The history of the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle – In Conversation with Dimitri J. Kastritsis

An Early Ottoman History focuses on the so-called ‘Oxford Anonymous chronicle’, a comprehensive history of the Ottoman dynasty in Turkish. We caught up with author Dimitri J. Kastritsis to discuss Ottoman history and what we can learn from the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle. 

Could you tell us a bit about the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle and the history behind it?

The term Oxford Anonymous Chronicle (abbreviated OA) has come to be used for an Ottoman history completed in 1484, which survives in a single manuscript now at Oxford (Bodleian Library, MS Marsh 313). Not much is known about the history of the manuscript, which had previously belonged to the Dutch orientalist Jacob Golius (d. 1667). It seems Golius had used it to teach himself Turkish, as it contains many notes in pencil translating Turkish words into either Persian or Latin. After Golius’s death, the manuscript was purchased at auction by Narcissus Marsh, Archbishop of Armagh, who bequeathed it to Oxford University in 1714. That is how the manuscript came to be associated with Marsh and Oxford.

Unfortunately, nothing is known of its history before it arrived in Holland. It is likely that Golius or someone else acquired it in Istanbul. It is clear from the quality of the manuscript itself (the nice calligraphy and use of gold ink) that it was originally intended as a presentation copy, almost certainly made for the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512). That Bayezid was the patron of the work itself is stated explicitly in its introduction, and is also clear from the content of the historical chapters (see below). The author-compiler is unknown. There must originally have been a title page with his name, which is now lost. He was probably a member of the scribal and religious classes (the ulema) and informs us that his family was ‘nourished for generations’ by the bounty of the Ottoman dynasty. Also, he tells us he was asked by Bayezid to compile a history of the dynasty in Turkish, the vernacular language ‘which is in use in the lands of Rum’ (Byzantium or eastern Rome, which by that time had come under Ottoman rule). This was a common trend in the fifteenth century, and reflects similar movements in western Europe and elsewhere toward the production of works in vernacular languages. It is important to bear in mind that when the Oxford history was being written, there were still scholars who believed the proper language for history was not Turkish but Persian.

Which sources did you draw upon during your research? Did you come across anything that you found particularly surprising?

For my research on the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle (as reflected in the Introduction and extensive footnotes, as well as the translation itself) I drew on a broad knowledge and interest in this period of history. My ultimate objective is to try to see the early Ottomans, late Byzantium and the wider Middle East as a whole. This is what I did in my first book, The Sons of Bayezid (Brill, 2007), which is a detailed study of a single decade in the early fifteenth century. It is also the goal of my next, much broader book project, for which I have an advance contract with Harvard University Press. In fact, I did most of the research for An Early Ottoman History while on a Byzantine Fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks (Washington DC, 2013–14) awarded to work on the aforementioned broader historical study. But all these projects are actually related. It is impossible to understand this period as a whole without an interdisciplinary perspective, as well as an understanding of cultural production, which includes histories like Oxford Anonymous.

From the beginning, what I have found most surprising about Oxford Anonymous is the fact that fully a third of the history (the middle part) deals with a single decade: the dynastic wars between the sons of Sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389–1402) following his defeat by Timur (Tamerlane) at the Battle of Ankara (1402). This is the reason I became interested in Oxford Anonymous already as a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. Working on An Early Ottoman History gave me the opportunity to broaden my perspective and see how this text fits into the larger compilation (see below).

How does the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle compare to histories written around the same time? Is there anything that makes it stand out in particular?

The Oxford Anonymous Chronicle should be seen in the context of other comprehensive histories of the Ottoman dynasty written under Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512). This was a time when the Ottomans were consolidating their empire following the conquests and centralizing measures of Bayezid II’s father, Mehmed ‘the Conqueror’ (r. 1444–46, 1451–81). During this time, the Ottomans felt the need to explain who they were, how they compared to other Islamic dynasties, and how their great conquests in Europe (especially Constantinople) fit into the course of history. There was controversy over right religion: different faiths, but also different ideas and schools within Islam. Other points of contention included the role of the state and different elites within it, and escatological expectations which were part and parcel of all these political and religious controversies.

In Oxford Anonymous, the importance of all this is apparent especially in the introductory sections, where the Ottomans are compared to other dynasties and given a genealogy tracing their origin to Esau, the son of the Hebrew Prophet Isaac. There is an interesting argument about how the Ottomans are legitimate because they did not usurp other major Muslim dynasties. This was important at a time when they were known for having absorbed the territories of many neighbours, including Muslim rulers. Another aspect of the Oxford chronicle that is remarkable is its focus on dynastic struggles between Ottoman princes. As already suggested above, the compiler of the history chose to base over one third of his survey of Ottoman history on an older epic account of such dynastic wars. In fact, there is similar material elsewhere in the history as well. I believe the obvious explanation is that when the compilation was being made, its patron Bayezid II was facing a rival claimant to the throne: his brother Cem Sultan (d. 1495), who was living in western Europe as a diplomatic captive.

How do you feel An Early Ottoman History paves the way for further research into the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle and the Ottoman Empire?

As an original study of the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle, my book picks up where the late Victor Ménage left off in the mid-1960s. Ménage, who taught at SOAS in London and died in 2015, is still viewed as having laid the groundwork for understanding early Ottoman historical writing. He had plans for an edition and study of Oxford Anonymous, but these never came to fruition. So in a sense, my book revisits the work of Ménage and other pioneers, but with a new eye since these people were of an older generation. Put simply, following the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ in the humanities beginning in the 1970s, it is no longer enough to focus simply on historical facts or the sources from which compilations like Oxford Anonymous are derived. These aspects are still important, and are ones where Ménage did exceptionally well; so I have done my best in the book to follow in his footsteps. However, it is also important to look in more detail at the relationship between language, culture, and society, and at the different meanings that can be conveyed through different styles.

In my translation, introduction, and footnotes, I have taken pains to show the reader unable to read the original text how the language and style change from section to section, and what this could signify. For this reason, among others, I think An Early Ottoman History will pave the way for further research in early Ottoman history and historiography. Moreover, these days there is a growing awareness of the need for translations of Ottoman texts to be used for teaching, as well as research by non-specialists. In this respect, I believe my book will play a truly pioneering role, as there is nothing like it available in English.

Dr. Dimitri J. Kastritsis is Lecturer in Ottoman History at the University of St Andrews.


Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.