Legal texts and legal practices in Christian Nubia – a particular religious ritual?

In the frame of my post-doctoral project, I am studying the material that has been found at several sites of Christian Nubia, namely Sur Island, Attiri Island, Serra East and Qasr el Wizz. Although the vast majority are religious texts, there are also in the collection of Sur Island and Qasr el Wizz a couple of manuscripts that are of documentary character. Linguistically, they are all written in Old Nubian and mainly on leather sheets, but one parchment manuscript from Wizz is in Coptic with some Old Nubian words intercalated. Both because of their fragmentary state of preservation and the erosion of the surfaces, and because of the difficulties in fully understanding what a document written in Old Nubian is actually saying, it is quite often difficult even to pinpoint the genre of the document: a legal instrument? a contract or a copy thereof? a simple account or a list of agricultural outputs and inputs between institutions and/or individuals? In order to answer such questions, a thorough analysis of both the formulae and the text itself can be assisted by the identification of similar formulae, expressions, and ideas appearing either in better preserved texts or in different cultural and linguistic contexts that might have influenced practices in Christian Nubia.

When it comes to the manuscripts of documentary character found in Nubia, the DBMNT lists 168 records, 75 of which are letters, perhaps the easiest category to identify. Of the remaining 93 documents, the largest category is the legal texts with 48 records in all. A first important observation is that 36 of these legal texts are written on leather, and this is in fact the largest category of leather manuscripts from Nubia, with only 3 belonging to the categories of documents of official or economic character, and 7 remaining unidentified. There was obviously some connection between the legal practice and the use of leather as a writing surface in Christian Nubia. Therefore, the leather manuscripts found on Sur Island can very well have belonged to the same category of texts, considering that I have good parallels in the level of material evidence (i.e. leather manuscripts) deriving from more securely identified texts (i.e. documents of clear legal character). One needs, however, to be able to substantiate this by concrete data deriving from the texts of the documents themselves. And this is where the problems (may) start…

In the following I will try to summarize my understanding and position myself in relation to two major contributions in the field of study of legal practices in Christian Nubia: the first is the book “Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History” by Giovanni Ruffini; and the second an article by Maria Nowak and Bartosz Wojciechowski on “Elements of Legal Practice in Christian Nubia” that appeared in the 42nd volume of the Journal of Juristic Papyrology (2012), in pages 195-228.

The first to discuss documentary patterns used in Nubian legal practice were Mokhtar Khalil and Detlef Müller in their paper “Das unternubische Rechtswesen in Mittelalter” (Nubica IV/V, 1994/1995, pp. 15-23). They based their discussion on 5 legal texts in Coptic and 2 in Old Nubian and concluded that the model was adopted from Coptic milieus in Egypt, transplanted almost exactly into Nubia, and remained in the Coptic language until the turn from the first to the second millennium CE, when Old Nubian took over as the language of both state and church in Makuria. From that moment onwards, a simplification process may account for the divergences observed between legal texts in Coptic and in Old Nubian. (see Nowak & Wojciechowski, pp. 195-6).

“Nearly two decades later, Giovanni Ruffini – whose interpretation was based on many more documents than Khalil and Müller – proposed a very similar explanation for the origin of legal documentary patterns in Nubia” (Nowak & Wojciechowski, p. 196). However, Nowak and Wojciechowski correctly point out that there is not just one Coptic model for legal texts, but in fact two, a general one proposed by Tonio Sebastian Richter, and another based on deeds of sale from the Theban region proposed by Luis Boulard (ibid., p. 197). Ruffini seems to follow the second model, but, again according to Nowak & Wojciechowski, this choice is problematic for a formalistic reason: there are very few legal documents from Nubia to constitute a trustworthy basis of detailed comparison; we can only point out certain similarities of general character (p. 198).

When I first read the arguments of Nowak and Wojciechowski, I was impressed by the thoroughness of the analysis, but was also troubled by the impasse that they were leading us into. It seemed as if a historian was denied the possibility of making any analysis of legal practices in Nubia in general, but that it would only be possible to make remarks on some “interesting features” (p. 214). Especially when I read that the sources examined display similarities of general nature – for instance, the formulary – I started feeling uncomfortable with the conclusions. For it would seem to me that if the formulary of two text traditions is similar, then the degree of similarity would be analogous to the degree of influence exercised by the one upon the other. I needed to discuss the matter with someone who has a better understanding than I on such topics.

At the University of Bergen there is a long-standing tradition of analysis of legal documents as historical sources. Perhaps people know best the works of Rex Sean O’Fahey, or of Anders Bjørkelo. But who knew that a lot of the breakthroughs that O’Fahey achieved during the years that he was analyzing the land documents from Darfur, while his colleague Jay Spaulding was analyzing the documents of the Funj kingdom and later post-medieval societies of the Middle Nile, were in fact the outcome of discussions about the formulaic elements that built up these texts and that were analyzed by the insightfulness of Richard Holton Pierce who has huge experience of studying legal texts of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, and Islamic Egypt? Yes, it was to R.H. Pierce that I turned for help.

After he read both Ruffini’s book and the article by Nowak & Wojciechowski, we agreed that the bulk of the analysis of section 1 (The Nature of the Legal Texts from Nubia) and of section 2 (Nubian Sale) were mostly penned by Maria Nowak. So, Pierce concluded: “Her background in Roman and Ancient Law enables her to offer a subtle interpretation of the body of the text. Otherwise one finds it difficult to see that the two authors <i.e. Nowak vs. Ruffini> disagree on fundamentals. Both recognize that the use of documentation reflects the historical experience of the Nubian predecessors, a historical tradition of the Nile Valley. However, the historical approach makes possible to see the political and social context in which the documents came into being”.

Precisely! That’s what I had admired in Ruffini’s analysis from the first time I read his book, and I quote from p. 77: “…while Nubian land sales may adhere to a general legal structure, the variations within that structure are crucial for understanding the society of Christian Nubia.”

Let’s return to the formulaic elements in the Nubian legal documents, for they do not differ in general from the “Coptic model”, since they always have an invocation to the trinity as the opening clause, followed by the dating clauses, and closing with the witnesses’ testimonies. What is different is that these formulae are informed by the Nubian reality: on the one hand, the listing of Nubian secular and religious officers; on the other, witnesses who do not sign the document but rather testify to the validity of the scribe’s work and participate in festivities that seal an agreement in the manner that can still be seen in similar practices in Darfur, for example (cf. beer parties according to Fredrik Barth and Gunnar Haaland).

Thus to my understanding, legal documents in Nubia carry in their material presence the binding authority of the legal act that they represent; this representation is embodied by the scribe who acts in the name of a precise political authority/entity, the king(dom) of Makuria. The possessor of the document has the proof of the ownership of the thing conveyed in the act the document records in the name of the reigning king and/or his officers. However, as Nowak suggests, we cannot know the legal framework of the Makuritan state, and we cannot be certain as to the sanctions and/or penalties, which the documents could impose if their terms were not met. Sometimes we cannot even know what the whole process was actually about. We will need to improve our understanding of the Old Nubian language, linguistically and interpretatively, and return to the content of the published texts more carefully in the future. Perhaps from my meetings with Pierce more insights into such topics will arise and may appear from here or in other venues.

But the questions that really intrigue me after this first scrutinization of the existing literature on Legal Practice in Christian Nubia can be phrased as follows:

The scribes were able to transform the traditions of legal practices in the lower Nile Valley (as they were valid from at least Late Antiquity in Egypt) into a Nubian legal practice informed by the African context, in which it was performed. These scribes were the main agents in a ritual (comparable to a sacramentum?) with binding results in the frame of some, as yet unknown, Nubian legal system. How conscious were the Nubians of the religious implications of such a ritual (something that Ruffini alludes to)? And how possible is it to pinpoint the legal “schools” of Egypt from which the Nubian scribes must have learnt the art of composing legal texts (something that Nowak seems to deny that is possible to trace)?

The scriptural links with Egypt and the religiosity of legal practices in Christian Nubia render such investigations one of the most alluring aspects of my post doctoral project on Relgious Literacy in Christian Nubia.

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