THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

2 posts categorized "British Library Treasures"

16 November 2020

Object, Story and Wonder: Museum Collections Revealed with the British Library

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Earlier this summer while in lock down, the Bagri Foundation extended an invitation to curators based in the UK and abroad to collaborate on a new digital series to showcase their collections while museums and libraries were forced to shut down and be closed to the public. For this series, Malini Roy, the Head of Visual Arts (Asia and Africa Collections) at the British Library, talks about natural history drawings produced in South Asia during the early 19th century. The video clip is featured below.

The British Library's collection includes several thousand natural history drawings produced in the subcontinent; only a selection is featured in the YouTube video.  In the late 18th century British and Scottish botanists and surgeons led a movement to document the natural history of the subcontinent. The East India Company, initially established as the British trading company and eventually a major governing power over parts of the subcontinent, recognised the need for this scientific research. Its practice was therefore adopted as official policy and resulted in the collection of rare species of flora and fauna. The specimens were preserved in the newly established Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta and the Barrackpore Menagerie. As part of the documentation process, Indian artists were hired to illustrate the scientific specimens. Sets of the watercolours and drawings remained in archives in India, while duplicates were sent to the East India Company’s Library in London, and are now held in the British Library.

While not all of our collections are on public display, in recent years a range of natural history drawings have been on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery. More recently, the works by Haludar were featured in the Wallace Collection's exhibition Forgotten Masters that ran until September 2020. You can read more about the South Asian natural history collections in the following blog posts and articles:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, Natural History Drawings from South Asia, Asia and Africa Blog, 8 August 2013.

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Malini Roy, Moloch Gibbons and Sloth Bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar, Asia and Africa Blog, 7 February 2020.

William Dalrymple (ed.), Forgotten Masters: Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

 

 

10 August 2020

Magic and Divination in Ethiopian Manuscripts

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Inset of amulet scroll focusing on image of rider with lance
One of the most beautifully illustrated 18th-century amulet scrolls featuring a rider bearing a lance fighting a horned demon armed with a sword. (Or 12859)
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With the exception of a few works, magic, medicine, talismans, and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts have received little serious scholarly attention. Research on the subject has so far been mostly restricted to the texts found on manuscripts. The scholarship on Ethiopian magic is very small and not fully investigated; the subject is still in its infancy.

This short illustrated blog will explore some magic and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts and other items, such as amulets from the collection, making use of images from some of the best examples of the manuscripts and amulet scrolls in the British Library’s collections. As well as containing spells, charts, magical squares and numbers, these manuscripts are adorned with rich illustrations. For an introduction to the amulets, see my previous blog post.

Collection of illustration in red and black ink from practitioner's handbook
An 18th-century practitioner’s handbook. This manuscript is decorated with over 200 illustrations of magical pictures, squares and lines of magical and talismans. (Or 11390, f. 47v)
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The English term "magic" is a cultural construct rooted in Western thought and in a particular ethnocentric history, more specifically in the complex of Greco-Roman culture overlaid with Judaeo-Christian theology. Thus, the late 19th-century Western approach to the study of magic was, to a large extent, shaped by its inheritance. Consequently, the term "magic" has been problematized, and has become the focus of endless scholarly debate leading to a situation in which both its definition and its relation to religion has become contingent upon the interest and research area of each particular scholar. Nevertheless, there is a fair amount of agreement that one of the main characteristics of magic can broadly be described as having an immediate goal, while the purpose and function of religion is long term.

Close-up of charts and magic squares in Ge'ez script in red and black ink
While most divination treatises are usually just texts, this example has an elaborate drawing of charts and magic square. (Or 12034, f.64v)
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There are many factors distinguishing the Ethiopian tradition of magic from its Near-Eastern counterpart. One aspect is the strong connection between the divination and amulet scrolls. Only the Ethiopian tradition has a firm, established, and attested connection between the amulet writers and the Church; this is not found in either Near-Eastern Christianity or Judaism.

We must therefore be cautious when discussing "magic" in general outside of its cultural construct in Western scholarship, since the difference of terms changes their meanings from culture to culture. In order for us to understand Ethiopian magic and what constitutes it, it needs to be contextualized by its historical and cultural heritage and characterized in reference to a variety of areas of study.

Divination cycle arranged as a wheel in red and black ink
Another example is this 17th-century divination manual Awda nagaśt “Cycle of the kings” (Add MS 16247, f. 14v)
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Ethiopian magic and divination books are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian material culture. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations that were created for spiritual edification and for protection from real or imagined harm. While Christian icons were intended to promote spiritual growth, Ethiopian magical art consists of visual representations of the world of demons and the supernatural, making the invisible visible for all believers.

Inset of illustration in red, yellow and black inks from amulet scroll
An 18th-century amulet scroll composed of three strips of parchment measuring 1570 X 70 mm. It features an incantation against various diseases, accompanied with talisman and magical characters. (Or 5424)
CC Public Domain Image

The British Library's collection of magic, divination, and magico-medical writing that fits into this group of manuscripts numbers over 40, making it the largest in the UK. The Wellcome Trust possesses 16 manuscripts, and the Cambridge University Library holds 14 manuscripts.

The majority of the Scrolls were acquired after the Maqdala collection catalog's publication in 1877. The provenance preserved in some of the manuscripts themselves or in the library register allows us to confirm their origin; however, the vast majority of the Scrolls contain no mention of where they came from.

Eyob Derillo, Ethiopic Collections Engagement Support
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Further reading:

Derillo, Eyob, “Case Study, Traveling Medicine: Medieval Ethiopian Amulet Scrolls and Practitioners' Handbooks,” in Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts , edited by Brian C. Keene (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019), pp. 121-124. (Document Supply on order)

Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997. (LB.31.b.15213)