Last week at the John Rylands Library we have restored and glazed a Byzantine contract, P Herm. Rees 25. The papyrus has lost the beginning but the bottom is almost complete and the subscriptions of both the parties and the witnesses are legible. These open interesting insight into questions of literacy and writing skills in late antique Egypt. As it is often the case, the witnesses have uncertain handwritings, which look very different from the more accomplished hand that composed the body of the contract, a deed concerning the property of a house. They are barely capable to write their signature and a few other words in big capital letters penned with trembling hands.
Were they almost illiterate? Or did they have eyes problems? Were they old aged and maybe longsighted? Having problems with my eyes, I imagine how miserable life must have been for people like me in antiquity! Devices as glass-lenses were known and used, but they must have been very expensive and therefore available only to a minority. The subscription of the people involved in the deed was penned by Paul, the brother of Victor accountant of Memnoneia, in charge of the writing of the document since they ‘do not know letters’; in the case of the witnesses, however, you realise how bad were their handwriting and Greek grammar only checking the original manuscript.
Methuselah is the witness of P Herm. 25 I was most intrigued by. His Biblical name has become proverbial for longevity (‘as old as Methuselah’), and in Egypt it does not seem to have been common. The few attestations so far are mainly from late antique Djeme (Greek Memnoneia, Thebes West) where also our document seems to have been drawn. Methuselah is an unskilled writer and makes some grammar mistakes, but at the same time his signature shows that he was familiar with written documents.
Wide questions on alphabetization and degrees of literacy in late antiquity arise when considering papyri like this one, of course, but I must say that my curiosity is all for Methuselah. I imagine him subscribing the deed, writing slowly and uncertainly, with his head very close to the papyrus in order to see, and I wish I knew more about him and his story. Imagine this man, who received such an unusual name: did the parents choose Methuselah for him? What a cruel name for a new born…if nomen est omen I bet Methuselah looked already old as a child! But the choice could also have been a way to wish the son a long life in a world where the infancy mortality rate was incredibly high. He identifies himself as an elder, a presbyter. What did it mean to bear this role in fifth century AD Egypt?
In a time when historians have to spend words to explain why their subject is relevant for society and what their research impact is – all self-evident to me and the general audience up to few years ago –, I plainly confess that I do ancient history and papyrology because through these subjects I am given the possibility to connect with a mass of past normal people in their everyday activities. Whatever big questions I may help answering, the joy comes from the humanity impressed in ink on that papyrus, and the attraction exercised by that very man, Methuselah.
To me history is, among many other things, a way to overcome the finitude of human life giving a permanent voice to those whose voices were not loud enough when alive: a way to rescue Methuselah of Djeme from oblivion. Is it worth?
Further readings: B.R. Rees, Papyri from Hermopolis and other documents of the Byzantine period, London 1964 has full edition and translation of the papyrus; on questions of (il)literacy and reasons for not being able to write you may read the groundbreaking article of H. Youtie, ‘Bradeos graphon: between literacy and illiteracy’, in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 12 (1971) pp. 239-261, and the more recent T.J. Kraus, ‘(Il)literacy in non-literary papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt: further aspects of the educational ideal in literary sources and modern times’, in Mnemosyne 4a s., 53 (2000), pp. 322-342. On late antique Egypt, R.S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, Princeton 1993.