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Imagined Turbans: Reading Race and Religion in Tulips

In his 1597 Herball, or General Historie of Plants, English naturalist John Gerard included seven different drawings of a flower sweeping Europe by storm. The “Tulipa, or Dalmatia-cap” was illustrated in rich color and thoroughly described. But he turns to a common metaphor for the tulip in order to describe it in bloom. He writes that after a few days, the tulip appears “like a Dalmatian or Turkish cap, called Tulipan, Tolepan, Turban, and Tursan.”

In his talk, “Tulips and Turbans in Renaissance Art and Natural History,” Vin Nardizzi, associate professor of English at the University of British Columbia, wondered why the association between tulips and turbans was so pervasive in Renaissance Europe. Nardizzi is working on a book examining how plants and vegetables shaped Renaissance poets’ ideas about humanness, and for him, the tulip is at the center of these questions.

Tulips, a luxury object with infinite botanical variety, swept across Europe in the 16th and 17th century, taking fortunes and economies with it. As a new plant, the tulip gave Renaissance naturalists the chance to practice their skills of observation and close description. But something about the tulip, says Nardizzi, also posed a problem. Renaissance naturalists found describing the tulip’s many varieties difficult, and when their language fell short, they often turned to language heavily inflected by race and Orientalism that reflected the tulip’s foreign origins.

The tulip does not look like a turban, so why does Gerard insist on the similarity in his herbal? The answer lies in how Renaissance Europe thought about race, and how they viewed the Ottoman empire. For Nardizzi, the tulip is a lens through which to see English encounters with Islam in the Renaissance.

Nardizzi illustrated his point by comparing two episodes in the 1555-1562 “Turkish Letters” of Flemish diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, who described his travels throughout the Ottoman Empire. He described passing a field of tulips in similar terms as he used to describe a Turkish festival day, in which he oversaw hundreds of turbaned heads displaying infinite variety and formal repetition. Busbecq describes both fields in military terms, shifting the abundance and similarity of tulips into a metaphor for the power of the Ottoman empire.

For Busbecq, fields of tulips and fields of Turks are both gaudy, homogenous, and indescribable. But the only reason he sees them as such–and can erase both turbans’ and tulips’ variety and significance–is because Renaissance racial hierarchies reduced non-Europeans to symbols and reductive descriptions. The Latin for “crowd” is turba, and so Busbecq was already primed to see a turban as a representation of a much larger force.

And as tulips swept Europe by storm, causing extreme speculation and financial crises in the Netherlands and elsewhere, the tulip also comes to represent the conquering power of the Ottoman Empire, and of Islam.

Gerard, who read and borrowed from many contemporary sources may be picking up on the formal connections already established by other writers, argues Nardizzi. In describing the tulip, Gerard repeats common Renaissance associations between Turks, turbans, and tulips.

By being unable to see the Turkish people as representing anything other than a different race and religion, Renaissance naturalists could only see the tulips the Turks cultivate and wore as exotic marvels. Descriptions like Gerard’s could not accurately portray the flower; nor could accounts of travelers like Busbecq accurately portray Turkish culture and religion.  

Nardizzi also encouraged his audience to use the tulip as a chance to think about how they read historical ideas about race as contemporary readers. Westerners still largely read turbans as a monolith, and as a threat of a different religion or race, as suggested by the profiling of Sikh men after 9/11. In the 1600s, racial prejudices prevented European travelers from understanding the complexity and meaning of the tulip; today, our inability to read the turban’s complexity prevents us from understanding religious and racial diversity. In both cases, we are poorer for it.  

This event was sponsored by the Department of English, the UC Davis Humanities Institute, and the Early Science Research Cluster.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD Candidate in English Literature

This page was last updated: October 8, 2018



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