The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe

By Daniel Goffman | Go to book overview
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Introduction: Ottomancentrism
and the West

One chapter in a recent history of the Ottomans begins with the assertion that “the Ottoman Empire lived for war.”1 This statement constitutes a concise précis of a damaging and misleading stereotype, long pervasive in both Europe and the United States. Pursuing this thesis of an acute Ottoman militancy, the author explains that “every governor in this empire was a general; every policeman was a janissary; every mountain pass had its guards, and every road a military destination.” Not only were officials also soldiers, this account declares, but “even madmen had a regiment, the deli, or loons, Riskers of their Souls, who were used, since they did not object, as human battering rams, or human bridges.” Indeed, according to this same writer, it was “outbreaks of peace [that] caused trouble at home, as men clamoured for the profit and the glory.”Although these and similar observations strictly speaking may not be wholly false, they certainly are partial (deli in modern Turkish indeed suggests “loony” or “deranged”; in Ottoman Turkish, however, a more accurate translation would be “brave” or even “heroic”), dangerously credible, and confirm long-lived Western assumptions that the Ottoman state was thoroughly and relentlessly martial. Even more misleadingly, they imply that such militarism was somehow peculiarly foreign and contrary to Western norms.

The truth is that such portrayals not only privilege a single aspect of a rich and varied world, but also could describe virtually any state in early modern Europe. Did the early modern Habsburg state, the French state,

Jason Goodwin, Lords of the horizons: a historyof the Ottoman Empire (London, 1998), p. 65. In general, though, this is among the most readable and sympathetic of such texts. Indeed, at times it reads like an apologetic, a tone that makes Goodwin's stress on Ottoman militarism all the more salient. The notion stands at the very core of other books. In his The Ottoman impact on Europe (New York, 1968), p. 77, for example, Paul Coles writes: “From the point of their first entrance into history as a nomadic war-band, the Ottomans were carried from one triumph to the next by a ruthless dedication to conquest and predation. The perpetual search, in Gibbon's phrase, for 'new enemies and new subjects' was not a policy, weighed against alternatives; it was a law of life, the principle that animated what had now become a large and complex society.”


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