A New History Changes the Balance of Power Between Ethiopia and Medieval EuropeHistorians in the News
tags: medieval history, Ethiopia, African history
In early 2020, just as the scope and scale of the coronavirus pandemic was revealing itself, historian Verena Krebs went to spend a few months at her parents’ house in the German countryside. There, “next to fields of rapeseed and barley and dense old woods,” in her words, the Ruhr-University Bochum professor would wait out Germany’s lockdown. She wasn’t terribly worried about not having things to do though, since she had her book on the history of late medieval Ethiopia to finish up.
The good news was that she had already completed the full manuscript and had secured a contract with a major academic publisher. The bad news was more existential: She didn’t like the book she had written. Krebs knew her sources ran against the dominant narrative that placed Europe as aiding a needy Ethiopia, the African kingdom desperately in search of military technology from its more sophisticated counterparts to the north. But her writing didn’t fully match her research; it still followed the prevailing scholarship. Krebs worried that her interpretation of the original medieval sources was, in her own words, too “out there’” So, she hedged, and she struggled, and she doubted, and wrote the book she thought she was supposed to write.
And then, she told us, she did something radical. Instead of tweaking what was already written, she decided to do what good historians do and follow the sources. “I basically deleted the manuscript that I had submitted. And I just wrote the whole thing anew. I started writing in April, and I finished the whole thing by, I think, August.”
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.
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