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Privileges, Autonomy, and Legal Authority at the Edge of Empire

Session IX-08, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel explores how people living and moving through Ottoman Europe engaged with the law, shaped legal norms, challenged jurisdictional boundaries, and came to understand and define the boundaries of subjecthood and ideas of political authority. The papers draw attention to different aspects of how law and society were in transformation, from shifts in understandings of property regimes and jurisdictional space to changing ideas of captivity, enslavement, and privileges. They also highlight different aspects of law: Ottoman, national, communal, ecclesiastical, and Islamic. In so doing, the papers address the messy ways that privileges, autonomy, and legal authority developed in the pre-Tanzimat era and connects these ideas to the evolution of legal norms, ideas of subjecthood, and formal autonomy. At a broader level, the panel seeks to bridge histories of European and Ottoman history, illuminating how law and legal norms transcended political and geographical boundaries. In much of the European historiography, narratives of Ottoman Europe emphasize Ottoman violence and repression, blood feuds, vendettas, banditry, Christian slavery, nationalist conflict, and the “return” or “liberation” of Ottoman to Christian Europe. These narratives served to justify European absorption of Ottoman lands and became entrenched in the foundational myths of Ottoman successor states. Ottoman histories of Ottoman Europe, meanwhile, have focused especially on questions of statecraft, elite politics, bureaucracy, and territorial losses, hiding the dynamic and complex ways that people living and moving through Ottoman Europe engaged with multiple forms of legal and political authority and shaped the Ottoman project. This panel joins a growing school of scholarship that seeks to connect these discrete histories and illuminate their connections and mutual relations.
  • “The people are stubborn,” warned Milosav Zdravković, a local official in Ottoman Serbia in 1822. “They do not listen to the orders from the authorities. They are not afraid.” His immediate concern was that the Christian peasants were not paying their taxes to the Ottoman landowners, as required by law. But their refusal reflected a far bigger problem in the breakdown of authority at all levels of society during insurgency and the revolutionary era. Ecclesiastical and communal justice systems were challenged, and it was often unclear who was responsible for overseeing marriage and divorce. Village elders retained certain legal rights, but had no enforcement mechanisms. Indeed, entire systems of vassalage, elder councils, monastic justice, and janissary power were being challenged and replaced by new types of governing and legal bodies. People living in Ottoman Serbia understood things were in flux. They also understood that different forms of legal authority existed. Drawing upon a range of Serbian-language court cases from this chaotic moment, this paper explores how people maneuvered within this tumultuous legal landscape and improvised law in order to claim agency over their lives and define the system in which they lived. Examples include slaves who ran away from Ottoman owners and tested the jurisdictional boundaries of Ottoman law; wives who demanded divorces against the wishes of town elders and local priests; a monk who burned Christian farmers’ fields in protest of new civil property laws, insisting he belonged to the domain of ecclesiastical authority. Bringing together these diverse cases, the paper illuminates how people were developing legal knowledge, encountering and testing the law, and shaping conversations about legal norms and the boundaries of political authority in an insurgency province.
  • “Liberation” is a common trope in late Ottoman history. It was, and still is, common for narratives to trace the dates at which various polities were freed from the sultan’s rule—usually in the context of international relations, as part of the “Eastern Question.” But at the same time, liberation could be more literal, and individualized, as a growing web of treaties and practice committed the Ottoman state to releasing captives and slaves. This paper puts those two conceptions of “liberation” in conversation, by examining how captors, captives, and the Ottoman state navigated the shifting concept of “autonomy” in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In doing so, it also explores what it meant to be a “subject” of a patchwork empire, in which different people lived under different legal rules. The paper draws on Ottoman, Russian, and British archival sources, as well as British and French travel narratives. It begins by looking at the original “autonomous” Ottoman territories—Moldavia, Wallachia, and (arguably) Georgia. In the eighteenth century, the inhabitants of all of these territories were bound to Istanbul indirectly. Nevertheless, they could fall prey to enslavement, and over the course of the century, treaties between the Ottomans, Iran, and Russia granted them new rights to demand liberation. Was this a matter of increased autonomy, or evidence of an informal sort of Russian sovereignty extending over them? More importantly, for captives themselves, what type of claims could they make to gain liberation, and what types of legal relationships did this imply? I explore these questions through Islamic court records and imperial decrees from several different Ottoman archives. The second part of the paper turns to the Ottoman state itself. As the Age of Revolutions wore on in the early nineteenth century, the Sublime Porte granted autonomy—and then independence—to more and more territories, most notably Serbia and Greece. This required navigating difficult legal questions about what “autonomy” meant, particularly for people who had been enslaved in those territories during wartime. I approach this question through a detailed look at the liberation of captives after the Greek War of Independence. While previously characterized as the end of “white slavery” in the Ottoman Empire, or as the first step toward abolition in general, I argue that it was instead an attempt to work out the relationship between autonomy and enslavement, and indeed the meaning of autonomy itself.
  • This paper explores the legal and spatial practices that defined the land regime in the Crimean Khanate from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. While the general contours of landownership in the khanate have been described in historical scholarship, this study uses an untapped sourcebase and an innovative methodology to argue that we cannot understand land regimes without understanding spatial cultures. This is the first study to use GIS methods to map the topographical narratives embedded in land dispute documents. The archives of the khanate are incomplete, and what remains is scattered from Istanbul to St. Petersburg. But in the nineteenth century, a handful of dedicated scholars published document collections in well-respected regional journals such as the Bulletin of the Tavrida Scholarly Archival Commission and the Reports of the Odessa Society for History and Antiquity. One of those projects resulted in the publication of hundreds of Crimean yarlyks and firmans. The documents range over three centuries and detail the various mechanisms for property acquisition, including inheritance through maternal and paternal lines, pious endowment, clan succession, purchase, and grant. Many deal with disputed properties. Without fail, they include – in fact, they hinge on – precise descriptions of boundaries, such as one that painstakingly traces a narrow stream along the floor of a ravine and up into a kişla (winter sheepfold). The property then skirts the shrubs of a çair (alpine meadow) before climbing to a village road. Documents like this offer rich data about the historical topography of the khanate: data we can leverage through mapping. They also offer insights into spatial culture. Crimeans employed a different vocabulary than those used by the Ottoman and Russian states (Crimea was declared independent of Ottoman rule in 1774 and was annexed by Russia in 1783). They measured area differently and assessed value according to different criteria. This paper will show not just what Crimeans owned, but how their descriptions of water, vegetation, elevation, and the built environment, defined the landscape.
  • Right before the regicide of Sultan Selim III in 1808, irregular warrior commanders-turned bandits who undermined security and imperial order throughout Rumeli, men like Kara Feyzî, his son Kara Feyzî-zâde ‘Alî Beğ, and their kith and kin, forced the sultanate to co-opt their transregional bandit enterprises as special forces charged with undermining Balkan national uprisings and terrorizing Ottoman subjects in Serbia, Montenegro and, later, Greece. It was these mobile terror and racketeering networks that played principal roles in inciting the Serbs into rebelling in the first place after their irregular warrior-janissary confederations conquered Belgrade from the Ottoman government in 1801. After visiting their terror and protection rackets onto both Muslim and Christian subjects across Rumeli for well over a decade, they “legitimately” refocused their terror, ransom-slavery, and pillaging campaigns against Serbs, Montenegrins, and Greeks throughout the reign of Sultan Mahmut II (r. 1808-1838), refashioning themselves as respectable “borderland warriors of faith.” This presentation explores Ottoman archival documents alongside Muslim as well as Serbian, Montenegrin, and Bulgarian narrative sources on the movements of Muslim families from the mountains of eastern Rumeli that Istanbul settled along new types of boundaries that began emerging between the Ottoman empire and Serbia during the First and Second Serbian Uprisings (1804-13 and 1815-7) as well as Greece during the Greek Revolution (1821-1829). Alongside these families, it also explores how their Christian counterparts, Serbian and Montenegrin leaders such as Đorđe Petrović (Karađorđević), Miloš Obrenović, and Petar Njegoš responded to this state-sponsored banditry, even though the state nominally recognized these Christian leaders as “representatives” of the sultan charged with maintaining order in their increasingly autonomous polities. I will argue that these Christian leaders, experienced as paramilitary leaders that aided Habsburg and Russian forces during wars against their Ottoman overlords, emulated the practices of their Muslim counterparts across the border by establishing their own racketeering operations that terrorized and enslaved Muslims locked in their new polities as well as other non-Serbian Christians like the Bulgarian, Vlach, and Greek warrior subjects who joined Muslim raids into Serbian territory. Hence, through these frequent conflicts, one begins to see how a culture of paramilitarism that spread through the intersection of competing imperial visions for the Balkans and local power struggles forever changed political imaginations in the region but ensured the enmity and mistrust among different groups within these new polities colonized social relations in ways they did in the Ottoman empire beforehand.