Dimmock, a lecturer in English at the University of Sussex, examines English conceptions and portrayals of Islam and the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, a period he describes as witnessing a "clash of civilizations."
Beginning with the humanist debate between Thomas More and William Tyndale, the author identifies a stereotypical Dantean or medieval conception of the Ottomans as cruel barbarians, of "Mahomet" as a superstitious, epileptic con-man, and of Islam as the heretical product of "blyndness, erroure and foolysh speculation." After Henry VIII's break with the Roman Catholic church, contact between the cultures increased, and conceptions of Islam and the Ottoman Empire became more complicated. Things got really complex when English rulers sought to align themselves with the Ottomans against the Spanish while still trying to maintain a plausible claim to the title "defender of the faith."
Dimmock portrays these new conceptions as more informed and enlightened, the high point coming with Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine Part II (1590). By analyzing an impressive list of texts including chronicles, travelers' accounts, merchants' guides, and personal correspondence, he demonstrates how the Ottoman Empire (and Muslims generally) were used as a wedge, counterweight, and stick and carrot between and by Catholics and Protestants, each side representing Islam to suit its purposes—be it the Protestant trope of depicting a tripartite antichrist consisting of devil, pope, and "Turke," or the Protestant claim of a link between Lutheranism and Islam in the perceived common rejection of idol worship, or the Catholic perception of the "Turke" as scourge of God. With the ascension in 1603 of James I, "widely known for his antipathy toward the Ottoman Empire," English rhetorical incarnations of the Turk reverted back to the stereotypical medieval conception.
Aside from its near obsession with theories of "otherness construction" and a somewhat evasive conclusion, New Turkes is mostly free of unnecessary literary criticism jargon, and Dimmock seems to reject the facile West vs. East, powerful vs. weak, colonizer vs. colonized arguments so popular with those under the spell of Edward Said. Yet while Dimmock maintains the historian's air of disinterested objectivity, there is a reluctance to judge Ottoman behavior but not English portrayals of that behavior, resulting in some odd juxtapositions of English "demonization" and the realities of Ottoman aggression.
For instance, he claims that the simplistic, medieval concept of the "Turke" was a stereotype "constructed from an amalgam of fabrication [and] misunderstanding," then immediately follows this with the observation that following the siege of Vienna in 1529, "Ottoman incursions deep into Europe became a regular occurrence."
Dimmock quotes numerous texts describing Ottoman conquests of Constantinople in 1453, Rhodes in 1522, Vienna in 1529, and Hungary in 1566, replete with grisly details of Ottoman warriors "cutting of … noses, eares, handes, armes and priuy members" and slaying "Infants and yong Babes lying in their cradles smyling vpon them … and stick[ing] them on long poles so gore them to death without pitye or mercy … in the sight of the Infantes Parentes." He quotes narratives of Christians living under Ottoman rule "miserably oppressed with the heauye youke of their vnmeasurable taxes, tributes, and continuall bondage." Yet these texts are treated as examples of demonization with no attempt to confirm or refute their veracity. To do so would call for judgments that might not conform to the relativism now hegemonic in academia and in postcolonial criticism especially.
The book closes, however, with a surprising (and welcome) observation. In the inevitable parallel between the sixteenth century and the current one, Dimmock announces that his book has demonstrated that "Reformation profoundly shifts the parameters of negotiations between religions." Coupled with the last sentence's declaration that "the binaries unquestioningly applied to this crucial period in history must continue to be scrutinized," his conclusion suggests that Islam, like pre-Lutheran Christianity, will benefit from reformation.