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Q&A Wednesday: Betrothals, Fines and Melonie Schmierer-Lee

T-S NS J378
T-S NS J378 (recto)
Ben Outhwaite and Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Wed 2 Jun 2021

So, Mel, tell me what are you working on today?

I’m writing a catalogue entry for T-S NS J378. It’s an easy one to do, because — helpfully — several other people have already translated it: Goitein, Gershon Weiss, and Amir Ashur. We still need a catalogue entry for it, though, for Cambridge Digital Library, so I’m writing that. It’s a betrothal agreement, written by our favourite court scribe, Halfon ben Manasseh. The date isn’t preserved, but because we know Halfon’s handwriting, we can say it is from the first part of the 12th century. 

Is this part of a larger project?

Yes. It’s part of a project to catalogue a certain part of the collection (in particular the NS Js, which are mostly documentary in nature), to write more detailed catalogue entries than we have previously done, and to enrich the metadata of the descriptions so that names, places, and other elements are more easily searchable.

I’m looking at the document. I can see that the betrothed woman is called Sitt al-Dalāl, and there’s a reference to ‘beating’ as well as to a conditional bill of divorce. Was she a woman potentially in peril?

Any woman without a good contract is a woman in peril. It’s Sitt al-Dalāl’s betrothal contract, and there are certain stipulations setting out how her husband-to-be should behave and what he can and can’t do: should the betrothal be broken, he will have to free her from the betrothal without delay. Her future husband promises not to marry another woman, not to beat her, and not to leave Fustat unless he supplies her with a conditional bill of divorce, and deposits her delayed marriage gift and maintenance funds to support her in his absence. He agrees to live with her and her parents, to pay the annual rent of 6 dinars, and not to separate her from them. If he breaks the contract he will have to pay a 50 dinar fine.

Yes, I was just in an interview with Amir Ashur, and the thing we agreed on was that the documents relating to marriage in the Genizah are quite different from the modern versions because whereas in the modern world they are basically just symbolic, and hence formulaic, in the Middle Ages these were important documents that gave the woman entering marriage legal rights that she could take to court if necessary. 50 dinars seems like a large amount of money — do we know anything about the groom to be?

No, his name is not preserved.

Do we know how this fine compared with others? Or was it more symbolic? It seems A LOT, though I note that there’s a 100 dinar fine in this one (if the husband takes another wife), that’s also written by Halfon.

It is a lot, especially is the annual housing bill was only 6 dinars.

Do you think this was the final contract or a draft of it?

I’m not sure. There is an interlinear addition part way down the fragment, but we are missing the beginning and end of it, which might confirm whether it was signed. It’s nicely written though.

Yes, I’m also not sure. We often find documents relating to marriage on parchment, and this is paper, suggesting it might be a draft or one of the copies, I guess. How many documents in Halfon’s hand do you think you’ve come across in this project? Presumably loads.

There are a lot of documents in his handwriting in the NS Js. I’ve just had a quick look back through the last couple of folders I’ve worked on and I can see at least 30 written by Halfon. There are also quite a few letters written (to him) from his brother Yefet.

Does anything about this particular document, or documents like it, surprise you?

If you look at the stipulations, I suppose there is a certain amount of fear that comes through — fear that the woman will be potentially locked into a marriage that she can’t get out of, fear that she might be beaten, fear of leaving her parents. There are so many ways in which she is helpless and at the mercy of this man, whom she may not even know well at all. This document’s all that she has to protect herself. And presumably this has been arranged by her father, so I see the fear of a parent for their child’s future wellbeing and happiness as well.

Yes, it is quite incredible how these documents — even when they are essentially reflecting common enough formulae for their time — allow you to step into the moment and really appreciate what life was like.

I hope they all managed to live peacefully under one roof.

It’s also incredible how commonplace this document is; in other collections it might be a unique survival, but in the Genizah it’s one of hundreds like it.

And if we keep looking, we may find the other documents that tell the rest of the story.

Thanks Mel!


It's a nice example of a pre nuptial agreement.
One comment - most of the marriage documents are written on paper, except ketubbot, which are usually on parchment.

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