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  • The çengî:Descriptions of Professional Female Performers in French and Italian Accounts of Travel to the Middle East, 1550–1650

Aunique female musico-theatrical practice emerged in Ottoman society of the sixteenth century, which would fall out of favor in the late seventeenth century but endure in a modified form well into the modern era. At its origin was a musical instrument, a type of harp called the çeng, which lent its name to troupes of professional women musicians and dancers, the çengî, whose captivating performances caught the attention of European visitors to the Middle East. In lands under Ottoman control, because of the Islamic mandate that assigned women and men to separate spheres of devotional and social activity, women's skilled music-making took place in strictly circumscribed arenas. Although the authors of travel accounts do not mention it, the women of elite families doubtless made music in their residences, in the privacy of their own quarters. In the Seraglio, the highest class of concubines—the gedikiler or "privileged ones," chosen for their beauty and talent—performed for the Sultans, but this was also in private.1 The çengî, in contrast, were visible to outsiders and therefore we find them described in travel accounts penned by European diplomats, secretaries, and men of science. These companies, composed of non-Muslim women, were active in cities such as Constantinople and Cairo and remunerated for their music-making and dancing. Because the word çeng is similar to the Turkish word for gypsy, çingene, some visitors thought these women were gypsies. It is very unlikely though that the word for gypsy somehow derived from the name of the harp. It is possible that the performers' ethnicity was sometimes Roma, but probably they were Greek, Armenian or Jewish.2

There existed male counterparts to these female troupes, dancing boys, also sometimes called çengî but more often referred to as köçek. We know from the writings of the Ottoman traveler and musician Evliyâ Çelebi that by the later seventeenth century there were a dozen companies (kols) of boy dancers and mimes active in Constantinople, each numbering anywhere from 100 to several thousand. The boys hired out in small groups to perform what were apparently set choreographies, and they were a major attraction in the wine taverns of Galata, the city's European quarter and a famed pleasure spot.3 Gilles Fermanel, [End Page 148] a conseiller in the parlement of Normandy who visited Constantinople in the early 1630s, mentions these "cabarets" as being places where one could go to see entertainments in large rooms: "comedies, farces, et autres galanteries semblables." He reports that upon the occasion of the wedding of one of the Sultan's sisters, the cabarets remained open all night.4 Unlike the boys, the dancing women do not seem to have performed in taverns and coffee houses; rather, they were engaged for private gatherings. However, their companies mirrored the groups of dancing boys in that they too were gender specific and engaged in theatrical forms of gender bending. The female çengî drew the attention of European travelers to the Levant from at least as early as the first permanent French embassy to the Porte in the mid-1530s.

The çeng

The signature instrument of the female dancers, the çeng, was a small, silk-strung square harp, held in the lap with the pegboard against the left knee.5 A medieval Iranian instrument, it had predecessors in antiquity and saw its heyday in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in the Levant and Central Asia, where both women and men played it. Individual Persian and Turkish male masters of the instrument received the formal title of Çengî. In the seventeenth century there were several prominent Çengî in Constantinople, musicians of local origin—a sign that by then the Ottomans had made the instrument their own (Feldman, Music 154). Like many musical instruments of the early modern period, the çeng was revived in the late twentieth century, albeit with newer designs and tuning mechanisms, so we now can get a sense of what early modern travelers heard (a sound clip is available on the Turkish Music Portal).

In early Iranian art we see the çeng mostly associated with festivities in refined, secular contexts: entertainments offered in the dwellings (the gardens, courtyards, and large halls) of well-to-do, educated families, where the music-making was elaborate. An illustration in a sixteenth-century Safavid manuscript of the Divan-i Hafiz (the works of the fourteenth-century poet Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi) depicts a gathering with a recitation of poetry, music, and wine, with the çeng appearing in the lower right foreground.6 We also find this instrument depicted in intimate scenes of romance and sensual delight, and as the musicologist Walter Feldman has pointed out, in both Persian and Ottoman poetry of the Renaissance the çeng is the instrument played while Venus dances. Yet we also find it included in angelic scenes. "In a sense, the çeng exemplifies the highly ambivalent attitude of Islam toward sensual pleasures," writes Feldman. "The sound of the çeng was considered so [End Page 149] delightful and voluptuous […] it was analogous to all of the pleasures in their various moral contexts" (Music 123–24). In this regard, musical ambiguity was similar to poetic ambiguity. As Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli have noted, "we do not have to go far into Ottoman poetry to find points at which religious spirituality and sexuality intertwine." Indeed, in reading this poetry these scholars find that "most often, in the end, we cannot know, and are not meant to know, whether a poem is secular or religious" (294–95).

The Ottomans reinforced the Persian association between the harp, dancing, and love via a poetic trope that made the instrument itself, because of its shape, a metaphor for someone in love, doubled over in agony from a lover's cruelty (Turkish Music Portal). The linguist Guillaume Postel, traveling in the entourage of the French ambassador Jean de La Forest in the 1530s, heard the çeng in Constantinople and characterized its playing as a frequent and pleasurable pastime of the Ottomans. In De la republique des Turcs (1560) he describes the shape of the upper side, which is the soundbox or resonator, as being like the back of a large fish. The lower side consisted of a transverse bar, the pegbox, to which the strings were attached:

L'autre passetemps et pluscommun pour sa douceur, est quelque harpe faitte a la mode d'un dos de quelque grand poisson, avec une barre traversante en bas, ou s'attachent les cordes sans dentons, pour sonner plus doucement.7

Postel uses the word "sweet" or "gentle" to characterize the experiences of both playing and listening to the çeng.

Traveling a decade later, the naturalist Pierre Belon du Mans reported that the çeng was nearly as harmonious as a European harp, remarking that the instrument was pleasant to hear, especially when used to accompany singing:

Les femmes des Mores [Arabes] de la ville du Caire sçavent sonner d'une maniere d'instrument nommé Cinghi, qui est aussi cogneu en Constantinople. Il n'est guere moins armonieux qu'est une harpe: et combien qu'il n'est de grande musique, toutesfois il est plaisant à l'ouye, moyennant qu'on chante en le sonnant.8

Belon suggests these musicians were the wives of his Egyptian hosts. He mentions only the playing and singing, no dancing, and provides no information about how he happened to hear this music. It would be very surprising if he and his traveling companions were entertained by the wives of the local dignitaries, so most likely Belon was listening to hired performers or (perhaps) overhearing the private music-making of Egyptian women.

Postel is clearer than Belon about the social function of the women he calls "Singuin." He watched the çengî perform at a banquet held in the home [End Page 150] of a wealthy inhabitant of Constantinople and reports that they were young girls, available for hire by the day, like a band of minstrels. He notes that in addition to the çeng, the performers used tambourines and castanets, information later corroborated by other writers. At first, two or three of the littlest girls danced with "[les] plus gallans tours de souplesse," while the entire group sang to the accompaniment of the harp. Next came a pantomime, which featured the kind of cross-dressing for which both the boy and girl dancers were famed. The tallest and most beautiful of the girls put on a man's hat and danced a solo dance, addressing herself to the host of the banquet, winding and unwinding a scarf around herself, feigning to supplicate him as a man might a woman. According to Postel, she mimed the affections of love so well that to describe this section of the performance to men who had not seen it would rather more excite desire than simple pleasure:

L'une d'elles, la plus grande et belle, se leve pour danser a leur mode, laissant son couvrechef et bonnet d'or prent un tulband, qui est le bonnet d'un homme, puis fait une mine sans parler, si tresfort representant les affections d'amours, que le reciter aus hommes sans le voir exciteroit plus desir que plaisir. Premier elle supplie a tous les tours de sa danse, s'addreçant par vives et penetrantes œillades, au personnage principal du festin, aïant supplié et faignant ne profiter, faint avec quelque beau mouchoir filler une corde a la desperade, pour se deffaire, jusque a tant que Misericorde radoucist ces termes, et Appointement les semble mitiger par effect: sa compagne sonnant la harpe qu'elle a plantée entre les jambes, tient mesure de sa musique, frappant des genous sur le tapis, et autres telles choses.

(Postel 18–19)

The dance apparently increased in intensity, then gentled, as the dancer began to mime feelings of mercy and tenderness (misericorde), which then evolved into a sense of agreement, reconciliation, perhaps even acquiescence to an assignation (appointement).

A century later, in his Voyages (1654) the merchant Jean Antoine Du Loir describes witnessing a very similar dance on the occasion of an Ottoman marriage celebration. After the formalities at the mosque, banquets took place—separate ones for the women and the men. The women then went up into a shuttered gallery from which they could enjoy the evening's entertainment without being seen. They first watched a marionette play, which Du Loir found to be more "subtle" than those of France, and then a performance by the çengî. Du Loir understood that there was an explicit connection between the dancers and the harp, explaining that the girls were called "Tchingué du mot Tchenk qui veut dire Harpe." He mentions the other instruments they used, to accompany the singing and dancing: the kemançe (a type of viol with a round body and long neck), the tambourine, and castanets. As did Postel, Du Loir relates how the performance concluded with a pantomime, but in this instance [End Page 151] it was a duo who danced a sort of sarabande, representing the affections and movements of love with clever glances. As they danced, they addressed themselves to different individuals among the spectators:

Deus des mieux faites de la compagnie se levent pour danser une sorte de sarabande qui represente si bien les affections et les mouvemens d'amour par les œillades, et par les actions qu'elles addressent tantost à l'un et tantost à l'autre des assistans, que certes il faut estre bien ferme, ou plutost insensible pour n'en estre pas esmeu: mais puis que l'imagination de l'homme n'a pas beaucoup de peine à se les figurer, passons je vous prie plus outre.9

This dance, he goes on to remind the reader, came at the conclusion of the wedding festivities and therefore served to usher the newlyweds into their marriage bed: "Mettons vitement au lict ces nouveaux mariez, qui n'estans pas les moins touchez de cette lascive representation, sont en impatience de soulager leur passion amoureuse" (Du Loir 174).

Pietro della Valle, the Roman nobleman who addressed letters from Turkey and Egypt in 1614 and 1615 to a friend in Naples, differentiates between the dancers of Constantinople and those of Cairo. Della Valle's correspondence later saw print in Italian in four volumes (1650–1658), which were rapidly translated into French and published in the early 1660s. Writing from Constantinople, Della Valle refers to a troupe of "comedienes" as being good friends of his, who danced well and came to perform in his house during carnival, and also provided entertainment at weddings:

Ces femmes portent le nom de Cenghi, à cause d'un instrument, entre quelques autres, dont elles jouënt, qui s'appelle en Turc Cenghe, qui est proprement nostre harpe, mais un peu differente quant à la forme […] En effet elles sont fort divertissantes; car à mesme temps elles dansent, elles jouënt et chantent, recitant dans les vers de leurs chansons quelques avantures amoureuses, où toutes les démarches, et les gestes du corps qui se font en dansant, sont toutes actions et mouvemens estudiés, qui expliquent l'histoire qu'elles racontent en chantant, comme faisoient autresfois les anciens bouffons et farceurs. Toutes ces choses estant representées par de belles jeunes filles soubs des habits estrangers et en musique, et quelquefois au son des instrumens, font assurement le divertissement de ceux qui entendent leur langage.10

Apart from Postel's mention of a dancer wearing a man's hat, Della Valle's description is the only one from the period that alludes to dress, although he does not reveal the precise nature of the girls' "habits estrangers," that is, whether they were cross-dressed or merely costumed in some way.

When it came to the çengî of Cairo, in comparison with those of Constantinople, Della Valle voiced a much more negative opinion, characterizing them as disreputable and attributing this to the hot climate. In describing them [End Page 152] he had recourse, like Du Loir, to the term "sarabande," stating that their dancing was even more insolent than that very risqué Spanish dance, consisting entirely of postures that represented lascivious actions:

Cependant ces Cenghi du Caire, sont fort differentes de celles de Constantinople, peut-estre à cause de la chaleur du païs qui est plus grande, d'où vient qu'elles ont icy plus de disposition au mal. Enfin toutes leurs danses ne consistent qu'en des mouvemens de corps […] en diverses façons et differentes postures, qui representent toutes des actions sales et odieuses, beaucoup plus insolentes que celles des sarabandes espagnolles.

(Della Valle 284)

The melody that these women sang nonetheless caught his fancy to the extent that he promised his friend in Naples that he would conserve it, so as to play it on the guitar for him upon his return. Della Valle, like Du Loir, was clearly still thinking of the sarabande in its original incarnation as a lively Iberian dance, accompanied by castanets. After its suppression in Spain in the late sixteenth century, the sarabande then migrated to Italy and France, where it would gradually become a slow processional dance and have a long career in the theater.

The travel accounts thus reveal that the çengîs' dancing featured the sorts of shimmies that presaged modern belly-dancing, and that it involved pantomime, especially routines in which one or more female performers mimed heterosexual amorous encounters, in dialogue either with male spectators or, more subversively, with each other. We can readily imagine the elegantly extended arms, the delicate hand movements, the supple motion around the waist, the manipulation of a kerchief, the use of a tambourine or clappers to set the rhythm, and the donning of a hat to mimic a man's gait and gestures. This style, as Jane Sugarman explains, was what we would call "solo dancing" rather than "line dancing," which is not to say that there was only one dancer, but rather, that the emphasis was on the movements of the individual body instead of studied or patterned footwork—which of course facilitates theatricality and pantomime. "For most of the Ottoman period," writes Sugarman, "solo dance seems to have been the domain of two types of individuals: slaves, primarily women, who performed only within their own household; and hired entertainers, who might be either women or young boys, and who sometimes performed in public venues" (92). The question that comes to mind, in reading the early modern travel accounts, is whether there was any overlap between the two groups, that is, whether the hired entertainers were ever slaves.


Della Valle's description of the çengî who came to perform in his residence in Constantinople implies that they were free professionals. However, some of [End Page 153] these performers may have been slaves. There is ample evidence that in the eastern Mediterranean, already in the later Middle Ages, slave-girls often played the çeng. The most intensive use of slaves as indispensable members of wealthy Ottoman households occurred during the height of Ottoman power between the mid-fifteenth and late seventeenth centuries, which also was the heyday of the harp. In the middle of that time span, in the sixteenth century, slaves and former slaves made up one-fifth of the population of Constantinople. They could be of virtually any origin, race or ethnicity, provided they were not Ottoman subjects (since Muslims could not be enslaved).11 Their status was something more like what we would call indentured servitude than the kinds of forced manual labor we now associate with the term "slavery." Ottoman Muslims considered it a pious duty to convert and manumit slaves. Female slaves owned by men were considered to be sexually available to those men, but unlike in European culture, the children of such relationships were treated as legitimate (Andrews and Kalpakli 47, 238).

The diplomat Louis Deshayes de Courmenin (or rather, the secretary who likely penned his report, published in 1624) identified the slave-girls purchased by merchants in Tartary and then bartered in Constantinople as being "Polongnoises, Moscovites, Georgiennes, et Circassiennes," with very pale skin but plain features. However, he says there also were some slaves, both men and women, sold by "little Tartares," and deemed of beauty:

Il y a outre cela des particuliers parmy eux qui ont des hommes et des femmes esclaves les plus beaux qu'ils peuvent trouver pour en avoir de la race: c'est d'où sortent les plus belles filles qui soient parmy eux, qui ne doivent rien à celles de la Chrestienté. Le prix ordinaire des belles, quand elles ne sçavent ny chanter, ny travailler en tapisserie, est de cent escus, ou à peu prés: mais il augmente selon la gentillesse et les perfections qui sont en elles.12

Hence the account of Deshayes makes clear that musical skill, along with the ability to embroider, might be a reason for a gentleman of Constantinople to purchase a slave girl.

Gilles Fermanel, in a description just similar enough to suggest he might have been familiar with Deshayes's book, also indicates that slave-girls were prized for musical ability, and further describes a practice of buying one for a low price, keeping her for a few years in order to provide training, and then reselling her for a much higher price:

Le prix d'une mediocrement belle est de cent patacons; mais quand elles sçavent travailler à l'éguille, changer ou joüer des instrumens, elles valent cinq à six cens escus, voire mille et deux mille escus: les Juifs en font un grand trafic, car aussi-tost qu'elles arrivent ils les ache-tent à bon marché, et aprés les avoir gardées deux ou trois ans, et qu'elles sont bien instruites, [End Page 154] ils les vendent avec bien du profit: la pluspart de ces esclaves sont du païs de Russie, Moscovie, et Georgie: elles sont fort blanches, mais les traits du visage ne sont pas tant agreables, l'ayant ordinaïrement large, le front petit, le nez plat, et les yeux enfoncez dans la teste. Ces esclaves sont menez de la Tartarie à Constantinople, car les Tartares faisant des courses dans la Chrestienté, en prennent une grande quantité.

(Fermanel 53)

Neither Deshayes nor Fermanel addresses the question of exactly how these girls might acquire musical training. Probably they learned from other women, but it also is conceivable that they learned from the male musicians of the city; there is evidence in documents of the Ottoman court that the slave-girls of the palace were sometimes instructed in that way (Feldman, Music, 56, 69–70).

Della Valle writes that he so much enjoyed watching the performances of the çengî in Constantinople, he wished he could buy a deaf girl to bring back to Italy with him, because such girls were available for sale and highly valued: "Je vous avouë qu'il y a du plaisir à voir et à entendre celles de Constantinople, et qu'elles m'ont quelquefois inspiré la volonté d'y achepter une muette pour la mener en Italie; parce que il s'y en rencontre d'esclaves que l'on veut vendre, et que l'on estime beaucoup" (Della Valle 283). In this period, "mute" was the term used for deafness, and both Ottoman and European sources testify that deaf servants were much valued. Ottaviano Bon, the Venetian bailo from 1605 to 1607, writes of a staff of "inferior persons" who could be found in the Sultan's employ, citing buffoons, tricksters, musicians, wrestlers, and "many Mutes both old and young." Deshayes de Courmenin observes that among the Sultan's servants could be found the "Dilzis, c'est à dire sans langues; car ils sont muets." Like other European visitors, Deshayes marveled at how well they communicated with sign language:

Il n'y a rien qu'ils ne facent entendre par signes beaucoup plus facilement et plus promptement que s'ils parloient: et ce qui est encores advantage à admirer est, que non seulement ils se font entendre de jour, mais encores de nuit par le simple attouchement des mains et des autres parties du corps. Le feu Sultan Osman prenoit si grand plaisir à ce langage muet, qu'il l'avoit appris, et l'avoit fait apprendre à la pluspart de ses Ichoglans [enfants du tribut] et de ses Eunuques.

(Deshayes de Courmenin 143)

Thus even the pages (the tribute children) and eunuchs of the Seraglio were expected to learn to sign. As M. Miles has pointed out, a benefit of deaf servants was that secrets could be discussed in their presence, without fear that they might later be bribed to reveal what they had (not) heard. An obvious drawback was that the need to communicate by signs might seem tiresome. But the Ottoman court of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries was [End Page 155] unique in the premium it placed on silence, so that in a reversal of the usual linguistic situation, the "tongueless" minority became the language specialists and had their signing activity adopted by the "tongued" majority.13

According to Bon, it was not only the Sultan who surrounded himself with deaf people. The women of the harem also kept many mute women and girls around them, specifically for the purpose of learning to sign. Bon explains that the women of the harem practiced the art of reasoning and discoursing by nods and signs, and he observes that this well befitted "the gravity of the better sort of Turks, who cannot endure much babbling" (Freely 15, and Miles). Della Valle's mention of deaf slave-girls in connection with his appreciation for the performances of the çengî, allows us to hypothesize that some of the dancing and especially the miming in those performances might have reflected some of the signing practices in vogue at the Ottoman court.


By the second half of the seventeenth century the special association of the çengî with the harp—the reason for their appellation—became lost. With the advent of Ottoman art music in the late sixteenth century, as distinct from the Persian music that the Ottomans had earlier adopted and adapted, other musical instruments were becoming more popular, such as the tanbur (long-necked fretted lute) and the ney (the end-blown reed flute used by the dervishes). The çeng was difficult to play and not particularly easy to carry around and tune. By 1700 even the Ottomans had abandoned these little harps: the çeng disappears from the travel narratives, the court records, and the visual arts (Feldman, Music 154).

The çengî dancers continued to be very popular right through the nineteenth century, but since they were now dissociated from the harp, they constituted a different kind of social institution and demonstrated a different kind of artistry, one less focused on music-making.14 All-female troupes still existed, but beginning in the eighteenth century the companies were sometimes mixed. The fact that the çeng was now obsolete effected a transformation in the musical nature of the performances. The sweet tones of the harp were no longer heard, and the stage presence of the companies no longer incorporated the sight of a seated or kneeling woman holding that instrument. The visual association of the harp with love was no longer relevant. Accompanied song—the female voice—was deemphasized in favor of the dancing.

There was no precise artistic equivalent to the çengî in early modern European culture, where comparable practices were diffuse: dispersed among the commedia dell'arte, the ballet de cour, and the early manifestations of stage [End Page 156] theater and opera. In social terms there was no European equivalent either: no companies of professional women performers composed of minority ethnic and religious groups. The çengîs' dancing drew attention because it was erotic, but the early travel narratives make clear that their art, at least in the early years, was multivalent, involving considerable musical skill. They may have been 'owned,' that is, either enslaved or bound by some sort of formal guild contract. Yet it also is possible that early on they functioned as independent businesswomen. Because these women do not feature in archival records of the period, and because the nature of their performances underwent a major shift in the second half of the seventeenth century, the early travel accounts are valuable records of a lost art.

Carla Zecher
The Renaissance Society of America

I am grateful to Colette Winn and Anne Larsen for the invitation to participate in the workshop that generated this special issue, and to Harriet Stone for drawing my attention to the essay on "Signing in the Seraglio." In the titles of French books and citations from French texts I have regularized capitalization, expanded abbreviations, and regularized the I/J and U/V distinctions.


1. John Freely, Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul (1999; London: Tauris Park Paperbacks, 2016), 53.

2. Walter Feldman, Music of the Ottoman Court: Makam, Composition and the Early Ottoman Instrumental Repertoire (Berlin: VWB–Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 1996), 509, n.49.

3. Jane C. Sugarman, "Those 'Other Women': Dance and Femininity among Prespa Albanians," in Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean, Tullia Magrini, ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003), 93; Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli, The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early-Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society (Durham: Duke U P, 2005), 63–65.

4. Gilles Fermanel, Fauvel, Baudouin de Launay, and De Stochove, Le voyage d'Italie et du Levant (Rouen: Jacques Herault, 1670), 170–71.

5. Turkish Music Portal,; Musîki Dergísí,

6. "Illustration: Gathering with the Recitation of Poetry, Music, and Wine," Artstor Digital Library, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, manuscript W.631, f. 76b.

7. Guillaume Postel, De la republique des Turcs: et là ou l'occasion s'offrera, des meurs et loy de tous Muhamedistes (Poitiers: Enguilbert de Marnef, 1560), 18.

8. Pierre Belon du Mans, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables, trouvées an Grece, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie, et autres pays estranges (Paris: Guillaume Cavellat, 1555), 110a. This is the second edition of Belon's travelogue.

9. Jean Antoine Du Loir, Les voyages du sieur Du Loir, contenus in plusieurs lettres écrites du Levant (Paris: Gervais Clouzier, 1654), 174.

10. Pietro Della Valle, Les fameux voyages de Pietro della Vallé, gentilhomme romain, Étienne Carneau and François le Comte, trans. (Paris: Gervais Clouzier, 1663), vol. 1, 283–84. (Note that the first part of volume one, cited here, was printed in 1663 and the second part in 1661.)

11. Madeline C. Zilfi, "Slavery," in Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, Gábor Ágoston and Bruce Masters, eds. (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009), 530–31.

12. Louis Deshayes de Courmenin, Voiage de Levant, fait par le commandement du Roy en l'année 1621 (Paris: Adrian Taupinart, 1624), 109–10.

13. M. Miles, "Signing in the Seraglio: Mutes, Dwarfs, and Jestures at the Ottoman Court 1500–1700," Disability & Society, 15:1 (2000): 115–34,

14. Walter Feldman, "Ottoman Turkish Music: Genre and Form," in Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 6: The Middle East, Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds, eds. (New York: Garland Publishing, 2001), 115.

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