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Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 498-500

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Book Review

A Mediterranean Society:
The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza

A Mediterranean Society: An Abridgment to One Volume. By S. D. GOITEIN. Revised and edited by JACOB LASSNER. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xxii + 501. $45.00 (cloth).

The five volumes of A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza by the late Shelomo D. Goitein (University of California Press, 1967-88) stand, in the worlds of his former colleague A. L. Udovitch, as a "unique contribution to our vision of premodern Jewish and premodern Near Eastern societies." For all "world historians" they are (or ought to be) an indispensable resource—not only for the comparative study of Jewish cultural and economic assimilation, or of medieval maritime cosmopolitanism, but as an unrivaled point of entry into the Eurasian-wide "world system" of the high Middle Ages. The innumerable documents preserved for centuries in the Geniza of the Synagogue of the Palestinians in Old Cairo (preserved lest the written name of God be inadvertently destroyed) reveal to us legal, social, and economic texts of an intimacy and precision that all medievalists and most early modernists working elsewhere can only envy. What for these scholars is either scarcely recorded or wholly obscure here usually emerges in a plethora of detailed narratives.

Goitein described himself as a historical "sociographer," not a sociologist. Essentially, he was a masterful, because learned and interpretative, describer. Unlike Rostovtzeff, Pirenne, and Braudel—the last century's greatest historians of the Mediterranean—Goitein had no very profound or original vision of the historical process in general or Mediterranean history in particular. He was a methodological pragmatist, responsive always to the varying demands of his primary material. His projected three volumes swelled to five because of the profusion of illustrative detail—a profusion that only his peerless knowledge of the manuscripts could command. Those five volumes can now be had in paperback at $24.95 each. Something of the essence of the Geniza record has also long been available in the Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders (Princeton University Press, 1973) that Goitein himself translated. To be sure, A Mediterranean Society is long. Yet, it has few longueurs. The author's style is too unpretentious, his personal involvement with his subject (above all in the final volume) too alluring, and the vignettes too absorbing, for the 1,850 pages of exposition to seem wearisome or indulgent. Few will want to read them seriatim. But many will browse pleasurably and extensively—in text, appendices, and even footnotes. (Goitein apparently thought that the last were the most [End Page 498] important part of his oeuvre.) Furthermore, the consolidated index volume (1993), compiled with equal devotion and scholarship by Goitein's former assistant, Paula Sanders, makes pursuing specific topics through the whole project very easy.

Why, then, abbreviate? Goitein himself, had he lived, might conceivably have produced a magisterial epitome, although at the time of his death he had already returned to the project that was his springboard into the Mediterranean Geniza world, a documentary study of Indian Ocean commerce. Jacob Lassner, Professor of Jewish civilization at Northwestern University, offers a one-volume abridgment in his stead, and all devotees of Goitein's achievement are in Professor Lassner's debt for every new reader whom his labors draw to the master's work. Abridgment is a scarcely less arduous or thankless task than indexing. Its only justification is to offer a taste of the whole that encourages recourse to the real thing. Abridgment is, however, more suited to a classic stylist, such as Gibbon, whom one reads for his philosophy, than to a "sociographer." Without thoughtful deployment of detail, Goitein loses much of his vividness. Without some attempt to represent all five of his volumes, the scope, scale, and value of the Geniza will not be properly conveyed.

On neither count, alas, is this abridgment successful. In his first volume...


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