Devshirme is a Contested Practice
University of Utah
Published in Historia: the Alpha Rho Papers, Vol II.
The interpretation of devshirme by modern historians has compromised the historiography of this Ottoman institution because of the imposition of modern values on medieval people. Devshirme is a Turkish term translated the ‘levy of boys’ describing a draft of Christian boys who were enslaved for service to the sultan in his palace and to field his “new corps”, the janissaries. For centuries, government agents would come to Christian villages, and with the help of the priest and church birth records, they would select the best and brightest of the teenage boys. These boys were then dressed in the characteristic red janissary uniforms and marched away in cohorts to Constantinople where they were stripped, circumcised, and selected for further training or sent to Turkish farms for hard labor to toughen them for military service when they were older. Some of the boys taken did rise through the ranks to become the rulers of Ottoman society replacing the Turkish elite. Christian shepherd boys became head eunuchs, vezirs, and military generals.
The problem comes when modern scholars look at the incredible access to social mobility and political power provided to these minority boys and conclude that the draft was received passively, if not positively, by the Christian community. An examination of the Greek Christian sources, however, shows that Christian leaders had disagreements with devshirme on four counts; loss of freedom, loss of sons to bury fathers, morality issues, and the eternal damnation of the soul that came with being a circumcised Muslim. Surviving songs also express the emotional loss experienced by individual families. The Christian communities were not passive but took action to prevent devshirme. Desperate to save their sons, some resorted to violence, subterfuge, marriage of young children, fleeing to become refugees, and bribery. Christian resistance to devshirme existed across the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Examining Christian sources provides a much more accurate analysis of devshirme from the viewpoint of medieval Christians than having historians base their conclusions on modern secular values.
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