By Anita Fattori, PhD candidate in Social History, University of São Paulo.
“Puzur-Ishtar married Ishtar-Lamassī, daughter of Assur-nada, as a secondary wife and he must take her with him on his journey wherever he may be. However, he must bring her back to Kanesh. If he leaves her, he must pay 2.5 kilograms of silver; if she is the one who leaves him, she must pay 2.5 kilograms of silver. Furthermore, apart from his main wife in the city of Assur, he must not take anyone else as a wife. Assur-nemedi, Annina and her mother deliver her (as wife). Annali, son of Al-tab, and Mannum-balum-Assur, son of Assur-sululi, are witnesses” (Praga I 490).
The text you have just read is a marriage contract very similar to the ones we know today: we have the names of the bride and groom, the clauses of the contracted regime and the witnesses that guarantee its validity. However, it was not signed on paper, but engraved on a clay tablet over 4,000 years ago, making use of a language, Akkadian, and a writing system, cuneiform, which we no longer use.
This contract was signed at the beginning of the second millennium BCE, in the context of long-distance trade in the Ancient Near East. A large commercial network that had been formed was led by Assyrian merchants, who left their families in Assur, in northern Mesopotamia, and headed towards central Anatolia, settling for long periods in different places, with an emphasis on the city of Kanesh, today Kültepe, in Turkey.
Regarding the content of this contract, which aspects call our attention? At first we know that it deals with a mixed marriage between a woman from Kanesh, in central Anatolia, and an Assyrian man from Assur. Furthermore, this woman, Ishtar-Lamassī, is taken under the status of the second wife of the merchant Puzur-Ishtar.
As a general rule, the Mesopotamian codes we know, like the famous Code of Hammurabi, are clear about marriages: monogamy is the rule. However, we note that some customs relating to family law are adapted to this trade scenario, where we find cases of bigamy.
Some merchants were already married in Assur, and when they settled in Kanesh, or elsewhere in Anatolia, they could take a second wife. The first wife received the status of main wife, the assatum, while the second wife was considered secondary to the first, receiving the status of amtum. We can call this picture a 'relative bigamy', as they could only live with one wife at a time, that is, they could not have more than one wife in the same place, nor with the same status. Furthermore, it was expressly prohibited to perform a third marriage, thus avoiding a scenario of polygamy.
In addition to the legal aspects of this society, through document analysis we can also obtain some information about how these people lived. Through marriage, divorce and loan contracts and letters, we can get to know and rethink the lives of women in the past, especially the lives of women who lived in Anatolia, persons little debated by the studies of the period.
The first excerpt of the document above shows that a secondary wife was responsible for accompanying her husband on his journeys through Anatolia. In addition, we also know that secondary wives were responsible for taking care of their husband's homes, children, and property during her absence. At first, we may think that they silently obeyed the patriarchal order, but through the documentation we know that they were often reluctant, complaining or even refusing to accompany them on their constant trips to unknown places.
Then, in that same contract, we can verify the existence of a divorce clause. This excerpt is especially important as it shows us a legal equality between men and women in this regard: both men and women could divorce and both under the same penalties, in the case above, for example, either party that initiates a divorce should pay 2.5 kilos of silver.
Divorce seems to be the predicted end to these marriages, and it usually happened peacefully, when the husbands ended their careers as merchants in Anatolia and returned to Assur. At that point the fate of these wives and their children was established: they received divorce compensation and could start a new life. Within this logic, it is not surprising that wills were not produced in favour of the secondary wives. Such wills may have existed, but we don't know them. However, some unexpected situations could lead to a tragic fate for these women, such as the death of her husband before the end of this relationship, such as a woman named Kunnaniya.
Kunnaniya's husband suddenly dies in Anatolia. Alone, she travels over a thousand kilometres to Assur to confront the deceased's family and secure part of her assets: ownership of her house in Kanesh and compensation for raising her children. Unsuccessful in the negotiation, she loses everything and, upon returning, discovers that her goods were stolen. Despite little documentation on this case and not knowing Kunnaniya's final outcome, we know of a letter she wrote to her sister: “I can't take it anymore, I'm going to die. I have no way out” (KTH 5).
Another aspect of these women's lives can be seen between the lines of texts dealing with commerce. In addition to making small investments independently, secondary wives appear alongside their husbands in loan agreements. This scenario may show us their active participation in family businesses, but it also raises a question: would these women be placed as co-debtors not because of a commercial partnership, but because they appear as a guarantee for the payment of the debt?
To these women, becoming a wife was advantageous as they were guaranteed a home, food and clothing. It was a certainty of survival, which could last for years and would later guarantee a means of starting their lives over. Unlike Assyrian principal wives, secondary wives seem to be conditioned to greater patriarchal surveillance. However, they negotiated their areas of action: refusing to travel, traveling alone to seek their right to survival, putting themselves on an equal footing in relation to divorce and participating in commercial practices. We can conclude that the subordination of second wives does not imply passivity and that, in their own way, they negotiated their spaces of action.