Goitein, Medieval Jews, and the “New Mediterranean Studies”
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Goitein, Medieval Jews, and the “New Mediterranean Studies”

Goitein, Braudel, and Horden and Purcell: “In” and “Of” the Mediterranean

The medieval Jews whose lives are revealed through the Cairo Geniza would probably not have thought that they lived in a “Mediterranean society,” as it was called by S. D. Goitein in his five-volume magnum opus.1 Like the anachronistic “Byzantine,” taken up by nineteenth-century scholars as a name for the Later (Greek) Roman empire, the term “Mediterranean society” obscures as much as it reveals. Although Goitein’s work on the documentary material of the Cairo Geniza constitutes an enormous contribution to both Jewish and Islamic history, when we look closely and try to find the Mediterranean that he describes, its location is neither obvious nor easily defined. Tellingly, the medieval Jews of the Geniza do not even have a specific name for it other than “the Sea.”

As Goitein explains, the people of the Geniza looked outward from Egypt and saw three areas whose Mediterranean shores defined their horizons and mental map: the Maghrib or “Muslim West” (consisting of North Africa, Muslim Sicily, and Muslim Spain); al-Rūm or “the land of the Romans” (Byzantium and the Christian West); and the “East” (Egypt and the central Near East).2 The fact that the latter term was used infrequently, with preference for specific local and regional toponyms, points to a mental map resembling a series of concentric circles of familiarity [End Page 513] more than a self-conscious representation of the Mediterranean. With this kind of cultural mapping it is not surprising that in Egypt residents of both the capital metropolitan complex of Cairo-Fusṭāṭ and urban Alexandria distinguished themselves from the rest of Egypt, which they referred to as the rīf, or Province.3

Although Goitein does not appropriate this perspective, neither does he offer an analytical geographical perspective of his own. For him, places inscribed in the Geniza documents come together collectively in a manner that limits broad generalization and yields relatively little in terms of a methodology for thinking about the Mediterranean. For Goitein, unlike Fernand Braudel and many others, the Mediterranean is more an accident of circumstance than a category of analysis.

Goitein, who was trained in Germany as a philologist and historian, described himself as a “sociographer,” thereby emphasizing his focus on human activity and his interest in social history, but distancing himself from large-scale analysis and theoretical approaches characteristic of sociology. Goitein also describes his method to be “investigative,” mirroring the dominant methods and foci of modern Jewish studies since the early years of Wissenschaft des Judentums in the nineteenth century. Goitein began his career in a young field still beholden to many of the influential figures of its first generation, such as Moritz Steinschneider, Heinrich Graetz, Abraham (Albert) Harkavy, Solomon Schechter, and Samuel Poznanski. Furthermore, scholars such as Goitein felt the need to “catch up” in textual discovery and publication to such venerable Western European fields as classics and history. The well-established inclination to focus on texts was only reinforced by the “discovery” in 1896 of the Geniza, which brought to scholarly attention a huge number of unknown texts and fragments in a variety of languages. The sheer volume of this material had the potential to provide plenty of material with which to keep him occupied without venturing into comparative and large-scale analysis. There was more than enough for the lifetime’s work of a “sociographer.”

Although Goitein was hardly parochial or limited in vision, his career as a Geniza scholar was shaped by the realization that although the medieval India trade was what primarily interested him, he knew that it could not be understood without a full treatment of the Mediterranean materials. This strategic decision not only shaped his scholarly agenda but demonstrates his overarching vision. Explicit in his explanation of changes in the Mediterranean and the accompanying involvement of [End Page 514] Jews in the India trade is Goitein’s larger historical sensibility. He understood that the florescence of Jewish mercantile activity as documented in the Geniza corresponded to a phase in Mediterranean economic history when increased commercial activity during the...