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Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC–AD 800

Betsy Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art

Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Order for Veils or Handkerchiefs

Order for Veils or Handkerchiefs. Egypt, 8th century. Ink on papyrus. Papyrus Collection, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (P. Mich.inv. 5621)

«While many studying the late antique period tend to focus on large-scale political shifts, change on the microlevel is often more difficult to track. Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt offers such a sense of everyday people's daily concerns by allowing us to peek at their correspondence.» The authors assemble a wealth of evidence from the Ptolemaic through the early Islamic periods in surviving papyri and ostraka (pottery or stone sherds with writing). The resulting work is a chorus of women's voices conveying quotidian concerns at once familiar and entirely foreign to a modern point of view.

The book is divided into two sections. The first half of the book offers a scholarly apparatus for approaching the letters. These include discussions of gender, handwriting, language, letter delivery, polite and familiar formulations, and frequently encountered themes. The most popular issues that emerge revolve around family, health, property, personal occupations, and money, topics which would be familiar to anyone perusing personal e-mails today.

The second half of the book publishes a corpus of letters, and it is here that the women's voices come through most intimately. They are hopeful, argumentative, frustrated, fearful, concerned, irritable, and joyous. One is most struck by the frequent evocations of the Egyptian gods, or later, of Christ, and the wishes for blessings to individuals and families. Letters about a beloved brother's death or debates about renting a boat are particularly relatable. The immediacy of these concerns gives a sense of the continuities of everyday life in the face of social upheaval.

About the Book
Roger S. Bagnall and Raffaella Cribiore, Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC–AD 800. University of Michigan Press, 2006

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About the Author

Betsy Williams is a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and was the 2012 Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow in the Museum's Department of Islamic Art. Her dissertation is on precious-metal jewelry and notions of adornment in the Byzantine and early Islamic periods.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.