The Prince and the Plunder

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

A manuscript of Psalms, prayers and the Song of Songs (MS. 44)

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: An Ethiopian manuscript, probably 17th Century, including the Psalms, prayers, the Song of Songs and the Weddase Marayam. One page only has the bottom corner left.

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

MS 44 “appears to have been brought to this country by a member of Napier’s British Expedition in 1868 and to have belonged to the collection of MSS. at the Church of Medhane ‘Alam at Magdala,” according to Edward Ullendorff’s Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library: Volume II.

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 44 as one of five manuscripts in the Bodleian Library that certainly or very likely came from Magdala, on top of six manuscripts that probably did.

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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