Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt

Female Adolescence, Jewish Law, and Ordinary Culture

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Eve Krakowski
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , December
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The texts from the Cairo Geniza, a depository for old documents which it was Jewish custom not to discard, provide more information about non-elite life in Egypt in what Europeanists call the medieval period than do sources from almost anywhere else. However, just as scholars must often piece together the documents themselves from fragments, they must also piece together the history of the community that created them from a collection of materials whose completeness and representativeness will never be entirely known. This corpus is producing some of the most interesting current scholarship on medieval social, religious, and legal history. 

Eve Krakowski’s book presents two main sets of arguments. One is about young women in the Jewish community of Fustat from 993-1250 and their entrance into marriage. The other is about Jewish law and how it was applied, arguing that social and legal norms differed and the law’s form and process had more impact than its content. The two intersect in the claim that the lives of Jewish women were not fundamentally different from those of their Muslim or Christian contemporaries. Very different bodies of law arrived at the same place—for example, the control of a woman’s marriage by her relatives, or the wife’s right to an autonomous household—by different paths. Jews found ways to follow rabbinic law while adapting to local social mores. 

Jewish law allowed a woman who was fully physically mature to act independently of her father, though her father had the right to marry her off before she reached that point. In practice, Krakowski argues, “rather than being defined by young women’s legal agency, the period after puberty stands out in Geniza sources as the point at which young women become socially marriageable” (119). Very few married before legal maturity, and those who did were in inchoate marriages that were consummated only later, even though both Jewish and Muslim law allowed earlier marriage and consummation. But while brides were often legally independent by the time of marriage, they were socially dependent and passive. Besides puberty, the other socially required condition for a marriage was a dowry, some of which women might earn themselves. A large part of women’s interaction with their kin (or at least the documentation of it) deals with this issue. Here too women’s relation to property differed somewhat from prescriptive Jewish law; even women who were legally independent controlled their property in name only until their marriage. Although Jewish law spoke of the seclusion of married women, this was only practiced among the wealthier families, and sexual purity does not seem to have been a huge concern except as a class issue.

Krakowski notes that recent scholarship on Muslim societies has emphasized the bilateral nature of kinship, and places the Jewish experience within that context. Families and households were “extraordinarily varied and prone to constant change,” (12) and not only because of high premodern mortality rates. She suggests that we should think of families not as fixed patrilineal clans, but as patronage networks that had to be chosen and maintained. In other words, “it was the kinship bonds between individual relatives that mattered, not the shape of the broader family group that these bonds produced” (37). Nearly half the women in her sample did not marry until after their fathers’ death, and a large number of women remarried after divorce or widowhood; thus there was a great range of relationships between brides and their kin, not just as daughters living in their father’s house. Endogamy was approved but not common, and when it did take place it was often an attempt to create new bonds rather than a routine result of existing ones. As far as living arrangements were concerned, the chances of a couple living in a household with one or more of their married children were small. This is not just a case of mortality preventing the realization of an ideal; Krakowski suggests that letters seeking assistance from various family members indicate that the clan household was not even an ideal. People were identified according to individual relationships, not their membership in a house. Family ties had to be curated, they did not exist and persist automatically. Whereas men had the opportunity to form networks with non-relatives, for women, kin bonds, though they could be fragile, were the only ones available. 

For a non-specialist, Krakowski’s conclusions about women’s lives are very interesting, but the discussion of law and religious communities in the medieval Middle East is probably the book’s most important aspect. Jews had the option of turning to Islamic courts for various types of cases, and were not punished for doing so, as long as they were not doing it to subvert a decision they had already received from a Jewish court. Jewish courts had little enforcement power. And yet people repeatedly turned to Jewish courts, largely, Krakowski suggests, as a matter of identity and political patronage. The relation of legal documentation to legal principles—a “broadly Islamicate” manner of formulation of documents (101), especially as new forms of documents appeared in the 12th and 13th centuries, coupled with a constant appeal to rabbinic tradition—elucidates the role of documents as “tools of power that reproduced and drew on prevailing ideas about religious law no less than … prescriptive texts” (107). Documents could be used to modify the rules of rabbinic law, but at the same time stipulations influenced by Islamic law were embedded “in a rabbinic framework different from the one they inhabit in Islamic marriage contracts” (255). Krakowski allows the reader to follow her arguments on this issue and on the lives of young women through tracing detailed individual cases, retrieving her subjects’ voices and daily lives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ruth Mazo Karras is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eve Krakowski is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Judaic Studies at Princeton University.


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