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Ewosṭateans at the Council of Florence (1441): Diplomatic Implications between Ethiopia, Europe, Jerusalem and Cairo

Les eustathéens au Concile de Florence (1441) : Implications diplomatiques entre l’Éthiopie, l’Europe, Jérusalem et Le Caire
Samantha Kelly

Résumés

Cet article propose qu’au Concile de Florence, le plus important des cadres d’échanges diplomatiques entre l’Éthiopie et l’Europe du xve siècle, les délégués qui représentaient l’Église éthiopienne étaient des eustathéens, c’est-à-dire des moines schismatiques dont les positions religieuses n’étaient alors pas encore acceptées par les autorités religieuses éthiopiennes. Plusieurs idées sont ensuite avancées : d’une part, que la participation de ces moines au concile s’inscrivit dans la stratégie plus large des eustathéens visant à faire pression sur les autorités éthiopiennes pour leur faire adopter les positions eustathéennes, à une époque où la sympathie du roi envers leurs positions était encore douteuse ; d’autre part, que le concile de Florence accentua les tensions entre le roi éthiopien et le patriarche copte d’une façon qui concourut aux fins des eustathéens. Enfin, les évènements postérieurs suggèrent que leur présence au concile contribua à l’incorporation complète des eustathéens dans l’Église éthiopienne et contribua peut-être aussi à renforcer l’intérêt du roi Zära Ya‘ǝqob pour les échanges diplomatiques avec l’Europe.

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Notes de l’auteur

I wish to thank Marie-Laure Derat, Getatchew Haile, and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.

Texte intégral

  • 1  The papal missives optimistically directed to the rulers of Ethiopia in the late 13th and 14th cen (...)
  • 2 See M. Heldman, 1990, p. 442-445, with useful references to earlier scholarship and to the Venetian (...)
  • 3  F. Cerone, 1902, p. 38-46, 64-85; P. Garretson, 1993, p. 37-44.
  • 4 M. Heldman, 1990, p. 445. For the craftsmen and goods sent by Venice and Alfonso (as well as simila (...)

1The 15th century can justifiably be called the first age of Ethiopian–European diplomacy. Although later-medieval popes had made several efforts to dispatch emissaries to the nǝguś (ruler or king; plural nägäśt) of Ethiopia, and a few Europeans, probably on private business, made their way to Ethiopia prior to 1400, no European embassy had yet managed to reach Ethiopia and return to offer its report.1 It was instead the Ethiopian nägäśt who first succeeded in establishing official contact with European powers. The earliest records of such contact come from the Venetian Senate in 1402, in response to the arrival of representatives of Dawit II (1379/80–1413) in June of that year.2 Dawit’s successor Yǝṣhaq (1414–1429/30) sent a mission to Alfonso of Aragon in 1428, with instructions to journey on for a meeting with the pope, while a third embassy, also destined for the Papal See and Alfonso, arrived in Naples on behalf of Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob (1434–1468) in 1450.3 The Ethiopian kings’ motives in seeking European contact must be pieced together largely from European accounts, as no contemporary Ethiopian documents speak of them. An interest in military alliance against Muslim powers, which Europeans certainly sought and the Mamluks feared, may have been one spur to these Ethiopian initiatives. Religious dialogue with the bishop of Rome, who was sought out by at least two of these embassies, was plausibly another, and again mirrored European hopes. A desire for Christian European products (liturgical objects, brocades and fine woolens, relics) as well as artisans (carpenters, masons, roof tilers, painters) was clearly another, for these were the gifts sent back from Venice, Valencia, and Naples, which the nägäśt had presumably requested: objects “for courtly display” and the craftsmen to make them, as Marilyn Heldman has observed, through which the nägäśt could publicize their international Christian connections.4 Whatever the relative weight of these factors in the Ethiopians’ initiatives and in the Europeans’ response, it is clear that the Quattrocento witnessed a marked intensification of Ethiopian interest in and engagement with their Christian brethren north of the Mediterranean.

  • 5  Papal documents have been edited in G. Hofmann (ed.), 1944, p. 38-40, 98-101, 108-109; idem (ed.), (...)

2In many respects, however, the most important instance of Ethiopian–European diplomacy of the 15th century was none of the above, but rather the participation of an Ethiopian delegation at the Council of Florence (1438–1445) in the autumn of 1441. Its status is affirmed by the international importance of the council itself, which included representatives of many of the world’s Christian communities for the purpose of achieving ecumenical union; by the pope’s and other councilors’ keen interest in the Ethiopians’ participation; and by the sizeable number of surviving documents the visit produced. Thanks to these documents, we know more about the Ethiopian delegates at Florence than we do about any other Ethiopian embassy to Europe of the 15th century. The chronology of the delegates’ voyage to and actions at the council has been carefully reconstructed from papal documents and correspondence. The Gǝ‘ǝz letter brought by the delegates, and its translations at the council into Italian and Latin, have been edited, translated, compared with each other, and compared as well with the opening oration given before the pope by the lead Ethiopian delegate, P̣etros. The long interview of the delegates by a papal committee has been examined via the accounts of it offered by two papal secretaries who were present. And the implications of the visit have been articulated from a variety of perspectives, including increased European understanding of Ethiopia, papal policy and propaganda, and Coptic–Ethiopian relations.5

3One feature of the delegation has so far escaped notice, however; and though the evidence for it is simply stated, its implications merit more sustained attention. As I will argue in what follows, the four men comprising the Ethiopian delegation, who had been fetched by a papal envoy from the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem, were Ewosṭatean monks. This affiliation is attested by a straightforward comment that they made before the papal committee tasked with interviewing them, and that a participant in the interview duly recorded in his account of it. Taken together with other of the delegates’ comments and with reflections on the contemporary context, this affiliation may invite us to reconsider the nature of Ewosṭatean relations with the nǝguś in the mid-15th century and even the role of Ewosṭateans in shaping his policy.

  • 6  Born Biondo Biondi, he adopted the classicizing epithet “Flavius” and often styled himself “Blondu (...)
  • 7  The work’s full title is Historiarum ab inclinatione Romanorum imperii decades, published in many (...)
  • 8  P. Bracciolini, 1723.

4Before turning to the delegates’ testimony, we should consider the reliability of our witness to it. Biondo Flavio, noted humanist of the 15th century, served as secretary to the pope, Eugenius IV, who presided over the Council of Florence.6 In this role he attended and actively participated in many of the council’s proceedings. Most important for present purposes, he was one of two papal secretaries—the other was his fellow humanist Poggio Bracciolini—who attended the interview of the delegates by a papal committee headed by three cardinals, which took place sometime after the lead delegate’s formal oration to the pope on 2 September 1441. Within a year Biondo had included his account of the interview, as well as other features of the Ethiopian delegation’s visit, in his Decades, a history of Italy from late antiquity to the present that devoted great attention to affairs of Biondo’s own day.7 Poggio Bracciolini eventually offered his own account of the interview in his Historia de varietate fortunae.8 But as Poggio’s subject (in the part of the work that features the delegation) was travel to distant lands, his account focuses heavily on the geographical and natural-scientific aspects of Ethiopia as described by the delegates. Biondo, by contrast, was deeply interested in the ecumenical union Pope Eugenius sought to achieve at the council, and he thus recorded the delegates’ testimony on religious matters in considerable detail. He is our best witness, therefore, to this aspect of the delegates’ account.

  • 9  B. Nogara (ed.), 1927, p. 20.
  • 10  On the passage of testimony across various languages see S. Tedeschi, 1989, p. 392 and note.
  • 11  On Biondo’s attitude to the council see E. Marino, 1973, p. 241-287; L. Onofri, 1976, p. 349-356; (...)

5Biondo’s rendering can certainly not be accepted as a literal transcription of the delegates’ words. One obstacle was language. Given the total ignorance of Ethiopian languages in Europe, the delegates must have spoken in Arabic, whence their words were, by Biondo’s own account, translated by two interpreters, one Arabs, the other Latinus.9 The intermediate language was doubtless Italian, whence Biondo would have had no need of the subsequent translation into Latin, though it is possible—since his own account was in Latin as well—that it affected his transcription or memory of the delegates’ discourse.10 A second obstacle was Biondo’s own bias. In addition to sharing the common European heritage of legends and preconceptions about Ethiopia, Biondo’s particular interests in ecumenical union and pan-Christian crusade may have inclined him to hear in the delegates’ testimony what he wanted to hear.11

  • 12 S. Tedeschi, 1993, p. 343-347.
  • 13 G. Hofmann (ed.), 1953, p. 63-64.
  • 14 B. Nogara (ed.), 1927, p. 23.

6That said, Biondo’s account cannot easily be dismissed as a fabrication. The difficulties caused by translation across multiple languages were not insurmountable. To give a parallel example, Biondo’s colleague Poggio, who also recorded the Ethiopians’ testimony, did so accurately enough that Salvatore Tedeschi has identified in it the delegates’ references to the Täkkäze River, the ensete edulis plant, and such animals as the ibex, dikdik, rhinoceros, and giraffe.12 Biondo seems to have been no less diligent a listener: his account of P̣etros’s opening oration to the pope has been used to correct the translation found in the Vatican’s own copy.13 Nor did Biondo let his bias carry him away. Indeed, it is the contrary evidence he himself proffered that often alerts us to that bias. For instance, though Biondo continued to insist that “Prester John” was an acceptable title for the king of Ethiopia, claiming that it was used in Egypt and Syria, he nonetheless recorded the delegates’ protest that the appellation was “absurd and unworthy,” as well as their provision of the current king’s true names.14 Where Biondo’s statements concern straightforward affirmations on uncomplicated topics, they are unlikely to have been garbled by the translators. Where they run counter to Biondo’s known interest in ecumenical union, and thus in portraying the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as not too far from the Latin, we have little reason to suspect authorial bias.

  • 15 Licet vero dies dominicos solemniter colant, etiam sabbatizant, ab omni manuum opere per eam diem s (...)
  • 16  As Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob stated in his Mäṣḥäfä Bǝrhan, the council took place in the month of yäkkatit in (...)
  • 17  Sabbath observance was one of two deviations from Ethiopian practice of which Ewosṭatewos was accu (...)
  • 18  For an Ewosṭatean account of this persecution up to 1404 see G. Lusini (ed.), 1996, vol. I, p. 79- (...)
  • 19  C. Conti Rossini (ed.), 1900, p. 114; G. Lusini, 1993, p. 104-105; T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 213-215; D. (...)

7His testimony revealing the delegates’ Ewosṭatean affiliation fulfils both these criteria. In the portion of the account devoted to the Ethiopians’ religious practice, Biondo writes: “although they solemnly observe Sundays, they also keep the Sabbath, abstaining from all manual labor on this seventh day.”15 If this statement had been made a few years later it would not have been at all controversial: the entire Ethiopian Orthodox Church did indeed observe the “first Sabbath” (i.e. Saturday), following Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s decree to that effect at the Council of Däbrä Mǝtmaq in 1450.16 The situation was quite different, however, in 1441. For over a century Sabbath observance had been intimately tied to and indeed the signature practice of the reformist monk Ewosṭatewos (c. 1273–1352) and his followers.17 Ewosṭatewos himself was persecuted for it, and died in exile. His followers continued to be persecuted for the rest of the 14th century: driven out of settled areas by local clergy, excommunicated by the metropolitans, forbidden from receiving holy orders, and opposed by the nägäśt and the “great majority of monasteries” in the kingdom.18 The Ewosṭateans nevertheless managed to establish an expanding network of monasteries in the northernmost provinces of the kingdom. By 1400 they represented a significant threat to the unity of the Ethiopian Church, whence Dawit II summoned the movement’s leaders to his court in Amhara. All the Ewosṭateans who had come to court were put in fetters. Abba Filppos, one of their leaders, was questioned and threatened by the staunchly anti-Sabbath metropolitan, Bartolomewos, and subsequently kept captive at Däbrä Ḥayq for four years. And local clergy in northern Ethiopia were apparently encouraged to drive the Ewosṭateans out of the monasteries they had established.19

  • 20 T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 216.
  • 21  The situation after 1404 was described by Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob in his Mäṣḥäfä Bǝrhan (composed in or afte (...)
  • 22  S. Kaplan, 2014, p. 59. Yǝsḥaq was, however, favorably disposed toward Giyorgis of Sägla, who wrot (...)

8It is true that in 1404 Dawit II made an abrupt about-face: he lifted the ban of excommunication, permitted the Ewosṭateans to observe the Sabbath, and ordered their peaceful return to their own monasteries. As Taddesse Tamrat has observed, “it is quite clear that Dawit’s change of policy towards the house of Ewosṭatewos was only a result of their strengthening political and religious influence in the kingdom.”20 His tolerance was also subject to limits. Though permitting the Ewosṭateans their particular practice, Dawit nevertheless reaffirmed that the official and orthodox stance of all other elements of the Ethiopian Church was to remain anti-Sabbatarian. The Ewosṭateans were not mollified by this partial acceptance. They continued, for instance, to reject the authority of the Sabbath-breaking metropolitan, declining to take holy orders from him even though they were now permitted to do so.21 They also used their respite from persecution to expand further south, much to the chagrin of the anti-Sabbath party. In short, Dawit’s amnesty succeeded only in exacerbating religious division in the kingdom. Perhaps recognizing the failure of his father’s policy, Dawit II’s successor Yǝṣhaq changed course: his “anti-Ewosṭatean position not only led to renewed persecution of its members, but also appears to have resulted in his support of Däbrä ‘Asbo (later Däbrä Libanos)” and of anti-Sabbath monasteries in general.22

  • 23  At least one other monastic group, the Stefanites, also upheld Sabbath observance before 1450, as (...)

9The attitude of Yǝṣhaq’s successor, Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob, to the Ewosṭateans in the early years of his reign is a subject to which we will turn below. For the moment it may suffice to observe that the Ewosṭateans’ official status in 1441 remained as it had been since 1404: that of an intermittently tolerated but unorthodox minority whose practices deviated from those of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as a whole. It is thus clear that the delegates in Florence, who flatly proclaimed Ethiopian observance of the Sabbath, must have been Ewosṭatean monks. In 1441, no one else in Ethiopia was permitted to observe the Sabbath, and it is unlikely that anyone else would have described it as a practice of the entire Ethiopian Orthodox community.23

10The delegates’ bold assertion of a counterfactual claim invites reflection on the circumstances that inspired it. Did they portray Sabbath observance as already a feature of the entire Ethiopian Orthodox Church because they were sure that this would soon be true? In other words, was Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s sympathy for the Ewosṭateans’ position already so firmly established that the monks could foresee, and were confident of, the moment when he would make it obligatory for all Christian Ethiopians?

  • 24  T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 224-226, 229; G. Fiaccadori, 2005(a), p. 467; P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 214.
  • 25  This is the Mäṣḥäfä Mǝstir: see Y. Beyene, 1989, p. 35-88. On his career see also G. Colin, 2005, (...)
  • 26 G. Colin (ed. and trans.), 1987, at vol. I, p. 18, vol. II, p. 13. T. Tamrat, 1972, translates the (...)
  • 27  G. Haile, 2009, p. 23, 34; M.-L. Derat, 2003, p. 177.
  • 28 T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 220-221.
  • 29 C. Conti Rossini, L. Ricci, 1964-1965, vol. III, p. 157, vol. IV, p. 87.
  • 30 M.-L. Derat, 2004, p. 226.

11Certainly it is often assumed that the Sabbath’s full incorporation into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was more or less a foregone conclusion from the time of Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s accession, though the nǝguś waited some 16 years to formalize it.24 This characterization stems from the supposition that Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob was sympathetic to Sabbath observance from his youth, having been tutored as a boy by Giyorgis of Sägla. Giyorgis was a court theologian who wrote a theological defense of Sabbath observance in 1424.25 And he was indeed a tutor of royal princes. His gädl or vita, written relatively soon after his death in 1425, states that he “taught the son of king [Dawit], Zär’a Abrǝham, and his companions.”26 Zär’a Abrǝham was probably the eldest of Dawit II’s children. Was Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob, the youngest son, also among Giyorgis’s charges? The Miracles of Uriel say so, but they were written much later, probably in the 19th century, and may simply have filled out the gädl’s list of tutored princes by naming all those who had lived long enough to achieve a place in Ethiopian communal memory.27 Meanwhile, running counter to the witness of the Miracles of Uriel are biographical traditions asserting that Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob was removed from court at a young age, first to study under a monk at Aksum, then to the monastery of Däbrä Abbay.28 Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob himself averred that he had resided at a royal prison, usually identified as Amba Gǝšän, for an unspecified period preceding his election as king in 1434.29 Certainly the traditions regarding his youthful study in Aksum and at Däbrä Abbay may be later inventions, meant to explain his noted theological erudition.30 If we are to dismiss the tradition of his early removal from court as a later invention, however, we would have to dismiss as well the tradition of his study under Giyorgis, which is also late and subject to retrospective alteration. Finally, even if Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s early removal from court was a complete fabrication, and he was tutored by Giyorgis, it does not follow perforce that he embraced all Giyorgis’s views as his own.

  • 31 T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 229.
  • 32 T. Abraha (ed. and trans.), 2015, p. 358-361. Lusini connected the passage to the Council of Däbrä (...)

12The proof of Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s views on Sabbath observance must be in his own actions, and of these we have record only from his accession in 1434. According to Taddesse Tamrat, the emperor summoned Ewosṭateans to court during his sojourn in Aksum (1436–1439) via an envoy who assured them that “there has come to the throne a king who favors your rules.”31 Tamrat’s source was the gädl of the Ewosṭatean leader Yonas (1403/4–1498/99), which does indeed include this passage. As the surrounding narrative makes clear, however, Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s expression of goodwill occurred not in the 1430s but in 1450. The purpose of his summons was “a regulation agreement with the bishop, that the bishop honours the Sabbath and the disciples of Ma‘ǝqäbä Ǝgzi’ǝ [Ewosṭatewos] receive priesthood,” which, as the gädl goes on to recount, duly occurred: this was precisely the solution brokered at Däbrä Mǝtmaq.32 There is thus no evidence that the emperor received an Ewosṭatean delegation in the early years of his reign, much less assured it of his sympathy for the Sabbath.

  • 33 C. Conti Rossini, L. Ricci (ed. and trans.), 1964-1965, vol. III, p. 126-131, vol. IV, p. 71-74.
  • 34 Ibid., vol. III, p. 132, vol. IV, p. 75.

13Indeed, Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s attention in these early years seems not to have been focused on Sabbath observance at all, but on other religious issues. One group that the king singled out for censure in his Mäṣḥäfä Bǝrhan was that led by Zä-Mika’el, who were accused of reducing the three persons of the Trinity to one. The group had already been a target of criticism in the 1420s and was summoned to Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s court in an unspecified year to answer the charges against them; and when the adjudicator of the debate sided with Zä-Mika’el, Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob intervened directly to reverse the decision.33 If we follow the narrative sequence of the Mäṣḥäfä Bǝrhan, this must have occurred before 1438, for the text goes on to recount Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s testing of the orthodoxy of Gabrǝ’el and Mika’el, the two new metropolitans who arrived in Ethiopia in that year, specifically regarding these Trinitarian views, to ensure that their position matched the emperor’s own.34

  • 35 S. Kaplan, D. Nosnitsin, 2005, p. 390-391.
  • 36 G. Haile (ed. and trans.), 2006, vol. I, p. 50-56, vol. II, p. 42-49. See also R. Beylot, 1990, p.  (...)
  • 37  On this second summons see G. Haile, 2006, vol. I, p. 60-68, vol. II, p. 52-59; R. Beylot, 1990, p (...)

14Of equal concern to Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob in the 1430s and early 1440s were the Stefanites, followers of the reformist monk Ǝsṭifanos (1397/8–1444).35 The king summoned Ǝsṭifanos to court early in his reign to answer accusations regarding his suspect Trinitarian views, observance of Saturday but not Sunday as the Lord’s Day, and refusal to prostrate himself before the king. For these alleged crimes, Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob had Ǝsṭifanos flogged but ultimately released him in order, according to his gädl, not to make him a martyr.36 Ǝsṭifanos was summoned a second time during the king’s stay in Aksum, this time over his millenarian beliefs. Beaten, imprisoned, and kept at court for a year, he was eventually sent away in chains. So, notably, was the metropolitan Bartolomewos. He had ordained Ǝsṭifanos and authorized his beliefs during the reign of Yǝṣhaq, and he must have been dismissed as metropolitan by the time of this interrogation, for his twin successors had already arrived in Ethiopia and were present when he appeared with Ǝsṭifanos before the emperor. There Bartolomewos affirmed to the emperor and the new metropolitans that he “want[ed] to imitate this saint in every thing.” For his allegiance to Ǝsṭifanos, Bartolomewos too was flogged, fettered, and sent away to spend the remainder of his life in captivity.37

  • 38 G. Haile, 2006, vol. I, p. 53, vol. II, p. 46.

15If the case of Ǝsṭifanos, like that of Zä-Mika’el, suggests the king’s focus on other religious issues in these years, it also provides some indirect evidence of the status of Sabbath observance. First, though it does not seem to have been central to Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s fury towards him, Ǝsṭifanos did affirm during his first interrogation at court that he observed both Saturday and Sunday as the Lord’s Days.38 If nothing else, the pro-Sabbath position of a dissident the emperor so violently opposed is likely to have mitigated against the king’s open espousal of this still-schismatic position himself. Secondly, it is clear that Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s deposition of Bartolomewos was not a pro- Ewosṭatean gesture. It is true that Bartolomewos had led the opposition to Sabbath observance earlier in his career: it was he who had interrogated and condemned Filppos in 1400. But having subscribed to Ǝsṭifanos’s teachings in the later 1420s and, as he averred, following the monk “in every thing,” Bartolomewos himself was presumably an observer of the Sabbath when he was deposed.

16How much comfort Ewosṭateans could have taken from these events of the later 1430s is open to question. The evidence of the king’s sympathy for Sabbath observance in his youth or indeed in the early years of his reign is ultimately very thin, and his persecution of other dissidents, some whom shared the Ewosṭateans’ commitment to the Sabbath, could not have boded well. To return to the delegates in Florence: it seems highly doubtful that their affirmation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s observance of the Sabbath sprang from their confidence in the king’s devotion to their cause.

  • 39 [E]t cum unica [sponsa] tantum etiam regi habere permittatur, ea mortua, alteram et tertiam nec plu (...)
  • 40 S. Kaplan, M.-L. Derat, 2014, p. 149; M. Herman, 2012, p. 15-19, 96-103.
  • 41 J. Mantel-Niecko, D. Nosnitsin, 2003, p. 227-229; T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 166-117; M.-L. Derat, 2003, p (...)
  • 42  Though the critiques of royal polygyny are all associated with 14th-century reformers, two of thei (...)

17In fact we have a further clue to their mindset in 1441 thanks to a second curious and counterfactual statement Biondo recorded in the delegates’ interview. When asked about the sacrament of marriage in Ethiopia, they responded that Ethiopians practiced strict monogamy, and that “even the ruler is permitted only one wife, though if she dies he is permitted a second, and a third—but no more.”39 This statement was patently false. Royal polygyny had a long tradition in Ethiopia. ‘Amdä Ṣǝyon (1314–1344) had had at least two queens, while Säyfä Ar‘ad (1344–1371) and Dawit II had each had three. Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob may have had as many as five, and indeed enshrined polygyny in the structure of the royal court by creating the titles of “queen of the left” and “queen of the right.”40 To state that kings were forbidden multiple wives was thus an implicit critique of a well-established and still current royal practice. Ewosṭatewos himself is known to have voiced this critique. In his time, so did a number of others: the monks Filppos and Anorewos, both of Däbrä ‘Asbo, as well as the metropolitan Ya‘ǝqob and some secular clergy, had all expressed their opposition to ‘Amdä Ṣǝyon’s multiple wives, and this “serious conflict with the Emperor” continued to dog his successor, Säyfä Ar‘ad.41 Such complaints seem to have died down, at least within Ethiopia, in the 15th century.42 As the delegates’ testimony attests, however, Ewosṭateans had not let it go.

  • 43  G. Lusini, 1993, p. 55; M.-L. Derat, 2003, p. 146-150.
  • 44  The three redactions of the gädlä Ewosṭatewos were composed in the years around 1400, of which the (...)

18In terms of their relationship to Zär’a Ya‘eqob, the delegates’ statement is telling. Critique of royal marriage practices was a dangerous pursuit. It had been a principal cause of ‘Amdä Ṣǝyon’s hostility to Ewosṭatewos and to several other reform-minded monks in the 14th century and a principal reason for their exile.43 After Dawit II’s amnesty of 1404, redactors of Ewosṭatewos’s gädl excised references to this conflict from the text precisely because of its inflammatory nature.44 Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s response to such a critique was unlikely to be different. If the delegates were confident of the king’s support and expected an imminent understanding with him over the Sabbath, they would surely have moderated or abandoned a view guaranteed to provoke his ire, as indeed they seem to have done after 1450. Even if Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob had made conciliatory overtures toward the Ewosṭateans prior to 1441—and of these we have no proof—the Ewosṭateans do not seem to have adopted a conciliatory posture themselves.

19That unbending posture conforms very well to a century of Ewosṭatean strategy. Ewosṭatewos and his followers had proven that they could not be wiped out by persecution, nor even enticed by Dawit II’s amnesty into a compromise with the anti-Sabbath establishment. They had survived, and even thrived, by refusing to be moved from their central positions, insisting instead that the nägäśt and metropolitans concede to them. The evidence issuing from the Council of Florence suggests they had not altered their tactics in the early 1440s. Only continued pressure could serve to achieve their goal of the full integration of Sabbath observance in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

  • 45  Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob himself referred to the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Ewosṭateans (...)
  • 46 S. Tedeschi, 1989, p. 386; B. Weber, 2010, p. 445.
  • 47 E. Cerulli, 1933(b), p. 69.
  • 48 Ibid., p. 69-70.

20Indeed, it is not unreasonable to think that the delegation to the Council of Florence was part of that pressure strategy. Ewosṭateans were surely a strange choice to represent an Ethiopian Orthodox Church whose authorities still regarded them as schismatics.45 That decision, as we know, belonged to the abbot of the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem, Nicodemus, and strongly suggests that Nicodemus himself was Ewosṭatean. The Council of Florence must have represented a signal opportunity not only to voice his vision of proper Ethiopian Christian practice, but to counter the vision of some of the Ewosṭateans’ most vociferous opponents, the Coptic patriarchs. John XI, who then occupied the See of Alexandria, had informed the papal envoy in 1440 of his right to represent Ethiopia as well as Coptic Egypt at the Council of Florence and had sent his own delegates to attend it.46 Enrico Cerulli observed long ago that Nicodemus, in his letter to Pope Eugenius, expressed veiled warnings about John XI.47 Cerulli also surmised that the abbot hoped to profit from the council by presenting himself to Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob as a conduit to the pope, thus augmenting his own status.48 The likelihood that Nicodemus was Ewosṭatean makes such strategies all the more comprehensible and compelling.

21Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s letter to the Ethiopian monks of Jerusalem in 1442, in its turn, may represent a first recognition of the influence Nicodemus and his delegates had obtained. This well-known letter was inscribed on the opening pages of a copy of the Senodos which Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob sent as a gift to the Jerusalem monastery. Among its many expressions of cordiality are the following:

  • 49  Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. Borg. 2, fols. 3-4. The letter is transcribed, with accomp (...)

I entrust myself to your prayers and to your afflictions, which you suffer for the love of God. From my heart I greet you, saying: Greetings, sons of Ethiopia, whom the earthly Jerusalem has held captive in order to lead you to the heavenly Jerusalem. Greetings to your faith in the perfect Trinity, to your monastic life, similar to that of the angels .... May your peace, your love, your prayer and your blessing be with me forever, Amen. Herewith I send to you this book of the Senodos, so that you may take consolation from it on the days of the Sabbath and on Sundays.49

22Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob here acknowledged the monks’ observance of the Sabbath, which clearly in no way mitigated, in the king’s eyes, their spiritual standing or the “angelic” quality of their monastic life. He also specified that his gift of the manuscript was intended to “console” or aid the monks in such observance. This letter constitutes our first unambiguous, contemporary evidence of Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s support for Sabbath observance. Its timing is suggestive. News of the delegates’ departure for Europe in 1440 could easily have reached the king by 1442. And his encouragement of Sabbath observance within the very community that had dispatched the delegates could very well have been prompted by an awareness of the international stature and access to influential foreign Christian leaders that Nicodemus’s Ewosṭatean monks had achieved by representing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church abroad.

  • 50  The king identified the four monks as Tewodros, Didimos, Giyorgis, and P̣etros. Of the delegates a (...)

23Further information on the delegation soon reached the king as well. P̣etros and his fellow delegates left for Jerusalem by way of Venice in summer 1442. They brought with them a copy of the bull, Cantate Domino, whereby the Latin and Coptic churches had been united on 2 February of that year, as well as a letter from Eugenius to Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob expressing the pope’s hope that the Ethiopian king would agree to a similar union. According to a letter addressed by Lǝbnä Dǝngǝl (1508–1540) to the pope in 1527, Eugenius’s missive did indeed reach Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob, and was very possibly brought by the four Ewosṭatean delegates themselves.50 Whether and how the delegates recounted their experience is a matter of conjecture. But Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s knowledge of their participation at the council seems beyond question, and this alone would have demonstrated to the king the access of the Ewosṭateans to a Roman patriarch eager for religious union and military alliance with Ethiopia.

  • 51 P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 189-228; T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 206-247; B. Weber, 2010, p. 444.
  • 52 P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 202-204, 206-207, 212-213, 217.
  • 53  His defense of circumcision was expressed in the Mäṣḥäfä Bǝrhan; on the Coptic prohibition of the (...)
  • 54 P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 219, and G. Lusini, 1993, p. 28-33, note as well the practice’s conformity (...)

24Was such access a factor in Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s final decision to require Sabbath observance of all Ethiopian Christians? There were certainly other compelling reasons for accommodation with the Ewosṭateans. It would heal the schism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, augment royal influence in the northern provinces they dominated, and provide a launching point for military campaigns against the Muslims of the Eritrean coast. Not least among the Ewosṭateans’ attractions was their potential to contribute to the king’s goal of creating a distinctive, national Ethiopian Church independent of Coptic dictates and directed by the king himself.51 As Pierluigi Piovanelli has demonstrated, many of the theological formulations of Zä-Mika’el, Ǝsṭifanos, and other reformers opposed by Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob conformed to those of the Coptic Church. In condemning those ideas the king was also defying Coptic religious authority.52 The same can be said of Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s insistence on increased veneration of the Virgin in the liturgy, and of his defense of circumcision.53 Sabbath observance fit well in such a program. It too was a distinctive Ethiopian practice opposed by Coptic authorities which, if authorized by Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob, would constitute another proof of the king’s (and not the Coptic patriarch’s) final authority over the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.54

  • 55  B. Weber, 2010, p. 442-445.
  • 56  B. Nogara (ed.), 1927, p. 25-26. The delegates do not seem to have practiced, or at least did not (...)

25The Council of Florence had brought this contest between Ethiopian king and Alexandrian patriarch to the fore. As noted above, when approached by the papal envoy regarding participation in the council, John XI had claimed authority to speak for the Ethiopian as well as Coptic churches—an authority of particular concern to Ewosṭateans, but distasteful to the king as well. What is more, as Benjamin Weber has observed, the Coptic representatives took advantage of their contact with the pope at the Council of Florence to have Ethiopian deviations specifically condemned. The union they sealed with Rome in the bull Cantate Domino rejected a series of practices that were not observed by the Copts, but were observed by all or part of the Ethiopian Christian community, including dietary restrictions, circumcision, and Sabbath observance.55 The Ewosṭatean delegates had acquitted themselves well at Florence in countering the Copts’ presumption. They had made clear the autonomy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the king’s headship of it. They had defended Ethiopian practices—that is, a combination of general Ethiopian practices and specifically Ewosṭatean ones—before papal authorities. Not least, they had established good relations with a foreign patriarch who was not that of Alexandria and who eagerly sought Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s alliance.56

  • 57 C.F. Beckingham, G.W.B. Huntingford (eds), 1961, vol. 2, p. 356; cf. the comments of P. Piovanelli, (...)
  • 58  The debate, which occurred in 1477, figures in the gädl of Märḥa Krǝstos: see S. Kur (ed. and tran (...)

26Here, in short, was an opportunity for Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob to bypass John XI and ally with a different and more powerful patriarch: that of Rome. The Ewosṭateans’ access to the papal court, and indeed their control over the image of Ethiopia communicated to Europeans, could only have increased their leverage with the king. In 1450, the same year as the Council of Däbrä Mǝtmaq, the first official embassy from Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob to Europe arrived in Rome, and it is at least possible that the king’s embrace of Ewosṭatean practice and his outreach to the pope they had cultivated were related. According to Francisco Alvares, who visited Ethiopia a half-century later, when the metropolitan Gabrǝ’el died in 1458 Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob declared that “he didn’t want an abuna coming from Alexandria, and that if [the metropolitan] didn’t come from Rome, he didn’t want one.”57 Alvares might well have embellished this story in a philo-European direction. It is true, however, that Ethiopia had no metropolitan for the rest of Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s reign. It is also true that Ethiopia’s continued adherence to Alexandrian authority remained an open and openly debated question during the reign of his successor Bä’ǝda Maryam.58

27The comments of the Ethiopian delegates to the Council of Florence, brief as they are, contribute something to our understanding of the religious landscape of Ethiopia in the years leading up to the Council of Däbrä Mǝtmaq. They indicate, first, that the delegates were themselves Ewosṭatean, as very likely was the abbot of Jerusalem who authorized and sent them. They also suggest that Ewosṭateans persisted in their time-tested policy of holding firm to their own principles without concession to royal preferences—a strategy that sits uncomfortably with our usual image of Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob as an early and convinced supporter of their cause, and invites us to reconsider the degree to which such support was manifest already in 1441. If we reflect further on the aftermath of the Council of Florence—the king’s letter to the Jerusalem monastery in 1442, his authorization of Sabbath observance and simultaneous outreach to the pope in 1450, and his reported antipathy to Coptic metropolitans in following years—we may find that the delegation to Florence not only offers a window on religious politics in 15th-century Ethiopia, but was a factor in those politics as well.

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Notes

1  The papal missives optimistically directed to the rulers of Ethiopia in the late 13th and 14th century are edited in O. Raineri, 2003, p. 27-29. Regarding successful diplomatic contact, I exclude the alleged Ethiopian embassy to Pope Clement V in 1306 as of doubtful authenticity, due to the absence of any papal records of such a visit and to the fact that the sole account of it, by Jacopo Foresti, was authored nearly two centuries after the fact: see C.F. Beckingham, 1996, p. 197-201. That some Europeans had reached Ethiopia before 1400 is clear from the role of Antonio Bartoli, a Florentine, as Dawit’s ambassador to Venice in 1402 (see the following note). Based on a 20th-century copy of a homily on the wood of the Holy Cross, Osvaldo Raineri has hypothesized that Antonio—called “Abraham” in the homily—may have come to Ethiopia as an official ambassador of Venice: O. Raineri, 1999, p. 367-368. The description of this Abraham/Antonio as an ambassador may, however, represent a later elaboration of the story of the relic’s arrival in Ethiopia: the Venetian Senate, which would have been best informed on the subject, did not identify him as such in their minutes on Dawit’s embassy.

2 See M. Heldman, 1990, p. 442-445, with useful references to earlier scholarship and to the Venetian records.

3  F. Cerone, 1902, p. 38-46, 64-85; P. Garretson, 1993, p. 37-44.

4 M. Heldman, 1990, p. 445. For the craftsmen and goods sent by Venice and Alfonso (as well as similar requests made by Lǝbnä Dǝngǝl in the early 16th century), see M. Heldman, passim, and F. Cerone, 1902, p. 65.

5  Papal documents have been edited in G. Hofmann (ed.), 1944, p. 38-40, 98-101, 108-109; idem (ed.), 1953, p. 59-66; H. Justinianus, 1637, p. 379. Analyses of the Ethiopian delegation, often including editions or translations of relevant texts, can be found in E. Cerulli, 1933(a), p. 347-368; idem, 1933(b), p. 58-80; F. Cardini, 1972, p. 269-276; S. Tedeschi, 1989, p. 380-407; idem, 1993, p. 333-358; B. Weber, 2010, p. 441-449; idem, 2012, p. 118-120; N. Bouloux, 2013, p. 422-428; S. Kelly, 2016 (forthcoming).

6  Born Biondo Biondi, he adopted the classicizing epithet “Flavius” and often styled himself “Blondus Flavius” in his own works. Scholarship follows this styling, in Italian translation. On his career see R. Fubini, 1968, p. 536-559.

7  The work’s full title is Historiarum ab inclinatione Romanorum imperii decades, published in many editions (e.g. Venice, 1483). None of these editions include the full twelfth book of the third decade (more properly called the second book of decade four), which features the Ethiopian delegation. For this see B. Nogara (ed.), 1927, where the passage concerning the delegation occupies pages 19-27. The chronology of Biondo’s work on the Decades is described by Nogara in the front matter to this edition.

8  P. Bracciolini, 1723.

9  B. Nogara (ed.), 1927, p. 20.

10  On the passage of testimony across various languages see S. Tedeschi, 1989, p. 392 and note.

11  On Biondo’s attitude to the council see E. Marino, 1973, p. 241-287; L. Onofri, 1976, p. 349-356; A. Mazzocco, 2012, p. 73-88.

12 S. Tedeschi, 1993, p. 343-347.

13 G. Hofmann (ed.), 1953, p. 63-64.

14 B. Nogara (ed.), 1927, p. 23.

15 Licet vero dies dominicos solemniter colant, etiam sabbatizant, ab omni manuum opere per eam diem septimam abstinentes: B. Nogara (ed.), 1927, p. 26.

16  As Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob stated in his Mäṣḥäfä Bǝrhan, the council took place in the month of yäkkatit in the sixteenth year of his reign. Since Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s rule began in the month of säne 1434 CE., yäkkatit of the sixteenth year corresponds to February 1450 CE. See C. Conti Rossini, L. Ricci (eds and trans.), 1964-1965, vol. III, p. 154, vol. IV, p. 86.

17  Sabbath observance was one of two deviations from Ethiopian practice of which Ewosṭatewos was accused by fellow Ethiopians before the Coptic patriarch (the other was abstention from meat). To the patriarch himself Ewosṭatewos is reported to have said, “In Ethiopia they said to me, ‘break the Sabbath and the [other] rest days like us,’ and I refused. And here you say to me ‘be one with us in prayer’ while you do not observe the rest days.” B. Turaev (trans.), 1906, p. 46-47. For an introduction to the extensive literature on the Ewosṭateweans see G. Lusini, 1993; G. Fiaccadori, 2005(a), p. 464-449; idem, 2005(b), p. 469-472.

18  For an Ewosṭatean account of this persecution up to 1404 see G. Lusini (ed.), 1996, vol. I, p. 79-85, vol. II, p. 57-61. A synthetic account is offered in T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 206-213, who provides the above quotation at p. 213.

19  C. Conti Rossini (ed.), 1900, p. 114; G. Lusini, 1993, p. 104-105; T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 213-215; D. Nosnitsin, 2005, p. 539-541.

20 T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 216.

21  The situation after 1404 was described by Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob in his Mäṣḥäfä Bǝrhan (composed in or after 1450): C. Conti Rossini, L. Ricci, 1964-1965, vol. III, p. 145-146, vol. IV, p. 82.

22  S. Kaplan, 2014, p. 59. Yǝsḥaq was, however, favorably disposed toward Giyorgis of Sägla, who wrote against a series of contemporary ‘heresies’ as well as in favor of Sabbath observance. On Giyorgis’s career see the literature in note 25 below.

23  At least one other monastic group, the Stefanites, also upheld Sabbath observance before 1450, as will be discussed below, though by Dawit II’s regulation it was not permitted to them. It is virtually impossible, however, that Stefanites, whom the emperor charged with multiple heresies and violently persecuted throughout his reign, would have been chosen to represent the Ethiopian Orthodox Church abroad.

24  T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 224-226, 229; G. Fiaccadori, 2005(a), p. 467; P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 214.

25  This is the Mäṣḥäfä Mǝstir: see Y. Beyene, 1989, p. 35-88. On his career see also G. Colin, 2005, p. 812; M.-L. Derat, 2003, p. 177-189.

26 G. Colin (ed. and trans.), 1987, at vol. I, p. 18, vol. II, p. 13. T. Tamrat, 1972, translates the phrase as “the children of the king, Zär’a Abrǝham and others.” Däqiq, though singular, could be used collectively to mean “offspring” or “progeny”.

27  G. Haile, 2009, p. 23, 34; M.-L. Derat, 2003, p. 177.

28 T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 220-221.

29 C. Conti Rossini, L. Ricci, 1964-1965, vol. III, p. 157, vol. IV, p. 87.

30 M.-L. Derat, 2004, p. 226.

31 T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 229.

32 T. Abraha (ed. and trans.), 2015, p. 358-361. Lusini connected the passage to the Council of Däbrä Mǝtmaq already before the appearance of Abraha’s definitive edition: G. Lusini, 1993, p. 119-120.

33 C. Conti Rossini, L. Ricci (ed. and trans.), 1964-1965, vol. III, p. 126-131, vol. IV, p. 71-74.

34 Ibid., vol. III, p. 132, vol. IV, p. 75.

35 S. Kaplan, D. Nosnitsin, 2005, p. 390-391.

36 G. Haile (ed. and trans.), 2006, vol. I, p. 50-56, vol. II, p. 42-49. See also R. Beylot, 1990, p. 8-9.

37  On this second summons see G. Haile, 2006, vol. I, p. 60-68, vol. II, p. 52-59; R. Beylot, 1990, p. 9; P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 211-213. The presence of Mika’el and Gabrǝ’el at this interrogation would place it in 1438 or 1439. Bartolomewos’s authorization and espousal of Ǝsṭifanos’s beliefs is affirmed in G. Haile (ed. and trans.), 2006, vol. I, p. 21, vol. II, p. 18-19, and dated to 1427–1428 in R. Beylot, 1990, p. 7.

38 G. Haile, 2006, vol. I, p. 53, vol. II, p. 46.

39 [E]t cum unica [sponsa] tantum etiam regi habere permittatur, ea mortua, alteram et tertiam nec plures habere permitti: B. Nogara (ed.), 1927, p. 26.

40 S. Kaplan, M.-L. Derat, 2014, p. 149; M. Herman, 2012, p. 15-19, 96-103.

41 J. Mantel-Niecko, D. Nosnitsin, 2003, p. 227-229; T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 166-117; M.-L. Derat, 2003, p. 147-149; M. Herman, 2012, p. 23-26.

42  Though the critiques of royal polygyny are all associated with 14th-century reformers, two of their gädlät communicating these critiques were composed in the 15th century: M.-L. Derat, 2003, p. 146.

43  G. Lusini, 1993, p. 55; M.-L. Derat, 2003, p. 146-150.

44  The three redactions of the gädlä Ewosṭatewos were composed in the years around 1400, of which the vetusta still retains reference to the conflict over polygyny: ibid., p. 52, 72. On other 14th-century monks’ critiques of royal marriage practices and consequent torture and exile, see M.-L. Derat, 2003, p. 144-151.

45  Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob himself referred to the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Ewosṭateans before 1450 as a schism: C. Conti Rossini, L. Ricci (ed. and trans.), 1964–1965, vol. III, p. 145, vol. IV, p. 82.

46 S. Tedeschi, 1989, p. 386; B. Weber, 2010, p. 445.

47 E. Cerulli, 1933(b), p. 69.

48 Ibid., p. 69-70.

49  Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. Borg. 2, fols. 3-4. The letter is transcribed, with accompanying Latin translation, in S. Grébaut, E. Tisserant, 1936, p. 779-781.

50  The king identified the four monks as Tewodros, Didimos, Giyorgis, and P̣etros. Of the delegates at the Council of Florence we know only the name of P̣etros. See S. Tedeschi, 1989, p. 401-402.

51 P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 189-228; T. Tamrat, 1972, p. 206-247; B. Weber, 2010, p. 444.

52 P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 202-204, 206-207, 212-213, 217.

53  His defense of circumcision was expressed in the Mäṣḥäfä Bǝrhan; on the Coptic prohibition of the practice in the 13th century see S. Tedeschi, 1989, p. 398n. Coptic disapproval of Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s dictates on Marian liturgy is noted in E. Cerulli, 1943, p. 17-18.

54 P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 219, and G. Lusini, 1993, p. 28-33, note as well the practice’s conformity to an archaic (or archaizing) trend in Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob’s doctrinal positions.

55  B. Weber, 2010, p. 442-445.

56  B. Nogara (ed.), 1927, p. 25-26. The delegates do not seem to have practiced, or at least did not represent as general Ethiopian practice, the vegetarianism followed by Ewosṭatewos and his immediate disciples (on which see B. Turaev, 1906, p. 46). The dietary restrictions they listed—no eating of blood, of strangled animals, of animals killed in any way other than by the sword, and of animals killed by an infidel—seem to have been common to all Ethiopian Christians and are very close to those specified in the Fǝtḥa nägäśt. Cf. P. Tzadua (trans.) and P. Strauss (ed.), 1968, p. 125; P. Tzadua, 2005, p. 534-535.

57 C.F. Beckingham, G.W.B. Huntingford (eds), 1961, vol. 2, p. 356; cf. the comments of P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 221.

58  The debate, which occurred in 1477, figures in the gädl of Märḥa Krǝstos: see S. Kur (ed. and trans.), 1972; idem, 2007, p. 782-783. I thank Marie-Laure Derat for calling my attention to this event, which is also noted by P. Piovanelli, 1995, p. 221.

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Samantha Kelly, « Ewosṭateans at the Council of Florence (1441): Diplomatic Implications between Ethiopia, Europe, Jerusalem and Cairo », Afriques [En ligne], Varia, mis en ligne le 29 juin 2016, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : http://afriques.revues.org/1858

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Samantha Kelly

Professor of History, Rutgers University

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