Body and Soul: Turning Turk in Early Modern Barbary captivity narratives

Keady, Marion Ann
This thesis focuses on early modern Barbary captivity narratives which describe Christian encounters with the Islamic world, and gives particular attention to questions of sexuality and gender. From the short fledgling narratives written in the late sixteenth century to the more detailed accounts of the seventeenth century and extending the chronological framework to incorporate the first Barbary captivity narrative written by a woman in 1769 the thesis investigates the differences between male and female experiences of captivity and conversion, and in the public articulation of those experiences. It examines the complex relationship between truth and fiction in the narratives and how it changes over time. It looks at how early modern identity was articulated in print, how it might be transformed and what was at stake in that transformation. It investigates how conversion to Islam, known colloquially as ‘turning Turk’, was imagined and highlights the role of equivocation in conversion. I suggest that turning Turk was conceived not only as a spiritual conversion but as a physical transformation with sexual overtones. In the popular imagination, conversion to Islam damned the Christian soul and contaminated the body with permanent marks like circumcision and irreversible acts like sodomy and, for women captives, the loss of virginity. Chapter one provides an overview of how Islam was imagined and considers the pervasive fear that Muslims were intent on converting the whole world to ‘Turcism’, not only with their military strength but with the allure of their faith. The second chapter examines the cultural preoccupation with circumcision. The act of changing faith was confounded by an element of mystery surrounding the sexual dimension of circumcision. It was associated with emasculation, sexual violation or becoming a eunuch. Chapter three probes this association and examines how allegations of sodomy and sexual deviance attached to captives and renegades. Captivity narratives reveal anxieties about the penetration and defilement of Christian men by Muslim sodomites. Chapters four and five concentrate on women and maintain the focus on issues of sexuality. The temptation to forsake one’s religion and embrace Islam was embodied by exaggerated images of irresistible harem women. Simultaneously, reports of chaste Christian virgins enslaved in harems and forced to convert by lustful masters were widespread. Chapter five explores the experience of female captivity by analysing the narrative of Elizabeth Marsh, the first Barbary captivity narrative written by a woman captive in the period.
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland