Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe by Verena Krebs

The name Solomon brings the word “wisdom” almost immediately to mind. Belatedly, it makes me think of the Temple. Now that I have read Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe by Verena Krebs, I will also remember the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia. That dynasty took power in the late 1200s and ruled, with some interruptions, until 1974. There is a pretender who is not completely excluded from Ethiopian politics, so it’s possible that the current rulership will someday be regarded as an interruption in rule by the sons of Solomon.

Medieval Ethiopian Kingship

Krebs concerns herself with a period that runs from the very end of the 1300s through the first third of the 1500s. During this time, the kingdom in the Ethiopian highlands was mostly internally stable, barring the occasional inheritance crisis and regency. A succession of of Solomonic kings — Krebs uses the local title nǝguś — sent emissaries to fellow Christian realms in the Latin West: Venice, Naples, Aragon, the Papal court, and others. The dates and personnel of the missions have long been known to scholarship, and Krebs draws on primary and secondary sources in an astonishing range of languages. In history, though, interpretation is crucial, and here Krebs upends previous Eurocentric specialist views on what the Ethiopian ambassadors were seeking in their relations with Latin courts, and thus on medieval relations between Europe and Africa more generally. Scholarship in the twentieth century tended to see medieval Ethiopian contacts with Europe as seeking technology in general and military technology in particular, and possible military alliances against regional rivals. Krebs disagrees.

Reading the diplomatic sources within the framework of local late medieval Ethiopian history, this book proposes that Ethiopian rulers sent out their missions to acquire rare religious treasures and foreign manpower expedient to their political agenda of building and endowing monumental churches and monasteries in the Ethiopian highlands. Acquiring artisans and ecclesiastical wares from faraway places for religious centres intimately tied to Solomonic dominion would have necessarily increased their prestige within the Christian Horn of Africa, following a mechanism well-attested for numerous societies in the pre-modern world. Such requests from a foreign sovereign sphere were rarely caused by a shortage of indigenous labor or materials—particularly not within fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Ethiopia. Here, they appear instead to be an intentional emulation of the actions ascribed to the biblical king Solomon, propagated by the Solomonic Ethiopian rulers as the dynasty’s genealogical ancestor … This very same king Solomon, too, is repeatedly narrated as sending envoys to another sovereign ruler to obtain both precious wares and a master craftsman to construct the first temple in Jerusalem in the Bible. The sending of missions to Latin Christian potentates appears to have been one of the strategies through which the [Ethiopian kings] locally asserted their claim of rightful Solomonic descendence–and actively if somewhat incidentally initiated a particularly noteworthy case of African-European contacts in the late medieval period. (p. 6)

I found the book fascinating along several lines. First, the stories of the embassies themselves are understated epics, full of glimpses into past worlds. Ethiopian monks at the Council of Florence; audiences with Popes and Doges of Venice; a Persian merchant leading an Ethiopian party through Mamluk Egypt; an emissary reluctant to return from a failed mission, lest he incur his monarch’s wrath; European craftsmen detained for decades. “Four members of the Ethiopian delegation were even immortalised in the contemporary frescoes of the southern wall of the Sistene Chapel: two black ambassadors appear in Sandro Botticelli’s Temptation of Moses, and two others appear in Biagio di Antonio Tucci’s Crossing of the Red Sea.” (p. 141) All of these and more appear in Krebs’ pages as she carefully reconstructs the missions and their purposes from both European and Ethiopian sources. She notes what can and cannot be known from the written sources that have survived, and she sometimes ventures to interpret the silences as well. When Popes pursued a Union of the Ethiopian and Catholic Churches, understood to imply subordination to Rome, the Solomonic kings did not reply.

When [His Majesty] Zär’a Ya’ǝqob received the papal documents regarding a Union of the Churches in the early 1440s, he chose to file them away instead of answering the papacy. Everything we know about this single most outstanding ruler of the early Solomonic period suggests that this was a conscious decision. It may very well be that Zär’a Ya’ǝqob simply was too busy to deal with requests for a church union from the leader of a geographically remote Western sect with delusions of grandeur at the time. … As mentioned above, [His Majesty] Zär’a Ya’ǝqob was also actively reforming the church over which he presided, and clashed with various schismatic groups who took issue with his religious reforms throughout the 1440s. By February 1450, the nǝguś called together his own ecumenical Council at Däbrä Mǝṭmaq, one of the most important councils of the Ethiopian Church. When the Ethiopian monk P̣eṭros had called the church of his home country ‘strong, powerful and free’ in Florence in 1441, the same could have been said for his king, [His Majesty] Zär’a Ya’ǝqob. Even more so than other Solomonic rulers in the late Middle Ages, this particular nǝguś had no reason to bow at the feat of any foreign pontiff—particularly not one whose teachings he would have considered heretical. (pp. 82–83)

Second, as shown in the preceding paragraph Krebs puts Ethiopian views at the center of her efforts to answer the questions of why Ethiopia sent emissaries to the Latin West, and what those missions were meant to achieve. While concentrating on the missions themselves and keeping her text to a very readable 266 pages (nearly half of which are notes), Krebs gives enough context on Ethiopia and its dynamics for readers to be able to place the missions into a broader framework of the dynasty and the kings’ goals. The answers to Ethiopian questions are to be found in Ethiopia, not in Europe. Considering the Ethiopian kings as protagonists in their own right, and not merely adjuncts to European stories, explains actions that otherwise appear puzzling. For example, the material results of most of the missions was minimal. Some, particularly the early missions to Venice, succeeded in having holy relics sent from the Latin West to Ethiopia. But for many, either the efforts to obtain precious objects were unsuccessful or gifts from rulers in the West were lost in transit. Why keep sending people out on such long and uncertain quests?

Krebs’ answer is that the very act of sending out missions enhanced the prestige of the Solomonic kings. The embassies demonstrated their ability to reach across vast distances and command the interest of the lords of fabled lands. If the ambassadors returned with, say, a piece of the True Cross so much the better. The kings certainly desired holy relics for the many churches they were building and the monasteries they were endowing. They also wanted ecclesiastical furnishings and, if possible, craftsmen whose skills could adorn the kings’ realm. All of these activities strengthened the dynasty’s association with King Solomon. They did as he did; they were powerful as he was. Material returns were almost secondary. They had the wealth and strength to send out missions to the furthest reaches of Christendom; in itself that bolstered their rule.

The parallels between Ethiopian Solomonic kingship and the biblical Solomon, including diplomatic despatches calling for foreign specialist labour to build edifices glorifying God, must have been readily apparent to both these African Christian kings and their subjects. It did not matter whether these missions were successful. In asking other Christian kings for stonemasons, builders, painters and metalworkers, Ethiopian sovereigns were not trying to acquire hitherto unknown ‘technologists’ to develop their state. … The interest was not to establish lasting relations with a particular European princely or ecclesiastical court. Instead, a specific means-to-an-end outlook appears to have been the main driving force for Solomonic diplomatic outreach. Reading Solomonic diplomacy as a ritual action primarily enacted to produce and re-assert local kingship also explains why contacts curiously yet repeatedly petered out. Even successful missions were not necessarily followed up on by the [Ethiopian kings], who chose to address themselves to new recipients time and again. (p. 219)

Third, Krebs demonstrates how close examination of sources and context enables a historian to draw well-founded conclusions, and enables other scholars to check her work. The paragraph about a union of the churches quoted above has seven footnotes. The notes on this paragraph show sources in French, German and English, discuss controversies within the Ethiopian church of the period, and detail which Latin practices the nǝguś would likely have looked askance at. Other notes perform the tasks of giving the original (usually Latin) text of documents Krebs discusses, describing difficulties associated with connecting places and people in original sources with counterparts in the rest of the historical record, and otherwise elucidating the basis for her views in the main text. For non-specialists reading this specialist text, the notes are not necessary, but often interesting in their own right.

Fourth, Medieval Ethiopian Kingship shows a scholarly controversy and how it relates to issues in the larger world outside the guilds of historians and medievalists. “The established scholarly view as delineated [at the beginning of chapter 5] is therefore divorced from both available source evidence and local Ethiopian historical context. It appears, instead, based on an underlying Eurocentric narrative of Latin Christian artistic and technological superiority, rooted in the colonialist history of the field—from which certain beliefs have trickled down to the present day.” (p. 188) Some of the influential twentieth-century historians of Ethiopia had been part of Fascist Italy’s colonial regime in Ethiopia; untangling their contributions to knowledge from their ideology is no small task, but crucial for the field. Krebs argues explicitly for changing views on why Ethiopian kings sent out diplomatic missions to Europe in the late medieval period. The book’s existence is an argument for putting non-European context at the center of efforts to understand why people outside of Europe related to Europeans the way that they did, just as the existence of diplomatic missions to Europe was an argument for the legitimacy of the Solomonic kings of the Ethiopian highlands.

Though Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe was written for a specialist audience, I found it well worth the investment for insight into other perspectives on the Middle Ages, into how a scholarly field reckons with itself and its various inheritances, and for consideration of the place of different regions within a world order. Verena Krebs is a 2022 winner of the Dan David Prize, and she will spend the 2022–23 academic year at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study. Her next book is Africa Collecting Europe, whose title promises a very interesting perspective.

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