It’s a story that resonates throughout the ages: a man abandons his wife and their children for another woman. The story could be of a woman abandoning her husband and kids, but the story on this 7th century AD papyrus is of a man who leaves his wife. His sick wife. And their four children.
“… listen to my mistreatment by Paul, my husband […] I had three children with him before I became ill. God knows that after I became ill, I had another [child …] When he saw me, that God had brought his illness upon me, he abandoned me and left with another woman. He left [us …] and I was abandoned.”SB Kopt. IV 1709
The unnamed wife was awarded an annual alimony (here, the Greek word analôna) from her ex-husband of barley, oil, wine, and items of clothing – the staples of life in Egypt – to support herself and her children. Paul, however, had failed to provide the full amount, giving his ex-wife only one-quarter of the stipulated quantity of barley. He was in breach of contract and so she wrote this petition in order to exact the full amount owed her: “I am not asking for anything except the alimony that he established with me, because I am ill […] so I can live on it.”
Marriage in Egyptian villages was quite an informal matter, with cohabitation and societal recognition of this as the important factors. In Coptic, marriage was loosely referred to as sitting with another individual. There are almost no marriage or divorce documents written in this phase of the language (there were some, and more in earlier periods and in Greek, but these will be left for other Papyrus Stories). Yet, women did have access to authority figures who could assist them in difficult times, as this document tells us. In this particular case, our abandoned woman could call for official assistance against her husband because the only cause for divorce in the Christian period was adultery, and Paul was guilty of that. Whether or not he remained guilty of not providing alimony is another matter.
The papyrus document preserving this matter is not the finished text that was sent to an official, but most likely an earlier draft, as indicated by several factors: the papyrus was used for multiple texts, including three lists and writing exercises. The petition itself also lacks an address and even the name of the woman in question is not stated—the only name is that of the negligent husband, Paul. Such a document would not be sent to an official. Instead, the scribe first produced this draft to ensure the details were correct before producing a more formal piece of writing.
Provenance: Egypt; unknown location
Date: 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic Dialect)
Collection: Austrian National Library, Vienna; P.Vindob. K. 950
Designation: SB Kopt. IV 1709 (see ‘Checklist of Editions‘)
Bibliography: H. Buschhausen, U. Horak, and H. Harrauer (1995) Der Lebenskreis der Kopten. Dokumente, Textilien, Funde, Ausgrabungen (Vienna: Hollinek) pp. 10–11 [#10]; Jane Rowlandson, ed. (1998) Women & Society in Greek & Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 216; Walter C. Till (1938) “Eine koptische Alimentenforderung,” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie Copte 4: 71–78.