NL XLIV: The Turks

Index to this series

The last part of Collingwood’s New Leviathan (Oxford, 1942) is “Barbarism.” The first chapter of the part is “What Barbarism Is”; the remaining chapters describe examples of barbarism in turn. The fourth and last example is the one that Britain is fighting as Collingwood writes.

Sun behind mosque on cover of The Ottoman Centuries (Lord Kinross, a.k.a. Patrick Balfour)

In reviewing Collingwood’s book, we have reached only the third example, in Chapter XLIV. This chapter is called “The Turks.” Such a title needs an explanation or a disclaimer. The Turks in question are those that:

  1. Took Brusa (Bursa) in 1326 and made it the first Ottoman capital.
  2. Defeated at Nicopolis (İzmit), in 1396, the Christians who fought under Sigismund of Hungary in a late crusade.
  3. Took Constantinople (İstanbul) in 1453 and made it the third Ottoman capital (the second having been Adrianople (Edirne).

This list of three achievements is from ¶44. 83, which then continues: “at Constantinople they lost their last chance and committed themselves to a career as the sick man of Europe.”

Perhaps instead of Constantinople, Collingwood meant to name Vienna, which the Ottomans went on to besiege, but could not take. On the other hand, in each of the three listed events, the Turks were not exactly victorious over Europe, but only “in a good way to be victorious” (emphasis mine). In none of the events was European civilization destroyed, and at Constantinople the victors lost their momentum: “the Turks were never able, even at the height of their power, to register upon the body of Europe the knock-out blow that they needed for a decisive victory” (44. 84).

By Collingwood’s account, the decisive victory would have been for barbarism. Another kind of victory was won instead, as described in an important passage. Since the Turks “fail[ed] to keep the ice from packing around them,” in the metaphor from ¶41. 63,

44. 85. The result is visible in the Turkey of to-day, a country no longer to be tempted by a recollection of her ancestors’ thievery, but leading an honest and upright life.

44. 86. Those who remember the operations of 1915 and 1916 in the Dardanelles and in Mesopotamia may be glad that the Turks, who were then against us, are now for us.

44. 87. What is the cause of this change? It was because, during the same years in which the Germans turned to thievery, the Turks turned to honest ways.

This seems like a non-answer. It is not. To explain what the people called Turks were and are to Europe, it is no good to refer to material causes like “race,” or weather, or natural resources. The Turks simply were one thing, but now they have changed.

One might name Mustafa Kemal as the one who led Turkey to what Collingwood calls “an honest and upright life.” A general theme of Collingwood is that such changes are never complete. We may note today:

  • in Turkey, a resurgent fantasy of reviving the glory of the Ottoman Empire (this fantasy may have helped provoke the content of my last post);
  • in Britain, the recent defense by a member of parliament of his country’s use of concentration camps in the Boer War.

Collingwood’s line of thinking about how people change is found in his first published work, “The Devil” (1916), which we looked at in the context of Chapter XLI. However, the subject in “The Devil” is rather a negative change than the the positive one that we have been considering. The so-called Devil is needless as an hypothesis to explain evil, because

evil neither requires nor admits any explanation whatever. To the question, “Why do people do wrong?” the only answer is, “Because they choose to.” To a mind obsessed by the idea of causation, the idea that everything must be explained by something else, this answer seems inadequate. But action is precisely that which is not caused; the will of a person acting determines itself and is not determined by anything outside itself.

Nonetheless, when some evil purpose requires collective effort, it is likely to fail, because an evil will as such cannot cooperate with another. This is a theme of Collingwood now.


Calling a chapter about barbarism “The Turks” needs a disclaimer, and I have tried to suggest one. Titles like “The Turks” or “The Germans” should be understood to refer, not to an eternal race or nation, but to some people acting more or less together for a particular time. At the beginning of Chapter XLIV, Collingwood himself issues a disclaimer for his whole list of exemplary barbarisms.

  • The list is not complete (44. 1).
  • There is no complete list of barbarisms (44. 12).
  • Reasons should not be inferred for why a particular example is on Collingwood’s list (44. 11).
  • There could be reasons why a particular example on the list should not be there (44. 1).
  • Being a negative conception (44. 14–15), barbarism has no general characteristics (44. 13).
  • There could however be accidental resemblances among barbarisms (44. 16).

“Accidental resemblances” is my term. Collingwood uses the metaphor of “mimicry” in the natural world. A caterpillar may “imitate” a twig (44. 17). I do not know whether Collingwood means to allude to insects’ evolution of camouflage. If birds do not eat twigs, then butterflies may evolve so that their larvae look like twigs. One might attempt a similar materialistic explanation of facts in the human world; however, such an explanation would not be historical. Natural evolution is by inheritance of features that originate by random mutation in gametes. Inherited features may be “selected” for, but the selection is not considered to be an act of will. However, history is about what is willed.

Another disclaimer may be needed. Collingwood is not quite writing history—not in the sense that he described in “Democracy and Aristocracy,” when objecting to revolution as a pseudo-scientific term in history:

26. 79. To stop being surprised when the course of history waggles, and to think of it as waggling all the time; to stop taking sides, and to think of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ alike as human beings, partly good and partly bad, whose actions it is your business to understand; this is to be an historian.

If only for rhetorical purposes, Collingwood is now taking sides and considering the Turks of the past as villians.


Cover of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, volume III in the Penguin edition

For Turkish history, Collingwood’s sources are

I don’t suppose the bare story has changed much with further research, especially in the summary form that Collingwood gives. The moralizing tone may have changed; but Collingwood is writing a polemic, in a literal or etymological sense. He aims to contribute to the success of a real war—in Greek, πόλεμος.

Collingwood distinguishes between the Seljuks and the Ottomans, the latter of whom “in the later Middle Ages succeeded, with no very clear title, to the name which the Seljuks had made glorious or nefarious in the earlier
Middle Ages” (44. 2).

I considered the glory of the Seljuk name in “Turks of 1071 and Today.” In the year referred to, the Seljuk leader was chivalrous to the Greek emperor whom the Seljuks had just defeated at Manzikert. However, the Seljuks went on to conquer so much of Asia Minor that, according to Collingwood, the conversion of the inhabitants to Islam must have been forcible (44. 27). When the Seljuks took Jerusalem in 1076, they desecrated the holy places, as far as Christians were concerned (44. 28).

So much for the barbarity of the Seljuks, whose empire was by then “in a state of decay, and the history of the Crusades need not command our attention”—says Collingwood; but I would draw our attention to the Fourth Crusade of 1204, in which Latin Christians turned on their Greek co-religionists, capturing Constantinople and desecrating its holy place (St Sophia).

By Gibbon’s account at the end of his Chapter LVII, what the Seljuks did in Jerusalem was not so bad, compared to what Fatamid caliph al-Hakim had done:

A spirit of native barbarism, or recent zeal, prompted the Turkmans to insult the clergy of every sect; the patriarch was dragged by the hair along the pavement and cast into a dungeon, to extort a ransom from the sympathy of his flock; and the divine worship in the church of the Resurrection was often disturbed by the savage rudeness of its masters. The pathetic tale excited the millions of the West to march under the standard of the Cross to the relief of the Holy Land; and yet how trifling is the sum of these accumulated evils, if compared with the single act of the sacrilege of Hakem, which had been so patiently endured by the Latin Christians!

What al-Hakim had done was to obliterate the holy places, by Gibbon’s account a few pages earlier. Did the Europeans mount a crusade then? No, they only persecuted the Jews:

The temple of the Christian world, the church of the Resurrection, was demolished to its foundations; the luminous prodigy of Easter was interrupted, and much profane labour was exhausted to destroy the cave in the rock, which properly constitutes the holy sepulchre. At the report of this sacrilege, the nations of Europe were astonished and afflicted; but, instead of arming in the defence of the Holy Land, they contented themselves with burning or banishing the Jews, as the secret advisers of the impious Barbarian.

Evidently such details do not fit Collingwood’s rhetorical purpose.

In Anatolia, Christians of one kind or other re-established control over some part of what the Seljuks had earlier taken. Collingwood’s concern is with how the Ottoman Turks brought this land again under Muslim rule. Gibbon apparently blames “the political errors of the Greek emperor” (44. 33). Collingwood finds this analysis flawed, but proposes an alternative, which would seem to be materialistic. The Seljuks had induced (Collingwood does not say how) a decline in population (44. 34; by a misprint, the text reads 43. 34). This decline led to:

  1. Impoverishment (44. 37).
  2. Retardation of any recovery (44. 38).

“The Turks from the beginning of their history established themselves in a parasitic position relatively to their Christian neighbours” (44. 4). Collingwood’s immediate example is the Janissaries, consisting of Christian captives. They might correspond in general purpose, as well as name, to England’s later New Model Army. Lacking an explicit correlate to “model,” the Turkish term yeniçeri has the direct translation “new army.” However, Collingwood gives the unexplained translation “bright faces.” In 1826 these bright faces “were abolished, characteristically, by massacre” (44. 41).

Collingwood reviews the examples of barbarism so far given.

  1. The Saracens were barbarists, only until they understood that Islam could live with Christianity in the same world (44. 8).
  2. The Albigensians were inevitably at war with the Christians, who “recognized this in time, and so far as Europe was concerned stamped them out” (44. 81).
  3. “The Turks were the first to conceive the idea of barbarism as we know it to-day, and to see how it could be carried out” (44. 82).

If the sequence of examples is meant to exhibit a decline or a worsening, then “barbarism as we know it today” would seem to involve utter lack of scruple or trustworthiness.

Portrait (presumably imaginary) of Orhan Gazi, with facing biographical information in Turkish

Collingwood elaborates on the example of Orhan Gazi, son of the founder of the Ottoman (Osmanlı) dynasty:

44. 44. In 1346 Orchan married the Greek princess Irene and became an ally of the Emperor her father; but the alliance was precarious from the start; Orchan looked upon the Greek world merely as so much prospective plunder, and never intended that any treaty he had made with its members should bind him for a moment after it had outlived its utility to himself.

44. 45. If anyone doubted this, he need not wait long for evidence. Before the negotiations for the marriage of Irene were complete, Orchan had been in treaty for the hand of Anne of Savoy, whom he threw over when a richer alliance offered; but in the meantime he used the earlier negotiations as an opportunity for obtaining permission to hold a slave· market at Gallipoli.

44. 46. This permission gave him a formal claim, which he retained in spite of renouncing the intended marriage, to occupy positions on the European side of the Dardanelles. This is how the Turk obtained his foothold in Europe.

Collingwood has made at least one mistake here that seems not to be due to Gibbon: Irene was the wife of John Cantacuzene, who would later be emperor; and Orhan married the couple’s daughter, Theodora. By the account of John Julius Norwich (A Short History of Byzantium, p. 344), the marriage was for love, at least on one side:

Although John deplored the Turks as much as did the rest of his countrymen, on the personal level he had always got along with them remarkably well. With Orhan he quickly established a close friendship, which became yet closer when the Emir fell besottedly in love with Theodora, the second of his three daughters and, in 1346, married her.

The marriage was supposed to be useful for John, who could use the military support of the Turks in order to return to Constantinople as emperor. He was opposed by—Anna of Savoy, widow of the deceased Emperor Andronicus and thus mother of the heir presumptive, John. I find no suggestion (in any of my sources) that Orhan negotiated to marry Anna, except in this sentence of Gibbon’s Chapter LXIV:

By the prospect of a more advantageous treaty, the Turkish prince of Bithynia was detached from his engagements with Anne of Savoy; and the pride of Orchan dictated the most solemn protestations that, if he could obtain the daughter of Cantacuzene, he would invariably fulfil the duties of a subject and a son.

Engagements need not be for somebody’s hand in marriage: this meaning of the term is only labelled 2d in the definition of “Engagement” in the Oxford English Dictionary. There also seems to be no reason for Orhan not to ask of Cantacuzene something else that his rival Anna offered. Here is what Gibbon says presently about that:

In the treaty with the empress Anne, the Ottoman prince had inserted a singular condition, that it should be lawful for him to sell his prisoners at Constantinople or transport them into Asia. A naked crowd of Christians of both sexes and every age, of priests and monks, of matrons and virgins, was exposed in the public market; the whip was frequently used to quicken the charity of redemption; and the indigent Greeks deplored the fate of their brethren, who were led away to the worst evils of temporal and spiritual bondage. Cantacuzene was reduced to subscribe the same terms …

As for the Turkish foothold in Europe, Lord Kinross (The Ottoman Centuries, p. 38) blames it on the Christian mercenaries called the Catalan Grand Army, originally “under the command of a lawless soldier of fortune, Roger de Flor.” The aforementioned Andronicus’s grandfather Andronicus had hired the mercenaries for unspecified purposes; but they became troublesome, and “Roger de Flor was ill-advisedly murdered in the Emperor’s palace,” so the Catalans called in the Turks, “their former enemies,” for help in wreaking revenge.

Cover of Norwich's Short History of Byzantium

Collingwood acknowledges the Christians’ share in their own downfall. He blames further success of the Ottomans on:

  1. Inability of the subjects of such an old empire as the Roman one to conceive of a serious external threat (44. 58)—and to understand this, I might add, we may consider global warming.
  2. Christian treachery (44. 61):
    • Orban of Hungary supplied the gun that battered the walls of Constantinople (44. 6).
    • “To crown all, the Pope, Nicholas V, foretold the ruin of Rome’s hated rival” (44. 61).
    • Prince Radak (actually a Bogomil) handed over to the Turks the Bosnian fortress of Bobovac; but he “did not understand the game of treachery as the Turks played it,” and he had his head cut off (44. 66).

Collingwood elaborates on the lesson learned too late by Radak:

44. 67. The rules of the game, as understood by the Turks, are that there are no sides; you play, as children call it, all against all. In such a state of things, one player may have a kind of ascendancy over another, such that this other obeys the orders he gives him, strictly speaking they are not orders but what I have called (20. 5) force, and the giving of them I call not the giving of orders but the bringing of force to bear on someone.

We considered the danger of the Albigensian refusal to swear oaths. But perhaps at least the Albigensian heretics would insist that, as Christ enjoined, their every word had the strength of an oath.

I drafted this article while being diagnosed for the sciatic pain that struck on February 11, 2018, and turned out to involve partial foot drop. Printouts from MRI are the background for the book photos. I had surgery with Yunus Aydın on February 19, 2018.

One Trackback

  1. By NL XLV: The Germans « Polytropy on February 21, 2019 at 9:14 am

    […] « NL XLIV: The Turks […]

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