Commentary Magazine

A Mediterranean Society, by S. D. Goitein

Medieval Jews

A Mediterranean Society. Volume I: Economic Foundations.
by S. D. Goitein.
University of California Press. 550 pp. $12.95.

Islamic studies were sired by Theology out of Classics, and for long were kept in leading strings. No wonder they have seldom strayed outside such pastures as philology and literature, theology and law, and military and dynastic history, neglecting the diet provided by economic and social history, the history of science and technology, anthropology, and comparative sociology and politics. And no wonder too that the animals are so anemic and incapable of doing an honest day's work. Or that our knowledge of Islamic civilization is so rudimentary, compared not only with Europe and Classical Antiquity but also with China and Japan.

One of the main reasons for these shortcomings has been the paucity of Muslim archival material, that is, with the conspicuous exception of the Ottoman Empire. To take only one example, the absence of censuses or “parish” registers of marriages, births, and deaths means that—again except for the Ottoman period—demographic studies can use only the conjectural data provided by archaeology, travelers’ accounts, and other literary sources, and army and tax lists. The same applies to most fields of economic and social activity.

It is these considerations that make Professor Goitein's study so particularly valuable, since it is based on one of the richest archival sources available on medieval Islam, the Geniza documents. The Geniza was the storehouse attached to the synagogue of Old Cairo into which Jews threw discarded documents bearing the name of God or written in Hebrew script, since to destroy them would have been impious. The existence of the Geniza has been known since 1864, and its contents have been scattered over four continents, but it remained for Professor Goitein to realize its potential value for economic history. The attitude of earlier researchers is well exemplified in a remark appearing in a printed catalogue and quoted by him: “Business letter, and therefore valueless.” Ten years of intensive work in libraries ranging from Leningrad and Jerusalem to Cambridge and New York, and a lifetime devoted to Semitic studies and research on Oriental Jewish communities, have enabled Goitein to make one of the most important contributions to medieval Islamic and Jewish history. The present volume is to be followed by two others, “The Community” and “Daily Life and the Individual,” and by a translation of numerous Geniza texts. In addition there will be a collection of documents on the India trade. When complete, the series will constitute an incomparable mine of information and a rich storehouse of historical interpretation.

The Geniza documents, most of which are written in the Arabic language and Hebrew script, are of the most varied, including wills, deeds, contracts, accounts, bills of lading, inventories, letters, charms, children's exercise books, etc. They originate from, or are addressed to, most of the countries bordering the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean in which Jews lived during the period covered by this book, the High Middle Ages, i.e., 950-1250. Skillfully used by Goitein, they throw a flood of light on the daily life of the medieval Jewish communities in Islamic lands. And since, as Goitein repeatedly stresses, the Jews lived in close proximity to and mingled freely with Muslims and Christian, worked in much the same occupations, including farming, ate the same kinds of food, and wore the same kinds of clothing, the picture he draws is also largely true for the wider world of Mediterranean Islam.

What were the characteristics of this world—more particularly of 11th-century Fatimid Egypt—as revealed in the Geniza? First of all, one is struck by the great degree of laissez-faire, laissez-passer prevailing. “During the High Middle Ages men, goods, money, and books used to travel far and almost without restrictions throughout the Mediterranean area. In many respects, the area resembled a free trade community. The treatment of foreigners, as a rule, was remarkably liberal.” Christians and Jews paid a poll tax, but do not seem to have been otherwise discriminated against. Even in Palestine during the Crusades, in the words of the traveler Ibn Jubayr: “Reciprocity prevails and equal treatment in all respects. The warriors are engaged in their wars, while the people are at ease.”


As is well known, the government let each religious community manage its own affairs, with very little interference, but one is surprised to learn that: “The Islamic injunction that no one should be converted to any religion except Islam was largely disregarded. Many male and female slaves must have been baptized to Judaism.” Similarly, for good or for ill, there was little attempt by the state to carry out an economic policy. Of course the government made its presence felt as the main buyer and seller in the market, often to the detriment of merchants. And then there were taxes—which, however, could not have been too heavy since a sales tax of 2 per cent levied in Alexandria around 1050 provoked the following complaint: “Much was lost from the price of the goods I sold for you in Alexandria, for every damned dinar in Alexandria goes down the drain through a rescript of the government. For every 50 dinars in number they asked from me one dinar. I said to them: ‘One does not make a profit of one dinar on 50.’”

Another characteristic of Islamic society during that period was its fluidity—“halfway between the rigid system of feudalism and the mobility of a free modern society, but nearer to the latter.” For one thing, “slaves certainly formed only a small minority of the population, unlike the situation in imperial Rome.” For another, no rigid form of feudalism, or serfdom, developed—“The lord being the beneficiary rather than the master of the village.” And again and again one is struck by the extent to which Jews, while concentrating on certain occupations, participated in the craft guilds, formed partnerships with Muslims, and generally shared in the economic and social life of their country.

The book is, of course, replete with detailed information on business organization and practice. Division of labor between the crafts seems to have been carried farther than in Rome, or than it was to be in the Middle East in subsequent centuries. The normal unit of production was “a small workshop run by a single craftsman, a family, a clan, or by a number of partners, usually not more than five.” However, both sugar refining and paper making were carried out in large plants, employing many wage earners. In trade a wide variety of forms may be distinguished, including family firms and several types of partnership, in which the parties contributed different shares of capital or work. Accounts were of course kept but “there are no ledgers in the Geniza, no remnants of systematic bookkeeping.” What is more surprising is that during the 11th century “numbers were rendered by Hebrew letters. . . . During the entire Middle Ages numerals were used only by mathematicians in their scientific works, but not by Middle Eastern merchants until they learned the great technical merits of these numerals from the Europeans.”

In so highly monetized an economy, credit was naturally widely used and banking quite extensive. “Business was normally conducted on credit, and to a higher degree, perhaps, than is the case in our own society.” Both Muslims and Jews lent each other money “on fixed interest” and merchants and craftsmen helped one another with interest-free loans. The general shortage of currency, the existence of many different coins in circulation, and the desire to avoid the risks and expense of transferring cash, led to the widespread use of paper, including checks (the word is of Persian origin), bills of exchange, orders of payment, and promissory notes. In this way large sums could be transferred over great distances, along the main trade routes of Islam.

It may be added that the period under study seems to have been one of general price and wage stability. Individual prices, however, fluctuated widely, causing one writer to say: “Prices follow no principle” and another: “The prices are in the hand of God”!

Land transportation was slow, risky, and expensive. “Travelers who did not go on foot used riding beasts. Carriages, so common in the Roman period, had completely disappeared” and were not to return to the Middle East until the very end of the 18th century. Moreover, Sabbath restrictions made it very difficult for Jews to travel in caravans. Hence the bulk of passenger and goods traffic went by sea—perhaps eight thousand merchants a year on the Tunis-Sicily-Egypt route—and generally for long distances, notwithstanding the dangers of shipwreck and piracy. Goitein's calculations show that on the more valuable items, such as cloth, sea freights amounted to only a small fraction of cost. But it should be remembered that in the Muslim, as in the classical, period no ships set sail on the Mediterranean from November through March.

The 10th-11th centuries marked the peak of medieval Islam. By the 12th, seapower in the Mediterranean had passed to the Europeans. The response of the Jews was to shift to the Indian trade. But the continuation of the Crusades exacerbated Muslim feelings. Under the Ayyubids, who succeeded the Fatimids in 1171, an orthodox reaction set in, and government support was given to the Karimi merchants, to the detriment of Jewish trade. Under the Mamluks (1250-1517) there was both economic deterioration and an increase in bigotry, and the Karimis were in turn to be wiped out by government extortion in the 15th century. The Middle East had entered its long decline.

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