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Konstantin Mihailovic. Memoirs of a Janissary.

Konstantin Mihailovic. Memoirs of a Janissary. Svat Soucek, ed. Benjamin Stolz, transl. Markus Wiener Publishers, 2011. 157 pp. + notes, bibliography, illustrations and maps. $22.95 paper.

Originally penned in the 1400s, Serbian soldier Konstantin Mihailovic's account of his service with the Ottoman Janissaries is sure to fascinate many and will provide teachers with a valuable resource for classroom use. Captured with two of his brothers by the Ottomans, during the siege of Novo Brdo in 1455, Mihailovic spent eight years in the sultan's custody. No original of his memoir exists, but multiple translations of the original in Czech and Polish are extant. This edition is a translation of a Czech edition, M, published in the early 1500s. Mihailovic's memoir gained great popularity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries among persons wishing to know more about Islam, Ottoman rule and the Ottoman military.

The book's well written introduction provides important information about Mihailovic's life and various editions of his memoirs, as well as a crucial analysis of the veracity of the work. Stolz suggests in his "Introduction" that the memoir's fifty chapters (some only a paragraph long) can be divided into the following categories: an examination of Islam, a history of empire--including the time period during which Mihailovic served the sultan, and information on the administrative and military components of the empire. Some of these chapters must be taken with a grain of salt as subsequent historical analysis has shown that many of Mihailovic's assertions are inaccurate.

While inaccuracies exist, perhaps the most rewarding parts of Mihailovic's account are his assessments of Sultan Mehmet II (Machomet in this text) under whom he served, the components of the Ottoman administrative and military machine, and the problems Christian kingdoms faced when confronting that military. Mihailovic may or may not have actually been a Janissary, but there is little doubt that he served with them as his memoir suggests (xix). One must remember that his accounts come through a distorted lens--Mihailovic was a captive Christian, an outsider, offering commentary on his personal observations.

Mihailovic portrays Sultan Mehmet II as a deceitful ruler who constantly reneges on promises made to other rulers; he is also portrayed as unpredictable as he beheads one king but allows another to live following battles against him. At the same time, Mihailovic shows that Mehmet could be enormously gracious to his own soldiers, distributing money, titles and lands to those who served him well (60). Students will certainly love chapter 33 which describes the sultan's encounters with the Wallachian Duke Vlad II (Dracula) and his sons (65-68).

Information on the Ottoman army and navy are found throughout the book. Some of the most compelling information comes from the author's descriptions of battles in which he participated, largely found in chapters 27 through 34. During this part of the sultan's reign, 1455-1463, Mehmet II actively engaged in imperial expansion and Mihailovic describes battles in Morea, Trebizond, Moldavia, among others and against the Tatar ruler, Uzan Hasan. Mihailovic became such a trusted soldier that the sultan left the Serb in control of a fort at Zvecaj (in today's Croatia), commanding four dozen Janissaries against the Hungarian King Matthew Corvinus (Matyas in the text). Mihailovic did not hold the fort, but he joyously returned to Christendom by surrendering to the king (69-71). The last several chapters of Mihailovic's memoirs describe in great detail the sultan's court, his viziers, and the components of the army. Readers will be intrigued by the complexity of the army; teachers might encourage students to draw a chart of the Ottoman Imperial Court as explained by the author as a means to understand its many levels.

Mihailovic criticizes Christian princes who engage against the Ottomans. First, he suggests that the lack of unity among those princes makes them easy targets for the Ottomans. He writes, "The heathens [Muslims] are brave not only in themselves, but because of Christian discord. For Christian discord is heathen bliss and joy and our hatred and common malice bring the heathens victory" (53). Furthermore, he shows that European armies cannot expect to defeat the Ottoman military until they change their methods of fighting and recognize inherent weaknesses in Ottoman battle plans. Mihailovic suggests, "their [Ottoman] infantry cannot remain in the field long, for they do not prepare themselves for along duration, believing that it will always turn out for them as it has turned out previously" (85). He also suggests that the use of flaming arrows against the Janissaries in combat would send the camels into disarray, likely trampling the infantry (85). Mihailovic also advises that European soldiers should stop wearing armor as the Ottoman soldiers do not wear it, thus making them lighter and faster on the battlefield (86).

While reading his memoirs, it is not hard to imagine how Mihailovic's work, or parts of it, could be used in the classroom. It is particularly rich in opportunities to teach students about point-of-view. For example, the opening section of the book on Islam (chapters 1-8) could be used along side a secondary source on Islam. Mihailovic clearly does not grasp the depth of the faith and it might be valuable for students to read how a Christian describes something he knows little about, but also may feel hostile about because of his captive status. Muslims are regularly called "heathens" and Muhammad's life is described thus: "his evil forty-five years" (4). Further there are factual errors such as Mihailovic's description of Fatima as Muhammad's sister (she was his daughter) (4).

Another way one might employ this work in the classroom is to use it in comparison with other first-hand accounts. Excerpts from Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq's Turkish Letters might be considered. Busbecq, a Flemish diplomat serving Ferdinand of Austria, lived at the court of Sulieman the Magnificent for two years in the 1550s. Although writing several decades removed from one another and from different vantage points (slave soldier versus invited diplomat), both authors comment on Islam, the Ottoman government, and the Ottoman military. Another possible comparative text is the Akbarnama. The Muslim author of this work tries to make sense of Hinduism much in the same way that Mihailovic attempts to make sense of Islam.

The book also contains numerous components that make it a useful tool in the classroom. For example, the editor of the book, Svat Soucek included helpful annotations in the margins. There are some lovely illustrations, as well. The illustrations comprise of nineteen pieces of art, mostly woodcuts, from the 15th and 16th centuries. Extensive notes are also included. It would be helpful if the editor placed some of the explanatory and historical notes with the text, not as endnotes. Most readers will be content with linguistic notes remaining at the end, but the other notes would serve readers better in text.

Memoirs of a Janissary is an interesting account of a Serb slave soldier who served Sultan Mehmet II. The book itself makes a strong statement about the author's view of the Ottoman Empire and provides a small glimpse into Mihailovic's service in the Janissary corps.

Kathy Callahan

Murray State University
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Author:Callahan, Kathy
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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