Published by EH.Net (June 2017)

Metin Coşgel and Boğaç Ergene, The Economics of Ottoman Justice: Settlement and Trial in the Sharia Courts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xv + 346 pp. $100 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-107-15763-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jared Rubin, Department of Economics, Chapman University.

Metin Coşgel and Boğaç Ergene’s The Economics of Ottoman Justice employs the best aspects of historical research and economic analysis in a compelling account of Ottoman courts. This is very much a work of history: the authors impressively collect reams of archival data on trials, settlements, and registrations from the courts of Kastamonu, a relatively small Ottoman town in what is now north-central Turkey. But it is also very much a work of economics: the authors utilize insights from the law and economics literature to analyze the data in a systematic way, deriving testable predictions and testing them with regression analyses.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the full-throated endorsement Coşgel and Ergene give for interdisciplinary work between economists and historians. The introductory chapter, while ostensibly introducing the book, is primarily dedicated to highlighting the insights that each of the authors felt they gained by working with someone outside of their discipline. Most economists are familiar with working with co-authors and understand the huge benefits of exploiting comparative advantage. Coşgel and Ergene go one step further, noting that aspects of the book simply could not have been written if either of them had decided to go at it alone. The introduction is a brilliant defense of interdisciplinary co-authorship and is worth a read for any economic historian, whether or not she is interested in the Ottoman Empire.

The core of the book primarily presents and analyzes the data, with a few chapters dedicated to presenting the historical context (i.e., the history of Kastamonu, insights into Sharia courts more generally) as well as the law and economics framework the book employs. The data are quite rich. We know the gender, religion, and social status of almost all parties in each of the cases. This is important because it allows for multiple economic analyses. It permits the authors to ask questions such as: Who goes to court? Who settles? Who wins when the case does indeed go to trial?

The answers to these questions are not as straight-forward as they appear, nor can they be gleaned by simply looking at means across all cases. Most importantly, there is significant selection bias in the types of cases that are registered and go to trial. As the authors eloquently lay out, there are numerous sources of bias. For instance, friends or relations can settle disputes without going to trial; asymmetric stakes in the outcome may encourage parties to settle prior to adjudication; and asymmetric information or legal knowledge may encourage certain groups to enter into trial and/or use certain techniques (such as securing a fatwa). These insights yield testable predictions which the authors test using standard econometric techniques. They find support for most of the predictions the law and economics framework yields.

A question that may naturally arise to the reader — it certainly arose to myself — is “what can we learn from Kastamonu?” If Coşgel and Ergene analyzed the archival court records of Istanbul this would be one thing — it would give us insight into how Ottoman courts worked in the presence of the sultan and top government and bureaucratic officials. None of these were present in Kastamonu. While reading the book, the economist in me kept thinking that Coşgel and Ergene would eventually get to the general lessons from Kastamonu. But these lessons never come. Upon reflection, this is the right move on their part for two reasons. First, economists tend to overclaim generality; I am certainly guilty of this in my own work. This is not necessarily a terrible sin, but in a work such as Coşgel and Ergene’s where the authors have spent so much time digging into the details of the Kastamonu courts, it is nice to simply have a portrait of how courts in this town operated. Second, and more importantly, the analysis employed by the authors is general in a sense, even if the authors do not explicitly state it as such. Coşgel and Ergene employ a standard law and economics framework to their data — a framework derived centuries after the data they draw from and originally applied to a very different set of circumstances. The fact that these economic insights help explain how the courts of Kastamonu were employed in such a different setting than twenty-first-century Westerners are used to suggests the universality of these insights while also telling us much about early modern Sharia courts. If these courts were used in a manner that is predictable by basic economic theory, then we can almost certainly subject them to more rigorous analyses when studying the role of courts and legal institutions in the economic life of the Ottoman Empire. This is important support for the recently growing group of economic historians (such as Timur Kuran and Şevket Pamuk) who use modern theory to better understand the economics and institutions of the Ottoman Empire.

In short, Metin Coşgel and Boğaç Ergene have written a well-researched book that pushes the boundary of interdisciplinary scholarship. Their history is informed by economics, and their economics is generalized via history. It is an impressive and difficult methodology to pull off, yet Coşgel and Ergene have done just this.

Jared Rubin is an associate professor of economics at Chapman University. He is the author of the recent book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not (Cambridge University Press).

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