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Journal of Women's History 18.1 (2006) 181-185
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Looking for the Universal in the Local:
Morality Tales from the Western End of the Mediterranean
I had never heard of the Ottoman city of Aintab, whose court provides Leslie Peirce's focus, before I read Morality Tales. I chanced upon it when I looked for a book to accommodate the interests of two Ottomanist students in a graduate research seminar about using court cases. As an early modern French historian, I am woefully ignorant of all but the most basic issues about the Ottoman state and society that dominated the "other" end of the Mediterranean. Yet as I read Morality Tales, I quickly felt that I could substitute the name of a moderately sized early modern western European city of my choice for Aintab, so similar did many of the key dynamics seem. Indeed, Peirce's project has much in common with the book I am now writing about family litigation, pursued overwhelmingly by women, in local urban courts in France. I find these apparent familiarities both fascinating and unnerving (in the sense that they might be based in my ignorance of matters Ottoman), and they encourage us to interrogate what the local suggests about the universal in terms of the early modern world. In Peirce's ambitious book, women's uses of Aintab's court during one year, 1541, provide a means not only to "understand the culture of a local court" and the processes of dispute resolution intrinsic to it, but to provide "a lens through which wider questions of community, justice and empire become visible" (1–2).
Methodologically, Morality Tales looks a lot like an early modern western European project. It uses a quintessential method of my field, microhistory, and Peirce draws her first chapter's epigram from a classic microhistorical exposition, Giovanni Levi's study of a seventeenth-century Italian village. Peirce employs Levi's framing of the window "a banal place and an undistinguished story" provides into complex processes to introduce Aintab. Like Levi, the richness of Peirce's source material and her interpretative sophistication offer an extraordinarily satisfying and stimulating reading of the lived experiences of women and men. Peirce uses Levi's peers to great effect too, such as Natalie Davis's meditation on [End Page 181] unraveling the layers of legal records or Guido Ruggiero's analysis of the multiple imperatives that propelled pre-marital conceptions.1
Aintab's court, like many legal systems around the Mediterranean, handled a great variety and large quantity of business, and Peirce shares many of the current preoccupations of western European historians about the evolving relationships between community, legal system, and state. Like us, Peirce interrogates the meanings of the court's activity, and seeks the political and cultural stakes all participants had in participation in the legal process and in procuring particular outcomes, whether the state through the courts' judges, the community through witnesses, or plaintiffs and defendants. Recent books by Daniel Lord Smail on late medieval Marseilles and Steve Hindle on early modern England, to take two examples, have, like Peirce, focused on the local delivery of the law and the creative uses that local populations made of legal resources, on the ways in which plaintiffs were consumers, on the investment for courts (and the states they served) in the provision of forms of justice that actively encouraged people to use the courts as opposed to other kinds of dispute resolution, and on the rise of litigation as one part of a complex set of strategies rather than as a stage in a teleological shift from community to state.2 Apart from conversion, if any more evidence is needed, to the fast-rising project of writing the Ottoman empire into the story of early modern European history rather...