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Tribute to Gilles Veinstein

p. 66-67

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Source: La lettre, no. 37, December 2013

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Prof. Gilles Veinstein, Chair of Turkish and Ottoman History from 1999 to 2012

1Gilles Veinstein was born on 18 July 1945 in Paris. His father was a lawyer in Grasse, but soon embarked on a new career by doing a PhD on the history of theatrical staging, which allowed him to enter the CNRS and become a librarian at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. He was also a university lecturer. His mother worked at the Ministry of Culture and was a recognized specialist on Paul Claudel and Jules Romain.

2Gilles Veinstein was a good student, who completed his schooling at the Lycée Janson de Sailly. He obtained his baccalauréat in 1963 and passed the competitive entrance examination for the École normale supérieure in 1966.

3Drawn by “elsewhere”, as he put it, he became interested in the Islamic Orient. His encounter with Alexandre Bennigsen, a specialist on Soviet Muslims, was decisive. Bennigsen drew his attention to the Ottoman Empire, which had a wealth of archives at least as significant as those of the great European countries, which were only starting to be exploited. Gilles Veinstein thus completed his studies in history at the Sorbonne, earning him an agrégation in 1970, while learning Turkish at the École nationale des langues orientales vivantes (ENLOV), which became the Centre universitaire des langues orientales vivantes (CULOV) during his time there, and ultimately the INALCO. Louis Bazin was the one who initiated him to the Turkish language and civilization. At the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE), he was taught to read the difficult Ottoman language by his masters Pertev Boratav, Irène Beldiceanu Steinherr and Nicoara Beldiceanu.

4In 1972, after his military service, he directly joined, as project manager, the sixth section of the EPHE, which became the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in 1975. He spent most of his career in this institution, becoming assistant lecturer and then lecturer from 1977 to 1986, when he became senior researcher (Directeur d’études). He thus belongs to the generation of historians who were exempted from doing a thèse d’état.

5His earliest research followed Alexandre Bennigsen’s guiding threads, such as, the contribution of Ottoman sources to the knowledge of the Empire’s partner countries. He first studied­ the Ottomans north of the Black Sea, that is, the Crimean Khanate, and he showed the continuity with the previous era. The situ­ation could no longer be described in terms of decadence, but rather in terms of economic integration related to the supplying­ of Istanbul, the Empire’s huge capital. Gilles Veinstein also shed new light on the period preceding the Russian conquest, for example on the Cossacks’ origins.

6From the Empire’s periphery, he then turned to the study of the basic structures of the Ottoman economy. His goal was to verify, and also to challenge, old Marxist approaches (Asiatic mode of production) as well as new ones (theory of the world-­economy). With this formidably complex question, which matched the attention paid to economic and social structures at the time, he could no longer limit himself to the information obtained from the central archives. He needed to work with local sources closer to the people, primarily represented by the provincial kadis’ registers, the equivalent of our notary and legal archives. He thus carried out pioneering work on Balkan and Aegean archive collections. His findings, which showed that in many cases non-Muslims preferred to turn to Muslim courts rather than to their community court called into question the common understanding of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. He also found important documents on the arrival of Spanish Jews in the Ottoman Empire.

7Thus equipped, Gilles Veinstein addressed the crucial question of the study of the Ottoman State. This issue had long been overlooked, since the supposed decadence of the Muslim world was usually considered to have begun in the sixteenth century. He was one of the major actors of the movement which re­defined the history of classical Islam as extending up to the eighteenth century. Personalities like Bernard Lewis or Halil Inalcik were protagonists of this historiographical revolution. Far from decadence, what those historians highlighted was that on the contrary, the State and social institutions were being perfected. Concrete knowledge thereof could finally be obtained through these archives which went into the depths of daily life. At the same time, Gilles Veinstein was faced with the persistence of turcophobia that was linked to the painful circumstances of the Empire’s last decades, when the latter was faced with the national movements seeking to institute successor States. The French scholar was instrumental in the creation of centres for Ottoman studies in the Balkan countries.

8In 1995, bringing together Bennigsen’s and Bazin’s ­heritages, he created the CNRS URA “The Turkish and Ottoman World”. For him, a research laboratory was not an aggregate of people, but a wise assemblage of personalities that had to be compatible with one another and driven by common goals, even if their research fields differed. This explains the exceptional success of his team and its extraordinarily friendly atmosphere. Throughout his life as a researcher, he encouraged the cre­ation of a seminar to study Ottoman documents, initiating the following gene­rations of specialists on the Ottoman Empire. His nat­ural ­curiosity and the vicissitudes that marred access to the Istanbul archives led him to multiply the resources on these subjects in Bulgaria, Greece, Venice, Rome, and Nantes. Over the last ten years, he thus carried out research with a small Franco-Greek team on the rich archives of the Monastery of Saint-John in Patmos. With his research companions, he led collective work on the history of Sufi brotherhoods and of death in the Ottoman Empire, a particularly innovative subject.

9Subsequent to an unfortunate interview with Bernard Lewis in Le Monde in 1993, which marginally addressed the issue of the 1915 Armenian genocide and cost the American academic a legal conviction, Gilles Veinstein defended the great Islamologist, venturing somewhat imprudently into a chrono­lo­gical area with which he was not fully familiar. While he could not be sued for taking a stand, he was harassed by militants of the Armenian cause for several years. It even jeopardized his election at the Collège de France for some time. All those close to him know how wounded he was by this painful affair.

10It was with his teaching at the Collège de France, from 1999 onwards, that he reached his intellectual maturity. Owing to his intimate knowledge of Ottoman archives, he went far beyond mere eru­dition, discussing the spirit of the institutions and constantly relying on solid points of reference. He started by discussing the nature of the Ottoman sultanate and caliphate, clarifying the history of the dynasty and of the institutions linked to it. These first four years of lectures coincided with the publication, with Nicolas Vatin, of the great book Le sérail ébranlé in 2003. This was an essay on the deaths, depositions and accessions of sultans; a synthesis based on the systematic reading of Ottoman chronicles. It dealt with the history of death in Islamic land as much as that of the complex management of successions to try and avoid wars between the heirs of the deceased sovereign. The whole question of the nature of power was thus raised.

11The following five years were devoted to the relations between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, and to the fact that the Empire was largely a European power integrated into the Christian powers’ complex systems of alliance. In parallel, he wrote the part dedicated to the modern era in the book on Europe and Islam, in collaboration with John Tolan and myself.

12In 2008/2009, Gilles Veinstein undertook a major synthesis on the “slaves of the Ottoman Porte”, that is to say, the Empire’s ruling class. When he received the Légion d’honneur in 2010, he stated with melancholy that to him the honour meant that he had entered the autumn of his life. A few months later, the illness that took his life was revealed. His state of fatigue did not allow him to carry on working despite moments of remission; hence his decision to take early retirement. He died on 5 February 2013.

13Listening to one of Gilles Veinstein’s lectures was an intellectual pleasure. One had the impression of witnessing a real police investigation, as he always started from available documents, and then, by a process of elimination, arrived at a magnificent synthesis. While he wrote little in the lines of large books, he provided far more in a few pages than many highly repetitive books could. He was highly cultured and made moderate use of comparison with other times and places. He facilitated extensive collective work and was a great master, in every senses of the word.

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Légende Prof. Gilles Veinstein, Chair of Turkish and Ottoman History from 1999 to 2012
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Référence électronique

Henry LAURENS, « Tribute to Gilles Veinstein », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 12 août 2015, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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