Costume and Character in the Ottoman Empire: Dress as Social Agent in Nicolay’s Navigations

Chandra Mukerji

Nicolas de Nicolay, one of France’s leading cartographers during the Renaissance, published a book in 1567 describing his travels with the French Ambassador to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, the center of the Ottoman Empire.1 Many thinkers of the time wrote about the Ottomans,2 but Nicolay’s Navigations et pérégrinations en la Turquie was distinctive because it contained extensive illustrations: portraits of Ottoman peoples dressed in local costume.

The Navigations was enormously popular: translated and reprinted in many editions in England, Germany, The Netherlands, and Italy as well as France.3 It was a beautiful book, lavish with pictures, and described an empire that was rapidly expanding into Europe. The popularity of the Navigations helped to stimulate a proliferation of costume books over the next few decades, including Vecellio’s famous work (which even reproduced one of Nicolay’s illustrations).4 But the value of Nicolay’s work lay not in its success as an exotic costume book but as work of social and moral analysis of the Ottoman world based on patterns of clothing.

Nicolay’s attention to dress was not — as might be supposed - a product of an Orientalist curiosity about Ottoman ‘others.’5 Costume was deemed an important social and moral force in Europe, and Nicolay wanted to understand how it worked among the Ottomans. He had learned early that Europeans like himself could find appearances in the empire deceptive. Janissaries who looked like Europeans were in fact mostly hostile and dangerous to Western visitors, and warriors like Delli horsemen who dressed in animal skins could act like gentlemen in social encounters. His book was a tutorial in Ottoman appearances and material practices, providing pictures and text for identifying social differences within the empire, and characterizing the groups that lived there. Nicolay studied dress as an object with moral agency in Ottoman social life, part of a material order designed to enhance moral bonds.6

Nicolay was concerned with the question of how character was shaped by the environment and looked to the social environment as a determinant of group qualities. Clothes not only provided vivid evidence of cultural diversity but also were understood in the Renaissance as tools of moral and social entanglement.7 Certainly, some of the geographer’s pictures in the Navigations depicted people in exotic costumes, and Nicolay often praised Christianity while derogating Islam. He also spoke of open sexuality among women as a moral flaw in Ottoman culture. But while Nicolay was clearly chauvinistic about Western culture and ethnocentric in his moral judgments, he nonetheless focused in the text of the Navigations on material exchanges and formations that carried moral obligations within Ottoman society.8

There was a good sociological reason why Nicolay thought that he could recognize moral significance in patterns of dress in the Ottoman Empire. He and the Ottomans both lived in patrimonial societies in which favors and material exchanges were central to the political and moral order. Ottoman clothing may have looked different than European dress and carried distinct social symbolism, but it had similar moral import. So while Nicolay may have started simply projecting European ideas about clothing onto Ottoman people, he ended with a useful technique for taking the moral and political measure of Ottoman culture, precisely because dress did imply moral commitments in Ottoman life. The geographer could judge people in the empire not on their appearance, per se, but on their willingness to ‘fit’ their clothes -whatever those clothes might be.

Social geography and the question of dress

That Nicolay would draw images of Ottoman people in local costume was not in itself surprising, given that he was one of France’s leading chorogra-phers,9 and European chorographers in the sixteenth century were beginning to depict costumes on their maps. Regional maps and city plans by convention recorded social activity, displaying political or tax boundaries, roads, walls, gardens, landmark buildings, religious sites, and habitations. Social types represented on their borders simply added another layer of information, associating social types with geographical homelands.10

Nicolay had served as a military cartographer, too, and translated Pedro de Medina’s Arte de navegar (1545) into French (1569)11 before he went to the Ottoman Empire, demonstrating his learned and deep interest in geographical discoveries. When he left on his voyage to the eastern Mediterranean, Nicolay probably assumed that he would draw social portraits to illustrate a book of voyages filled with the maps and elevations of ports, towns, and citadels — although this turned out not to be the case. Political events intervened and made his voyage into the Ottoman world too problematic to dwell on using the conventions of a travel book.

The politics of Empire

Nicolay did not go to the Ottoman Empire out of a desire to understand Ottoman culture, power, and clothing. He was sent as navigator for the French ambassador, Gabriel de Luels sieur d’Aramont or d’Aramon, who had convinced the king to join the Turks in attacking Hapsburg strongholds

Costume and character in the Ottoman Empire 153 around the Mediterranean. The French were politically weak and geographically surrounded by the Hapsburg Empire; there was Spain to the south, The Netherlands to the north, and southern Italy and North Africa to the southeast. France needed the Turks as allies, d’Aramont suggested, to counter Hapsburg power.

Nicolay was sent with the ambassador because of his navigational abilities, and also probably because he had been a soldier/spy. He engaged in intelligence-gathering while accompanying d’Aramont, making hundreds of drawings of ports, coasts, and fortresses that had strategic value as well as geographical import. He did not publish his maps and drawings in the end — maybe because of their strategic sensitivity, but most likely because the alliance with the Ottomans turned into a diplomatic disaster the French wanted to forget.12 The Ottomans not only attacked Hapsburg strongholds in North Africa with French help but also coastal towns in Italy where they took large numbers of Christian slaves. The attacks were condemned by the Pope, and the French king had to apologize for them. Nicolay had no reason to want to chronicle these events with maps and drawings that would detail his complicity, so his maps and drawings became more of an embarrassment than an asset. This left the geographer with only portraits of Ottoman social types, and these provided material for the Navigations.13

A work of geography

The first book of the Navigations was written like a conventional travel account and reiterated ideas from classical geography about the connection between different creatures and their geographical location - commonplaces that would establish his standing as a credible observer.

All [animals] according to their types are confined and limited to particular elements... like fish in water, birds in the air, and beasts on the earth. I also argue that they are located not only in their proper elements, but in certain parts or regions of them. As Pliny says, it is admirable that nature distributes diverse animals not only on the earth and sea, but also in certain places.14

But influenced by Christian principles, Nicolay did not believe as Pliny the Elder did that geographical determinism extended to human groups.15 He believed in free will or at least human superiority to other creatures. He made the case that human groups were clearly distinctive because they were mobile and could flourish in geographical regions where they migrated. As descendents of Adam, people were meant to exercise sovereignty over nature and not be determined by it:

The archetype of human being [was] Adam, name signifying land or earth, not only because his body was formed from earth, but more because the earth was given to him for his possession and habitation as monarch of the animals. ... [For] man as seigneur and prince of the whole sphere, both earth and sea, all lands and seas are open to discovery. And by all climates, all airs and under whatever part of the heavens, man by prerogative from God, his Creator, can live. ... Such that on all terra firma, there is no place without human habitation.16

The geographer suggested that while the character of people was not determined by geographical environment, it could be shaped by social environment. Social life placed moral demands on human beings - opportunities for loyalty, sacrifice, and service — to which they had to respond. Although he did not argue the case, Nicolay treated clothing as a material infrastructure for bringing people into moral relation with one another. He assumed that the groups were supposed to submit to the moral imperatives of their clothing, and he believed that people of virtue and modesty did. Clothing mediated between the moral obligations of people and their free will as descendents of Adam.

In reasoning this way, Nicolay brought traditions of Christian humanist geography to the problem of social analysis, considering the moral power of material environments and gift-giving as a means of cultural formation. Costume for him was continuous with the environment, part of social worlds where human beings lived and pursued moral lives. Looking at clothes and material life in terms of moral exchanges, the geographer could study Ottoman people and their social differences, using the moral obligations of their costumes as a measure of their actions.

Clothes as moral agents in Renaissance Europe

Nicolay’s views of clothes were very similar to those described by Jones and Stallybrass as typical in literature from this period. They argue that costume was not a superficial covering or ‘expression’ of the self in the Renaissance, but quite the opposite, a tool for deep personal transformation. Clothes (defined broadly as all things that were worn) were meant to shape people. They were not simply meant to mark rank, gender, and occupation, but to serve as moral demands on persons to acquire the virtues that their stations in life demanded.17

A uniform or livery was used to define social roles and responsibilities to others, but dress generally meant more than that. The costume was something for a body and soul to adjust to (in the same sense that gender is understood today by Judith Butler as a means of disciplining not only the contemporary female body but also the inner life of women18). According to Jones and Stallybrass, material constraint produced not only the Renaissance body but also its moral essence.19 And it was this essence that Nicolay hoped to understand in the Ottoman Empire by studying costume and character among its different social types.

This view of clothing supported the patrimonial order in Europe in the Renaissance. Patrimonial authority depended on the exchange of favors and

Costume and character in the Ottoman Empire 155 gifts to cement social ties up and down the hierarchy. By regulating patterns of mutual obligation, they fashioned emotional as well as functional ties. Obedience to superiors alone was not enough of a commitment in this system. Loyalty was required — a bond that was personal and emotional. Elites could not simply supervise their subordinates, either. They were responsible for them and their families and were supposed to give them the basic resources they needed for life as well as rewards for higher degrees of service. These social obligations were also emotionally grounded. And although some people evaded their responsibilities and were in fact uncaring, this cultural constellation of patrimonialism remained authoritative. So, the use of clothes in the system of patrimonial exchange to mark rank and responsibilities to others served as infrastructure of social order and personal discipline.

Jones and Stallybrass describe well the constellation of value(s) that surrounded clothing in the patrimonial order and appropriately disparage the view of costume only as fashion in the Renaissance, but they also illustrate ways that stable understandings of costume came under duress where political pressures were disturbing the patrimonial system.20 Political conflicts that threatened clienteles began also to undermine the moral imperatives of clothes. Struggles among vying groups with different sartorial markers started to dissociate dress from the moral obligations of rank and to associate styles of clothing with other constellations of power.21

Modesty as a taken-for-granted value was imperiled and, as a result, started to matter more to defenders of the patrimony. Nicolay appeared to be one of them. Since he lived near Lyon, one of the most active trading cities in Europe, Nicolay certainly would have been aware of some of the sartorial politics of the mid-sixteenth century. And he was deeply troubled by those who refused to see their clothing as entailing personal obligations. This anxiety, while palpably ethnocentric, may well have spurred him to pay closer attention to dress and patterns of moral discipline in the Ottoman Empire.

In Nicolay’s estimation, virtuous people with true modesty exhibited self-containment, fitting their clothes with appropriate patterns of virtue.22 In contrast, frauds put on clothing that they did not have the inner qualities to ‘deserve.’ Clothes made moral demands and required appropriate responses, and where these responsibilities were systematically evaded, Nicolay attributed this to a moral weakness of group character. This became his method for assessing the strengths and failings of the Ottoman Empire.

Because he worked from the assumption that clothes should and could serve as moral agents, Nicolay wrote about dress in a way his European readers could understand. He gave them pictures with characterizing details of costume and commentaries on the people in the pictures that clarified the cultural significance of their material attributes.

The result was certainly not an undistorted picture of Ottoman life, but neither was it a simple psychological projection of Nicolay’s fears and desires. Nicolay recognized a moral order of clothing in Ottoman culture and its importance to Suleiman and his court. He explained uniforms as items of extra-monetary exchange, marks of merit that stood for virtues and carried obligations. He also pointed to the tradition of charity in Islam that endowed material exchanges with deep spiritual as well as social import and helped sustain the culture of fellow-feeling so important to Islamic cultures.23 His deeply European view of the social agency of clothes nonetheless tapped something important in Ottoman life and revealed qualities of the Ottoman Empire to European readers that began to make sense of its overwhelming power by exploring its social diversity.24

Peichs or lackeys

The Peichs of the Great Turk (also known as his lackeys) exemplified for Nicolay the highest level of personal grace, gentility, and modesty. They wore costumes appropriate not only to their high service to ‘the Great Turk’ but also to their moral discipline (Figure 6.1). As members of this royal guard,

Peich or Lackey from a 1576 Italian edition of Nicolas de Nicolay’s Navigations, 1567

Figure 6.1 Peich or Lackey from a 1576 Italian edition of Nicolas de Nicolay’s Navigations, 1567.

Source: Nicolay, Le navigation! et viaggi nella Turchia, di Nicolo de Nicolai del Delfinato, Signor d’Arfevilla... : con diuerse singolaritd in quelle parti dall’autore viste & osseruate (Anversa [i.e. Antwerp): Guiglielmo Siluio, 1576), f. 166. Courtesy of Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.

they were meant to run ahead of Suleiman the Magnificent to announce his arrival and to protect him during his travels.25 Nicolay described them this way:

There are eighty to one hundred ‘Peichz or Laquais Persiens.’ The best of these are as able and courtly as one could imagine. They wear multi-color damask robes. They wear a shirt of fine cotton under this. They have a high hat made of pounded silver and with fine or false stones, according to their means. These are decorated with ostrich or other fancy feathers, according to their fantasy. They march with the grand Seigneur into the countryside, crying for God to keep his powers great.26

While Peichs dressed in costumes that marked their high service to their master, they also honed their moral character with the physical difficulty of their service and the spiritual intonations of their voices. They had to run as long as necessary — sometimes for days on end without sleep — verbally calling on God to protect the Great Turk. Their service was part of a long, difficult tradition of sacrifice.

In times past... [they] travelled and ranne barefooted without any shoes, or any other thing on their feet having that the soles of their feete were shod like unto horses, the skin under the plant of their feet being so hard that easily they could forbeare the nailes and irons... and being thus shod the better to counterfait the horses, did wear in their mouths a bal of silver, perced and made with holes in divers places, like unto the bit of a bridle, & is for to keep their mouth fresh & the longer to sustain their breath. Round about their girdle, which was very large and very wel wrought of leather, they hung divers cymbals or belles, which by moving and shaking in their running made a very plesant and delectable noyce.27

The Peichs had symbolized the animal power of men, but also had risen above their animal being through moral service, embracing their spiritual duty with moral dignity. They were proud of their Persian past, but accepted Ottoman rules and habits, submitting themselves to Byzantium’s conquerors. They became Ottomans by sporting facial hair like Turks — adopting what the geographer described as a fearsome mask of mustache and beard. This mode of grooming covered and controlled their expressions, but was not just a matter of masking. Beards and mustaches gave Ottomans what Nicolay described as a gruesome, inhuman appearance designed to terrorize enemies. Thus, this mode of grooming more vividly made manifest the Peichs’ deep moral commitment to the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent and the power of the empire.

Water carriers

The moral power invested in objects and moral obligations entailed through their exchange in Ottoman culture were illustrated most vividly by Nicolay in his description of water carriers. These men provided water in Ottoman cities and most notably along the routes pilgrims used going to Mecca. They gave water away as a spiritual practice, a form of gift-giving that served Islam and demonstrated their devotion to the faith.28 Water carriers had become common in many cities of the empire, according to Nicolay, in large part because drinking alcohol was forbidden by Islam, and in dry parts of the empire, water was crucial to life and difficult to find. They were engaged in helping others to observe religious rules either through pilgrimage or by keeping away from alcohol. They went to wells and fountains in the morning to fill their leather pouches and carried them to parts of the city where water was scarce. These water carriers did not work for money, but lived only from the gifts they received in exchange from those they served. They added to their services by carrying perfumed water to splash on the faces of those who asked for it. Cynically, Nicolay suggested some distributed small gifts of fruit or the like to stimulate reciprocal gift-giving. But they were never assured of an income in providing this service, and most, Nicolay suggested, dedicated themselves to their moral discipline of service.29

Although poor, they signified the value of their work with the care they gave to their clothing and the implements of their service. Those who could afford it carried the pouches of water on straps made with embroidery or covered with other decorations. They would carry a beautiful cup, too, leafed with gold and etched with decorations, with which they would offer water to those passing by. To make the water taste better, some carried semi-precious stones that they would place in the cup. And to add to the spiritual content of the exchanges, some carried a decorated mirror that they would hold up to those who approached them, reminding them of the imminence of death and the depth of their moral weaknesses. In spite of the service to Muslims they provided, water carriers would provide water to anyone who wanted it, no matter their religion. They were driven by norms of service and the pursuit of fellow-feeling that were parts of the culture of Islam. In this way, they underscored with their actions the importance of material exchange to the moral economy of the Ottoman Empire and the power of service in the moral order of Muslim life.30


The Ottoman social type that most concerned and fascinated Nicolay was the Janissary. Janissaries began their lives, according to the geographer, as four-year-old sons of Christian slaves, taken away from their families and trained in Islam. Their parents gave up their boys in the hope that they would enjoy a better life as officials in the army. The geographer explained that Europeans might infer from the stature and dress ofjanissaries that they were potential allies or friends, but the opposite was true. They were dangerous and powerful. When they fit their clothes and fulfilled their duties, they were awe-inspiring models of discipline, trained to attack European enemies.

If Janissaries started drinking, as they sometimes did in secret, they could become more dangerous and unpredictable, and so they were important for Europeans to avoid.31

There were four types ofjanissary depicted and described by Nicolay. The first was an ordinary soldier, shown as tall and stately with a sword, musket, and great uniform. The second was a policeman or keeper of the peace for Constantinople. The third was a cavalry officer. And the fourth was an Aga or captain general of the Janissaries, who was the head of the Janissary army. The military tradition of the Janissaries, according to Nicolay, was the Macedonian phalanx that the Turks learned about by occupying their land. While the Janissaries did not imitate the uniform or the selection of arms used by the Macedonians, they did arm themselves amply and used facial hair to control their countenance while shaving the rest of their bodies (like wrestlers).32

Nicolay described howjanissaries were shaped for military service not only through physical training but also through wearing uniforms that carried the moral obligation to serve the ruler in return.

They are dressed two times a year with a great blue cloth, like all the azamoglans, or Christian converts. And on their head, by special prerogative, they wear a felt hat with a piece of pelt or thin material in front with a gold disk in the middle adorned with a (false?) ruby, turquoises or other precious stones of small price, on the top of which are placed plumes. These are not chosen by each but given to those who have proven themselves most worthy in war.33

The Janissaries also received pensions according to their rank and service, gaining higher pensions for valor in battle. Janissary soldiers of lower ranks lived and worked together collectively without rancor, having no other family with which to live and respecting the use of valor as the basis of hierarchy. 34

The Janissary Aga or simply Aga was the highest ranking officer in the Janissary army (Figure 6.2). He was a man of great dignity and political importance to the empire who was showered with gifts and material assets from clothing to slaves, homes, servants, followers, and pensions. The extent of these material assets not only marked the scope of his social and political importance but also pointed to the range of his obligations, the history of his prowess, and the moral imperative of his service.3

Nicolay described such exchanges of things in detail. The Aga received a thousand aspres per day for his expenses and would receive a guaranteed pension of 6,000 ducats. Five times a year, he was outfitted with new clothes made of gold cloth - perhaps crimped or velour or fine satin. He was supplied with a fine Barbary or Turkish horse, decorated with precious stones, and dressed in gold. He had a Janissary in his personal service and another as his secretary, and in addition, he was supplied with 2—300 slaves. Other Janissaries would come to his house every day to ask what he needed from them.36

Janissary Aga from a 1576 Italian edition of Nicolas de Nicolay’s Navigations, 1567

Figure 6.2 Janissary Aga from a 1576 Italian edition of Nicolas de Nicolay’s Navigations, 1567.

Source: Nicolay, Le navigation! et viaggi nella Turchin, di Nicolo de Nicolai del Delfmato, Signor d’Arfevilla...: con diverse singolarita in quelle parti dall’autore viste & osseruate (Anversa [i.e. Antwerp): Guiglielmo Siluio, 1576), f. 160. Courtesy of Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.

As much as he received gifts, the Aga was required to give not only service to Suleiman but also gifts to those below him, binding them to him with obligations created through material exchange. He was expected, for example, to open his house twice a week to feed any Janissaries who would come. The Aga carried huge responsibilities, and the scale of his service was indicated by the assets given his household, and the frequent gifts he took and gave that reiterated on a regular basis the patrimonial obligations and responsibilities that formed the social order of Janissaries.37

To Nicolay, most Janissaries fit their uniform well and developed the valor that matched their material gifts. They could be brutal in war, but it was their obligation as warriors, and in this way, too, most fit their clothes.

Delli horsemen

The Delli seemed at first glance to Nicolay the opposite of the disciplined Peichs andjanissaries. He wore an animalistic costume and had an appearance

So Defy, thefignijicipétgg tuedacc.

Delli horseman from a 1576 Italian edition of Nicolas de Nicolay’s Navigations, 1567

Figure 6.3 Delli horseman from a 1576 Italian edition of Nicolas de Nicolay’s Navigations, 1567.

Source: Nicolay, Le navigation! et viaggi nella Turchin, di Nicolo de Nicolai del Delfinato, Signor d’Arfevilla...: con diuerse singolaritd in quelle parti dall’antore viste &osseruate (Anversa [i.e. Antwerp]: Guiglielmo Siluio, 1576), f. 254. Courtesy ofMandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.

that made him look in his portrait like a European fantasy of barbaric exoticism (Figure 6.3). But the geographer explained the Delli’s appearance approvingly in his text.

Nicolay first met the man he drew while traveling with the ambassador, d’Aramont. The ambassador and his entourage needed a place to stay for the night and asked a local Bascha for help. The man invited them into his house, preparing a feast for his guests, and a Delli who was in his service appeared at the dinner, startling Nicolay with his appearance.38

[His] jacket, long-sleeved shirt and leggings...were from the pelt of a young bear with the hair on the outside and ankle-length boots of yellow leather, pointed in front and high in the back, steel-tipped and with long and large spurs. On the head, [Dellis] wear a long, Polish or Georgian-style headpiece, dangling toward the shoulders made from the skin of a spotted leopard; and on top of this, in front of the forehead, to make himself appear more terrible, was attached a large tail of an eagle and the two wings attached with gold studs to his shield that he tied to his side with a sash.39

Nicolay not only drew the Delli as he appeared at dinner but also took the opportunity to interview the horseman with the help of a translator. Nicolay questioned the man about his cultural and religious background as well as his clothing, summarizing what he learned this way:

Delli horsemen are adventurers, like light horsemen, who make a profession of searching adventures in the most hazardous places, where, made bellicose with their weapons, they prove their virtue and prowess. And, in this way, they voluntarily follow the armies of the grand Turk without any pay, much like Anchises [in Greek mythology], 40 except that most of them are fed and maintained at the expense of the Baschas [and other notables] who keep the most brave and valiant of them among their followers. ... [They are] of great stature, well-shapen, and with big feet, their color being yellowish, but they are naturally malicious, and easy to deceive. Notwithstanding this, they were greatly esteemed by Alexander the great.41

Nicolay learned, too, that the Turks called Dellis madmen (‘delli’ meaning both ‘bold’ and ‘crazy,’ according to Nicolay). But the geographer found the Delli not mad at all, but very courteous. Nicolay reported that horsemen of his type called themselves by a different name, Zataznicis, meaning ‘challengers of men.’42 To become warriors, they had to beat ten other men in hand-to-hand combat and did it using ruses and tactics of fighting passed down for generations. They could only dress as warriors after they completed this challenge, so the clothes were a badge of honor and evidence that their animal tendencies had been disciplined, not a mark of madness.

I asked him why he dressed so strangely, and with such large feathers. The response was that it was to make him look more ferocious and unbeatable to his enemies. ... And as to the feathers, this costume was theirs and no others were permitted to wear it to make themselves memorable, because between them the headdress was esteemed as the true mark of a valiant man of war. Which was all that 1 could learn from this nice Delli.4'1

The Delli also said that he had been raised as a Christian, although he followed the laws of the Turks because he lived under them. Perhaps, it was his Christian background that encouraged Nicolay to accept the Delli’s animal appearance. In any case, the geographer argued that the costume was not a sign of moral degradation, but indicated instead his willingness to serve without recompense, not for personal advantage.

Religious Turks

Nicolay found many social types in the Ottoman Empire that he considered modest and disciplined, but he also encountered groups — mainly in Constantinople and other centers of luxury — that he found immoral. Although many of these types appeared virtuous to European eyes because of their fine clothing and careful habits, he considered them decadent deceivers. Nicolay often found these urban denizens lazy and manipulative (echoing ideas common in the Arab world and derived from Ibn Khaldun).44 Whatever the source of his ideas, Nicolay inventoried the chicanery of the streets and markets of Constantinople and the decadence of elites in urban centers throughout the empire.

Nicolay’s prime example of urban mendacity was a man the geographer labeled a ‘religious Turk.’ This self-proclaimed hermit was depicted in his portrait as a beautiful, serene, and elegant man, walking peacefully with a deer, but Nicolay described him as a fraud. While acting as a spiritual seeker, he was really just part of a community of con men and beggars:

There are moreover throughout the whole of Turkey another sect of religious [men] dwelling within the towns and villages in certain shops, the walls of which they cover with skins of diverse wild beasts. ... To show themselves more strange and marvelous, they bring up and feed certain wild beasts, such as wolves, deer, eagles and ravens to declare that they have abandoned the world, to live a solitary life amongst the beasts. But in this, their hypocrisy is openly shown, for...they do not dwell in hermitages, but in towns full of people, and likewise they do not live among wild beasts, ...rather their animal companions are tame.45

Members of this sect maintained shrines filled with animals and animal skins that they sold, but they worshipped Mohamed. They based their spiritual authority on a religious relic they maintained: the sword of a successor to Mohamed named Haly, which they claimed he had used to cut mountains and rocks asunder.46 But while pretending to be moral guardians of the faith, Nicolay said, they were in fact greedy self-promoters that preyed on the innocence of others.

These good religious people thus live on the profit of their shops...and leave their shops as a wolf leaves the woods for hunger, and [they] go to town to ask for alms, taking with them a bear or a deer with a bell hung from its neck. ... And there under the mask of religion they disguise their damnable and too evident hypocrisy.47

The geographer helped readers of the Navigations to ‘see’ this deceit with the details of his illustration. The man in the portrait had the appropriate demeanor and accessory (the deer companion) that denoted his sect, but he was wearing clothes more like that of an urban merchant than a self-effacing hermit. Neither poor nor disheveled, he hid behind his mustache.48 The religious Turk was deceptive and abusive because he did not live up to the obligations of his office. His appearance did not serve his inner discipline and service, but was used for the manipulation of others for personal gain.

Turkish women of Constantinople

Turkish women in Constantinople were to Nicolay deceivers of another and more interesting sort. They did not so much dissemble in their dress as evade the agential power of costume altogether in their patterns of dressing and undressing. They made no public moral commitments with their clothes and actions because they had to veil themselves and live behind closed doors. This shielding of the body from the public suggested a certain modesty, but Nicolay argued that Turkish women in Constantinople, on the contrary, simply learned to live outside the moral constraints of public life.49

This was illustrated most clearly, according to the geographer, when Turkish women went to public baths. They spent many days every week in the baths naked, attending to their pleasures — unconstrained by clothes or public decorum. Women who were lesbians openly expressed their sexual feelings for one another in this hidden world. And even women of high standing would bring their servants to clean them and apply potions to their skin, pursuing pleasure rather than modesty.50

Nicolay was clearly not allowed in women’s baths and may well have been projecting his own fantasies and desires on the women.51 He had repeated other false reports in the book, so this could easily have been another. Still, Nicolay had an informant who had explained to him the lives of women - a man he called a friend who had been raised in the Serail. Given this testimony, it is hard to assess whether the basis of his writings about the baths was shaped more by information or desire.

In the end, the description of the baths in the Navigations was concerned less about gender and sexuality than the role of clothing and nakedness in social and moral order. The freedom of the baths reflected what happened without the moral constraint of clothing. If forms of dress were public commitments that people made about their moral intent, those who were hidden behind veils and walls never made such commitments and could more readily discard the moral demands of clothing — corrupted by their public obscurity. This made them symbols of erotic alterity.


The Calenders were another group in the Ottoman Empire whose explicit attention to sexuality - even in the pursuit of celibacy - provided Europeans with material for imagining an erotic alterity. The Calenders were a religious sect of men who pierced their penises with large iron or silver rings to

Costume and character in the Ottoman Empire 165 denote and enforce virginity. Nicolay drew a graphic image of the practice in his portrait of the Calender that emphasized the public (although discreet) display of the rings. Still, the geographer respected the spiritual commitment of the Calenders and treated the large penis ring as a part of their public costume, denoting celibacy.52

The Calenders dress in a short, sleeveless robe, a sort of hair shirt made of wool and horsehair. They do not let their hair grow [like other sects] but shave their heads, covering them with a kind of felt hat like that of Greek priests with stiff fringe the length of an apple around the brim. They adorn their ears with heavy iron earrings and place similar iron pieces around their neck and arms, and through the skin of their virile member, they pierce a large and heavy ring of iron or silver, looped in such a way to make them unable to exercise any lust if they still had the desire or ability. 3

The Calenders did not evade the power of costume, but quite the contrary, used iron or silver rings as agents to enforce chastity. They dressed the part of religious seekers, enforcing their spiritual obligations with their mode of dress and piercing. What disquieted Nicolay was the contrast between their sartorial denial of sexuality and their practices of singing. By religious tradition, Calenders sang bawdy songs, perhaps as a test of their rejection of lust. The songs were sacred in the sense that they were written by the man the geographer described as the first martyr of their faith. This leader of the Calenders had been expelled from the empire because his religious beliefs contradicted Islam.54

Nicolay treated Calenders as bewildering, but serious moral actors. They seemed bizarre in their choice of costume, but also models of sexual restraint. Their conduct also illustrated the moral authority given to objects in the Ottoman Empire - a practice that made sense to Nicolay no matter how odd he may have found its manifestation.


The beauty of Nicolay’s lavish illustrations and the attention to dress in his commentaries on Ottoman life has helped obscure the social analysis in the Navigations, leaving this work to languish misunderstood as an entertaining picture book and site of European fantasy about exotic ‘others.’ Perhaps as Renaissance understandings of the moral agency of costume were replaced by the logic of the fashion system, his method of studying Ottoman life was rendered invisible. Still, Nicolay’s attention to dress made sense in his own time, when the moral force of costume was accepted as crucial to forging social bonds and creating solidarity. Studying patterns of dress could reveal flows of power, too, since costume could serve as a measure of cultural integration and trace lines of authority and obedience. Renaissance Europeans who believed in the moral agency of dress could readily accept the sociopolitical use of costume in the Ottoman Empire and recognize it as a point of convergence between the patrimonial cultures of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. The differences in costumes between France and Constantinople might have been profound, but their uses implied a similar moral logic.

Attention to costume was a good way to enter the culture of the Muslim world, where fellow-feeling was highly valued, and gift exchange was widely practiced to produce a sense of solidarity. The Ottoman government relied particularly heavily on material exchanges, too, since officials like the Janissaries were given power precisely because they were slaves who had no independent source of living apart from the benefits of their offices. This made them not only socially dependent on patrimonial networks but also beneficiaries of gifts that made them emotionally dependent on Suleiman and the other members of the Janissary army who protected and fed them. The court and army became their family, as Iban Khaldun noted, supplying them with their emotional and material needs, and giving them rewards for their loyalty and moral courage.

If their success as Janissaries resulted from prowess in battle, their military bravery was nonetheless more than a test of their courage. It was an expression of their moral allegiance to the Sultan and their willingness to die for their ‘family.’ Their uniforms were not just outer signs of rank, then, but also personal reminders of their social obligations to the community ofjanissaries and to their patron and ruler.

Personal commitment, beyond simply behavioral norms, was meant to propel Janissaries to ask the Aga how they could serve him. And, in principle, it was a reflection of his fellow-feeling for those in his service that the Aga provided meals in his own home. These personal exchanges conveyed the depth of the obligations and personal feelings in patrimonial relations.56 Like the gifts described by Mauss, such exchanges brought the whole being of the giver to the recipient, making debts a matter of personal responsibility and social obligations a matter of honor.57

The patrimonial materialism of Ottoman society was comprehensible in Europe, where patrimonial relations had similar forms and effects. European offices were also supposed to entail personal commitments between members linked by patrimonial networks. Offices were meant to carry the moral weight of a gift, in principle binding the official not only to a job, but to the wellbeing of the prince who allocated the office. Thus, the moral order of the Ottoman world translated into the moral order of Europe despite differences of religion.

The Navigation gained popularity in this period, I would argue, not by titillating readers with lavish and exotic pictures, but rather by making Ottoman social types seem comprehensible. Fear of the Ottomans not only drove Europeans like Nicolay to be concerned about the empire’s power but also spurred them to try to assess its strengths and weakness. Because the book was translated into many vernaculars, printers clearly assumed that people wanted to read it as well as look at the pictures. So the text as well as the illustrations mattered.

The text and pictures together allowed Renaissance readers to ‘see’ Ottoman types as carriers of cultural logics that had political implications. Even though some portraits looked exotic, Nicolay’s textual descriptions of Ottoman types portrayed them as more than just the alien barbarians of the Crusader tradition. Of course, the Navigations also conveyed many prejudiced and irrational views derived precisely from this narrative heritage. Still, by studying clothes, Nicolay also disrupted the simple repetition of some of its language. He drew attention to the moral reasoning of Ottoman people around material gifts and social obligations, making it harder to typify them as immoral barbarians. He showed that costume was as socially weighty in the Ottoman world as it was in Renaissance Europe, and by conveying this, Nicolay brought Ottoman culture closer to European readers. The result was a surprisingly compelling window for Europeans onto the Ottoman Empire, using period understandings of the agency of clothing as a tool for the analysis of a culture’s vulnerabilities and threat.


  • 1 Nicolas de Nicolay, Les quatre premiers livres des navigations et pérégrinations orientales (Lyon: G. Rouille, 1567).
  • 2 See, for example, Andrea Cambini, Two Commentaries the One of the Original! of the Turcks the Other of the Warre of the Turcke against George Scanderbeg. London 1562 (Amsterdam: Da Capo, [1562] 1970).
  • 3 For example: Nicolay, Navigations, op. cit.; idem., Les quatre premiers livres des navigations et pérégrinations orientales, de N. de Nicolay, ... avec les figures au naturel tant d’hommes que de femmes selon la diversité des nations, & de leur port, maintien & habits [avec une élégie de P. de Ronsard à N. de Nicolay] (Lyon: G. Roville, 1568); idem., Vier Bucher von de Raiss und Schiffart in die Turckey (Antorff [Antwerp]: Wilhelm Silvium, 1576); idem., Le navigation! et viaggi nella Turchia, di Nicolo de Nicolai del Delfinato, Signor d’Arfevilla..con diverse singolarità in quelle parti dall’autore viste & osseruate (Anversa [Antwerp]: Guiglielmo Siluio, 1576); idem., De schipvaert ende reysen gedaen int landt van Turckyen (Antwerp: Willem Silvius, 1577).
  • 4 Cesare Vecellio, Vecellio’s Renaissance Costume Book: All 500 Woodcut Illustrations from the Famous Sixteenth-Century Compendium of World Costume (New York: Dover, 1977), particularly 459; Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1965). There was a revival of costume books in the nineteenth century that has perhaps led to an elision of Orientalist literature from that period and the early costume books. See, for example, M. Breton, China: Its Costume, Arts, Manufactures, &C, 4th ed. (London: Howlett and Brimmer, 1824).
  • 5 Orientalism is premised on power relations that did not exist in sixteenthcentury France. See Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 31—110. The Ottoman Empire was strong, and France was weak, so the sense of natural superiority of Europe that developed in the nineteenth century and was the foundation of Orientalism was not part of Renaissance thinking. The frame used by humanists to explain the alterity of the Ottomans, their brutal ferocity and military efficacy, came from the Crusades rather than an emergent

Orientalism. Margaret Meserve, Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 65—116.

Compared to Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1954).

Compared to Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). For an explanation of patrimonial societies and patterns of moral obligation based on exchanges of favors, see Sharon Kettering, Patrons, Brokers, and Clients in Seventeenth-Century France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). The period Kettering studies is later, but the patrimonialism she describes was widespread in the sixteenth century.

Mauss, The Gift.

He had drawn a famous set of maps of Scotland and also was working on detailed regional surveys of the region around Lyon that were later printed in Ortelius’ atlas. Robert W. Karrow, Museum Plantin-Moretus, and Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Abraham Ortelius (1527—1598): cartographe et humaniste (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998).

Trevor Morgan Murphy, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopedia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), particularly 43, 80—88.

Pedro de Medina and Nicolas de Nicolay, L’art de naviguer de M. Pierre de Medine, Espagnol: contenant toutes les reigles, secrets, et enseignement necessaires à la bonne naui-gation (Lyon: Gvillavme Roville, 1569).

Nicolas de Nicolay, Marie-Christine Gomez-Géraud, and Stéphane Yérasimos, Dans l’empire de Soliman le Magnifique (Paris: CNRS, 1989), introduction.


Ibid., 44.

Murphy, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, 80—88. It is interesting that Ibn Khaldun shared this idea, associating climate with differences among groups and defining a hierarchy of human types. See Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 49—64.

Nicolay, Navigations, 43.

Jones and Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, particularly 15—58.

Judith P. Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits Of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993).

Jones and Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, particularly 15-33.

Ibid., 15, 71-77.

Compared to Chandra Mukerji, From Craven Images: Patterns of Modern Materialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), particularly ch. 5. This chapter describes some interconnections between fashion and politics in this period both in the competition among elites and the movement of fashion centers.

Nicolay, Navigations. Compared to Khaldun, Muqaddimah, 214—216.

Khaldun, Muqaddimah, 123—128, 145-148.

Ibn Khaldun associated luxurious dress with the decline of empires precisely because it accompanied a loss of group feeling. What Nicolay saw in Ottoman society was that group feeling could be supported by these exchanges when they produced deep personal feelings of moral obligation. It is hard to know if he misread Ottoman society because of his own ethnocentrism or that his understanding of patrimonialism allowed him to recognize when moral authority could be sustained through things, and particularly forms of gift-giving. Ibid., 123-128, 145-148. Compared to Kettering, Patrons, Brokers, and Clients.

Albert Lybyer, The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent (New York: Russell and Russell, 1966), 129—130.

Nicolas Nicolay, ‘Les annales des sultans ou grand seigneurs des Tures, traduites de la version latine de Jean Leonclavius,’ in Annales des Tures qui va jusques a Pan de Mahomet DCCCXVI..ed. Jean Leonclavius (Paris: 1568), 13—14.

Nicolas de Nicolay, Thomas Washington, and John Stell, The Navigations, Peregrinations and Voyages, Made into Turkic by Nicolas Nicholay Daulphinois, Lord of Arfeuile, Chamberlaine and Geographer Ordinarie to the King of Fraunce, Conteining Sundry Singularities Which the Author Hath There Scene and Obserued: Deuided into Foure Bookes, until Threescore Figures, Naturally Set Forth as Well of Men as Women, According to the Diuersitie of Nations, Their Port, Intreatie, Apparrell, Lawes, Religion and Manner of Lining, Aswel in Time of Warn as Peace (London: Thomas Dawson, 1585), 84.

Compared to the values of shared moral culture in Islam as described in Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 7-12.

Nicolay et al., Dans Pempire de Solimán le Magnifique, 204—206. Ibid.

Lybyer, The Government of the Ottoman Empire, 79—82, 91—97; Nicolay et al., Dans ¡’empire de Solimán le Magnifique, 153—165.

Nicolay et al., Dans Pempire de Solimán le Magnifique, 153—165.

Ibid., 156—157.

Ibid., 157.

Ibid., 165.



Ibid., 227.


Anchises was the father of Aeneas. What Nicolay means with this metaphor is not entirely clear, but perhaps Anchises’ devotion that led him to Troy with his son. See Virgil, The Aeneid, an Epic Poem of Rome, trans. Levi Robert Lind (Bloomington: Indiana University Greek and Latin classics, 1963), 41.

Nicolay et al., Dans Pempire de Solimán le Magnifique, 226. Ibid.

Ibid., 227, 229.

Khaldun, Muqaddimah, 109-122.

Nicolay et al., Dans Pempire de Solimán le Magnifique, 197—199.

Ibid., 197.

Ibid., 199.

Ibid., 198.

Ibid., 137—143. Compared to the Persian women who do not have to hide themselves completely, but still are beautiful and modest in covering their heads, 217. Ibid., 135-140.

Ruth Yeazell, Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000). Compared to Mary Montagu Wortley’s description of going to the baths more than a century later. She spoke mainly of the beauty and gentility of the women. See Shirley Foster and Sara Mill, eds., An Anthology of Women’s Travel Writings (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 28-29.

Nicolay et al., Dans Pempire de Solimán le Magnifique, 190—192.


Ibid., 192.

Khaldun, Muqaddimah, 123—154.

Kettering, Patrons, Brokers, and Clients; Mauss, The Gift; Khaldun, Muqaddimah. Mauss, The Gift.

Part III

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