By Craig Perry
PhD Dissertation, Emory University, 2014
Abstract: This dissertation examines the geography of the slave trade, the role of slavery in the household, and the lives of domestic slave women in the Egyptian Jewish community under the rule of the Fatimid caliphate and Ayyubid sultanate. I juxtapose Hebrew and Judaeo- Arabic documentary records from the Cairo Genizah with medieval chronicles, travelogues, and responsa to illustrate developments at both the macro- and micro-levels: the evolving geography of the slave trade to Egypt, the politics of slavery within the household, and the lives and choices of individual slave women.
At the geo-political level, mining bills of sale and merchant letters allows for a composite portrait of the local Egyptian slave population’s origins. My analysis of these sources demonstrates that over the course of the twelfth century, Egyptians turned increasingly southward toward sub-Saharan Africa and eastward toward the Indian Ocean for slave imports.
The micro-study of slaves’ lives provides a window into the everyday life, gendered social world, and legal systems of the Egyptian Jewish community. Domestic slaves were intimately embedded in household life, where free women used them to protect their social status and extend their own practical kin networks. The presence of slave women could also imperil the status of free women when husbands took slaves as concubines, a practice that was illegal in the Egyptian Jewish community and took place outside the regulatory ambit of communal authorities. I analyze legal codes and responsa alongside documentary records to explain how Jewish legal authorities’ inability to regulate slave concubinage effectively led to unintended consequences: men who took concubines did so in ways that caused greater disruption of the household, concubinage put the security of free women and children at greater risk, and concubines themselves were more vulnerable since they lacked clear legal standing.
Finally, I piece together fragmentary evidence in order to chart the life course of female domestic slaves and to narrate their lived social experience from birth and childhood through maturity. I also use Genizah records to illustrate how ongoing clientage relationships between manumitted slaves and their former owners served to reverse the deracination and natal alienation of slavery and aided slaves in their integration into Jewish society. Investigating domestic slaves as a group enables me to overcome the limitations of medieval documentary sources, in which slaves are often mentioned only obliquely. By focusing on instances in which slaves made consequential decisions, I illustrate how historians can apprehend the personhood of marginal subjects from the distant past.