a1 University of Illinois, Urbana
Records of Ethiopian property dealings provide insights into the affairs of Ethiopian families. They suggest further, dynamic links between property and family. Amhara rules of descent and inheritance are ambilineal. Each person reckons their ancestry equally through their father and mother and inherits property the same way. Yet, without abandoning their profession of the principles of ambilineal descent and of equal partible inheritance, the Abyssinian nobility subverted these norms, thereby creating ‘families’ out of a welter of ramifying lineages, and ‘estates’ out of disintegrating holdings. Their devices included wills and marriage endowments which privileged one sibling at the expense of others. Another device was the alaqenat, an office which functioned as the head of a family and its affairs. The alaqenat, previously unreported in the Ethiopian literature, appears in a number of documents in the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries, and the article uses it to trace the affairs of one noble family over a period of six generations. Further comments are made about the links between public office and notions of property. Finally, two wider spheres are addressed. In spite of its radical ambilineality Abyssinian society reveals tendencies common to other societies based on plough agriculture, tendencies towards greater class differentiation based on the accumulation of landed property. And, unlike most other historic societies professing Christianity, Abyssinian society is marked by frequent divorce and marital instability.