Alex Massie

The Ottoman Threat

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Rod uses the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto to give Chesterton an airing. Grand stuff. But Mr Dreher also has this to say:

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, the 1571 grand naval battle that saved Europe from Ottoman Turkish conquest. The victory -- one of the greatest ever in naval warfare -- was credited by Pope Pius V to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who'd received countless rosaries in petition for the victory of Christian forces and the protection of Christian Europe from Islamic conquest. Today, then, is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary among Catholic Christians. Europe wouldn't be free of the Turkish threat for good until the Battle of Vienna in 1683.

If you have a glass to lift tonight, raise it in thanksgiving to God, the Virgin and the West's naval commanders, especially Don John of Austria.

Well, up to a point. Yes, Lepanto was an important, even vital, victory for the Holy League (even if the fruits of victory were, typically, squandered). And yes you may say that Lepanto severely curtailed Ottoman activity in the mediterranean and you may also say that this was a dashed fine thing.

But it is also the case that the Ottoman "threat" to western - or Christian - Europe was vastly overstated. One can readily understand why many people presumed otherwise at the time and thought that there was indeed a potential for a Muslim reconquista (so to speak) but, that empathy notwithstanding, this was not really the case.

Why? The age-old realities of manpower and supply lines. The Ottoman army was a seasonal army. It relied upon troops from the Balkans who were only available during the summer months. Each autumn they had to return to their farms to, well, tend their flocks and do what farmers have to do. And in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this meant that, by the time forces had been mustrered and begun the journey towards Vienna, it was too late and in fact simply impossible for them to reach Vienna in time for more than a few weeks' siege before they had to depart for home.

In other words, the Ottoman threat was more psychological than it was real. True, this is a judgement that has the value of hindsight and true too, psychological appearances can - and sometimes maybe even should - have an impact upon how one acts. One can readily understand why Vienna was at risk and why this served as a rallying call to Christendom. But in truth the "risk" was much lower than it seemed at the time.

I do not mean to impute any ill-motive to Rod, but I sometimes wonder if much of the froth about the "Arabification" of Europe these days may be not so much more than a repeat of this past anti-Ottoman sensation. Of course, as always, I may well be wrong.

Equally, I suspect that Rod and I would have to disagree on the extent of the Virgin's contribution to the victory at Lepanto. (Though I concede she could have played a role in boosting morale.)

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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