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New book explores history of 'Europe' and 'the East'

Natalie Rothman

E. Natalie Rothman's new book Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul explores how the modern distinction between Europe and the East began to take shape in sixteenth century Venice. Rothman, an assistant professor of history at UTSC, looks at migrants, redeemed slaves, merchants, converts, commercial brokers and other “trans-imperial” subjects during the period between 1570 and 1670 as they helped to shape ever-shifting imperial and cultural boundaries, including those between Europe and the Levant.

Following is an interview with Prof. Rothman, conducted and condensed by Kurt Kleiner.

Inside UTSC: What interested you about this time and place?

Natalie Rothman: I came into graduate school really interested in issues of cultural difference and what we call 'alterity,' the notion of people being seen as radically different, not just by individuals, but the whole apparatus of states that define alterity. I was an early modernist by training and one seminar in particular on Venice suggested to me that that was a useful place to ask these kinds of questions. Cultural difference was being defined and redefined by the Venetian state in this period, in part because of its complex economic and political relationship with the Ottoman Empire, which was always an important trading partner but was also being increasingly seen as religiously and politically different. It was very important for me to emphasize that it's not the case that throughout history East and West were enemies, or that Islam and Christianity were “naturally” diametrically opposed, but rather to see how these ideas emerge precisely in this period and precisely because of specific economic and political and religious transformations that I've tried to tease out in the book.

IU: You decided to look at trans-imperial subjects. What were you trying to get at there?

NR: I'm working here in part in dialogue with how historians in the past couple of decades have tried to think beyond the framework of the nation state as their unit of analysis. A lot of nineteenth century history and early twentieth century history was written as “the history of the United Kingdom” or “the history of Canada.” And increasingly in the last few decades, historians have said wait a minute, there are a lot of people who moved across political boundaries and they're interesting to look at precisely because they help us to challenge the idea that all of history is contained by these somewhat arbitrary units.

But the term 'trans-nationals' is clearly inapplicable before the nineteenth century because nations -- it's not that nations didn't exist, but the meaning of the word was quite different and in fact it emerges in part precisely in the context that I'm looking at, through the existence of merchants who are diasporic, we would say today, people who lived long-term in another polity and developed a very complex relationship with that polity's institutions as well as with their 'homeland,' quote unquote, which can be a few generations removed. These groups of merchants or other sojourners were what people in the early modern period called “nations.”

I thought people who are moving between Venice and the Ottoman Empire are really exemplifying trans-imperial subjecthood, this ability to move across political boundaries and in the process define the boundaries. So to me it's very important that these are not people who are bridging units that are separate to begin with, but rather forging the boundary, helping to define what is distinctly Venetian and what is distinctly Ottoman, in a region where these boundaries are in no way evident.

IU: Do you feel that you're getting at a time and place where this idea of East and West is just emerging?

NR: To some extent yes, though these are not wholly new ideas. We have some ideas of what is East and what is West that date to much earlier than that. Already Herodotus talks about these categories, but for him they mean very different things, and in the Middle Ages it means a very different thing than in the early modern period. In part that's because of the needs of the state, in part because of the Reformation and new ideas about religion and how your religious affiliation should define your political identity. These ideas are transformed in a radical way which in some sense still prevails much later on, the notion that if you're a Christian and living under Ottoman rule there is some misalliance between your political identity as an Ottoman subject and your religious identity as a Christian. So in a sense there is something that is fundamentally new about the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when these ideas are being elaborated.

IU: A lot of the research in this book had to do with brokers. Can you talk a little bit about what brokers were, what their function was?

There are different kinds of brokers in this book, but perhaps the paradigmatic brokers that you're referring to are commercial brokers, people who helped foreign merchants do business in Venice. What interests me about these people is that for the most part in the period we're looking at they are themselves immigrants, whether they fled Venetian colonies as those were conquered by the Ottomans, or whether they moved for a variety of other reasons from the borderlands to Venice proper. Some of them were converts, from both Judaism and Islam. So these are people who themselves have a certain kind of ambiguous relationship to this boundary between what is Venetian and what is Ottoman.

And they also have this ambiguous position economically. Many of them were fairly poor, whether these were merchants who had lost their fortune, or people who were new immigrants and very limited in their resources; but they find themselves in a position of great power and authority because they're not only responsible for brokering trade, helping people sign commercial deals, but also taxing these foreigners and kind of keeping tabs on them, making sure they're not doing anything that the state isn't happy about.

But these brokers themselves end up not necessarily playing the role that the state had designed for them, and they do all kinds of things that defy the moral boundaries that the Venetian state assumes are already in place. That is, they don't play by the rules of, if you're a Christian you're only going to make partnerships with Christians, and they do all kinds of things that suggest to us that people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds were working very well with one another. That goes against this logic that prevails in modern economic scholarship that ethnic identity would a priori define partnership, that it defines a sense of affinity and trust. So I'm working here against a very developed literature that assumes the Jews only did business with other Jews and Armenians only did business with other Armenians, and I show how it was often Armenians and Greeks and other people from the Ottoman/Venetian borderlands who helped integrate Ottoman merchants into the Venetian economy. I also show how a lot of the business transactions depended on certain kinds of intimacies. Living together, eating together, spending a lot of time just socializing, and that the border between what is economic and what is social was very fraught and very difficult to monitor, which was precisely the problem for the state.

IU: One of your opening examples had to do with a broker who was also a landlord to Muslim tenants.

NR: He's one of my favourite characters. The reason we know about him was because he actually had to appear in front of the inquisition and justify his actions, because as it turned out he was not only lodging Ottoman Muslim merchants in his house. He and his wife were actually helping these Ottoman merchants hide slave runaways and whisk them off to the Ottoman Empire. When the master of, one young runaway slave who ended up in their household came searching for him it set off a trial. So here is a case where we see these misalliances suddenly becoming visible to us thanks to the inquisitorial record. It also turned out that the broker’s wife had allowed their toddler daughter to play on the stairs to the merchants' quarters. The merchants were offering this kid food and the food may not have been exactly OK for the child to consume, particularly because this was a Friday and this was meat. There are all kinds of religious boundaries expressed through the sharing of food, the exchange of signs of affection, those kinds of things.

IU: This is a case of the authorities trying to impose these categories that these people didn't necessarily accept or see as important. Is that right?

NR: To some extent yes. But for me it is important to show that this is not just the story of imposition from above, but that these trans-imperial subjects in some cases are colluding with and promoting this logic of divide and rule. Not just perpetuating it, but in some cases initiating the process. This particular broker I referred to, after the trial he comes to the government and says, how about if we start a hostel for these foreign merchants to keep them separate from Christian households? So in a way he's playing a really interesting double role here, kind of reinforcing certain emerging ideas about how Muslims are very different, how they have different customs and habits. Actually a few decades later, but as a direct response to his plea, we have the establishment of the Ottoman Exchange House where all Ottoman Muslim merchants are required to live.

IU: What conclusions did you draw?

There are two things. At the level of analysis it's really about debunking this romanticized view of people who move across boundaries as a bridge, as those who inevitably can bring together units that are in conflict with one another. The way I see these subjects is that they are quite crafty, many of them, and they can play an important role in dividing and emphasizing difference rather than similarity.

But perhaps more important than this specific analytical point, there is to me something that's politically very important that has to do with my own background, which is to break out of this clash of civilizations model, which is so pervasive in our world. And it's something that I try to do in my courses as well. Let's historicize this idea of Western civilization and realize there's nothing inherently well-bound and unique about the West, and that the West itself is kind of a shifting category. And that things like the Renaissance that many now think of as part of a uniquely Western heritage are actually part of a very complex set of interactions that deeply involves the Ottomans, and other parts of the world as well.

It's about realizing that Islam and Christianity are not monolithic things that have always been in conflict with one another. In this period you could in fact be a very devout Christian and a very loyal Ottoman subject. This idea of Islam as something that is distinctly non-Western is really a later invention, and we need to develop a new vocabulary for thinking about religious difference and about linguistic and ethnic difference and not assume that they always mapped onto one another.

IU: You mentioned because of your own background these are questions you're interested in. Do you mean your academic background or personal background?

NR: Both. Personally I grew up in Israel, a state that has gotten a lot of mileage out of precisely this rhetoric, that we're a bastion of Western civilization in a hostile world. And the state perpetuates these myths and perpetuates the deep inequalities that are enabled by them. And while I always found it very disturbing I didn't necessarily have the historical background to understand how far back these things go and how they also changed over time. So even though I steer clear of the more recent history of the Middle East because I find it too painful and too difficult keep the analytical distance needed to do it properly, I do think of my book as in some way a critique of the present, and a contribution to the rethinking of these ideas about clash of civilizations. If students read this and think more critically the next time they hear someone talking about Islamofascism or the next time someone talks about the democratic ideals of Western civilization then I've really done my job.



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