Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #25

This month I’m delighted to introduce Nancy Spies, an an independent scholar who has devoted her time since she left teaching, to researching medieval textiles. Her first book, “Ecclesiastical Pomp”, deals with brocaded tabletwoven bands, and has become one of the ‘go to’ works on this subject. She is currently researching12th-century Tunisian church textiles and making a complete reassessment of the development of the mitre. Here, Nancy tells us about her insights into the translation of an 11th-century document from Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt.

Translations:  A Cautionary Tale Concerning the Shipment of ‘Sanitary Napkins’ from 11th-century Tunis


Four bales, each comprising 50 to 52 packages of ‘sanitary napkins’, is recorded as part of a shipment from 11th-century Tunis in modern Tunisia. The verification of the translation of ‘sanitary napkins’ from the original Judeo-Arabic document in which it is found is examined both linguistically and culturally. It is concluded that the shipment consisted of leather belts.

Key Words

11th century,  belts,  Geniza,  Jewish,  leather,  Maimonides,  sanitary napkins,  Tunisia


The thousands of written documents found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt – known as the Cairo Geniza – have shed unrivaled light on the material culture of 10th-13th-century Mediterranean life. S.D. Goitein’s work on these documents1 provides textile historians with extensive information on textiles.

The Taylor-Schechter Geniza Research Unit at the University of Cambridge holds the majority of these documents. One fragment, T-S K3.36, lists items ready for shipping from 11th-century Tunis, Tunisia.2 Goitein says that the shipment included “four bales, each of which comprised fifty to fifty-two packages of sanitary napkins …”3

As a woman and textile historian, I was immediately suspicious of the idea of shipping sanitary napkins, no matter how fine the fabric. Maimonides, the Torah scholar and physician, stated the following Jewish law in Chapter XIII verse 1 of his 12th-century “Book of Women”. “How much raiment is the husband obligated to provide for his wife?  Clothes to the amount of fifty zuz per annum, in the coin current at that time … The new garments should be given to her in the rainy season, so that they would be well worn when she wears them in the dry season; as for worn-out garments, what remains of the original clothes, they are hers to cover herself therewith during her menstrual period.”4

Oded Zinger, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, was able to study T-S K3.36 and has provided valuable insight about what was actually listed there. 

“Geniza documents often contain passages whose meanings are obscure for us today. The text reads רזמת חואצת or רזמת חיאצת. Rizma/rizmat means “bundles” or “bales.” However, since Judeo Arabic represents both the Arabic ṣād and ḍād with the Hebrew ade, the second word can be read either ḥiyāṣa or ḥiyāḍa, from the root of حوص or حيض respectively. ḥiyāṣa means “belt” or “waist girdle.” However, Goitein clearly understood the word as iyāḍa (pl. ḥiyāḍāt), as  حيض means to menstruate (ḥāʾiḍa – a menstruating woman, ḥiyāḍ – menses). We get closer to Goitein’s translation when we look at Kazimirski5, generally good for middle Arabic terminology, where ḥīḍa is explained as “Linge que les femmes emploient par mesure de propreté dans leurs règles” and finally in Dozy6 we find ḥayḍa as “chauffoir, linge de propreté pour les femme” which is exactly what Goitein used in his Studies in Islamic History and Institutions, p. 315. So it is safe to say that Goitein got the meaning from Dozy.  

Now, it is up to the scholar to decide whether the meaning here has to do with bundles of belts or sanitary napkins. It seems to me that in the context of robes and hides mentioned elsewhere in the document, belts and waist girdle are more likely than sanitary napkins. Indeed, in another geniza document (T-S 16.231 verso l.22) we find חיאצה and the editor there translated it as belt.9 To pursue the matter further, I would look at Lane7 that has (on p. 670a) it as a waist belt for wealthy women adorned with Jewels and points to Dozy’s Dictionary des Noms des Vetements chez les Arabes pp. 145-7, which is where I would go next.8

At this time, Tunisia was a well-known exporter of leather goods, so that adds extra weight to the idea that this shipment was of belts, not sanitary napkins. It could, however, be speculated that these belts were meant as a means to secure sanitary napkins, as women of a certain age now remember from their teenage years. It might also be possible to extend the meaning to include the leather “bikini” bottoms depicted on the woman exercising in mosaic at the Roman villa in Piazza Armerina in Sicily, but that is purely hypothetical on my part. We also know, again from Maimonides, that women wore trousers: “… and find her rising from the couch and putting on her trousers …”10 Women would have been able to wear any sort of arrangement for securing sanitary napkins, made from old clothing, safely.

I would conclude, then, that the shipment from Tunis was a bundle of leather belts and not sanitary napkins. This has proven to be a true cautionary tale in taking translations always at face value.

Thank you Nancy for this really interesting look at both ship’s cargo and translations of 11th-century documents.


If you would like to contact Nancy about her work she can be found on academia: https://independent.academia.edu/NancySpies


1.  Goitein 1967.

2.  To view this document, written in Judeo-Arabic, go to http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-TS-K-00003-00036/1.

3.  Goitein 1967; vol. 1: Economic Foundations, p. 334.

4.  Klein 1979, 80.

5.  Kazimirski 1860.

6.  Dozy 1881.

7.  Lane 1863.

8.  Oded Zinger, personal correspondence, 15 May 2014.

9.  Oded Zinger, personal correspondence, 14 November 2014: see Frenkel, 348 and 35.

10.  Klein 1979

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