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Decline and Traditional Reform, Nature of the Decline

Battle of Lepanto, subject class, high birth rate, Holy Roman emperor, Christian Europe

Until the mid-16th century the sultans had controlled and used both the old Turkish aristocracy and the devshirme Christian converts and their descendants by carefully balancing and playing them off against each other. During Suleiman’s reign, however, the devshirme achieved control, drove the Turkish aristocracy out of the ruling class, and then began to exploit the state for their own advantage. At the same time, the empire began to suffer from overpopulation, resulting from the peace and security that had been established. A high birth rate eventually resulted in both urban and rural unemployment, due to the limited availability of land and to highly restrictive economic policies enforced by the urban guilds. Without jobs, the oppressed masses formed robber bands that infested town and country alike. With incompetent, dishonest, and inefficient government by the ruling class, lands fell out of cultivation, the empire suffered from endemic famine and disease, and entire districts—sometimes entire provinces—fell under the control of provincial notables. The subject class suffered a good deal but was protected from the worst effects of the anarchy by the millets and guilds, which formed a substratum of society, taking over the functions of government when needed. At the same time, Europe was developing nation-states that were far more powerful than those that had faced the Ottoman Empire in earlier centuries.

Ottoman reaction to the decline was tempered for several reasons: First, Europe was so involved in its own affairs that for at least a century it was unaware of the Ottoman situation and made no effort to take advantage of it. Second, most members of the ruling class benefited from the chaos, for it enabled them to retain huge profits for themselves. Finally, the Ottomans in their isolation were unaware of the changes that had made Europe far more powerful than before. They assumed that the Islamic world was still more advanced than Christian Europe. Under these conditions, the ruling class saw no need for change or reform.

After a time, however, Europe began to realize the extent of internal Ottoman decay and to take advantage of it. In 1571 the Holy League fleet, led by John of Austria, moved into the eastern Mediterranean and destroyed the Ottoman fleet in the Battle of Lepanto. The victory was counteracted by the building of an entirely new fleet, and the Ottomans resumed their naval control in the Mediterranean for another half century. Nonetheless, the impression began to spread in Europe that the Ottomans were not invincible. War with Austria followed (1593-1606), leading the sultan to recognize the Holy Roman emperor as an equal and to give up his insistence on annual Austrian payments of tribute—a fact that further opened Europe’s eyes to Ottoman decline.

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