Documents and Institutions in the Medieval Middle East is a collaborative project that aims to develop a specific corpus of Geniza texts: documents produced in the legal and administrative institutions of the eastern Mediterranean under Fatimid and Ayyubid rule (909–1250).
The project’s main goals are (1) to build a framework for the systematic study of medieval Middle Eastern legal and administrative documents in order to make them legible as historical sources; and (2) to extend the available corpus of those documents by working through clusters of documents grouped together by diplomatic structure.
The idea that the pre-modern Islamic world failed to develop stable institutions has shaped scholarly debates about Middle Eastern societies and their long-term development. But these debates have by and large failed to draw on some of the best evidence we possess of medieval Middle Eastern institutions: the documents they produced. Thousands of such documents survived in the Cairo Geniza, and they provide rich evidence for how institutions worked at an everyday level and how they structured social relations.
The use of Geniza documents is challenging in part because of the technical and linguistic skills it requires, and in part because of the challenges of finding them in dozens of libraries and private collections worldwide. But they are also underused because they are, in ways that have not been widely appreciated, technical texts built on specific terms, formulae, structures and protocols. Many of these technical features have yet to be systematically mapped. But mapping them is a necessary first step to making the documents fully accessible as evidence for the workings of the society that produced them.
By developing methodologies that will permit systematic analysis of these documents, the project’s members hope to lay the groundwork for a new approach to the history of documents and institutions in the medieval Middle East—one based not on the theoretical accounts given by chroniclers and jurists, but on the tangible evidence left by medieval Middle Eastern courts and governments themselves.
By the end of the project period, the team will (1) produce a print handbook on how to read documentary texts from the Geniza as sources for institutional history and (2) add 200 new document transcriptions and translations to the Princeton Geniza Project corpus.
DIMME is supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (2014–2017) and the American Council of Learned Societies (2015–2017). It was hosted by the Johns Hopkins University from 2014–2015, and moved to Princeton University in 2015.