One of the thorniest problems for the writing of medieval Jewish social history is the paucity of source materials. Yet even where documentary materials such as the Cairo Geniza do remain, scholars often complement their study of documentary materials by making recourse to legal materials. The legal genre of responsa, full of rich detail about life, has been particularly useful for social historians. In this paper, I will revisit this historiographic practice and suggest that legal queries from the Jewish community in the medieval Islamic world present a biased and sometimes tendentious picture of quotidian detail, and they must be studied with care and attention to the Sitz im Leben of the query itself. Internal evidence from two responsa from the hand of Moses Maimonides concerning a single case, the responsa of the geonim, and detail from court practice in medieval Egypt all reveal the ways that queries and responsa are works of legal advocacy from rabbinic patrons on behalf of their litigant clients. Therefore, historians may not take for granted their historical accuracy of detail—even detail given seemingly en passant. By rereading Maimonides' different responsa, I also shed light on the relationship between Jewish commercial law and mercantile practice in medieval Egypt.


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pp. 211-235
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