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Q&A Wednesday: Slavery, sex, and status, with Craig Perry

T-S 13J22.2
T-S 13J22.2 (recto): Sitt al-Ḥusn frees her two slaves. They can live in part of an apartment of hers and have all her clothing if they continue to profess the Jewish faith.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Craig Perry
Wed 11 Aug 2021

Hi Craig – what are you working on at the moment?

Next week (12 August) is the UK publication date for volume 2 of the Cambridge World History of Slavery of which I am co-editor and contributing author. I wrote chapters on slavery and the slave trade in the western Indian Ocean world and on Slavery and Agency in medieval slavery. And I co-authored the introductory chapter, “Slavery in the Medieval Millennium.” We aimed to take as global of a view of slavery and the slave trade between roughly the 5th and 15th centuries.

Now I’m turning my full attention back to my monograph project which is about slavery and the slave trade in medieval Egypt.

Can you tell us about some of the fragments you are looking at now for your monograph?

I’m working on several, as the Genizah corpus is the main basis for my monograph. T-S 10J17.22 is the second – I’m pretty sure of the chronology – of two petitions related to a dispute between a husband and wife over, among other things, the wife’s enslaved servant. A man named Abū l-Faraj the silkweaver takes his wife’s slave woman and puts her up at his sister’s house where “he maintains her as needed.” My interpretation is that he is using her as a concubine (illicitly). The other document, the first petition, is Budapest: DK 232.1. Oded Zinger has worked on this case, as has Moshe Yagur.

I see in our catalogue it’s described as “a complaint regarding a man who was ordered to part with his slave girl, but then put her up with his sister and continued seeing her.” Is that to stop the wife selling her enslaved woman on to get rid of her?

In the first petition, we see that the husband won’t listen to intermediaries or give her back her slave woman. In the Cambridge document, we read that he refuses to pay some brokerage fees. This strongly suggests that he finally agreed to purchase the slave woman, but that he refused to pay the broker’s fees that were normally incumbent upon the buyer.

Is Abū l-Faraj arranging to purchasing the woman from his wife?

I think so. This is my interpretation, based on the statement about the brokerage fee.

Do we know anything else about Abū l-Faraj the silkweaver from other documents?

I have not been able to find anything that I can ascertain relates to this exact Abū l-Faraj – we don’t know the rest of his name, unfortunately. We can, however, date him to the nagidate of Samuel b. Hananya (1140–1159 CE).

Can you tell us why he was ordered to part with the slave? What is the medieval Jewish position on using a slave as a concubine?

Medieval jurists like Moses Maimonides, and his son Abraham, are pretty clear: it is illegal for a man to have sexual relations with his enslaved woman. Any resulting offspring are slaves, unequivocally. But we know this was happening at least somewhat regularly and there was concern about the status of the offspring of these unions. In practice, jurists sometimes sought ways to make accommodations that would legitimize these relationships – essentially, free and marry the woman. It’s better than what you’re doing. Moshe Yagur analyzes this issue in his dissertation.

It’s an example of religion bending a bit when it meets facts on the ground.

The Abū l-Faraj case is interesting because it’s an uncommon documentary record about a practice we normally read about in responsa and other legal literature where the cases are discussed in more abstract terms (with no proper names, etc.). In my book, I read the Abū l-Faraj case and other cases alongside the responsa and legal sources to think about sexual slavery more broadly.

In your research, have you found anything to point to any enslaved woman’s feelings about this?

The speech of enslaved women is rarely reported in medieval sources. Slavery, and sexual slavery more pointedly, rests on a bedrock of coercion as Sally McKee says of medieval Italian slavery. Slave women had terrible choices. Still, one can imagine that being the favoured slave woman of a man could have some relative benefits in comparison to other kinds of slavery.

In a responsum of Abraham Maimonides (T-S 10K8.13) published by Mordechai Friedman in his book Ribui Nashim (Jewish Polygyny), which I translated into English in my dissertation, we read of a Jewish man who buys an enslaved woman as a concubine. He makes her “the lady of the house” at a dwelling in the Fayyūm and buys her clothing “the likes of which his wife has never had.” And there are other examples. Abraham b. Yijū frees his Indian slave woman, Ashū, and we think they married and had children. What did Ashū (now named Berākhā) this about this? We don’t know. In one letter, a man reports that his slave woman refuses to be sold. This suggests a weary conservatism that slaves embraced for fear of even worse conditions with a new, unknown owner.

Presumably her refusal wouldn’t have counted for much? Or did it?

In an Abraham Maimonides responsum – not from the Genizah, but in: A.H. Freimann and S.D. Goitein, eds., Abraham Maimuni: Responsa (Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 1937), no. 98 – an enslaved woman is beaten in front of non-Jews. She converts to Islam. This compels her sale by her Jewish co-owners since Jews can’t own Muslim slaves. We have the responsum relating to the case, because the Jewish owners then fight over the money from her sale. If we read this refusal alongside Muslim sources (manuals for the sale of slaves and narrative writings) and comparanda from medieval Spain, we see that enslaved people could impact their sale outright – by being truculent, etc. – and/or by subterfuge. So, slaves didn’t have the ultimate say. But they could definitely assert themselves. 

Do we know how common it was to own slaves in medieval Fustat?

What I can say is that it was part of how Egyptian Jews thought about status and honour. If you are one of the “elite of the city” then you are expected to have a servant, probably a slave, who runs public errands for you so that you don’t have to sully yourself fetching water or retrieving bread from the public ovens where non-Jews, men, and (gasp) prostitutes might be found. I’ve assembled a corpus of slave owners with known professions in the Genizah. Communal leaders like nagids and parnasim own slave women, as do pharmacists, perfumers, and doctors. I think slave women are working in apothecaries too. Traders, though, are the largest group of slave owners that are documented. Slave women perform domestic labour, run errands, and are used for sex by stationary merchants and, perhaps especially, by mobile merchants who travel for their work. This suggests that certain classes of Jews sought to own slaves. 

So, all or most of the nobility we know of from the Genizah would probably have been slaveowners? Do we know if Maimonides had slaves?

Oy. Did the Great Eagle own slaves? I have long thought about whether I should put this in writing or not. There is no direct evidence that Maimonides owned slaves. But it would be surprising to me if there were no slaves in his household, whether they belonged to him or to his Egyptian wife, who was the daughter of a government official. Slave owning would have been common for people of their stature. In any event, Maimonides was intimately familiar with slavery – its laws and its practice in his own day. He wrote a medical guide for the uncle of Saladin, who sought Maimonides’ advice to increase his virility and get his many slave women pregnant (T-S Ar.44.79 and T-S Misc.34.24 P1). And in his Mishneh Torah, he gives instructions for how to teach your children about Israelite slavery in Egypt. He says to point to the male slave and slave woman (who are presumably serving you right there) and say: son, this is what slavery in Egypt was like (Hilkhot ḥamets u-matsa 7:2).

Is there any evidence that anyone in the Genizah world was opposed to slavery on principle?

The Mishneh Torah example above suggests that premodern Jews were very typical in terms of attitudes towards slavery. They saw it as a social evil, but they did not imagine abolition. It’s acknowledged as a degraded state and contrary to freedom (in Islam, too). What’s important is that one’s own group is not enslaved. If others outside your group are enslaved, well, that’s how it goes. While it was legally permissible to work a slave “with rigor,” it was pious to treat a slave humanely and to free her (Lev 25:43 and, for example, MT Hilkhot ʿavadim 9:8).

What did the medieval slave trade look like? If we imagine scenes of slave markets, terrible transport and black slaves in shackles, is that an accurate picture? Or are we looking at a situation somewhat different to what it was in more recent centuries?

Genizah documents illustrate a mode of slave-trading that challenges the image of the crowded slave ship. That doesn’t mean that the passage was not terrifying and violent. But it is more common to find one, or a few, slaves being shipped as a part of mixed cargo. I have not yet found evidence for large, wholesale trading of slaves during the Fatimid or Ayyubid period. There is the delivery of the baqt, a diplomatic gift from the Nubian kingdom, to Egypt. The Genizah preserves a letter where it seems such a gift was kidnapped by a certain chieftain. It includes slaves, but this is not enough to supply Egypt – it’s for the royals. The Genizah also contains merchant letters where the author says – I’m sending a slave to you with the Karim merchant convoy (across the Indian Ocean) as in T-S NS J23. Or a merchant sends a woman from Cairo to Alexandria by boat (T-S 8J10.9). I argue that this was one part of a multi-stranded slave trade. It wasn’t always easy to get a slave. Though at times the supply “pulsed” due to famine or geopolitical events.

Where were the slaves purchased? In private sales or markets? And where did they originate?

There was a central slave market. But transactions also took place in private homes – we know this from the Islamic context and infer it for Jews. People are selling among their associates and networks. They might prefer to buy a slave from a trusted seller. Or they might want an Indian slave, because it was exotic and therefore made the normal prestige of slave owning even a little more prestigious. Jews also organise charity drives to raise money to redeem Jewish captives from war or piracy, but this is a phenomenon that I haven’t studied closely. 

Aside from slave women whom the owners wanted to marry, is there other evidence from the Genizah for slaves being freed, for good service, etc?

Yes. Perhaps the best example is a woman named Sitt al-Ḥusn who freed her two “virgin slave girls” Dhahab and Sitt al-Sumr in the middle of the 12th century (T-S 13J22.2, translated by Goitein in Med. Soc.). Sitt al-Ḥusn appears to be otherwise childless and was in her second marriage to a well-known (to researchers) Genizah scribe – Nathan b. Samuel, known as ‘the Diadem of the Scholars.” Sitt al-Ḥusn says the girls can live in part of an apartment of hers and have all her clothing IF they continue to profess the Jewish faith. Men also freed slave girls and sought to set them up for entry into the Jewish community. A parnas once recruited a Jewish woman to help a freedwoman named Mubāraka marry “one of our co-religionists” (T-S NS 321.54). But this raises a question about source survival. Do we get an out-sized impression of manumission? Manumitted slaves entered the paper trail of the Genizah. Slaves who died as slaves were less likely to leave traces in the documents.

What do we know about the manumission of slave men?

Men were also freed, though it is notable that we don’t have as many formal deeds of manumission for male slaves. But they show up as freedman still working with Jewish merchants. Their daughters marry Jews. One freedman returns and loans his former owner money during a time of famine! Deeds of manumission for female slaves are important because of the matrilineal principle in Judaism. The status of children was impacted by the timing of the manumission (T-S Misc. 27.4.23 + T-S Misc. 27.4.29, published by M. A. Friedman). 

The issue of slavery is a bit different to other aspects we might study about the Genizah world, as the effects of slavery reach into the present. Is there anything you would like people to think of when they think about medieval slavery?

Jewish slave owning teaches us something about the theme of power and powerlessness in Jewish history. Political power (as sovereigns) is not the only form of power. In this case, Jews were subordinated as dhimmi. But dhimmi status also gave them the power to dominate non-Muslims as slave owners. It is an interesting paradox that makes us reflect on Jewish status in the face of modern antisemitism and white nationalism. It’s possible to be both privileged in certain ways and also endangered and subordinated. Just a light note to end our chat!

Thanks very much Craig. A lot to think about there!

Craig Perry is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Jewish Studies at Emory.


In one letter, describing a visit to Maimonides home, a doorman is mentioned. He might be a slave. Otherwise I'm unfamiliar with other reference, but I think it is reasonable to assume he had, like other officials.

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