Sixteenth Century Society and Conference


Gentle Reader, If you think Basel is a center of the study of humanities–where Erasmus works at Froben’s press, and one can study Hebrew at the home of the Amerbachs or see Holbein painting around town–if you think Basel is a city of delight and learning, you will love Fort Worth, Texas.

Fort Worth

At least, during the last weekend in October of this year, when that city hosts the annual conference of the Sixteenth Century Society.  Here, scholars of great renown will gather to discuss topics as diverse as educating children; crime and punishment; Islam and the Turks; book collecting; death; my old colleague, Martin Bucer; and puffer fish.  By the muses!  It will be as exciting as the Frankfort book fair.  See the complete program.

Capito will be there.

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Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

From Christian child to Turkish Janissary

Diether von Michelstadt, Knight of the Holy Order of Saint John, missioned on the Isle of Rhodes, to his dear cousin, Wolfgang Capito.  May God bless you, beloved friend, in the sure hope of our resurrection on the last day.

Your welcome letter arrived today in good time, since our supply ships had favorable winds and nearly flew across the seas.  You say you have heard many horrible stories about the Turks and wonder if they are true.  You say you have heard of an elite army composed of stolen Christian children.  Sadly, this is indeed true.

Devsirme–Topkapi Palace

The practice is called the “devsirme,” which means “gathering,” and it is a human taxation, sometimes called the “boy harvest,” of the non-Muslim populations of Anatolia and the Balkans, primarily Greeks and Albanians and a few Armenians.  Every few years, the Sultan conscripts a certain percentage–perhaps ten percent–of Christian male children.  The boys are usually between eight and twelve years old.  The Sultan’s officer arrives in a village, the Christian fathers are ordered to appear with their sons, and the strongest, most promising boys are taken.

We hear many stories about this.  Some say the Christian parents will disfigure their sons to prevent their being chosen.  Others, that the Christians are starving and some children wish to go.  We hear that Muslim parents, desirous of the fine education and elite opportunities in the Sultan’s service, sometimes bribe Christians to claim their children.

Janissary–Gentile Bellini

The Janissary schooling, which may take 14 years, converts the children to the faith of Islam and teaches them the Ottoman view of the world.  They learn Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.  There is physical training, study of literature, the Koran, and the law called the Seriat.  The boys are separated forever from their families and, once in the palace school, they cannot leave for any reason or have any contact with the outside world.  They know they cannot marry until they retire.  They emerge passionate Muslims, eager to fight, ready to die for their faith and the Sultan.

The Janissaries live and train in tightly disciplined barracks communities to give them a cohesive strength unusual in any other army.  While many Turks favor beards, the Janissaries wear only a mustache and shave their heads, except for a scalp-lock.

Although they are slaves, they are well paid, have striking uniforms, and the best food and equipment available.  Their distinctive headgear looks like a folded sleeve.  A Muslim holy man, Hajji Bektash, blessed the new soldiers upon the founding of the corp.  Some say the sleeve of his robe touched their heads.  Others say he tore the felt sleeve off his white coat and placed it on a soldier’s head, calling him a “new trooper.”  Either way, the Janissaries wear these sleeves in remembrance.  Even in peacetime, the Janissaries never disband, but improve their training skills and their military installations, much as we are doing ourselves at the present moment.   They are expert with firearms and a great variety of other weapons of the most modern sorts.  They often carry small hand bombs called “grenades” because of their similar aspect to pomegranates.

In addition to his Janissaries, the Sultan can put an army in the field with hundreds of thousands of armed men, from his territories’ vast populations, and equip them with good arms and generous provisions, from his limitless wealth.   The majority of these soldiers are feudal cavalry, armed with lance and bow, brave, but not always well led.   But these are supported by artillerymen with some of the largest cannon in the world.   Their supplies of good powder and abundant shot allow them to maintain a steady fire by day and night.   The army is well served by a supply corps, by sappers and miners for an extended siege, and by a medical branch for the sick and wounded.

As you know, we are only a few leagues from the Turkish coast, with no other armed Christians nearby.

We concentrate on the addition of several small strong points in front of the main walls.  These go by the name of ravelin or demi-lune, and are intended to stop the shot from Turkish heavy cannon from reaching the main curtain walls.  Our supplies of rations and weapons are already quite large.  Together with our large supply of fresh water, I suppose we might survive a blockade of a hundred years.  The Sultan may indeed attack Rhodes, but I promise you, he will pay a dear price, including ruinous casualties to his precious Janissaries.  As always, we rely not only on our own arms, but on the mercy of God.  May he be eternally praised in all we do.

Sincere thanks for your welcome letters.  May your days be as happy and sunny as ours here in the Levant.


Diether von Michelstadt created by Leopold Glueckert, O.Carm.,Ph.D

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Published in: on September 16, 2011 at 9:52 am  Comments (1)  

Jon Sayles, Heinrich Isaac, and a Hound

All parts of all music performed by Jon Sayles.

You see jugglers.  You see sword swallowers.  You see a man with a tiger in a cage.  You see a man with a Turk in a cage.  Relic sellers rattle their wooden saints’ medallions or their bones.  A mime follows you, imitating your movements for a few seconds.

Entertainers and vendors work the crowd of people making their way to the dedication of a new church.  Or celebrating a saint’s day.  Or just coming to a market fair.

You see a group of coarse players enacting the story of Pope Joan, who pretended to be a man and was elected pope until she bore a child and came to ruin.  A Meistersanger fills the air with a lyric poem set to music.  His song tells of Neidhart, who found a violet and rushed to tell the Duchess, but while he was gone, a peasant picked the violet, sending Neidhart into a rage.

You have brought your food from home, dried meat, bread, and a crock of pumpkin compote.  But you cannot resist the food vendors.  The sausages sizzling in skillets.  The whole hog rotating on a spit turned by a dog-powered treadwheel.  The very salty radishes.  The gingerbread cookies shaped like St. Anthony’s pig.  The beer flowing in rivers from casks and kegs.

There is music.  Hurdy-gurdies.  Pipes and tabors.  Portive organs.  Bagpipes.  A fidel.  But what are the tunes?  (Take a deep breath, relax, and listen, Gentle Reader.  Time travel takes only a few seconds.)

Perhaps you hear Die Katzenpfote (Cat’s Feet  1:37).

Or Ich Weiss Nit (I Know Nothing  2:16).

Or, my own favorite, Shaerffertanz.  (Shepherd’s Dance  1:37).

These wonderful songs, and many more, are available for free, thanks to the talent, generosity, and love of music of Jon Sayles.  Today, Capito speaks with this musician, blessed by Euterpe.

Capito:  Thank you, Master Sayles, for agreeing to speak with me.  And thank you for the wonderful gift of this music.  How did you become interested in classical guitar?

My mother was a music major, and my father, a naturally gifted jazz pianist.  He brought me a ukelele when I was about seven.  I learned to play it and a Roy Rogers plastic guitar at that time.  There have been numerous music teachers whom I owe huge thanks, and I have dedicated my site to them.

Capito:  And what prompted you to devote so much time and effort to early music?

At the University of Hartford, I was fortunate to work with Joe Iadone, a world-class lutenist, who introduced me to early music.  I taught music until 1983 and then switched to software development.  Now I take my two weeks of IBM vacation in December to record new tunes for the website.

Capito:  Your site has an interesting collection across several centuries and countries.  You have brought these songs out of rare academia and given them to the world.  And what a great job you do in performing them.  Let’s listen to a few more tunes composed by Heinrich Isaac.

Maudit Soy  (1:21)

And here’s the hound.  Der Hund  (the Dog 2:29)

Isaac is a very popular composer.  He was a singer for Duke Sigismund (a Habsburg) in Innsbruck in 1484.  The next year, he went to Florence, where he was employed as a singer at the church Santa Maria del Fiore.  He composed several important pieces in Florence, under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici.  Isaac performed in Rome for the coronation of Pope Alexander VI.  In 1496, he moved to Vienna.  He was court composer for the Emperor Maximilian I and remains in his employ, though not in Innsbruck.  One of Isaac’s most famous works is the poignant Insbruck ich muss dich lassen (Oh Innsbruck, I must leave you.)

Here’s what I, Capito, know.  It is one thing to be a scholar of history, learning dates, wars, movements, religion.  Even knowing details of food, clothing, and farm implements.  But only when the music of a people comes alive for you, do you feel their soul.


Capito thanks Susan Iadone for her help with this post.

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Published in: on September 9, 2011 at 6:55 am  Comments (2)  
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Capito Moves Away

(Illustrations from Illustrissimi Wirtembergici Ducali Novi Collegii Quod Tubingae qua situm qua studia qua exercitia Accurata Delineato digitized for the the Wolfenbüttel Digital Library by the Herzog August Bibliothek.)

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May 1512

I can’t sleep.  Two litanies of thoughts, like two acts of the same play, go through my head simultaneously.  One is comprised of scenes from my life here at the university since I returned in 1509; the other, the conversation we had at the Hog Snout tonight.

“I don’t think you should do it,” Zell said.  “The money is not everything.  We can get by.  I’ll soon be lecturing more.”

“How quickly life changes,” Michael said.  “I thought your plans were firm to stay here at the university until you secure your Doctorate.  Hubmaier is already gone,” he said sadly, “and now you’re leaving as well?”

“Stop it,” I said.  “You’re breaking my heart.”

“Why don’t you just become a Benedictine?” Michael asked.  “If you are going to be preaching in their church?”

“The canons don’t just preach,” Fabri said.  “They are advisors to the Bishop.  They handle the administration of the funds of the church and run the benevolent programs.  Doubtless, the Bishop of Speier wishes to surround himself with trustworthy men of scholarship.  That’s why he’s called our Capito to be canon and preacher to the Benedictine canonry.”

“The Bishop says,” I glanced at the letter I received earlier, “that I would perform errands and undertake missions for him.”

“This can be your first step to ecclesiastical politics,” Fabri said.  “You will meet important people, and they will recognize your talents.  It’s no small opportunity,” he added, “since we sons of blacksmiths have to make our own success—for we begin life with no title, no land, and no income.”

“What of your studies?” Zell said.  “Will you ever get your Doctorate?”

“I can continue to study,” I said.  The canonry is populated by the sons of poor nobility from the ‘castles of misery.’  They are not so devout as to want a sermon every hour.  I’ll have time to study.  I can still get my Doctorate from this university if I pass my trials.

Zell shook his head.  “You’re just trying to avoid this investigation.”

I shifted on the bench.  It was true that the victims of Eck’s graffitti campaign would not let the matter die, and they had howled to such an extent that the university prolonged the investigation.  I could be further implicated and punished, which would look bad on my record.  If I left, the matter would be dropped.

“Eck!” Zell said, as if it were distasteful in his mouth.  “First he lures Hubmaier to Ingolstadt.  Now you are leaving because of him.  He’s like a giant boulder dropped in a pond, and the ripples just go on and on.

“I need the money,” I said.  “It’s not that I want luxuries.  But I’m exhausted with keeping the wolf from the latchstring.  I want to repay my debts.  To buy books.  To eat regularly.”

“So you’ve decided then,” Zell said.  “You’re going to move to Bruchsal and work for the Bishop?”

“I think so.  I can still visit.  Bruchsal is not so far, just up the Rhine to the north.  I can come visit easily.  I can catch a boat.”

Michael lay his hand on mine.  “I shall miss you.”

Zell laid his hand atop ours.  “So shall I.  Especially as my roommate.  The snoring and farting.”

Fabri added his hand.  “We shall all leave someday.  Nothing lasts forever.”

Then the young monk lay his other hand on the very top.  “This is for Hub,” he said.  “We’re brothers all.  For all time.”

“For all time,” I said, my throat tight.

And the others repeated, “For all time.”

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