Eighth Annual M.I. Rostovtzeff Lecture Series

This article first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 17, Winter 2017.

Egyptian versus Greek in Late Antique Egypt: The Struggle of Coptic for an Official Status

Jean-Luc Fournet, Professor, Collège de France, Paris
March 22-April 12, 2017

Photo of a man in a jacket and tie, looking into the camera. Photo courtesy Patrick Imbert, Collège de France Jean-Luc Fournet is a papyrologist and a specialist in late antiquity. In March 2015, he was appointed professor at the Collège de France (Paris), which created for him its first chair of papyrology named “Written Culture in Late Antiquity and Byzantine Papyrology.” Prior to his current position, he was a scientific member of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale in Cairo (1992-1996), researcher at the CNRS in Strasbourg (1996-2004), and professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Department of Historical and Philological Sciences) in Paris (2004-2015). He devotes much of his scholarly activity to editing new texts, including papyri and Greek inscriptions on late antique amphorae, which he was the first to decipher, and has a special interest in the culture of late antiquity—particularly poetry, multilingualism, and modalities of written culture.

March 22, Rostovtzeff Lecture I: An Egyptian Exception?

A black-and-white photo of a rectangular papyrus document with some missing parts. One of the first legal documents in Coptic (and the most ancient with a date): a settlement drawn up by Dioscorus of Aphrodite (P.Alex. inv. 689, AD 569). Photo by Alain Lecler (IFAO), courtesy Greco-Roman Museum, Alexandria. During the first three centuries of its history, Coptic, the final stage of the Egyptian language written with Greek letters, was only used for literary purposes and private correspondence but not for contracts between individuals, documents sent by individuals to the authorities, or internal administrative communication—areas in which the Greek language had a monopoly. This situation is unique in comparison with what is observed in other provinces of the Roman Empire and cannot be explained by a legal prohibition.

March 29, Rostovtzeff Lecture II: Why Greek Was Preferred to Coptic?

This lecture will outline several possible reasons for the late development of official Coptic. Possible reasons include the nature of the language itself, the prestige enjoyed by the Greek language, the milieu of Coptic’s creation, and the longstanding distrust of the Greek-speaking State towards the legal use of Egyptian.

April 5, Rostovtzeff Lecture III: The Rise of Legal Coptic and the Byzantine State

In the middle of the 6th century, Coptic began to be used in a limited way for some documents other than purely private letters or accounts. Cultural and political considerations may account for the progressive use of Coptic for legal documents, but the key to this linguistic revolution must be sought in the situation of the judicial state institutions after Justinian and before the Arab Conquest.

April 12, Rostovtzeff Lecture IV: The Role of the Church in the Growth of Legal Coptic

This lecture will present an unpublished set of wooden tablets from Panopolis (now in the Louvre) attesting the use of Coptic for tax receipts in the 6th century and revisit the archive of Apa Abraam bishop of Hermonthis (c. 595-621) and of the monastery he founded—the largest group of legal Coptic texts prior to the Arab Conquest. These texts will lead us to examine the role of the Church and especially monasticism in the development of Coptic for official transactions.