Law of Spirit and Flesh: The Law of Kings and Legal Development in Early-Modern, Christian Ethiopia
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Law of Spirit and Flesh: The Law of Kings and Legal Development in Early-Modern, Christian Ethiopia

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This dissertation examines the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox legal text known as theFətḥa N�g�śt (Law of Kings) and its practical application in early-modern Ethiopia. The Fətḥa N�g�śt is considered by many to be the principle legal text in the organization of Ethiopian Christian society. Yet scholarship on the Fətḥa N�g�śt’s role in Ethiopia is quite divided with many downplaying its importance. I argue that the Fətḥa N�g�śt is the foundational legal text in a complex legal system that developed over centuries in Christian Ethiopia. First, I focus on the origins of the legal text, from its composition in the thirteenth century in Coptic Egypt, to the translation and adoption of the text in Ethiopia. Local stories of the origin of the code in Ethiopia, place its promulgation in the mid to late-fifteenth century. I consider an earlier date for the promulgation, in the early-fourteenth to early-fifteenth century. This is based on evidence drawn from a variety of sources, including Ethiopian Orthodox hagiographies and European travel narratives. Second, I explore the institutions that facilitated the adoption and integration of this text into the legal landscape of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church developed centers of legal education where scholars were trained to deliver justice based on the provisions in the Fətḥa N�g�śt. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, complex interpretation systems developed out of the commentary traditions taught in the schools of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The scholars who were trained in the interpretation of the Fətḥa N�g�śt in the law school of the Church went on to fill the most important administrative positions in the kingdom. Finally, I look at case studies from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. The case studies involve slavery, manumission, usury and property. These cases reveal a well-developed legal system heavily influenced by the Fətḥa N�g�śt. The system is blended and contains fluid boundaries between the ‘secular’ and ‘religious,’ and accordingly aligns with the Ethiopian Christian concept of law as intrinsically sacred in character.

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