This article revisits the history of the Franciscan archives under Ottoman rule by focusing on archival documents, practices, and spaces in the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Fojnica. Ottoman papers and archives preserved in the Franciscan spaces were often associated with Ottoman oppression. In this study, the author demonstrates that the documentary relationship between monasteries and Ottoman chanceries was not one-directional and cannot be characterized as oppressive. Franciscans actively engaged with the Ottoman documents and genres; they relied on the Ottoman vocabularies and legitimacy embedded in the documents, and subverted them at the same time, carving out their own physical and discursive spaces, which were tied to and yet different from the imaginaries of the Ottoman imperial order. The article emphasizes how examining archival narratives is located at the intersection of practices, texts, and spaces.
Firmani inediti, Donato Fabianich’s 1884 publication of Ottoman privileges given to the Bosnian Franciscans over the four centuries of Ottoman rule, is familiar to anyone interested in the Catholic history of the Ottoman Empire. This collection of 53 documents translated from Ottoman Turkish into Latin has long been one of the favorite manuals with which to study the content of the privileges, documents that are otherwise stowed away in monasteries across Bosnia, many of them in the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in the town of Fojnica. But besides providing historians with an opportunity to explore far-flung archives, Fabianich’s rationale for publishing this collection was also motivated by the desire to tell a particular story of the Franciscans and the Catholic faith under Muslim rule. His overture to the documents thus ends with a line from the psalms. “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy,” he writes, quoting from Psalm 126, which speaks of the joys of a return to Zion after a period of exile and suffering (Fabianich 1884, 37).
The glimpse into the Ottoman archives of the Franciscan friars is thus framed in a very particular way: the documents are quite literally a testament to a lachrymose history, a period of subjugation from which the Bosnian Franciscans were delivered only in 1878, by the Habsburg occupation. Coming from a member of the Franciscan order, none of this would seem particularly remarkable were it not for the fact that the documents received from the Ottomans seem to be the central motor and motive in this story. The accumulation of the Ottoman documents in the Franciscan spaces is both material proof of, and metaphor for, Franciscan, and by extension Catholic, captivity under Muslim rule.
Although considerable time has gone by since Fabianich, the core of the message lingers. The history of the Franciscan order and Catholic community in Ottoman Bosnia is still largely conceptualized in terms of tragedy, suffering, and survival. In this article, I argue for a different story. I demonstrate that it was precisely in the archives—working with various kinds of Ottoman documents and reimagining the various genres of the Ottoman administration—that the Franciscans gradually solidified their authority among the Catholics and became an important social and religious force in the Bosnian historical landscape. Rather than a sign of passive waiting, Ottoman documents in Franciscan possession testify to the Franciscans’ “commitment to paper” (Stoler 2009, 1) and to the deep material, graphic, and ideological ties that bound the community of friars and their flock firmly into the Ottoman imperial “grammar of rule” (Ferguson 2018, 8). By straddling the reliance on and subversion of the Ottoman documents, writing practices, and administrative vocabularies, the members of the Franciscan order carved their own circles of power and control.
Discussion and interest in the significance of the archival material of the Bosnian Franciscans and its institutional setting are split among different national, linguistic, and historiographical interests. Starting in the nineteenth century, with the proliferation of publications bringing to light various archival collections and sources across the south Slavic spaces, interest in the monastic archival holdings grew as well, leading to a number of different source publications, from monastic chronicles to Ottoman documents (Ćorović 1909; Fermendžin 1892; Jelenić 1918; Kemura 1916; Truhelka 1909). While these publications offered many possibilities for historians, they almost always lack the context of the archive from which they hail and the criteria for their selection. The sources were then mostly used by historians from the region interested specifically in the history of the Franciscan order or in themes of church history (Džaja 1992). In contrast, regional historians trained in Ottoman history and language were more interested in traces of imperial dynamics they might find in the Franciscan archives, looking for data on taxation or relationships between Catholic and Orthodox churches (Boškov 1992; Sućeska 1968; Tričković 1980).
Common to all of these approaches, and an interest in Franciscan archival material, is an interest in particular documents and mining for data. There has been little interest in how Franciscan archives as concepts and spaces produce a certain type of document and narrative. With the partial exception of the Croatian historian Vjeran Kursar, whose work has focused on the relationship between Franciscan Ottoman privileges and the social networks that underpinned their acquisition (Kursar 2011), most scholars have been in search of specific texts as containers of specific facts. In the words of Ben Kafka, they have been “looking through paperwork, but seldom paused to look at it” (Kafka 2009, 341). But, as scholarship on archives, writing, and documents in most diverse political, archival, linguistic, and disciplinary settings has shown, documents are not mirrors of reality in any simple way. On the contrary, as Ann Stoler puts it, they are “active generative substances with histories […] of their own” (Stoler 2009, 1). It is not my intention to deny the importance of the documentary genre and texts as sources of facts, but I also maintain that there is a limit to the extent to which historians can rely on texts alone, disregarding the material and discursive contexts of the archives as well as their different practices and contradictions. In the words of Matthew Hull, “we need to see graphic artifacts not as neutral purveyors of discourse, but as mediators that shape the significance of the linguistic signs inscribed on them” (Hull 2012, 13).
In this article, therefore, I show that how the documents are stored, handled, written on, imagined, and talked about is equally as significant as what they say. Exposing multiple dynamics in the archive and around documents, new (hi)stories of documents, friars, community, and empire are brought into sharp relief. These narratives are rarely inscribed in a single page; they form across both sides of each page and many different pages and arise from both texts and practices. Like tectonic events where clashes produce new terrain, clashes and contradictions that occur in the archives between texts, pages, and ideas shape new narrative landscapes in their own right.
By pursuing this archival geology, this article also demonstrates how inextricably the Franciscans as an institution were tied into the Ottoman system of governance. Not only were they not mere passive recipients of imperial writing and privileges, but they actively sought them out, repurposing them further to create their own structures of communal authority. The Franciscan friars relied on the tools and vocabulary of the Ottoman state and subverted them at the same time.
Franciscan deployment of Ottoman documents and genres is important if we are to conceptualize the circulation of texts, documents, and legitimacy across the empire. In her recent work, historian Heather Ferguson has demonstrated essential links between empire and textuality, claiming that “circulation of documents characterized, and in the act of characterizing, produced a particular conception of sovereignty” (Ferguson 2018, 4). Ottoman historians have always been aware of the immense archives that the empire produced, but perhaps precisely because of this, they have also taken this fact for granted. Ferguson, in turn, examines the logic and workings of this bureaucratic apparatus, a process that “sublimated anxieties of fragmented power to assertions of imperial universalism and became the means by which composite empires managed distance and organized diversity into an ordered system of state power” (2018, 11–12).
While invaluable, works such as Ferguson’s that focus on the logic of the imperial bureaucratic production of the pre-modern era are inevitably self-referential. “The state script thus becomes a script for a state,” Ferguson writes (2018, 12). Absent from the picture are all the other directions that the “state script” took, creating dependent and yet different visions of order. To an extent, scholars of Ottoman social and legal history have already demonstrated how deftly different members and communities of Ottoman society handled and repurposed the state scripts—documents and genres and vocabularies coming from the imperial chanceries—for their own ends. This tendency is particularly notable in non-Muslim institutions and groups. As historian Tamer El-Leithy observed, the archives were often crucial for non-Muslim religious groups under Islamic rule, ensuring “social competition and group formation, survival, and reproduction” (El-Leithy 2011, 406).
Yet scholars have also overlooked the ways in which the “state scripts” played a role in defining and governing internal communal structures. They demonstrate how communities and individuals deployed state documents in the state forums, but they leave out the ways in which storing and handling those documents informs the intra-communal institutional memory and logic as well as how different genres and vocabularies of the state chanceries became essential mechanisms of communal authority and control. In that sense, it is difficult to imagine the Franciscan friars as passive recipients of the Ottomans. On the contrary, by relying on those written and discursive and material mechanisms, they were the ones working out the shape and meaning of the community.
How do I demonstrate the connections and importance of Ottoman state writing to the friars and Catholics? I do so by exploring the archive of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in the Bosnian town of Fojnica. The monastery in Fojnica has occupied its spot on the southern hills of the town—suspended between the urban valley and the steep slopes of Vranica Mountain—since the 1520s. Along with a number of other monasteries, most notably the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Sutjeska and St Catherine in Kreševo, the Holy Spirit in Fojnica formed the core of the Franciscan Province of Bosna Argentina and has served as one of the centers of Bosnian Catholicism. Over the course of its long history, the Franciscans of Fojnica accumulated rich archival holdings: nearly 3000 pieces from various Ottoman chanceries, in addition to numerous other documents in Latin and Italian.
In exploring the context and the larger story of the archive and what it tells us about both the Franciscan community and the Ottoman Empire more broadly, I focus on two types of sources. One is the collection of Ottoman documents from the Acta Turcica collection. Specifically, I examine the documents related to land acquisition and property expansion. As I argue elsewhere, land acquisition and environmental control were some of the key ways in which the Franciscans defined and strengthened their authority over the Catholic community and sustained boundaries with their Muslim neighbors under Ottoman rule. Besides the well-known privileges, such as the ahdname and numerous fermans, the “larger documentary ecology of circulation, discard, migration, reuse, and preservation” of documents related to land and property is crucial to situating the friars in the Ottoman imperial fabric (Rustow 2020, 6). By discussing several land-related documents—the ways in which the friars interacted with them, marked them, and how they related to physical spaces in and around the monastery—I demonstrate how the friars were not simply at the receiving end of the Ottoman chancery. In walking readers through this archive, I draw attention to the recto and the verso, to different scripts of the documents, as well as to the environmental expanses around the monastery that these papers sought to envision and regulate.
Second, I briefly examine a virtually unexplored part of the monastic archive, the Franciscan defters, manuscript registers and booklets that clearly evoke the more famous imperial defters or the main method of Ottoman rule as they were famously known (İnalcik 1954, 105). Defters in the monastic setting indicate that the Franciscan engagement with the Ottoman “grammar of rule” did not stop with Ottoman documents. On the contrary, the friars adopted some of the well-established imperial genres and adapted them to their own communal needs, making defters the tools to track land, money, people, and sins. In other words, the Ottoman models trickled down to the friars—and were reshaped to the monastic economy—and spiritual guardianship.
Before delving into the archive, I begin with a brief discussion of the Regesta of Fojnica (hereafter Regesta), a publication of excerpts, summaries, and translations of the Ottoman document collection from the Fojnica monastery edited by the Croatian historian Josip Matasović. More than just documents, the Regesta holds the key to a narrative that illustrates how these documents and the broader significance of the archive have been conceptualized. It demonstrates that documents are always much more than a sum of their parts and discourses about them encapsulate larger ideological and historiographical stakes.
The “Turkish Paper” and Its Legacies
For the majority of historians and lay readers, Regesta by historian Josip Matasović (d. 1962), published in 1930, is the only point of entry to the wider archival world of the friars. As a publication, Regesta was arguably shaped by the preceding narratives about what the Franciscan Ottoman archives represented while also itself shaping scholarly trends as to how the Franciscan order functioned under Ottoman rule and what role the archive played in that process. While Matasović, who did not understand Ottoman Turkish, included several thousand excerpts in the publication as a result of his work in the archive in 1916 and 1917, two specific ideas emerge from the collection as a whole (Matasović 1932, 102). First, the collection articulates and further solidifies the idea that receiving Ottoman documents was directly proportional to the level of Muslim harassment of the friars. Second, Regesta cements the idea of the firm divide between the friars and Ottoman Muslim society, marking the friars as the outsiders or at best reluctant participants in the Ottoman paper machinery.
Regesta was one of the many source publications in the larger universe of source publications that proliferated across the region from the mid-nineteenth century onward. While more comparative work is necessary, publications of archival material and manuscript fragments were often carried out under the auspices of the new academies and other cultural institutions with varying ideological and political agendas. Academies founded in Belgrade and Zagreb began to publish a series of journals with both archival and manuscript material understood as crucial to the evolving nation-building projects. Following their take-over in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, the Habsburg rulers almost immediately established a museum, followed by the journal Glasnik zemaljskog muzeja, which became one of the leading scientific and source publications in Bosnia.
The Habsburg establishment’s need to maintain the national balance in Bosnia and Herzegovina was reflected in the content of the Glasnik, which included articles in both Cyrillic and Latin script, as well as source material in Ottoman Turkish. The leadership of the journal was actively searching for Ottoman material, sending one of its most active members, Ćiro Truhelka, all the way to Dubrovnik to search the archives (Truhelka 1911; 1942, 127).
Such inclusiveness does not seem to have been the case in the publications of the newly founded Academy in Zagreb, for example, which focused on medieval and similar material, partly to provide historical foundations for the emerging (hi)stories of the nation. Archives and manuscripts in Ottoman Turkish and other “Oriental” languages were not a priority. The Yugoslav Academy in Zagreb founded its own Oriental department in 1927 and collected manuscripts across Bosnia, thus relegating the Ottoman and Oriental manuscript heritage of this post-Ottoman space to a very specific historiographic type that required its own training (Paić-Vukić 2017). Moreover, this not being meant for inclusion in the national historiography, the Ottoman material was collected and stored, rather than printed and disseminated. Although the Oriental Collection in Zagreb began taking shape in 1927 with the appointment of the famous German Turkologist Franz Babinger as principal collector, the idea of establishing such a collection appeared already at the turn of the century. Among the advocates for the inclusion of archival and manuscript materials in Oriental languages into the national historical canon was none other than the Bosnian Franciscan friar Julijan Jelenić. At the Academy meeting in Zagreb in June of 1918, he stated the need to acquire Ottoman Turkish material, which could “resolve a lot of darkness in our history”. He added that it would be possible “to find orientalist specialists in Bosnia, among the Muslims”, and hire them as translators (“Izvodi iz razrednih” 1919).
Still, the overall sense is that the thought of delivering Ottoman materials had nothing to contribute to the historical foundations of the nation. The only thing that the Ottomans had brought was oppression, a sentiment that also permeated the Regesta. In his inaugural 1867 speech at the opening of the Yugoslav Academy of Arts and Sciences, historian Franjo Rački saw the Ottomans as the sole reason for cultural stagnation in the region: “We the South Slavs would stand on the same educational level with the western Europeans had the Ottomans not so thoroughly stopped us in our development” (Rački 1867, 47). As already mentioned, Donato Fabianich published the collection of fermans with the purpose of demonstrating tyranny and suffering. Importantly, the idea that Ottoman archives were primarily a testimony to Ottoman harassment was not tied to Catholic circles. Similar developments are observable in early twentieth-century Bulgarian publications. In 1910, D. A. Ikhchiev translated and published a collection of more than 600 Ottoman documents from the Orthodox Rila Monastery, a publication that was meant to cast light on the time of “Turkish slavery” (Ikhchiev 1910).
Regesta itself appeared on the heels of several earlier attempts to bring some aspects of the Franciscan archives to light. This is a theme that still awaits proper treatment but various avid collectors and publishers of different types of Franciscan documents had different motives for publishing. Publications that proliferated at the turn of the twentieth century brought to light different documents and archival materials scattered around Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond, aiming to demonstrate the long presence of the Franciscans in the territory and their “beneficial effects” on their surroundings (Jelenić 1921, 82).
But Regesta stood out from these collections because it presented Ottoman materials in a particular monastery and its context has a close connection with Fabianich’s publication of the fermans mentioned at the very beginning of this article. Firmani inediti arguably captured enduring interpretative frameworks to structure how Ottoman writing in monastic custody would be discussed. In Fabianich’s words, these documents were the main weapon in the hands of the friars because “the salvation of the Catholic faith [culto cattolico] depended on them” (1884, 39), a notion that Matasović certainly embraces. Fabianich also believed in the cumulative effect of this documentary corpus, reckoning that it was unnecessary to engage with analysis of the documents (darne commenti di sorta) because “every ferman clearly speaks for itself” (1884, 39).
The positivist reading of the documents is certainly visible in Matasović’s presentation of the Fojnica Ottoman archive, even though some of his editorial choices also set the publication apart from other attempts. Instead of selecting representative documents, the Regesta presents a mixture of excerpts and summaries, with some translations of nearly all the Ottoman documents in Fojnica. It thus inevitably introduces a larger body of sources and provides critical insight into the wide range of concerns involved. Rather than just privileges, the Regesta includes land transactions, court disputes, tax receipts, various permissions, and letters, among others.
As much as they have relied on it, scholars have also long pointed out obvious flaws in the Regesta. It abounds in mistakes, ranging from mistranslations and errors in dating to distracting typos (Boškov 1992, 7). For historians whose arguments and narratives depend on specific wording and paleographic choices, Regesta presents a treacherous terrain. But another issue with the publication that has escaped critique is the framing of the entire narrative. The way an archive is talked about and (thus) imagined, as well as the editorial choices in how sources are presented, are some of the crucial ways in which any document edition will be read and understood.
So what is Matasović’s narrative framework? To begin with, he construes an antithetical relationship between the Franciscans and the Ottomans in the very choice of title: regesta. “From the middle ages onward, regestum usually meant, as is here the case, an overview of papers, charters, and similar documents that a monastery kept regarding [protecting] its rights,” reads the opening line of the publication (Matasović 1932, 61). The very title of the book seeks to frame the collection according to the archival standards of the western monastic tradition, in which charters and documents were copied into archival registers. Matasović thus invokes a western medieval monastic model of archival registers that did not, arguably, fit the Franciscan experience in Fojnica. There is no evidence that the friars consistently held a separate registry in which they routinely recorded content of the documents. A neatly arranged chronological regesta is more a reflection of Matasović’s desire to frame the monastery in the western archival framework, and less a medium that mimics the modus operandi and the logic of this monastic institution.
It may be that Matasović’s desire to present the Ottoman archive framed as a western monastic model was part of the larger anxiety to reconcile the markedly different experience of the Franciscan order under Ottoman rule with the history of the religious order in other Catholic states. For example, this concern also surfaces in the publications of friar and historian Julijan Jelenić, who traversed Bosnia and beyond in search of Franciscan documents. Jelenić’s publications were also apologies for the lack of comparable archival collections and regestas found in western Christian lands. This is especially because the General Congregation of the Franciscan order in Rome in 1575 required all the Franciscan provinces to secure a special repository with three keys in which to store all the “private and public” documents related to the organization of the province (Jelenić 1913, 4). Jelenić wanted to show that the friars, too, tried to keep up with that order and western archival practices, and he explained the lack thereof by citing Ottoman terror and the destruction of monasteries (Jelenić 1913).
Another way in which Matasović reinforced the gap between the friars and the imperial institutions was by casting the entire Ottoman administrative and legal structure as inefficient and corrupt. He writes:
The simplicity [primitivnost] of the oriental administration, mostly entirely inalienable from litigation, was fully present with the Turks, although the Constantinople bureaucracy resembles the Byzantine one. The diction of the official inscriptions is constrained, paper is to a large extent ignored, the registries [are] kept in sacks. [All the while] the necessity of the quasi official bribe [is] proscribed, if we are to judge by the examples that show that friars had to [pay it] with every change in the Bosnian leadership. (Matasović 1932, 64)
In this (somewhat confused) assessment, the friars could not have meaningfully participated in something that was by definition little more than a system for extracting money and favors. But because Matasović also builds his overview of the Ottoman administrative and political history on German orientalist literature, he inevitably runs into contradictions when having to actually describe a robust administrative apparatus of the state and different functions of the “people of the plume” (Matasović 1932, 65). He resolves the problem by citing the discrepancy between theory and practice: “however insufficient the practice was, Turks had a lot of legal theory” (Matasović 1932, 66). What Matasović leaves out—and what this article demonstrates—is that it was precisely the communities like the Franciscans that were often the main beneficiaries of the potential discrepancies between “the theory and practice” in Ottoman legal and administrative forums.
But once Matasović switches the perspective from imperial to local, he significantly alters his narrative frame. His attempt to build the scientific narrative based on German and French orientalist literature collapses, and his arguments take the familiar, local tone. Documents and archive turn into a veritable battleground between the friars and the local Muslims. “Not a day goes by without a written line,” Matasović exclaims, clearly associating the daily toils and problems of the monastic community with paper and writing (Matasović 1932, 63). He elaborates by saying that, “in their battle for survival, the friars tried to equip themselves with as much official paper as possible”. The size and richness of the archive is thus reduced to oppression, the main idea being that the reason that the friars acquired so many documents of Ottoman provenance was to use them to defend themselves from all sorts of Muslim detractors, from their neighbors to shifty officials. There is no room to imagine that the friars could have creatively engaged with documents for purposes other than defense. Matasović’s assessment of the significance of this archive is a thinly veiled assumption that all of the documents point towards the Muslim–Christian rivalry. Indeed, he adds that their Muslim neighbors did not have to bother about the “Turkish paper” at all, thus drawing an association between dealing with paper and unprivileged social status (Matasović 1932, 102).
Not only does Matasović switch his argument to mirror the centuries of Franciscan complaints about their dealings with the Ottomans, he also acquires the tone and narrative devices evocative of Franciscan storytelling and the chronicle tradition. This is most evident in the section where he explains the process of Franciscans acquiring documents from the Ottomans:
And when it all became too much, when the guardian finally headed to Kreševo […] and [when] even that proved useless, then [he had to] saddle the horse and [head] secretly and by shortcut to Sarajevo, without knowing what tyranny may befall him on the road. [And then he,] with akçes and grosh at every corner, every step, and every door, begging for a reception […] receives the paper. [And then he,] in a confused manner, suddenly and with hope, tucks [the paper] into his shirt, and hurries back filled with worry, looking for his scattered brothers, shepherds of the fearful flock, who despite all the trouble refused the easy release: exodus. (Matasović 1932, 63)
Arguably, this short parable-like assessment summarizes the entire idea of the Regesta and the meaning of the Ottoman documents in Franciscan monasteries. The documents primarily evoke danger, whether on the insecure roads or in front of the authorities that cannot be trusted and have to be bribed every step of the way. Seeking documents was a solution of last resort (“when it all becomes too much”), and yet so routine! Finally, the ability to acquire the “paper” even at the cost of personal peace, safety, and money was what kept the friars from giving up on the community and leaving.
Documents and Spaces
Shifting from the Regesta to its material reality in the monastic archive, the documentary collection now known as Acta Turcica comes alive. By handling the documents, turning them around, comparing them to one another, and—while looking through the narrow windows of the monastery into the town in the valley as well as up the steep slopes of the mountain that embraces its southern side—imagining the environment, spaces, and material realities that they sought to regulate, an entirely different ecology, vision, and function of the archive emerges. Rather than a narrative of tears and triumph, digging deep in the archive betrays a Franciscan history that is active, creative, and inseparable from the larger Ottoman one.
Rummaging through the physical archive and the detached leaves of paper now stacked in around a dozen boxes (the documents carrying signatures that were probably marked and organized around the time when Matasović first visited) also demonstrates that there is hardly a single story or interpretation tied to a single document. Coming from the Ottoman chanceries, the documents contained Ottoman texts with all their crucial characteristics, such as sultanic signatures, stamps, and plenty of blank spaces. But the friars almost always added their own interpretations, visions, remarks, and instructions on the back of the document, often in several languages and scripts that accrued over centuries. In Regesta, Matasović presented either translations of the Ottoman Turkish or Franciscan observations and notes about the documents in the Slavic vernacular. Alone, neither of these is sufficient to grasp the story or the full extent of what the document was about. The (hi)stories materialize out of interactions and conflicts between different texts that are present on a document.
By putting all the aspects of documents into conversation, this section demonstrates how the products of various Ottoman chanceries became key methods and materials in providing legitimacy and vocabularies for the friars to craft and cement their own authority in and around Fojnica. At the same time, their versatile and consistent interventions into that material reshaped and repurposed the meaning and function and ultimately the power of these documents, allowing them to carve their own version and visions of local order.
Before a document even arrived at the monastery, the friars had already left their voices and agendas in the Ottoman texts. This is not news to Ottoman historians, who have known for a long time that court documents and diplomatic genres such as the ahdnames and even berats were invariably products of negotiations (Çolak and Bayraktar-Tellan 2019; Ergene 2004; Van Den Boogert 2005). Analysis of the Ottoman texts in the context of the broader Franciscan agenda, local social conditions, as well as the natural environment, which it sought to describe and legally govern, reveals the extent to which the monasteries had a say in determining what the documents were going to say.
Particularly illustrative examples come from a cache of documents regulating the status of what had been known as Poljana, monastic pasturelands in the highlands above the monastery in Fojnica. How the Ottoman documents described these places—pastures, forests, fields—was crucial because in the Ottoman legal mind, different environments called for different legal and economic regulations. Descriptions of space had immense consequences for the effect that the document would have on the ground.
My research elsewhere has shown that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Poljana was likely a common shared by families from the town who took animals to summer pastures. But with the rise of conversion to Islam in the region, the monastery labored to turn the pastureland into private monastic property in an effort to establish and sustain boundaries between the Catholics and the converts. Privatization was remarkable in more ways than one, not least because to obtain a deed on a common resource was technically illegal. A glance into the title deed that the friars obtained in 1569, and deployed successfully in the following centuries, lays bare some of the dynamics of how the friars inserted their interests into the chancery and court documents.
How did they even obtain the deed? Arguably, at least partially, that depended on the willingness of the judges to circumvent some of their procedural requirements and draft documents based on negotiation, rather than on an on-site inspection (Dursun 2007; Nizri 2015). To ascertain boundaries, judges and witnesses would have to be present at the location in question. The deed here was issued in Sarajevo, some 60 km and many mountains and valleys away from Poljana. Moreover, the title deed lists a number of places that the friars claimed as private property, in addition to Poljana. By mapping the places in the actual environment, it quickly becomes clear that the inspecting party would have had to trudge across steep mountain ridges and through forests surrounding the monastery in order to witness and record the places. It is unlikely that any such expedition actually took place, and it is almost certain that the document was drawn up based on negotiation and the story that the friars told about their property and rights, rather than on the basis of sight.
Regardless of how the friars might have received the deed, it remained relevant for centuries. In 1623, for example, the friars were again engaged in legal maneuvers over Poljana (mainly against different Muslim communities who seem to have disputed monastic control) and needed to bring in and justify the deed they already possessed. In order to do that, they also had to uphold a vague and somewhat fictional landscape that the original title deed suggested. In order to make a meaningful argument and use the title deed to protect their interests in the pastureland, they termed Poljana an “arable field”.
But situated at an elevation of around 1500 m above sea level, the “field” is almost certain to have been arable for nothing but grass and shrubs. This incongruity was not lost on the friars, who commented on Poljana and its relationship to the monastery in the twentieth century. An eminent Franciscan, V. M. Batinić, discussed Poljana as the property of the monastery based on the documents and translated excerpts he found in the archive, and he, too, noticed that the documents suggest that “in the olden times, Poljana was sown and harvested although it lies at the elevation of 1700 m” (1913, 172). While Batinić resolved this tension by concluding that this was proof of “milder climatic conditions” in earlier days, it is unlikely that central Bosnia witnessed a major climatic shift between the sixteenth and the twentieth century. An alternative—if more prosaic—explanation highlights Franciscan ingenuity in making use of the Ottoman legal repertoire and in backing their ownership claims with the legitimacy of the Ottoman documents. In this scenario, the Ottoman chancery appears at the mercy of various local interest groups, such as the friars, whose agendas paint the landscapes and their legal status that we ultimately encounter in the documents.
Intervening in the texts and legal outcomes of the Ottoman chancery was but one way of inserting voices into bureaucratic circulation. Equally or more consequential for the archive and its significance were subsequent Franciscan interventions on the documents themselves. Once the documents were in the monastery, the friars further engaged in acknowledging, contradicting, and/or outright denying the Ottoman discourses on and visions of the world order.
There were clear limits to how much the friars could influence chancery texts, but they nevertheless made sure that documents were recorded and remembered specifically for the reasons that upheld the monastic vision of the community and authority. Ottoman chanceries produced highly stylized and standardized legal texts that had to adhere to procedural rules. In transactions and disputes, the documents had to name parties, spaces, and boundaries. But when the friars marked their documents on the verso, whether by appending short notes about the content, dates, or possible further actions, the complex set of information present in the Ottoman text invariably disappeared. In their markings, the friars routinely glossed over the legal and natural topography, erasing the voices of adversaries, neighbors, and community members. The topographical, legal, and social reality that comes out of the Ottoman text was simply subsumed under the word “ours” (naše). Such interpretative choices expose the dual significance of the Ottoman archival corpus: the friars built legitimacy and authority on the basis of receiving the document but, at the same time, they supplemented the content with their own narratives and visions. In the linguistic context of the monastery, the Franciscan narrative was the only legible one.
An example that encapsulates how pronouns and erasure work together comes from another case to be found in a dispute related to the highland pastureland of Matorac, most likely related to the previously mentioned Poljana, dating to July 1639. Even though that document has been part of the monastic archive, it is not entirely clear when it entered Franciscan possession. The document relates to a court case, a dispute, but unlike in many other such cases, here the monastery does not appear listed among the plaintiffs and defendants. On the contrary, according to the Ottoman text, the dispute unfolded between the Catholic community from the town of Fojnica and a Muslim community from the neighboring village of Ostružnica. Specifically, the Christians collectively sued the Ostružnica Muslims for infringing on their pastures. The dispute appears to be a routine conflict over grazing rights on highland pastureland commons; communities and individuals often clashed over rights of access and even though these spaces were always defined by evoking ancient rights, disputing them was not uncommon (Hadžibegić 1958–9, 102–4). Indeed, this particular dispute is clearly a continuation of an almost identical earlier conflict dating to 1596, involving the same problem, space, and communities. For the villagers and herders from Ostružnica, this seems to have been a generational phenomenon. The names of the fathers of the six Muslim defendants mentioned in the document from 1639 match the defendants of the earlier dispute. All in all, the Ottoman document excludes the monastery and mentions a total of 11 different Muslim and Christian people who participated in the court dispute.
If we turn the document over, however, these people disappear. We encounter a familiar Franciscan hand and two notes, one in Cyrillic and the other in Latin script. At some point after 1639, the friars clearly claimed the pastures for themselves, and in 1764 (the year is appended to the note) they summarized the content of the court case in very simple terms, by writing that “no one” can take or do anything without “our knowledge” on “our mountain”. Over the course of more than a century, therefore, the friars must have wrested away both the land and the court document from the Catholic community. The original participants of the conflict and claimants to the pasture faded away—becoming “nobody”—while the specific pastureland merged into the much larger and more ambiguous “our mountain”. The whole document testifies to the changing property relationships and the growing power of the monastic community. It also highlights how the inscriptions and the archive as a whole sustained the monastic memory about the history of its role in the social and natural environment of the region.
Importantly, Franciscan inscriptions vis-à-vis the Ottoman texts were not mere mnemonic devices or an auxiliary apparatus to help the friars trail through the archive (although they served that function, too) (Head 2003; Zachariadou 2010). As Natalie Rothman’s work on the Ottoman-Venetian dragomans demonstrates, textual choices and practices in translations and commentaries were “never innocent or value-free” and the same is the case even in the interpretative interventions of the monastery (Rothman 2021, 187). The notes and inscriptions shaped how the friars saw their relationship with the surrounding communities and space.
A document showing a land transaction that took place in 1668 is an illustrative example of the necessity and the limits of the Franciscan inscriptions, showing both their potential for sustaining the ownership agendas of the monastery but also the misunderstandings that were sometimes inevitable in the language and literacy gap that existed between the friars and the Ottoman administration. The complex relationship that exists between the Ottoman text and the two different notes on the verso exhibits the problems the friars had with the Ottoman texts, but also how misunderstanding the text and appending their own version of documents was crucial in nurturing the monastic versions of authority, ownership, and history. At the same time, these misunderstandings are in themselves revelatory because they provide crucial insight into how the friars understood the archive without being able to read it. They underline the point that texts were only one component of how and why the documents were useful (Hull 2012, 22–7). For a historian trying to understand the history in this archive, that history arises precisely from these kinds of contradictions, which we cannot dismiss; we need to read into them.
Seemingly routine Ottoman tezkire (receipt records) show that Halil Aga, the local zabit of Fojnica, supervised the selling of a field in the nearby village of Selakovići by two brothers, Mato and Frano, to the guardian of the monastery for a thousand akçe in 1668. What is interesting in this document—as it was indeed interesting for the friars, as I will show below—was the fact that monastery acquired the field from a family, a field surrounded by three other owners. This means that the village in question was a place where a lot of different people owned land and possessed title deeds in the seventeenth century. As we shall see, this would change dramatically.
On flipping the document, we encounter two notes. The first is written in Cyrillic and could have been contemporary to the Ottoman issuance of the document. Despite the possibility that someone from the monastery could have recorded its significance immediately upon receiving it, the Franciscan summary does not correspond to the transaction recorded in Ottoman. The place, type of transaction, and the price paid are mistaken. Not being able to read the document, the friars might have confused it with another one and wrote the wrong summary on the wrong paper (the discrepancy between the texts does not signal a misreading of the text but rather the confusion of two different transactions). The case illustrates the challenge that the friars would face if left with only Ottoman text to interpret and mark without an appropriate context.
At the same time, however, the mistake also tells us that specific details and writing in itself mattered little, or less than is usually assumed. What mattered most, at least in that particular context, was the “aesthetic and broad significance of documents”, rather than only the “knowledge function of records” (Hull 2012, 26). The material presence and legal legitimacy that the documents embodied facilitated the Franciscan property expansion that was certainly felt and witnessed on the ground. Indeed, over the course of the eighteenth century, it appears that the monastery took over the entire village of Selakovići. As the monastic records suggest, families that settled in the village in the eighteenth century changed their last names to indicate that they were the servants of the monastery.
The Ottoman archive arguably symbolically framed that lived reality of the very tangible Franciscan presence, regardless of what it actually said. The documents also nurtured a memory and added historicity to the propertied power of the monastery. Generations of friars must have understood that not only was the monastery the owner of the village and its land (and in some way, of the people as well), but that it had always been! This is clear from the second note on that document issued in 1668. The note is written in Latin script, thus almost certainly dating to the nineteenth century, and by someone who had at least a rudimentary knowledge of Ottoman Turkish (or, alternatively, was in the presence of someone who was able to read it). The note “corrects” the earlier note written in Cyrillic script, adding the corresponding information about the transaction. But more importantly, the note also expresses surprise at learning that there were “four neighbors” around the property bought by the monastery, and that “not entire Selakovići belonged to us”. The surprise underlines that the information the friars routinely overlooked and erased contributed to creating a history in which other people and their property simply did not figure.
What emerges, therefore, is the idea that documents and the archive they compose cannot be reduced to the simple notions of what is correct and incorrect and it certainly cannot be explained in the context of the tyranny of paper. Rather, the Franciscan commitment to Ottoman writing is better understood as one of the key mechanisms facilitating a certain type of erasing and forgetting, arguably crucial concepts in cultivating memory and narratives of its own past and place.
Defters for the Soul
The examination of the convergences of Franciscan archives, imaginaries of authority, and Ottoman models remains incomplete if focused solely on the Ottoman documents in Franciscan possession. The friars also reproduced some of the basic Ottoman tools of rule, the famous defters, making them one of the central pieces of the Franciscan archive, showing how the friars partially mimicked Ottoman governance in defining the boundaries of their own community.
But what are these monastic defters? Even a casual perusing of the monastic archives reveals that this bureaucratic staple of the Ottoman administration was ubiquitous in the monasteries: numerous registers carry the title defter on them. Like the rest of the Bosnian population, the friars too readily acquired Ottoman Turkish vocabulary, but their use of defter, or tefter/tevter, was arguably much more than a mere word for a notebook. As historian Guy Burak suggests, regardless of the fact that Ottoman legal scholars disagreed on the exact place and validity of defters as mechanisms of proof, the registers proliferated across the empire and became synonymous with authority (Burak 2019, 806). Arguably, it is that aspect of the records—the idea of authority and control that they embodied—that the Franciscans adopted. Just like the Ottomans, the friars adopted the idea and function of defters as materials and means of “fiscal and symbolic reproduction” (Ferguson 2018, 67). By recording taxes, land, and people in their defters, the Franciscans routinely defined and strengthened their authority over the Catholic community.
An important clue in explaining the link between the monastic and imperial defters emerges from the choices of which registers were—and which were not—called by that name. The friars handled different registers in keeping track of property and souls. Some of these were mandated by the post-Tridentine Catholic decrees that expected clergy to keep track of all baptisms, marriages, and deaths. These sacramental books, in addition to collections of circular letters and various commandments and other material that related to Catholic practices, were conspicuously not called defters (Miletich 1828, 48–9). In contrast, defters were books recording registers of monastic and parish income and expenses, lists of debts, and various records of land, people who leased it, and the contributions they were expected to make to the monastery in return. The archive in Fojnica, for example, holds defters recording alms and contributions of the community, defters recording the debt of the local Muslims to the friars, as well as defters recording land property in villages across central Bosnia and the families and their yearly contributions and payments. Defters in the monastic archives therefore recorded different matters and logistics of communal organization.
The fact that monastic defters dealt with affairs commonly understood as under the designation of economy does not mean that they were not part of a larger cultural and religious frame governing imaginaries of the monastery. The economic and spiritual aspects of the monastic authority cannot be divorced. As Ferguson notes about the imperial defters in general, “[defters] illustrate more than a political economy of land management and taxation. They also generated the very categories and principle of organization on which an Ottoman understanding of statecraft and sovereign authority came to rest” (Ferguson 2018, 13). For the Franciscans, recording money flows and land grants was precisely the stuff of spiritual control and religious authority among the Catholics. Divorcing the notions of spiritual care from the mechanics of everyday life, the material world, land, property, and a reliance on the Ottoman legal and bureaucratic system is precisely what has allowed scholarship up until now to maintain the wall between the Franciscan experience and the experience of being an imperial subject.
The trickle-down effect of the Ottoman administrative tools to various communities and their unexpected repurposing shows perhaps most evocatively in the early nineteenth century, under the episcopal rule of the famous friar and bishop Augustin Miletić (1763–1831). Miletić is remembered as an avid Catholic reformer, serving as an apostolic vicar and de facto bishop between 1813 and 1831, publishing several catechetical works as well as numerous letters urging the friars to care properly for their Christian flock (Škegro 2013). Among the papers he left behind in Fojnica, where he spent his days as a bishop, there is also a booklet with a handwritten title, The Defter of the Damned (Tefter od Prokletacza), a 17-page notebook dating to 1829. The full title suggests that this defter records “the damned, abductors, and outlaws”. This is, in other words, a record of various Catholics, mostly couples, who engaged in different sexual and marital transgressions.
One of the biggest social and religious issues preoccupying friars and bishops preceding Miletić was the adherence—or lack thereof—of the Bosnian Catholics to the marriage rules of the Tridentine reform (Muntán 2020). Specifically, it included requirements to marry within the religious community, to remain chaste prior to marriage, to respect the rule of consanguinity, and, importantly in the Bosnian context, to avoid getting married at the Ottoman court. Not doing any of the above, in addition to other transgressions such as abductions, could easily land people in a state of damnation and excommunication. From there, only a proper penance under the bishop’s supervision could bring them back into the fold of the Catholic community.
The defter in question is neatly arranged, with a full page dedicated to each troubled couple. At the top of every page is the name of the parish or village where the erring couple is found, followed by a brief description of the transgression and names of the couple, their parents, and possible accomplices. The remaining three-quarters of a page are reserved for description of the penance. Penance, often including a combination of fasting, prayers, confessions, and the physical presence of the transgressors in church with their heads covered with a black cloth (women) or a heavy stone suspended around their necks (men), was written and signed by Miletić personally. Some of the pages are left almost blank, with only the sin and the sinners clearly outlined, suggesting that they failed to repent.
It appears that Miletić collected these defters from the parishes scattered around Bosnia and personally oversaw the punishment. Indeed, keeping proper records was part of his larger reform of monastic archives, emphasizing their centrality in managing proper order in the Catholic community. According to him, the archive, comprising different “books” and “defters”, was expected to be kept organized and in its proper place, so that “it could be examined at any time and that we know what has been decided about the sinners”. In Miletić’s mind, the archive was crucial for keeping track of money (“everything that has been received and spent”) and “sinners”, both of which were important currency for proper communal functioning (Miletich 1828, 36).
The Defter of the Damned was thus vital for managing communal relations and order. The people who found themselves recorded in it would not remain hidden between the pages. In his instructions to the Bosnian clergy, Miletić specified that once a year, on a Sunday after the Feast of the Assumption, the names of “all obvious transgressors and sinners” who “fell into damnation” and failed to repent on time would be publicly proclaimed from the altar for the entire community to hear (Miletich 1828, 48).
The Ottoman notion of defters as embodiments of authority and proof in this case takes a particularly Catholic form. The defter facilitated Franciscan control over the people—literally their bodies and souls—almost making the register a tool of a particular type of biopolitics and likely more intrusive than any other imperial defter had ever been. The register was also crucial in mediating written remembrance with public memory, again, just like in the case of the Ottoman documents, demonstrating the crucial link between the archive and the material world. Here, metaphor and materiality converge.
The end of the Ottoman rule ushered in significant changes as to how the monasteries related to their Ottoman archival collection. Some of the friars became professional historians, protecting the legacy and interests of the order in the cultural and literary arena, rather than exclusively in courts. It is possible that the growing distance from active handling of the Ottoman documents likely contributed to what is already reflected in works such as Matasović’s publication: that the Ottoman documents became, with some exceptions, an undistinguished mass of paper interesting for its totality or for mining specific information.
Over the course of the twentieth century, but especially in the last several decades, the Franciscan institutions became increasingly conscious of the cultural potential of their Ottoman holdings. The community has promoted their archives, including the Ottoman collections, seeing in them an opportunity to nurture the image of active participants in crucial centuries of Bosnian history and of guardians of Bosnia’s cultural legacy. Thus, in addition to the Ottoman documents supporting the narrative of Catholic suffering and perseverance, they also testify to Franciscan relevance to Bosnian society. The reasons for this are multilayered and necessitate a separate study, but they include the increasing prestige of Ottoman scholarship as well as constant challenges to Bosnian social and territorial integrity.
Apart from recruiting the assistance of archival specialists to preserve and catalogue the document collections, one of the most important undertakings in recent decades (almost a century after Matasović’s visit and publication) is the Fojnica monastery’s collaboration with the German scholar of Islamic and Ottoman Studies Michael Ursinus to translate and publish sixteenth-century Ottoman documents. This ambitious project (currently including six volumes called Fojnica: osmanski dokumenti iz archiva Franjevačkog Samostana, or Fojnica: Ottoman Documents from the Archive of the Franciscan Monastery) follows professional and scholarly standards, including facsimiles and transcripts of Ottoman texts, translations into German and Croatian, as well as inscriptions on the verso. While this is doubtless a momentous and long-awaited feat that further emphasizes the importance of the Franciscan institutions in Ottoman history and makes the documents available to scholars, it is important to keep in mind that the project is part of shifting traditions of how archives and Ottoman papers become an interface for negotiating cultural and political currents.
It is this negotiation in and around the archive, which tells the story of the embeddedness of this Catholic institution in Ottoman imperial structures, that lies at the heart of this study. It rests on the idea that documents are not uncomplicated mirrors of reality and that in order to exploit their full potential, they have to be read in conjunction with the multiple texts, materials, and agendas that they embody. At the same time, the article also unpacks the multiple assumptions and narratives that the idea of an archive—and specifically the Catholic archives of Ottoman Bosnia—espouses. This is thus a showcase of both how historians read the archive and what alternative possibilities lie in a reconceptualization of its discourses and practices.
In the case of revisiting the Ottoman and Franciscan documents in the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in the town of Fojnica, reimagining the ecology of the archive and focusing on the documents that underpinned and regulated the running of the monastery and the ways in which they mapped into the spiritual, social, economic, and environmental agendas of the friars, clearly demonstrates how tight-knit the order was with the larger Ottoman imperial fabric. While a focus on the particular genre of privileges inevitably portrays the order as confined to a particular—tolerated but marginal—social space, digging deep into the archive and its practices, as well as reading across genres, reveals a markedly different historical dynamic. It was the friars themselves that carved out specific spaces—both legal and literal—for themselves and their communities. What have hitherto been understood as exclusively imperial genres, such as imperial registers or defters, were in fact also adopted by alternative local communities, who both relied on the vocabularies and technologies of imperial rule and yet deployed them to create alternative and sometimes subversive social and cultural orders.
About the author
Ana Sekulić is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She writes and teaches about religion and environment in Southeastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.
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