A Mediterranean Society:
An Abridgment in One Volume

S.D. Goitein

University of California Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005 http://dannyreviews.com/
The Cairo geniza, a repository of discarded writings attached to one of the synagogues in Fustat (old Cairo), preserved a treasure trove of documents from the 11th to 13th centuries. This was the basis for S.D. Goitein's monumental five volume A Mediterranean Society, here abridged into one volume by Jacob Lassner.

Lasser's foreword offers a mini-biography of Goitein and background on the abridgement. His introduction explains the provenance of the geniza documents and their kinds and forms: Except for literary and religious works, most are in the everyday Arabic of the community, written in Hebrew script.

"By the tenth century, Aramaic was no longer well known, and the Jewish courts began to switch over to Hebrew ... By the end of the eleventh century and throughout the whole of the twelfth, Arabic was used in practically all transactions of the Jewish courts"

Lassner also describes the geography of Fustat, sister city to the newer Cairo, and the historical context: Egypt and the Fatimid dynasty, most obviously, but also the broader Mediterranean and Islamic world.

A Mediterranean Society begins with the leadership of the Jewish community, its provision of social services, and its relations with the state. It then looks at social life, social structure, education, the law, and relations between religions. And it finishes with the family, with marriage, the working of the nuclear family, widowhood, divorce, orphans, polygamy, and the role of women. (Omissions include most of volume one, on economic foundations, and volume four, on the details of everyday life.)

A few extracts may give a feel for this:

"Literary sources give an impression that the poll tax did not represent a heavy economic imposition, since it was to be paid according to a sliding scale ... that was adjusted to the financial means of the taxpayer. But this impression is entirely misleading, for it does not take into account the immense poverty and privation experienced by the larger Jewish community... Jews are depicted in our documents living from hand to mouth and persistently short of cash, all of which turned the 'season of tax' into one of horror, dread, and misery." [page 182]
"The erudition of a Geniza person meant primarily familiarity with sacred Scripture and the law codes, together with their commentaries and all that was connected with them — occasionally the ability to evaluate and write Hebrew poetry as well. In Fatimid times, however, pursuit of the secular sciences did not render one's orthodoxy suspect." [page 201]
"The massive and reliable testimony of the Geniza documents proves that Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in close proximity to one another and to a far greater extent than could have been assumed on the basis of literary sources alone. ... Interfaith cooperation in economic matters was even closer ... we find commercial partnerships between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and even with qadis." [pages 297 and 299]
"Many widowed, divorced, or deserted women lost their struggle for a decent livelihood, if indeed they ever had one. ... To be eligible for public welfare, a person had to be registered; these registrations were frequently checked and changed. ... The lists show that women and men mixed freely while receiving their distributions. This seems to strengthen the surmise that numerous marriage contracts may have been contracts of convenience between indigent old men and women to form a common household." [page 448]

Reflecting the variety of its source material, A Mediterranean Society covers a huge range. It offers some fascinating detail, too, but much of it has clearly been summarised, with the loss of some immediacy: there are relatively few quotations or extracts and no references. The full work is there for those who want more detail, however, and this abridgement to a manageably sized book will make Goitein's work accessible to a much larger audience.

A Mediterranean Society will be essential reading for anyone studying Arab Jews in the classical period, offering a rather different perspective to the works of writers such as Maimonides — and a rather different perspective on Maimonides as well. It also presents much evidence that has no counterpart in Islamic sources, and much that is relevant to medieval Europe.

January 2005

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%T A Mediterranean Society
%S An Abridgment in One Volume
%A Goitein, S.D.
%E Lassner, Jacob
%I University of California Press
%D 1999
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0520240596
%P xxii,503pp