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International Women’s Day 2022: Stories of Women and War

L-G Misc. 35
L-G Misc. 35 (recto): letter from a woman refugee in Tripoli, ca, 1070s.
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Tue 8 Mar 2022

In the Middle Ages, just like today, women face particular challenges when war arrives on their doorstep, and the Genizah has preserved unique testaments to the experiences of some of these women. Many, of course, found themselves refugees, arriving in a new city and dependent either on family or on the generosity of the local Jewish community. Women’s appeals to the community and the charitable disbursements made from public funds are perhaps where the plights of women fleeing war are most visible in the Genizah. That may be due to the circumstantial survival of documentation of this nature, as community records from Fustat’s Heqdesh (charitable foundation) would have been more likely to make their way into the nearby Genizah chamber. As Mark Cohen suggests (Voice of the Poor, p. 69), it may also be because women in difficult circumstances were more accustomed to turning towards Jewish officialdom for support rather than turning to a man outside their own family, unless that man held an official function. Men in similar situations would presumably face less of a modesty barrier and could appeal to other men directly.

The woman who appealed to Fustat’s compassionate Jews in ENA 4020.62 drew on biblical exhortations to charity before describing her life as a captive freed from the Crusaders, wandering from town to town in search of support. She has just arrived in Fustat from a small town in the Egyptian Delta, and has a young child to care for.

…“Thus says the Lord: Do justice and deeds of charity, for my salvation is near to come and my charity to be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1). “Blessed are those who do justice and deeds of charity at all times” (Psalm 106:3).  I inform the holy congregation – may God enhance its splendor – that I am a woman who was taken captive in the land of Israel. I arrived here this week from Sunbat “naked,” with no blanket and no sleeping carpet. With me is a little boy and I have no means of sustenance. I beseech now God the exalted and beseech the congregation – may you be blessed – to do with me what is proper to be done with any wayfarer.  [transl. Mark Cohen, Voice of the Poor, p. 69]

Younger women without children probably faced pressure to resolve their situation by marrying quickly. For the woman described in T-S 8K13.11, war – in this case the Mamluk capture of Acre in 1291 – meant sexual slavery at the hands of her captors, until her ransom was paid by an Egyptian Jew. He waited 90 days to ensure she was not pregnant by her rapists, and then offered to take her on as a second wife.

There have passed, since she left the gentile captor’s jurisdiction until now, more than 90 full days. ...The bride... , the noble, the eminent, who is of age, whose virginity was lost, because she was taken captive by the gentiles with the women of Israel, who were taken captive from Acre, a little time ago… [transl. M.A. Friedman, “Women in Captivity and Their Ransom during the Crusader Period,” in Cross Cultural Convergences in the Crusader Period: Essays Presented to Aryeh Grabois on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Michael Goodich, Sophia Menache, and Sylvia Schein (New York, 1995), 60–63]

For the self-described ‘luckless young woman’ in L-G Misc. 35, the actions of her husband may have put assistance from the community leadership out of reach. In this letter to relatives in Egypt, a Jerusalemite woman writes about her escape from Jerusalem after it was attacked by Seljuk Turks in the 1070s. Her husband had been a prominent figure in the court of the Nagid Judah ben Saadya, Head of the Jews in Fatimid lands, and she would have been accustomed to a certain standard of living but she is now destitute and starving ‘having witnessed much bloodshed and experienced everything terrible’. She envies captives, because they are at least fed by their captors.

I was with him on the day I saw them killed in terrible fashion… I am an ill woman on the brink of insanity, on top of the hunger of my family and the little girl who are all with me, and the horrid news I heard about my son… As far as I am concerned, by our religion, it is better to be captured by the Rum, for the prisoners find someone who gives them food and drink, but I, by our religion, am completely without clothing, and I and my children are starving... [transl. S.D. Goitein]

It seems that the family first arrived in Tripoli and were welcomed by a relative of her husband’s, but they fell out after her husband tried to sue his benefactor for a share in an inheritance. Her husband has now vanished while participating in some sort of mission with a Muslim official, and she is alone with her young children. In other circumstances she might have sought the support of the Nagid himself, but her husband’s relationship with the Nagid had soured before his disappearance, and she now expects that not only will the Nagid not come to her aid but that he will even visit on her the iniquities committed by her husband. Money raised from pawning a chest of books is now used up and due to her husband’s ability to damage every useful relationship, her only hope is to write to relatives in Egypt and issue a desperate, though dignified, plea for assistance. The letter reached Egypt by ship, but we may never know if a reply came in time.  

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