Elizabethan England and the Islamic World

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World
Jerry Brotton
Allen Lane  34pp  £20

The Mediterranean world loomed large in English culture in the 16th century. What is made strikingly clear in Jerry Brotton’s new book, This Orient Isle, is the extent to which the Muslim inhabitants of North Africa and the Middle East played their part in this English enthusiasm for things Mediterranean during the reign of Elizabeth I. Close links between Muslim rulers and Elizabeth’s court, forged by English travellers – diplomats, merchants, captives and spies – to the courts of Marrakech, Istanbul and Isfahan, built the foundations for this enthusiasm. Many left exciting accounts of their experiences and these, now familiar from other studies of early modern English engagement with the Islamic world, form the basis of Brotton’s readable and engaging narrative. We read of Anthony Jenkinson’s audience with the Safavid Shah Tahmasp in Qazvin and of William Harborne’s appointment as Elizabeth’s ambassador at the court of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III. We follow the adventurer Anthony Sherley to Shah Abbas’ new capital at Isfahan and the Warrington-born Thomas Dallam as he played his clockwork musical organ before the Ottoman Mehmed III.

In This Orient Isle, Brotton offers a two-pronged approach, combining diplomatic and cultural history, as he links his narrative of these travel accounts convincingly with the increasing appearance of Muslim-inspired characters in plays of the period. For example, we learn that between 1576 and 1603 at least 60 plays were staged in London with Turks, North Africans and Persians among their characters. As Brotton shows, this may not have inspired much cultural understanding between the English and the Moroccans, Turks and Persians to whom they were introduced through the London stage, but clearly Shakespeare and Marlowe were not alone in drawing on their dramatic potential to highlight aspects of contemporary society.

Brotton suggests it was Protestant England’s relative isolation from its Catholic European neighbours that forced its rulers to seek closer relations with Muslim powers. However, what is absent is proper discussion of the Middle Eastern contexts for the emerging relationships. What did Ottoman sultans and viziers, let alone Safavid shahs, think that England, a seemingly powerless monarchy over a thousand miles away, had to offer them? Only very brief answers are given here, although Brotton provides a clearer picture of Moroccan interest in an English alliance. Although little of the travel and diplomatic history that Brotton discusses is new, at a time when it might seem that Britain’s horizons are narrowing somewhat, This Orient Isle is a timely reminder that England has rarely been free from some form of dependence on maintaining relationships with other peoples and powers around the world.

Harry Munt is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of York

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