The Bilingual Written Environment of Late Antique Egypt:
Did Gender Have Anything To Do With It?

L. S. B. MacCoull
Society for Coptic Archaeology (North America)

Documentary papyri come in languages other than Greek. The graphic environment in Egypt between ca. 400 and 650 was one of considerable, and meaningful, diversity. While it used to be thought that legal documentary papyri in Coptic did not come into widespread use until after the conquest of 641, we now know that late antique Egypt became markedly bilingual in its record-keeping in the sixth and first half of the seventh centuries.1 In a province where two languages had long been in contact, its inhabitants encountered written texts in both Greek and Coptic at every turn. On an occasion in the society when someone needed a record of a transaction, a document in the Coptic language was created (alongside all those Greek ones). When, how, and why did this come about? And, if you had a choice as to which language to get your document written in, did what gender you were affect that choice?

What is our database for addressing these questions? Papyrologists have a Checklist of Editions listing 75 publications of Coptic documents; also a Koptisches Sammelbuch, ongoing. Within over 7600 Coptic papyrus texts, more than 5600 are documentary, and of these over 3000 are non-epistolary (counting the 8th-c. papyri from Jeme, which I leave out here). I concentrate on pre-641 documents, admittedly a small proportion of the total. Most Coptic documents come from bilingual contexts.2 As Coptic “emerged from intensive language contact in a multilingual society,”3 the significant reappearance of Egyptian-language (Coptic) legal documents is culturally of interest.4

In the non-literary sphere Coptic was being used for letters, and women seem to have preferred it to Greek for this function as early as the mid-fourth century.5 Byzantinists have asked, “Who had access to writing, either as a producer or a consumer? Was that access direct or indirect? ... How did the practice of reading and writing affect those without such skills? ... How were writing and communication shaped by social, political, and cultural contexts, and how were those contexts themselves shaped by writing and communication?”6 And, did women letter-writers then become women document commissioners?

We are familiar with a late antique Egypt in which business was transacted and registered primarily in Greek. To choose Coptic for a document that had to embody and preserve evidential validity in a court of law implied that the document’s originator envisioned some practical advantage to him- or herself in that choice. People of the document-producing class, concerned with its property and its transmission and economically connected to the wider Late Roman state,7 generated and kept documents that had both performative and evidential value. So their choice of what language to use for what has been termed “activity-based” writing8 was positioned in a web of considerations of administrative efficiency, local identity, and even religious and cultural value. Was gender a factor as well?

In the fourth century we find Coptic being used for business accounts. Our prized examples here are six of the Kellis pieces.9 These comprise two papyri and four inscribed wooden boards that record receipt and outgo having to do with what seems to be a textile- and garment-making business (‘women’s work’?). The editors suggest that at least some of them were written by a woman, who ran the business and kept track of its transactions and resources. However, they are not legal documents in our sense, rather running notebooks and lists: though if a woman was the detail-conscious business-person and writer of Coptic, this would be of interest.

Documentary Coptic, so different from literary, was a functional language, one that was taught as a professional technique10 and employed in the realm of organized text production.11 The discourse of a legal document has special characteristics:12 it is “institutional, rational, and axiomatic”. The Egypt of Justinian and his successors, reorganized by Edict 13 just before the plague, was certainly law-intensive. And so by the sixth century at the very latest13 the choice of Coptic for documents was made.

Let us survey our material and look for signs of female agency in it.14 In her report on some 400 Oxyrhynchite Coptic texts,15 Sarah Clackson stated that she found few Coptic legal documents and that Greek seemed to have been preferred for legal instruments while non-literary Coptic was used more in accounts and lists (as well as letters from and to elite women). The Hermopolite Coptic documents are mostly private, and only one, an agreement about a betrothal (of uncertain date), mentions a woman. In the bilingual Panopolite archive from the turn of the seventh century only one document concerns a woman, again the betrothal contract for the principal’s daughter.16 For the Thebaid (mostly Epiphanius material), no pre-641 item is an actual legal document; while the Budge papyrus and its relatives, spanning until after 641, do deal with property transactions based on inheritance from a woman. Most Elephantine documentary pieces, also not formal, are related to debts; we find two women borrowing cash and two female weavers contracting debts, as well as a young woman apprenticed to a priest for work.17

I now concentrate on the Coptic legal papyri from Aphrodite, controversial as to their date.18 Dioscorus the poet, lawyer and teacher (ca. 520-585), known for his bilingual archive that included a Greek-Coptic glossary, wrote Coptic arbitrations for legal cases involving women. One records a dispute about the property of a deceased deacon being contested between two sets of his children, by a first and a second wife. A slightly earlier one records a dispute about property that is being ceded, property that was inheritedor notby the two sons of a woman’s two marriages.19 There has recently been an interesting suggestion20 that the complex legal situations brought about by multiple marriages in late antiquity were what generated more and more of this sort of paperwork. In the above two cases both plaintiffs, Victorine and Mesiane, were women.

The other, later Coptic Aphrodite documents also involve women as document originators in all four out of the four transactions. (In this bilingual, related assemblage, four texts are Coptic and three are Greek.) Widows (Thaumaste, Taham, Tsyra) sell and cede property, immovable (land) and movable (a farm wagon), and the second husband of one of those widows sells house property he has acquired control over through his wife’s having inherited it from her deceased first husband. (In the three related Greek documents a widow and an apparently single woman [Judith and Eudoxia] sell movable and house property.) Here we have women clients hiring both Coptic-writing and Greek-writing notaries (in one case a bilingual notary). Can one discern a pattern of women being more comfortable hiring Coptic notaries? I once thought so, but now am not sure. In the bilingual documentation preserved as records of the temporal affairs of the monastery of the Apostles founded by Dioscorus’ father Apollos,21 out of 28 texts, 6 are in Greek (3 leases, 2 contracts, 1 letter) and none involves a woman, while 22 are in Coptic of which 19 are letters (7 mentioning or greeting women; one mentions a woman requesting an arbitration). And yet when it came time for a widow without guardian22 to rent a town property with a courtyard from the governing body of that same monastery, in A.D. 563,23 the document of lease is in Greek. Finally, in the still unpublished Coptic material from Aphrodite24 only one of the eight texts involves a woman, and that is a letter to Dioscorus from someone describing herself as “his most humble sister”. So that conforms to the Coptic-epistolography pattern.

If you were an educated and propertied woman in this bilingual society, what might it have meant to make the choice of commissioning a notary to use Coptic, in order to record your transaction in a medium worthy to be kept in your family archive?25 Did availability of scribes help determine language choice? Who was on hand with affordable services and adequate legal knowledge and phrase-generating competence to create the document you needed? Where would it be kept? Practical transactional needs were also a factor, including the domain of an interaction (family; employment of any, such as textile production; religion;26 education). Was the interaction directed outward towards possible government oversight or inward toward one’s own circle? Or both? Did inheritance practices, and women’s power to inherit property and dispose of it themselves,27 in late antique Egypt28 prompt those women to turn to the vernacular for the documents they needed?

I should like to adduce two church-related factors in making a choice of Coptic: religious buildings decorated with texts29 and preaching. In the sixth century we encounter built environments with walls covered in Coptic texts, a walk through which was (for those who could read) a short course of indoctrination: the Monastery of Epiphanius is our prime example.30 Being steeped in such a surrounding might well have prompted an elite woman to commission a Coptic-language notary for recording a transaction, especially one in which the property had been or was going to be church-owned.31

Homiletic in Egyptian was also a factor in the educational and cultural background of the time.32 Coptic preaching made creative use of the rules of classical rhetoric in the construction of a church power that depended upon landed and economic power.33 Female congregants who heard sermons in Coptic embedded in bilingual liturgies were experiencing through hearing what has been characterized as “the compenetration of document and literature,”34 and “the use of literary culture for practical and pragmatic ends ... the ‘documentarisation’ of literature and the ‘literarisation’ of the document ... the emergence of a new culture of writing.”35 As classical Greek rhetoric was the core curriculum subject for anyone studying to be a notary,36 it was a natural mode of expression for a practitioner over one-third of whose vocabulary was already Greek.37 The combination embeddedness and prestige of rhetorical Greek gave rise to the functional Fachprosa that documents were made of. This rhetorical sophistication enabled what we might think of as a kind of ‘Law French’ of its day.38 Women experienced rhetoric in and through Coptic preaching, and this experience might well have led them to employ Coptic-language notaries, clerical or lay.39 However, the church surrounding impinged upon both sexes, so gender does not appear to play a role in language choice stemming from such effects.

At Aphrodite six of the six Coptic-language documents ranging in date from the 560s to the 640s have women principals, yet some of the people are also known from Greek papyri; two of the notaries who wrote these pieces were bilingual. Also spanning from the sixth to the seventh century, of the five documents written by the bilingual Panopolite scribe, one is in Coptic and involves a family matter (a betrothal), but in one of the four Greek items the principals (house sellers) are women. The Hermopolite documents are more private in form and character, and do not seem to have been created with future evidential value in mind. I do not see gender playing a role here.

Did gender have anything to do with it? The short answer is: Not that I can see. There is no clear picture. Women are agents in Coptic documents, but when you put them into their bilingual environment along with Greek, the picture blurs. What are Coptic legal documents? Are they just “Greek documents in Coptic dress”?40the same world just with different labels? Or is there something Coptic about Coptic documents that helped spur their creation? In other premodern societies the vernacular charter was more of a narrative summary of what happened, less “official” than the Latin charter was.41 Yet when Dioscorus, Apa Rasios, and others recorded the transactions of their women clients in Coptic, they were both narratively summarizing a transaction (private) and creating an evidential record (public).

After writing letters, listing goods, and keeping running business accounts, someonepossibly prompted by Justinian’s Novel on documents of 53742commissioned a notary to engross a document in Coptic. Was that first someone a woman? I don’t know. There appeared a felt need to couch this material in the vernacular. Only a larger database more deeply studied will let us know why this was done, on whose behalf, and what previous models if any were being followed. Coptic documents, whoever were their writers, should remain a naturally-assumed part of our evidence for studying Egypt as part of the wider Mediterranean world.43

1 Cf. P. Fewster, “Bilingualism in Roman Egypt,” in Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and the Written Word, ed. J.N. Adams et al. (Oxford 2002) 220-246.

2 In earlier eras if a bilingual archive was discovered only the Greek texts tended to get published: the Coptic got put away and forgotten.

3 C. Reintges, “Code-Mixing Strategies in Coptic Egyptian,” LingAeg 9 (2001) 193-237, here 194.

4 T.S. Richter, Rechtssemantik und forensische Rhetorik (Leipzig 2002) 11-27.

5 R.S. Bagnall, “Gender, Language, and Letters in Late Antique Egypt,” Dumbarton Oaks lecture, 2002 (I thank him for a copy).

6 Catherine Holmes, “Written Culture in Byzantium and Beyond: Contexts, Contents and Interpretations,” in Literacy, Education and Manuscript Transmission in Byzantium and Beyond, ed. eadem and Judith Waring (Leiden 2002) 1-31, here 2.

7 J. Banaji, Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance (Oxford 2001) lays out this picture in detail.

8 S. Franklin, Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus (Cambridge 2002) 276-279.

9 I thank Kent Rigsby for helping me check P.Kell.Copt. 44-49.

10 The teaching and learning of Coptic in late antique schools is still being studied. See most recently R. Cribiore, “Greek and Coptic Education in Late Antique Egypt,” in Ägypten und Nubien in spätantiker und christlicher Zeit, ed. S. Emmel et al. (Wiesbaden 1999) 2:279-286.

11 Richter, Rechtssemantik, 1-8.

12 See P. Goodrich, “Law and Language: An Historical Critical Introduction,” Journal of Law and Society 11 (1984) 173-206an article all papyrologists ought to read.

13 Perhaps even in the (less well documented) fifth, and indeed with women playing a partwomen such as those studied by Rebecca Krawiec, Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery (Oxford 2002)but we have less evidence to work with. For example, if a presumably property-possessing woman physician entered Shenoute’s monastery, did she make any property dispositions, and if so what language did she choose to record them in?

14 I am guided by Joelle Beaucamp, Le statut de la femme à Byzance, ive-viie siècles (Paris 1992), esp. 2:385-440 and the statistics that can be got out of these appendices; and A. Arjava, Women and Law in Late Antiquity (Oxford 1996).

15 †Sarah Clackson, “Coptic Oxyrhynchus,” in Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts (Oxford, forthcoming).

16 L.S.B. MacCoull in Cd’E 70 (1995) 347-350.

17 B. Porten, The Elephantine Papyri (Leiden 1996) 569-602.

18 L.S.B. MacCoull, “P.Mich.Inv. 6898 Revisited,” ZPE 141 (2002) 199-203; R.S. Bagnall and K.A. Worp, “Dating the Coptic Legal Documents from Aphrodite,” and MacCoull, “Yet Once More P.Mich.Inv. 6898 and Its Relatives,” both forthcoming. Some treatments hew closely to the texts themselves, while others bring in the wider cultural issues.

19 L.S.B. MacCoull. Dioscorus of Aphrodito (Berkeley 1988) 36-47; Richter, Rechtssemantik, 23.

20 P. Van Minnen, “Dioscorus and the Law,” in Learned Antiquity: Scholarship and Society in the Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and the Early Medieval West, ed. A.A. MacDonald et al. (Leuven 2003) 115-135 (I thank him for an offprint). According to his reconstruction Dioscorus’ father Apollos also had two marriages and two sets of children.

21 L.S.B. MacCoull, “The Apa Apollos Monastery of Pharoou (Aphrodito) and its Papyrus Archive,” Le Muséon 106 (1993) 21-63.

22 Cf. Arjava, Women and the Law, 147-149.

23 J.-L. Fournet, “Un document inédit des archives de Dioscore d’Aphrodité au Musée Égyptien,” in Egyptian Museum Collections Around the World (Cairo 2002) 1:397-407 (I thank him for a copy).

24 Listed in J.-L. Fournet, “Une lettre copte d’Aphrodité? (Révision de SB Kopt. I 290),” in Etudes Coptes VIII (Lille-Paris 2003) 163-175, here 175 (again I thank him for a copy).

25 What follows has been aided by J.N. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge 2003), esp. 383-395, 398-399, 416, 534-541, 589-595; and by J. Milroy, “Internal vs. External Motivations for Linguistic Change,” Multilingua 16 (1997) 311-323. I greatly benefited from attending the Bilingualism Symposium at Arizona State University in spring 2003.

26 Compare the remarks of S.D. Driver, John Cassian and the Reading of Egyptian Monastic Culture (New York 2002) 113-118 on the interaction of reading, text, and self.

27 In twelfth-century England, for example, there are special records of lands owned by women, the Rotuli de dominabus: see S.H. Johns, Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power in the Twelfth-Ventury Anglo-Norman Realm (Manchester-New York 2003) 165-193, 231-245. Johns maintains that “... the nature of the lands held by women ... affected their powers of alienation, inheritance and, crucially, their place, power and identity in society” (3) and stresses “the way that social status, gender, the female life cycle and patterns of land tenure impacted upon the multiple identities of the women” (167). These documents’ creation was a top-down procedure, by royal enquirers sent out to operate in the state language (Latin).

28 Joelle Beaucamp, “Donne, patrimonio, chiesa (Bisanzio, iv-vii secolo),” in Il Tardoantico alle soglie del duemila, ed. Giulia Lanata (Pisa 2000) 249-266.

29 Cf. Franklin, Writing and Society, 233: “... the physical church provided the most complex and saturated environment for the interplay of graphic signs ...”.

30 See L.S.B. MacCoull in GRBS 39 (1998) 307-324. By the twelfth century south of the border this would produce the bilingual-text-lined tomb of Archbishop George in Old Dongola (D. Welsby, The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia [London 2002] 66, Plate I).

31 Although of course other principals, like the one of Eg.Mus. S.R. 3733(3) (ed. Fournet: above n. 30), used Greek.

32 Good statistics are found in Teresa Morgan, “Literary Culture in Sixth-Century Egypt,” in Learned Antiquity, ed. MacDonald et al., 147-161 (though she does not single out homilies). (Dr Morgan informs me that, while the LDAB is being expanded to include Coptic, only three homilies are included so far.)

33 Krawiec, Shenoute and the Women, 4-7, 54-55 and elsewhere.

34 J.-L. Fournet, “Dans le cabinet d’un homme de lettres,” in Des Alexandries 2, ed. C. Jacob (Paris 2003) 59-85, here 81 (I thank him for a copy).

35 J.-L. Fournet, “Between Literary Production and Cultural Change: The Poetic and Documentary Production of Dioscorus of Aphrodite,” in Learned Antiquity, ed. MacDonald et al., 101-114, here 102, 112, 111.

36 We do not yet find women notaries attested; in this paper I look for women clients.

37 Cf. Fournet, “Poetic and Documentary Production,” 104. On homiletics see also Mary Cunningham, “The Sixth Century: A Turning-Point for Byzantine Homiletics?” in The Sixth Century, End or Beginning?, ed. Pauline Allen and Elizabeth Jeffreys (Brisbane 1996) 176-186.

38 I have benefited from a discussion with Professor W. Hamilton Bryson of the University of Richmond School of Law, who reminds me that in law a word is a spoken thing, not a written thing. This ‘rule of idem sonans’ is clearly operative in the use of Greek legal terms in Coptic documents in different dialects.

39 Of the bilingually-productive notaries we know of, Dioscorus of Aphrodite and Paul of This were laymen, Apa Rasios of Aphrodite a cleric: no real pattern is discernible.

40 What Umberto Eco would describe as “... a Linguistic Substance (1) that conveys a Content (1) [being] transformed into a Linguistic Substance (2) that aims at conveying the same Content (1)”: Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (London 2003) 134.

41 A.J. Robertson, Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge 1956) xxi.

42 See CSBE 2 (Leiden 2004) 45, 47.

43 In loving memory, as always, of Mirrit Boutros Ghali (“Wissend bin ich / nur weil ich dich liebe” [Siegfried, 6604-5]).