Scholarly & Social Meeting; Professor Tolga U. Esmer Notes on a Scandal: Gossip, Reputation, and Imperial Governance in the Ottoman Empire at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
Notes on a Scandal: Gossip, Reputation, and Imperial Governance in the Ottoman Empire at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
[Abstract] Focusing on the nexus of gossip, reputation, and imperial governance at the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, this essay reconstructs a scandal involving Ottoman governors, the network of a notorious bandit leader, and the local population of the city Filibe (Plovdiv in Bulgaria) in the fall of 1797 that erupted over whether or not state officials should try to pacify successful bandit enterprises by co-opting their leaders. The scandal escalated into a trans-regional crisis in which the military forces of the governors of Anatolia and Rumeli (the Ottoman Balkans) were on the verge of clashing in southeast Europe just as Napoleon was about to invade Ottoman Egypt. By exploring the connection between dispatches of imperial elites on this scandal and the broader oral political culture they reference, this paper explores how ‘gossip’ shaped not only discourses on justice and honor but also framed the use of legitimate force that bound different groups to one another during this time of crisis. Building on inter-disciplinary approaches to gossip, this essay moves beyond legal formalism to demonstrate how different groups’ moral values were reinforced and policed by inclusive gossip networks that constituted trans-regional, legal forums that defined normative behavior and punished individuals and groups across the social spectrum who failed to adhere to their norms. In this sense, this discussion seeks to shed light on the “oral and aural authority” upon which Ottoman imperial rule rested but was volubly debated by different groups of society.
Tolga U. Esmer is an Assistant Professor of Ottoman, Middle Eastern, Eastern Mediterranean, and Balkan Studies in the Department of History at the Central European University, and he has also taught classes on Islam and Islamic history at Northwestern and Pennsylvania State University. A social and cultural historian, Dr. Esmer earned his Ph.D. in History at the University of Chicago in 2009. He is the author of several forthcoming articles, one of which is entitled “Economies of Violence, Governance, and the Socio-Cultural Dimensions of Banditry in the Ottoman Empire, c. 1800” will come out in Past & Present in August 2014.
Dr. Esmer is currently working on a book that re-conceptualizes the phenomenon of banditry central to the narratives of disorder and disintegration that dominate the historiography of the late Ottoman Empire by exploring how trans-regional networks of violence mediated social relations and drew together vast groups of society together. The book approaches banditry and its attendant economies of violence as politicized sites of contestation in which socio-economic, moral, legal, and religious concerns of various groups in Ottoman society converged to highlight new tensions and define new relations at the eve of national revolutions. These are processes that the fields of Ottoman, Balkan, and Middle Eastern history have studied separately yet were intimately connected and contingent.