Sub-project: Ethiopian Studies

Variance in the Ethiopian "Short Chronicles" corpus as witness of traditional philology (18th - 20th c.)

Principal investigator: Dr Anaïs Wion

Research associate: François LeCadre, MA


Description of the project

During the seven centuries of uninterrupted production and use of manuscripts in Christian Ethiopia, only two written endogenous corpora can be called historiographical: the official annals of the kings, called the 'Long Chronicles', and some compilations called the 'Short Chronicles' (SC). They are abridged histories of each reign since the 13th century, copied together with various chronographic and historical texts. They appeared during the 18th century and were produced in monastic circles as well as by intellectuals during a period in which the monarchy gradually lost its control on the writing of history. For two centuries (18th-20th C), the SC were transmitted and numerous compilations were copied and emendated.

Since the end of the 19th century, four editions and translations of the text have been published as well as studies and partial translations of the major interpolations. Today, some forty manuscripts of the SC are known. Variations between the different versions of the SC deserve far more attention than they have so far received; this applies both to texts as well as to the structure of the compilations. One aim of the present project is to specify the different families of manuscripts, defining the milieus in which they were produced and tracing back the history of their transmission. This leads to questions in Ethiopian studies that remain unanswered: How did compilers work? Can these historians also be called philologists? And if so, how can Ethiopian philology be defined? Relationships between different written corpora have to be studied, without neglecting the slow integration of oral traditions into the written corpus, as the SC offer evidence of such a process.

Manuscript culture in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has a long literary tradition. Christian since the 4th century, its Church was under the authority of the Alexandrian patriarchate. Numerous epigraphic documents remain to testify to the culture and the history of the kingdom of Aksum, which fell into decline and disappeared around the 8th century. The Bible and numerous religious texts were translated and copied into Ge'ez during this first period. Ethiopia was then beset by a 'dark age', and the earliest manuscripts at our disposal date back to the 12th-13th century. Until the mid-20th century, manuscripts remained the main written media, the printing presses appearing in the first years of the 20th century. Manuscripts contain different types of texts, mostly religious (biblical books, liturgical books, hagiographies, patristic and ascetic texts) but also profane (historical texts, astronomical, medicinal and magical treatises). They are written in Ge'ez, the ancient and liturgical language of Ethiopia. Amharic, the vernacular language and lingua franca, has been written since the mid-18th century.

Today, the major part of this written heritage, counting probably more than 100,000 volumes, is in the hands of the Ethiopian churches and monasteries. It is sometimes difficult to identify those collections and to access them. The extremely important project of microfilming and cataloguing monastic libraries was realised in the seventies. 10,000 volumes were microfilmed, amongst which 5,000 are catalogued. Important and sometimes ancient collections, brought back by travellers and scholars since the 17th century are preserved in European libraries.