- Production, Preservation, and Use of Ethiopian Archives (Fourteenth–Eighteenth Centuries)
Donald Crummey’s article in this special issue starts by raising several crucial questions: “How documents and archives were created in historical Ethiopia remains opaque. How, physically and institutionally, were documents created in the first place? Did they go through several stages of development? If so, why? What determined the location where they were deposited? What considerations affected whether or not copies were made of a document? And, if copies were made, how were the number and their respective locations determined?” Is it necessary to point out that Crummey is a pioneer in the study and use of these documents by historians? His campaigns during the 1980s and 1990s for the photographing of manuscripts in Ethiopian churches and monasteries established an important collection of documents on microfilm. This collection has been digitalized and is now available for consultation at both the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. This material has been the subject and source of Crummey’s many publications up till his Land and Society in the Christian [End Page vii] Kingdom of Ethiopia from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century.1 After so many years devoted to studying legal and administrative documents, it is significant that Crummey raises once again the aforementioned questions, which are fundamental for understanding how such documents were produced, how they acquired the status of written records, and how they were put to use during various phases of the chain that we can summarize as production, recording, preservation, and use. The study per se of these documents is still an almost unexplored field in Ethiopian studies.
For other periods of time and other places, such as the Middle Ages in Western Europe, a start was made on studies of this sort two to three decades ago.2 In recent years, this approach has even become a fad. Old documents, whether narrative, normative, or practical, have become sources, subjects to be submitted to historical investigation. Their writing, conservation, and use provide evidence of social, economic, political, and cultural changes. In other words, they are no longer just sources from which to glean historical information. We now try to understand how and why they were written, copied, kept, and transmitted. Examining the history of such documents might be the only way to shed light on historical phenomena that would otherwise remain invisible. For instance, a study of the handwriting (characterized by a so-called “hybrida” Gothic script) used in fifteenth-century documents in the archives of certain convents in the diocese of Liège (Belgium) has brought to light the only known evidence of a reform of religious observance there.3
Manfred Kropp’s research has begun an approach of this sort to Ethiopian documents, consequent to his long-term inquiry into the making, copying, using, and circulating of historical, administrative, and legal texts.4 The intention is no longer just to reconstitute the archetype of a text but to study how a text has been transmitted through all the documents that have copied and recopied it, reworked and transformed it, made it longer or shorter. Each version is a text in and of itself. Such an analysis, typical of a historian’s approach, neither rejects nor scorns traditional philological methods but, in fact, deems them necessary. However, the methods of a “renewed diplomatics”5 yield more results when analyzing a highly complex set of documents, which are qualified as “archives.”
The very concept of archives in both the historical and archival senses of the word has slowly matured in the Western world. Initially, an archive was a document produced by a juristic or natural person during the [End Page viii] course of its activities and formatted with the aim of helping it perform them. In this sense, a chartulary was an archival document.6 The copying of documents for practical reasons or for the sake of institutional legitimation in a depository not initially foreseen for this purpose is also an act of “archiving.” A charter is kept as part of an archive by an...