The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza

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 The Voice Of The Poor In The Middle Ages
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Mark R. Cohen
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THE VOICE OF the poor can generally be heard only through records and observations compiled by their literate social superiors, from the tax collector to the inquisitor’s clerk, and from the judge of criminals to the benefactor of the helpless.”1

What the distinguished historian of poverty and charity, Brian Pullan, says about early modern Italy—an observation that holds true for most of premodern European history and for the Islamic world as well—makes the voices of the poor heard in this book almost unique.

Though emanating from one of the marginal groups in world history, the documents translated here help close a much lamented gap in premodern social history, offering intimate insight into an important and central problem in human history.

They present a vivid case study illustrating not only medieval Jewish life but also structural aspects of poverty and charity that are only vaguely visible in the Christian and Islamic pasts.

Compiled for the benefit of students, scholars, and the general reader, the anthology comprises a representative sample (94 in total) of the some 485 let- ters, 315 alms lists, donor lists, and other accounts used in the author’s Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt.2

 That book presents a full analysis and interpretation of those documents, as well as of Maimonides’ contemporaneous laws about charity. The vast majority of the documents are hitherto unpublished and most of them are herewith being made available for the first time in any format.

The letters of the poor, whether written in their own hand or dictated to a scribe or family member, recount a panoply of hardship, suffering, and strategies for obtaining relief. From a somewhat different angle of vision, letters of recommendation on behalf of the poor illustrate, in addition to the plight of the poor, the attitude of the more fortunate members of society toward poverty and its relief.

The alms lists and donor lists show how benevolent Jews fulfilled a time-honored obligation, or misva, in Judaism through public charity. Seemingly rather dry at first glance, these lists take on vibrant life when subjected to the kinds of questions that animate this study. They allow us to hear the voice of the poor, too, although it is a silent voice.

The Cairo Geniza

An ancient Jewish custom with roots in the period of the Mishna (codified 200 c.e.) and Talmud (ca. 200–500 c.e.) prohibits the destruction of pieces of sacred writing—in theory, fragments of the Bible containing God’s name but in practice anything copied or printed in the Hebrew script. These papers must be buried in a geniza (the word geniza means both “burial place” and the act of “burying”). Normally, a geniza is located in a cemetery.

But the Cairo Geniza was special. For various reasons, not fully understood to this day,3 it was situated behind a wall inside the synagogue, the so-called Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), which dates back to the Middle Ages and possibly even to pre- Islamic times.4

This had two fortunate consequences. One, the contents of this Geniza were concentrated in one space and easily accessible, once it was discovered. Two, because Egypt is such an arid country, the pages buried there stood the test of centuries, without molding, so that even when a page is torn or riddled with holes, the ink can be read today almost as clearly as when it was copied, as long as a thousand years ago.

Not well known, the Jewish custom of geniza has its parallel in Islam, mainly for Qur’an fragments but also for other religious literature and even documents from everyday life.5

It has been estimated that the Cairo Geniza contains upward of 210,000 items (shelfmarked fragments) of handwritten text. When individual folios are counted the total rises to around three-quarters of a million.

The vast majority are leaves from books, such as medieval Hebrew poetry, rabbinic fragments, midrashic texts, philosophical works, magical texts, and liturgical fragments (usually pages from prayer books). Surprisingly, the cache also includes a wide variety of individual documents from everyday life, many of which we would call “secular.”

They date mostly from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries and com- prise letters, court records, marriage contracts, deeds of divorce, wills, accounts, book lists, lists of recipients of charity and of gifts for charitable purposes, as well as official documents, such as petitions to be submitted to Muslim authorities (and hence written in Arabic script).

 These individual fragments, which we call the “historical documents” (as opposed to the literary fragments mentioned above) constitute perhaps 5 percent of the Geniza as a whole.

 Though many are in Hebrew or Aramaic, most are written in Judaeo-Arabic, that is, Arabic in He- brew characters and displaying grammatical and syntactic features differenti- ating it from the Arabic of the Qur’an and all other medieval Arabic writings (classical Arabic).

The Geniza also contains fragments from Islamic books, even pages of the Qur’an in Hebrew transcription, signs of the well-known cultural embeddedness of the Jews in Arab-Muslim society of the Middle Ages.

The Jewish documents from the Geniza confirm that the so-called classical Geniza period (eleventh to mid-thirteenth centuries) was one of relatively peaceful coexistence, especially compared to the high Middle Ages in northern Europe.6

 Discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, the contents of the Geniza were dispersed among more than twenty libraries and private collections, from Cincinnati, Ohio, to St. Petersburg, Russia.7

More than one hundred years of research on these fragments have produced more knowledge about Jewish life and literature in the Islamic Middle Ages than can easily be imagined.

 In particular, the historical documents have revealed aspects of economic, social, and family life, as well as of material culture and the mind of the individual, that were previously completely unknown.

The Voice of the Poor in World History

The voice of the poor that we hear in the Geniza documents stands in bold relief on the canvas of the world history of poverty. Sources for antiquity, medieval Christendom, and medieval Islam largely lack it. Roger Bagnall notifies the readers of his lavishly detailed study Egypt in Late Antiquity that “almost all [of the Greek papyrological evidence] comes from the viewpoint of the propertied classes of the cities of Egypt,” and that the Coptic papyri from everyday life, which do not become common until long after the Council of Chalcedon (451), emanate largely from the Christian monasteries.

 “[T]his too is not the viewpoint of the poor.8 The situation does not improve for the period after late antiquity. Historians of poverty in medieval and early modern Europe like Brian Pullan have noted with regret that the materials at their disposal do not include the voices of the indigent masses.

 Assessing, for instance, “the com- plex attitudes and responses that poverty evoked” in medieval Europe, Michel Mollat—to cite one example from among many—laments that the evidence available to him “generally exhibits only one point of view, that of the non- poor casting their gaze upon the poor.”9

Things are no better for the world of Islam. “Given the absence of sources for statements by the poor,” Adam A. Sabra, author of a pioneering book on poverty and charity in Mamluk Cairo, laments, “the ideal task of determining how the poor saw their own fate is next to impossible.”10

In his masterful bibliographical survey of Middle Eastern historical studies, Stephen Humphreys cites the methodological obstacle with regard to the peasantry as a whole (who were not 9 Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New Haven and London, 1986), 2.

 In her study of poverty in medieval Cambridge, Miri Rubin writes “we are usually much better informed about the identity of the giver, the founder, donor or testator, than we are about the recipients.” Charity and Community in Medieval Cambridge (Cam- bridge, 1987), 6.

 Sharon Farmer notes the same deficiency in Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology and the Daily Lives of the Poor (Ithaca and London, 2002), 3–4: “Historians who have focused on the actions and perspectives of propertied members of medieval society have pro- duced numerous studies of hospitals and hospices …; of charitable almsgiving in urban wills; of the attitudes toward the poor.

Occasionally, but not often, studies of hospitals and confraternal charity offer a profile of the recipients of such charity, but the sources left behind by medieval hospitals and confraternities reveal almost nothing about their daily lives.”

 Her book seeks partially to make up for this deficiency with evidence from “testimonies” of poor people claiming to have received a mirac- ulous cure at the shrine of St. Louis. In her study of poverty and welfare in Habsburg Toledo, Linda Martz begins her chapter on the “recipients of relief ” with a confession:

“The bulk of the extant records have to do with the finances of charitable institutions or with the individual who was wealthy enough to make a last will and testament, while the recipients of poor relief remain colourless and vaguely defined individuals in among the mass of humanity known as the poor.”

Poverty and Welfare in Habsburg Spain: The Example of Toledo (Cambridge, 1983), 200. Paul Slack, discussing Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London and New York, 1988), notes (p. 7): “The sources seldom allow the poor to speak for themselves.” The problem persists even at the beginning….

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