Unusual Readers in Early Modern Istanbul

Manuscript Notes of Janissaries and Other Riff-Raff on Popular Heroic Narratives

In: Journal of Islamic Manuscripts
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  • 1 Istanbul Şehir University, History Department

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Abstract

New social groups such as janissaries, artisans, madrasa students, and ‘middle-class’ bureaucrats have gradually increased their visibility in the social, cultural, and literary landscape of early modern Ottoman Istanbul. Scholars have discussed this new visibility, among others, by observing official regulations, contemporary Ottoman chronicles and travel accounts, artistic and architectural transformation, diversification of literary genres, and the socio-economic background of their writers. In this article, I offer another modest and intimate first-hand source for elucidating the habitus of these new urban agents: visual and written notes on the manuscripts of popular storybooks dating from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Thanks to these notes on hundreds of manuscripts, we learn about political standings, literary tastes, codes of identity formation, the ways of self-depiction, social networks, and emotions of Ottoman individuals. By focusing in particular on the notes and doodles of Janissaries on popular heroic narratives, I argue that the gesture of taking notes and drawing symbols on a manuscript is a way of taking a stance against the political, religious, and literary authorities.

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