Coptic Law


By “Coptic law” we understand the particularities of legal practice evidenced in documents written in the Coptic language, from roughly the sixth to the ninth century (Steinwenter, 1955; Schiller, 1932a, 1957, 1971a). The substance of the law is found in the combination of Greek, Coptic, and Arabic documents, but the present treatment rests largely on the Coptic evidence. The notion of “law” (nomoc> nomos) in Coptic documents embraced customary rules, Hellenistic institutions, and somewhat distant echoes of late Roman imperial legislation (Steinwenter, 1957; Schiller, 1971b). What functioned as a source of law was what we see operative in the documents themselves.

Private Law

Law of persons. The birth of a natural person was often, but not always, registered (Crum, 1926, nos. 99-100). The person came of age at fourteen (cf. P. Lond. V 1554.8). His or her status could be “free” (Till, 1951), “slave,” or “dedicated person” (Steinwenter, 1921; MacCoull, 1979a).

Marriage was often accompanied by a contract respecting the parties’ property (cf. MacCoull, 1979b); divorce also was signaled by a contract (Crum, 1902, no. 130; Crum, 1926, no. 161, P. Cair. Masp. II 67153, 67154, 67155), both parties having the right to remarry or to choose the monastic life. (Incompatibility was often cited; there was no inflexible church teaching on indissolubility.)

Four kinds of matrimonial property are known: c,aat (skhaat, gift from the groom), seleet (sheleet, gift from the bride), rompe nouwm (rompe nouom, literally “year of eating,” probably support payments), and nouhr ebol (nouhr ebol, probably movable household goods). These perhaps derive from older Egyptian categories and correspond to the fourfold terminology found in the Byzantine papyri of ›dna, pro…x, ¢nalèmata and sceu» (hedna, proiks, analomata, and skeue), after the old terminology of fern»/par£ferna, pherne/parapherna, passed out of use.

As for juristic persons, according to one theory both the koinon (koinon) of a village and the dikaion (dikaion) or governing board of a monastery could be conceived of as juristic persons, as they acted subjectively in transactions and executed business (Steinwenter, 1930; cf. 1953); but the concept was not fully developed.

Law of things. The Byzantines divided property into akin/ton (akineton, land, buildings, trees), kin/ton (kineton, articles), and autokin/ton (autokineton, animals) obtained. Ownership of property was indicated by rjoeic (rjoeis, or dominium, kurieÚein, [kyrieuein]) and amahte (amahte, or possessio the right to use, improve, and pledge, and to alienate (sell, give, bequeath) the property. Churches and monasteries, or parts thereof, could be the private property of an individual, a practice at variance with imperial law.

Regarding inheritance (Till, 1954), both ecclesiastics and lay persons could make wills, called diay/k/(-ai)> diatheke(-ai). Both relatives and nonrelated persons, and both church bodies and individual ecclesiastics, could inherit. The principal heir was usually obliged to bury the testator, offer liturgies for his or her soul, and pay outstanding debts. Disinheritance was known (Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts, 68, 71, 67; Crum, 1905, or British Museum 445; cf. P. Cair. Masp., III, 67353v). A great many Coptic legal cases involved disputes over the division of an inheritance; they were usually settled by arbitration (see below, under civil procedure), the agreements reached being incorporated in a dialucic (dialysis) document (e.g., Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts, 35, 37, 44).

Law of obligations. The usual document of a loan is an acvaleia (asphaleia), in which the debtor acknowledges receipt of money or goods and promises to repay with or without interest (e.g., Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts, 64; cf. Crum, 1902, no. Ad. 17). Loans were often repayable at harvest time; a money loan could be repaid in kind, or with interest in kind. Loans in kind are most often of basic agricultural commodities (grain, wine, often payable in Mesore at the grape harvest; oil); they can include provision of a money fine in case of default, or payment in money (cf. Bagnall, 1977). On receipt of payment the creditor made acknowledgement to the debtor in an apodeixic (apodeiksis). Both creditors and debtors are found in both clerical and lay status.

The usual name for a document of sale (Boulard, 1912) of immovable property is pracic (prasis), the operative verb being ] ebol (ti ebol). Transfer of ownership was effected by the drawing up and signing of the document of sale. The seller could be one representative of several co-owners (e.g., Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts, 1; Schiller, 1932b, no. 7). For the sale of movable property terminology is looser, and practices appear to have varied from district to district (regionalism in Coptic law would repay further study).

Leases of land were either yearly (micywcic, misthosis) or heritable (emvuteucic, emphyteusis) (Comfort, 1937), the latter favored by monastic and ecclesiastical landlords (MacCoull, 1989).

The contract of lease could be drawn up by either the lessor or the lessee; in the former case the boundaries, the length of term, and the amount of rent (pakton> som> voroc [pakton, shom, phoros]), in money, in kind, or in both, are specified. In the latter case the rent can be called either s[or (shcor), of a one-year micywcic (misthosis), or pakton\voroc (pakton/phoros), of an acvaleia (asphaleia) for several years (Schiller, 1932a, pp. 278-79). Penalties could be exacted for nonpayment of rent. Many rent receipts are preserved (apodeixic> -eic [apodeiksis, -eis]). The emvuteucic (emphyteusis) or heritable lease could be framed by either party (Crum, 1905, or British Museum 1014-1015; Crum, 1909, or Rylands 174). In this case, the rent, called pakton (pakton), was payable in money, in kind, or in both.

The main types of labor contracts (Till, 1956) are cumvwnon (symphonon), drawn up by either employer or employee, often in two copies; lebeke (lebeke) (a title for the hired person), simple hiring for wages by a community; epitrop/ (epitrope), usually for agricultural services; and paramon/ (paramone), an apprenticeship contract with provision for support of the learner. There are also many documents and letters embodying a simple commission or charge on a party to perform some service for a second or third party; they are probably not legal contracts in the narrow sense.

For deposits (hupoy/k/\-keicyai [hypotheke/-keisthai], ar/b [areb], euw [euo]), either the whole of an individual’s property (e.g., Crum, 1905, or British Museum 1039 and elsewhere) or specific articles (e.g., Crum, 1926, no. 95) could be pledged. The receiver of the pledge obtained possessio at the time of transfer, but dominium only in the case of nonredemption (e.g., Crum, 1902, no. 183).

Surety (eggu/ [engye], stwre [shtore]; Till, 1950-1957) could be given in the case of a public or a private obligation. Most public surety is for taxes (Steinwenter, 1920, p. 4) or for performance of the compulsory services exacted by the Arab government (as seen in the Aphrodito documents in P. Lond. IV). Private surety is often found; the document of eggu/ (engye) served to entitle one to go surety for the one requesting it (cf. Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts, 115). Such action occurs in connection with loans, sales, labor contracts, and leases. There are also ecclesiastical sureties, in which one cleric guarantees that another will carry out his office (Crum, 1902, nos. 31-33, and many more; cf. Steinwenter, 1931).

Agency is an obligation usually embodied in a clause of a document of one of the types mentioned above (eire mprocwpon, eire mprosopon, literally “make” someone’s face or persona; see San Nicolo, 1924). Also in this category are many examples of a simple request, in letters or other private documents, that one party bring money or goods to a third; these seemingly were not regarded as legally binding. Numerous other sorts of contracts are loosely designated homologia (homologia) or eggravon (engraphon), and treat of joint ventures (e.g., Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts, 55), often agricultural (Crum, 1902, no. 304). Occasionally they deal with barter, but this situation is hard to distinguish from sale or loan (Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts, 7, 24, and elsewhere).

Most recorded donations (dwreactikon, doreastikon) (Horwitz, 1940) were made to monasteries or churches; they were of land, children, or, in one case, one’s self (Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts, 104). Some donations were made in fulfillment of a will (Crum, 1902, 135) or a promise, or for the repose of a soul (donatio mortis causa; Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts,


Not many penalties for nonfulfillment of obligation are recorded, but they could be secular or religious (cf. below, on oaths).

Public Law

The elements of continuity and change in late antique Egypt as a province first of the Byzantine empire and then of the caliphate are well documented (P. Cair. Masp. I-III; P. Lond. IV-V; Rémondon, 1953; Rouillard, 1928; Hardy, 1932), but a synthesizing study remains to be made. Here we can treat only what is known from Coptic documents dealing with public obligations, almost all from the Arab period.

The inhabitant of Egypt was affected most directly and most often by the requirements of taxation. Taxes were levied in money (the poll tax or andricmoc/diagravon [andrismos/diagraphon], the land tax or d/mocion [demosion], properly so called; and the dapan/ [dapane], see Bell’s preface to P. Lond. IV); and in kind (the grain embol/ [embole], formerly for the provisioning of Constantinople). Usually the Arab governor (cumbouloc, symboulos) ordered the pagarch (sometimes through the dux) to draw up a list or register (katagrav/, katagraphe) of taxable persons and properties. Individual local tax collectors were obliged to pay out of their own pockets the quota of the entire pagarchy if others’ contributions fell short of the total quota. Monks and ecclesiastics were taxed (cf. Kahle, Vol. 2, 1954, nos. 290-304). Many tax receipts are preserved from these village collections (esp. Crum, 1902; Stefanski, 1952). The form of receipt seems to vary slightly from place to place; most are dated only by the indiction, and contain a simple declaration by the collector that he has received the sum assessed.

“Fugitives” (fug£dej, phygades) were those who had fled from their own place of enrollment, usually to escape taxes. Numerous documents from the Umayyad period exist ordering the return of fugitives (e.g., in P. Lond. IV and P. Russ. Georg., IV). In connection with this situation we encounter the so-called logoc mpnoute (logos mpnoute, Schiller, 1935a; Till, 1938) and the sig…llia (sigillia) or safe-conduct passes.

Oaths in Coptic legal documents have been treated and classified by E. Seidl (1935; cf. Till, 1940). Of interest for social history are oaths on the monastic habit, on relics or icons, and in churches (especially on the Gospels).

Legal Procedure

It has been contended (Schiller, 1969) that owing to the divisions after Chalcedon, the Coptic-speaking population in late Byzantine and early Umayyad times had no recourse whatever to public tribunals and settled all disputes by private means, usually arbitration (Schiller, 1968; 1971a). Our principal sources for this sort of proceeding are the Budge Papyrus (Schiller, 1968), P. Lond. V, 1709, and P. Cair. Masp. III (67353r). It may be that, lacking further evidence, to claim that all references to judicial bodies in Coptic documentary practice are merely commonplaces of the notariate without factual referents is somewhat exaggerated. In addition to the sources for arbitration, we have evidence for the judicial activities of pagarchs and bishops (cf. the clauses contrasting ar,ontikon/ekkl/ciactikon [arkhontikon/ekklesiastikon]: Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts, 5, 24, 48, 98, 107; Schiller, 1932b, 1; MacCoull, 1989b). Authority was principally seen to reside in the village lasane (lashane, headman) and the body of no[ nrwme, (noc nrome), or me…zonej (meizones, formerly the protocometai; Steinwenter, 1920). Still at issue is the question of the extent to which Hellenistic-Coptic Egypt received and conformed to the Justinianic law and later Novellae (Schiller, 1971b). In actual praxis, conformity seems to have been minimal; the world of Coptic law is a world of its own.

In civil procedure, the claims and counterclaims were usually brought to an arbiter (the operative verb is aicwtm/ancwtm [aisotm/ansotm, I/we have heard]). If his decision was accepted, the plaintiff drew up a document of amerimneia (amerimneia, release) after the defendant had obeyed the ruling. All parties could join in drawing up a dialucic (dialysis, see above). We have no records of Coptic criminal trials as such, except for measures taken against tax evaders (see above) and the occasional intervention of a bishop (e.g., Crum, 1902, 336; but cf. P. Mich. XIII 660-661, a murder case, sixth century). Penalties included fines, imprisonment, and church sanctions (Schiller, 1935b, pp. 30-31).

The interpenetration of Coptic civil and canon law is a practically virgin territory. We have very few early sources, and again norms must be inferred from actual practice. No codifications were made in the classical period treated in this article.


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