A Woman Doing Business

Jennifer Cromwell

A short letter from Antinoopolis (Sheikh Ibada) in central Egypt gives a glimpse into the life of a woman living in a major city sometime around the 7th century CE. In this letter, Tagape the daughter of Tromres (or possibly Tagape the woman from the south, as her mother’s name here could be read this way) writes to a man, Andreas, and his daughter, who is unnamed. She may have written the letter herself – there is no explicit reference to this, but some women at this time certainly were literate and capable of such things. The letter foregoes any niceties and gets right down to business. 

“Give it (to) Andre(as) and his daughter.
I, Tagape (daughter of) Tromres, write to Andreas. I set for you and your children three gold holokottinoi and three artabas of seed.
You (fem.) urged me and I exempted your (fem.) brother Andron.
Shenoute wants Susanna to write south [..] to him about you (fem.) […]”

British Museum EA 63781 (SB Kopt. V 2181)
Letter from Tagape to Andreas and his daughter (c) The British Museum, EA 63781

The first point is to notify Andreas that she has set for him an amount of three gold coins (holokottinoi) and three artbas of seed (around 75–80 litres). Tagape doesn’t state what this money is for, but from what follows – the exemption of a family member – indicates that this is what Andreas and his family owe her, presumably as repayment for a loan. Women as moneylenders in Egypt at this time are well-attested, with the business activities of the woman Koloje from Djeme (the village at Medinet Habu in western Thebes) being especially well-known. You can read about Koloje in Terry Wilfong’s, Women of Jeme (2002), which is available online here.

In the second part, Tagape turns her attention from Andreas to his daughter. She still does not mention her name, but the Coptic itself makes the change clear by a shift from masculine to feminine pronouns – a fact that English translations obscure with ‘you/your’ being gender neutral (I’ve used ‘fem.’ to note the Coptic gender in the above translation). Tagape assures her that her brother Andron won’t be liable for repaying the money and seed, and also passes on a message that a man, Shenoute, wants another woman, Susanna, to write to him about our unnamed daughter of Andreas. So much is contained in such a brief letter – but only essential details that cut out any superfluous information, which would be known to everybody involved. This brevity is why letters can sometimes be frustrating for the modern reader. They give us hints about relationships and events in people’s lives, but leave us wanting more.

For Antinoopolis, this letter is especially significant. Despite being a major city, surprisingly few Coptic non-literary texts (letters, legal documents, receipts, etc.) have survived from there, or at least have been identified as being from there. And so, while it may seem like a rather innocuous little letter, it adds to our knowledge of women, and their economic role, as well as the language of Coptic texts from Antinoopolis during this period.

An Editor’s Journey
I originally edited and published this letter a decade ago, after Elisabeth O’Connell asked me if I was interested in it, as part of the work she was doing on the material from Antinoopolis in the British Museum. You can read about the this material in her article noted in the bibliography below. As with a lot of editing work, it consumed me for a short time, its publication made the text available to the wider community, and I then largely didn’t think about it again. That is, until a recent social media post brought it back to my attention (thank you, Sarah Bond!). Apart from revisiting the text, reading through my commentary made it clear how philological discussion can be impenetrable to non-specialists – I myself had to read through some of my points a couple of times to get back into my old mindset. Could I have phrased some things differently? Were there things that I didn’t discuss that would have been useful? The answer to both points is probably yes. Text editions are not definitive – they reflect the understanding of a single editor (or perhaps editors) and we shouldn’t be precious about admitting that our work can be improved, especially with time, better (or newer) understandings, and fresh eyes. 

Technical Details
Provenance: Antinoopolis (Sheikh Ibada).
Date: 6–8 century CE.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: British Museum, EA 63781.
Designation: SB Kopt. V 2181 (designation according to the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: Jennifer Cromwell, “A Coptic Letter from Antinoopolis in the British Museum,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 183 (2012), pp. 222–226; Elisabeth O’Connell, “John de Monins Johnson 1913/14 Egypt Exploration Fund Expedition to Antinoupolis (Antinoë), with Appendix of Objects,” in Rosario Pintaudi (ed.), Antinoupolis II (Florence, 2014), pp415–504 [p. 484, #42].

The third volume of Rosario Pintaudi’s edited publication of material and excavation reports from Antinoopolis is available open access here. It includes publication of a wide range of material.

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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