Fragments of Provincial Life

By Lev Weitz

For social historians, legal sources have been among the most captivating, tried-and-true means to get at the microhistorical detail of everyday life in times past. In the final essay of this series, I’ll consider what Arabic legal documents can offer as sources for medieval social history. We’ll return to the region of the southern Fayyūm in Egypt that we encountered in my second essay to look at some snapshots of provincial life captured in legal documentary sources from the villages of Ṭuṭūn and Damūya. Most of these sources are notarial documents, which may not appear as narratively generous as fatwās or the litigation records of qāḍī courts used in other ‘law in action’ studies.[1] But the notarial documents’ vantage point on provincial settings is still unparalleled in other sources, and with careful and comparative reading they have much to disclose.[2]

In provincial Arabic legal documents, as in most premodern written source materials, elite men are the most visible social actors; they had the resources and the property interests that generated more paperwork than did the affairs of their less well-off neighbors. Coptic notables stand out in published documents from two villages in the Fāṭimid Fayyūm. In Ṭuṭūn, we have documents that trace the economic activities of three generations of an elite Christian family. In the late 4th/10th century, we find one Mīnā b. Jirja investing in a mill and spending on a single horse twice what a house in Ṭuṭūn might cost; his son Rabābīl buys residential real estate and vineyards,[3] and is described elsewhere as Ṭuṭūn’s tax farmer (ḍāmin); Rabābīl’s sons Marqūra and Buṭrus carry on horse trading and adding to the family portfolio in agricultural and residential real estate.[4] It is likely that the papers of this lineage of village grandees had made up a small family archive in the possession of Marqūra and Buṭrus before they abandoned it and, in the last century and a half, it was unearthed and dispersed among modern library collections.

The second well attested group of village-level Coptic notables, three sons of a man named Bifām in the village of Damūya, displays a profile comparable to that of Mīnā’s line in Ṭuṭūn. The Banū Bifām bought quite a lot of residential property and agricultural land over the course of a few decades in the first half of the 5th/11th century,[5] and Jirja b. Bifām, likely the senior of the brothers, seems to have moved into tax farming, to judge by the considerable sum of 50 dinars he paid in 414/1023 for a lease of farmland.[6] The Banū Bifām papers were found in a jar during excavations of the Fayyūm monastery Dayr al-Naqlūn, to which Jirja perhaps retired in his later years.[7]

Jirja b. Bifām, Mīnā b. Jirja, and their families exemplify the village-elite stratum of a still heavily Christian countryside, a social class that despite its important status would be invisible without documentary sources. The documents also show these Christian village notables interacting with a second local elite class: the tribal groups who rose to political prominence in the 5th/11th century Fayyūm and ran a mafia-style protection racket across the province. Landowners and civilians paid one or another tribal figure for “protection,” khafāra, of their properties against any threats, real or implied, that might come their way. A dossier belonging to Abū al-Dīn b. Ramaḍān of the Rabīʿa tribe, for example, shows him buying from other tribesmen the rights to guardianship payments for the landed holdings of the Dayr al-Qalamūn monastery.[8] Jirja b. Bifām, perhaps in his capacity as a village leader, interfaced with his local khafīr, and Mīnā b. Jirja’s grandsons bought land from the ʿĀmirī tribesmen who had protection rights to Ṭuṭūn. The documents of Coptic village headmen and Arab tribal protectors thus give us a patchwork but textured picture of medieval provincial politics, in which civilian notables worked both as intermediaries between their communities and a semi-predatory political-military elite and as collaborators with that elite for their own interests. I’ll add that I’ve rarely wanted to know more of the story behind a document than when I first encountered this record of court minutes, according to which Abū al-Dīn and his brother had been fighting over guardianship rights and a stolen sword.

Although they enjoy high visibility, elite men are far from the only medieval people attested in the documentary record of the southern Fayyūm. Women appear frequently as buyers, sellers, and occasionally as creditors, and the documents thus have much to tell us of the relationship between gender and property rights in the medieval countryside, though not always of women’s broader economic and social realities. For example, when we find men buying their sisters’ shares in inherited family property, we may wonder whether what seems to be a freely undertaken sale obscures any number of pressures faced by women to cede property and its attendant social capital and economic potential to male relatives.[9] Among quite a number of examples, the Banū Bifām and Mīnā b. Jirja’s grandsons bought real property from their sister and aunts, respectively.[10] Unequal—and un-sharʿī—gender relations do not even have to be so hidden. In one fascinating document of the 5th/11th century, four brothers from Abū al-Dīn’s Rabīʿa tribe gave their guardianship rights in Dayr al-Qalamūn as payment for the ṣadāq due to one of their wives, Warda. But it’s Warda’s brother, rather than the woman herself, who received the marriage gift, contradicting a fundamental sharīʿa principle of family law.

There is more to these communities’ stories than gendered exploitation, however. In other documents, women appear more clearly as independent economic actors, buying real estate and collecting debts. In one case, Maṭrūna bt. Abnūla of Ṭuṭūn pays the impressive sum of thirty dinars for her husband’s brother’s shares in a residential complex and an orchard. Four years later, the husband’s granddaughter Barsīwa pays Maṭrūna twenty-two dinars for everything Maṭrūna inherited from her now deceased husband. We can’t tell if Maṭrūna was Barsīwa’s grandmother or a second wife, but either way this looks like a case of women keeping their own hold on substantial family properties. In all probability, Islamic legal instruments had become an important tool for claiming and enshrining rights on the part of these Coptic village women.

Not all villagers had rights within their grasp to claim. The most marginalized of medieval subjects, the enslaved and the women and children among them, appear fleetingly in deeds of sale, endowment, and manumission. If wider human stories and social worlds always lie behind the transactions recorded in legal documents, few are likely to be as complex or harrowing as those implicated in the documentary remains of enslavement. Slavery does not appear to have been particularly widespread in rural regions like the southern Fayyūm, but the enslaved were present in some elite households with the requisite resources. A marriage contract between two members of tribal guardian families—the husband bears the title amīr and offers an enormous marriage portion of 800 dinars—lists a handmaid, jāriya, among the items of the wife’s dowry. Back in Ṭuṭūn, several documents record Mīnā b. Jirja’s purchase of two enslaved women, Waṣīfa and Iqbāl, and the latter’s children, Dalāla and Surūr. The women are described as Nubian, a hint of the wider networks that connected rural Egypt to the upper reaches of the Nile. What the journey from Nubia to the Fayyūm was like for Waṣīfa and Iqbāl is lost behind the documentary legalese, though their names—at least their Arabic ones—are not.

Many more stories of the law and the peoples and communities it shaped lie in the cursive scrawling of medieval Arabic notaries. The thousands of unpublished documents lying in library collections across Egypt, elsewhere in Africa and the Muslim world, Europe, and North America require the attention of dedicated scholars to bring those stories to light. Our understanding of Islamic law in the medieval world, especially in those populated expanses between the major cities left blank by so much of the historiography, will only be the better for it.


[1] E.g., Leslie Peirce, Morality Tales: Law and Gender at the Ottoman Court of Aintab (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

[2] Excellent studies in this vein, and with which the themes and material in this essay overlap, include Christian Gaubert and Jean-Michel Mouton, Hommes et villages du Fayyoum dans la documentation papyrologique arabe (xe-xie siècles) (Geneva: Libraire Droz, 2014); Daisy Livingston, “Life in the Egyptian Valley under Ikhshīdid and Fāṭimid Rule: Insights from Documentary Sources,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 61 (2018): 426–60.

[3] Mohammad J. Shomali, “Arabic Legal Documents from the Fatimid Period and Their Historical Background” (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 2020), 171-82, nos. 1-2; Ludwig Abel, Ägyptische Urkunden aus den königlichen Museen zu Berlin: Arabische Urkunden (Berlin: Weidmann, 1896-1900), 57-62, no. 21. These documents have not been entered in the APD.

[4] For Marqūra and Buṭrus’s house purchases, see Shomali, “Arabic Legal Documents,” 188-211, nos. 4, 5, 7, 8.

[5] See Gaubert and Mouton, Hommes et villages, 37-127, nos. 1-27. Only a few of these documents have been entered into the APD under the designation P.Fay.Villages.

[6] Noted by Chris Wickham, “The Power of Property: Land Tenure in Fāṭimid Egypt,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 62 (2019): 67-107, at 80.

[7] See Gaubert and Mouton, Hommes et villages, 3-8.

[8] See further Yūsuf Rāġib, “Les archives d’un gardien du monastère de Qalamun,” Annales islamologiques 29 (1995): 25-57, nos. 2, 3, 4, 7 (P.RagibQalamun in the APD).

[9] I owe this point to conversations over the years with Oded Zinger.

[10] Gaubert and Mouton, Hommes et villages, 71-75, 125-27, nos. 11, 27; Shomali, “Arabic Legal Documents,” 171-75, no. 1.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Lev Weitz, Fragments of Provincial Life, Islamic Law Blog (Apr. 27, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Lev Weitz “Fragments of Provincial Life,” Islamic Law Blog, April 27, 2023,

Leave a Reply