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LHMP #413 Bon 1587 The Grand Signiors Serraglio

Full citation: 

Bon, Ottaviano. 1587. Descrizione del serraglio del Gransignore. Translated by Robert Withers (1625) as The Grand Signiors Serraglio, published in: Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes edited by Samuel Purchas.

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.

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Ottaviano Bon belonged to an aristocratic family in Venice and was active as a diplomat. I’m having trouble finding a clear biography of him through online sources. He has no English Wikipedia entry, and the Italian Wikipedia entry is brief and sketchy. A biography included in David Thomas and John Chesworth’s Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History states that his “political career began in 1577, and he progressed through a series of positions of increasing importance, before beginning his diplomatic career in 1601 with his election as ambassador to Spain. In April 1604, he  was elected to one of Venice’s most sensitive and important diplomatic postings, bailo, in Istanbul, a position he held until early 1609.”

But the text we’re interested in apparently dates earlier than his official mission, and Thomas and Chesworth note, “Another product of his time in Istanbul, the Descrizione del serraglio del Gransignore, is a rare first-person description of the sultan’s seraglio based on a surreptitious personal visit Bon arranged.” Traub (2002) indicates that the Descrizione was originally a “confidential document” written in 1587, and Thomas and Chesworth indicate it was first published (in Italian) around 1606. Very soon after, an English translation by Robert Withers appeared as The Grand Signiors Serraglio (with no attribution to Bon), which was published in 1625 as part of an extensive four-volume collection of travel writing, edited by Samuel Purchas and titled Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes. The reference to Hakluyt points to Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations and Purchas’s collection was partly based on manuscripts left by Hakluyt, who had died in 1616. My text is taken from a copy of Purchas at

In addition to Traub 2002, this text is discussed in a previous LHMP entry covering Murray 1997.

Bon wrote extensively on the sarail (serraglio) that housed the women of the sultan’s court. The excerpts included below that specifically reference lesbian desire are:

  • A vague reference to “wantonness”
  • A discussion of punishments followed by the “cucumber anecdote”

As noted above, there is a vast amount of text discussing the women of the court, their organization, their activities, their physical environment, and so on. This excerpt concerns young women who are servants of the court, rather than the sultanas and the sultan’s concubines. The reference to the desire to “keep the young wenches form wantonnesses” is decidedly vague, but given the emphasis made previously to the exclusion of any men other than eunuchs from this part of the palace, one must assume that the “wantonness” in question is with other women. The comparison to nuns is interesting, given the convents often had similar concerns about what young women in homo-social environments might get up to. As usual, we cannot simultaneously accept Bon's depiction of the extreme seclusion of the women of the sarail and the notion that he was writing from personal observation of the sarail and its inhabitants.

[Withers p.339] Now in the Womens lodgings, they live just as the Nunnes doe in their great Monasteries; for, these Virgins have very large Roomes to live in, and their Bed-chambers will hold almost a hundred of them a piece: they sleepe upon Sofaes, which are built long wise on both sides of the Roome, so that there is a large space in the midst for to walke in. Their Beds are very course and hard, and by every ten Virgins there lies an old woman: and all the night long there are many lights burning, so that one may see very plainely throughout the whole Roome; which doth both keepe the young Wenches from wantonnesses, and serve upon any occasion which may happen in the night.

I included the initial part of this next quote about execution by being “tied and put into a sack and in the night cast into the sea” because of the resonances with Busbecq’s description of being “packed away and drowned in the deep.” But it’s likely pure coincidence that Bon puts this in conjunction with an anecdote about being concerned that the women might use certain vegetables for “wanton” purposes. This is not a clear reference to lesbianism and is framed as being due to the unavailability of men for sexual satisfaction. In European references to dildoes during a similar era, their use isn’t necessarily perceived as indicating lesbianism, even when a female partner is involved. (Some day I will do a podcast on the history of dildoes and the contexts in which they do and do not intersect with lesbian themes.)

[Withers p.347] The Women of the Serraglio, are punished for their Punishments of faults very severely, and extreamely beaten by their Overseers : and if they prove disobedient, incorrigible and insolent, they are by the Kings order and expresse commandment, turned out and sent into the old Serraglio, as being rejected and cast off, and most part of that they have is taken from them. But if they shall be found culpable for Witchcraft : or any such hainous offence, then are they tyed and put into a Sacke, and in the Night cast into the Sea : so that by all meanes it behooveth them to bee very obedient, and containe themselves within the bounds of honestie and modestie, if they meane to come to a good end. Now it is not lawfull for any one to bring ought in unto them, with which they may commit the deeds of beastly uncleannesse ; so that if they have a will to eate Cucumbers, Gourds, or such like meates, they are sent in unto them sliced, to deprive them of the meanes of playing the wantons ; for, they all being young, lustie, and lascivious Wenches, and wanting the societie of Men (which would better instruct them) are doubtlesse of themselves inclined to that which is naught, and will be possest with unchast thoughts.


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