Seminary LV: rural élites in the Byzantine and Umayyad Middle East

This academic year I have been teaching on Tuesdays, when the Cambridge Late Antique, Byzantine and Early Medieval Seminar runs, looking after a child Tuesday evenings when the London Society for Medieval Studies meets, and writing lectures for the next Tuesday on Wednesdays, when the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar is held. And then during London’s reading week I was laid out with a stomach complaint. So I hadn’t been to any seminars at all this term until 16 November, a Monday, when Arietta Papaconstantinou of the University of Oxford spoke to the Cambridge Byzantine Seminar to the title, ‘Identifying Rural Elites in Egypt and Southern Palestine from Justinian to the Umayyads’. I was late, because it starts at five and I have, you know, a job, but I was there, so, a report.

Fragment of a private letter in Coptic on papyrus of the sixth or seventh century

Fragment of a private letter in Coptic on papyrus of the sixth or seventh century

Dr Papaconstantinou is studying the transition from Byzantine to Arab rule in economic and social terms rather than the political ones in which it is most studied. She had a lot of material, almost all of which was complicated and needed conditions attached to it. She was trying to compare textual and archæological evidence, but the various sorts of evidence rarely coincide and when it does it’s for snapshots only: one site dug, but there’s no textual record of it; there is hagiography, but no documents; there are papyri, but they all came out of a house which is part of a site that seems to have flourished fifty years later than the documents; one only really gets papyri in Egypt, but that’s where there is the least archæology, and so on. Even with papyri, we are not talking determined property archives as with western monastic charters (except in a few likewise monastic cases) but everyday administrative documents like the Visigothic slates only on the stuff to hand, lists of dues, of names. (Dr Papaconstantinou said that there is much that could be done with tax records, but I got the idea that she would like someone else to do it.)

Abu Serga Coptic Church, Fustat

Abu Serga Coptic Church, Fustat, allegedly eighth-century though much refurbished

With those reservations, her approximate picture was of considerable local continuity. Where the Umayyads took over, which was everywhere in her zone, as far as we can tell local élites remained largely unaffected, still using Greek titles (even where they spoke Coptic or Syriac) and referring to `imperial’ law long after the Greek emperors had lost any relevance. Rich get richer, poor get poorer, but I think that there’s no documentary corpus where we don’t by definition see accumulation over time, so I don’t know that that isn’t a constant; it certainly always seems to be going on. It’s only in the late eighth century that Islam begins to make itself evident in terms of personal names and new offices; until then all that happens is that the local élites report to new governors. However, against that she also spoke of a change towards involvement in the Church, because the secular promotion prospects that would once have carried those local élites out to wider influence were now closed down, as was military service. So the Church actually does better for a while because of the Islamic takeover, because it becomes the area of competition for Christian status that’s still open.

Seventh-century well exposed by excavations at Fustat, Egypt

Seventh-century well exposed by excavations at Fustat, Egypt

Most of this stuff, which interested me most, came out in questions: it seems in retrospect as if most of the actual paper was spent just laying the ground for the questions by explaining the milieu and the difficulties of the evidence. One thing that did come up again and again however was the difficulty of defining rural and urban. Dr Papaconstantinou’s main contention was that wealth and trade in the towns of her zone becomes primarily agricultural, with industry basically focussing on processing agricultural produce, rather than manufacturing ceramics or metalwork, for example. Does that stop these towns being urban? Some villages retain an administrative function even though they’re far smaller than others that become trading places but have none. The whole situation is full of edge cases. Central settlements remain foci of the community, but wealth becomes basically agricultural. I see the problem of definition here, of course, but the idea of there being towns or villages that work like that, that are places where people come for any reason other than worship, come to by default as part of their social involvement, is right off my area’s map, where you go to the city to go to court and otherwise only if you’re rich and have lots to sell. Peter Sarris compared fifth-century Gaul as a model where Church towns take over from a rurally-funded urban secular élite but this zone seemed to be functioning on a much smaller scale to me; there are only a few big cities in this area (Fustat, Jerusalem, Alexandria) and lots of small towns or big villages. So I suppose this was one of those unusual Byzantine seminars where it was the area rather than scholarship that seemed alien, whereas it is too often the other way round, where one feels that one would recognise much of this but for the scholarly language of the field. Dr Papaconstantinou therefore ought to be encouraged to keep explaining this stuff outside her field as I learnt a lot quite easily from this seminar. I have no idea how new it was to the experts, but it was new to me which is what I was after.

2 responses to “Seminary LV: rural élites in the Byzantine and Umayyad Middle East

  1. Hasn’t the wealth of Egypt always been agricultural? In that it can feed an imperial capital, imperial armies *and* itself?

    • Well, if we follow Chris Wickham and say that trade is always marginal compared to agriculture, then yes, but otherwise, I think Alexandria’s rôle as a trading place, even if a lot of what it’s trading is in fact grain, means that there is also wealth of a more directly mercantile type, don’t you? And I think that’s what stops in this period, the effect of the big trading centres and traders on production in their area.

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