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The Historical and Social Context

Literature creates its own world, but it is still an artefact of a particular culture. Egyptian culture was so different from our own that some historical background is essential for understanding, although it is easy to overestimate the direct relationship between the poems and historical events. The dating of many works is still uncertain, but it is now generally agreed that those translated here belong to the Middle Kingdom.

The Middle Kingdom was preceded by a period of less centralized power, when the country was divided, and its literature remained very aware of the dangers of civil unrest and the chaos of the interregnum. A period of military conflict between the royal dynasty at Heracleopolis (the Tenth Dynasty) and the rulers at Thebes (the Eleventh Dynasty) in the south ended in victory for the Theban Dynasty c.1987 BC. The new rulers remained at Thebes for some fifty years, until a new family, the Twelfth Dynasty, took control of the kingdom with the accession of Amenemhat I in c.1938 BC. His reign saw the eventual movement of the royal line to a new residence in the north named with the royal epithet ‘Seizer of the Two Lands’ (Itj-tawi), and the Twelfth Dynasty was later known as the ‘kings of the Residence of Itj-tawi’. After a turbulent beginning, a policy of cultural centralization was gradually imposed on the whole country.

The Middle Kingdom is often seen in terms of a struggle between central power and local rulers, a highly developed bureaucracy, and convulsive administrative reforms. Political developments, however, remain obscure; many of the period's most characteristic features appear after more than a century, in the reign of Amenemhat III. After a rule of 180 years, the family trailed off in dynastic worries, and was succeeded by what Egyptian historiographers termed the ‘kings who followed the House of Sehotepibre (Amenemhat I)’. This, the Thirteenth Dynasty, was essentially a continuation, but it witnessed a gradual failing of authority and influence under a long sequence of ephemeral kings. While there was no political disintegration, there was a levelling in general prosperity, and state works of art show a decline in quality. Eventually foreigners in the eastern Delta formed a culturally distinct power base, until the country became divided between the ‘rulers of foreign countries’ in the north (the so-called ‘Hyksos’ dynasties) and the Theban state in the south, around 1640 BC. Another turbulent period ensued before the unity of Egyptian culture was reasserted from the south, around 1540 BC.

Invasion by foreigners was regarded by the Egyptians as an overwhelming of the established order by representatives of chaos. For most of the Middle Kingdom, it is unknown how extensive foreign influence on Egypt actually was, but the general impression is of a unified state quite self-contained, despite campaigns and trading links abroad, and the conquest of Nubia to the south. Egyptian art and religion were one with the central state in articulating the order of the élite; the life of most of society is now unknown, except where archaeology can provide a corrective to the partial evidence of ideological artefacts. Despite the images of gracious living found in élite tombs, life was brutal for most people, and adults who survived childhood could expect to live only until about 35. Administrative texts, which are less concerned with direct expression of the state ideology and more with practical matters, give an impression of workhouses, corvée labour, and a highly ordered bureaucracy, although the range of different types of burials in the cemeteries suggests that society was more varied and differentiated than the documents imply.

Egyptian fictional literature appears at the start of the troubled but effective Twelfth Dynasty. It was not a direct result of the disturbances of the First Intermediate Period, but its origins can perhaps be sought in social changes, such as the rise of a class of free commoners, with wealth and respect for intellectual ‘excellence’. Burials of the period show an increased access to religious writings, which is both a change in cultural decorum and a sign of growing literacy. By the start of the Middle Kingdom, written tomb Autobiographies were no longer the prerogative of the highest élite, and this will have offered one model for the expansion of written forms in general.

The written literature, which was clearly composed for dissemination in written form, must have existed against a background of oral poetry, but we cannot know what the relationship between the two was. The extent of literacy has been tentatively estimated at less than 1 per cent of the population, and all the evidence implies that the surviving compositions were to some extent court poetry, although they were also circulated far away from the royal residence. Some manuscripts owned by individuals were placed in tombs, but we should not imagine a private person reading alone; rather—and perhaps primarily—the compositions were probably recited at a formal gathering, like a soirée. The poems had an audience rather than a reader, to judge by the way they describe their own settings: in The Words of Neferti, a sage is commissioned to improvise a composition before the court of King Sneferu, and it is written down as he speaks. The names of the actual poets were not recorded, although the wisdom texts, which rely on personal authority, were usually attributed to historical or pseudo-historical characters from the past. In a semi-oral context, and without any personal prominence for the actual ‘author’, there was little concern with ‘authorized’ texts, and different contemporaneous copies of a poem can show some variants.

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