Turks, Trade, and Turning

Anders Ingram

The act of ‘Turning Turk’, or rather the dissembling threat of such apostasy, is central to one of the sub plots of The Three Ladies of London. However, this sub plot is itself notably short on details of either its Turkish setting or Islam in general. At this relatively early stage of the English North African and Levantine trades (the 1580s) literary portrayals of Islam were notably less detailed than they became in the following decades. This essay will contextualize the subplot involving Gerontus, Mercadorus, and the Judge, by exploring contemporary ideas of ‘Turning Turk’, and reflections of trade with Barbary and Turkey in the play. I will argue that the drive of the apostasy narrative is to demonize - by contrast with the comparatively virtuous Islamic and Jewish characters – the Italian Catholic Mercadorus as ‘worse than a Turk’, a common trope in early modern polemical writing.

Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London was one of the very earliest English plays to explore Turkish characters, motifs, and settings.1 This essay explores the literary, cultural, and economic contexts for Wilson’s play, and then gives a reading of its ‘Turkish’ elements, relating them to its historical moment, central themes, and contemporary commonplace images of the Turks as well as tropes of conversion to Islam, or ‘turning Turk’.

Drawing on the model of the medieval morality play the plot of Three Ladies revolves around the corruption and debasement of the allegorical characters Love and Conscience by the Lady Lucre and a rogue’s gallery of supporting characters including Dissimulation, Fraud, Simony, and Usury. Wilson’s social critique dramatizes his central themes: the influence of foreigners, the problematic morality of the practice of usury, and the material and moral dangers of foreign trade. These issues are also at the heart of the play’s subplot, which concerns Mercadorus, an Italian merchant whom Lucre dispatches to Turkey to import ‘trifles’ and ‘prety knackes’ into England (B3r, D4v).2 Upon arriving Mercadorus meets the Jewish moneylender Gerontus, who demands that he repay a loan of three thousand Ducats, which is now two years overdue, with interest. Being brought before a ‘Judge of Turkie’ to satisfy the debt, however, Mercadorus declares he will ‘forsake his faith, king, countrie, and become a Mahomet’, by converting to Islam, so that his debts will be void (F1r). Faced with Mercadorus’s cynical determination to turn Turk, Gerontus forgives the loan rather than see him turn apostate. Mercadorus exits the scene triumphantly revelling that he has ‘coossend de Jewe’, and wishing his Lady Lucre could see the lengths to which he is willing to go for her sake (F1v).

Turks and Trade

Internal evidence suggests that Three Ladies was written ca 1581. It was performed by Leicester’s Men, and later by the Queen’s Men, and appeared in print in 1584 and again in 1592.3 The dates of Three Ladies are of particular significance when considering the Turkish elements of its subplot as they place Wilson’s play substantially before the fashion for Turk plays which followed the popularity of Tamburlaine (1587).4 In a wider context Three Ladies also appeared more than a decade before the glut of English writing on the Turks stimulated by the Ottoman-Hapsburg Long War of 1593-1606.5 As we shall see, one consequence of the date of Wilson’s play is that its ‘Turkish’ elements are somewhat non-specific in comparison to later plays.

A further important ramification of the date of Three Ladies is its topicality.6 The play’s concern with the potentially corrupting effect of foreign trade, goods, and people upon London responded directly to the formal establishment of the English Levant trade. In 1580 trade capitulations to English merchants operating in the Ottoman Empire had been granted by Sultan Murad III to William Harborne (ratified 1583), a London merchant who became the first English ambassador at Constantinople.7 Contemporary anxiety over the morality and value of English trade in the Levant forms the context for Lucre’s commission to

Mercadorus     Thou must carry over Wheate, Pease, Barly, Oates, and fitches and all kinde of graine,
            Whiche is well sould beyond sea, and bring suche Merchauntes great gaine.
            Then thou must carie beside Leather, Tallow, Beefe, Bacon, Belmettell and every thing.
            And for these good commodities, trifles to Englande thou must bryng.
            As Bugles to make bables, coloured bones, glasse, beades, to make bracelettes withall:
            For every day Gentlewomen of England doe aske for suche trifles from stall to stall.
            And you must bryng more, as Amber, Jeat, Corall, Christall, and every such bable,
            That is slight, prettie and pleasant. (B2v- B3r)

The play presents foreign trade as concerned with the exchange of ‘good commodities’ for ‘trifles’. Matthew Dimmock has noted that similar concerns about luxury imports had been voiced in England since at least Sir Thomas Smith’s Discourse of the Common Weal of the Realm of England (1549), which railed against trade in ‘window glass, pins, needles, knives, daggers, pouches, hats, caps, brooches, aglets, silk and silver buttons, laces points, perfumed gloves, dials, tables, cards, balls, puppets, penhorns’.8 Claire Jowitt has also noted that demand for these fashionable and yet intrinsically worthless ornaments is gendered as a specifically female desire which destabilizes the moral and material economy.9 This same gendered discourse of moral and economic concern over trade with the eastern Mediterranean is still recognizable four decades later in the traveller William Lithgow’s rant about currants (ie, raisins) imported from the Isle of Zante.10

for some Liquorous lips, who forsooth can hardly digest bread ... without these currants: And as these Rascall Greekes becomming proud of late with this lavish expence, contemne justly this sensuall prodigality; I have heard them often demaund the English in a filthy derision, what they did with such leprous stuffe, and if they carried them home to feed their Swine and hogs withall: A question indeed worthy of such a female Trafficke.11

Luxury, however, was not the only threatening aspect of the Levant trade, since such commerce also revolved around amicable relations with the infidel enemy of Christendom.

Alongside the ‘good commodities’ which Lucre commands Mercadorus to bring to Turkey is ‘belmettell’ (an alloy of copper and tin). Mercadorus recalls that he has previously carried into Turkey ‘bell mettell for make ordinance, yea and ordinance it selfe beside’ (B3r), and later reports he has now sent ‘Brasse, Copper, Pewter, and many odar ting’ (C3v). Such alloys and metals – with clear military value – had been listed in a papal bull forbidding their trade with the Ottomans, and even following the break with Rome were prohibited for export from England.12 By the late 1570s exports of tin, lead, and bell metal seem to have been a substantial element of English trade to the Ottomans.13 In expressing anxieties over the value and benefit of Levantine trade and referencing profiteering from war materials Three Ladies rehearses notable points of controversy which emerged over the following decades. As the Anglo-Ottoman commercial relationship developed, while Anglo-Spanish relations simultaneously soured and turned to outright war, rumours of English collusion with the Turks against Spain were rife across Europe.14 Those individuals who promoted the English Levant trade such as Richard Hakluyt, editor of The Principall Navigations (1589; 2nd edn 1598-1600) and later the diplomat and historian Paul Rycaut, were forced to defend the morality of engaging in commerce with the infidel while asserting the national benefits which accrued to the English commonwealth through the practice of trade.15

Race, Religion, and Renegades

A central concern of Three Ladies is the corrupting influence of both foreigners and foreign trade. Race and religion are also at the heart of the play’s subplot which places Italian, Jewish, and Turkish characters in conflict and depicts them in relation to each other. Indeed, in Mercadorus’s ‘conversion’ scene, we see two distinct kinds of ‘Turk’. The first is of course the ‘Turkish Judge’, who is obviously both Turkish and Islamic. The second is Mercadorus, who in offering to convert to Islam also threatens that he ‘will be a Turke’ (F1r). Accordingly we must briefly examine both commonplace images of the Turks contemporary Englishmen understood and depicted them, and then tropes of ‘turning Turk’.

By the late-sixteenth century the Turk was already a common figure in sermons, religious and political polemic, and reformation debates. The Ottoman advance into central Europe in the first half of that century stimulated both a large continental literature, and numerous English translations. Beyond works on the Turks themselves, references to the Turks might occur in almost any form of writing; as a consequence the images and meanings which clustered around the figure of the Turk were complex and varied, and evolved over time. The Turks were synonymous with Islam and commonly we find descriptions such as heathen, infidel, heretic, and Saracen – all of which had previously been applied to the Islamic enemy of the medieval crusades – applied to the Turks in European texts from the mid-fifteenth century onward. Later the contemporaneous nature of the Reformation and the Ottoman advance into Europe complicated this repertoire. As the Turks became increasingly topical, the older xenophobic identification of Islamic invaders adopted by writers such as Martin Luther not only perceived Turks as the scourge of God, but also as both the Antichrist and the pope in reformist polemical writing. In early Reformation debates a number of polemical strategies were also developed including tarring opponents for behaving like Turks, worse than Turks, or indeed simply as Turks (often through supposed or spurious accusations of ‘turning Turk’).16 A further notion heavily associated with the Turks was tyranny, both in terms of political philosophy, and in a more commonplace way, with individual sultans described as tyrannical, or as behaving like tyrants.17

Alongside these literal and figurative responses to Ottoman military power and expansion into Europe sat religious fears of Christian conversion to Islam informed by continental accounts such as De afflictione ... sub Turcae and De Turcarum moribus epitome of Bartholemej Georgijevic (ca 1510-ca 1566), influenced by his own years of captivity in the Ottoman empire, and the increasing number of late-sixteenth-century English travellers such as Thomas Saunders and Thomas Dallam who encountered ‘renegades’.18 Concern over apostasy along with the identification of Islam as a heresy or false religion, propagated by a false prophet and inspired by the devil, contributed to the association of the figure of the Turk with ‘falseness’ and treachery in a more general sense.19

Three Ladies predates the development of the ‘renegade/renegado’ as a stock dramatic villain in the early decades of the seventeenth century as described by Nabil Matar and Daniel Vitkus. The play also predates the crisis precipitated by the increasing number of English sailors who were taken as captives in north Africa as a consequence of the exponential growth of English Mediterranean shipping in the early seventeenth century.20 Nonetheless, though Wilson’s play is certainly one of the earliest extant examples of the ‘turning Turk’ trope on the English stage, the character of Mercadorus reflects widespread commonplace associations with both the figure of the ‘Turk’ and ‘renegade’ as they developed in the seventeenth century.

Apostates, for example, were often depicted as ‘turning Turk’ for material gain or sexual gratification.21 With this information in mind consider Mercadorus’s profession that he will convert to Islam:

I Mercadorus, do utterly renounce before all the world, my dutie to my Prince, my honour to my parents, and my good wil to my cuntry: furthermore I protest and sweare to be true to this country during life, and thereupon I forsake my Christian faith. (F1r)

Compare this profession with his declaration of service to Lady Lucre:

Me will a forsake a my Fader, Moder, King, Country & more den dat.
Me will lie and forsweare me selfe for a quarter so much as my hat.
What is dat for love of Lucar me dare or will not doe:
Me care not for all the world, the great Devill, nay make my God angry for you. (B2v)

The parallel is clear, Mercadorus seeks to renege on his religion for Lucre’s sake. Additionally, as Lucre is personified as female we can read his obsession as desire, further extending his identification with early modern tropes of ‘turning Turk’ of the kind whose development Matar describes.22

While Mercadorus’s character draws upon the figure of the ‘renegade’, the conversion scene itself is notable for its lack of specific detail in comparison with travel narratives or plays of the following decades. This vagueness probably relates to the play’s early date. Wilson’s ‘Judge’ asks Mercadorus to ‘draw neere, lay your hand upon this booke, and say after mee’. Notably the book is not named as the ‘alcoran’ and Mercadorus’s vow is unrelated to the actual Islamic profession of faith, which numerous English travel accounts and scholarly works reported.23 Other details, such as references to circumcision, which one might expect a dramatic conversion scene to allude to are missing altogether. In contrast Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turn’d Turk (1612) makes comedy out of its protagonist the pirate captain Ward’s conversion and circumcision, and makes the judge figure a ‘Mufti’. Though Darbourne’s staging of Ward’s conversion is both dramatized and fanciful (eg, Ward swears on an idol of ‘Mahomet’), it is also notably similar to contemporary depictions of conversion.24

If Wilson’s Turkish motifs are sketched in outline, the same might be said of both the Jewish mone lender Gerontus and the ‘Turkish Judge’. They stand in contrast to the heavily racialized character of Mercadorus whose pidgin speech (ie, ‘dis’, ‘dat’, ‘Madona’) marks him apart. Mercadorus is also marked by a costume change into ‘Turkish weedse’ (in this context robes) in the conversion scene.25 Although the marking of Mercadorus’s character as Italian, and renegade, is in line with Three Ladies’s heavy anti-Italian commitment, the play does not engage in either anti-Semitic or anti-Turkish sentiment in the same way. Dimmock suggests that these ‘ideologically neutral’ characters are an example of an ambivalence to the Turks which reflected changing English attitudes towards Catholicism and the consequences of the Reformation in the late-sixteenth century.26 It is certainly true that Jewish Gerontus and the Turkish Judge serve as reference points against which the Christian (Catholic) Mercadorus is measured, and the racial dimension of these characters can only be understood in relation to each other. While the play’s racial elements focus on Mercadorus, pejorative commonplaces about Jews and Turks do shape the characters of Gerontus and the Judge, and they are perhaps not as neutral as they seem.

The mild portrayals of Gerontus and the Judge are fundamentally inversions of negative commonplaces about Jews and Turks. Despite Gerontus’s willingness to forgive Mercadorus his loan in order to save the latter’s soul, in fact he has only brought the Italian to court because he is too honest to conceive of the depths to which Mercadorus will stoop: ‘I trow he wil not forsake his faith, I deeme he hath more honestie’ (F1r). This characterization is a straight role reversal of the greedy and scheming Jewish moneylender who seeks to snare Christian victims: he is generous, concerned for Mercadorus’s soul, and his credulous honesty blinds him to the merchant’s grasping designs. Similarly the Judge – who is described as ‘learned’, ‘reverent’, and ‘puissant’ – is portrayed as honest and upstanding, and does not seek to trick or coerce Mercadorus into ‘turning Turk’, or indeed hold him to the profession of faith which he in fact gives. Indeed the Turkish Judge reacts with astonishment at his duplicity and bad faith in offering to turn Turk ‘more for the greedines of the mony, then for any zeale or good will you bare to Turky’ (F1r). All of this detail juxtaposes with contemporary portrayals of the Turkish state and justice, portraying the Ottoman state as a tyranny where corruption and bribery held sway over the rule of law, as well as numerous contemporary accounts of Christians coerced, or tricked, into forsaking their religion.27 The Judge’s scrupulous bemusement at Mercadorus’s dissembling may also be a play on contemporary associations of the ‘Turk’ with falseness.28 The dramatic and comedic effect of these characters and the ways in which they contrast to Mercadorus both rely upon pejorative anti-Semitic and anti-Turkish commonplaces. The Judge explicitly remarks upon the inversions in this scene: ‘One may Judge and speake truth as appeeres by this, / Jewes seeke to excell in Christiantie, and Christians in Jewisness’ (F1r). Three Ladies dramatizes debate on the moral and economic value of foreign trade in general, and on the probity of Levantine trade in particular. In its treatment of eastern trade it prefigures controversies which intensified over the following decades as Anglo-Ottoman commerce grew and the Anglo-Spanish relationship deteriorated. Wilson stops well short of explicitly criticizing the Levant trade, which was royally sanctioned, however; instead he explores anxieties around these developments through a negative depiction of Levantine luxury trade and the implicitly anti-Catholic portrayal of the Italian Mercadorus.

The characters of Mercadorus, Gerontus, and the Judge, seem to reflect shifting English relationships with Catholic Europe on the one hand, and the Turks and Jews of the Ottoman world on the other. In particular, the Judge and Gerontus have attracted commentary as atypically positive, or at least neutral, in staging Jews and Turks. But we can read these characters also as comic or dramatic inversions of pejorative anti-Semitic and anti-Turkish commonplaces, still fundamentally resting on those self-same tropes, and as such we should perhaps be cautious in the wider implications which we draw from them.


[1] Mark Hutchings, ‘The “Turk phenomenon” and the Repertory of the Late Elizabethan Playhouse’, Early Modern Literary Studies, 16 (2007), n.p. The Three Ladies is certainly one of the earliest extant printed plays to feature Turkish characters, settings or themes. In Hutching’s list it is preceded only by lost plays (‘The Blacksmith’s Daughter’ and ‘The Soldan and the Duke of –—’) and the Bodleian manuscript Tomumbeius sive Sultanici in Aegypto Imperii Eversio, whose date is uncertain but likely to be in the early 1580s. There are, however, antecedents for performing ‘Turkish’ characters. Matthew Dimmock has highlighted records of the courtly revels in the reign of Philip and Mary which refer to a ‘maske of vj Turkes magistrates with vj turkes Archers their torcheberers’ performed Shrovetide 1554/5; see Matthew Dimmock, ‘Materialising Islam on the Early Modern Stage’, Sabine Schülting, Sabine Lucia Müller and Ralf Hertel (eds), Early Modern Encounters with the Islamic East: Performing Cultures (Farnham, 2012), 115-34.

[2] Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London (London, 1584). All subsequent citations refer to this text.

[3] Claire Jowitt, ‘The Three Ladies of London and its Theatrical and Cultural Contexts’, Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker (eds), Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama (Oxford, 2012), 309-10. Stephen Gosson’s polemic Plays Confuted in five Actions also refers to the play, which was entered in the Stationers Registers on 6 April 1582, confirming Wilson’s play was extant by this date.

[4] For example, Alphonsus, King of Aragon (ca 1589-91?), The Battle of Alcazar (ca 1589), Selimus (ca 1588-90) and the numerous Turk plays of the following decades. Dimmock, Newe Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (Farnham, 2005), 135. See also Daniel Vitkus, Three Turk Plays from Early Modern England: Selimus, Emperor of the Turks; A Christian Turned Turk; and The Renegado (New York, 2000); Daniel Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630 (London, 2003); Richmond Barbour, Before Orientalism: London’s Theatre of the East, 1576-1626 (Cambridge, 2003); and Jonathan Burton, Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579-1624 (Plainsboro, NJ, 2005).

[5] Anders Ingram, Writing the Ottomans: Turkish History in Early Modern England, 1480-1700 (London, 2015).

[6] A further aspect of its topicality may have been a proclamation of 19 May 1581 intended to control usury. Jowitt, ‘Theatrical and Cultural Contexts’, 310.

[7] Prior to Harborne English merchants had traded more sporadically in the eastern Mediterranean. Susan Skilliter, William Harborne and the Trade with Turkey, 1578-1582: a Documentary Study of the First Anglo-Ottoman Relations (Oxford, 1977), 4-34. The Turkey Company was chartered in 1581, and amalgamated with the Venice Company in 1592.

[8] Dimmock, ‘“Captive to the Turke”: Responses to the Anglo-Ottoman Capitulations of 1580’, Matthew Birchwood and Matthew Dimmock (eds), Cultural Encounters between East and West, 1453-1699 (Cambridge, 2005), 49.

[9] Jowitt, ‘Theatrical and Cultural Contexts’, 313.

[10] For an account of the mid-seventeenth-century currant trade see Alfred Cecil Wood, A History of the Levant Company (Oxford, 1935), 67-70.

[11] William Lithgow, A most delectable and true discourse of an admired and painefnll peregrination (London, 1623), 40. This passage is not present in the 1616 edition.

[12] Gabor Agoston, ‘Merces Prohibitae: the Anglo-Ottoman Trade in War Materials and the Dependence Theory’, Oriente Moderno 81.1 (2001), 183-7. See also ‘An Act concerning the Conveyance of Brass, Latten and Bell-metal over the Sea’ (Act 33, 1541), ‘No person or persons should from thenceforth carry or convey any Brass, Copper, Latten, Bell metal, Gun-metal ne Shroff-metal, into any part or parts beyond the sea’, John Raithby (ed.), The statutes at large, of England and of Great Britain, 20 vols (London, 1811), 3.346.

[13] The London ship the Providence had carried ‘bell-metal and tin to the value of twenty thousand crowns’ to Chios in December 1579, while both the contemporary French and Spanish ambassadors commented upon the export of lead and other alloys taken from ecclesiastical buildings. Skilliter, William Harborne, 23-4, 75, and 84; Dimmock, ‘“Captive to the Turke”’, 50, 60.

[14] Skilliter, ‘The Turkish Documents Relating to Edward Barton’s Embassy to the Porte, 1588-1598’ (PhD, University of Manchester, 1965).

[15] On Hakluyt and Rycaut see Ingram, Writing the Ottomans, chapter 4.

[16] Norman Housley, Religious Warfare in Europe, 1400-1536 (Oxford, 2002), 131-59.

[17] In terms of political philosophy ‘tyranny’ denoted a polity governed by violence and fear rather than law, where the relationship of ruler and subject was analogous to that of the master and slave. On tyranny see Aristotle, The Complete Works of Aristotle: the Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, 2 vols (Princeton, 1984), particularly Politics, trans. B. Jowett, 3.14, 1284b35-1285b34,4.10, 1295a1-24; Mary Nyquist, Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny, and the Power of Life and Death (Chicago, 2012). On Ottoman tyranny see Ingram, Writing the Ottomans, chapter 3. Early modern Englishmen habitually applied the concept of tyranny to other polities than the Ottoman Empire, notably Muscovy, see Marshall Poe, A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476-1748 (Ithaca, 2000).

[18] Thomas Saunders, A true discription and breefe discourse, of a most lamentable voiage, made latelie to Tripolie in Barbarie (London, 1587). On Dallam see Gerald MacLean, The Rise of Oriental Travel (London, 2004), 1-48.

[19] On English accounts of the prophet Muhammed see Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (New York, 2013).

[20] N.I. Matar, ‘The Renegade in English Seventeenth-Century Imagination’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (1993), 489-505; Vitkus, Turning Turk. On piracy and captivity see Matar, ‘The Barbary Corsairs, King Charles I and the Civil War’, The Seventeenth Century 16.2 (2001), 240-4.

[21] Matar, ‘The Renegade’, 491-2.

[22] Matar cites John Rawlins assertion that Renegades ‘never knew any god but their own lusts and pleasures’, from 1622, which although later than Wilson’s play is clearly consistent with the latter’s portrayal of Mercadorus, see Matar, ‘The Renegade’, 491.

[23] On the Islamic profession of faith see Bartolomej Georgijevic, The ofspring of the house of Ottomanno, trans. Hugh Goughe (London, 1568?), C5r; The Policy of the Turkish Empire (London, 1597), fol. 23v; William Lithgow, A most delectable and true discourse of an admired and painefull peregrination (London, 1616), 59.

[24] Daborne’s details are similar to A true relation of the travails and most miserable captivity ... of William Davies (1614); see Vitkus, Three Turk Plays, 236.

[25] The Judge’s costume is not specified but probably included ‘Turkish’ motifs such as robes, turban, or a scimitar, in performance. On ‘Turkish’ stage costume and props see Dimmock, ‘Materialising Islam on the Early Modern Stage’.

[26] Dimmock, ‘Captive to the turke’, 49-52, 57.

[27] For an examples of coerced conversion see Saunders, A true discription and breefe discourse, of a most lamentable voiage, made latelie to Tripolie in Barbarie, C2r-v; Lithgow, A most delectable and true discourse of an admired and painefull peregrination (1616), 59.

[28] On figurative meanings of the word ‘Turk’ see Gerald MacLean's Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire Before 1800 (Basingstoke, 2007), 6-8.