19th Century

The Janissary and Massacre of the Christians (1850) | G. W. M. Reynolds

The following short story was written by George W.M. Reynolds and published in two instalments in Reynolds’s Miscellany during 1850. Set in the 1300s, at a time when Ottoman forces were making inroads into Europe, it tells the story of Sisman, a young man from Bavaria who, having been captured by the Ottoman army is forced to become one of the Sultan’s Janissaries. It has been transcribed by Stephen Basdeo.

Jannisaries as depicted in the 1500s.

The Janizary; or, The Massacre of the Christians

Part One.[1]

On the eastern frontier of Bavaria, towards the close of the fourteenth century, dwelt an old man, of the name of Schildberger, upon the small farm which himself and his two sons cultivated, and where they passed their time in tranquillity and happiness. The mother of the young men had died when they were in their infancy; but their father had reared them with even unusual parental care, and regarded them as the dearest ties which bound him to existence, as well as the most inestimable treasures that could render that existence happy. Karl, the elder, was a noble-looking youth, with fine dark eyes, a Grecian cast of countenance, and a tall muscular frame, which was, however, modelled in the most symmetrical proportions. He was always the conqueror in the sylvan sports of the district in which he dwelt—ever the first to climb the loftiest tree of the forest, and the most skilful of all the neighbouring peasants in transfixing the winged tenant of the woods with his sharp-pointed arrow.

Sisman, the younger son, was of a more tranquil and retiring disposition, and was equally opposite to his brother in personal appearance. His long flaxen hair floated over his shoulders; his throat, which was invariably left exposed, was as fair and beautiful as that of a woman; his mild blue eyes denoted the amiability of his temper; and his slender form, elastic and graceful, seemed unfitted for the rude labours of the field or the forest. Notwithstanding this difference in character and appearance between the two brothers,—and although their tastes were entirely discrepant, the younger devoting all his leisure time to books and studious pursuits,—the most perfect harmony existed between them; and old Schildberger enjoyed the most complete domestic bliss with his two much-loved sons.

In the village to which Schildberger’s farm was adjacent, dwelt an old man, who was also a widower, and who possessed a beautiful daughter of the name of Marietta. The father of this charming girl had served under the Kings of Hungary, in their wars against the Turks, and had acquired a sufficiency of booty to enable him to retire to his native village at an advanced period of life, purchase a small farm, and congratulate himself upon being enabled to pass the remainder of his days in peace and tranquillity. Marietta was her father’s pride and hope, and was the exact image of the much-loved partner whom he had lost. At the age of twenty she was still unmarried; but the village gossip assigned her, in anticipation, to one of the brothers Schildberger—but to whom public rumour did not decide. Neither had made any direct proposal—at least. so far as that same gossip could determine ; and both were equally frequent in their visits to Herman’s cottage—both equally assiduous in their attentions to Marietta. On her part she seemed by her behaviour and manners to have formed no preference:—her dark blue eyes were animated with joy when Karl bore off the prize at the village sport, and she melted into tears when Sisman sang one of those affecting ballads of the country which suited his melodious voice so well, or listened with interest and pride when he maintained an argument upon some difficult subject with the priest or the schoolmaster of the little village. But that decision, to which neither the young maiden herself nor the two brothers appeared inclined to arrive, was one day settled by the fathers.

“Schildberger,” said Herman, on a fine summer evening, when the young folks were diverting them; selves in the rustic dance—an amusement, by the way, in which Sisman seldom joined,—“we have known each other for many years—we are equally matched in the possession of this world’s wealth—and we shall soon be called away from the scenes where my daughter and your sons are now disporting. Shall we not perpetuate this friendship in our families? shall we not cement it by nearer and dearer ties?”

“I understand you,” answered Schildberger, pressing his old friend’s hand: “Karl loves Marietta—I know he does—I can read the sentiments of his heart,—and he is only a year older than your daughter. They will be well matched.”

“Agreed,” said Herman; “and for my part I do not care how soon the nuptials take place. This day month let them be made happy.”

The agreement was ratified with an extra tankard of foaming beer; and that same night Herman communicated his decision to Marietta, who blushed deeply, smiled almost involuntarily, and offered no objection. On his part, Schildberger informed Karl of the arrangement entered into, and the young man received the tidings with rapture.

The illustration that accompanied Reynolds’s story

But Sisman—poor Sisman—also loved Marietta with the most deeply-seated, impassioned tenderness, although he had never suspected the real nature of his feelings with regard to her until the truth flashed upon him when he overheard his sire make the before-mentioned announcement to Karl. The younger brother said not a word—betrayed not his secret by a single apparent emotion: he buried his grief—his bitter, bitter disappointment in his own heart—and therefore felt the sting the more acutely.

The very next morning, by a strange coincidence, a Bavarian nobleman, who dwelt in the neighbourhood, stopped at the door of Schildbergers’s cottage, to request wherewith to quench his thirst. Sisman hastened to supply the best flagon of beer which the house could produce; and John Greif, the noble alluded to, was immediately struck by the appearance of the youth, who was at that time only eighteen years of age, Karl being three years his senior. The father of the two youths issued from his cottage at the moment, to solicit the nobleman to honour his humble dwelling by partaking of some refreshment within its walls; and Greif, after having courteously declined the hospitable offer, spoke to the old man of Sisman. The father, with the natural garrulity of a parent upon such a subject, immediately expatiated upon the admirable qualifications of his younger son; and the baron proposed to take him into his service. Sisman accepted the offer with thanks, and without giving his father time to decide for him. The young man was anxious to remove, at least for a time, from the vicinity of Marietta, and to avoid as much as possible all chance of betraying his own passion to his own brother:—his motives were excellent, although his father did not comprehend them; and, after many vain endeavours on the part of the old man to dissuade his son from leaving the paternal roof, the representations of the noble and the entreaty of Sisman prevailed. The baron promised the old man that his son should visit him from time to time; and he moreover declared that he would take upon himself the care of providing for him in after life. Such flattering prospects as these had their influence with a father naturally anxious to promote his children’s welfare; and the same motives succeeded in reconciling Karl to a separation from his brother.

Sisman became a species of page or valet to the baron, by whose family and household he was treated with the utmost kindness and consideration. He had plenty of leisure time upon his hands, and he diverted himself with the few manuscripts which existed in his master’s library—if a huge oaken chamber, with two shelves in it, deserve the name. From these books, Schildberger the younger obtained an insight into the Ottoman character; and he longed to accompany his master, or some other chieftain, upon an expedition against the fierce Moslems. This feeling on his part was the result of curiosity, and not of military enthusiasm; and it was gratified sooner than he had anticipated, or perhaps even desired. Scarcely had he been three weeks in the service of John Greif, when that nobleman published a proclamation throughout his fief, calling upon those who owed him feudal service, to hasten and range themselves beneath his banner, as he intended to join, without delay, the main body of Bavarian troops, which was destined to join the Christian league against the encroachments of the Ottomans. Sisman at once signified his intention of accompanying his master, in the hope that his enlistment in the baron’s forces-would exempt his brother Karl from service. Karl, as the farmer’s eldest son, was the one why, according to the laws of feudal tenure in those times, should have braced on the iron panoply of war and followed his lord to the field; but Karl was engaged to wed the beauteous Marietta, who loved him sincerely—and Sisman had no such tender tie to bind him to one particular spot, or render him over careful of his life. John Greif consented to exempt the elder brother from service, on condition that Sisman should accompany the expedition in his stead. The poor old father, who was heart-broken at the idea of separating from his younger boy under such painful circumstances, nevertheless found himself compelled to agree to this arrangement; and Sisman departed, with the blessings of his sire, the heartfelt gratitude of Karl, and the fervent wishes of Marietta for his success, to cheer him in his wanderings afar from home.

The Elector Palatine and the Count de Mumpelgarde, Castellan of Nuremberg, commanded the Bavarian auxiliaries, of which corps the followers of John Greif formed a considerable section. In the early part of spring, in the year 1396, the chiefs of the Christian army held a grand consultation at Vienna, and the plan of proceeding was laid down. About the same time that John Greif crossed the Bavarian frontiers, on his way into Hungary, with the other auxiliaries of the same Palatinate, Karl and Marietta were united by the village pastor.

A few weeks after that event, and while Karl was happy in the arms of his beloved bride, the allied army commenced its march against Bajazet-Ilderim, the third descendant of Osman. The Hungarian army marked its passage through Servia by the most horrible pillage and devastation. The French forces passed by way of Transylvania and Wallachia; the other auxiliaries took different routes; the general point of meeting being beneath the walls of Nicopolis: a city upon the Danube belonging to the Ottomans.

Ottomans. Pepe Sigismund, King of Hungary, passed through Servia, and commenced the passage of the Balkan. The Balkan is an assemblage of chains of mountains, which almost entirely protect Bulgaria on one side, that province being only accessible, throughout its whole length, from the seven defiles of the Balkan, with which the Danube runs parallel. Each defile is closed on the northern side, upon the banks of that river, by a stronghold well-fortified. The fifth defile, which is called Demurkapou by the Ottomans, leads by way of Timova to Nikobi, and thence to Sistov. It was by this defile that Sigismund, with his Hungarian warriors, passed the chains of the Balkan. He captured Widdin, Orsova, and Roco, and thence proceeded to the vicinity of Nicopolis, where he was joined by the other divisions of the confederate Christian army.

The allied forces now amounted to sixty thousand men. The French auxiliaries, consisting of about seven thousand men, were commanded by the valiant Count de Nevers, the son of the Duke of Burguudy, and only twenty-two years of age. Under his orders were James of Bourbon, the Count de la Marche, and Henry and Philip de Bar. Philip d’Artois, the Count d’Eu, the Admiral John of Vienna, and the Marshal Bourcicault, were amongst the chieftains of the Christian army. Myrtesa, Hospodar of Wallachia, commanded his own troops in person. It was a fine army, and every heart beat high, with the hope of crushing the power of the Ottomans for ever.

The siege of Nicopolis commenced. Toghanbeg, who commanded the garrison, felt so convinced that the Sultan Bajazet-Ilderim would repair to his succour that he valiantly sustained the attacks of the Christian forces. The chieftains of the allied army gave themselves up to all sorts of debaucheries and pleasures, instead of prosecuting the siege with vigour; and thus the Mussulman commandant was enabled to gain time. The Christians spoke of Bajazet with the utmost contempt, declaring that he would never dare to leave his dominions in Asia Minor, and Brisa his capital, to meet the invaders. So great was the security into which the allied forces had lulled themselves by their arrogance and vain glory, that when scouts gave notice that the whole Ottoman army, under the command of the sultan in person, was only seven or eight miles distant, the Marshal Bourcicault threatened to punish them for having propagated false reports.

“Our army is so numerous,” said the arrogant Christian chiefs, “that if the sky should fall it would remain supported, like a canopy, upon the points of our lances.”

“Within a very short time,” exclaimed Bajazet, on his side, “I will convert the principal altar. piece of St. Peter’s at Rome, into a hay-rack for my horse.”

The warning voices of the scouts had been neglected; and already had the Ottoman light troops begun to form themselves upon the plain behind Nicopolis, when the warriors of Christendom called to arms. They now believed that the sultan had ventured to cross the Bosphorus; but they hoped to drag him in chains ere sunset, to the pavilion of Sigismund, the generalissimo of the confederate army. The French knights abandoned the gaming tables to buckle on their armour; and the Count de Nevers demanded the post of honour for his cavalry during the combat. In vain did Sigismund who was well acquainted with the mode of Ottoman warfare, implore the count to restrain his impatience, and reserve his force to meet the Janizaries and the Sipahis, who were the flower of the Moslem army;—the Constable Philip d’Artois, and the Marshal Bourcicault, supported the count’s demand; and Sigismund was compelled to accede to the arrangement proposed. The foolish pride of the French chivalry now degenerated into barbarity, for several Turkish stragglers, who had been made prisoners, were massacred by order of Bourcicault before the fight commenced. And then after this sanguinary prelude, which was duly reported to the sultan, who swore he would take a deadly vengeance upon the Christians—the battle of Nicopolis began.

Nothing could exceed the fury with which the French chivalry attacked the advanced guard of the Moslem forces. The Christians carried everything before them;—the Azabs were dispersed or cut to pieces, and even the terrible Janizaries themselves were compelled to retreat. Ten thousand Turks already covered the field of battle; and cries of victory resounded throughout the ranks of the chivalry of Gaul.

On—on rushed the French warriors, bearing down all who opposed their progress, and covering their path with the bodies of their slaughtered foes. They reached the bottom of a hill, on the slope of which the Sipahis were posted. Without waiting to breathe his horse, the Count de Nevers dashed on, followed by his dauntless warriors. The Sipahis were routed, and compelled to disperse in all directions. A warrior was now despatched by the count to the King of Hungary, to assure him that the victory was already Won, and that in another hour the entire Ottoman army, “would be annihilated by the French forces alone.” The French knights pursued their victorious career: they thundered up the slope of the hill—they reached the summit—and they reined in their steeds by a sudden and simultaneous motion. Beneath them—like a forest of trees, were forty thousand lances—the reserve of the Ottoman army,under the command of the sultan himself. A panic seized upon the French troops, who found thenmselves thus suddenly arrested in their victorious career; and the Sipahis, who had now rallied, cut off all hope of retreat. To conquer or to die, were now the alternatives between which the gallant French knights were placed; and they precipitated themselves with desperate fury upon Bajazet’s reserve. Of that valorous Christian band, only the Count de Nevers, with twenty-four of his companions-in-arms, survived; they were made prisoners, and passed to the rear of the Ottoman army.

The moment the news of the total defeat of the French troops reached the main-body of the Christian forces, the right and left wings took to flight precipitately. The Wallachian forces also fled; and the Styrians and Bavarians alone remained faithful to their cause. At the head of twelve thousand troops only, Sigismund advanced upon the Ottomans; but the crescent triumphed over the cross on this fatal day; Sigismund with difficulty escaped from the field of his defeat; the greater portion of the Bavarian and Styrian forces perished gloriously in the defence of their banners; and thus was the Christian army annihilated by the votaries of the Prophet Mohammed. Amongst the prisoners captured in this memorable combat, were John Greif and Sisman Schildberger.

Immediately after the battle, the Sultan Bajazet established his camp beneath the walls of Nicopolis. When he surveyed the field of strife, and beheld upwards of thirty thousand Mussulmans stretched lifeless upon the plains, his rage knew no bounds. He muttered threats of deadly vengeance; and on the following morning, he commanded the prisoners to be brought into his presence. Then commenced a terrible massacre, the horrors of which no human pen nor tongue can narrate. The Count de Nevers was compelled to be a spectator of the fearful sight,—John Greif was amongst the first of those whose heads rolled at the feet of the tyrant; but Sisman was spared, in consequence of a law which enjoined the Moslems to sacrifice no one under the age of twenty who was captured in warfare. The carnage lasted from the dawn of day to the evening; and then—when the blood of ten thousand Christians had somewhat appeased the vindictive thirst of the tyrant—the grandees of the Ottoman Empire fell at his feet, and implored his mercy for the survivors. The appeal was granted; and the two thousand Christians, who still remained, were distributed as slaves amongst the Moslem chieftains.

The Count de Nevers and his noble companions were shortly after ransomed and released, Schildberger was ordered to prepare for enrolment amongst the Janizaries; and, as a preparatory step, was sent to a college, or medrese, at Scutari, where he was instructed in the elementary doctrines of the Mussulman creed, which he was under the necessity of professing, if not of absolutely embracing. It was in the reign of Urkhan, the son of Osman and Malkhatoun, and second Sultan of the Ottomans, that the corps of Janizaries was established. The infernal policy of KaraKhalil-Tschendereli, the brother-in-law of the Shiek Edebali, originated the institution of that terrible militia, which was composed entirely of the Christian prisoners taken in warfare, and who were forced to abjure their native faith. It was argued by the inventor of this system that the Christian armies would show no mercy to those who renounced their country and their religion; and the certainty of being put to death, as deserters and renegades, in case of being made prisoners, would compel the soldiers thus organized to die with their scimitars in their hands sooner than fall into the power of those who were once their fellow-countrymen and co-religionists. Thus their valour would be ensured by guarantees which they dared not forfeit; and their ranks were to be recruited by their sons and by the new Christian prisoners who might be taken in battle or predatory incursion. Thus were the most sacred obligations of humanity forfeited and annihilated to suit an in- human policy;—thus was the father compelled to wield the scimitar against the cross-handled sword of his son;—sons were leagued against fathers— brethren against each other — and ‘relative against relative!

In this manner had the corps of Janizaries been instituted in the year 1328, sixty-eight years before the time when Sisman Schildberger was compelled to abjure his father’s creed, and renounce his fatherland for ever. The young man entered upon his new lot with resignation; and, although his spirit was broken by his misfortunes, he nevertheless comported himself in a manner calculated to gain for him the approval of his officers.

Two years passed away, during which Sisman found no opportunity of acquainting his father either by message or letter, of his miserable fate. At the expiration of that period, the corpse of Janizaries to which Sisman belonged, was ordered to join the forces of the Beglerbeg Timourtasch, one of the sultan’s generals, who meditated an irruption into Europe. In the meantime, the dread tidings of the defeat of the allied army of the Christians, under Sigismund of Hungary, were bruited all over Europe, and Sisman’s brother and father were amongst those who heard the fearful news. The rumour of the murder of the Baron Greif also reached their ears; and, although they could obtain no certain intelligence with respect to the fate of Sisman, they argued the worst. Karl had been blest with a son, on whom he conferred the name of the dear brother that was thus supposed to be no more, and his happiness would have been perfect, in the society of his father and Marietta, had not the loss of Sisman thrown a damp upon his felicity.

The domestic tranquillity of the family at the hum- ble farm was now doomed to be disturbed by the brazen notes of war. The affrighted inhabitants, from the territories on the eastern frontiers of Bavaria, came flying before the invading Moslems. Fifteen thousand Ottomans, under the command of the Beglerbeg Timourtasch, had invaded Christendom, and put everything to fire and sword in their way. The most horrible barbarities were committed—neither sex nor age was spared—and an immense booty fell into the hands of the barbarians. The son and successor of John Greif issued a proclamation, enjoining all his vassals, and all those who held the interest of their country at heart, to assemble beneath his banner, and march against the invaders. A spirit of enthusiasm seized upon all the male inhabitants of the fief. Herman was no more; but the aged Schildberger grasped his weapon, obedient to the imperative necessity which compelled him to leave his peaceful fire-side for the field of battle. Karl was amongst the foremost to obey his chieftain’s call; and Marietta was left behind to pray for the success of those who had gone forth to combat for their country’s freedom.

At the expiration of a few days’ march, the Bavarians encountered the Ottomans, and compelled them to retreat to an adjacent height, where they entrenched themselves. Timourtasch was so enraged by this check, that he determined to avenge it on the following day; and he issued orders: that no quarter was to be shown towards the Christians on pain of death. A second engagement took place; the Moslems were completely victorious, and the Bavarian troops were either slain or taken prisoners. The two Schildbergers, father and son, were captured by a party of Janizaries; and when, after the battle, lots were drawn, to decide into whose hands the various prisoners should fall, the old man and Karl were assigned to the tent of Hassan, the captain, or baschi, of the company. Timourtasch had issued orders that all those into whose hands Christian captives should thus fall, should put them to death with their own hands, at the hour of sunset. This mode of retaliation, and of allowing every one throughout the army a chance of gratifying his own peculiar thirst for vengeance, was by no means uncommon in the early history of the Oitomans.

When Schildberger and Karl were ushered into the tent of the Baschi of the Janizaries who had captured them, to their unmingled joy and alarm they found themselves in the presence of the long-lost Sisman. Karl threw himself into his brother’s arms, and embraced him fondly; but the old man sate down in a corner of the tent and wept bitterly.

“Sisman, my son—now bearing the name of Hassan—Wearing a scimitar by his side, and a felt-cap upon his brow—adorned with a golden chain round his neck, and a ring upon his finger—alas! alas! that I should have lived to see this day!”

“Judge him not harshly, my dear father, said Karl; “perhaps he is not so guilty as you seem inclined to imagine.”

“Guilty!” ejaculated Sisman, folding his arms, and leaning against the pillar which supported his pavilion; “yes, brother, I am guilty—I am guilty—for I have foresworn my country and abjured my God!—I have become a Janizary—one of that terrible corps whose blows are irresistible, and whose ranks are never known to show mercy to the conquered!”

“Enough!—enough!” cried the afflicted father; “blaspheme not—shock not mine ears with a narrative, of your infamy—avaunt! thou art no longer my son!”

“Hear me, father—for so I shall still call thee,”—continued the young renegade, calmly but firmly—“hear me, and thou wilt find that all my misfortunes have originated in a noble sacrifice of feelings, consummated for the sake of my brother!”

“For my sake!” repeated Karl, surveying the Janizary with the deepest interest.

“Yes!—for your sake,” rejoined Sisman. “Know that I loved Marietta as well, as sincerely, as fervently as thou—that she was my everlasting thought by day, and my dream by night—the morning star and the evening planet which appeared to govern my actions and my ideas. Our father selected you to be her husband, and all my fond visions were dispelled in a moment. But I loved thee, Karl, too—as I still love thee—as seldom a brother loves even a brother—and I anxiously sought the first opportunity to tear myself from a home where my jealousy, my envy, and my disappointment would have in time embittered thy feiicity. Dost thou imagine that I left a peaceful and happy home—first to follow a stranger lord, and then to dare the perils of war,—dost thou suppose that I did this for mine own pleasure? And, then, when captured by the Moslems—without a wish to return to my native country, and without a hope of enjoying happiness again in this life—was I not justified in acceding to the first proposal which my change of fortune presented to me, even though that change were the dread alternative of becoming a renegade and a Janizary?”

“My noble—my generous-hearted boy!” exclaimed the aged father, rising from the corner of the tent, where he had been seated, and rushing forward to embrace his long-lost son, with all the transport of parental affection.

A long pause ensued, during which the old man and his sons poured forth their mingled grief and joy in each others’ arms. At length Karl suddenly started back in horror from his brother’s embrace, exclaiming, “Sisman, this evening must we die by your hand, or you yourself will fall a victim to the anger of your despotic leader Timourtasch.”

“The latter is my alternative,” said Sisman, in a determined tone. “But there is still a chance of escape for us all. I am so far my own master, that no one can enter my tent without my permission, save with an order from the Beglerbeg himself. Here can you abide for some days, during which we are to remain encamped upon this spot. In the interval, I shall be enabled to ensure your safe departure from the power of the Ottomans, and thereby release myself from the danger which will hang over my-head in consequence of violating the commands of the general.”

“And thou—thon wilt return with us—thou wilt retrace thy steps to thy fatherland, the creed of which shall again become thine own,” exclaimed the venerable father.

“Not” said Sisman, shaking his head mournfully: “I have now entered upon a career from which retreat is impossible; and I dare not think of relinquishing a path into which the force of circumstances has so strangely impelled me. No, my dear father, you and Karl will pray for me at a distance; and when my bones shall lie whitening upon some battle field, unblest and neglected, your holy appeals to heaven will sooth the troubled spirit that will haunt the place where my death wound shall have been received.”

Having uttered these words, Sisman abruptly left the tent, a prey to the most acute anguish. He wandered about until it was dark, and then proceeded to the field where the battle had been fought in the morning. The plain was strewed with grisly corpses, upon the faces of which the pale beams of the moon shone with placid light, as if they were illuminating a happy scene. Sisman drew his scimitar, and severed the heads from two of the bodies that lay amidst a heap of slaughtered Christians. He concealed the heads about his person, in the ample folds of his vesture, and then retraced his steps to the encampment. When he reached his tent, he took two lances, fixed the heads upon their points, and then planted them at the entrance of his pavilion.

Early on the ensuing morning, an officer, appointed for the purpose, traversed the camp, bearing with him the list of those to whom prisoners had been assigned by lot; and perceiving two heads opposite the tent of Sisman, he passed on with the impression that he had executed the sanguinary order of Timourtasch.

(To be Continued)

[1] George W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Janizary; or, The Massacre of the Christians’, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 2 November 1850, 241–243.

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