Medieval Betä Ǝsra’el III: Oral Sources

This is the third of a series of posts going back to a paper presented at the International Medieval Congress 2017. See for the first post and an overview over the whole series.

Oral Sources and the Study of Betä Ǝsra’el History and Religious Life

The Betä Ǝsra’el cannot be considered an illiterate society. Betä Ǝsra’el clergy and religious scholars were required to learn to read as part of their education. While prayers were largely committed to memory and recited, texts, mainly holy books, were used (Kaplan 1992: 73-77). However, Betä Ǝsra’el historiography was, as we have seen, almost completely oral.

A number of medieval chronicles commemorating the acts of Christian Solomonic monarchs contain descriptions of wars waged between these monarchs and factions of the Betä Ǝsra’el.[1] However, the information in these sources is often limited to descriptions of military conflict and political intrigue. Additional medieval sources referring to the Betä Ǝsra’el include letters written by Jews in Egypt and Jerusalem following encounters with members of the Betä Ǝsra’el community (Waldman 1989: 35-91) and an Islamic chronicle documenting the temporary Islamic conquest of Christian Ethiopia (1529-1543, Šihāb ad-Dīn Aḥmad 2003: 378-379). However, the Betä Ǝsra’el are only briefly mentioned in these sources, and their religious practices not described in detail. Therefore, any attempt to significantly shed light on medieval Betä Ǝsra’el religious life must rely on other sources, such as the oral traditions and the liturgical texts of this group.

As historical research on societies which did not produce historiographic texts progresses, so does the realization that oral traditions constitute an invaluable source on the earlier history of such societies. Usage of oral traditions in historical research raises a series of methodological questions. First and foremost of these is the degree in which information contained within them can be considered indicative of actual historical events.[2] In the case of the Betä Ǝsra’el, the above-mentioned medieval written sources can serve as frames of reference in the examination and the attempt to contextualize the oral traditions.

A comprehensive discussion on the Betä Ǝsra’el oral tradition and its potential usage in historical research is beyond the scope of this paper.[3] Rather, we will focus here on one aspect of this tradition directly relevant to the study of medieval Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism – genealogy, and, more specifically – monastic genealogy.

A central aspect of the Betä Ǝsra’el oral tradition was the memorization of family lineage. Keeping track of one’s lineage could be a method of enhancing prestige (Rosen 1994), and also served a practical purpose – the Betä Ǝsra’el religious tradition prohibited marriage between two individuals related up to seven generations back (Ḥädanä Täqoyä 2011: 107, compare Smidt 2005). Therefore, a complete record of the seven preceding generations had to be memorized by each family in order to verify that no such kinship existed between a potential bride and groom.

The centrality of genealogy among the Betä Ǝsra’el religious leadership is demonstrated by the fact that out of three books written by Betä Ǝsra’el priests in recent years on the topics of Betä Ǝsra’el history and religious life, the genealogy of the priest’s family, extended back several generations, as well as other prestigious genealogies, feature prominently in two (Asres Yayeh 1995: 138-167; Ḥädanä Täqoyä 2011: 209-218). In the third (Gobäze Baroḵ 2007), a number of sections recount the history of prestigious family members of the author. Prestigious genealogies are, in some cases, traced back to Betä Ǝsra’el monarchs, the names of which (or identical names of Betä Ǝsra’el monarchs) also appear in medieval Solomonic royal chronicles (see below).

Genealogies in societies in which history is narrated orally cannot be uncritically considered historically accurate. However, there are documented cases where such genealogies, and other systems used in order to recall past generations, have been proven to contain information originating centuries before their documentation in writing (Amborn and Schubert 2006; Smidt 2005: 743-745). Therefore, while precise dates cannot be calculated on the basis of such genealogies, it can be argued that, in some cases, genealogies of oral societies may serve as an indication of the antiquity of certain individuals compared to others.

[1] For an overview, see Kaplan 1992: 79-96.

[2] A discussion on methodological approaches to the study of oral history is beyond the scope of this paper. For examples of studies which address this issue, see Finnegan 2012; Grele 2003; Vansina 1969.

[3] A number of studies conducted on the Betä Ǝsra’el oral tradition demonstrate that it indeed contains information dating to medieval times, and that this information has the capacity to compliment information appearing in medieval written sources. See, for example, Abbink 1990; Quirin 1993; Rosen 1994.

For full bibliography, see the last post in the series.

Cite this article as: barkribus, "Medieval Betä Ǝsra’el III: Oral Sources," in Africana, 21/02/2018,

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