Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Peasant" Janissaries?

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Peasant" Janissaries?

Article excerpt

In the second volume of the monumental sequence "Osmanli Kanunnameleri", compiled by A. Akgunduz, there is an interesting law (Devsirme Kanunnamesi) concerning recruitment of Christians for the needs of the Janissary Corps during the reign of Sultan Bayazid II (1481-1512). Among the various provisions about the procedure for recruiting and sending young men to the Ottoman Capital, the following passage attracts attention:

  Ve buyurdum ki, yeniceri oglani cem' olub yuz veyuz elliser nefere
  yetisdukce defter ile mutemed adamma kosubve kadilar dahi bile
  mutemed adam kosub ve of vilayetlerde ve voynuk olan yerlerde voynuk;
  voynuk olmayan yerlerde musellemden ve sipahi adamlanndan anlann
  maksuduna kifayet edecek mikdari kimesneleri bile kosub Istanbul'da
  Yeniceri Agasina gondereler ki, yolda ve izde tamam mahfuz ve mazbut
  olub kimesnesi gitmek ve gaybet eylemek ihtimali olmaya. (1)

Significant here is the role assigned to the voynuks: as trusted agents of the Ottoman authorities in the Balkan provinces, they had to guard the Christian youths, recruited to become Janissaries, on the long way from their homelands to Istanbul. Since the law mentions the voynuks, it is clear that the Ottoman authorities deem them most suitable among those for the job. We are thus faced with an apparently strange situation: both voynuks and the boys taken under the Janissary levy originate from the Christian peoples, subjects of the Sultan. It is even known that the voynuk corps consisted mainly of Bulgarians (2) and therefore Bulgarian historiography offers some generalisations of the following kind: voynuks are "a stratum of the Bulgarian society with strong freedom-loving traditions ..., with a spirit of liberty and solidarity in the struggle against the Ottoman feudal order's injustice, with their own place in the great centuries-old process of preservation and manifestation of the Bulgarian national self-conscience in the fifteenth--seventeenth centuries". (3)

But here is an Ottoman source text, which puts those heroes in a completely different light. In it they do not look like freedom-loving fighters against "the Ottoman feudal regime" etc.; rather they are more like assistants to the Ottoman masters who plan, as some Turkish historians maintain, "through recruiting Christian youths for the Janissary Corps gradually to Islamise the non-Muslim population of the Balkans and through this new army to strengthen the Ottoman state". (4)

This important detail sheds new light on the collection of the Janissary levy, but it could hardly change the historical notion of the "blood" or "children's" levy, as it was known in the Balkans. This notion, preserved by generations in the folklore and the historical annals, represents the conversion of Christian youths into Muslims and defenders of the Ottoman Empire, as one of the darkest episodes in the lives of the Balkan Christians under Ottoman rule. Professional historiography has also been influenced by this notion with its emotional conclusion that during the Ottoman era, Christian families decisively renounced their Janissary sons, seeing them as tools in the hands of an alien power. (5)

In fact the Janissary institution impresses generations mainly with the act of Islamisation. It is the "child levy" (Devsirme) that most fully demonstrates the situation of the Christians as object of long-term Islamisation intentions, carried out under compulsion. These purposive acts of the state, which some historians called an "Islamisation policy", seem to be the backbone of the conversion process in the Balkans, conquered by the Ottoman Turks. But however strange it may look at first, studying the Janissaries is a good way of looking at Islamisation, both in the context of externally conditioned causality (the forced separation of Christian youths from their families to turn them into warriors of Islam), and from the point of view of voluntary religious conversion. …

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