17 December 2021
Textiles in Ethiopian Manuscripts at the British Library
Eyob Derillo, Curator Ethiopic and Ethiopian Collections.
Little is known about the secrets that Ethiopian Christian manuscripts retain inside their covers. In addition to the texts that cover the full range of topics, from religion to magic, or from poetry to medicine, the iconic bindings of Ethiopian manuscripts hold more than we might imagine. Distinguished by their hard wooden covers or elaborate tooled leather bindings, some codices have preserved historical textiles attached to the inner surfaces of the book boards. These rare fragments have been protected from environmental damage and are in excellent state of preservation.
It’s important to note that there are conservation challenges for this type of material, one of the main roles conservation plays is to limit damage by the effects of light, temperature and pollutants, whilst still providing public access to the manuscript collections.
As curator for the Ethiopian Collection I have been working towards uncovering the number of Ethiopian manuscripts in its collection that contain these textiles inside their bindings. Formed from three major acquisitions, the BL today holds more than 600 Ethiopian manuscripts. The Harley Library collection included the first accession of Ethiopian manuscripts in 1753. In 1846, another 74 codices were acquired from those collected by missionaries of the English Church Missionary Society. The bulk, and the largest group of books incorporated into the collection, came from the punitive expedition to Ethiopia in 1868. The Magdala (Maqdala) collection, resulting from the British expedition sent to Ethiopia in 1868, consists of 349 manuscripts from the royal library assembled by King Tewodros II (1855-68).
Separately, in June 2021, the results of a pilot research study conducted on textile pastedowns on the inner covers of 154 Ethiopian manuscripts held in Ethiopian repositories and Western institutions, including the BL’s, were presented at the “Textiles in Manuscripts” workshop. At this workshop, organized by The Book and the Silk Roads project at the University of Toronto and hosted by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, 500+ participants explored the large variety of textiles from across Eurasia found inside books, covering manuscript paintings, in bindings, and on inner and outer covers. Many of the textiles found inside the Ethiopian manuscripts in the study were produced in textile centres in India, Europe, and the Near East and were part of Ethiopia’s engagement in vibrant Indian Ocean/ Red Sea trade networks, or brought as gifts. A striking Iranian textile dating from the 19th century can be seen in Fig. 1, and a Turkish brocade from the late 16th to early 17th century has been preserved in manuscript Or 534, Fig. 2.
A multi-disciplinary team of scholars including textile experts from the V&A and Manchester Metropolitan University is now in place to conduct an ambitious research project that will address questions arising from the information that can be uncovered from these textile fragments. The manuscripts date from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The project will work to reveal such properties of the textiles as composition and structure, that will assist researchers in determining their time of manufacture and place of origin. This information will strengthen the investigation of Ethiopia’s role in the global textile trade network, one that stretched from East Asia to Western Europe. The team will seek to understand the use of textiles in manuscript bindings from cultural, social, and artistic perspectives. One may ask whether they were a primary component of the binding process or added to the book as decorative elements? What was the role of imported textiles in society? Was there a religious meaning ascribed to them? An important aspect of this research is the use of textiles to date uncertainly dated manuscripts. Finally, the project will help uncover changing socio-economic norms in Ethiopian society from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Textile pastedowns preserved inside 15th- to 19th-century Christian Ethiopian manuscripts represent a rare collection of material evidence that will assist researchers and conservators in their work with late medieval and early modern textiles and objects from Ethiopia and across Eurasia.
Fig.1 Or 617 Discourses for the Festivals of the Archangel Michael, 1800-1899, British Library,
Textile: Iran, woven, cotton ground with silk brocaded patterns, 19th century.
Fig. 2 Or 534 Psalter of Christ, 1582, British Library, London
Textile: Turkey, woven silk 1570-1630, British Library OR 534.
Fig. 3 Or 646 The Miracles of Mary, 1739.
Fig. 4 Or 634, folio 8v. The Miracles of Mary, 18th century. Ethiopian artists were also incorporating local and imported textile design patterns in their paintings.
Fig. 5 Or 9036 The Psalms, 18th century.