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Frontiers Made Flesh: Byzantines, Ottomans, and their Animals

by Marissa Jeanne Smit, ANAMED PhD Fellow (2020–2021)

Being a virtual PhD fellow at ANAMED this year helped me begin research for my dissertation entitled “Frontiers Made Flesh: Byzantines, Ottomans, and their Animals.” While animals were, unsurprisingly, everywhere in the medieval period, their traces in historical sources can be challenging to follow. One means I tested to overcome this methodological challenge was designing a database to track animals attested in Ottoman estate inventories from sixteenth-century Edirne. Working from the corpus transcribed and published by Ömer Lütfi Barkan also helped me overcome the limitations on archival access posed by the pandemic. From the outset, I knew I wanted to consult a variety of sources, so to complement the database project, I also read local court records relating to lost, stolen, and appropriated livestock, chronicles, animal poetry, and more.

 Historians commonly lament that these early sources preserve few details about individual animals, and at times that is true. Occasionally, however, we do get deeper glimpses into the trajectories of specific animals that raise important questions about the nature of not only animal ownership but also perceptions about categorization and value.

For example, the fifteenth-century Byzantine chronicler George Sphrantzes memorialized the death of his horse during a battle outside the city of Patras. This unnamed but “excellent” animal is not described for its physical traits (such as breed, pedigree, color) or personality. Instead, Sphrantzes touts its status as a royal gift twice over: once from the Ottoman sultan to Isaac Asan, and then, after several intermediate owners, from the Byzantine emperor to Sphrantzes after George’s brother captured it as the spoils of war. This highly mobile horse thus passed through five hands before Sphrantzes took ownership.[1]

Elite diplomatic channels, however, were not the only means for such bewildering peregrinations by individual animals, as presented by an example from the court register of Üsküdar. In 1521, a man called Ömer arrived claiming to be the owner of a grey stallion that had been requisitioned by a messenger. He was informed that the local tax official had taken responsibility of the horse, which had then been entrusted to a yoghurt-maker from Gekvize and then a resident of Üsküdar proper, one Hasan. With the aid of two witnesses, the stallion was returned to Ömer: an unusual outcome, because in such cases the horses were frequently auctioned by the court and the money held.


[B] Ottoman forces (depicted at right) facing Safavids in Selimname f.133a from ca. 1525. Topkapı Sarayı Hazine 1597-98.

While different in many ways, both episodes highlight not only animal mobility but also how their mobility involved their owners in a host of complex social relations, in which institutions like the court played an essential role. Still, today we are left to wonder: how exactly did Sphrantzes learn his horse’s alleged ownership history (regardless of its factual accuracy)? Did his brother ask his defeated enemy about the captured mount? In the case of Üskudar’s court records, highly detailed forensic descriptions of disputed animals act as performances of ownership in their own right and far surpass the amount of information considered relevant for inventories.[2] Of course, their ultimate purpose was practical, underscored by the relatively few animals explicitly mentioned to have brands.

Early sixteenth-century Ottoman palace documents also follow the trend of privileging ownership history and note breed types and pedigree much less frequently. “Seeing a stable like the Ottoman state,” to borrow a phrase from James Scott, then, entailed a vision somewhat different from what we might expect. Horses came in, often as gift-tribute or pişkeş, and died, were re-assigned, or re-gifted as a donation, inʿām (the stable record-keepers scrupulously observed the unidirectionality of these terms). An inventory of the palace stables, such as the one supplied on the accession of Selim I in 1512, then, allowed its users to take stock not only of the animals themselves, but also the web of financial ties, political loyalties, and even marriage alliances binding Ottoman governors, officeholders, and appointees to the palace.[3] In a modern world of stud books, breeders’ associations, and DNA, the priorities of Ottoman record-keeping may seem sparse, but they are eminently suited to answering the question of who rather than what.

As I continue my research, I will be focusing on how these practices of gift-giving and record keeping developed and differed to try to understand more of the nuances of intercultural exchange around horses, which were valued by Byzantines and Ottomans alike, yet took on different meanings according to context, circumstance, and status.


[1] Geōrgios Phrantzēs, The Fall of the Byzantine Empire: A Chronicle, trans. Marios Philippides (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980): 37.

[2] Rifat Günalan and Coşkun Yılmaz, eds., Üsküdar Mahkemesi – 2 Numaralı Sicil (H. 924 – 927/M. 1518 – 1521), (İstanbul: İslam Araştırmaları Merkezi, 2010): #690, p.344.

[3] BOA Topkapı Sarayı Defterleri no. 10060, 10042.