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An extract from Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 2
by Ian Heath

[Based on Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berri,
folio 51v: The Meeting of the Magi
  [Based on Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berri,
folio: 52r Adoration of the Christ Child
1 & 2.      OTTOMAN SIPAHIS, 14th-15th CENTURIES

Pictures of Ottoman soldiers dating any earlier than the last quarter of the 15th century are very hard to come by. These two particular figures actually come from the ‘Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berri’, a ms. belonging to 1416, and are the earliest depictions that I have been able to find. Written descriptions too are uncommon before the 15th century. Fortunately, however, what evidence there is tends to confirm that their dress and equipment changed little between the 14th and 16th centuries, so that 15th century sources can safely be taken as representative of the previous century too.

One of the earliest Western descriptions of Ottoman military costume is that of Bertrandon de la Brocquière, a Burgundian traveller who visited the Ottoman Empire in 1433. He describes their dress as comprising 2 or 3 long cotton robes ‘which fall to their feet’, over which was worn another robe called a capinat, this time of felt, ‘in the manner of a mantle’; he records that this was light and waterproof. Knee-length boots were worn, plus ‘large drawers, some of crimson velvet, others of silk or fustian and common stuffs.’ He adds that ‘in war, or when travelling, to avoid being embarrassed by their robes, they tuck the ends into their drawers, by which they can move with greater freedom.’ For this practice see figure 3. From other sources we know that a turban wrapped round a red cap completed the costume. The turban was usually white, but it is worth noting that the battlefield of Kossovo Pole in 1389, strewn with turbaned heads, reminded one Turkish chronicler of a vast field of tulips. We know from Arnold von Harff’s account (1499) that the Silihdars at least all wore white turbans. Finally, all Turks wore beards.

Interestingly several contemporary Western sources are scathing regarding Ottoman arms. At his most optimistic Brocquière says that ‘the arms of those who have any fortune are a bow, a tarquais, a sword, and a heavy mace with a short handle, the thick end of which is cut into many angles. This is a dangerous weapon. … Several have small wooden bucklers, with which they cover themselves well on horseback when they draw the bow.’ Elsewhere, however, he reports that an eye-witness told him how amongst an Ottoman force returning from a raid into Hungary ‘there was not one in 10 that had both bow and sword’, and Brocquière himself confirmed that ‘of those I saw there were many more that had neither bow nor sword than there were armed with both’; this time he stated that only ‘the best-equipped’ had a small wooden targe. Pero Tafur too (1435-39) stated that the Ottomans ‘want [for] many of the essentials of war’, describing ‘the whole of their fighting outfit’ as comprising an iron staff (a ghaddara - see note to figures 17 and 18), bow, quiver and ‘tambourine’ (possibly meaning a small shield, but more probably a drum, for which see figure 31). Janus Lascaris, who wrote 1489-92, similarly described the sipahis (who, he says, were ‘assembled only with difficulty’) as ‘poorly-armed. Some carry a lance, but others only a scimitar or a bow.’ In another passage he even says that only ‘a part’ even of the cavalry of the Porte had bows and ‘carquois of arrows’. Basically, then, Ottoman cavalry were variously equipped with any or all of the following: lance, mace, sabre (kilij), shield, bow and tarquais or carquois, these latter being two variant corruptions (Italian turcassa was another) of the Persian word terkesh or tarkash, meaning a quiver. Brocquière described one he bought as ‘a white tarquais complete, to which hung a sword and knives’. The bow clearly remained the principal weapon of the Turks throughout this period. It was of composite construction, and usually decorated: surviving 15th century examples in the Topkapi Museum are painted in gold, green and blue arabesques and geometric patterns. The Topkapi also includes one 15th century example made of iron! For armour amongst sipahis see figure 9.

Next: 3 & 4. OTTOMAN INFANTRYMEN, 15th CENTURY in Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 2 by Ian Heath

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