The Nachlass of William Macomber (1921-2008)   8 comments

From the perspective of an interest in eastern Christianity, the foundational name at HMML is that of William Macomber, a name well known to scholars of eastern Christianity thanks to his numerous manuscript catalogs and articles, but there has unfortunately been no attempt to highlight his work and offer a personal account of his life. His family recently (Nov 7, 2011) donated several boxes of his papers and other belongings to HMML, where Dr. Macomber had served as cataloger of oriental manuscripts beginning in 1974, and this is a fitting time to say a very little bit about him and his work, and about his papers now at HMML.

At a study carrel at HMML, Oct 1974

Macomber (July 27, 1921-December 6, 2008) was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in comparative philology and classics in 1942, after which he was a lieutenant in the US Navy (Pacific theater). He later went on to earn an M.A. from Boston College, a licentiate from the Gregorian University (Rome), a licentiate from the Oriental Institute (Rome), and a doctorate from the same place (1964). He taught English and mathematics at Baghdad College in 1951-52 and theology and philosophy at Al-Hikma University, Baghdad, where he was also head of the theology department, in 1962-64. He was prefect of studies at St. Peter’s Seminary in Baghdad from 1965-1968 and extraordinarius professor of oriental liturgy at the Oriental Institute in Rome from 1967-1974, when he came to HMML and worked mostly on the then new Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library (EMML). He had been a Jesuit priest, but left the order and married in 1976. In the 1980s, he was later the cataloger for several microfilming projects by Brigham Young University.

As mentioned above, Macomber is especially known for his catalogs. These range from brief handlists to fuller descriptions and cover (at least) Gǝ`ǝz, Arabic, Syriac, and Coptic manuscripts. Macomber was the first cataloger for the EMML project mentioned above. Getatchew Haile, who fondly refers to Macomber as his mentor, later joined him in this work on the EMML collection and continued in this task after Macomber’s retirement. These catalogs, now ten in number (with the eleventh not far behind to be published), were prepared by Macomber alone (vols. 1-3), by Macomber and Getatchew (vols. 5-7), and by Getatchew alone (vols. 4, 8-10). While a bare form of this data is available through Oliver, the full catalogs, much more detailed, are a treat to study. Macomber himself gave reports and announcements about the EMML project in various places, e.g. Le Muséon 87 (1975): 397-403, History in Africa 3 (1976): 203-204, and in the 1980 conference volume Ethiopian Studies, ed. G. Goldenberg, pp. 389-396. The catalogs were reviewed as they appeared, such as a notice of the EMML project, including remarks on vols. 1 and 2, by L. Van Rompay in Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica 8 (1977): 217-222. Macomber’s other cataloging for various collections and languages is spread over journal articles and books, some of which are at least a little difficult to find, but a number of which we are fortunate have easy access to thanks to CPART at BYU. (The catalogs at CPART and the Coptic documents mentioned below were made with Multi-Lingual Scholar; see a review of the software from 1989 here.)

A now bearded Macomber being presented with vol. 2 of the EMML catalog, Sept 1976

Of Macomber’s articles, which mostly deal with liturgical texts and manuscripts, I will only mention a few. His study “The Oldest Known Text of the Anaphora of the Apostles Addai and Mari,” OCP 32 (1966): 335-371, contains a wealth of information on some middle eastern manuscript collections, not to mention unique liturgical details, as does his “List of the Known Manuscripts of the Chaldean Ḥuḏrā,” OCP 36 (1970): 120-134. On a different genre of texts is his “Newly Discovered Fragments of the Gospel Commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia,” Le Muséon 81 (1968): 441-447, which contains remarks on the east Syriac exegetical tradition. His “New Finds of Syriac Manuscripts in the Middle East,” ZDMG Suppl. I.2 (1969): 473-482, remains both an interesting and informative view of Syriac manuscript collections in Iraq and Turkey by someone who knew them especially well. Due to his work at the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies (Rome) and the Jesuit Iraq Mission, Macomber spent much time in the Middle East. He says, “I have seen well over 2300 manuscripts that were previously unknown in the West, and of these more than 2000 were Syriac” (p. 473). A great number of the collections Macomber had inspected are now available at HMML in color digital copies. In Le Muséon 88 (1975): 391-395, OCP 43 (1977): 308-334 and 45 (1979): 75-98 he described and studied the Kacmarcik Codex, a 14th-century Arabic and Greek manuscript at HMML (see further Samir Khalil, “Le Codex Kacmarcik et sa version arabe de la Liturgie alexandrine,” OCP 44 [1978]: 75-106). Worth mentioning, too, is Macomber’s article “Ethiopian Liturgy” in The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 3, pp. 987-990. Finally, his edition and English translation Six Explanations of the Liturgical Feasts by Cyrus of Edessa: An East Syrian Theologian of the Mid Sixth Century appeared in 1974 as CSCO vols. 355-356 (= Scr. Syri 155-156).

Here is a very rough and selective outline of what’s included in Macomber’s papers given to HMML:

  • Cataloging notes, article drafts and proofs, and study notes. These are partly handwritten, partly typewritten, and partly printed from computer files. On an individualistic note, Macomber used extremely small handwriting and for most of the pages he made notes on he filled them from top to bottom, edge to edge.
  • Copies of manuscripts. These are mostly paper copies, but there are also several microfilms (and one microfiche). There are some Syriac manuscripts, but the great majority are Arabic-Coptic parallel liturgical or grammatical texts, both complete and selected portions.
  • Copies of research materials. These are photocopies, some coil-bound, some unbound, of books, sections of books, and articles dealing with Coptic (the majority), Syriac, and (Christian) Arabic. There are over twenty coil-bound volumes that have a short contents page loose at the beginning. A number of these came from the Catholic University of America: in a letter to Macomber from the librarian, she mentions that she had sent him over 5000 pages of Coptic texts!
  • Offprints. There are of course offprints of Macomber’s own writings, and of most of these there are several copies. There are also many offprints from Syriac, Coptic, and liturgical scholars.
  • Correspondence. There are perhaps 45-50 letters (merely an estimate) written to Macomber dealing with various scholarly activities, mostly pertaining to his manuscript and liturgical research. There are also a few copies of letters that Macomber himself wrote to other individuals.
  • Drafts of nearly completed projects. These include:

1. Index to the Miracles of Mary in Gǝ`ǝz. This reference work is a list of the 643 miracles of Mary known in Gǝ`ǝz literature. For each miracle, Macomber offers a short synopsis, a reference to published texts and translations if they exist, non-EMML manuscripts, EMML manuscripts (up through about no. 3000), and the incipit (in transliteration, not Ethiopic script). This important reference work will take its place beside the analogous “Répertoire des Salam et Malke’e contenus dans les manuscrits éthiopiens des bibliothèques d’Europe” of M. Chaîne, ROC 18 (1913): 183-203, 337-357.

Drafts of the Coptic dictionary

2. On another subject entirely is a long work, various parts of which exist in several drafts, an edition and translation of the Scala Magna (Al-Sullam Al-Kabīr), one of several Coptic-Arabic dictionaries made in Egypt beginning in the 13th century. (On the sullam, see W. Vycichl, “Sullam” in The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 8, p. 204.) In a letter dated Feb. 25, 2003, Macomber delineates five parts of the finished work: 1) introduction and other front matter (67 pages), 2) the sullam, Coptic-Arabic with English translation (277 pages), 3) textual variants (389 pages), 4) footnotes to the English translation, and 5) indices for Coptic, Arabic, English, Greek, scientific names, and biblical references (499 pages). The longstanding excellence of Crum’s Coptic dictionary (1939) notwithstanding, a Coptic dictionary specifically devoted to Bohairic has definite value, not only for coptologists interested in Bohairic texts or language, but also for Arabic scholars, thanks to the original format of the sullam. Incidentally, Macomber’s intense Coptic studies were especially the occupation of the last two decades of his life. In his 1977 CV he claims to have only “some acquaintance” with Coptic, while he is “expert” in Syriac and “competent” in Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Gǝ`ǝz. [UPDATE (26 Mar 2012): I am informed that Macomber’s Scala Magna, under the editorship of Laurence Tuerlinckx and Andrea Schmidt, is to be published in the CSCO.]

I am reminded almost every day of Macomber’s work cataloging manuscripts and studying texts in Syriac, Arabic, and Gǝ`ǝz, not least because I work at the very place he did. The study of orientalia christiana at HMML really begins with him, and it was a good beginning. With the collection of manuscripts in these languages available at HMML much larger and more varied than when he was active here, his legacy continues to inspire.


Posted December 13, 2011 by adamcmccollum in Cataloging, Coptic, Gǝ`ǝz, Personalia, Scholarship

8 responses to “The Nachlass of William Macomber (1921-2008)

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  1. I met Macomber very briefly at BYU a few years ago. What sticks in my mind is an image of his slight, spry frame and his obvious intelligence–and the fact that he said Ethiopic was really, really easy!

  2. Getatchew, who knew him well for many years and worked closely with him at HMML, speaks exceedingly highly of him and how well he knew what he was doing.

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  4. Thank you very much for this very appropriate and well deserved tribute to William Macomber. I met Macomber at the first Symposium Syriacum in Rome in 1972, when I just began my Ph.D. work. Of my very first paper (1974) I sent him an offprint and I was surprised and delighted to receive a long letter in response, which was very encouraging, even though he strongly criticized — and rightly so — my spelling of Diyarbakir. Throughout the years I have used many of his works. I always regarded him as an eminent scholar.

    Lucas VAN ROMPAY
  5. Thanks so much for these remembrances, Luk. I seem to remember seeing at least one or two offprints from you in Macomber’s papers.

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