Identity in the Greek-speaking world (sixteenth and seventeenth century)

17. Σεπτεμβρίου 2011, Author: Notis Toufexis

A short text written for another occasion and rejected due to its length.

After the fall of Constantinople during the fourth crusade in 1204,  the adjective “Roman” (that is, Byzantine) as an identity marker lost its precise meaning, since it could now refer also to the Roman (Catholic) Church that represented an enemy. The historical events surrounding the Fall and recapture of Constantinople in 1261 and the establishment of the Nicaean empire initiated an ideological process in which the established Roman and Christian identity of the Byzantines, expressed until then through a conservative framework of ideas, was renewed; a “Hellenic” cultural identity emerges in the writings of members of cultural elites, who attempt to position the “Roman” identity in a specific hellenocentric linguistic, cultural and even racial context. This new cultural identity, based primarily in the study of Classical Greek texts and the cultivation of an archaizing linguistic tradition, has not managed to reach mass dissemination and evolve into a “Hellenic” national/ethnic identity. (Angold 1975; Kaldellis 2008; Vryonis 1991). This cultural identity seems to have survived in Greek humanists who after the fall of Constantinople migrated to Italy and can be contrasted to the situation found in the areas under Ottoman or Venetian occupation. (Harris 1999).

One decisive factor in this respect was the fast-spreading Ottoman conquest of Asia Minor and the Balkan Peninsula in the fourteenth and fifteenth century. As early as in the fourteenth century, a conciliatory attitude towards the Ottomans emerged, which was not necessarily or solely a result of anti-Latin feelings. The Ottomans adopted a method of conquest and subsequent administration of captured lands that was characterised by a rather liberal religious policy and the possibility for individuals (mostly Byzantine aristocrats) to reach high posts and subsequently have material benefits in the service of Ottoman Sultans (Necipoğlu 2009). Christians, subjects of the Roman Empire, who were resident in areas conquered by the Ottomans before the Fall of Constantinople and were now living under Ottoman rule made the experience that they could keep, in most circumstances, their Orthodox Christian faith. This was because all people of the Scriptures (Christians, Jews and others) living in the Ottoman Empire were granted, as regulated by Islamic law, a set of religious, civil and fiscal privileges in exchange for their loyalty and, one must say, their duty to pay taxes: the need to generate revenue for the state meant that, as a rule, religious conversion to Islam was not one of the priorities of the conquerors. (Kurz 2009; Suttner 2009; Zachariadou 1996).

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 marked the definitive and symbolic end of the Byzantine Empire and the abolition of existing Byzantine state institutions. Constantinople (now Istanbul) became the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire and the new form of social and political organization received a permanent character. Changes in matters of identity have to be analyzed in this context of change that, as will be made clear below, in some aspects constituted not so much a break but, rather, a continuity with the past. Although relevant sources are rather scarce, we have enough information in order to construct a clear picture of the administrative organization of Orthodox Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

All Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire enjoyed a set of civil and religious rights or privileges, as governed by Islamic law; these were handed over in writing (in the form of an official document, called berat) to the person of a religious leader (the Patriarch), who was put in charge of a specified group of Orthodox Christians and was their sole representative  towards Ottoman authorities. The Patriarch had the right to exercise, on top of other religious officials below him in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the privileges granted to him and his flock and was treated as a functionary of the State by Ottoman authorities. This system of administration is conventionally referred to in relevant literature as the millet-system (Braude 1984; Kurz 2009).

The actual situation appears, however,  to be more complex: two terms are actually used in Ottoman sources in order to describe this state of affairs: tâ’ife and millet, the latter being usually used almost exclusively in the bibliography although it is attested only from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards and has a broader meaning than the former (Braude 1984; Konortas 1999; Zachariadou 1996). It is evident that the details of the ta’ife or millet system evolved gradually over time and that the rights granted to individual groups varied due to historical or other reasons. Orthodox Christians in the beginning of the sixteenth century were apparently organized in more than one ta’ife-groups; the Ecumenical Patriarch  of Constantinople/Istanbul was in charge of the largest one and gradually, perhaps not from the beginning but probably from the end of the sixteenth century onwards, became the leader of the whole Orthodox community of the Empire; only in the second halve of the eighteenth century, when the term millet is used to describe all Orthodox Christians of the Empire, did he actually acquire the formal title of milletbaşi, which recognized him as sole leader of all Orthodoxs within the Ottoman state. (Konortas 1999; Zachariadou 1996).

Our knowledge of the exact status of the different ethnic groups that apparently existed within the tâ’ife/millet system in the sixteenth and seventeenth century is rather limited. The Ottoman sources do not differentiate in the sixteenth century among ethnic groups when referring to the “infidels”, members of the different tâ’ife-groups. The same applies for the Orthodox high clergy that only uses ecclesiastical terminology to refer to their flock in their writings and official documents (Konortas 1999). References to Balkan Slavs can be found in works of historical imagination in the seventeenth century, relevant research has nevertheless shown that national feelings are absent in such works; people are described as belonging to different groups (called γένη and occassionally φύλα or γενεές), distinguished by language, descent, religion etc.; however all Orthodox Christian γένη are represented as sharing Orthodoxy as a uniting identity factor (Livanios 2003; Vincent 1995).

Further research in sources from the beginning of the eighteenth century, seems to confirm these findings and can be safely assumed to represent the situation in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. “[…] eighteenth-century Balkan society could be understood as a world of concentric and overlapping circles within a broader space whose human geography was defined by a multiplicity of languages and religious doctrines” (Kitromilides 1996, 171). Religious belief (in the case of Christians the Orthodox faith) played a dominant role in shaping a collective identity for all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire: religion-based administrative practices, as described above, surely strengthened these views. There is evidence suggesting that among Orthodox Christians of different ethnic descent sense of time was defined by the ecclesiastical calendar and sense of space by the geography of faith. This, together with a strong attachment to one’s homeland, constituted an integral component of identity in the period under examination. People crossed linguistic frontiers very easily and were prepared to adopt multiple identities (Kitromilides 1996; Livanios 2006).

Ethnonyms and appellations tended to reflect the division of labour rather than ethnicity. Educated (middle) classes shifted, for instance, their identity to Greek and used Greek as their main language of communication, regardless of their ethnic provenance; in other terms, social mobility impacted upon the fluid nature of ethnic identity (Livanios 2006; Roudometof 1998). Multilingualism was a constituent of everyday life; linguistic differences became only a source of conflict from the second halve of the eighteenth century onwards (Mackridge 2009). Ethnic differences become national character around the same time; the Bulgarian and Serbian ethnies started developing their own national identity with the development of an ethnic historiography (in 1762 the Father Paisi of Khilendar wrote his later famous Slavo-Bulgarian History) and attempts to spread literacy and education (Roudometof 1998) .

Coming under Ottoman, that is Islamic, rule strengthened the power of Orthodoxy as a uniting factor or a stable reference point of all conquered Christians, since religion was embedded, as a kind of constant reminder of one’s different status within the Ottoman state, in administrative practices. Being a Christian guaranteed a, however limited, set of rights, regardless of one’s ethnic descent or his current place of residende. Differences of ethnic descent played a subordinate role, and were emerging and referred to in relevant source-texts mainly in times of political or military crisis. Only in the context of the Enlightenment in the course of the second halve of the eighteenth century do we observe a change in this traditional framework of ideas.


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