Word of the Week, 10/3-10/7/2011 — janissary

janissary (noun) A member of a group of loyal or subservient troops, officials, or supporters.

When it was finally clear that Carmine DeSapio had been thrown out by the ideological janissaries and the playboy reformers, there were still the conventional and highly poignant rituals to go through.

~ The Lexicon, A cornucopia of wonderful words for the inquisitive word lover, by William F. Buckley, Jr.

The term janissary originates in Turkish and comes into English through Italian and then Middle French: yeni new+ ceri soldiery > Turkish yenicery > Italian giannizzero > Middle French janissaire.  (The World Book Dictionary)  The Turks originated further east of the Muslim empires as nomadic tribesmen.  As warriors they harried these empires, eventually were paid to aid in the defense of Muslim polities before conquering their employers and setting themselves up as sultans.  The first wave of Turks to take over were the Seljuks, followed by the Ottomans.  The Ottoman Empire introduced highly functional gunpowder weaponry (with accompanying tactics) and the janissaries.  It would be the Ottomans who finally defeated the lonely city-state of Constantinople, a mere shadow of the old Eastern Roman empire founded by Constantine and fitfully maintained by his Byzantine successors, and the Ottomans who would come knocking on the gates of Vienna, further by far than any of their predecessors since the Muslim forces faced Charles the Hammer Martel in Poiters nearly a thousand years earlier.

The Ottomans needed manpower to “build up slave forces to supplement, subdue and replace free Turkish warriors.”  It had already been part of tradition to use slaves, but Ottoman forces upped the ante by expanding from the original target regions beyond the realm in the Caucasus or Central Asia, through the devshirme tax on Christian populations in the Balkans–the first systematic recruitment of slaves for the army and the first attempts from within the state.  The janissaries were formed from these recruits–not for an elite cavalry as had been previously done with slaves, but for an elite infantry, armed with firearms and combined with artillery.  In contrast to the garrisoned janissaries, the cavalry was turned into a “landed gentry” for the purposes of settling the frontier and fortifying the empire.  (Ira M. Lapidus, “Sultanates and Gunpowder Empires,” The Oxford History of Islam, ed. Jonathan Esposito)

Although the janissaries were slaves from outsider populations, they were raised in strict devotion to the sultan and united in their upbringing through the “Ottoman way.”  Through this means, they also created a ruling caste, but one that assured the diffusion of power among its elements as only new slaves could be elevated to positions of power–children of slaves were ineligible.  In this way, they were the instruments of the sultan, loyal first of all to him and united by his guiding hand through education.  (Ditto.)  All of these features made the Ottoman armies a devastating force in the Middle East and Europe, particularly as Europe struggled to keep up with the superior arms and fire power of the Ottomans.  The development of European arms is crucial in turning the tide and becomes a major tool in imperialism–not truly achieved until the 19th century.

In fact, Muslim forces were superior in virtually every respect until that time period.  It was only with a break in continuity and through internal squabbling that the First Crusade was able to gain its rather pathetic toe-hold in the Holy Land, and it was held for less than a century.  The Muslims completely forget about the Crusades until 19th and 20th centuries, because it was such a negligible moment in their history.  Every time the western forces could line up and get a good and proper charge into their enemies they stood pretty favorable odds of winning, but it was so easy for their enemies to avoid being lined up for such a charge that the advantage was rendered irrelevant.  Most of the time, the Crusaders were undermanned and cut down on their way to and fro, where they could not be fully armored and were always vulnerable.  Insufficient manpower–well-documented and disproving any ideas about a medieval origin for colonialism in the Holy Land–frequently left large gaps in city and fortress defenses which wiped the Latin presence off the continent with relative ease.  These forces progress to an even higher level with the janissaries.

As indicated by the Buckley usage above, the term refers, today, to a loyal subject, often with a negative connotation.  As the old bogey man of the Western World, the janissaries were for centuries seemingly impervious because of their Spartan-like upbringing and their superior weaponry and tactics.  Today, it is seldom, if ever, employed in a laudatory manner in English.


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