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  • Morality Tales:A Medieval Inheritance
  • Patricia Skinner (bio)

The practice of interrogating selected microhistories in the archives as a starting point for reconstructing hierarchies of status and power has proven a rich and deep seam for historians of the non-elite in the last few decades. In the cold light of day, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's pioneering version of southern French village life (Montaillou, village occitan, 1975) based on inquisitorial records might have taken on the shape of a tour d'imagination rather than a scientific study, but there is no doubt that presenting the voices of "real" people spawned a whole generation of academic works which were no less stimulating in bringing hidden histories to light, notably Carlo Ginzberg, The Cheese and the Worms.1 People's history, "history from below," won a ready academic and popular audience, as the enduring fascination of the tale of Martin Guerre testifies.2 But as Natalie Zemon Davis was at pains to point out, such stories were not unproblematic reflections of real lives or even of actual events.3 Tales of people in court were tales of people under pressure: they said what they thought the judge/s wanted to hear, or what they thought would win their dispute. Sometimes they adopted a penitential stance in the hope that this would achieve their goals. Of course, courts were not the only place to bring disputes or restore order to a community in the premodern period. But the ephemeral (to us, if not to the social memory of the community) nature of oral, out-of-court settlements means that historians are left with only the written records of institutional judicial procedures. In these, the richness of testimony may vary over time (the contributors to Wendy Davis and Paul Fouracre's collection The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe certainly had less to work with in this respect), but the tactics visible have an almost timeless quality.4

How does gender work in such settings? That women were even permitted to enter the premodern court was not a given (the western European phenomenon of coverture of married women depriving them of a separate legal status), but where they did appear they have inspired a wealth of studies aimed at determining their social status and their freedom of action in a variety of settings. A dispute over a secret marriage at Florence opens up the moral and political landscape of that city in the mid fifteenth century5 ; while the courts of sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century London witnessed the fallout of family and neighborhood relations gone wrong.6

In her latest study of Ottoman society in the same period, Leslie Peirce locates herself within this microhistorical tradition, and she is well aware [End Page 186] of, and intermittently cites, European parallels to her work. This means that there is much in her book which will be familiar and valuable to those not well-versed in the specifics of Ottoman history, such is the skill with which she weaves in recognizable themes such as women's access to sources of authority, the disjuncture between orality and the written word, the patriarchal underpinning of marriage within Islamic law, and the intersection between the interests of the centralizing state and the regulation of social order at a local level. Taking as her focus a year in the life of the provincial court of Aintab (modern Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey) between 1540 and 1541, Peirce introduces us to three women's stories: those of Ine the unhappy child bride, of Haciye Sabah the teacher, and of Fatma, a pregnant and unmarried peasant girl. Through her detailed reading and contextualization of each of these tales of morality she reconstructs the multiplicity of interests—those of family, neighborhood, and the Ottoman state itself—which shaped the court's decision in each case. The choice of year to study is deliberate, for it was at this moment that the Aintab region, hitherto on the border of the empire and still, it seems, largely shaped by the customs and practices of the pre-conquest era, experienced a greater level of Ottoman intervention in its administration. A new law book had arrived...


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pp. 186-191
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