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Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders

Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders

Copyright Date: 1973
Pages: 382
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  • Book Info
    Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders
    Book Description:

    Modern international business has its origins in the overseas trade of the Middle Ages. Of the various communities active in trade in the Islamic countries at that time, records of only the Jewish community survive. Thousands of documents were preserved in the Cairo Geniza, a lumber room attached to the synagogue where discarded writings containing the name of God were deposited to preserve them from desecration. From them Professor Goitein has selected eighty letters that provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of the medieval Jewish traders.

    As the letters vividly illustrate, international trade depended on a network of personal relationships and mutual confidence. Organization was largely through partnerships, based usually on ties of common religion but often reinforced by family connections. Sometimes the partners of Jews were Christians or Muslims, and the letters show these merchants working together in greater harmony than has been thought, even in partnerships that lasted through generations. The services rendered to a friend or partner and those expected from him were great, and the book opens with an angry letter from a merchant who believed he had been let down by his friend.

    The life of a trader was full of dangers, as the letter describing a shipwreck illustrates, and put great strain on personal relationships. One of the most moving letters is that written to his wife by a man absent in India for many years while endeavoring to make the family's fortunes. Although never ceasing to love her and longing to be with her, he offers to divorce her if she feels she can wait for him no longer. A decisive event in the life of the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, was the death of his brother David, who drowned in the Indian Ocean. Printed here is the last letter David wrote, describing his safe crossing of the desert and announcing his intention to go on to India, against his brother's instructions.

    Professor Goitein has provided an introduction and notes for each letter, and a general introduction describing the social and spiritual world of the writers, the organization of overseas trade in the Middle Ages, and the goods traded. The letters demonstrate that although it reached from Spain to India, the traders' world was a cohesive one through which these men could move freely and always feel at home.

    Originally published in 1974.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6872-8
    Subjects: Middle East Studies, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    S. D. Goitein
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
    (pp. xiv-2)
  6. CHAPTER I Introduction
    (pp. 3-22)

    Anyone looking at the title of this book will be tempted to ask: Why Jewish? Why should we single out one of several communities active in the trade of the Islamic countries during the High Middle Ages? The answer is simple: From that world and that period, only the letters and other papers of Jewish overseas traders have thus far been found. Their preservation was due to very special circumstances.

    All the letters translated in this volume were originally found in the so-called Cairo Geniza. Geniza (pronounced gueneeza) is a place where discarded writings on which the name of God...

  7. CHAPTER II Geographical Setting
    (pp. 23-72)

    Two large areas of medieval commerce, the Mediterranean and the India trade, are covered in this book. The hub of the Mediterranean was the Islamic principality which comprised Tunisia and Sicily; it is represented here mainly, but not exclusively, by (al-) Qayrawān, the inland capital of Tunisia, and its seaport al-Mahdiyya, and by Palermo, the capital and northern seaport of Sicily, and other ports of that island. The backbone of the India trade was formed by three centers: Qūṣ (no. 10) and other towns in Upper Egypt, to which one traveled from Cairo on the Nile; ‘Aydhāb and other ports...

  8. Map
    (pp. 24-24)
  9. CHAPTER III The Eleventh Century
    (pp. 73-144)

    The eleventh century was the golden age of the overseas trade on the Islamic side of the Mediterranean. Over half of the letters translated in this volume originated in that period (see the Introduction, sec. I). Most of the details on international commerce provided inMed. Soc., I,refer to that century and the same is true of the general Introduction to this book. Thus, there is no point in providing this chapter with another introduction. Letters 11-14 and 17 illustrate the affairs of the leading merchants, while nos. 22 and 25 are typical examples of full-fledged business letters of...

  10. CHAPTER IV Merchant-Banker, Scholar, and Communal Leader
    (pp. 145-174)

    Nahray was one of those learned Jewish merchants of Qayrawān who in their youth commuted between Tunisia and the eastern Mediterranean and finally settled in Fustat for good. The first dated document of his career is the account of the transactions during his voyage to Egypt in 1045 (translated in no. 64, below), and the last a sickbed (or deathbed) declaration made on April 28, 1096 (Mosseri A 2). In 1098 he was dead.

    Over three hundred letters, notes, and accounts, addressed to him or emanating from his hand have been preserved. This is the largest corpus of Geniza papers...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. CHAPTER V The India Traders
    (pp. 175-230)

    As far as the information provided by the Geniza letters is concerned, the India trade was an extension and a branch of the commerce uniting the countries of the Mediterranean. The traders who left us their writings were, of course, all Arabic-speaking Jews, although Hindus are mentioned as close and reliable “brothers” and Abyssinians and other Christians as business friends. The leading Jewish family of Aden probably came from Iran, but its members had completely assimilated to the Arabic-speaking environment, or had used that language in writing when still in their Persian homeland, as had the writers of no. 2,...

  13. Map
    (pp. 176-176)
  14. CHAPTER VI Twelfth Century and Later
    (pp. 231-272)

    The letters of the India traders form a consecutive sequence from the end of the eleventh century to the beginnings of the thirteenth. The same cannot be said of the letters of the merchants who were active during the same period in the Mediterranean. There are not many of them during the first half of the twelfth century and even fewer during its second half. From the thirteenth we have next to none.

    Various causes might have contributed to this uneven distribution of the Geniza material (seeMed. Soc.,I, 148-149). Fustat was eclipsed and finally replaced by Cairo as...

  15. CHAPTER VII Accounts
    (pp. 273-304)

    Accounts often accompanied letters and were produced and accepted as evidence in court. The examples translated below were selected with a view to provide a fairly representative cross section of the material preserved. Letter no. 63 shows how the import of raw material from Egypt and the export of finished textiles from Tunisia were handled by a Tunisian family business. Number 64 is the account of a young Tunisian trader detailing his variegated sales and purchases in Egypt for his employer back home and for himself, as well as his living and personal expenses, the former being charged to the...

  16. CHAPTER VIII Travel and Transport
    (pp. 305-340)

    Traders mostly were travelers, at least during a major part of their lives; and a traveler invariably was a carrier of goods, who had to keep an eye on his own merchandise and often also on that of someone else. Since travel and transport constituted the daily routine of a trader, mention was made of them in letters only if there was a special reason to do so. Otherwise, accounts and bills of lading took care of most of the factual information needed by a business friend.

    The whims of nature often caused utmost discomfort to the traveler, upset his...

    (pp. 341-342)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 343-359)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 360-360)