Anglo-Turkish Society

Lecture by Dr Gemma Masson: ‘The Urban Janissary in Eighteenth Century Istanbul’, 12 March 2020 - flyer:

From left: David Shankland, Craig Encer, Jessie Harrington, Dr Gemma Masson, -, John Mole.

1- This topic of ‘The Urban Janissary in Eighteenth Century Istanbul’ is your recent phd thesis and you chose to limit the time-line to the latter period of this military corps existence before their brutal suppression by the Sultan in 1826. What made you chose this century when there were also 3 centuries to potentially chose before, or deal with their entire evolution?

Partly to make the project manageable. Also because the eighteenth century is where a lot of the accusations of janissary ‘corruption’ peak and so I wanted to examine this more closely. Furthermore the eighteenth century in general is a time period which is seeing more and more current interest in Ottoman studies, having previously been overshadowed by historians interests in the earlier ‘Golden Age’ and the later Tanzimat Period. The eighteenth century globally is a period of great change and that makes it an exciting period to study as so much about it is unpredictable and I also enjoyed that aspect of studying this period.

2- By the 18th century the Janissaries had become not just soldiers from the ‘devşirme’, but civilians from Moslem backgrounds adopted to join for social advancement and side trades were tolerated. Was this mixing of origins and relaxation of economic activity part of the overall decline in their military efficiency?

This what the traditional historiography would have us believe. Personally I would attribute a decrease in martial capability to the loss of the devsirme and the very structured training system that came with it. Plenty of men were willing to turn out to fight and to participate in firearms training in the eighteenth century, for my money the problem was that the former training system was not replaced with a new system anywhere near as efficient.

3- Were retired or serving Janissaries always allowed to raise their own families? Was it customary for their children to often be encouraged to join the Janissaries in as far as the archives could show?

Janissaries had been permitted families well before the eighteenth century. At this time as well many men were family men before they entered the janissary corps. For children to join the corps I believe fathers in the corps were providing their children with support and options for their future. I think many fathers may have encouraged their sons to become janissaries due to the status it brought.

4- How organised and ‘fair’ was the distribution of the burden of the ‘devsirme’ system. Were any non-Moslem groups, such as Jews, Christian Arabs or Karamanli Greeks exempt? Were pirate captured children from outside the Ottoman area also forced into the system? Are there any accounts of any of these recruits being executed if they refused the forced conversion to Islam? Was the Ottoman Government careful not to station Janissaries close to their birth districts for fear they revert to their Christian identities?

The recruitment was very selective. There is a long list of characteristics which would prohibit a boy from being recruited. Anyone too large or small, too scrawny too simple, no orphans, gypsies, Turks, married men etc. Some communities would marry sons young to try and prevent them from being taken. Bosnian Muslims petitioned to be included in the devsirme for the social mobility and future prospects it brought and different areas reacted in different ways. Forced conversions on the part of the boys were gentle owing to the janissaries belonging to the more liberal Bektashi organisation. When boys were sent out to work for Turkish families it would be seen that boys did not go back to the areas from whence they were recruited. I am sure there are accounts of brutalisation and death in former Ottoman territories. By the time I was studying the devsirme was no longer used for recruitment.

5- It is clearly very difficult to get numbers on the Janissary corps. Do we have any handle on these from the period in question and the relative size in times of ‘sefer’, when there was general mobilisation in the 18th century?

We have treasury accounts which, as historians is the main thing we have to work from but which, for several reasons, are notoriously unreliable. This is due to corruption in the wage system with the sale of esame (military pay book) and so forth.

6- Were they layers of ‘eliteness’ in the Janissary corps, such as ‘Royal Guards’ etc. that kept an eye on the other Janissaries? To what extent did they try to mirror European army specialisations and organisations such as heavy cavalry, artillery, engineering regiments etc.? Some foreign military experts such as Baron de Tott were brought in for designing fortifications and establishing a new foundry built to make howitzers, and he was instrumental in the creation of mobile artillery units. Was this ‘technology transfer’ in the 18th century an exception or were the Janissaries accepting that they needed a steady stream of outsiders to keep their military efficiency on a par with European armies?

The main animosity I would argue, within the corps would come between the older janissaries who had followed the more traditional devsirme route into the corps and the newer and younger recruits. The older soldiers would likely feel that the younger recruits were not up to the standard that they had been. Technology transfer was nothing new but it did accelerate during the eighteenth century.

7- The Janissary corps were also employed in a non-military capacity such as policemen and firemen. As you have highlighted, sexual morality in dealing with vice in Istanbul and alcohol for the Moslem population was part of their remit. Do we have any records detailing vice and alcohol misuse with the ranks of the Janissary corps?

Absolutely! Many janissaries were thought to be pimps and they were very frequent clients of prostitutes.

8- Do we know much about the origins of the Mehter music of the Janissaries?

These groups came to be called janissary bands as janissaries provided the majority of the musicians. The distinctive mehter rhythms have been traced back to the sixteenth centuries.

9- Do you think history of the Janissaries is still broadly and simplistically viewed from the prism of the 1826 dissolution, that they were a hindrance for the modernisation of the army and empire and all the negative connotations that their regular uprisings were self-centred at the expense of Ottoman power?

I think that traditional historiography did simplify the reality by using this dichotomy. However since the 1990s historians have begun to look more closely at the questions of ‘purity’ and ‘corruption’ and draw out some of the nuance in the history of the corps.

10- What are you working on right now?

I am in the preliminary stages of conceiving a project around the Mingana Collection currently held at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham.

Questions by Craig Encer, March 2020