The "Invisible Lives" of Ethiopic (Ge'ez) Manuscripts

The "Invisible Lives" of Ethiopic (Ge'ez) Manuscripts

Gay L. Byron, William A. Johnson, J. Andrew Armacost, Jennifer Knust


Type: Visiting Fellow

Early in her research career, Professor Byron discovered an issue of provenance with a manuscript (MS150) in the André Reynolds Tweed Collection of Ethiopic Artifacts and Manuscripts at Howard University. At that time she disclosed her finding only in the research report presented to the foundation funding the research. Years later, then on faculty at Howard University, she led a delegation of colleagues in returning that manuscript to the Debre Libanos monastery in the Shewa region of Ethiopia. In "Black Collectors and Keepers of Tradition," she wrote about the provenance questions, the ethical choices she and her colleagues made, the hurdles they overcame, and the alliances they weaved in returning the manuscript. There is much more to be understood not only about MS150 (Acts of Paul and Acts of Serabamon) but also about how Howard University's collection of Ethiopic (Ge'ez) manuscripts relates to other collections in the U.S. and, more importantly, how the Howard collection can be used as a pedagogical and interpretive resource for biblical scholars and other scholars interested in religious, classical, and diaspora studies.

The Manuscript Migration Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute, organized for the purpose of investigation objects held within Rubenstein Library's collections, has also identified and returned a manuscript that was purchased under circuitous circumstances. The lab is an incubator for a team of scholars, students, and other researchers who track the lives and afterlives of manuscripts as artifacts, addressing these objects as material traces of those who once held them, as well as those who hold them now.

In the context of the Manuscript Migration Lab team, Professor Byron will examine Rubenstein Library's largely uncatalogued Ge'ez collection, comparing what she is able to learn at the Rubenstein with what she already encountered at Howard and elsewhere, including in Ethiopia. By continuing to study black collectors in the United States she will enrich the understanding of how manuscripts transform the lives they touch, sharpening thinking about who owns what and why. Her work, along with her collaborators, will contribute to a much needed reconsideration of the entanglements of modern scholarship, manuscript collection, and colonial ambition in the production, transmission, and preservation of sacred texts.

Photo credit: Justin D. Knight/Howard University