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The Hardships of Coptic Widows

Tuesday, September 27, 2022 - 07:00

For all that I sometimes emphasize the opportunities that single women (and especially widows) could have--opportunities that are often more varied than popular visions of history include--we shouldn't overlook that relentless disadvantages that women had in relation to men in similar circumstances. Many of the anecdotes in this article emphasize that a woman, acting alone, often had very little leverage to enforce her legal and social rights. And that gaining the support of some male authority could be the difference between success and failure. But women were part of complex social systems. These widows were not necessarily isolated and  helpless. The might need male legal assistance, but they also felt they had a right to certain types of assistance, and would pursue it with that understanding. As I note, this article feels a bit like a scrapbook of isolated anecdotes, but somtimes those snapshots are what give us the best picture of people's everyday lives.

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Full citation: 

Cromwell, Jennifer. 2019. “‘Listen to My Mistreatment’: Support Networks for Widows and Divorcées in the Coptic Record” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Cromwell, Jennifer. “‘Listen to My Mistreatment’: Support Networks for Widows and Divorcées in the Coptic Record”

This article is a narrowly-focused study of single, once-married women in Coptic Egypt, concerning their difficulties due to that state and the support networks available to them. It draws on non-literary evidence primarily from the 6th to 8th century from the area around Thebes. The evidence includes letters and incidental legal documents and focuses on local conditions at a village level.

The data shows women acting independently in a variety of economic contexts, but within this it can be difficult to distinguish married versus unmarried women. Widows tend to be easiest to identify, due to the use of specific vocabulary for them, or the tendency to reference their late husband. In other cases, the composition of specific households can be reconstructed from the evidence, even if larger demographic patterns are elusive.

Among these, we can sometimes identify households consisting of an adult woman and her children, with no husband/father present. While specific reference to a husband/father can identify a widow, the absence of an expected reference cannot distinguish between death, divorce, or the absence of any prior marriage.

Marriage and divorce were (still) relatively informal practices and Coptic records rarely refer to the actions directly. However there were economic and social pressures to remain married. Coptic Christian authorities viewed adultery as the only valid reason for divorce. And those who divorced for other reasons might be ostracized. But some references indicate that other reasons/contexts existed, and the only known surviving divorce agreement simply notes that the couple “agreed together and separated.”

Church officials encouraged widowed or divorced women to remain unmarried for moral reasons. Older widows were encouraged to become nuns. But more practical matters of finances and inheritance played a part, as well as the availability of support for from the wider family.

A man’s will might specify that his widow could not inherit if she remarried, likely out of concern that his property not leave the control of his descendants. But widows did remarry and the inheritance complications sometimes show up in the records. Some widows were wealthy enough that they could choose not to remarry. Some never-married women were wealthy enough that remaining so was an option.

The inventories recorded when women willed their property to religious institutions can document some significant resources, such as multiple houses and a share in a bakery or houses plus a share in a church property. Some no-longer-married women had significant business activities which might be large enough to involve employees.

Either in addition to property and business income, or as a substitute for them, close family we’re an important resource for unmarried women. An elderly widow might live with one of her children, or receive physical assistance even though financially comfortable.

A widow with no immediate family might turn to religious officials for substantial or social support that would typically be provided by family. (I’m skipping many of the fascinating individual stories.)

Women’s lack of ability to pursue their own legal matters as forcefully as a man could, meant that widows often needed a male figure to act for them. Sometimes religious leaders were asked to intervene on behalf of widows in disputes with their relatives. But it was also the case that secular authorities might be turned to for similar assistance.

Widows are easier to identify as such in the records than divorcées. In addition, there was a religious duty to provide support to widows, but the church frowned on divorce, therefore divorcées may have been less motivated to seek assistance when needed. But there is one record of a woman divorced by her husband who sought assistance in pursuing support from him for her children, as promised in their divorce contract.

[Note: If this feels like a somewhat random list of the circumstances widows might find themselves in, that’s an accurate understanding of the article’s contents.]

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historical