One night, an angry mob marched across the Egyptian village Deir el-Medina with the intention of beating up a woman. The woman’s crime? She had been sleeping with a married man for the past eight months.
“Your people – their old and their young, both men and women – were on the move at night. They were coming, saying: ‘We are going to beat her and her people’.”
So begins this letter, written in hieratic and today held in the British Museum, which contains the only details we have about this matter.
As is often the case with letters, many of the points are not clear. The events are relayed in a series of reported statements from different individuals and it’s not always easy to determine where one ends and the next begins. To make matters more complicated, ‘your’ refers to different people at different times, depending on the nature of the reported speech. Furthermore, some vital details are simply not included: the name of the woman herself is unknown! This lack of identification may be because the letter was sent to her – there is no address (a messenger delivering the letter would know to whom it was being sent in the village), but the content suggests that this is the case.
Before the crowd reached the woman, a village official (again without a name, just the title ‘overseer of the estate’) intervened, stopping them in their path and asking them about their intentions. He is told:
“It’s eight whole months until today that he’s been having sex with that woman, even though he’s not (the?) husband! If he were the husband, would he not have sworn his oath about your woman?”
The letter recounts how the official asks the woman further questions about the relationship with the married man, who we learn is called Nesamenemope.
As for Nesamenemope, why did you accept him as your lover? Are you looking for adversaries? If only [they had not gone] by dark of night to carry off the things of that sweet boy, saying ‘We are going […] as well’; so they said. If this man wants you, let [him] enter the court with his wife, so he can swear an oath and come to your house. But, if he will not sort this out, sue him – (it’s) your word against his!
After dispensing this advice, the official’s final comment is to say that, while he held back the angry mob this time, he won’t do so again. The message is clear: the grown-ups need to get their relationships in order.
With the broad strokes of this affair clear enough, what about the crowd? Why are they angry and is this generally a comment on village punishment for known adulterers, and is the woman really the one at fault? The gathering crowd is not just made up of any old person in the village. The men and women, both young and old, are connected to Nesamenemope (presumably his kin, but this isn’t explicitly stated), and they intend not only to beat the woman in question, but also other people connected with her. As Leire Olabarria has noted in her recent book, Kinship and Family in Ancient Egypt, we may be seeing here punishment and protection meted out by informal networks, whether networks based on patronage or kinship, or a combination of both. In this light, the group of people do not necessarily reflect broader responses against women in adulterous affairs. Rather, they are acting to protect a member of their own network – Nesamenemope. Later in the text, when the official refers (mockingly) to the ‘sweet boy’, it becomes clear that they were also intending to retrieve Nesamenemope’s belongings from the woman’s house, further severing the ties between them.
The official’s advice is that, should Nesamenemope want to live with his lover, he needs to leave his wife officially. He refers to a court and an oath, suggesting that there is a legal process for divorce, which belies the seemingly informal nature of marriage in ancient Egypt that we see from other sources. John Gee advocates on the basis of this text that marriage was a more formal arrangement than has been supposed, requiring an oath and being recognized in court. However, why should marriage in Egypt conform with only one of these two options, i.e., a formal, legal status vs an informal living arrangement? In this case, an oath may have been required to acknowledge that Nesamenemope’s current wife would be free from any obligation towards him and would be able to remarry in the future. An oath may also have dealt with any property issues, for example. As the late Jaana Toivari-Viitala observed, there may have been far more ways in which men and women could live together in pharaonic Egypt, and we should avoid imposing modern, Western standards onto ancient situations.
Provenance: Deir el-Medina, Egypt.
Date: 1,189–1,077 BCE (late Dynasty 20).
Language: Late Egyptian (script: hieratic).
Collection: British Museum (EA 10416).
Designation: P.BM EA 10416 (also P.Salt 1821/131)
Bibliography: John Gee (2001), “Notes on Egyptian Marriage: P. BM 10416 Reconsidered,” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 15 (2001), pp. 17-25; Jac J. Janssen (1988) “Marriage problems and public reactions (P. BM 10416),” in Pyramid Studies and Other Essays Presented to I. E. S. Edwards, ed. by John Baines et al. (London: EES) pp. 134–137 + pl. 25–28; Jac J. Janssen (1991) Late Ramesside Letters and Communications (London: British Museum Press), pp. 28–31, pls. 15–18; Leire Olabarria (2020) Kinship and Family in Ancient Egypt: Archaeology and Anthropology in Dialogue (Cambridge: CUP), pp. 163–164; Edward Wente (1990) Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars Press), p. 203.
See also the text’s entry on the Deir el-Medina Database.
Jaana Toivari-Viitala (2001) Women at Deir el-Medina: A Study of the Status and Roles of the Female Inhabitants in the Workmen’s Community during the Ramesside Period (Leiden: NINO)
Jaana Toivari-Viitala (2013) ‘Marriage and Divorce’, in Elizabeth Frood and Willeke Wendrich (eds) UCLA Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt(Los Angeles), available open access here (a good source for further bibliography on the topic)