How the Turks made Europe safe for capitalism

"Luther and Suleyman": An economist feeds the Ottoman Empire into his calculator and "proves" a historical hypothesis.

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 2, 2007 8:12PM (EDT)

Imagine if the great 18th century historian Edward Gibbon had attempted to prove his thesis that Christianity was responsible for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire by performing a regression analysis to see whether there was a statistically significant correlation between flare-ups of the Arian heresy and assassinations of the emperor by his Praetorian guard.

Just possibly, the epic work of history would have been a little less riveting to read (although it's probably fair to say that the crucial chapter discussing the difference between homoousianism and homoiousianism would have been no less incomprehensible if packed with scores of mathematical equations.)

But those of us who can't handle the math, just skip to the conclusions. That's my recommendation, anyway, for an intriguing new paper, "Luther and Suleyman" -- an exploration by University of Colorado economist Murat Iguyun of whether there is any empirical support for the argument that the military threat to Europe posed by the advance of the Ottoman Empire made Europe safe for Protestantism, and ultimately, capitalist economic development.

The basic argument is not new in historical circles. The theory is that the incursions of the Ottoman Empire -- all the way to the gates of Vienna! -- forced European principalities to stop squabbling against each other and join forces against a common enemy. This is supposed to have had a huge impact on the ability of fledgling Protestantism to survive the bloody Counter-Reformation. Even mighty Catholic potentates like Charles V and the King of the Hapsburgs Ferdinand I were forced to grant concessions to German Protestants in order to gain their help in fighting off the Turk.

Iguyun crunches data compiled on European wars in the "Conflict Catalog" assembled by Georgia Institute of Technology researcher Peter Brecke, and concludes that yes, it's true, when the Ottomans were on the move, intramural wars in Europe declined.

Or, to be bone-crushingly specific: additional Ottoman military engagement in Europe lowered the number of intra-European conflicts by roughly .389. Given that the average number of intra-European violent confrontations was about 1.5 per annum, this implies that Ottoman military activities in continental Europe reduced intra-European violent engagements over the same period by roughly 22 percent... Given that the average number of running feuds between the Catholics and Protestants was about .570, in any given year, an Ottoman military conquest in the Balkans or Eastern Europe reduced that number anywhere between roughly more than 25 percent ... and slightly below 40 percent...

Like I said, unless you're an economist, you can safely ignore the part where Iguyun runs the numbers. But the larger questions he addresses are fascinating. Whether or not Protestantism was itself responsible for the rise of capitalism, as hypothesized by Max Weber, is a point that has been hotly debated over the years. Iguyun concedes this. But what he does suggest, convincingly, is "that the acceptance and spread of Protestantism in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries ended the millennium-and-a-half long ecclesiastical monopoly of Catholicism in Western Europe" and thus laid the groundwork for a more pluralistic society in which individuals were free to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams in any fashion they pleased.

My main emphasis here is that, in the 15th and 16th century Europe, the Catholic ecclesiastical order left room for a desire for less involvement in material life and greater accountability, which the survival and spread of the Protestant Reforms helped to instigate and sustain.

Harvard development economist Dani Rodrik, himself of Turkish descent, pointed out Iguyun's paper in his own consistently excellent blog, observing impishly that "you would think the [European Union] would be a bit more hospitable to Turkey's membership aspirations," given the Ottoman Empire's crucial contribution to Europe's economic development. That seems unlikely, but it does raise an entirely different question. If the military threat from the Turks at least temporarily staunched internecine war between Catholic and Protestant, maybe the world today needs a similar external menace to reduce "clash of civilization" tensions between Islam and the West.

Giant robots from outer space, perhaps?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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