Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt: Female Adolescence, Jewish Law, and Ordinary Culture

Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt: Female Adolescence, Jewish Law, and Ordinary Culture

by Eve Krakowski


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Much of what we know about life in the medieval Islamic Middle East comes from texts written to impart religious ideals or to chronicle the movements of great men. How did women participate in the societies these texts describe? What about non-Muslims, whose own religious traditions descended partly from pre-Islamic late antiquity?

Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt approaches these questions through Jewish women’s adolescence in Fatimid and Ayyubid Egypt and Syria (c. 969–1250). Using hundreds of everyday papers preserved in the Cairo Geniza, Eve Krakowski follows the lives of girls from different social classes—rich and poor, secluded and physically mobile—as they prepared to marry and become social adults. She argues that the families on whom these girls depended were more varied, fragmented, and fluid than has been thought. Krakowski also suggests a new approach to religious identity in premodern Islamic societies—and to the history of rabbinic Judaism. Through the lens of women’s coming-of-age, she demonstrates that even Jews who faithfully observed rabbinic law did not always understand the world in rabbinic terms. By tracing the fault lines between rabbinic legal practice and its practitioners’ lives, Krakowski explains how rabbinic Judaism adapted to the Islamic Middle Ages.

Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt offers a new way to understand how women took part in premodern Middle Eastern societies, and how families and religious law worked in the medieval Islamic world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691191638
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/19/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Eve Krakowski is assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies and Judaic Studies at Princeton University.

Read an Excerpt


The Family

SOMETIME BETWEEN 1046 and 1090, a woman named Hayfa' bt. Sulayman submitted a petition to an unnamed Jewish official in Fustat. She had arrived in the city alone and friendless, "a feeble stranger" with a two-year-old son in tow, desperately seeking the runaway husband who had deserted her in Jaffa. Rejected by her own relatives ("God knows what I suffered from them and their words"), and finding no help from a brother-in-law in the north Egyptian town of Malij, she told the official that he was her last hope: "I have no one to whom I can turn with my complaint, except God and your honor." She asked him to write on her behalf to a Jewish court in Palestine, where she believed her husband had now returned, to pressure him to either return to her or divorce her — an outcome that would at least permit her to remarry.

This story was not unusual. Geniza documents mention abandoned wives so often that the topic easily deserves a book of its own. Constant mobility meant that many men spent more time apart from their wives than with them. Men traveled for many reasons: business, religious pilgrimage, simple wander-lust, or to evade the poll tax, poverty, debt, and the financial burden of family itself. "I was bankrupted in Alexandria (by debts owed to) Muslims," a man writes from Fustat in an early twelfth-century charity petition; "My children and old mother were starving. I could not bear to sit and watch them in that state, so I fled." For the women that they left behind, the hierarchy of options available to Hayfa' was typical too. Divorce was common, but a Jewish woman could not divorce her husband in his absence. In the meantime, a woman left without adequate means of support could seek help in two arenas: first and ideally, among her birth (and sometimes marital) relatives, or if this failed, from the government, writ small or large — either the class of administrative and legal authorities who ran Jewish courts and synagogues in the Fatimid and Ayyubid empires, or the Fatimid and then Ayyubid states themselves.

The rest of this book attempts partly to trace how Geniza women developed resources, or failed to, as they entered adulthood: to identify the factors in women's early lives that landed some in hopeless situations like the one Hayfa' faced, and that provided others with a range of social, legal, and economic options that she lacked. This chapter and the next introduce the two institutions most visible in her letter, whose particular structure and character are central to much of what will follow: the family and the Jewish community — most importantly, since so many of the documents that I use are legal papers produced by the Rabbanite court of Fustat, the rabbinic legal system.

Patriliny and Its Limits

First, the family. Family ties loom large throughout the Geniza corpus. Geniza letters consistently assume that parents, children, and siblings will remain emotionally attached to one another and materially and socially support each other, and each other's children, throughout their lives. "I have no one but God and you," a widow old enough to have a daughter on the verge of marriage writes to her brother from Tripoli in the 1060s,

May the Creator not deny me the sight of you! All this year, O my brother, I looked for a letter to come from you ... when they told me you were ill, I went out of my mind. I swore not to eat in the daytime nor to change my clothes, nor to enter the bathhouse — neither I nor my daughter — until I received a letter from you.

This intense affective ideal, which far outweighed the love that husbands and wives were expected to feel for each other, may be the most striking aspect of the family relationships described in the Geniza. Passages like this led Goitein to describe Geniza families as cohesive extended patrilineal clans — "the house of the father" bound firmly together by "the bonds of blood."

But stories about women like Hayfa' complicate any attempt to draw a unified picture from these statements of affection. When men died or abandoned their wives and children, what "house of the father" did they leave behind? How constant were the "bonds of blood," and did they matter to all relatives in the same ways, or in equal measure? Much of our evidence suggests that for many people, the answers to these questions were messy and far from obvious. Closer attention to gender complicates matters too. Because women as well as men maintained significant relationships with their own birth relatives, the patrilineal family must have been porous even as an abstract idea: although the formal genealogies preserved in the Geniza exclude women, maternal kinship ties mattered a great deal in social practice.

This chapter seeks to make sense of this counterevidence, by examining how kinship did and did not work to bind Geniza people together, focusing first on demography and then on ideology. The first part of the chapter examines Geniza families on the ground and concludes from the most systematic data available that both households and immediate family groups were more variable and fluid than has been supposed. The second part zooms out to examine Geniza Jews' ideas about kinship more broadly, among extended as well as immediate relatives. It presents a different way of understanding Geniza families — as fluid networks bound together by relationships among individual relatives rather than as predictably structured solidarity groups. I will argue both that Geniza Jews considered family ties centrally important, and that they were not attached to any particular form of household or family structure as ideal. It was the kinship bonds between individual relatives that mattered, not the shape of the broader family group that these bonds produced — a distinction that affected women in particular in crucial ways.


Much of the available Geniza evidence for family demography is anecdotal and impressionistic. But the corpus provides one means to consider family structures somewhat more systematically, through the many marriage agreements that it contains. The Jewish legal record preserved in the Geniza includes some 1,500 to 2,500 texts that document the formation of marriages — both formal marriage contracts (ketubbot) and a range of auxiliary legal deeds and declarations ratifying engagements, betrothals, dower payments, dowry transfers, and individual social and financial agreements between couples and their relatives. Many documents of both types contain three formulae that reveal specific aspects of the couple's family circumstances at the moment they were composed: whether the bride's and groom's fathers were living or deceased; whether the bride was a first-time bride, a widow, or a divorced woman; and whether she had agreed or refused to live with particular relatives immediately after marriage. These clauses illuminate three basic aspects of family and household structure: paternal mortality during a daughter's childhood and adolescence, remarriage, and household formation at marriage.

Among the entire corpus of currently available Geniza marriage documents, I have identified 381 documents that contain at least one of these three formulae. Except for residence stipulations, present in a small subset of these documents, these formulae appear in a given fragment largely by chance; honorifics indicating whether an individual is living or deceased seem to appear idiosyncratically in legal documents in general, whereas clauses identifying the bride as a virgin or nonvirgin, included in all Rabbanite and Karaite ketubbot, appear in extant ketubbot fragments as an accident of preservation. These documents' distribution therefore likely parallels that of the overall corpus of Geniza marriage documents. They describe marriages between couples whose dowries and promised dowers place them within a broad range of socio-economic classes. Most can be readily identified as formally Rabbanite, but asmall percentage are either Karaite legal documents, or they ratify "mixed" marriages involving a Karaite spouse. Finally, while all exhibit paleographic and formulary features typical of the "classical" Geniza period and a bit earlier — roughly between 950 and 1250 — most are only partly preserved; only a slight majority can thus be securely dated. About half of these come from eleventh- and twelfth-century Fustat, with much smaller concentrations from tenth- and eleventh-century Syria, tenth- to thirteenth-century rural Egypt, and eleventh- to thirteenth-century Cairo and Alexandria. (See Figure 1.1 and Table 1.1.)

What can systematic review of these formulae tell us? Like most subcorpora preserved in the Geniza, the documents in which they appear are an inherently uneven evidence base. Unlike census results gathered and preserved in order to keep tabs on the demographic makeup of a given population, Geniza marriage documents were composed for unrelated reasons and preserved as a group by chance, facts that limit their usefulness in several ways. First, they do not yield anything like a global picture of family and household demographics. They provide no usable data at all for many questions fundamental to the study of marriage and family systems, including the prevalence of polygamy; proportions of men and women remaining unmarried; fertility rates; infant mortality; either men's or women's precise ages at marriage, first reproduction, and death; and — because the select data points that they do preserve are frozen at the moment of each couple's marriage — shifts in household composition over time, either significantly before or after a particular marriage was contracted. For this reason, I use the terms family and household here in the broadest possible sense, to denote a) a group of living relatives who viewed their genealogical ties as creating some form of social connection among them; and b) a group of socially connected individuals (mostly relatives, but also nonrelatives such as slaves and household dependents) living together at a given point in time in a shared space, or several contiguous ones, within a building.

Second, the documents' haphazard material preservation makes it impossible to detect precisely how the particular measures that they do preserve may have varied over time or between regions and social classes. As a group, Geniza marriage documents cover a relatively broad chronological and geographic range. But only a fraction are preserved in full; this is largely a corpus of fragments, many undatable and of uncertain provenance. The demographically significant formulae that they contain often appear in bits and pieces, on small scraps of paper that contain little else. Instances of each can be tracked in isolation, but they cannot easily by correlated with each other, nor fully separated into discrete subgroups representative of specific micro-populations.

Geniza marriage documents thus cannot be used like census records (or like the parish registers that historians of early modern Europe have mined for demographic data). What they do offer is something far more basic, but still significant: dispersed and fragmentary as they are, this corpus of documents is the closest we can come to a representative record of the Jewish populations of Fatimid and Ayyubid Egypt and Syria. Evidence internal to the corpus itself suggests that Jews of all types were more likely to turn to Jewish courts to document their marriages than any other type of transaction, personal or economic. This widespread use of Jewish marriage documents means that they likely constitute the single most widely diffused and characteristic body of papers available in the Geniza. They preserve data about couples from a broad range of economic strata, as suggested by the wildly ranging values of the financial arrangements that they ratify. And while the corpus as a whole tilts toward the urban Rabbanite population of eleventh- and twelfth-century Egypt, particularly Fustat, it also preserves trace evidence of marriages in rural tenth-century Egypt; among eleventh-and twelfth-century Egyptian Karaite Jews; and among both Rabbanite and Karaite Jews in parts of the tenth- and eleventh-century Levant, most notably Jerusalem and coastal Syria.

Grouping these documents by period and region provides a crude test of their overall coherence, while considering them together permits the use of undatable documents, yielding a larger sample than would otherwise be accessible. In what follows, I use these contracts as a basic measure of variety, which capture certain fundamental features defining and limiting family networks and households within the broadly defined population that they document. (In Chapter 6, I will use a similar, overlapping corpus of marriage document formulae to examine the closely related question of endogamy.)



Whatever forms of marriage, family, and household a society may aspire to, death complicates them in practice. Precise mortality rates in the medieval Middle East remain generally unknown. But documents containing the first of our three formulae demonstrate that for the populations documented in the Geniza, they were high enough to constrain families and households significantly. Scribes writing in Judeo-Arabic often marked individuals' names with one of two possible Hebrew honorifics identifying them as living or dead: s"t, for sofo tov ("may his end be good") in the former case, and n"'e, for nuho 'eden ("may he rest in Eden") in the latter. These markers appear in Geniza material of all kinds, both legal and nonlegal, including many marriage documents. One group of texts in which they appear is especially important: legal documents composed for a woman entering first marriage. As far as we can tell, most women married by their early twenties; many married earlier, in their early or mid-teens. A central argument of the following chapters will be that first marriage acted as a major watershed in women's early lives, ushering them into economic and social adulthood. When a first-time bride's marriage documents add one of these markers to her father's name, given alongside her own as her patronymic, they reveal whether he was still living by the time she had reached this crucial turning point.

Seventy-eight of these 381 documents identify a first-time bride's father as either living or dead. As a whole, they include a remarkably high proportion of women orphaned from their fathers before first marriage: 31, a full 40 percent, mark the bride's father as dead. While this sample is relatively small, it is internally consistent across time and place. Because it contains relatively many complete or largely preserved documents — as each must be well-preserved enough to include both the bride's patronymic and a clause identifying her as previously unmarried — an unusual majority (72 percent) can be securely dated. Among these datable documents, subgroups from each century between the tenth and the twelfth yield very roughly similar ratios: in documents from the tenth century, 40 percent of brides' fathers are marked as deceased, as are 33 percent from the eleventh century and 52 percent from the twelfth. The ratio from the thirteenth century (to 1250 only) is relatively lower: 25 percent. (See Figure 1.2.)

By the time they formally or informally contracted a first marriage, close to half the women who appear in this corpus thus no longer had a living father. This finding does not effectively capture much about male mortality itself, since many men married and produced sets of children several times across their lifetimes. But it provides a striking measure of mortality's effects on family coherence, demonstrating how often men (and by extension, other relatives too) died before their children — both daughters and sons, who generally reached full social maturity later than their sisters — had become socially adult.

Not only death disrupted households and family networks; both were also subject to social upheavals, most visibly through disrupted marriages. Geniza letters and legal documents alike routinely describe men socially or physically estranged from their wives, spouses renegotiating their marital obligations, and above all, divorce. Bills of divorce themselves are one of the most common genres of Geniza documents.

These texts create a strong impression that marriage among Geniza Jews was a volatile and often temporary arrangement. But this impression is difficult to quantify. Few of the Geniza documents that mention divorce and marital strife map neatly onto those recording the formation of marriages; we have no way to know how many marriages actually ended in divorce or separation, nor to calculate precisely how either outcome affected family groups more broadly. However, the second of our formulae offers a point of entry to both questions, by suggesting the frequency of remarriage — specifically, the proportion of women documented in the Geniza who married more than once over the course of their lifetimes.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Technical Notes xiii

Abbreviations xv

Introduction 1


Chapter 1 The Family 35

Chapter 2 The Courts and the Law 68


Chapter 3 A Ripened Fig: Age at First Marriage 113

Chapter 4 The Economics of Female Adolescence 142

Chapter 5 A Virgin in Her Father’s House: Modesty, Mobility, and Social Control 181


Chapter 6 Marriage Choices 209

Chapter 7 Defining Marriage: Legal Agreements and Their Uses 241

Chapter 8 In the Marital Household 265

Conclusion 294

Bibliography 305

Index of Geniza Documents Cited 331

Index of Jewish and Islamic Texts Cited 340

General Index 344

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This brilliant and elegantly written book makes full use of Geniza texts in remarkably new ways. Eve Krakowski's exploration of Jewish girls’ coming-of-age is told through a rich tapestry of stories in which rabbinic norms of maturation and first marriage are displayed against a background of Middle Eastern and Islamicate values."—Mark R. Cohen, author of Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World

"This breathtaking triumph of research and synthesis brings to life the young Jewish women who inhabited the medieval Islamic world. From documents preserved in the Cairo Geniza, a synagogue depository of discarded writings, Eve Krakowski follows Jewish girls on the cusp of adulthood and explores the complex ties that existed between religious traditions and social reality. An extraordinary achievement by a rising star."—Ivan G. Marcus, Yale University

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