BMCR 2018.11.21

Recording Village Life: A Coptic Scribe in Early Islamic Egypt. New texts from ancient cultures

, Recording Village Life: A Coptic Scribe in Early Islamic Egypt. New texts from ancient cultures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. xxiv, 287. ISBN 9780472130481, 9780472123117. ebook.


This is the revised version of Jennifer Cromwell’s PhD dissertation (Liverpool 2008). The author originally aimed at studying and reediting the corpus of Djeme papyri ( P.KRU). The enormity of the task led her to focus on the texts drawn up by a specific scribe, Aristophanes, son of John, who lived in Western Thebes during the first half of the 8th century.1 Not only did the author explore Aristophanes’ scribal practices, but she also considered people and procedures involved in the documents. This original perspective allows her to draw an interesting portrait of the society of a village in the early Islamic period and to offer a stimulating study on a scribe’s life and practices.

A general introduction sets Aristophanes in his geographical, historical and cultural context (“Chapter 1. A Scribe in His Time and Place”). In the second chapter (“Building Aristophanes’ Dossier”) Cromwell presents the corpus of Aristophanes’ texts. Most of them (120) can be attributed to him without any doubt thanks to his subscription. Some others (22), in which the signature is lost or that were not signed at all, can be attributed to him on the base of a set of criteria, including linguistic features, paleography and the context of the document. The author argues convincingly that no attribution can be made using only one of the criteria. One can finally add to the dossier the 6 texts in which Aristophanes acts as amanuensis or witness. Most of the texts are administrative documents (121), mainly tax receipts (106), while only few of them are private documents (22). Cromwell’s study of the chronology results in new dates for a number of texts (see in particular the useful table on p. 78). The first precisely dated text was written in January 724 and the last one on November 756. Especially interesting is the study of the effects of age on Aristophanes’ script (p. 45-46).

Chapter 3 is devoted to Aristophanes’ scribal practices (“Putting Pen on Papyrus: Scribal Practices and Process”). His writing style is briefly described, too briefly in my eyes, and the evolution of his handwriting in old age is discussed in more detail (p. 70-80). Cromwell shows that P.KRU 15 (November 756) was corrected by another scribe, probably the one who wrote for Aristophanes the whole text of P.KRU 87 (756-758). A section enumerates the numerous witnesses who wrote their testimony with their own hand on documents drawn up by Aristophanes. The picture of a literate élite becomes obvious from these pages. Finally, the author addresses the question of who was involved in notarial activities. In such a paleographic chapter, more figures showing specific texts and handwritings would have been welcome.

Chapter 4 (“Recording Taxes”) analyses the taxation system in 8th century western Thebes from the fiscal documents, mainly those written by Aristophanes. Most of his texts are indeed tax receipts and were written during a very short period, between April/May 727 and October 729.2 The question of the mobility of taxpayers is also analyzed from different kinds of documents.

The next chapter (“Recording Private Lives”) undertakes the study of some families who used Aristophanes’ services. In my view, this chapter shows the limits of the original perspective of the book: focusing on Aristophanes’ documents sometimes gives the impression of collecting interesting stories, but without paying attention to the big picture. More interestingly, Cromwell sheds light on the personal relationships that existed between Aristophanes and his clients.

The last chapter (“Aristophanes’ Personal and Professional Lives”) provides the reader with a biography of Aristophanes. He was obviously a member of the village élite and owned a house as well as a piece of land. He was the son of a man called Johannes and the brother of Johannake, who acted as scribe and was writing in the same style as Aristophanes. He had at least one son, called Leontios. On the other hand, despite the Hellenic name, Cromwell demonstrates that he was not related to the scribe Polycrates son of Johannes, who was not from the same generation as Aristophanes. The question of the scribe’s proficiency in Greek is discussed several times and Cromwell argues that Aristophanes cannot be described as a bilingual scribe and that his knowledge of Greek was in fact limited to legal formulaic expressions: “Aristophanes was not a bilingual scribe. His use of Greek was purely functional and for clearly defined purposes” (p. 178); “Aristophanes was a Coptic scribe: Coptic was his first language, and regardless of the origin of his name, he was part of an Egyptian rural community. He was not a Greek-speaking Egyptian (…)” (p. 189); and also “The receipts that Aristophanes wrote in Greek differ in form minimally from the mixed-language receipts. He did not need—and almost certainly did not acquire— a high level of competency in Greek to be able to write them” (p. 101-102). This, however, looks like an argumentum a silentio : his use of Greek is indeed formulaic and we do not have texts written by Aristophanes entirely in Greek, but, as explained on p. 102, we do not expect to find Greek documents in eighth-century Djeme. We cannot then infer that Aristophanes would not have been able to produce such documents. We simply do not know.

Three appendices complete the book. Appendix 1 is a catalogue of all Aristophanes’ documents: papyri (nos. 1-26) and ostraca (nos. 27-142) he wrote and the texts in which he acts as amanuensis or witness (nos. 143-148). Appendix 2 gives the edition of 10 new ostraca written by Aristophanes. The conversion of the date in some texts should be revised.3 In the safe conduct (no. 9), one should read and restore l. 2-3 as follows: ⲉⲓⲥ ⲡⲗⲟⲅ(ⲟⲥ) ⲙ|[ⲡⲛⲟⲩⲧⲉ ⲡⲡⲁⲛⲧⲟⲕ]ⲁ̣ⲧ̣ⲱⲣ ⲛ̣ⲧⲟⲟⲧⲕ, “here is the assurance from God almighty to you” (cf. O.Vind. Copt. 63, 7-10). Appendix 3 gives a table with the information from the tax receipts written by Aristophanes (date, taxpayer, signatories…) as well as corrections to published texts.

To sum up, the book is well presented, despite several typos in Greek words,3 and provides a glimpse into the life and work of the scribe Aristophanes. The study of the paleography, the insights into micro-history and social environment will definitely be useful both to papyrologists and to historians interested in late antique and early Islamic Egypt. ​


1. On the subject, see also from the same author, “Aristophanes son of Johannes: An Eight-Century Bilingual Scribe?” in A. Papaconstantinou (ed.), The Multilingual Experience in Egypt, from the Ptolemies to the ‘Abbāsids, Farnham, 2009, p. 221–232.

2. On the tax documents from Djeme, and especially the other scribes who wrote them, see A. Boud’hors, A. Delattre, C. Louis and T.S. Richter (eds.), Coptica Argentoratensia. Textes et documents de la troisième université d’été de papyrologie copte (Strasbourg, 18-25 juillet 2010) (P. Stras. Copt.), Paris, 2010, p. 209–239.

3. No. 1 dates 26 May 727 (read Π(α)ῦ(νι) instead of Ἁθ̣ύ̣(ρ)); no. 3, 10 June 727 (read Π(α)ῦ(νι) instead of Π(αχ)ώ(ν)); no. 8, 20 July 729 (as in Appendix 3, p. 255). In text 4 the date is correct, but read ἰ(ν)δ(ικτίωνος) ιβ instead of ἰ(ν)δ(ικτίωνος) ιγ (as in Appendix 3, p. 254).

4. For example, p. 48, n. 51, read ἐνδ(οξοτάτῳ), παγάρχων, Διοσπ(ό)λ(εως), Λάτω(ν πόλεως). ​