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A segment of the Egyptian papyrus containing a prenuptial agreement.

Eight foot long scroll reveals Ancient Egyptian prenup

A rather interesting Ancient Egyptian document is currently being exhibited in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago , which you might think, at first sight, is an example of Egyptian poetry or some other creative work. But it isn’t that at all, it’s a prenuptial agreement between a couple due to be married.

Then, as now, reports Atlas Obscura , prenups were aimed at making sure that wives were provided for if their marriages failed. Indeed, not many people realise that women in Ancient Egypt had rights, including entering into contracts, bringing legal cases against others, serving on juries and acting as witnesses and owning property. They could also file for divorce and were granted alimony, providing they had a prenup of course.

The document currently on display is eight feet long. It is 2,480 years old and was written in demotic script, a form of hieroglyphic shorthand derived from the hieratic script. The document promises a compensation of 1.2 pieces of silver and 36 bags of grain every year for the rest of her life, according to the Oriential Institute’s Dr. Emily Teeter .

The eight-foot long prenuptial agreement.

The eight-foot long prenuptial agreement. Credit: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago .

“Most people have no idea that women in ancient Egypt had the same legal rights as men” says Dr Teeter.

According to Professor Janet H. Johnson, writing for the University of Chicago Library , these prenup contracts were “extremely advantageous to the wife” as they promised cash so that she could live without her former husband if the need to do so arose. However, she also had to give him an upfront payment of 30 pieces of silver.

Another prenup survives in a compendium of legal documents relating to the town of Siut in northern Egypt. This document lists the property the wife brought into the marriage and promises to repay her all of it should the marriage end in a formal separation. Professor Johnson believes that the woman’s family would have exerted pressure on the husband to make such a contract.

These documents were created by scribes who attended a meeting organised by the husband and wife to be along with a number of witnesses. The agreement had to be read aloud by the person proposing it and the scribe would then write down the terms in formal legal language. The second person would then accept or reject the terms. Agreement would make them legally binding and the case could subsequently be heard in a court if they were later broken.

Nevertheless, women were still subservient to their husbands and were thus ranked socially according to their husbands occupation. “A woman is asked about her husband, a man is asked about his rank” says The Instructions of Any , a document from the Egyptian Empire-Era.

Brides could be as young as 14 when they married and husbands as young as 17. Egyptians were actively encouraged to marry when young, given that the span of life in these ancient times was likely to be fairly short. Parental consent was important, but the couples were still able to marry freely if they just fell in love naturally. Poorer couples probably didn’t bother with a prenup as they had fewer possessions and scribes were fairly expensive. In some cases, the contract was drawn up between the woman’s father and her prospective husband and the terms applied regardless of who was considered to blame for the separation, even if the wife had committed adultery – which was widely disapproved of in Ancient Egypt.

A relief of a royal couple.

A relief of a royal couple. ( Wikipedia)

The prenup began with some basic details such as:

The date (the year of the reign of the ruling monarch)
The contractors (future husband and wife)
The names of both sets of parents
Husbands profession (wifes rarely mentioned)
The scribe who drew up the contract
The names of the witnesses

The document then went on to describe the terms of the agreement. For example, a marriage contract from 219 BC says:

“The Blemmyann, born in Egypt, son of Horpais,
whose mother is Wenis, has said to the woman
Tais, daughter of the Khahor, whose mother is
Tairerdjeret: I have made you a married woman.
As your womans portion, I give you two pieces of
silver. If I dismiss you as wife and dislike you and
prefer another woman to you as wife, I will give you
two pieces of silver in addition to the two pieces of
silver mentioned above and I will give you one third
of each and everything that will accrue to you and me.”

The completed document was either held by a third party or kept among the records stored by a local temple.

Women in Ancient Egypt had some rights but were still subservient to men

Women in Ancient Egypt had some rights but were still subservient to men (public domain)

Sometimes the contract was in relation to a temporary marriage of about a year during which it was expected the wife would bear children. In rarer circumstances, even though adultery was frowned upon, the agreement allowed the husband a number of concubines, but none of them were allowed the same set of rights given to the wife in the document.

Interestingly enough, the government took no interest in whether marriages succeeded or failed. A divorce could be initiated by either party and it was easily arranged, with both the parties having the right to remarry as soon as they wished following the separation.

Featured image: Credit: A segment of the Egyptian papyrus containing a prenuptial agreement. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago .

By Robin Whitlock

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