His story/her story: Is there a doctor in the house?

Men traveled frequently in medieval Mediterranean society; while merchants were those most often on the move, they were not the only ones.

Maimonides 311 (photo credit: Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)
Maimonides 311
(photo credit: Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)
Men traveled frequently in medieval Mediterranean society.
While merchants were those most often on the move, they were not the only ones. Some were simply seeking to improve their economic or social status. Thus we find physicians who moved to Fustat (Old Cairo), such as Maimonides, although he did not have to work to support himself until after his brother David the merchant died in a shipwreck.
In a Cairo Geniza document (TS 1081 J 5), we find a family dealing with the repercussions of such a move. It is not clear why the wife and their younger children remained behind; perhaps the husband wanted to establish himself before relocating his family. He had not traveled a great distance, but his letter creates the impression that they were living in rather separate worlds. Those left behind resided in Qalyub, in the northern part of Cairo at the beginning of the Nile Delta. The wife was suffering from an eye ailment, but her private doctor – namely her husband – was unable to attend to her. He did not ignore her condition, however; he sent her some medication or powders with a courier. Hopefully he knew what she required without having to examine her, although it is always a bit risky for a doctor to diagnose without seeing the patient.
Be that as it may, the husband apologizes in the letter for not coming to care for her and then describes his own plight. He refers to what Joel Kraemer translates as the “vicissitudes of fate.” He explains that he had built up a solid practice in Qalyub, so we have no clear idea as to why he chose to relocate, unless perhaps he felt that he needed to expand his horizons. He makes it clear that opening a practice in Fustat was frustrating; his colleagues there did not make the adjustment easy for him. One assumes that they resented or feared the competition and were concerned for their own livelihood. He appears to have encountered former residents of Qalyub who were pleased to learn that they could once again receive treatment from him, but the situation he describes reflects frustration and longing for his wife and family.
The letter then reveals that their married daughter was in Cairo with him, along with his mother-in-law. He intimates that the “old woman” was not giving her granddaughter proper attention, and that they all missed his wife terribly. He raises the possibility of his wife’s coming to help their daughter as long as the situation seemed calm; perhaps there had been some unrest in Qalyub in his absence.
Their daughter was six months pregnant and seems to have been in need of her mother.
“Sitt al-’Ilm, your daughter kisses your hands and feet and begs God and you to attend her,” he writes. Perhaps it was her first birth. Her father writes that he asked his daughter to come into town to be with him, so presumably she was not living with him, but in an outlying neighborhood of the city. He refers to giving someone funds for expenses, but the document is illegible where it specifies to whom the funds were given. They might have been for the pregnant daughter or for another family member.
We are left not knowing how this family coped with the various stresses described. The father sounds absolutely miserable; he was lonely, had not encountered the professional success that he had envisioned, and could not properly care for his wife’s eyes, yet seems to have been determined to remain in Fustat. We hear their daughter crying out for her mother to come in three months, when she was due to give birth, and do not know if her mother complied, or whether it was possible or safe for her to travel.
This doctor seems to have thought he had the family’s best interests at heart, but we have no idea for how long they remained split between two residences, whether the mother attended her grandchild’s birth and whether her eyes healed properly. We can only hope so.
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute, the academic editor of Nashim and on sabbatical this year.