Goitein and His Lab

In the late 1940s, a German-trained orientalist named S. D. Goitein (1900–85) stumbled across some Judaeo-Arabic letters from the twelfth-century India trade at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.

Like many after him, once Goitein had read his first geniza fragment, he was hooked. He decided to change research trajectory and focus exclusively on the documentary geniza and what it revealed about social history.

Thus began an extraordinarily productive second career devoted to Geniza research, punctuated by the publication of five volumes of his magnum opus, A Mediterranean Society (1967–93), and hundreds of articles, many containing editions of texts.

Goitein also produced an extraordinary corpus of research materials, including several thousand editions and hundreds of translations of geniza fragments, as well as 26,000 index cards describing individual geniza fragments or topics.

Goitein referred to these materials, together with his photocopies of geniza fragments, as his “Geniza Lab.” He had adopted the “lab” concept from Fernand Braudel (1902–85), the great French historian of the Mediterranean, who ran a center in Paris that he and others referred to as a laboratoire de recherches historiques. Between 1954 and 1964, Braudel’s “lab” funded Goitein’s research on the Mediterranean.1

The “lab” concept has remained integral to geniza studies. The concept works because fragmentary sources require collaborative research. 

When Goitein died in 1985, one of his dreams remained unfulfilled: accomplishing, “in collaboration with others, the systematic publication and translation of the entire corpus of documentary Geniza material.”2 The mission of the Princeton Geniza Lab is to help realize Goitein’s dream.

S. D. Goitein posing with a group of other men

Byzantine Studies Symposium “Urban Societies in the Mediterranean World” at Dumbarton Oaks in 1976. Back row (standing), from left to right: Halil İnalcık, A. L. Udovitch, Bariša Krekić, Gilbert Dagron. Middle row (standing), from left to right: Robert S. Lopez, S. D. Goitein. Front (seated): David Herlihy.