” A New History Changes the Balance of Power Between Ethiopia and Medieval Europe”
What an insightful and informative article! This might change the way we understand Medieval Christian history and early African Christian historiography.
“For centuries, a Eurocentric worldview disregarded the knowledge and strength of the African empire.
What emerged, published earlier this year as Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe, is a story that flips the script. Traditionally, the story centered Europe and placed Ethiopia as periphery, a technologically backwards Christian kingdom that, in the later Middle Ages, looked to Europe for help. But by following the sources, Krebs showcases the agency and power of Ethiopia and Ethiopians at the time and renders Europe as it was seen from East Africa, as a kind of homogenous (if interesting) mass of foreigners.
It’s not that modern historians of the medieval Mediterranean, Europe and Africa have been ignorant about contacts between Ethiopia and Europe; the issue was that they had the power dynamic reversed. The traditional narrative stressed Ethiopia as weak and in trouble in the face of aggression from external forces, especially the Mamluks in Egypt, so Ethiopia sought military assistance from their fellow Christians to the north—the expanding kingdoms of Aragon (in modern Spain), and France. But the real story, buried in plain sight in medieval diplomatic texts, simply had not yet been put together by modern scholars. Krebs’ research not only transforms our understanding of the specific relationship between Ethiopia and other kingdoms, but joins a welcome chorus of medieval African scholarship pushing scholars of medieval Europe to broaden their scope and imagine a much more richly connected medieval world.
The Solomonic kings of Ethiopia, in Krebs’ retelling, forged trans-regional connections. They “discovered” the kingdoms of late medieval Europe, not the other way around. It was the Africans who, in the early-15th century, sent ambassadors out into strange and distant lands. They sought curiosities and sacred relics from foreign leaders that could serve as symbols of prestige and greatness. Their emissaries descended onto a territory that they saw as more or less a uniform “other,” even if locals knew it to be a diverse land of many peoples. At the beginning of the so-called Age of Exploration, a narrative that paints European rulers as heroes for sending out their ships to foreign lands, Krebs has found evidence that the kings of Ethiopia were sponsoring their own missions of diplomacy, faith and commerce.
But the history of medieval Ethiopia extends much farther back than the 15th and 16th centuries and has been intertwined with the better-known history of the Mediterranean since the very beginning of Christianity’s expansion. “[The kingdom of Ethiopia] is one of the most ancient Christian realms in the world,” she says. Aksum, a predecessor kingdom to what we now know as Ethiopia, “[converts] to Christianity in the very early fourth century,” much earlier than the mass of the Roman empire, which only converted to Christianity by the sixth or seventh century. The Solomonic dynasty specifically arose around 1270 A.D. in the highlands of the Horn of Africa and by the 15th century had firmly consolidated power. Their name arose out of their claim of direct descent from King Solomon of ancient Israel, via his purported relationship with the Queen of Sheba. Although they faced several external threats, they consistently beat those threats back and expanded their kingdom across the period, establishing uneasy (though generally peaceful) relations with Mamluk Egypt and inspiring wonder across Christian Europe.
It’s at this time, Krebs says, that the Ethopian rulers looked back to Aksum with nostalgia, “It’s its own little Renaissance, if you will, where Ethiopian Christian kings are actively going back to Late Antiquity and even reviving Late Antique models in art and literature, to make it their own.” So, in addition to investing in a shared culture of art and literature, they followed a well-worn model used by rulers across the Mediterranean, and throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, by turning to religion. They build churches.They reach out to the Coptic Christians living in Egypt under the Islamic Mamluks to present themselves as a kind of (theoretical) protector. The Solomonic kings of Ethiopia consolidated a huge “multilingual, multi-ethnic, multi-faith kingdom” under their rule, really a kind of empire.
And that empire needed to be adorned. Europe, Krebs says, was for the Ethiopians a mysterious and perhaps even slightly barbaric land with an interesting history and, importantly, sacred stuff that Ethiopian kings could obtain. They knew about the Pope, she says, “But other than that, it’s Frankland. [Medieval Ethiopians] had much more precise terms for Greek Christianity, Syriac Christianity, Armenian Christianity, the Copts, of course. All of the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. But everything Latin Christian [to the Ethiopians] is Frankland.”
David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele, “A New History Changes the Balance of Power Between Ethiopia and Medieval Europe,” Smithsonian Magazine (June 29, 2021).
Here is the article link:
The bibliographic citation of the book reviewed is:
Krebs, Verena. Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
Here is the publisher’s product page for the book: