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Series: Innovation and Change
02. Ideas of Innovation in Medieval Times
Social mobility in medieval Ethiopia, as we saw last week, was rigidly circumscribed by tradition. Christianity, which was conceived of as a religion with a place for all men, perhaps prevented the emergence of anything approaching the caste system of Hindu India, and even preached the desirability of slave-owners emancipating their slaves, if converted, on the basis of individual charity. Blacksmiths, potters, tanners and other manual workers, many of whom in various areas were of separate racial, religious or linguistic background, were nonetheless regarded as communities apart. Popular superstition went so far as to hold that such people were sorcerers who turned into hyenas at night and caused people to fall ill and die.
Traditionally there was, at this time, little realisation of either the need or the possibility of improvement in the economic field. The kindness of the climate and the fertility of the soil, which allowed of abundant harvests, seems to have engendered an attitude of complacency. Occasional crop failures and famines were thus dismissed as arising from divine displeasure and therefore failed to operate as catalysts of change. The relative isolation of the Ethiopian empire, as well as of its various provinces, similarly minimised the opportunity of external influence producing innovation.
The mental climate of the Middle Ages in Ethiopia, as elsewhere, was by no means favourable to either freedom of thought, or the idea of innovation. Great emphasis was laid on the value of religious orthodoxy. Emperor Zara Yaqob (1434-1468) carried this attitude to considerable extremes when he gave orders that all his subjects should wear amulets inscribed with such words as “Belonging to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, and when he appointed a grand inquisitor and an army of spies to seek out secret idolaters. “Everyone”, the chronicle of this reign declares, “trembled before the power of the King.” Zara Yaqob was doubtless more extreme than most Ethiopian rulers, but the attitude he displayed was to a greater or lesser extent characteristic.
The climate of the times may be further illustrated by the story of the Venetian painter, Brancaleone, who is thought to have been commissioned by Zara Yaqob’s successor, Emperor Baeda Mariam (1468-1478), to paint a representation of the Virgin and Child for one of the churches. The painting, according to a contemporary chronicle, aroused the hostility of the priests.
Emperors Dream of Foreign Skills
Notwithstanding the static and isolated nature of the country, many of the Emperors dreamt of contacts with other lands and the utilisation of foreign skills. Such interest in innovation was, however, largely centred, as we shall see, on the military sector, above all on the import of firearms, which was rightly considered a matter of vital concern. A certain preoccupation with innovation in building and medicine may, however, also be discerned.
Interest in foreign contacts and innovation was displayed by Emperor Yeshaq I (1414-1429) who employed Turkish Mamelukes to establish workshops for making coats of mail, swords and other weapons, as well as in training his soldiers and reorganising his system of taxes. He also wrote in 1428 to King Affonso of Aragon asking him to send skilled artisans. A couple of decades later Zara Yaqob, despite his orthodoxy, made a similar request to the King of Aragon.
Letters to the King of Portugal
In the following century Emperor Lebna Dengel (1508-1540) wrote to King Manoel I of Portugal, declaring:
-Send masters who can make figures of gold and silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead, and send me lead for the churches; and masters of gilding with gold leaf, and of making gold leaf; and this soon, and let them come to remain with me here and in my favour. And when they may wish to return at their desire, I will not detain them and this I swear by Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God.”
In a later letter to Manoel’s son, Joao Ill, he wrote:
“Sir, brothers hear another word now, I want you to send me men, artificers to make images and printed books, and to make swords and arms of all sorts for fighting; and also masons and carpenters, and men who can make medicines, and physicians, and surgeons to cure illnesses; artificers to beat gold and place it, and goldsmiths and silversmiths, and men who know how to extract gold and silver and also copper from the veins, and men who can make sheet lead and earthen ware; and masters of any trades which are necessary in these kingdoms, also gunsmiths. Assist me in this, which I beg of you as a brother does to a brothers and God will assist you and save you from evil things.”
The subsequent invasion of the Muslim conqueror, Ahmad Gragn, was followed by the arrival in 1541 of a Portuguese expeditionary force led by Christovao da Gama and composed of over 400 men at arms and a further 130 slaves. After the war Emperor Galawdewos (1540-1599) did much to encourage foreigners to remain in the country, and employed European, Syrian, Armenian and Egyptian craftsmen in building a palace. Though anxious to utilize such foreign skills Galawdewos was fully determined to maintain the doctrinal purity of the Ethiopian Church, and wrote his famous Confession of Faith to rebut the influences of the foreigners.
Requests for Skilled Workmen
Later in the century Emperor Sartsa Dengel (1563-1597) wrote in 1589 to King Felipe II of Spain asking him to send experienced workmen who knew how to make helmets and cannon and to prepare gunpowder and other war material.” According to tradition Sartsa Dengel also employed two Frenchmen, Garneau and Arnaud, to guild him a palace at Guzara. His brother Za Dengel (1603-1604), subsequently wrote to King Felipe Ill of Spain in similar vein, asking him to send many artisans and soldiers quickly “so that peace and love should take root between us who are united in the faith of Christ.”
Contact between Ethiopia and sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe entered into a new phase with the advent of the Jesuits in 1557. Emperors Za Dengel (1603-1604) and Susneyos (1607-1623), both espoused the Roman Catholic faith, in part in the hope of obtaining Portuguese military aid. The population as a whole, however, was most reluctant to accept the religious revolution demanded by the Jesuits. There were numerous rebellions and in 1632 Susneyos was obliged to issue a proclamation which said, ” Hear Ye! Hear Ye! We first gave you this faith believing it to be good. But innumerable people have been slain… For which reason we restore to you the faith of your forefathers. Let the former clergy return to the churches, let them put in their altars, let them say their own liturgy. And do you rejoice.”
Opposition to the Jesuits
The extent of popular opposition to religious innovation was noted by the seventeenth century German historian of Ethiopian history, Hiob Ludolf. He declares that it was:
“a thing almost impossible to be believed with what an Universal Joy the Emperor’s Edict was receiv’d among the People. The whole Camp, as if they had some great Deliverance from the Enemy, rang with Shouts and Acclamations. The Monks and Clergy, who had felt the greatest weight of the Fathers’ Hatred, lifted up their Thankful voices to Heaven. The promiscuous Multitude of Men and Women danc’d and caper’d ; the Soldiers wish’d all happiness to their Commanders, they broke their own and the Rosaries of all they met.
“Others ran about Singing for joy that Ethiopia was deliver’d from the Western Lyons, Chanting forth the following Lines:
At length the Sheep of Ethiopia free’d
From the Bold Lyons of the West
Securely in their Pastures feed,
St. Mark and Cyril’s Doctrines have o’recome The Folly’s of the Church of Rome.
Rejoyce, rejoyce, Sing Hallelujahs all,
No more the Western Wolves
Our Ethiopia shall enthrall.
“What the King of Habessinia Most Desired”
Continued interest in modern techniques is nonetheless apparent from the observation of Ludolf’s friend, the Ethiopian scholar Gregory. Travelling in Germany in the early seventeenth century, he was asked by Duke Ernestus of Saxony what “the King of Habessinia most desired out of Europe.” According to Ludolf the Ethiopian savant replied, “Arts and Handicraft Trades; well understanding that neither Merchandize nor any other calling could be well followed without the help of the Workmans’ Tool.”
Foreign contacts throughout this period had, however, surprisingly little effect on the Ethiopian economy or way of life. Despite considerable Portuguese activity in the country from 1541 to 1633 the forces of continuity were far stronger than those of change. Except in the military sector the Emperors do not seem to have been very interested in technology. They utilised the service of a handful of foreigners to undertake such skilled work as was unknown to their own subjects, but did not institute any system of training to enable their own people to acquire what were virtually regarded as foreign habits. The population at large, being mainly self-sufficient and assured of the basic necessities of life, tended to be conservative and saw little need for adopting new techniques.