Daily Archives: 17 August 2013

Ottoman Marriage and Divorce Practices, c. 1600

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 70-71:

Most Turks at this time seem to have been reasonably happy with one wife, perhaps because the dowry was given by the bridegroom, or because divorce in those days was easy — understandably so, since many boys married at thirteen or fourteen to girls of eleven and twelve whom they never saw before the nuptials.

But easy divorce had several curious consequences. A man could not marry a divorced woman until she had been divorced from her husband for four and a half months. If a man divorced his wife twice, he could take her back. But if, as sometimes happened after marital tiffs, he divorced her a third time, and then realised he still loved her, she could not return to him until she had been married to someone else. This was meant as a check against abusing easy divorce but it soon produced a professional intermediary willing to marry the lady for one night. He was usually old, paid for his services, and expected not to be over-enthusiastic in the performance of his duties.

Divorces — often followed by remarriage — were common among one class in Constantinople: the men who did have one or more concubines. Inevitably this led to friction, scenes of jealousy, and often physical violence, particularly if the wife felt that she was being cheated of her marital rights, for though the husband could call for his concubines six nights a week every Friday was strictly reserved for his wife.

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Circassian Beauty Health Tips, c. 1600

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 69-70:

The servant problem was non-existent, for the Constantinople slave market was open daily, except on Fridays, from 8 a.m. to midday. Behind an enormous wooden gate a large colonnaded courtyard was surrounded by small chambers (and a coffee shop for would-be purchasers who liked to dawdle). This was the slave market for ‘domestic servants’, mostly negresses, whose teeth, muscles, legs were examined with the methodical attention of a horse-trader. It was, of course, quite another matter to purchase a beautiful Georgian or Circassian girl as a mistress, for the best were inevitably snapped up for the Sultan, and indeed there was such a shortage that the Circassians, so it is said, soon had to start their own slave farms where ‘they grew beautiful women as other countries might grown wheat or cattle — for sale’. At least the slave farms produced one benefit for posterity, for ‘the avid demand for them in Istanbul encouraged parents to preserve their girl children from the disfigurement of the widespread smallpox by innoculation’ [by variolation].

It was from Circassia that innoculation spread westwards to the many European doctors living in Constantinople. However skilful the medical men might have been, their chances of curing female patients was somewhat restricted because they were never allowed to see them. They did the best they could — and it usually consisted of delivering a few leeches to bleed a patient, for leeches could be applied by eunuchs or slaves in the harem. They were a government monopoly, and huge numbers were exported to Germany and Russia. The best ones came from Anatolia — ‘they are said to be more eager to perform their duty’ — and when the cure was ended the haemorrhage was arrested by the Turkish equivalent of a modern styptic, a coating of pounded coffee, which was not uncomfortable unless the patient had to remain in bed, for as the coffee dried and fell off the bed became covered with grit.

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Filed under Caucasus, disease, Russia, slavery, Turkey