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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

09/2013 manuscript  of the month

Notes are the key…

At first glance, this manuscript kept in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg gives the impression that it belongs to a European manuscript tradition were it not for the signature “Orient. 274”. The cover, which is a remnant of a Latin lectionary, obviously is of West European origin. However, when flipping through the pages in fidäl, the script of the classical Ethiopic language Ge’ez, it becomes clear why this manuscript is classified as an Oriental manuscript. A note in Latin that may be found on the lower corner of the front guard leaf then catches the reader’s attention: “I belong to Johann Dieckmann of Stade. Who copied [me] in the month of February 1668 in Jena from the Gerhard Library…” This statement raises many questions: Who was Johann Dieckmann? What do we know about the Gerhard Library and who was Gerhard? What is the content of this small manuscript and why is it bound this way?

Figure 1. Front cover > Enlarge

The manuscript is small in size measuring only 10.5 x 8.5 cm. It is a multiple-text manuscript with three separate texts, i.e.: “The prayer of Our Lady Mary in the Land of Bartos”, the “Book of (’magical’’) Names” and “The Praise of St. Mary to be read on Sunday“. While the first two texts can be considered as independent ‘magical’ texts, the third one, “The Praise of St. Mary to be read on Sunday”, cannot usually be found in such ‘magical’ neighbourhood. The aforesaid text is part of a widespread canonical text called “The Praise of Mary”, which contains sections that can be read on all weekdays. In contrast, the other two texts of this manuscript are transmitted secretly even today.

The copyist’s hand is distinctively non-Ethiopian: the overall handwriting, correction marks, decorative elements, punctuation marks and mistakes in diction and orthography reveal that he was not capable of writing in the Ethiopian language Ge’ez very well. To give only a few examples, he mixes up numeric signs, writes illegible fidäl characters and also uses Arabic numerals for pagination.

Figure 2. Binding with shelf mark
> Enlarge

Apart from the outward appearance of the manuscript, one may retrace some of its history with the help of the notes found on both sides of the front guard leaf as references (Fig. 3 and 4). The Gerhard Library at the University of Jena was founded by Johann Gerhard (1582–1637), a prolific writer, theologian, professor, and pastor who was a prominent scholar of Lutheran theology and reformation. Johann Ernst Gerhard (1621–1668) followed in his father’s footsteps and actually accumulated so many manuscripts that the collection needed its own building in the university. The aforementioned note of February 1668 corresponds, probably by chance, precisely to the date when Johann Ernst Gerhard passed away. Johann Dieckmann (1647-1720) was at that time a student at Jena and later became a well-known theologian and scholar with pronounced interest in the Orient. How exactly the manuscript made its way to the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg is unclear.

The notes on the front guard leaf provide even more precious information. It is mentioned that the content of this manuscript was quoted by a certain Ludolf in his work “Commentarius ad Historiam Aethiopicam” (Fig. 4). Edward Ullendorff (1920-2011), an authority in Ethiopian Studies, once described Hiob Ludolf (1624-1704) as the “most illustrious name in Ethiopian scholarship”. Incidentally the Center for Ethiopian Studies at the University of Hamburg is also named after him. As far as our manuscript is concerned, Ludolf for the first time both examined the content of this specific manuscript and approached the study of Ethiopian ‘magical’ manuscripts in general. He classified the manuscript as ṣälotä rәqet, “prayer for exorcism”, however this title is no longer used. In addition to this but by a second hand there is an extension which reads "est vero oratio magica" i.e “but this is magical speech”. The title on the back cover – “Oratio magica Aethiopica” – is possibly by the same hand (Fig. 2).

Finally, the content and outward appearance of the manuscript reminds one of the so called “Däbtära notebooks”. Däbtära are usually Ethiopian clergy who are not ordained and are known for their ‘magical’ practices. They often possess small-sized manuscripts of herbal recipes, prayers and grammar exercises, to name only a few. Why then did Johann Dieckmann from Stade copy the text of such a manuscript? A noteworthy fact is that the notes refer to the founding years of Ethiopian Studies in Europe, which were part of a general interest of Lutheran scholars in Oriental Studies. Although the notes provide many answers to our curious questions about the origins of the manuscript, some of them still remain unresolved, for instance which exemplar was used and where it is today.

Figure 3. Fol.1 r. Note 1.
Sum Johannis Diecmanni Stadensis.
Qui Jenae Mense Februario anni
MDCLXVIII. Ex. Biblioth. Gerhardina
descripsit, i.e. “I belong to Johann
Dieckmann of Stade. Who copied [me] in
the month of February 1668 in Jena from
the Gerhard Library.” > Enlarge

Figure 4. Fol. 1v. Note 2.
Varia loca ex hoc libello Aethiopico
exhibet Ludolf. Comm. in. Hist. Aeth.p.
349,350. est vero oratio magica, i.e.
“Ludolf presents various passages from
this small Ethiopic book in the Commen-
tary to his edition of the history of
Ethiopia p. 349,350.‘but this is magical
speech’” (probably in a second hand).
> Enlarge

Figure 5. Fol.131v. End of the text
“Book of (’magical’) Names”.
> Enlarge


KAPLAN, Steven (2005): “Däbtära”. In: Uhlig, Siegbert (ed.): Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. Vol. 2. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, pp. 53-54.

LUDOLF, Hiob (1691): Ad suam historiam aethiopicam antehac editam commentarius. Frankfurt: J.D. Zunner für M. Jacquet.

MEYER, Marvin (2003): “The Prayer of Mary and the Magical Book of Mary and the Angels”. In: Noegel, Scott et al (Eds.): Prayer, Magic and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, pp. 57-68.

SCHMELING, Gaylin R. (ed.) (2008): Sacred Meditations. Michigan: Magdeburg Press.

UHLIG, Siegbert (2007): “Ludolf, Hiob”. In: Uhlig, Siegbert (ed.): Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. Vol. 3. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, pp. 601-603.

ULLENDORF, Edward (1973): The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People. London: Oxford University Press.

Ms Cod. Orient 274
Oratio magica Aethiopica
Paper, 116 folios, 10.5x8.5 cm
17th century
Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg, Manuscript Collection Section

Text by Text von Gidena Mesfin Kebede