Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Umayyad, Underwear, Upper Class...

This is a post to celebrate Banned Books Week. The most challenged book in America this year was a children's book called Captain Underpants. Because, you know, children might find out that people wear them. Turns out that people wore and wrote about remarkably similar ones in the Middle Ages.

From the index of Y. Stillman. Female Attire in Medieval Egypt. 1972.

Umayyad, underwear, upper class.

Even if you've decided to bear with me through the repetition of the end of the index of Yedida Stillman's (z"l) dissertation, you might already be thinking: This is going to be complete pants! But please let me explain why I've used the word "underwear" twice — no, thrice — already in this blog post; I promise I'll be brief.*

If you're looking, as I have been lately, to read about medieval outerwear in A Mediterranean Society, you'll find it in a chapter on clothing in volume IV, after several pages about, well, innerwear. And in perusing it, I have noticed that, perhaps without even realizing it, Goitein documents more than ten attestations of tighty-whities in the Genizah society.

Yep.  Just like Eli the fanatic would do from the pages of Philip Roth's fiction nearly a millennium later, tenth-century Cairene Jews wore BVDs. (So, yes, this is really more about Fatimid underpants rather than Umayyad undergarments.) 

Goitein writes:

"Only in a marriage contract from the little town of Damsis in the Nile Delta are the pants listed, but in Hebrew, as we would circumscribe "unmentionables" by writing the word in Latin. The price, half a dinar, was exceptionally high. As illustrations show, the underpants of working people were short and tight, those of the middle class and women longer and fluffy, but entirely different from the later Near Eastern breeches, sirwal, which were excessively wide in their upper part but corded up beneath the knee" (Med Soc. IV.ix.B.1, p. 162).
To parse this observation out, what is being described here is tenth-century tighty-whities, worn by members of the lower class, in contrast with more comfortable and luxurious underwear worn by women and men in the upper echelons of society. Goitein seems to be relying heavily on visual evidence here (citing Richard Ettinghausen, in particular), though I am dying of curiosity to know what Arabic word he had in mind when rendering "fluffy" in English; there are about ten documents that contain references to underpants that could be chased down for adjectives.

As a matter of historiography, I am deeply curious about the circumstances under which Goitein and other scholars of his generation would be writing about garments in English and then find themselves switching code in order to write the already-tamed unmentionables in Latin. I suspect that it was rather a different sensibility than the one that moves people to pull Captain Underpants from libraries. Nevertheless, call in the censors.

*I have never in my life so acutely felt the need for a snare drum and cymbal.

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