Prophecies and (Hi)Stories: Telling the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453

From a Euro-Mediterranean perspective, the conquest of Constantinople led by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 not only marked the end of the Byzantine empire that had lasted more than a millennium, but also the end of the European Middle Ages. Rightly considered a ‘moment of great historical significance’1 by both contemporaries and modern researchers, the conquest of Constantinople ‘had repercussions that went far beyond its walls’2 not only politically and economically, but also culturally and socially.

Moreover, through surviving witnesses, word of the city’s fall spread like wildfire through the Euro-Mediterranean world. A passage from a letter written by Enea Silvio Piccolomini speaks volumes:

My hand trembles as I write this, my mind shudders and neither indignation lets me write nor does pain allow me to speak. O wretched Christendom! . . . If only I were gifted enough to lament this catastrophe with dignified words!3

Though he claims to be unable to speak properly about the recent events, Piccolomini nonetheless goes on to give vent to his thoughts. Yet this is more than a mere rhetorical flourish to display the author’s skill. In talking about despair, utter confusion, and both bodily and mental pain, Piccolomini describes more broadly the pain of loss and claims to be unable to speak, or at least uncertain about doing so. His descriptions thus render complex matters in terms of emotions, pain, abilities, temporalities, and trauma in premodern times.

Examining an event which was already considered momentous in contemporary discourse is an intricate undertaking. Even at the time, presenting recent (hi)stories to a broader audience and, therefore, producing memory in spite of its emotive content proved problematic—especially for the Byzantines. Their confrontations with extreme forms of violence made it particularly difficult for them to comprehend and reproduce what had actually happened:

What shall I say and how shall I say it? My tongue is stuck fast in my larynx. I am unable to draw breath for my mouth is sealed.4

But how can people talk about recent developments that can indeed be considered thoroughly traumatic? How did Byzantine historiographers deal with forgetting and suppressing, remembering and processing, with regard to the process of writing history?

In order to contribute to further research on the history of emotions, trauma, and pain in premodern societies, my Ph.D. project examines the narrative processing, interpretation, and attribution of meaning to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, looking primarily at late Byzantine historiography. Telling the Ottoman conquest was inextricably linked to end-time scenarios that recurred in prophetic texts:5 The conquest of Constantinople was seen as indicating the inevitably approaching end of the world. Thus, it is hardly surprising that historiographical material was intertwined with prophetic texts that, in turn, demonstrably influenced political decision-making. As ‘a compilation of texts culled from various sources’,6 the Oracles of Leo the Wise7 (OL) are of particular interest to me. The OL comprise fifteen very different prophetic texts, some of which are dated to events that took place after 815, some of which are dated to around 1204, and some of which were written at entirely unknown points in time. These texts were updated after the conquest of Constantinople to centre them around the Ottoman sultans rather than the Byzantine emperors, and were widely disseminated in the Euro-Mediterranean world. This post-conquest alteration can, for instance, be observed very well in the illustrated manuscript Barocci 170 at the Bodleian Library.8

The Oracles of Leo the Wise were updated after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, centring them around the Ottoman sultans. Detail from Bodleian Library MS. Barocci 170, fol. 18v, available online, accessed 30 June 2021. Photo © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, licensed under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 license.

That contemporary historiographers of the conquest of Constantinople drew on prophetic texts such as the OL is, however, not as self-evident as one might think, as the dissemination and possession of these prophecies had been forbidden by law since late antiquity.9 In fact, the descriptions in Late Byzantine historiographies do not correspond literally with the OL. But they do have clear thematic parallels in that they possess strikingly similar settings and refer to various ranks of the same distorted, yet somehow still socially conceived order. Furthermore, these texts hold out the prospect of a possible turn for the better—albeit in a vague way. This fits particularly well with the overarching approach taken in contemporary historiographical sources, which refute the supposedly approaching end of the world in a pragmatic reworking of existing concepts by declaring the Ottomans to be interim rulers. Including prophetic texts thus could have offered late Byzantine historiographers a suitable means to make the content more credible to their audience.

Scholars have not yet examined more precisely what exactly was so confusing, disorienting, and incisive about the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople that made it such a profound event—one whose effect is still felt to this day. Was it a sense of personal catastrophe, or did it reflect the failure of biblical assumptions or a general experience of crisis? The importance of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 as a ‘cataclysmic event that reverberated throughout Renaissance Europe’10 is not only shown by the abundance and variety of surviving source material; it is also evident in the wide distribution of sources such as the OL in libraries and archives throughout Europe. Thus, the prophetic and historiographical traditions of the Ottoman conquest of the city formed an important part of the generation of knowledge about the Ottoman Empire and its perception in the early modern period. Furthermore, these sources are complemented by other documents ranging from threnoi, letters, and speeches to archaeological evidence.11 The dissemination of prophetic and historiographical texts on the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 throughout Europe makes research on this topic an interesting undertaking, but also a complex and laborious one. For this reason, I am grateful that the scholarship I was granted by the German Historical Institute London not only enabled me to significantly advance my research by consulting the manuscript collections in the British Library and the Bodleian Library, but also allowed me to present my project at the GHIL’s research colloquium during my stay.

The featured image shows a detail from Bodleian Library MS. Barocci 170, fol. 23v, available online, accessed 30 June 2021. Photo © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, licensed under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 license.

  1. The Siege of Constantinople 1453: Seven Contemporary Accounts, ed. by John Melville-Jones (Amsterdam, 1972), vii. []
  2. Michael Angold, ‘Turning Points in History: The Fall of Constantinople’, Byzantinoslavica, 71 (2013), 11–30, at 12. []
  3. Letter written by Enea Silvio Piccolomini to Pope Nicholas V, dated 12 July 1453, in Opera omnia, Epist. 162, Basel 1551 (Frankfurt am Main, 1967), 712–16, at 715: Sed quid illud horribile novum modo allatum de Constantinopoli? Tremit manus, dum hec scribo, horret animus neque tacere indignatio sinit neque dolor loqui permittet. Heu miseram Christianitatem! […] Utinam tantum nobis superaret ingenii, ut hanc calamitatem dignis vocibus deplorare possemus. The translation is my own. []
  4. Doukas xxxix 21: τί εἴπω ἢ τί λαλήσω; ἐκολλήθη ἡ γλῶσσα μου τῷ λάρυγγί μου· οὐ δύναμαι ἑλκύσαι πνεῦμα· τοῦ στόματός μου φραγέντος. The Greek text is taken from Doukas, Chronographia: Byzantiner und Osmanen im Kampf um die Macht und das Überleben (1341–1462), ed. by Diether Roderich Reinsch (Berlin, 2020), 510. The translation is taken from Doukas, Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks. An annotated Translation of ‘Historia Turco-Byzantina’, ed. by Harry J. Magoulias (Detroit, 1975), 227. []
  5. The fall of the Byzantine Empire drew its imaginative-historical explosiveness partly from its association with the downfall of the last of the four world empires the Old Testament prophet Daniel’s dream interpretations in Dan. 2 and 7. See also Rike Szill, ‘Herrschaftszeiten! Endlichkeitsdiskurse im Kontext der Einnahme Konstantinopels 1453’, in Andreas Bihrer, Timo Felber, and Julia Weitbrecht (eds.), Die Zeit der letzten Dinge. Deutungsmuster und Erzählformen des Umgangs mit Vergänglichkeit in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit (Göttingen, 2020), 267–86. []
  6. Walter Brokkaar (ed.), The Oracles of the Most Wise Emperor Leo and the Tale of the True Emperor (Amsterdam, 2002), 25. []
  7. See also Michael Grünbart, “Einleitung”, in id. (ed.), Unterstützung beim herrscherlichem Entscheiden. Experten und ihr Wissen in transkultureller und komparativer Perspektive (Göttingen, 2021), 7–21, at 15, with further literature. []
  8. Bodleian Library MS. Barocci 170, available online, accessed 28 Apr. 2021. See also Jeannine Vereecken and Lydie Hadermann-Misguich (eds.), Les ‘Oracles de Léon de Sage’ illustrés par Georges Klontzas: La version Barozzi dans le Codex Bute (Venice, 2000). []
  9. Wolfram Brandes, ‘Kaiserprophetien und Hochverrat: Apokalyptische Schriften und Kaiservaticinien als Medium antikaiserlicher Progaganda’, in id. and Felicitas Schmieder (eds.), Endzeiten: Eschatologie in den monotheistischen Weltreligionen (Berlin, 2008), 157–200, at 197. []
  10. Aslıhan Akışık, Self and Other in the Renaissance: Laonikos Chalkokondyles and Late Byzantine Intellectuals (Cambridge, 2013), 3. []
  11. Vincent Déroche and Nicolas Vatin (eds.), Constantinople 1453: des Byzantins aux Ottomans. Textes et documents (Toulouse, 2016). []

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Rike Szill

She is a research assistant at the Chair for the History of the Early and High Middle Ages and Auxiliary Sciences at Kiel University. Her Ph.D. examines the narrative processing, interpreting, and attribution of meaning to the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 in late Byzantine historiography. For this, she was granted two three-month scholarships at the German Historical Institutes in London and Paris between October 2020 and March 2021. Her further research interests focus on the history of historiography, the cultural transfer between Byzantium and the Latin West, otherworld journeys, medieval cartography, and trauma studies.

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