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Cultivators, creditors and the state: Rural indebtedness in the nineteenth century Ottoman empire

Although the existence of rural indebtedness in the Ottoman empire in the nineteenth century and some of its consequences are well known, information about the grassroots structure and causes of indebtedness and the structure of debt relationships is limited. This article explores rural collective indebtedness using two debt registers from the districts of Mihalic and Kirmast in western Anatolia. By placing these within a broader theoretical and historiographic context, it challenges the conventional notion that the Ottoman state generally strived to protect the peasantry from the detrimental effects of indebtedness. It is argued that the official approach was determined by two interrelated facts: the structure of the ruling class at the time was unstable, and its new components were drawn from wealthy elements who themselves engaged in money lending. For this reason, the attitude of the Ottoman state to rural indebtedness was largely one of indifference, and such interventions as did occur were rare and ineffective.