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On administrative and legal documents in Africa

Call for contributions to a thematic issue for 2016 (issue n°7)


Historians, anthropologists, linguists and specialists from other relevant disciplines are invited to submit proposals for articles in French or English devoted to the production, transmission and conservation of administrative and legal documents in Africa to the exclusion of texts from Western colonial administrations. Nonetheless, we shall take under consideration proposals having to do with “contact situations” or involving a mixture of precolonial writing practices with documents from colonial administrations.

The purpose is to establish a state-of-the-art account of African practices related to administrative and legal documents. Attention should be paid to documents that, often said to be “performative” and/or normative, are intended to have an effect, for instance: grants of donation, contracts, charters, funeral inscriptions, correspondence, inventories or any other “archived” documents. Examining such a corpus does not preclude analyzing its relations with “narratives”, since writing practices can and must be understood in relation to the broader cultural, technological or cognitive contexts, not to forget the spoken word or the history of local and state administrations.

This special issue should be a place for publishing sources, whether of a single document or in an appendix. The purpose is both to make documents known and to devote thought to the very meaning of a “corpus”. Such a collection takes shape through successive operations during the life of the documents contained in it and as a function of the intentions of the persons who “produce” and then “keep” them or, at the end of the chain, as a function of scientific criteria. Methodological and conceptual approaches will be welcomed that shed light on these processes.

The problems of turning a document into an archive — a process implying strategies of conservation, whether by families or institutions — are of utmost interest. Studying administrative and legal texts leads to the question of power in their utilization, whence our focus on, for example, a document’s authenticity and sincerity, the processes for validating and copying it, or the transfer of authority eventually ensuing from it. Other topics that could be covered are: the material, technical and formal aspects of such documents and their circulation.

This special issue seeks to update the study of administrative and legal texts in Africa thanks to the advances made in research on “literacy” since the 1970s. Studies related to “literacy” and “orality” in Africa, in particular by Jack Goody, strongly influenced Michael Clanchy, whose From memory to written records (1973) marked a turning point in Western medieval studies. Since then, this field has benefited from several original studies by, to mention but a few authors: Armando Petrucci, Bernard Cerquiglini, Luciano Canfora, Carlo Severi and J.N. Admas. Although Africa is still on the sidelines of this revival of “literacy studies”, P. de Moraes Farias’s work on Arabic medieval inscriptions in Mali (2006) and G. Lydon’s on the function of writing in trade to the south of the Sahara (2009) have made an exemplary use of an innovative methodology to explore a corpus previously deemed “marginal”. We might also mention the book edited by D. Crummey (2007), Literacy and the state in Sudanic Africa, which has raised major questions about how autonomous regional administrations function and how the power of a written text serves as the grounds for legitimating, in particular, the use of the land and its resources. The comparative approach, long used in medieval studies, can render service in African studies. We hope to build bridges between what the diplomatic method has accomplished in the textual critique of documentary sources in medieval and modern Europe and in precolonial Africa.

Issue editors

The editors of this special issue come from complementary fields.

Anaïs Wion (CFEE, CNRS) is a specialist on documentary sources from the 15th to the 19th century in the Christian realm of Ethiopia (royal and private writs as well as documents by Christian institutions).

Specialized in Western medieval studies, Sébastien Barret (IRHT, CNRS) is a recognized expert in diplomatics/paleography.

Julien Loiseau (University of Montpellier) has worked on the Mamluk period in Egypt and published several studies on waqf and Islamic law.

Aïssatou Mbodj-Pouye (IMAF, CNRS), an anthropologist, is working on questions of literacy in Western Africa.


Proposals for an article (including the working title and a summary, 300-500 words) should be sent to anais.wion[@] before 1 October 2014. The definitive version of the article corresponding to the proposal retained should be ready for June 2015.

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