Ema Miljkovic-Bojanic, M. A.
Institute of History of
Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts
Malcolm’s Apology of the “Pax Ottomana”
(Ab)using of historiography and historical facts for political ends is not a novelty introduced towards the end of the twentieth century. Its instances have been known throughout history, so that “practically there is not a single epoch of human history that was not controlled – by the Church, state, nation, party, leadership…” But precisely at a time when historiography seemed to be getting rid, at least partly, of the grip of “supervision” and when a critical approach was getting the upper hand, the inclusion of Noel Malcolm’s works in catalogues and their placing on library shelves has marked a long step back.
The books by the English publicist Noel Malcolm, the first one dealing with the history of Bosnia and the second, about to be discussed, dealing with the history of Kosovo since the early Middle Ages up to most recent times, represent the most flagrant instances of historiographical work written “to order” in which almost all phenomena and events are seen in a distorted way, so that the impression made is quite untrue. Yet someone evidently needs such a picture of the history of certain regions and the people living in them.
All of a sudden “promoted”, a few years ago, into an unavoidable expert for the history of the Balkans, Noel Malcom undoubtedly exerted a certain effort writing his history of Kosovo by way of consulting the literature and published sources relevant to the subject of his research. And here, at once, we are confused. Judging by his biography, he has never had a chance to learn the Serb or Albanian languages, yet he quotes from the voluminous literature and published in these two languages! The question arises as a matter of course: is it possible within only two years during which the books was being written he was able to master these not in the least easy languages, or had he to have “assistants” to get him introduced into the achievements of Serb and Albanian historiography? Be that as it may, however, Malcolm, carefully tearing facts out of their real context and placing them into altogether arbitrary frameworks, does his best throughout his presentation to prove a single preset thesis: that the Serbs cannot claim the area of Kosovo and Metohija either historically or ethnically, as well as that they have for centuries been the privileged population and a menace to other peoples living there, particularly to the Albanians, of course. One must confess that he does this very skillfully so that the poorly informed reader, for whom the book is primarily meant, will consider it as a work on the basis of relevant historical evidence and relying on the existing scholarly insights in this field. However, a somewhat more attentive reading will enable even that average reader, perhaps possessing no knowledge of Serb or Albanian history, to see that the author disavows some of his own attitudes, contradicting himself.
The very title of the chapter presenting the circumstances in this, southern province of Serbia immediately after the Serb lands were occupied by the Ottomans, shows the superficial and non-professional approach of Malcolm to his theme which he has chosen considering himself a veritable polyhistorian and sufficiently professional to present a complex, over ten centuries long history of an area. Namely, he speaks of the “early-Ottoman Kosovo” at a time when the name “Kosovo” is non-existent as the name for the area. To be precise, under Ottoman rule the territory of the present-day Kosovo and Metohija was divided into a number of Ottoman administrative units, the Vucitrn, Dukagjin, Prizren and Skadar sandzaks.
But let us leave the term “Kosovo” aside. Even if we agree that it can by used with its current connotation, its use must be accounted for, because as it is it undoubtedly makes the desired impression – that Kosovo has always been a unit autonomous in relation to the rest of the Serbian state.
In contrast to the major part of the book which is teeming with imprecise data, inaccurate assertions and even fabricated facts, the part of the book dealing with the early centuries of Ottoman rule in these areas, some fundamental principles of Ottoman rule as a whole are presented correctly though rather superficially (e.g. timar, zeamet and has, spahi cavalrymen). Nevertheless, though the author himself points out that the main intention of his book is to make a breakthrough in the study of the Ottoman Empire, that is to present new research results in European Ottoman studies, in which important advances are being made, it is impossible to overlook that Malcolm was strikingly choosy in selecting which of those new insights to use. After all, the very selection of literature demonstrates that the aim of the author of the Short History of Kosovo was not to get to the heart of the events but only to find arguments supporting a desired proposition. How else can one explain why he relies on the works by Fikret Adanir, for instance, and fails to mention the excellent history of the Ottoman Empire published in 1989 in Paris, which is a result of the collective effort of an entire team of well-known French Ottoman students (the book is the work of Jean-Louis-Bacque-Grammont, Louis Bazin, Irene Baldiceanu, Nicoara Beldiceanu, Robert Mantran, Nicol Vatin, Gilles Veinstein – to mention only some of the authors) trying to objectively fathom the long and complex history of that Empire.
The basis on which N. Malcolm builds the entire chapter dealing with Kosovo from 1450 to 1580 is the theory of the so-called pax ottomana. This theory is not of quite a recent date and so it has not earned a place in critical historiography, yet it is frequently used for political ends. Throughout the book, Malcolm intends to demonstrate that the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the early centuries of its rule in the Balkans, represented the ideal of state organization, in which all peoples living within its borders enjoyed full legal and religious rights. Criticizing the dark picture of the centuries long Ottoman rule drawn in the Balkan countries, Malcolm claims that it is a “rude anachronism” to call the “Ottoman system” in its early period chaotic and tyrannical”. The Ottoman government of the Balkans in its early years (that is, at least until the end of the sixteenth century) was a well-regulated system of rule, and the conditions of life it produced compared favourably in many ways with those of the rest of Europe.” No serious student of the history of the Ottoman Empire will as much as try to challenge the fact that the organization of the Empire, whose power was ascending in the sixteenth century, cannot be compared to the anarchic conditions of the Dying Empire in the nineteenth century. Nor is the idealized picture acceptable, of course, which Malcolm is trying to draw. The main characteristic of the government of the Ottoman sultans during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was pragmatism, and it is through this prism that all their actions in relation to their subjects – both good and bad ones – are to be seen. The fact has always to borne in mind that the Ottoman Empire was in the first place an Islamic state with a strict religious hierarchy in which non-Muslims were second-class citizens. After all, if everything in the Ottoman Empire was so ideal, why did so exceptionally intense manifestations of the “Turkish fear” flood the rest of Europe which, manifestations which, even if sometimes exaggerated, did not occur without grounds in reality. After all, taking away of Serb male children that is recruiting them as janissaries (even Noel Malcolm describes this), mistreating of women and girls as well as forcible dislocation of entire groups of Serb population – are these not sufficient to make Malcolm’s claims relative and suspect at least, if not to annul them?
Noel Malcolm takes the liberty to deny, by some of his claims, all the existing analyses of reputable Ottoman scholars describing the peculiarities the state and social organization introduced by Ottoman authorities in the occupied countries. So he claims: “Far from imposing an utterly alien system, the Ottoman Empire did in fact preserve and develop many of the features of life – administrative, social, ceremonial and so on-which it found in its conquered Christian states.” It seems that Malcolm has almost no knowledge of the traits of the Ottoman timar system, whose basis – the institution of state-owned land – had no counterpart in any other feudal society. The fact that into the timer system some institutions taken over from medieval Serbian or Byzantine governmental structure were adroitly incorporated does not imply that the new masters of the Serbian lands maintained old relationships based on land property or that they borrowed a model of state administration. Serbian lands, the present-day Kosovo and Metohija among them, made up a part of the Islamic-military Ottoman Empire whose leaders, at least in the earliest centuries, sufficiently pragmatic as they were, did not break off all ties with the former governmental structure, retaining those regulations and laws that had been unknown to them (such as Stefan Lazarevic’s Mining Law), or those that fitted their needs (so, for instance, planning to inhabit the uninhabited border areas along the Danube with as many cattlebreeding Serbs as possible, they retained the so called Despot’s Kanun for the Vlachs, to be repealed as soon as the Smederevo sancak ceased to be a border area). In the opinion of Nicoara Beldiceanu, the Ottomans inherited their original governmental structure from Seljuks and the emirates emerging in their territories. Conquering Byzantine, Serbian and Bulgarian territories, they encountered legal customs diametrically opposed to those resulting from the Islamic creed, and that induced their pragmatic rulers to grant certain concessions. That, again, is not in collision with the seriat law, because this law entitles the ruler to institute a new law or regulation if the Islamic religious law cannot cope with a given situation. Taking into account all this, Beldiceanu arrives at an unequivocal conclusion: after all, the new masters brought with them a new life style into their conquered lands.
A great novelty in the historiography dealing with Ottoman occupation not only of southern Serbia but also of the entire Balkans is Malcolm’s energetic claim that “the early Ottoman state was not based on the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims.” As a proof for this claim, which he does not tone down though in the same chapter he had stated that in the Ottoman Empire “Christians in general certainly acquired a second-class status”, he refers to a great number of Christian spahis who in the fifteenth century served as Ottoman cavalrymen. Namely, during their conquests, the Turks did not destroy all of the former feudal nobility. Particularly the petty nobility was spared, so that the agents of the Turkish timar system during its establishment in Balkan countries were not Muslims alone. At this time, the Turks did not do anything that could estrange lower Christian nobility from them, because it had to function as a link between the new authorities and the subjugated population. This attitude of the Ottomans was called for by their need to stabilize and safe-guard their power over the conquered peoples. However, in spite of their effort to integrate the entire medieval Serbian nobility into their feudal system, they were aware of the fact that this stratum could not be trusted unreservedly and that its member could at any moment turn their backs and escape into Hungary. It is probably this that accounts for a phenomenon widely spread during the entire latter half of the fifteenth century: that Christian spahis do figure within the timar system, but the majority of them held timars yielding very low incomes.
Had he aspired to be an objective historian, Malcolm would have first found out for himself and then described to the reader that the size of this stratum of Christian spahis, though important in the military sense, was small in number not only in relation to the rest of the Orthodox population but also in relation to the numbers of Muslim timar holders. For instance, the number of Christian spahis in Brankovic territory, according to a 1455 register, was 27 (less then 5%), as compared to 170 Muslim timar holders whose estates yielded incomparably higher incomes.
Malcolm does not mention the well known fact that not only in the Balkans but also in the entire Ottoman Empire there was a great difference between the taxes paid by Muslim and those paid by Christian population. Namely, all Muslims were exempt from harac (land-tax), which represented the basic obligation of Christian population, because through harac payment the supreme authority of the Ottoman ruler was acknowledged. In our lands this tax was called carska glavnica (the emperor’s tax) because it was collected per capita and went directly to the ruler. The tax called spence, however, belonged to the spahi. Harac was paid annually by every male Serb who was in good health and for work, if he was not engaged in any sort of the military service. Exemption from harac was effected through a special decree issued by the ruler, and thereby the status of a member of the soldier-class (askeri) was acquired. Harac payment involved obedience and loyalty as well as the conduct conforming to the status of raya.
There are historians, such as the above quoted Nicoara Beldiceanu, who claim that precisely this taxation system, based as it was on the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims, was the reason that in the early centuries of Ottoman rule there were no massive conversions in the Serb lands. Namely, according to a number of acceptable estimates, around 1500 in the Ottoman Empire there were 894,432 Christian households, so that had they all converted to Islam, the Porte would have lost circa 2.80 kilograms of gold. Taking into account the above mentioned pragmatic character of the Ottoman sultans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this argument of N. Beldiceanu seems to be quite acceptable.
As an additional proof in favour of the thesis that Christians in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed special privileges, Malcolm describes the “privileged” groups, including in their number voynuks, martoloses, derbends. It is true, of course, that these groups enjoyed certain tax advantages in return for their military services. Yet, though the taxes paid by these “privileged” groups were substantially lower than the duties paid by common raya, taking into account the difficulties of their services and responsbility, we think that their position was by no means a comfortable one. So a kanun-nama for the Vidin sandzak from the time of Murat III says that “life and estates”of derbend villagers are at stake if the safety of travellers is jeopardized, so that it is quite certain that the groups in question cannot be considered as “specially privileged”. Nevertheless, the tributes imposed on which common raya were an unbearable burden, so that entire settlements accepted special duties and responsibilities and did their best to maintain that status.
Speaking of the position of the Serb Orthodox Church, its clergy and believers, Malcolm claims that this Church enjoeyd “a particularly favoured position”. He tries to convince the reader that the evidence of the destruction of Orthodox church buildings or their conversion into mosques is overestimated, because “in towns that were conquered after refusing to surrender, churches could be converted into mosques” but “there was no systematic take-over”. It seems that Malcolm is not aware – though he is expected to be if he wanted deal with this issue seriously – of the opinion of the German Ottoman scholar Biswanger, who seems to have given its most dependable interpretation. To be more precise, Biswanger says that “in towns which they conquered, the Turks converted main churches into mosques, whereas smaller churches were awarded the rights of zimmi.” According to the acceptable conclusion of O. Zirojevic, from whose works, for instance, Malcolm quotes only superficially and pulling out of the context parts fitting his preset thesis, it was done because thereby it was made known that Islam was the ruing religion and that the zimmi were of an inferior standing, though the propaganda effect itself of mosques emerging in towns right after their conquest should not be ignored. Namely, the erection of a large mosque might have taken years, whereas interior modelling of an already existing church was less time consuming and cheaper. On the other hand, Malcolm’s claim that only those churches were converted into mosques which resisted is unfounded, as shown by instances such as the town of Smederevo, which surrendered without resistance, but about which the Turkish chronicler wrote the following: “The bells in Smederevo bled to death. The churches were torn down and mesdzids put up instead.”
However, the culmination of Malcolm’s cynicism and arbitrariness represents his claim that Kosovo is “an Ottoman territory par excellence”, that the city of Prizren is one “of the most fascinatingly Ottoman places left in the world”. Malcolm obviously does not know or does not want to know the history of Prizren, which is one of the most significant medieval Serbian towns, a town whose development starts as early as the early thirteenth century. Even a hasty look at a map showing the Serbian churches and monasteries in the area of the present-day Kosovo suffices to see that there are absolutely no grounds for viewing this southern Serbian province as an “Ottoman” region
What is to be said in the end? – What remains to us is to express our hope that this trend in world so-called “historiography” will end with Noel Malcolm and that, at least among really professional historians, scientific values will prevail.
1. D. Stankovic, Lj. Dimic, Istoriografija pod nadzorom I, Belgrade 1996, 20.
2. So, for example, academician S. Cirkovic, in his excellent synthetic work dealing with Kosovo in the Middle Ages, insists and constantly emphasizes the fact that he discusses the medieval part of the present-day Kosovo, this being quite clear from the title of the work itself. See: Srednjovekovna proslost danasnjeg Kosova XV-1, Belgrade 1985, 149-166,
3. N. Malcolm, Kosovo. A Short History, London, 1998, XXXV.
4. Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman, sous la direction de Robert Mantran, Fayard, Paris, 1989.
5. For criticism of this theory see: M. Todorova, Imaginarni Balkan, Belgrade, 1999, 283.
6. N. Malcolm, Kosovo, 93-94,
7. M. Todorova, Imaginarni Balkan, Belgrade, 1999, 280.
8. That phenomenon is discussed quite summarily but tellingly by the Turkish chronicler Dursun-Bey, a highly educated man in his time (he lived around the mid-15th century), who wrote a history of the Ottoman Empire between 1442 and 1487. Namely, he says: “And Serb girls are such that one cannot stop finding pleasure in them, no matter how much one already did so. Whereas those who happened to take pleasure in Serb boyfriends would be ready to give up a hundred, perhaps a thousand of other delights, and would even readily lose their soul. So many of them were taken away then (during the raid on Serbia in 1454 – note by E. M.-B.), that their numbers couldn’t be counted.” G. Elezovic, Turski izvori za istoriju Jugoslovena, BratstvoXXVI, Belgrade 1932.
9. Namely, forcible discolations were designed in order to secure the influx of population into conquered territories, but since the earliest conquests the population from conquered territories was dislocated to Anatolia for security, economic and political reasons. See more details on this in: F. Emedzen, Istorija jedne migracije s pocetka XVI stoljeca: sremski izgnanici na Galipolju, Istorijski casopis XLII-XLIII (1995-1996), Belgrade 1997, 237-253.
10. N. Malcolm, Kosovo, 93-94.
11. N. Beldeceanu, L’organisation de l’Empire Ottoman (XIV-XV siecles), [in:] Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman, Fayard, Paris 1989, 117-119; 137-138.
12. N. Malcolm, Kosovo, 97
13. Ibid, 94.
14. Only nine of those Christian spahis held timars worth 2-6,000 akces. Three were registered as old timar holders, and two were voynuk units (lagatori). The remaining 16 timars were small estates worth up to 1,000 akces, and each of those timars was jointly held by 2-5 timar holders. See more details on this B. Durdev, Hriscani-spahije u severnoj Srbiji u XV veku, Godisnjak drustva istoricara BIH IV, Sarajevo 1952, 165-169; E. Miljkovic, Prilog proucavanju pocetaka islamizacije u Branicevu 1467-1476. Godine, Zbornik Matice Srpske za istoriju 47-48, Novi Sad 1993, 125-135.
15. The spahi tax (ispence) was paid by all elders of the Christian households across the Balkans, as a substitute for corvee. It resulted from their being dependent on the land owner. Until the end of the sixteenth century it amounted to 25 akces. Destitute, blind, lame and maimed people were exempt from this tax, whereas widows, who were generally poor, paid lower ispences. The Muslim raya, who were farmers, paid a tax called reism-i cift amounting to 22 akces. For a more detailed description see: G. Veinstein, Une “econome-monde” sous le controle de l’Etat, [inI] Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman, Paris 1989, 212.
16. N. Beldiceanu, Peuplement, turquisation et islamisation, [in] Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman, Paris 1989, 136.
17. N. Malcolm, Kosovo, 102.
18. Ibid, 109.
19. Ibid, 108.
20. O. Zirojevic, Crkve i manastiri na podrucju Pecke patrijarsije do 1683. godine, Belgrade, 1984, 23-24.
21. Ibid, 24.
22. N. Malcom, Kosovo, XXXV.
23. O. Zirojevic, Prizren, la ville de la continuite [in] La culture urbaine des Balkans (X-XIX siecles) 3, Belgrad-Paris, 1991, 87-93.
Origins of images: Facebook, Twitter, Wikimedia, Wikipedia, Flickr, Google, Imageinjection & Pinterest.
Read our Disclaimer/Legal Statement!
Donate to Support Us
We would like to ask you to consider a small donation to help our team keep working. We accept no advertising and rely only on you, our readers, to keep us digging the truth on history, global politics and international relations.