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Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders

Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders

by S. D. Goitein

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Modern international business has its origins in the overseas trade of the Middle Ages. Of the various communities active in trade in the Islamic countries at that time, records of only the Jewish community survive. Thousands of documents were preserved in the Cairo Geniza, a lumber room attached to the synagogue where discarded writings containing the name of God


Modern international business has its origins in the overseas trade of the Middle Ages. Of the various communities active in trade in the Islamic countries at that time, records of only the Jewish community survive. Thousands of documents were preserved in the Cairo Geniza, a lumber room attached to the synagogue where discarded writings containing the name of God were deposited to preserve them from desecration. From them Professor Goitein has selected eighty letters that provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of the medieval Jewish traders.

As the letters vividly illustrate, international trade depended on a network of personal relationships and mutual confidence. Organization was largely through partnerships, based usually on ties of common religion but often reinforced by family connections. Sometimes the partners of Jews were Christians or Muslims, and the letters show these merchants working together in greater harmony than has been thought, even in partnerships that lasted through generations. The services rendered to a friend or partner and those expected from him were great, and the book opens with an angry letter from a merchant who believed he had been let down by his friend.

The life of a trader was full of dangers, as the letter describing a shipwreck illustrates, and put great strain on personal relationships. One of the most moving letters is that written to his wife by a man absent in India for many years while endeavoring to make the family's fortunes. Although never ceasing to love her and longing to be with her, he offers to divorce her if she feels she can wait for him no longer. A decisive event in the life of the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, was the death of his brother David, who drowned in the Indian Ocean. Printed here is the last letter David wrote, describing his safe crossing of the desert and announcing his intention to go on to India, against his brother's instructions.

Professor Goitein has provided an introduction and notes for each letter, and a general introduction describing the social and spiritual world of the writers, the organization of overseas trade in the Middle Ages, and the goods traded. The letters demonstrate that although it reached from Spain to India, the traders' world was a cohesive one through which these men could move freely and always feel at home.

Originally published in 1974.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders

By S. D. Goitein


Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05212-0



I. Provenance and present whereabouts of the letters translated

Anyone looking at the title of this book will be tempted to ask: Why Jewish? Why should we single out one of several communities active in the trade of the Islamic countries during the High Middle Ages? The answer is simple: From that world and that period, only the letters and other papers of Jewish overseas traders have thus far been found. Their preservation was due to very special circumstances.

All the letters translated in this volume were originally found in the so-called Cairo Geniza. Geniza (pronounced gueneeza) is a place where discarded writings on which the name of God was or might have been written were deposited in order to preserve them from desecration. This pious precaution was a general Middle Eastern custom, shared by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But only the Jews seem to have developed the practice of burying their sacred writings no longer in use, a custom still widely observed.

Most of the papers of the Cairo Geniza were preserved in a room specifically set aside for that purpose and attached to a synagogue. Hundreds of thousands of leaves have been saved, mostly of religious, or otherwise literary, character. Unlike other genizas, however, the Cairo Geniza also comprises a huge quantity of writings of a purely secular character, such as official, business, learned, and private correspondence, court records, contracts and other legal documents, accounts, bills of lading, prescriptions, etc. Since only discarded writings were thrown into the Geniza room, it is natural that most of the material is fragmentary. Still, the number of writings extant in their entirety, or at least forming meaningful units, is considerable. I estimate that about 1,200 more or less complete business letters have been preserved and identified as such by me. Thus, the eighty letters presented in this volume contain about seven percent of the total. I do not claim at all that the pieces chosen here are uniquely representative. Alongside items of special interest, others of a more humdrum character have been translated. Another author might have selected another eighty pieces equally apt to illustrate the mercantile world of the medieval society of the Arabic speaking Mediterranean area.

The appellation Cairo Geniza needs some qualification. The city of Cairo was founded by a Fatimid caliph in the year 969 when Egypt was conquered by his troops. The ancient capital of Islamic Egypt (al-)Fustat, sometimes inaccurately referred to as Old Cairo, was situated about two-and-a-half miles south of the new foundation and remained the economic center of the country throughout the eleventh and the first half of the twelfth century. This is precisely the period in which most of our letters were written, as is evident from this breakdown:


Letters from the eleventh century
(may include last decade of the tenth)
nos. 1-5, 11-36, 63-67, 69-73, 74' 77 43

Twelfth century
(may include last decade of the eleventh century)
nos. 6, 7, 9, 37-42, 48-60, 68, 75, 79 25

Thirteenth century
(includes one item from the end of the twelfth)
nos. 8,10, 43-47, 61, 62, 76, 78, 80 12

The synagogue with the Geniza chamber was that of the "Jerusalemites" or "Palestinians," that is, the ancient, pre-Islamic congregation of Fustat, which adhered to the rites and customs of the Jews of Palestine. The immigrants from Iran and Iraq, referred to as "Iraqians" or "Babylonians," possessed another place of worship, originally a church, which they had purchased from the Coptic Patriarch in 882.1 A third Jewish community of Fustat was that of the Karaites, a dissident sect recognizing the sole authority of the Bible and repudiating that of the "Rabbis" of the Talmud, the post-biblical writings sacred to the main body of Jews who were referred to as "Rabbanites." In the eleventh century the Karaites were very prominent in commerce and banking, as well as in the government bureaucracy and medicine, but, naturally, they had no reason to deposit their discarded writings in a Rabbanite place of worship. Still, some interesting items addressed to Karaites found their way into the Geniza, as for example, nos. n and 69, and there are many references to them throughout. (See index, s.v. Karaites and Tustaris.)

At least twenty out of the eighty items included in this volume were addressed to places other than the capital of Egypt. As the title of this publication and selections 1-10 indicate, the letters originated in practically all Islamic countries extending from Spain and Morocco in the West to India in the East. Letters with a destination other than Cairo-Fustat reached the Geniza for a great variety of reasons, but mostly because the recipients had traveled there.

As a rule, business letters from the area and the period covered by this book were written in Arabic. This was not classical Arabic, nor simply a vernacular, but a semiliterary language of rather regular usage and considerable expressiveness. Jews wrote this language with Hebrew characters. Since everyone had learned Hebrew as a little boy while attending school, where Bible-reading was the main subject of study, all were familiar with Hebrew letters, while the far more difficult Arabic script had to be practiced with a private tutor. Moreover, the writers often interspersed their Arabic text with Hebrew words and phrases. Needless to say, the better merchants were fluent in the Arabic script as well, as we see from the addresses which are often in Arabic characters, or from express references, as in no. 9. Selection no. 62, a letter to a qadi, or Muslim judge, is, of course, in Arabic characters, while no. 3 is in the Hebrew language, because its writer was an Italian, and not an Arabic-speaking, Jew.

The treasures of the Cairo Geniza became known to the scholarly world (and to antiquity dealers) shortly before 1890, when the time-honored synagogue of the Palestinians was pulled down and replaced by another building. Libraries and private collectors in Europe and America acquired considerable quantities of the documents found there. Finally, in 1897, Solomon Schechter, then Lecturer of Rabbinics at the University of Cambridge, England, with the assistance of Dr. Charles Taylor of St. John's College, succeeded in removing the total remaining content of the Geniza chamber to the University Library, Cambridge. The Taylor-Schechter Collection now contains perhaps three times as much as all the other Geniza collections taken together. Other important collections represented in this volume are those of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the British Museum, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, Dropsie University, Philadelphia, the David Kaufmann Collection, Budapest, Hungary, and the private Mosseri Collection. There are a dozen other collections, almost all of which contain material suitable for this volume.

2. The traders' world

With a few exceptions, this book is confined to letters, including accounts which used to form parts of letters. Naturally, a great variety of papers others than letters dealt with commerce, such as legal documents issued at the conclusion or the dissolution of a partnership, the granting or payment of a loan, the sale of a house, a slave, or a book, or any other transaction for which written statements used to be made. Court records connected with commerce are another extremely frequent type of document found in the Geniza. In this volume, I wished to present the subjective aspect of trade, trade as seen by the people who were engaged in it, and this is most directly expressed in their letters.

Because of the general insecurity and the slowness of communications, international trade was largely dependent on personal relationships and mutual confidence. A man shipping goods overseas normally had to wait months before he could know what happened to them. He had to rely on his friends in the country of destination for the proper handling of his affairs. Mostly, although by no means exclusively, friends were chosen from one's own religious community. This was natural under medieval conditions. The clubhouse of the Middle Ages where one met one's peers daily, or, at least, regularly, was the mosque, the church, or the synagogue. A Spanish Jew traveling to India would pray in the synagogues of each of the larger cities of Sicily, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, and thus become personally acquainted with everyone who counted. Thus, coreligionists became natural business friends. The religious community functioned like an extended family. The few longer Arabic business letters on papyrus from the ninth and tenth centuries (which have been edited by A. Grohmann, D. S. Margoliouth, and A. Dietrich) were also exchanged between members of the same religious community, either Christians or Muslims.

Religion was conducive not only to the formadon of business relationships, but also to their proper conduct. Again and again a man's piety and fear of God are invoked when he is reminded to adhere to good business practices or when he is praised for his excellent handling of his friends' affairs.

The modern reader is inclined to regard the continuous references to God in these letters as a mere façon de parler. This is not the case. God was conceived as the creator of all that happened in nature and in human life, including man's thoughts, decisions, and actions. He was, so to say, the most active substance in the physical world. Therefore, keeping him constantly in mind and mouth was the most practical thing a good businessman could do.

Moreover, man's very limited ability to defend himself against the whims of nature, such as storms at sea, famines, epidemics, and other cases of illness, as well as his helplessness in the face of a ruthless government or the constant menaces of piracy and war developed in him a feeling that he was not the master of his own destiny, that he was delivered into the hands of a higher power. "Fate," albeit not absent from our letters, occurs in them rarely. God, the personal God, served the purpose better; he was a friend and father, with whom one conversed in prayer at least seven times a day; he knew one's innermost thoughts and most secret deeds, and one could always find a little, or not so little, sin, for which one was punished when something went wrong. All the good came from God and "he who hopes for the good will obtain it; God does not break his promise" (no. 32). Hence the astounding equanimity apparent in many Geniza letters and the generally optimistic approach to life displayed in them despite frequently dire living conditions. Religion was undoubtedly the strongest element in a merchant's mental makeup, and religion meant membership in a specific religious community.

Trading, naturally, was interdenominational and international. Several letters of this volume make mention of non-Jewish business friends and even partners. The trade with Christian Europe was largely responsible for the flourishing state of the mercantile communities on the southern shores of the Mediterranean during the eleventh century, as shown in Med. Soc. 1, 44-47, where it is emphasized, however, that this trade was in the hands of Christian, not Jewish, merchants. Consequently, this exchange with Christian Europe is reflected in this collection mainly by indirect reference. Number 4, a letter from Amalfi, Italy, is the only example from the eleventh century of Arabic-speaking Jewish merchants doing business in a Christian port of Europe; there is none from the twelfth; and again only one, no. 8, this time concerning Genoa and Marseilles, from the thirteenth century. An important element of mutual understanding was the fact that the business ethics of the three monotheistic religions were essentially identical, although individual writers formulated them differently in their own original fashion.

Besides the barriers of religion there existed the dividing lines of economic position and social class and sometimes it appears that the latter were stronger than the former. The reader of this volume will quickly acquire a feeling for the social position of a writer, namely, whether he addresses an equal or a person of a higher or lower state than his own. In practically every letter the recipient is wished that God may preserve his "honored position" (Arabic 'izz). For "man's fate depends on his place in society."

Yet a spirit of equality pervaded that highly differentiated world. The way in which a former slave addresses a merchant prince and great communal leader (no. 13) is characteristic in this respect. The root of such brotherly attitude was again religion: one feared the same God, who was very near to all his children, high and low, and frequented the same place of worship, which was usually of limited size. Moreover, in both Judaism and Islam, scholarship conferred social prestige. A learned middle-class merchant — a rather common phenomenon — ranked as high in society as a rich and powerful supplier of the court. It seems also that the long months spent together in foreign parts on perilous voyages brought people close together, for "strangers are kinsmen to one another" (n. 78).

As is evident from the content of several of the letters translated below, some of their authors were learned persons, and some, such as Nahray (ch. iv), Abraham Yiju (nos. 38, 39, 40), and Halfon b. Nethanel (no. 59) were scholars. Besides biblical studies and, of course, the command of Hebrew (including Aramaic, the language in which a large section of the post-biblical Jewish literature is written), they were versed in Jewish law and lore, as is evident from the legal opinions which they wrote on the reverse sides of business letters received by them. This vast body of writings was studied first "for Heaven's sake," that is, because study was worship, but also for practical reasons: one studied the law because it was applied in life, and attorneys, who take care of these matters in our own time, were practically unknown in those days. In addition, Abraham Yiju was a poet, or rather, a maker of verses, and Half d? a connoisseur in several fields, such as poetry, philosophy, and some of the sciences.

Islam, as already alluded to in passing, took a similar attitude toward learning and the learned; the learned merchant has indeed been described as the bearer of medieval Islamic civilization. I wonder, however, whether this was not a more general medieval phenomenon. In the thirteenth century Norwegian King's Mirror, a young man who wished to become an overseas trader instead of joining the service of the king, received this advice from his father — among many other instructions: "Finally, remember this, that whenever you have an hour to spare you should give thought to your studies, especially to the law books; for it is clear that those who gain knowledge from books have keener wits than others, since those who are the most learned have the best proofs for their knowledge."

There was very little contact between the world of the traders and that of the government and the army. The top merchants who acted as suppliers to the court naturally were close to the ruling circles, such as the recipients of nos. ? and u or the writer of no. 12. The government provided naval escorts as a protection against pirates and enemy attack, as in nos. 69-70, which were, however, often ineffective, as proved by nos. 9 and 73. Syria was notorious for its lawlessness, and the caravans had to be protected by special guards paid by the merchants (no. 16, sec. A). Customs dues were not particularly oppressive. Complaints appear only in the times of political decline, as at the end of Almoravid rule in Morocco (no. 7), in disorderly Yemen (no. 43), or in later Ayyubid times in Egypt (no. 8, sec. B).


Excerpted from Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders by S. D. Goitein. Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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