Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt

Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt

Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt

Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt


What was it like to be poor in the Middle Ages? In the past, the answer to this question came only from institutions and individuals who gave relief to the less fortunate. This book, by one of the top scholars in the field, is the first comprehensive book to study poverty in a premodern Jewish community--from the viewpoint of both the poor and those who provided for them.

Mark Cohen mines the richest body of documents available on the matter: the papers of the Cairo Geniza. These documents, located in the Geniza, a hidden chamber for discarded papers situated in a medieval synagogue in Old Cairo, were preserved largely unharmed for more than nine centuries due to an ancient custom in Judaism that prohibited the destruction of pages of sacred writing. Based on these papers, the book provides abundant testimony about how one large and important medieval Jewish community dealt with the constant presence of poverty in its midst.

Building on S. D. Goitein's Mediterranean Society and inspired also by research on poverty and charity in medieval and early modern Europe, it provides a clear window onto the daily lives of the poor. It also illuminates private charity, a subject that has long been elusive to the medieval historian. In addition, Cohen's work functions as a detailed case study of an important phenomenon in human history. Cohen concludes that the relatively narrow gap between the poor and rich, and the precariousness of wealth in general, combined to make charity "one of the major agglutinates of Jewish associational life" during the medieval period.


Poverty and Charity in Christendom

POVERTY, UNDERSTOOD in the usual sense of ‘destitution,’ was a permanent feature of the Middle Ages.” With these words, Michel Mollat opens his classic study The Poor in the Middle Ages. Thanks in good measure to the scholarly leadership of Mollat beginning in the 1960s, the history of the poor has come to occupy an important place in the study of non-elites in premodern Europe, as part of the new social history—“history from below”—to which the French Annalistes and their heirs have contributed so much. The present book owes much to the work of these scholars as well as to the pioneering work of S. D. Goitein on the social and economic history of the Jews in the medieval Arab world. It constitutes a first book-length attempt to probe comprehensively the actual, lived experience of the poor and the mechanics of charity in one particularly well-documented place and period of the premodern Jewish past—medieval Egypt. With its nearly unique access to the actual voice of the poor through the Cairo Geniza, it strives to write “history from below” and “history from above” together.

Normally a study like this would seek its historiographical context within the Islamic world. But, while charity forms one of the five cardinal religious obligations of every Muslim, a well-developed research literature on poverty and charity in Islam does not yet exist. The recent growth of research on the idea of poverty and poor relief in the Islamic world has been long overdue, and the present work sees itself as part of that new field. To the extent possible, given the current state of scholarship, this book draws comparisons with the majority society and, in turn,

Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New Haven and London, 1986). French original: Les pauvres au moyen age (Paris, 1978).

A representative selection of letters, alms lists, and donor lists in English translation with commentaries can be found in Mark R. Cohen, The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza (Princeton, 2005).

Exemplified by the National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored conference on “Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts,” held at the University of Michigan in

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