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LHMP #411 de Nicolay 1585 The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie

Full citation: 

de Nicolay, Nicolas. 1567. Quatre premiers livres des navigations. Translated by T. Washinton (1585) as The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie. Collected in: Osborne, Thomas. 1745. Collection of Voyages and Travels…, vol. 1. London: Thomas Osborne of Gray’s-Inn.

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This post is part of a series of primary source materials illustrating how Europeans perceived, reported, and discussed female homoeroticism in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to early 18th centuries. I’ll give a larger context for why this is a period of interest for European interactions with a non-European, non-Christian culture that could not be dismissed easily as  not being of equal power an importance to their own. Attitudes toward, and practice of homosexuality was far from the most noteworthy difference that these reports covered, but it’s the one of interest to us within the scope of this Project. I’ll be presenting the descriptions from ambassadors, travelers, and others in chronological order of their time spent in Constantinople and other key cities, followed by some additional primary sources that show how the echos of these interactions became part of European myths about lesbianism.

Nicolas de Nicolay was a Frenchman who served in various diplomatic roles in the mid 16th century, including escorting the young Mary Queen of Scots to France for her marriage to the Dauphin, and accompanying the French ambassador to Suleiman the Magnificent (know to European courts as “The Great Turk”) in Constantinople. On this journey, one of his roles was to make an extensive survey of the lands and peoples he encountered, which was published in French in 1567 as  Quatre premiers livres des navigations (First Four Books of Navigations), and translated into English by T. Washington the younger in 1585 as The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie.

The text that I use is taken from the following publication (accessed through Due to the very poor quality of the optical recognition text provided at, I transcribed these excepts directly from the pdf images.

Osborne, Thomas. 1745. Collection of Voyages and Travels…, vol. 1. London: Thomas Osborne of Gray’s-Inn.

This—as the title indicates—is a collection of various travelers’ accounts, in 2 volumes, comprising a total of 42 separate texts. Nicolay’s account is in volume 1, part 10 and is divided into 4 sections with numbered chapters.

Nicolay’s references to female homoeroticism have been quoted or referenced in the following publications previously covered by the LHMP: Traub 2002, Loughlin 2014, Andreadis 2001.

The excerpts included below are:

  • A reference in chapter 19 pointing out Nicolay’s lack of direct access to women’s culture
  • An excerpt from an extensive discussion from chapter 21 about men’s public baths and their practices
  • The entirety of chapter 22 which describes the women’s baths and their practices

The initial focus of Nicolay’s work is on the palace and Suleiman’s household. The private women’s quarters of this palace are called the “Sarail” (possibly a more familiar term in the form “seraglio”) which housed not only the sultan’s wives and concubines, as well as their female attendants, but also the sultan’s female relatives (mother, unmarried sisters and daughters). The chapter describing the Sarail goes into much detail about the seclusion of these women from male contact with the exception of the Black eunuchs who formed their interface with the world. Later, Nicolay speaks of the situation of other women who, while still being secluded from casual contact with men, moved about the city more freely (within limits). But in understanding the position of women in Ottoman society, this physical segregation should not be read as a lack of social and political power. Various authors comment on how much economic and social power (some) women had within their marriages.

In Ch. XIX, Nicolay explains how he befriended one of the eunuchs of the Sarail who provided him with information and experiences. For example, when Nicolay wanted to see what the women of the Sarail wore, the eunuch supplied two “public Turkish women” (this may mean prostitutes?) dressed in “very rich apparel”. I.e., Nicolay had no direct access to the high status women of the palace, so even his understanding of their dress was mediated through a sort of “fashion show” modeled by women whose social status would not be damaged by being seen by him. Keep this in mind when reading anything Nicolay says about women’s lives: he is necessarily reporting at second or third hand.

Although the description of the men’s baths includes extensive details of massages and bodily care, there is no mention of homoerotic activity, although elsewhere there are references to rampant sodomy among the Turks. Whereas the discussion of women washing and doing bodily care for each other in the baths is sexualized. Nicolay would, of course, have had no direct access to knowing what goes on in the women’s baths. So one must wonder not only how he got his information, but how and why that source may have shaped the information.

Ch. XXI discusses the institution of the public baths in general, but from context this is clearly the men’s baths.

…tapestry of Turky, upon which they uncloath themselves, leaving their garments in sure keeping of the Capsaire; and such as will bathe themselves, after they have covered their privy members with a great blue linen cloth which is given unto them, do first go into the Tepidarie to make themselves sweat, and frm thence they enter into another great place of the bath, being much higher, and the ceiling thereof made clear with divers windows, to the intent to shew the brighter in the midst whereof is also a most magnificent fountain…[you lay yourself on a marble table on your belly] and then one of these graet lubbers, after they have well pulled and stretched your arms, as well before as behind, in such sort that he will make your bones to crack, and well rubbed the soles of your feet, mounteth upon your back, and so with his feet slideth up and down upon you, and upon your reins, as if he would bruise them in pieces; and then again maketh you to turn on your back, pulling and removing your joints, as before is said, and nevertheless without doing unto you any harm at all, but on the contrary doth so comfort your sinews, and strengtheneth your members, that ye shall be after it a great deal more fresh, lively, and better disposed: [more interesting details of personal care] … Now it is to be noted, that all nations, of what faith or religion soever they be, are all alike, and indifferently received and entreated for their money in these baths; but above all others, the Turks, Moors, and generally all the Mahumatised, frequent thither oftenest, as well for their voluptuous pleasure, as bodily health, and principally for the observing of their law, which commandeth that no Musselmen shall enter into their mosquest without they be first well washed and purified, these brutish Barbarians esteeming of the outward washing, and not that which inwardly toucheth the soul.  …

The following is the entirety of  chapter XXII. Some paragraph breaks have been added (that were not in the original) to improve readability.

Of the women of Turky going unto the baths, and of their apparel, and manner of cleanness.

The Turks wives, by ordinary customs, and ancient observation, which they reserve of the old custom of Asia and Greece, do delight at all times to haunt the baths, as well for the continauance of their health, as beautifying of their persons, which is not to be reputed as spoken of the women of base estate or condition, but likewise of the great and notable dames, which ordinarily do frequent the baths two or three times in the week, not the publick, but their private baths, which for the most part they have very fair within their houses or Sarails; but such as are of the meaner degree, go unto them at least once in the week, if by others they will be esteemed not infamed, or scarce honest.

And notwithstanding they will not gladly fail to go thither, for two several occasions, the one being for the observation of their Mahumetical law, which, as before I have said, forbiddeth them not to make their prayers within the mosques, except first their bodies be washed and purified, notwithstanding that few women do enter into the same mosques, but such as are dames of great reputation and authority; the other and principal reason is, to have good occasion and honest excuse to go abroad out of their houses, within the which they are continually closed up, from the great jealousy of their husbands, or rather for the observing of the antient custom of their ancestors, which after that sort kept their wives and daughters closed up in the backsides of their houses, which they call Ginaises; so that the Turky women being shut up, without permission to go abroad, nor to appear in the streets openly, except it be going to the baths, whereto they nevertheless go with their faces covered, to bring their jealous husbands out of suspicion, which continually keep them so under subjection, and closed in;

and oftentimes, under colour of going to the baths, they resort to other places, where they think good to accomplish their pleasure, and come home again in good time, without the knowledge or perceiving of their husbands, wherein they fear nothing at all, for that to those baths no men do frequent so long as the women are there;

and there are also certain women which do serve and attend on such women as come thither without any waiting-maids; and likewise that sometimes they do go ten or twelve of them together, and sometimes more in a company, as well Turks as Grecians, and do familiarly wash one another, whereby it cometh to pass, that amonst the women of Levan, there is very great amity proceding only thro’ the frequentation and resort to the bathes: yea and sometimes become so fervently in love the one of the other, as if it were with men, in such sort, that perceiving some maiden or woman of excellent beauty they will not cease until they have found means to bathe with them, and to handle and grope them every where at their pleasures, so full are they of luxuriousness and feminine wantonness: even as in times past were the Tribades, of the number whereof was Sapho the Lesbian, which transferred the love wherewith she pursued an hundred women or maidens, upon her only friend Phaon.

And therefore, considering the reasons aforesaid, to wit, the cleansing of their bodies, health, superstition, liberty to go abroad, and lascivious voluptuousness, it is not to be marvelled at, that these baths are so accustomably frequented by the Turks, and that likewise the women of estate do so gladly go thither in the morning betimes, for to remain there until dinner-time, being accompanied with one or two slaves, the one bearing on her head a vessel of brass, made after the fashion of a small bucket to draw water; and within the same is a fine and long smock of cotton tissed, besides amother smock, breeches, and other like linen, with a drug called Rusma, which being putuerised [possibly an error for "pulverised"?] and tempered in water, they rub upon all the parts of the body where they will have the hairs to go off, which incontinently with the sweat do fall off. This vessel thus garnished is borne, being covered with a rich pavilion of velvet or crimson satten, set with gold and silver, and hanged with tassels of silk and gold.

The other slave, if there be two of them, carrieth a fine coverlet with a fair pillow-beer, and in such order the slaves do go behind their mistresses, which under their gowns are cloathed with a fine linen smock, by them called Barami. Now being come to the place of bathing, the coverlet is spread abroad, upon the which they uncloath themselves, and lay down their garments and jewels; for their preparation and order is such, that going to the baths, whether they be Turks or Christians, the better to be liked the one of the other, they set forth themselves with their richest apparel, and most precious tablets; and being thus uncloathed upon the carpet, they turn the vessel with the mouth downwards, and the bottom upwards, for to sit the more easily; and then the slaves, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side, do wash and rub the body until it doth suffice; and then they go to repose themselves in a small chamber, being indifferently hot. In which mean space, and during this repast, the slaves do wash one another.

And after they have thus remained in the baths and hot chambers so long as it doth please them, the slaves do again lay up the smocks and other linen into the vessel, and so, following their mistress, do return homewards, after that she hath paid until the mistress of the bath such sum as men do pay, and as before I have recited.


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