Bertrandon de la Broquière offers a Koran to the Duke of Burgundy after he returned from the East, illustration by Jean Le Tavernier, after 1455
For an ambitious young man not afraid of adventures, the 15th century was an era full of opportunities. It was the century of changes when medieval times left their place to the time today known as the early modern era. Bertrandon de La Broquière, the 15th-century Burgundian spy, was a witness to the contours of today’s world. The rising new world that will form during the Renaissance involved many cultural, political, and social changes.
Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Michelangelo were just some of the artists and leading names who shaped the 15th-century high culture. Some economic activities we know today like banking and accounting evolved during late medieval times and the early Renaissance. Medici Bank in Florence and Banco di San Giorgio in Genoa were some of the most famous 15th-century banks. Despite the Hundred Years’ War and Wars of the Roses, the Western World started to emerge and slowly take the place that Ancient cultures used to hold.
Opposite of the cultural bloom in the West, there was a mysterious and unknown world of the East. In the previous centuries, the East was massively affected by the Byzantine Empire, which developed trade relations and mixed people from so many cultures on its territories. But in the years of decline, it was affected by the rising Ottoman Empire whose government introduced new taxes for traders and took a serious place as a political opponent to the West. Taking that situation into consideration, sending a “man of trust” on an observing mission to the East seemed like a good idea. Bertrandon de La Broquière was the best solution.
Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, asked Bertrandon to take the journey. The aim was to collect information for a possible new crusade. Bertrandon de La Broquière was born in the late 14th or early 15th century. His life before that year is unknown. In 1421, he obtained the title of “esquire”, which usually involved the possibility for obtaining knighthood. It is well known that, for certain types of tasks, a special level of trust is needed. Gaining the Duke’s trust, Bertrandon started to shape into the profile the Duke needed. After a series of confidential missions, he was entrusted with the title “premier écuyer tranchant” or the “first esquire”. Burgundian spy, a man of certain skills, experience and great influence on the Duke’s Court, was ready for the mission of his life.
Bertrandon de La Broquière described his adventures on the East in his book called Le Voyage d’Outre-Mer where he gave a detailed description of regions he visited and their customs. Philip the Good requested the book be written in French to manage more easily the information important for the possible new crusade. Bertrandon left Ghent in February 1432. After stopping in Rome and Venice, he left for Jaffa, under the cover of a pilgrim, in May 1432. As soon as he landed in Jaffa, Sultan’s officers demanded the usual tribute from the pilgrims.
“When any pilgrim disembark there, interpreters and other officers of the sultan instantly hasten to ascertain their numbers, to serve them as guides, and to receive, in the name of their master, the customary tribute.”
From Jaffa he moved to Jerusalem and after that to Gaza, trying to prepare, with his companions, for perhaps the greatest challenge of his travel, to cross the desert and visit the 6th century Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. But, illness stopped the spy of his intention and he was forced to go back to Gaza while observing exotic desert animals.
“When all these pilgrimages were accomplished, we undertook another, equally customary, that to St. Catherine’s on Mount Sinai. For this purpose we formed a party of ten pilgrims, sir André de Thoulongeon, sir Michel de Ligne, Guillaume de Ligne, his brother, Sanson de Lalaing, Pierre de Vaudrey, Godefroi de Thoisi, Humbert Buffart, Jean de la Roe, Simonet (his family is left blank) and myself.”
“At the end of the second day’s journey, I was seized with such a burning fever that it was impossible for me to proceed further. My four companions, distressed at this accident, made me mount an ass, and recommended me to one of our Arabs, whom they charged to reconduct me, if possible, to Gaza.”
In Gaza some Arabs helped him to get better and he admitted that they were not as bad as often portrayed.
“This man took a great deal of care of me, which is unusual, in respect to Christians. He faithfully kept me company, and led me in the evening to pass the night in one of their camps, which might consist of fourscore and some tents, pitched in the form of a street. These tents consists of two poles stuck in the ground by the bigger end, at a certain distance from each other, and on them is placed another pole-cross way, and over this last is laid a thick coverlid of woolen, or coarse hair.
On my arrival, four or five Arabs, who were acquainted with my companion, came to meet us. They dismounted me from my ass, and laid me on a mattress which I had with me, and then, treating me according to their method, kneaded and pinched me so much with their hands, that from fatigue and lassitude, I slept and reposed for six hours. During this time no one did me the least harm, nor took any this from me. It would, however, have been very easy for them so to do; and I must have been a tempting prey, for I had with me two hundred ducats, and two camels laden with provision and wine.”
Bertrandon had planned to visit and get to know more places, but the political situation in that area changed these plans, and the Burgundian spy headed to Damascus and Beirut.
Visiting an Arab nocturnal festival in Beirut seemed to be quite an experience, but after that, it was time for a decision. And the decision was to return to Europe by land, not by sea. For a 15th-century spy, this was an adventure full of danger. Therefore, Bertrandon needed also to make compromises. A man called Hoyarbarach, the leader of the caravan, was in Damascus at that time, on his way to Bursa. Bertrandon negotiated with him. He could travel with the caravan but dressed in Turkish clothing. Otherwise, both travelers and Bertrandon would be in danger. The trip was an enlightening experience. The spy befriended mamelukes who taught him many interesting things about Turkish culture, but also the basics of the Turkish language.
“On our arrival, the first day’s journey, at Ballec, I drew out my paper to know how to ask for barley and chopped straw, which I wanted to give my horse. Ten or twelve Turks near me, observing my action, burst into laughter, and, coming nearer to examine my paper, seemed as much surprised at our writing as we are with theirs. They took a liking to me, and made every effort to teach me to speak Turkish: they were never weary of making me often repeat the same thing, and pronounced it so many different ways that I could not fail to retain it; so when we separated, I knew how to call for every thing necessary for myself and horse.”
Weak Byzantine and the Rising Ottoman Empire
After the adventures with mamelukes, Bertrandon landed in Constantinople. During that part of his journey, he observed the political situation and made an interesting observation. While in Constantinople, the spy didn’t form a high opinion of John VIII, the penultimate Byzantine emperor, emphasizing the power of the Ottoman sultan over him.
In late February, Bertrandon, together with Benedict Folco of Forlì, the ambassador of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, was received by the Ottoman sultan Murad II at Adrianople. The reception was quite luxurious, and there Bertrandon noticed the potential of the Ottomans that will prove true later.
“Their manner of fighting varies according to circumstances. When they find a favorable opportunity for it, they divide themselves into different troops, and thus attack many parts of an army at once. This mode is particularly used when they are among woods or mountains, from the great facility they have of uniting together again.
At other times they form ambuscades, and send out scouts well mounted to observe the enemy: if their report be, that he is not on his guard, they instantly form their plan, and take advantage of the circumstance.”
Despite the claim that Westerners had better weapons, Burgundian spy proposes an alliance against the Turks, primarily England, France, and Germany.
“I would, in the first place, select from France men at arms, archers and cross-bows, in as great numbers as possible, and of the sort mentioned above. Secondly, from England, a thousand men at arms and ten thousand archers. Thirdly, from Germany, the greatest number possible of gentlemen, with their cross-bowmen on horse and foot. Collect together from fifteen to twenty thousand archers and cross-bows of these three nations, adding thereto from two to three hundred light troops; and I will ask from God the grace to march with them, and engage they shall advance without difficulty from Belgrade to Constantinople.”
Leaving Adrianople, on his way back to Burgundy, Bertrandon visited a few more places before reporting to Philip the Good at the abbey of Pothières in the Côte d’Or. Philip received a copy of the Koran and life of Mohammed translated into Latin, as also the clothes and horse Bertrandon bought in the East.
Ten years later, in 1443, an experienced spy became captain of the castle of Rupelmonde, in today’s Belgium, on the left bank of the River Escaut. He settled in a strategic fortress. It is not known for sure when he died, but according to one of the manuscripts of his Voyage, it was on May 9th, 1459 and he was buried in the collegiate church of Saint-Pierre. At any rate, the last mention of Burgundian spy dates from 1455.