By: Heather Ferguson

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Heather Ferguson (HF): In a rare break from the demands of my first semester teaching at Claremont McKenna College, I attended a UCLA workshop on early modern rivalries. I have since misplaced my notes from the panels, but a casual comment over coffee set me on the path that led to The Proper Order of Things. This unintentional interlocutor merely referenced the “delusions” at the heart of the stupendous production of preserved sultanic commands that comprise a large component of the “source base” for histories of the Ottoman Empire. I had long fretted over relying on materials produced by the Ottoman establishment, when my true hope had been to adopt a more “ground-up” analysis of post-conquest administrative tactics in Greater Syria (1516-20) and in occupied territories along the Danube (1526-41). Without preserved records from shari‘a courts for either, the gradual systematization of imperial edicts into notebooks (mühimme defterleri) and the circulation of legal protocols guiding the social, tenurial, and political categories for revenue collection and administrative governance (kanunname) had been my primary focus. Now, however, I realized my discomfort with these materials might be turned into the very focus of my work: the “delusion” of imperial order in the midst of fragmented territorial and sovereign claims within the composite holdings of the Ottoman dynasty. The book then became an itinerary of sorts, tracing the varied formulae, stylistic renderings, and vocabularies that came to define a textual order, or, as I argued, a “grammar of rule” that inscribed a vision of imperial control.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HF: The book seeks to unpack the evolving interrelationship between legal discourses and Ottoman state power from the late fifteenth/early sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century. It explores the production of three textual genres (statutory regulations, decrees addressing particular situations, and political advice literature) not as efforts to impose the central government’s will on its subjects but rather as mechanisms to understand Ottoman governance through the creation of social, political, and legal categories. These textual genres of command and critique provided conceptual models of the Ottoman realm that simultaneously constituted administrative strategies for its governance. The book builds on decades of historiography that aims to grasp the character and durability of the early modern empire but places it within commensurate Eurasian dynamics (avoiding Ottoman uniqueness) and suggests that official Ottoman ideology and provincial dissidence cannot easily be distinguished (moving beyond center/periphery debates).

In part, the book identifies how sovereignty became linked to the extension of textual authority over far-flung territories. It thus assesses the interconnection between spatial and textual politics, and the role that circulated edicts played in asserting absolute claims which were often more performance than fact. It follows developments in the imperial council, scribal cohorts, and legal formulations that in combination gradually crafted a grammar of proper order adopted by Ottoman statesmen, petitioners, and rebels alike. Tracing this “grammar of rule” enabled me to show how the emergence of textual genres stood in dialogic relation to administrative practice and was then idealized into a vision of imperial durability (the three major sections of the book). Furthermore, legal rescripts of command and adjudication tended often to become long summaries of state actions and thus self-contained “mini-archives.” These written summaries not only recorded what the Ottoman establishment had done, but also signified what the government itself had become: the chief medium for written representation of the Ottoman world.

While the language and aesthetics of imperial command and the formalization of a bureaucratic system within the Topkapı Palace is key, I also analyze how this dialogic process between textual and sovereign authority unfolded in two frontier zones. The first “external” frontier analyzes a combined system of fortress and text designed to rule a territory never securely under the empire’s control within Ottoman occupied Hungary. The “brokered state” that emerged from this encounter indicates the fragility of imperial command, the translation both literal and figurative of sovereign claims, and the hybrid heteroglossia necessary to coerce and entreat the consent of the governed. For the second “internal” frontier of Greater Syria, I trace the effort to co-opt rebellious elites into strategic alliances with the Ottoman government in Istanbul and thus “re-territorialize” imperial authority through contractual partnerships. Here, I indicate that both regional and imperial fortunes were balanced on the tip of a pin, often unseated by rival claimants to authority and resources, and policed by a textual limit that asserted the distinction between loyal servant and rebel.

I see this book as an effort to turn attention to recordkeeping practices as a barometer not just of state or imperial authority, but also of its vision of governance, its “delusions,” perhaps. Authority or imperial power, then, was in some sense also connected to its ability to register and extend official decisions through managed records. These records produced social facts by creating categories of rule, and thus tools of governance. While perhaps formed, in this case, as an attempt to assert sovereignty, recordkeeping practices more often than not capture a system in flux, constantly amended and renewed through repetitive assertions and threats. When bureaucrats and scholars sought to sustain the empire in the face of new challenges toward the end of the sixteenth century, they asserted the significance of the record as an archive of power. The Proper Order of Things examines how it was that the “archive” was identified as the solution in a time of chaos, and as a result, re-threads its way through the textual and territorial feats of a dynasty at work.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HF: I was trained by social cum cultural historians, intent on analyzing the everyday with new methodologies and interdisciplinary theories. My early work and focus was thus on the shari‘a court as a forum for the encounter between disparate conceptions of regional, imperial, and religious authority. While I at first thought a turn toward imperial recordkeeping strategies was an abandonment of this commitment, I would now argue that it is the way in to the everyday practice of governance. The biggest shift in focus, however, derives from my amazing colleagues in art and architectural history who I have worked with for almost seven years as an editor for the International Journal of Islamic Architecture. My initial interest in monumental architecture led me to this crowd, and a focus on material and visual culture then allowed me to “read” texts in a new way—as preserved remnants or indices of past actions.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HF: We are all too familiar with the tendency toward myopia of first book projects, but it was important for me to push away from the specialization of Ottoman Studies. Recent focus on the “early modern” (despite my discomfort with the rubric) has created a space for comparative conversation and insights, and I hope this book participates in these efforts. Although based on a reading of textual genres, The Proper Order of Things remains steadfastly interdisciplinary in method and scope. For undergrads and grad students I hope it might provide an example of how to think about the intersection between structures/institutions and the categories/texts that shape and sustain them.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HF: Although my research continues to address how imperial commitments to extending and preserving power through textual and archival practices reveals a history of conflicts over legal, social, and political categories, my current book project focuses on something slightly different. Sovereign Valedictions: “Last Acts” in Early Modern Habsburg And Ottoman Courts attends to the late gestures of dynastic representatives not as an academic conceit, but rather as a new kind of historical index that serves as a repository of early modern forces at work. Tactics pursued to preserve the pretense of control, bend political turmoil toward dynastic endurance, commemorate triumphs, forfend disaster, and shape posterity also unmask the definitive structures, conceptual schemes, ideological touchstones, and rhetorical tropes deployed to render Ottoman and Habsburg rule integral if not invulnerable. It also challenges narratives of progress and periodization that use time to denigrate difference and reinforce the hegemony of the “modern.”

J: Why should we care about a formalized textual bureaucracy in the early modern period?

HF: Writing books requires a period of seclusion, and I was shocked when I re-emerged into a world in which “the early modern archive” was all the rage. What interested me most, when catching up on my reading, was the way in which this “archive” was all too often configured as a site or a place, even if an author quoted the refrain of “practices.” It seems all the more imperative for us to resist collapsing what we as scholars turn to during phases of research (various state, regional, legal, and private repositories of documents) and what authorities or actors in different historical periods were doing with texts. Our “archives” may or may not have been the archives of historical agents or institutions, and we must tease out the distinction between our deploying of these preserved texts and their acts of inscription. I also waded into renewed assertions of a Weberian argument for “modernity” that links bureaucracy to new mechanisms for wielding coercive state power. The politics of periodization schemas continue to plague the field of history, and the re-entrenched nature of a belief in progressive order undermines decades of scholarship on commensurate tactics wielded by centralizing states across chronoscapes and landscapes.


Excerpt from the Book:

The Proper Order of Things traces how the production of specific record-keeping genres and administrative discourses served to shape and augment imperial authority as the Ottoman Empire rapidly expanded in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It suggests that the Ottoman governing apparatus produced and managed a textual terrain that fit diversity into an actionable grammar of rule. This grammar of rule constituted a core administrative strategy comparable to other early modern empires ever-more reliant on the circulation of documents to instantiate sovereign authority. Yet the particular legacies of the text, legal intervention on the part of the ruler, and overlapping rubrics for assessing just rule led to a unique vision of Ottoman imperial order. This vision of order was then used by literary elites in the seventeenth century as a means to analyze and evaluate both the history and the consequences of Ottoman conquest, expansion, and endurance. The new mapping of Ottoman imperial practice outlined in this book suggests that conceptual models came to serve as strategies for provincial governance, and thus seeks to bridge a methodological divide between cultural and political history. Lawmaking activities at the Ottoman court extended the jurisdiction of the sultan over provincial territory by enticing regional power brokers and official delegates into collaboration. This collaboration was defined as a relationship between a benevolent sovereign and a loyal servant, and revenue shares were distributed according to categories defined by justice, equity, and a proper sociopolitical ordering of relations. Scholars have explored this collaboration in part by assessing the way in which rebellious actions sought not to disrupt the ideological claims or legitimacy of the state but rather to influence its proportional dispersal of gifts, rewards, and resources. “The viability of the Ottoman state,” as Tosun Arıcanlı and Mara Thomas suggested in the clearest articulation of this trend, “was due to the convergence of the interests of the participants of the distributive game at a locus demarcated by the state. Thus, cadastral surveys, fiscal budgetary reports, legal rescripts, copies of sultanic commands, registers of land grants, and petitions directed to the imperial council illustrate more than a political economy of land management and taxation. They also generated the very categories and principles of organization on which an Ottoman understanding of statecraft and sovereign authority came to rest.

The construction of an Ottoman body politic occurred gradually over time and emerges only as the sum of many otherwise distinct and seemingly unrelated legal records and registers. The earliest register (defter) of the imperial council (divan-i hümayun) dates to 1479, but now more than 300,000 registers and 150 million loose papers (evrak) are preserved in the Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (Prime Ministry’s Archives) in Istanbul. The massive data-gathering projects of the state therefore demonstrate shifts in imperial priorities. Detailed land surveying systems, for example, were gradually abbreviated into summary form and then neglected in favor of records managed by a specialized financial department. Bound legal regulations that assessed taxes and civil order by province gave way to a standardized code used as a normative guide for disputes and adjustments. Registers that recorded in minute detail the granting of tax benefices reveal the networked ties and regional alignments deemed essential for stable agrarian administration. Chronological copies of imperial edicts composed in response to reported incidents across the domain were formalized into bound registers during the reign of Süleyman. But the task of recording the voluminous information outgrew the scope of one administrative category, so a new register, intended specifically to address petitioner’s complaints, appeared a century later. Furthermore, if the sultan and the grand vizier were on campaign, two (and sometimes three) simultaneous registers of these edicts were maintained: one with the military force and one with the vizier’s delegate who remained in the capital. These varied registers collectively embodied an Ottoman imperial practice and, more specifically, captured a power play, an attempt to define and sustain authority by manufacturing an archive of dispersed and collected paper that attested to that authority. Head chancellors of Süleyman’s reformed bureaucratic system were fully cognizant of the linkages between document, sovereign authority, and proper imperial management, and they collected examples of documentary types of imperial correspondence, which were presumably circulated as guidance manuals. The “problem” of history, or of historical analysis in this instance, is to determine not solely what the documents say, but how the saying was organized to shape a particular understanding of imperial order. In other words, the historical labor of this book is to assess the tactics through which the Ottoman ruling elite sought to impose, via either sword or pen, the “legitimate” categories of order and intelligibility on both an internal and external audience.

It is thus important to keep in mind that the Ottoman governing apparatus during the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries was only one claimant to power amongst many. What differentiated the state (seen here as the combination of sultanic personhood and those representatives who acted in his interest, or who embraced his interest as a vehicle to achieve their own), and endowed it with the authority necessary to maintain a ruling status, was precisely the ability to maintain order and thus to ratify the meaningfulness of the classificatory system it employed. Authority, then, was measured by social harmony (asud-u hal). Rebellions or social disturbance (fitne) posed a direct challenge to the government’s superiority over the claims of others. As a consequence, the legislation of the early modern state was almost exclusively negative. The prevalent notation of unsatisfactory conditions and violations of existing laws was explicitly used as the causative rationale for the promulgation of regulatory measures. Fitne ü fesad (disorder and sedition or corruption) played a persistent rhetorical function in both regulatory edicts and in the diagnostic formulations of contemporary Ottoman observers. Imperial correspondence attributed this disorder or general mischief (another interpretation of fesad) to those actors, both official and unofficial, who challenged the organizational categories employed by the state. These categories were also conceived as the mechanism whereby the state maintained a just system and invoked homologies between the cosmos and the ruler; thus, the sultan stood as the guardian of justice and the guarantor of the realm. The link between justice and order was famously articulated by Idris Bitlisi (d. 1520): “The justice is in placing everything in its proper place.” Injustice, or ẓulm, was an act of mis-placing, of putting a thing in a wrong or improper place. Justice, then, was a hybrid and fluid category. It was a necessary virtue of the ruler, a yardstick against which imperial intervention was judged, a measure of social hierarchy and political balance, a rationale for complaint, and an index for comparison with past achievements or present corruptions. Wielded by administrators of the state, however, justice constituted a universalized language of stabilization that made a virtue out of public order and thus out of the social, political, and economic alignments necessary to ensure imperial continuity….

The categories in the kanunnameler, the legal edicts of the mühimmeler, and the reformist sentiments of the nasihatnameall worked incessantly to produce actionable links between land, population, justice, and governance. These depended on an explicit interweaving of sultanic authority with legal precedent. Governmental edicts and orders, “legal” because they were consented to, represented an administrative strategy manifesting both regulatory and productive features: regulatory because they imposed order on unwieldy patterns of land tenure and fixed the social landscape within a specific rubric of rule, but also productive because such laws created new grammars for social interaction, providing a vocabulary in which rights and obligations were countenanced and grievances stemming from their violation addressed. This book, then, traces the imprint of governing practices in the language deployed by these genres and argues (1) that they reveal a brokered terrain between multiple interest groups vying for resources; (2) that the Ottoman administrative apparatus, as one of these interest groups, legitimized its higher claim to resources via a notion of cosmic harmony and the proper order of things and sought to align disparate interests to imperial claims; and (3) that, as a discourse and a practice of alignment, proper order was thus a structure or grammar of rule both formed by historical processes and the frame by which these processes were interpreted within Ottoman bureaucratic and literary productions. In other words, the language of power was not simply state-generated, or a rationalization of coercive means, but rather a way of structuring experience and rendering it intelligible that reflected the intergroup accommodations or “alignments” necessary to sustain an imperial universe.


Heather Ferguson, The Proper Order of Things: Language, Power, and Law in Ottoman Administrative Discourses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).