Pirates, Pirates Everywhere but Not Enough of Them in This Book

Review of Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants, by Molly Greene (Princeton University Press 2010)

Pirates seem to have suddenly become popular in early modern history. Recently,  titles such as The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard, David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag and Ed Kritzler's Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean have all appeared. This undoubtedly has a lot to do with the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Cover of Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Early Modern Mediterranean by Molly Greene
Cover of Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Early Modern Mediterranean by Molly Greene.

I would like to think that this popularity, at least in part, is also owed to the fact that pirates, in their relationship to the dominant political establishments, are the perfect example of the peripheral personality facing the center. This is critical to recent early modern historiography as we attempt, through the use of historical counter narratives, to move the spotlight from the center to the periphery, from kings and popes to merchants and midwives, from inquisitors to heretical millers.

Early modern pirates were not part of any of the growing absolute monarchies or centralized States. We read of them from the perspective of legal texts and sensationalist accounts written, for the most part, by others, which cast them as criminals, sometimes romantic ones, but outside the established legal system. That being said, pirates often worked for established States, informally and formally, as privateers. So we can never truly speak of piracy as something disconnected from early modern politics. At a deeper emotional level, we can even say that the pirate is an ideal representational hero for the academic deconstructing the dominant society around them, a society to which they possess a mutually begrudging relationship.

In Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Mediterranean, Molly Greene of Princeton University claims to offer us a look at a little explored side in the larger narrative of early modern piracy. Instead of the more popular setting of the Caribbean, Greene turns to the Mediterranean; instead of the Muslim Barbary pirates of North Africa famous to students of American history from the Barbary war in the early nineteenth century, Greene turns to the Knights of St. John on Malta and their war with the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century. This offers a number of intriguing possibilities. This is a case of Christians engaged in waging "holy war" and practicing what, to modern sensibilities, amounted to terrorism against Muslims. To further the ironic modern parallels, we even have the Islamic Ottoman Imperial government complaining to various Christian governments about their tacit endorsement of such behavior.

The Knights of St. John are one of the great anachronisms of history, a crusading order that continued to exist as a functional military force on Malta until Napoleon Bonaparte's arrival in 1798. Considering this, the Knights of St. John and their crusading piracy are a useful representation of one of the major contradictions of sixteenth century European politics. During the sixteenth century, the medieval crusading ideal was still alive and well as policy course to be literally followed. The papacy preached a literal crusade to take back Constantinople and the Holy Land. Kings such as Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and Sebastian of Portugal actually led Crusader-style campaigns to North Africa.

That being said this was also a century which saw the emergence of a nation-state politic as any sense of a united Christendom was forever shattered by the Reformation. In such flux, for example, Francis I of France could sign an alliance with the Ottoman sultan against Charles V, and the sultan, in turn, could be perplexed that French Knights of Saint John could fight against him contrary to the wishes of their "master" the king of France.  The further irony with this pirating Crusade waged by the Knights of Saint John against the Ottoman Empire was that the chief victims were not Muslims but Greek Orthodox Christians. This in of itself was not a complete contradiction with the Crusading spirit as these Greek Orthodox Christians were seen as heretics who had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church.

With all of this in mind, the book certainly held much promise and for the first part of the book this promise is fulfilled. The problem is that fairly early on the book veers from its stated purpose and, instead of being about the Knights of Saint John and their Crusading piracy, and becomes a book about Greek merchants and their interactions with the Order, particularly as they attempted to recoup losses due to piracy by claiming to be Christians. Greene offers a string of such narratives based on a variety of court documents from around the Mediterranean, following merchants on their often long and circuitous paths seeking compensation. Her purpose in doing this is to further the narrative of the Knights of Saint John Pirates as standing on the periphery of European society, but still intimately related to it. They were a Mediterranean power bound by the dictates of European politics and the ebb and tide of the European-Ottoman conflict. She does not accomplish this through the study of the Knights of Saint John, but rather by turning to another periphery, Greek-Orthodox merchants, a worthy but not nearly as fascinating subject of study.        

What very well may be the book's greatest value is how it sheds light on the Counter-Reformation and its mission to Greek-Orthodox Christians. Ironically, the very Counter-Reformation Church that was committed to waging war against Protestantism proved quite willing to take a tolerant attitude toward Greek-Orthodox Christians. Part of the reason for this was that the absence of a state church, since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, placed a level of ambiguity on all Greek-Orthodox Christians. No longer were they necessarily to be considered members of a competing heretical Church, but as Christians living under the rule of heathens to be brought gently back into the fold. Such a policy was surely strengthened by the very real possibility that any Greek-Orthodox merchant, seeing his fellow Christians turn a blind eye to his plight, might conceivably convert to Islam. (A threat that some openly made.) Furthermore, largely through the Jesuits, the Catholic Church in the later part of the sixteenth century was pursuing a policy of underground missionary activity in the East to bring countries into the Roman fold from the bottom up. This policy saw particular success in Ukraine. As long as the Catholic Church saw Greek-Orthodox merchants as, at the very least, potential returning Catholics, they stood in good chance of being compensated.   

In conclusion if you are someone interested in Greek merchants and their role in the Mediterranean trade in the sixteenth century, Catholic Pirates is certainly a book for you. If you are interested in the Knights of Saint John and their conflict with the Ottoman Empire I would recommend Roger Crowley's Empires of the Sea.