Struggling to Provide

In early December, one year in the seventh century, a man called Damianos from the Fayum asked for a cash loan and was given it from another man, Shenoute. Short loan contracts such as this one are pretty common, although the amount and type of details provided vary from case to case. What is unusual in Damianos’ text is that he explicitly states that the money (half a gold coin) will be spent on food for his children.

In the name of God. First, I, Damianos son of Cosma from Pagi in the Fayum, have written to Shenoute son of Elias from Fayum City. Look, I begged you and you promised me and got half a holokottinos for me as the loan. I spent it on grain (for) my children. I am ready to repay you it by Parmoute 1. Since you have done a kind thing for me – you acknowledged the cry (of) my children – I will repay it (lit. return it to its place), with my gratitude and without disagreement. 
Written Choiak 6, indiction year 13. 
+ I, Apater the leitourgosof Pagi, bear witness. 
+ I, papaAle, bear witness. +
Written by me, Paul son of Theodore. +

P.Mich.Copt. 19
P.Mich.Copt. 19 (c) University of Michigan Papyrus Collection (P.Mich.inv. 777)

Should this text and Damianos’ reason for the loan be taken at face value – was the loan intended to buy food to feed his family or is this hyperbole to secure the loan? Often in Coptic texts, people requesting loans simply state that it is for their need, without giving any more details. At times, the debtors are more explicit. In an unprovenanced text, SB Kopt. IV 1793, a man called Pamphilos asks for a substantial loan of 12 gold coins, adding that it is for the needs of the poor in his village. Other reasons include paying taxes, as is the case of the brethren of the monastery of Apa Apollo at Bala’izah who asked the local tax official (Abū ‘Amr) for 8 gold coins that they will repay in kind (P.Bal. II 102; early 8th century). As it is so uncommon in Coptic loan contracts for the debtor to be so explicit about why they need the loan, Damianos’ request – and his desperation – stands out all the more starkly.
We know nothing else about Damianos and his children. But, this short contract gives a brief glimpse into the challenges faced by some families. In hard financial times, the only option available to some parents to enable them to provide for – to feed – their children was to take out loans. Parmoute 1, Damianos’ repayment date, equates to 1 March, meaning that he had three months to repay this loan. Whether he was able to meet this deadline, and whether or not the hardship he faced was temporary or more long-term, is lost to us. We are left with but a brief picture of a difficult winter ahead for this family.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Fayum, Egypt
Date: 2/3 December (unknown year, probably 7th century)
Language: Coptic (Fayumic)
Collection: University of Michigan Papyrus Collection, Ann Arbor (P.Mich. inv. 777)
DesignationP.Mich.Copt. 19 (according to the Checklist of Editions)


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