A Runaway Child Bride

Jennifer Cromwell

How early was too early to marry in the ancient world? If the answer is connected to being an adult, then what is an adult? And does that question differ for men and women? Is it simply a question of reaching sexual maturity (puberty), which was older in the ancient world than it is today, or are there different societal constraints on what it means to be grown up? While we’re asking questions, how much do modern, western views (with our longer life expectancies and lower child and childbirth mortality rates) impact our understanding of this issue?

A letter written on a limestone ostracon by “the humblest Mark”, a well-known figure and priest, to a couple, Papnoute and Elisabeth, concerns a “young girl” that is in their care, who has run away from her husband:

“You know that I wrote, advising you, again, saying “You are my brethren and I do not want to hear anything ugly against you!” Now, I have been informed that you are holding onto the young girl who is with you. … If you continue not to teach the man’s wife that she is to join him and obey him, just like every wife, and to do his bidding, then know that I will excommunicate you, until she stops being so disturbed.”

O.Lips.Copt. 24

The tone and content, advocating subservience of the wife to her husband – and stating that any other behaviour is “disturbed” –, is jarring to many modern readers. But to an early Christian audience, leaving your spouse without just cause was not permitted, and the only just cause was adultery. In a letter, bishop Abraham, who founded a monastery at Deir el-Bahri (on top of the mortuary temple of Hatschepsut), expounds against divorce (O.Crum 72): “I have been further informed that some have divorced their wives, without reasons of adultery.” Anybody culpable in divorce will be excommunicated, including:

  • the woman who abandons her husband and marries another;
  • the person who causes a married couple to separate;
  • the scribe who draws up a divorce document.

In order to support his stance, Abraham quotes Luke 16:18: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another is an adulterer, and he who marries a divorced woman is an adulterer.”

For the church, the ideal state was for a man and wife to remain together. In our first letter, the bride is called a young girl. Does Mark’s use of this designation mean that she (and she is never named) was considered young for marriage, even by the standards of the day – maybe only on the cusp of puberty? Perhaps Papnoute and Elisabeth were her parents, to whom she fled, away from her older husband.

No further letters from Mark to or from Papnoute and Elisabeth are known; we are left with only silence surrounding the ultimate fate of the girl.

oLipsCopt 24 + Abraham + DeB.jpg
Left: O.Lips.Copt. 24 (c) Ägyptisches Museum – Georg Steindorff; Centre: Apa Abraham. Icon of Apa Abraham in the Bode Museum Berlin. (c) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Right: monastery on top of Deir el-Bahri – see W. Godlewski. 1986. Le monastère de St. Phoibammon. Warsaw: PWN–Éditions scientifique de Pologne. The photographs of the site that Godlewski publishes, including this, were taken by Howard Carter in 1894/5 and are now in the archives of the Egypt Exploration Society (c) EES.

Technical Details (Text 1)
Provenance: Western Thebes, Egypt.
Date: Early 7th century CE.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: Egyptian Museum / Ägyptisches Museum, University of Leipzig, Leipzig (inv. 502).
Designation: O.Lips.Copt. 24 (previously O.Crum Ad. 13); see Checklist for publication information.
Bibliography: T. Sebastian Richter (2014) “Daily Life: Documentary Evidence,” in Coptic Civilization: Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra, 131–144. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. (see pages 135–136).

Technical Details (Text 2)
Provenance: Western Thebes, Egypt.
Date: Late 6th / early 7th century CE.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: British Museum, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (EA32886).
Designation: O.Crum 72; see Checklist for publication information.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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