Dionysius A. Agius Prize 2017
11 July 2017
The Society for the Medieval Mediterranean’s Dionisius A. Agius Prize for 2017 has been awarded to:
Nükhet Varlık, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University–Newark,
‘Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World. The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600’,
Cambridge University Press 2015
The judges’ citation reads as follows: This is a book that deserves praise on many counts. It has been many years in the making and that long, quiet maturing can be sensed on every page. It has an unmistakable gravitas. One marvels at the enormous range of its meticulously assembled data, drawn from medieval and early modern archival sources, travellers’ accounts, chronicles and modern scientific research. The author’s primary sources alone feature a daunting array of languages: Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Italian, French, Spanish and English; and the secondary sources listed in her bibliography are nothing short of monumental. This is a deeply learned book. But it is much more than that, for it is written with passion, whether it deals with fleas, lice and rats or with the gradual development of Islamic medical knowledge or with the workings of the Ottoman bureaucracy or how plague impacted on specific communities, such as the Christian and Jewish minorities. Along the way there are piercing insights into the Ottoman judicial system, funerary customs, public health, trade, travel and religious beliefs and practices. The book is carefully structured. The first part outlines the historical background and lays out the aims of the entire study; the second looks at the connection between Ottoman territorial expansion and outbreaks of the plague, revealing the role of Istanbul as a hub of the plague; and the third chronicles how plague affected Ottoman society. Each chapter ends with a brief summary of the discussion. Through the lens of plague epidemics, then, Ottoman society springs into vivid and arresting life. And the Mediterranean itself is revealed as a unified disease zone. Traditionally, despite the work of scholars like Dols and Conrad on the Islamic Near East, the history of plague epidemics has been dominated by European scholarship that has confined itself to the European experience. Now Varlık, with her sustained analysis of three great Ottoman pandemics and her steady focus on the great metropolis of Istanbul, has opened a window on a much wider world. What a bonus, too, that this pioneering book is written in clear, plain, expository English, with no frills and no ostentation. Technical terms are carefully defined and the reader never feels that the mass of data gets in the way of the narrative. And who could possibly miss the relevance of this wonderfully detailed study to our own day, when we consider the vulnerability of our societies to the increasing hazards of epidemics across the globe?
As a footnote, I should like to add that Professor Varlik’s book has achieved wider academic recognition, winning the Middle East Studies Association’s 2016 Albert Hourani Book Award, along with the 2016 Koprulu Book Prize, awarded by the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association. We send her our warmest congratulations on these well-deserved successes.
Professor of History, University of Central Florida
President of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean
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