Documents and Institutions in the Medieval Middle East

Collaborative Group

Professor Marina A. Rustow, Dr. Eve Krakowski


Judaic Studies


The idea that the pre-modern Islamic world failed to develop stable and effective state and legal institutions has loomed large in debates about Middle Eastern history. But how did institutions actually work in the medieval Middle East? Hardly anyone knows, partly because the best evidence for the everyday functions of courts and governments lies in documents that remain largely inaccessible to historians. This project aims to remedy the problem by devising methodologies to analyze medieval Middle Eastern legal and state documents in a systematic fashion. Rustow and Krakowski focus on two overlapping types of documents: government petitions, decrees, and other administrative texts from Fatimid and Ayyubid Egypt and Syria, 969–1250, and legal documents written at Jewish and Islamic courts in the same period. These documents were preserved in the Cairo Geniza, a cache of worn manuscripts found in a medieval Egyptian synagogue and now held in libraries and private collections. While previous studies have studied subsets of legal and administrative documents from the Geniza, Jewish and Islamic legal and administrative documents have never been examined in comparison with each other, or for the information they can yield about the institutions that produced them and the interactions among those institutions. This collaborative project builds on Rustow’s previous work on Fatimid petitions and decrees and Jewish administrative documents and Krakowski’s work on rabbinic Jewish legal contracts and court records. Using a large representative cross-section of this material, the project identifies features the documents share, establishes a rigorous set of diplomatic typologies for analyzing them, and reconstructs the habits of the scribes who wrote them and the procedures of the institutions they served. The result will be a co-authored print handbook that renders these documents legible as historical sources; the project will also produce new document editions to be included on the Princeton Geniza Project website. Rustow and Krakowski hope to lay the groundwork for a new approach to Islamic institutional history, one based not on the descriptive accounts offered by medieval chroniclers and jurists, but on the tangible evidence left by medieval Middle Eastern scribes themselves. Award period: September 1, 2014 - August 31, 2016