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The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages:
An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza
Mark R. Cohen

Mark R. Cohen, Winner of the 2010 Goldziher Prize, The Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College

Paperback | 2005 | $45.00 | £37.95 | ISBN: 9780691092713
224 pp. | 6 x 9 | 8 halftones.
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They are voices that have been silent for centuries: those of captives and refugees, widows and orphans, the blind and infirm, and the underclass of the "working poor." Now, for the first time, the voices of the poor in the Middle Ages come to life in this moving book by historian Mark Cohen. A companion to Cohen's other volume, Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt, the book presents more than ninety letters, alms lists, donor lists, and other related documents from the Geniza, a hidden chamber for discarded papers, situated inside a wall in a Cairo synagogue. Cohen has translated these documents, providing the historical context for each.

In the past, most of what we knew of the poor in the Middle Ages came from records and observations compiled by their literate social superiors, from tax collectors to the inquisitor's clerk, from criminal judges to the benefactors of the helpless, from makers of Islamic waqf deeds to authors of Arabic chronicles, and in Judaism, from Rabbis who wrote responsa to compilers of Jewish-law codes.

What distinguishes this book is that it contains the voices of the poor themselves, found in documents heretofore largely ignored. Because an ancient custom in Judaism prohibited the destruction of pages of sacred writing, the documents were preserved, largely unharmed, for as many as nine centuries.

The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages provides access to the attitudes and philanthropic activities of the charitable, alongside the dramatic writings of the poor themselves, whether penned in their own hands or dictated to a scribe or family member. The book also allows a rare glimpse into the women of the Middle Ages, as well as into the world of private charity--an area long elusive to the medieval historian. For researchers and students alike, this book will be an invaluable social history source for years to come.


"This anthology will expand our understanding of what life was like at the time when Islamic civilization was at or near its peak. It makes an excellent companion to Cohen's other book, Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Europe."--Michael Bonner, University of Michigan

"Scholars and students of the Cairo Geniza, the medieval Muslim world, and the history of poverty and charity will find here a rich trove of newly-translated petitions, poor rolls, lists of benefactors, and letters of recommendation. They afford a rare view of the workings of charity and the world of the poor in the Middle Ages."--Amy Singer, Tel Aviv University

Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
Note xiii


Introduction 3
Chapter One: Basic Themes 15
Chapter Two:Taxonomy: Structure and Conjuncture 32
Chapter Three: The Foreign Poor 47
Chapter Four: Indigent Captives and Refugees 68
Chapter Five: Debt and the Poll Tax 73
Chapter Six: Women and Poverty 83
Chapter Seven: Letters Regarding Public Charity 95


Chapter Eight: Alms Lists 107
Chapter Nine: Donor Lists 164


Chapter Ten: Poverty and Charity in the Fourteenth Century 191

List of Geniza Texts 199
Bibliography 203
Index 209

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