Skip to main content

Sources and Contextualizations: Comparing Eighteenth-Century North African and Western European Institutions

  • Simona Cerutti (a1) and Isabelle Grangaud (a2)

Our collaborative project originates in an attempt to articulate the intrinsic specificity of cases and contexts within a resolutely comparative approach. We focus particularly on what we believe to be the major limitation of comparison, namely the supposed need to rigidify the objects of comparison, to detach them from their contingent specificities and reduce cases to a set of data homogeneous enough to be compared. Our intent is to start a critical discussion regarding the hypothetical need to let go of specificity as the condition of comparison. With this in mind, we propose a comparative approach focused on sources rather than objects, and we consider them in terms of actions endowed with intentionality. The present study compares two institutions: the droit d'aubaine, and the Bayt al-mâl or Treasury, a traditional Islamic fiscal institution found in a number of Ottoman-era governments, whose prerogatives have typically been reduced to managing heirless estates and burying the poor. In theory, the aubaine and the Bayt al-mâl belong to distinct cultural and historical realms. Yet, as we demonstrate here, a careful analysis of the sources produced by each institution helps unpack these “cultural” constructions, produces new contexts in which both can be situated, and sheds light on the process of their construction and their amenability to comparison.

Corresponding author
Hide All

1 Within a huge bibliographic corpus, see the edited volume by Werner, M. and Zimmermann, B., De la comparaison à l'histoire croisée (Paris: Seuil, 2004) and their co-authored article, Beyond Comparison: Histoire croisée and the Challenge of Reflexivity,History and Theory 45, 1 (2006): 3050 . Also see Cohen, D. and O'Connor, M., eds., Comparison and History: Europe in Cross-National Perspective (London: Routledge, 2004). With regard to a critique regarding national comparisons, see Seigel, M., “Beyond Compare: Comparative Method after the Transnational Turn,Radical History Review 91 (Winter 2005): 6290 ; Gould, E. H., “Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds: The English-Speaking Atlantic as a Spanish Periphery,American Historical Review 112, 3 (2007): 764–86. Useful criticism is also found in Espagne, M., “Sur les limites du comparatisme en histoire culturelle,Genèse 17 (Sept. 1994): 112–21; Atsma, H. and Burguière, A., eds., Marc Bloch aujourd'hui. Histoire comparée et sciences sociales (Paris: Éditions de l'EHESS, 1990); Bourdieu, P., Charle, C., Kaelble, H., and Kocka, J., “Dialogue sur l'histoire comparée,Actes de la Recherche 106–7 (Mar. 1995): 102–4; Kocka, J., “Comparison and Beyond,History and Theory 42, 1 (2003): 3944 ; and Élise, J., “Le comparatisme en histoire,Hypothèses 1 (2004): 191201 . The most recent and useful survey, with an extensive bibliography, is Levine, P., “Is Comparative History Possible?History and Theory 53, 3 (2014): 331–47. In economic history the focus has been placed on the fact that comparison, while claiming to place objects under a common standard, is susceptible of creating hierarchies between them. The different histories of “lateness” are exemplary cases of this point of view and the Eurocentrism that results. “Reciprocal comparisons” between different countries are possible ways to avoid this; see Pomeranz, K., The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Wong, B., China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Austin, G., “Reciprocal Comparison and African History: Tackling Conceptual Euro-Centrism in the Study Africa's Economic Past,African Studies Review 50, 3 (2007): 128 . For an approach that details the specificities of local contexts, see Stanziani, A., “Comparaison réciproque et histoire: Quelques propositions à partir du cas russe,” in Zuniga, Jean-Paul, ed., Pratiques du transnational: Terrains, preuves, limites (Paris: La Bibliothèque du CRH, 2011), 209–30.

2 Since the publication of the seminal book by Hoerder, èD., Cultures in Contact: World Migration in the Second Millennium (Durham: Duke University Press 2002), increased scholarly attention has been devoted to the notion of mobility and contact. Regarding the Mediterranean, see in particular Moatti, C. and Kaiser, W., eds., Gens de passage en Méditerranée de l'Antiquité à l’époque modern: Procédures de contrôle et d'identification (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2007); and Moatti, C., Kaiser, W., and Pébarthe, C., eds., Le monde de l'itinérance en Méditerranée de l’antiquité à l’époque moderne (Bourdeaux: Ausonius, 2009).

3 Werner and Zimmermann, De la comparaison.

4 Subrahmaniyam, S., “Beyond Incommensurability: Understanding Inter-Imperial Dynamics,Theory and Research in Comparative Social Analysis 32 (2005), published as Par-delà l'incommensurabilité: pour une histoire connectée des empires aux temps modernes,Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 54, 4 (2007): 3453 ; Serge Gruzinski, La Pensée métisse.

5 O'Brien, PatrickHistorical Traditions and the Modern Imperatives for the Restoration of Global History,Journal of Global History 1 (2006): 339, 6. Also see Adas, M., “Reconsidering the Macro-narrative in Global History: John Darwin's After Tamerlane and the Case for Comparison,Journal of Global History 4 (2009): 163–73.

6 Armitage, D. and Subrahmaniyam, S., eds., The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760–1840 (London: Palgrave McMillan, 2009), xxiii . On this relationship, see also Miller, M., “Comparative and Cross-National History: Approaches, Differences, Problems,” in Cohen, D. and O'Connor, M., eds., Comparison and History: Europe in Cross-National Perspective (London: Routledge, 2004), 115–32, 115: “This chapter makes a simple argument. Cross-national history may become comparative history, but the two approaches are different kinds of historiographical animals with different objectives and differing benefits.” On Subharmaniyam, see P. Levine, “Is Comparative History Possible?” Also see Stoler, A., “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies,Journal of American History 88, 3 (2001): 829–65. Werner and Zimmermann speak of a “family of relationship approaches” (“De la comparaison,” 31); and Haupt, H.-G. notes that transnational and comparative studies are distinctive and complementary, in “Comparative History: A Contested Method,Historisk Tidskrift 127, 4 (2007): 697716 .

7 Renouncing the comparative method became the basis for a redefinition of the nature and even the goals of comparison. Although comparison is valued as a reflexive activity that is implicit in every research endeavor, or as an analytical tool that seeks to denature objects and processes, its heuristic capacity is in peril when it is applied to the comparison of too wide a range of objects. Because their incommensurability can become an impediment, we agree that it “is always preferable to compare the difference of hierarchy of forms of evaluation within each culture under given circumstances”: Remaud, O., Schaub, J. F., and Thireau, I., “Pas de réflexivité sans comparaison,” in Remaud, O., Schaub, J. F., and Thireau, I., eds., Comparer (Paris: Éditions de l'EHESS, 2012), 1320, 19.

8 We are thinking in particular of Charles Ragin, who, by focusing specifically on case studies, has provided one of the best-grounded recent theoretical discussions of the conditions necessary for comparison: The Comparative Method: Moving beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); and Ragin, C., ed., Issues and Alternatives in Comparative Social Research (Leiden: Brill 1991). See also his What Is a Case? Exploring the Foundation of Social Inquiry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

9 See Austin's, J. L. classic, How to Do Things with Words, Urmson, J. O., ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).

10 Bodin, J., Les Six Livres de La République … Ensemble une Apologie de René Herpin (Paris: J. Du Puys, 1583 [1576]); and Bacquet, J., Les Œuvres de Jean Bacquet, des droits du domaine de la Couronne de France augmentées du plusieurs arrêts, et du Traité des rentes (Paris: A. L'Angelier, 1608). For an excellent analysis of their positions, and those of Jean Papon and René Choppin, see Sahlins, P., Unnaturally French: Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and After (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), ch. 1. The aubaine law was relatively widespread. Bodin mentions its use in Naples and Sicily as well as “the entire Empire of the Orient,” while René Chopin added England, Spain, and Hungary to the list. Jean Bacquet mentioned that it had also spread to Scotland (Les Œuvres, 145).

11 Bouchel, L., La conférence des ordonnances et édits royaux par Pierre Guénois, 2 vols. (Paris: E. Foucault, 1620), 1, 264.

12 According to Peter Sahlins, the history of the droit d'aubaine contributes to an understanding of the history of citizenship and nationality in France throughout the modern period. In fact, its abolition in 1819 coincided with the establishment of a clear distinction between the legal and political responsibilities associated with citizenship (Unnaturally French, xiii).

13 Archivio di Stato di Torino (AST), Sez. Riunite, Camerale Piemonte, Ubena, art. 492. The archive consists of some sixty bundles organized in alphabetical order, each containing several fascicles. They cover the period from the mid-sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. Cerutti perused all of these files and has transcribed some three hundred (including 150 for the period 1680–1730). These are of varying thickness, anywhere from a dozen to several hundred pages. See also AST, Sez. Riunite, I Archiviazione, Legge di Ubena, m. 1 and AST, I Sez., Materie Economiche, Ubena, m. 1–2.

14 Sahlins, Unnaturally French, 42.

15 Dubost, J.-F. and Sahlins, P., Et si on faisait payer les étrangers? Louis XIV, les immigrés et quelques autres (Paris: Flammarion, 1999), 80 .

16 This was explicitly stated in documents pertaining to property belonging to Jean Louis Point, born in Normandy and deceased in Turin in 1740. A grocer named Parolis, who notified the authorities within hours of Parent's death, “as is the custom,” came into possession of one-fourth of his estate (AST, Camerale Piemonte, art. 492, Ubena, m. 3, 1740).

17 Ibid., m. R-S-T/3, Testimoniali, 13 July 1735.

18 This formula is featured in the title of the first file of the Tassinari trial: ibid.

19 This was stated by, among others, Antoine de Loysel and Pierre Jacques Brillon, quoted in Sahlins, Unnaturally French, 37.

20 For this consensus-seeking aim of judicial actions in the modern period, see Hespana, A. M., “Pré-compréhension et savoir historique,Ratthistorika Studier 19 (1993): 4967 .

21 AST, Camerale Piemonte, art. 492, Ubena, m. A-B1, 1697, Pietro Broglio.

22 For laws protecting the miserabiles, see Cerutti, S., “Justice et citoyenneté à Turin à l’époque moderne,” in Garavaglia, J. C. and Schaub, J.-F., eds., Lois, justice, coutume, Amérique et Europe latines (XVIe–XIXe siècle) (Paris: Éditions de l'EHESS, 2005), 5791 .

23 See, in particular, Grenier, J.-Y., L’économie d'Ancien Régime: Un monde de l’échange et de l'incertitude (Paris: Albin Michel, 1996); and Ago, R., Economia barocca: Mercato e istituzioni nella Roma del Seicento (Rome: Donzelli Editore, 1998).

24 For useful discussions of these concepts, see Besta, E., Le successioni nella storia del diritto italiano (Milan: A. Guiffrè, 1961); and his I diritti sulle cose nella storia del diritto italiano (Milan: A. Giuffré, 1964); Dusi, B., L'eredità giacente nel diritto romano e moderno (Turin: Fratelli Bocca, 1891); Blandini, C., “Del subjetto dell'eredità giacente,Antologia juridica 6 (1892): 4861 ; Orestano, R., “Diritti soggettivi e senza soggetto: Linee di una vicenda concettuale,Jus 11 (1960): 7895 ; Leicht, S., Storia del diritto italiano: Il diritto privato. Diritti reali e di successione (Milan: Giuffré, 1960). For procedures that evolved in Roman law for circumventing the problem of legacies “in abeyance,” see Thomas, Y., “Du sien au soi: Questions romaines dans la langue du droit,L’écrit du temps 14–15 (1987): 157–72; and L'extrême et l'ordinaire: Remarques sur le cas mediéval de la communauté disparue,” in Passeron, J.-C. and Revel, J., eds., Penser par cas (Paris: Éditions de l'EHESS, 2005), 4573 . There is a close connection between this right and salvage rights, which the same jurists refer to in legal cases analyzed by these authors.

25 In Old Regime societies, “It was for reasons of a successorial nature, and thus for strictly private interests, that legal rules evolved first. The theory of citizenship had to be defined for the sole reason that the settlement of a succession put its value into question.… In other words, an individual did not inherit because he was French; he was French because it was logical that he should inherit.” In Vanel, M., Évolution historique de la notion de Français d'origine du XVIe siècle au Code civil: Contribution à l’étude de la nationalité française d'origine (Paris: Ancienne Imprimerie de la cour d'appel, 1945), 4555 . Peter Sahlins cites this passage in Unnaturally French, 57, and in his article, La Nationalité avant la lettre: Les pratiques de naturalisation en France sous l'Ancien Régime,Annales, Histoire, Sciences Sociales 55, 5 (2000): 1081–108, 1096.

26 Boulet-Sautel, M., L'aubain dans la France coutumière du Moyen Age (Paris: Édition de la Librairie Encyclopédique, 1958), 79 .

27 Villiers, R., “La condition des étrangers en France dans les trois derniers siècles de la monarchie,” in L’Étranger (Paris: Recueils de la Société Jean-Bodin pour l'histoire comparative des institutions, 1984), 139–50, at 145, 146, 147.

28 Patrice Alex drew our attentions to the relative homogeneity of the perspective shared by the jurists that Peter Sahlins mentions, all of them confirmed royalists.

29 Dolan, C., “Famille et intégration des étrangers à Aix-en-Provence au XVIe siècle,Provence historique 35, 142 (1985): 401–11, 402.

30 Cahen, C., “Bayt al-mâl, II,” in Bearman, P. et al. ., eds., Encyclopédie de l'Islam, 2d ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 1178–81.

31 Lewis, B., “Bayt al-mâl, III,” in Bearman, P. et al. ., eds., Encyclopédie de l'Islam, 2d ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 1181–82.

32 Establet, C. and Pascual, J.-P., “Les inventaires après décès, sources froides d'un monde vivant,Turcica 32 (2000): 113–43, 126. See also Zaid, A. M., The Islamic Law of Bequest (London: Scorpion Publishing Ltd, 1986); Layish, A., “The Maliki Family Waqf according to Wills and Waqfiyyât,Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 46 (1983): 132 .

33 Establet and Pascual, “Les inventaires.” Again, for example, the institution of Bayt al-mâl is not considered in a book dedicated to the state's agents of the Egyptian province of the Ottoman Empire: Hanna, N., ed., The State and Its Servants: Administration in Egypt from Ottoman Times to the Present (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995); or in Raymond's, A. master book, Artisans et commerçants au Caire au XVIIIème siècle, 2 vol. (Damas: IFD, 1974), which makes only two brief, marginal references to it (vol. II, 698, 782). The traces of the Bayt al-mâl can be essentially summarized as legal procedures that opposed heirs and representatives of the institution that claimed to be able to appropriate their successional rights. On the interpretation of these procedures for the Anatolian provinces of the empire, see Tamdogan, I.Qu'advenait-t-il aux biens des ‘étrangers’ après leur décès dans la ville d'Adana au XVIIIe siècle?Bargaoui, S., Cerutti, S., and Grangaud, I., eds., Appartenance locale et propriété au nord et au sud de la Méditerranée (Aix-en-Provence: Editions de l'IREMAM, 2015),

34 Grangaud, I., “Affrontarsi in archivio: Tra storia ottomana e storia coloniale (Algeri 1830),Società post-coloniali: ritorno alle fonti, Grangaud, I., ed., Quaderni Storici 43,129 (2008): 621–52; and Grangaud, I., “Masking and Unmasking the Historic Quarters of Algiers: The Reassessment of an Archive,” in Celik, Z. and Clancy-Smith, J., eds., Walls of Algiers: Peoples, Images, and Spaces of the Colonial and Postcolonial City (Seattle: Getty and University of Washington Press, 2009), 179–92.

35 Of the sixty-four preserved ledgers, only eighteen predate 1830 (most are from the early nineteenth century and the oldest dates from between 1699 and 1702), providing a record of activities in Algiers and within a 50 kilometer radius of the city.

36 LeTourneau, R.Bayt al-mâl, IV,” in Bearman, P. et al. ., eds., Encyclopédie de l'Islam, 2d ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 1182–83.

37 Shuval, T., La ville d'Alger vers la fin du XVIIIème siècle: Population et cadres urbain (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1998); Merouche, A., Recherches sur l'Algérie à l’époque ottomane, I. Monnaies, prix et revenus (Paris: Éditions Bouchène, 2002). For a critique of historians’ interpretations of these records, see Grangaud, I., ed., La justice et ses écritures: Pratiques d'enregistrement à l'époque ottomane, in Revue de l'Institut des Belles Lettres Arabes (IBLA) 74, 208 (2011–2012): 119227 ; Ze'evi, D., “The Use of Ottoman Sharî’a Court Records as a Source for Middle Eastern Social History: A Reappraisal,ILS 5, 1 (1998): 3556 .

38 Estève, Comte, “Mémoire sur les Finances de l’Égypte,” in Description de l’Égypte, État moderne, vol. 1 (Paris: 1809), 367 .

39 Khodja, Hamdan, Le Miroir: Aperçu historique et statistique sur la Régence d'Alger (Paris: Sindbad, 1985 [1833]), 116 . This verification was also noted by French authorities who had also observed the practice, “Rapport sur le beït el-mal,” Algiers, 6 Aug. 1836, Archives Nationales D'outre-Mer, Aix-En-Provence (henceforth FR ANOM), F80/1082.

40 At the beginning of the qa'ada al-harâm in the year 1200 (1786), FR ANOM, 15mi1, ledger 2. In a ledger created twenty years later, the term employed is al-manqurîn (those without heirs), FR ANOM, 15mi2, ledger 5.

41 Tyan, E., “La condition juridique de ‘l'absent’ (mafkûd) en droit musulman, particulièrement dans le Madhab hanafite,Studia Islamica 31 (1970): 249–56.

42 Beaussier, M., Dictionnaire pratique arabe-français (Algiers: Bouyer, 1871), “dhabata,” FR ANOM, 15mi1, ledger 1, 164.

43 Regarding ideological aspects, constructions, and possible alternatives, see Dakhlia, J., Le divan des rois: Le politique et le religieux dans l'islam (Paris: Aubier, 1998); and Abbès, M., Islam et politique à l’âge classique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2009).

44 Powers, D., “Orientalism, Colonialism, and Legal History: The Attack on Muslim Family Endowments in Algeria and India,Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, 3 (1989): 535–71. See also Buskens, L. and Dupret, B., “L'invention du droit musulman: Genèse et diffusion du positivisme juridique dans le contexte normatif islamique,” in Pouillon, F. and Vatin, J.-C., eds., L'Orient créé par l'Orient (Paris: Karthala, 2011), 7192 .

45 Powers, “Orientalism.”

46 Ghazaleh, P., “Heirs and Debtors: Blood Relatives, Qur'anic Heirs, and Business Associates in Cairo, 1800–1850,” in Hanna, N. and Abbas, R., eds., Society and Economy in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean 1600–1900, in Honour of André Raymond (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 143–58.

47 Ghazaleh, P., ed., Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011), 9 .

48 The source documents contain a few eloquent traces of such rival claims.

49 Larguèche, Abdehamid, Les Ombres de la ville: Pauvres, marginaux et minoritaires à Tunis (XVIIIe et XIXe siècles) (Tunis: Centre de publication universitaire, 1999); Abdalwahad al-Muknî, “Al-madîna wa-l-ghurabâ’ fi al-‘ahd al-‘uthmânî. Mithâl Sfaqs fî al-qarn al-tâsi’ ‘ashar,” Revue d'histoire Maghrébine (Zaghouan), 337–52.

50 Along the same lines of Hanley, Sarah: “Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France,French Historical Studies 16, 1 (1989): 427 .

51 See, for example, Arin, F., “Essai sur les démembrements de la propriété foncière en droit musulman,Revue du Monde Musulmane 26 (1914): 277317 ; Abribat, J., “Essai sur les contrats de quasi-aliénation et de location perpétuelle auxquels l'institution du habous a donné naissance,Revue tunisienne et marocaine de législation et jurisprudence 17 (1901): 121–51. For Ottoman Cairo, see Ghazaleh, P., Fortunes urbaines et stratégies sociales. Généalogies patrimoniales au Caire 1780–1830 (Cairo: Institut d'archéologie oriental, 2010), esp. 371 et seq. Tunis, Ottoman: Henia, Abdelhamid, Propriété et stratégies sociales à Tunis (XVIème–XIXème siècles) (Tunis, Publications de la Fac. Des Sciences humaines et sociales de Tunis, 1999). Tunis, Medieval: Staevel, Jean-Pierre Van, Droit mâlikite et habitant à Tunis au XIV° siècle: Conflits de voisinage et normes juridiques d'après le texte du maître-maçon Ibn al-Râmî (Cairo: Institut français d'archéologie oriental [IFAO], 2008).

52 Cerutti, Simona, Étrangers: Etude d'une condition d'incertitude dans une société d'Ancien Régime (Paris: Bayard, 2012).

53 See, in particular, Todeschini, Giacomo, Visibilmente crudeli: Malviventi, persone sospette e gente qualunque dal Medioevo all'età moderna (Bologna: Il Mulino 2007), 205 et seq.

54 This has given rise to a certain number of anachronistic and myopic interpretations on the part of historians, one good example being the separation in wills of data concerning a pious bequest and instructions for burials from data regarding the transmission of assets. For a critique of this approach followed by Vovelle, Michel (in Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe siècle: Les attitudes devant la mort d'après les clauses de testaments [Paris: Seuil, 1978]), see Torre, Angelo, Il consumo di devozioni: Religione e comunità nelle campagne dell'ancien régime (Venice: Marsiglio, 1995), p. 3 .

55 We thank Natividad Planas for calling attention to some of these sources.

56 While the debate about emic/etic is rich in the anthropological field, historians seem more reluctant concerning the issue. Ginzburg, Carlo is a remarkable example; see in particular “Our Words, and Theirs: A Reflection on the Historian's Craft, Today,” in Fellman, Susanna and Rahikainen, Marjatta, eds., Historical Knowledge: In Quest of Theory, Method and Evidence (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), 97119 . For an approach linking emic and pragmatic perspectives, see Cerutti, Simona, “Microhistory: Social Relations versus Cultural Models?” in Castrén, A. M., Lonkila, M., and Peltonen, M., eds., Between Sociology and History: Essays on Microhistory, Collective Action, and Nation-Building (Helsinki: S.K.S., 2004), 1740 .

57 The classical reference is Barth, Fredrik, Process and Form in Social Life: Selected Essays, vol. 1 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981). For a pragmatist approach to institutions, see Giana, Luca and Tigrino, Vittorio, eds., “Istituzioni,” special issue of Quaderni Storici 139 (2012).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 11
Total number of PDF views: 172 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 542 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 25th January 2017 - 20th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.