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Dissertation Abstract: Legal Authority and Monastic Institutions in Late Antique Egypt My dissertation examines how imperial legal conventions persist after an empire’s decline, using little-studied Coptic papyri documenting the legal role played by monks and clergy in A.D. 400-800 Egypt. Over the past fifteen years, scholars such as Benjamin Kelly and Ari Bryen have written excellent social histories of Roman imperialism, drawing insight into imperial subjects from legal papyri that were formerly studied only as evidence for formal legal mechanisms. However, while Kelly and Bryen do not study the legal role played by religious institutions and clergy, my dissertation examines how these actors provided access to law within their communities while continuing to frame their actions in the terms of Roman legal discourse. In an influential article on the “Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Peter Brown argues that Christian holy men played a crucial role as mediators within their communities in this period. Brown asserts that these saints drew authority from their personal asceticism and separation from the community. It is true that documentary evidence from papyri strongly suggests that informal arbitration by community leaders replaced formal adjudication by imperial bureaucrats as the dominant form of dispute resolution in the Late Byzantine period. However, in my first chapter I revise Brown’s thesis using both literary accounts of saints’ lives and surviving documentary papyri like letters, contracts, and arbitration records. This combination of literary and non-literary evidence allows me to understand dispute resolution on the levels of both discourse and practice, addressing both the discourse that authors of hagiography constructed around the role of clergy in arbitrating disputes, as well as how those roles were actually performed. Both of these types of evidence indicate that the judicial authority of these holy men was modeled after imperial predecessors and that Roman archetypes shaped popular conceptions of law in these communities. The larger ambition of my project is to chart how the social prestige of Roman legal forms persisted after the Roman imperial bureaucracy deteriorated. Using documents written in Greek and Coptic, I demonstrate in my second and third chapters how legal argumentation from this period retained conceptual and structural features of Roman law while importing elements from Christian theology and other sources of legal norms. Disputants argued, for instance, about whether rules for acceptable evidence should be derived from the Roman tradition or from scriptural standards. As monasteries began to draw up wills for their donors and govern their internal affairs using the model of earlier legal documents, these Christian institutions also employed Roman clauses in the contracts they produced. In my fourth chapter, I study Coptic wills and donation documents that cite scripture extensively, as well as internal ecclesiastical documents modeled after Greco-Roman legal document forms. These two groups of documents are useful because they allow me to draw on documentary papyri to develop a sociological understanding of the way in which legal institutions served to reinforce group identity and social control in both monasteries and their surrounding communities. Furthermore, this chapter explores to what extent the monastic legal context encouraged actors to articulate and reinforce Christian ideologies. My dissertation spans the period from when Egypt was ruled by the Greco-Roman Byzantine Empire into the first two centuries under the Muslim Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. During this period, Christian communities in Egypt continued to use their own laws, derived from Roman law and Christian standards, even as imperial administrators employed a different set of laws. For the first three centuries of Muslim rule, a plurality of legal norms existed, with the Christian communities continuing to use the institutions of arbitration and monks and priests acting as scribes for legal documents. My work on the continued social prestige of Roman law in post-imperial Egypt thus provides useful insights into the interrelation of regime change and legal pluralism.


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