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Session R4727 (Defining Early Modernity in Ottoman History), 2017
I will stress continuity between the medieval period and the early modern period. Scholarship on the Ottoman Empire nowadays often asserts that some feature of a given political, social, or economic process – trade, medicine, statecraft – was “modern,” often on the basis of rather flimsy evidence. The main criterion for “modernness” in this context seems to be scale: more trade with a larger number of partners and with more exchanges in cash, a larger government that interfered more in society, and so on. On the other hand, recent scholarship on the Middle Ages, in the Islamic world and elsewhere, has shown a greater degree of institutional complexity in medieval governments, in international commerce, and in other realms. There seems not to be so much a breaking point that separates the medieval from the early modern as a continuum or spectrum that gradually allowed the not unsophisticated and unconnected societies of the Middle Ages to become the more sophisticated and more connected societies of the early modern era.
A not unrelated subject I would like to broach is the extent to which scholarship on the early modern Ottoman Empire has borrowed concepts from western European historiography. The periodization itself – medieval, early modern, modern – comes from western Europe, as do labels for a number of critical turning points: the crisis of the seventeenth century, confessionalization, enlightenment, perhaps even the military revolution. “Confessionalization,” which is currently receiving a great deal of attention in the Ottoman field, was originally coined in the 1980s to describe the process whereby the various monarchies of western Europe identified with particular sects of Christianity and encouraged public display of confessional identity through, for example, participation in public religious rituals. For the Ottomans, confessionalization is usually taken to mean the adoption of a Sunni Hanafi identity as against the Twelver Shi‘ism of the enemy Safavid empire in Iran. I think we can legitimately ask whether we are not underestimating the societies of the pre-Ottoman era by asserting that this kind of sectarian identification is something new in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We can extend this question to other supposedly “modern” phenomena in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Can we detect a real change in the attitudes and behavior of Ottoman economic and political actors, or are scale and social impact the main differences? More generally, how well do these western European categories fit the Ottoman Empire and other empires?