‘Death to the Turk, the Turk to Death’

Istanbul sits astride two continents, and from this capitol city of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Sultans across the centuries sent massive armies to war against Christendom.

Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, sending shockwaves across Europe. One interesting reaction to that event was the 1456 carnival play — “The Turkish Carnival Game” — by a Nürnberg armorer and gunsmith named Hans Rosenplüt. Much of the play is a stinging rebuke of the Holy Roman Empire. The Sultan himself, Mehmed the Conqueror, visits Germany, telling citizens there of a paradise where no taxes are levied. He also reads out a list of the worst sins committed by Christians. A messenger from Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor, responds:

Your beard will be shorn off with sickles and your face washed with vinegar and seeded with chalk and ashes. Your god isn’t going to be able to plug up that hole (for) your head is going to hop over a sword’s blade. And if I knew your head wouldn’t slice off neatly, I myself would beat you so you’d have to shit yourself.

Given that the Turks and Christians were embroiled in a war that threatened the existence of the Holy Roman Empire, the main theme of the play is unexpected. As Edwin Hermann Zeyde explains, in his 1918 book, The Holy Roman empire in German literature:

If we consider that at the time when this extravaganza was written the very existence of the Empire was imperilled by the Turkish menace, we can better appreciate the acrid irony of the situation here portrayed. There can be no doubt about the impression that it made on contemporaries; it brought home to every reader the hopeless discord and internal rottenness of the imperial government.

On the other hand, “The Dance of Death” may have been a more common reaction to the “Turkish menace.” By the time “Døde-Dands” was printed in Copenhagen in 1762, the Turks had captured many of the formerly Christian territories around the  Mediterranean, occupied Hungary and the Balkans, and repeatedly attacked Austria and Poland.

From “Døde-Dands”, printed in Copenhagen in 1762. It is not related to the life-sized painting from 1463, “Death from Lübeck”, which showed Death in a dance with 24 humans from all walks of life. Various publications and works of art titled “The Dance of Death” were published in Europe after 1500. See The Dance of Death.

Death to the Turk

Barbarian! who steps on the cross of Christ with your feet,
and who are pleased with the impostor Mahomet;
In the dance of death you must now dance with me,
and receive the wages of your wickedness by false witnesses.
The paradise of lust that Mahomet describes,
shall be revealed for you in a moment;
But if you don’t get a company of maidens,
then a flock of devils will certainly meet you there.
My arrow shall soon stand in your infidel heart.
What your inveteracy did not learn in time,
you will receive knowledge of in eternity,
where you shall stand beside your Mahomet.

The Turk to Death

Will you separate me from this life so murderously,
and represent my paradise as Hell?
Then you are the tyrant that the word calls you,
who’s great greed is most insatiable.
I will not be blessed by Christ’s cross and death.
The prophet Mahomet shall give me his heaven.
If his paradise it not full of sensual pleasures,
then no Turk has accused him for the hope.
Something in my soul moves by the arrival of Death;
but that must be terror, that Death brings along.
I won’t care for conscience.
Open up the eternity and just close Life’s door.

When Death lays hand on evil and infidel heart,
the soul surely experiences a part of Hell’s pain.
Although its inveteracy doesn’t admit it;
but between hope and fear goes the way of all flesh.

From Dutch engraver Caspar Luyken (1672-1708), we get a glimpse of the peoples involved in these centuries of conflict. One hundred of Luyken’s engravings were published in Nuremberg in 1703. Quite a few were of Turkish individuals, which is not surprising since, as the 2003 Dover edition points out, the Turks laid siege to Vienna in 1683.