, Ferdinand, he had to address the discontent of many Castilians, which broke out into open rebellion. Winning election to the Holy Roman Emperorship in 1519 only added to his burdens, particularly with the challenge posed by the French king Francis I. Francis emerges in Álvarez’s narrative as Charles’ bete noire, particularly after Francis broke his oath to the Holy Roman Emperor after his release from Charles’s custody in 1526, and the two often struggled for dominance in Europe. Though Charles enjoyed further successes, final victory was perhaps unattainable, and a series of setbacks led Charles to retire from the throne three years before his early death in 1558.

 

To summarize such a reign is no easy feat, and it is a measure of Álvarez’s ability that he does so as efficiently as he does. Yet the author’s narrative suffers from a lack of analysis. There is little sense of his subject’s inner life, and his explanation of Charles’s motivations, strategies, or broader goals is similarly deficient. Though such an absence is somewhat understandable in a book as short as this one, it is lamentable given Álvarez’s expertise on his subject and the dearth of English-language biographies of this fascinating figure. As a result, English-language readers desiring to learn about the emperor might find themselves having to settle for this informative yet ultimately limited study, which serves as a good introduction but for now has to fill a larger gap than it should.

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review 2018-03-28 17:47
Analyzes the image and perception of a queen
The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (New Cultural Studies) - Carole Levin

In an age when the English government lacked a professional bureaucracy or a standing army, the authority of a monarch rested on their legitimacy.  As a woman occupying a position traditionally held by men, Elizabeth I faced a special set of challenges in this regard.  Trapped between the contrasting expectations of sexuality and politics, she sought to represent herself in a way that allowed her to maintain her legitimacy – and thus her power – in a tumultuous age.  In this book, Carol Levin analyzes Elizabeth’s efforts to project this image, as well as how she was perceived by her contemporaries as both a woman and in her role as a monarch.

 

In a series of overlapping essays, Levin focuses on her court’s manipulation of images of royalty and the public’s reaction to them.  The essays are roughly chronological, as the early ones examine the problems of her succession and the early response to her rule, while the later ones consider the challenges she faced as her reign came to an end.  Throughout the chapters, Levin charts the ways in which Elizabeth balanced the contrasting expectations she faced, in the end successfully assuming the masculine roles her position required while still exhibiting the femininity her people expected of her.

 

Levin’s book is an interesting, if fragmented examination of Elizabeth’s images and how they were received.  Her study of these often overlooked elements of Elizabeth’s reign helps the reader understand  how Elizabeth succeeded as a woman in one of the most masculine of jobs. While few of the arguments she makes are original, she presents her case effectively with a convincing analysis backed by considerable research.  For anyone seeking to learn how Elizabeth balanced the demands of her position with those of her gender, this is a good book to read.

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