Silent Teachers. Turkish Books and Oriental Learning in Early Modern Europe, 1544–1669

Palabıyık, Nils Ö.
Routledge Studies in Renaissances and Early Modern Worlds of Knowledge
New York 2023: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
274 S.
£ 120.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Lavinia Gambini, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge

The last few decades have seen a rise in innovative approaches to the study of early modern European orientalism – the engagement with oriental languages, literary traditions, cultures, and sciences by European scholars. These studies have shown that some European intellectuals discovered the Islamic world as a valuable and rewarding field of inquiry.1 Similar studies have highlighted the crucial contribution of local actors and go-betweens in the acquisition of oriental languages and manuscripts.2 Nonetheless, compared to the more prominent case of Arabic, early modern European Turkish learning enterprises have received far less scholarly attention.3 Filling this gap, Nil Palabıyık’s elegantly written, masterfully researched, and deeply impressive Silent Teachers provides a vivid account of the many failures, misfortunes, successes, and accomplishments in the history of early modern European Turkish learning. The book focuses on traditional centres of European orientalism (Paris, Leiden, and Germany) from 1544 to 1669. Instead of presenting a “traditional narrative of European scholars conquering the knowledge of the East” (p. 2), Silent Teachers argues that, until the 1630s, the European project of Turkish learning was “one of grandiloquent claims and little achievement” (p. 132).

Early European attempts at learning Turkish were hindered by a lack of reliable sources. As Palabıyık shows, widely available European travel and captivity accounts were rarely taken seriously by orientalist scholars (Chapter 1). Instead, historians have too-often overstated the influence of bestselling works by European travellers, such as the (alleged) former Ottoman captive-turned-pamphlet-author Bartholomew Georgievits (1505–1566) and book-collector Guillaume Postel (1510–1581). Wanting to appeal to a wider readership, Georgievits’ Latin pamphlet On the Customs and Religious Ceremonies of the Turk (1544) was filled with dubious Turkish transliterations, misunderstandings, mistranslations, and inconsistencies. Likewise, Postel’s passages on Turkish in his Republic of the Turks (1560) were “superficial, derivative, and simplistic” and “of little use to anyone intending to study the language” (p. 36).

Despite an increasing scholarly engagement in the later sixteenth century, European Turkish learning was still limited by the sporadic availability of native speakers and original sources (Chapter 2). While renowned humanist Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540–1609) lamented the lack of a Turkish-speaking assistant, historian Johannes Leunclavius’ (1530s/1540s–1594) engagement with original sources for his Turkish histories (1588–1591) was largely restricted to already existing European translations. Nonetheless, these scholars also came to rely on and appreciate already-available Ottoman approaches to language learning. European orientalists adopted Ottoman ideas that regarded the study of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish as deeply intertwined. As Palabıyık shows, according to Scaliger, “Turkish held the key to utilizing the readily available dictionaries, grammars, commentaries, and other study aids that were produced in the Ottoman Empire” (p. 56–57). Similar views were widely shared, for example by Johann Melchior Mader (1590s–1621) who claimed that his language-learning method “came directly ‘from the Arabs themselves’” (p. 98).

Despite Scaliger’s failure to find a native assistant, some other orientalists had more luck. In Tübingen and Paris, humanist Martin Crusius (1524–1607) and orientalist Étienne Hubert (1567–1614) relied on networks of Ottoman informants to acquire knowledge about the Ottoman Empire and languages. Hubert could count on the linguistic help of Ḥuseyn of Buda, a young quadrilingual Turkish man who travelled to Paris with the French ambassador to the Ottoman court. In Istanbul, the Hungarian-born court translator Murād Beg had strong ties to Flemish scholar Arnold Manlius (1530/1537–1607). Alongside the polyglot Hungarian translator István, Murād Beg would become a vital resource for Leuncavius’ Turkish histories, allowing him “to write the most learned, vivid, and imaginative Turkish histories” so far (p. 69). In the 1630s, Leiden orientalists Anton Deusing’s (1612–1666) and Jacob Golius’ (1596–1667) astonishing achievements in Turkish learning were facilitated by the copyists and assistants Ḥaḳḳvėrdi (a Persian envoy) and Şāhīn Ḳandī from Aleppo.

Nonetheless, despite intensifying diplomatic contact, the development of European Turkish studies remained plagued by fraud, missed chances, and misfortunes. Palabıyık radically reassesses what has been considered a turning point in European orientalism: the publication of Hieronymus Megiser’s (b.1570s) Principles of the Turkish Language in Four Books (1612) (Chapter 3). Often celebrated as the first European printed Turkish grammar, Megiser’s Principles was not only plagiarized from the work by Austrian diplomat Hector von Ernau (1567–1649) but remained largely ignored by most European orientalists. The work was “full of mistakes and nonsensical sentences”, with “an unusual number of misleading entries and spelling errors” (p. 96). As Palabıyık shows, “Megiser clearly had no idea about what he was sending to print” (p. 105). In 1620, after having exposed Megiser, Johann Melchior Mader (1590s–1621) went on to annotate the Principles, suggesting that he was preparing a redacted version for publication, but died before the work could be published. Only in 1630, with the publication of André Du Ryer’s (1580–c.1660) Basics of the Grammer of the Turkish Language would the first widely read (although still full of mistakes) printed Turkish grammar see the light of the day. Thus, by the 1630s, learning Turkish solely based on printed European grammars was still an arduous, frustrating – if not, entirely impossible – task. As exemplified by the case of Ukrainian-born, Ottoman-educated convert, musician, and intermediary Albertus Bobovius (1610–1675), Turkish proficiency was still only to be achieved by spending prolonged time in the Ottoman lands.

It was only in the 1630s in Leiden, that the long-overlooked orientalist and physician Anton Deusing (1612–1666) and his teacher Jacob Golius (1596–1667) made some significant contributions that would enable European orientalists to unlock Turkish texts. Deusing compiled the first comprehensive Persian-Turkish-Latin dictionary, a title often wrongly reserved to Franciscus Meninski’s (1623–1698) Thesaurus Linguarum Orientalium (1680) (Chapter 4). Significantly contributing to the Dictionary in Seven Languages (1669), posthumously published under Golius’ name, “Deusing was effectively erased from the history of oriental studies in Europe” (p. 149). Remarkably, his trilingual approach relied on the Ottoman tradition of Persian-Turkish dictionaries, such as the widely circulating dictionary by Rumelian scholar Niʿmetullāh/Ḫalīl Ṣūfī (died 1561). Likewise, Golius attained an extraordinary command of Turkish, engaging with Turkish texts “with enjoyment and appreciation for the stylistic qualities of the language” (p. 166) (Chapter 5). Through his eclectic readings, Golius (who had joined the Dutch diplomatic mission to Istanbul) reached “an acute cultural awareness that would allow him to comprehend bawdy jokes as well as elaborate metaphors” (p. 179). Thus, by the mid-seventeenth century, Leiden orientalists had “achieved something that was once deemed impossible: compilation of useful dictionaries from Turkish sources and an adequate proficiency that would allow the reader to navigate original works” (p. 190).

Methodologically, Palabıyık’s work connects the study of European orientalism with the history of the book. Through meticulous attention to marginalia, handwritings, typesetting, editing, style, and the materiality of texts, Palabıyık radically reshapes long-held notions about the making and reception of European works for Turkish learning, uncovers hidden contributors, and forgotten intellectual genealogies. Furthermore, through a masterful engagement with book and library provenance and the collaboration with several institutions, Palabıyık presents the (re-)discoveries of books such as Scaliger’s copy of Leunclavius’ History (Bibliotheca Thysiana) and Mader’s copy of Mesiger’s Principles (Princeton University Library).

With the addition of 20 black-and-white pictures from nine libraries and four polyglot appendices, Silent Teachers is a remarkable lesson in academic rigour, erudite ingeniousness, attentive close-reading, and material sensibility, that critically reassesses key texts, figures, and turning points in the history of European Turkish learning. Through impressive language skills, the author brings together secondary literature in more than nine languages with Arabic, Turkish, Latin, and Persian manuscript material from 28 libraries across 12 countries. To decentralize the history of European Turkish learning, future studies might investigate the role of alternative centres of cross-cultural and linguistic encounters such as Spalato/Split, Ragusa/Dubrovnik, Livorno, Ancona, and Malta (alongside the more prominent case of Venice studied by Natalie Rothman). Future investigations might also shed light on the contribution of the polyglot Ottoman-Christian alms-collectors, petitioners, and clerics that travelled across early modern Europe. As key figures in the circulation of knowledge about the Ottoman Empire, these elusive individuals were also associated with epistemic uncertainties, unclear identities, deception, forgery, and fraud.4 Assessing their contribution to European Turkish learning (if any at all!) will further complicate the binary divide between ‘useful’ Ottoman and later European language-learning resources and ‘trustworthy’ experts, and the less-than-impressive earlier European attempts. Finally, future studies might bridge the gap between the rise of high-quality Turkish learning resources, the increase in (semi-)fluent European speakers, and later developments in European attitudes towards the Ottoman Empire (such as turquerie and Enlightenment cosmopolitanism).5

1 Alexander Bevilacqua, The Republic of Arabic Letters. Islam and the European Enlightenment, Cambridge/MA 2018, p. 117.
2 Excellent recent contributions include: Simon Mills, A Commerce of Knowledge. Trade, Religion, and Scholarship between England and the Ottoman Empire, 1600–1760, Oxford 2020; E. Natalie Rothman, The Dragoman Renaissance. Diplomatic Interpreters and the Routes of Orientalism, Ithaca/NY 2021.
3 Stefan Hanß, Ottoman Language Learning in Early Modern Germany, in: Central European History 54 (2021), pp. 1–33.
4 Tobias P. Graf, Cheating the Habsburgs and Their Subjects? Eighteenth-Century ‘Arabian Princes’ in Central Europe and the Question of Fraud, in: Dorothea McEwan / Stefan Hanß (eds.), The Habsburg Mediterranean, 1500–1800, Vienna 2021, pp. 229–253; Cesare Santus, The Great Imposture. Eastern Christian Rogues and Counterfeiters in Rome, c. 17th–19th Centuries, in: Cornel Zwierlein (eds.), The Power of the Dispersed. Early Modern Global Travelers beyond Integration, Leiden 2022, pp. 98–130.
5 Alexander Bevilacqua / Helen Pfeifer, Turquerie. Culture in Motion, 1650–1750, in: Past & Present 221/1 (2013), pp. 75–118; Bevilacqua, The Republic of Arabic Letters.

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