The Prince and the Plunder

A book on how Britain took one boy and piles of treasures from Ethiopia

A manuscript including the Four Gospels, possible late 15th century (MS. 40) *

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: An illustrated Ethiopian manuscript, possibly from the late 15th century, including the Four Gospels

Where: Bodleian Library, Broad St, Oxford OX1 3BG

“The MS. was sent from Abyssinia in 1868 by Col. Knight; it thus belongs to the collection of MSS. found at Magdala or, alternatively, was acquired by a member of the British Expedition somewhere between Senafe and Magdala,” according to Edward Ullendorff’s Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library: Volume II. It was purchased in 1883.

Ullendorf’s book describes 66 manuscripts in the Bodleian collection. He writes: “On the whole, it is safe to assume that the majority of the MSS here described, were acquired in Ethiopia by individual members of Napier’s expedition in 1867-8. After the death of their owners many found their way to auction sales and were then purchased by the Bodleian Library.”

Rita Pankhurst’s paper The Library of Emperor Tewodros II at Mäqdäla is more conservative and lists MS 40 as one of six manuscripts in the Bodleian Library that probably came from Magdala, on top of five that were almost definitely taken from there.

She adds: “Thirty-two other manuscripts in the Bodleian could conceivably have also come from Maqdala although there is no evidence to this effect.”

Many of the Western academics who got a first look at the manuscripts were scornful.

Here is Jacob Leveen on some of the manuscripts listed in Ullendorff’s catalogue:

“Of the 66 items catalogued here, a large proportion consists of copies of those magical scrolls, which are perhaps too well represented in the libraries of Europe. They offer a melancholy spectacle of the depths of credulity and superstition to which Abyssinians sank. The hagiographical literature is no less depressing, with its exhibition of ‘Mariolatry run mad’ (as Willliam Wright so aptly called it).” [Jacob Leveen’s review of Ullendorff, E. (1951). Catalogue of Ethiopian manuscripts in the Bodleian Library: 2 7. Oxford: Clarendon Press]

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