Race & Gender in the Global Middle Ages Working Group

Friday, September 22 at 12pm EST 

Craig Perry, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Jewish Studies
Emory University

“Everyday Human Trafficking: Hemispheric Reach, Local Intensity”

Abstract: This chapter mines the geniza corpus to make two arguments about the medieval slave trade. First, the trade in slaves was decentralized: individual buyers organized the transregional trafficking of individuals as one part of a larger mixed cargo of commodities, and traded within their own personal mercantile and family networks. I contend that this decentralized trade was a primary method of human trafficking that historians have overlooked. A medieval Middle Passage never existed; rather, epochal warfare and famine caused temporary pulses in the supply of slaves. Second, the center of gravity of the slave trade in Egypt was local, not transregional. Geniza and other contemporaneous sources show that many enslaved people changed owners several times during their lives and that sale was only one method by which Jews transferred enslaved property. Wedding dowries, gifts, and bequests were primary methods that households used to transfer enslaved people as both laborers and inter-generational wealth. Two additional claims emerge from these arguments. Though the slave trade to Egypt was transregional and included enslaved people from as far afield as India and Byzantium, the most intensively exploited regions for slave imports were Nubia and greater northeast Africa. A close reading of geniza documents alongside rabbinic writings also demonstrates the contingencies and ambiguities of racialization in the Middle Ages. All non-Muslim people outside Islamic territories were legally enslaveable. But Jewish sources reveal how Egyptians began to code “Black”-skinned people as “slaves” in their epistolary exchanges even though “Black” was not yet used as one of the many long-standing ethnic categories that scribes were required to note in bills of sale, such as Nubian, Byzantine, Indian, and Abyssinian.

Responder: Dr. Elizabeth Urban, West Chester University

Register at:

Friday, October 20 at 12pm EST 

Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga, Assistant Professor of History
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

“A Roman in Islamic Egypt: Memory and Identity in the Chronicle of John of Nikiu”

The Chronicle of John of Nikiu, written in Coptic in the 7th century but surviving only in the form of a 17th-century Ge’ez translation of an Arabic intermediary, is often treated as an expression of an Egyptian identity rooted in miaphysite Christianity and some degree of antipathy towards and alienation from the Roman state. These readings are informed by a preconceived notion that there was a great degree of continuity between the Coptic church of the Early Islamic period and the Alexandrian church of the Roman empire, and a tacit belief that the Council of Chalcedon created an ideological rift between Alexandria and Constantinople. In this chapter, which will appear in my forthcoming book on the Chronicle, I argue that John of Nikiu’s text in fact reveals a historian who seemed to conceive of the historical Egypt as a core territory of the Roman empire by virtue of the province’s role in Christian history. Furthermore, he seems to view himself, and the Christians of Egypt, as in some way inextricably linked, even tacitly hinting that, should the government and church in Constantinople adopt an anti-Chalcedonian position, the Arab invasion of Egypt could be undone. The implication of this conclusion not only effects our understanding of the emergence of a distinct Coptic identity, but also challenges teleological notions of the inevitability of the long-term presence of Islamic hegemony over formerly Roman lands, which often pervade Islamic narrative sources, and which tend to inform modern scholarship on the subject.

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