The publication of Pedro Páez’s History of Ethiopia makes available a most valuable text for an understanding of the history of Ethiopia and of European missionary activity there in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It offers a firsthand account of the first two decades of the seventeenth century, an unusually turbulent period in Ethiopian history. The state had shrunk in territory, faced the continuing challenge of inroads from the Oromo people, and experienced the threat of nobles rebelling against its monarchical institutions. Under the influence of Jesuit missionaries, Páez foremost among them, its rulers adopted the Catholic faith and institutions.
Páez had arrived in Ethiopia in 1603 and was soon summoned to the court of King ZäDengel (r. 1603–04), who expressed an interest in Catholicism. ZäDengel’s eventual successor, Susenyos (r. 1607–32), went beyond this to support and protect the missionaries. In 1617 Susenyos faced a major rebellion [End Page 835] motivated by opposition to his pro-Catholic leanings, during which Abunä Simon, the metropolitan and champion of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, died. In 1621 Susenyos formally declared Catholicism as the state religion. This declaration precipitated civil war, which led, in 1632, to a restoration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the expulsion of the Jesuit missionaries. Although Páez received positive press, which compares favorably his ostensible flexibility and pragmatism with the intransigence of his successor, Alfonso Mendes, his History makes clear that Páez viewed the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as deeply in error. He condemned its rejection of the Council of Chalcedon’s Christology and a host of its practices, which included observation of the Sabbath and circumcision.
Páez’s History is one of the most important firsthand accounts of Ethiopia written by a European observer. It was composed over a seven-year period, which ended with the author’s death in 1622. Its point of departure was a refutation of Friar Luis de Urreta’s Historia eclesiástica, política, natural y moral, de los grandes y remotoes Reynos de la Etiopia (1610–11). Urreta’s book was an ill-founded Dominican attempt to discredit the Jesuit mission to Ethiopia (1555–1632). Its polemical tone must have contributed to the Jesuit Order’s decision to leave Páez’s text unpublished until the twentieth century, although the order encouraged other Jesuits such as Manuel de Almeida and Balthazar Tellez to plunder the manuscript for their own apologetic histories1 of the order’s activities in Ethiopia.
Aside from its polemical framing, Páez’s History reflects the conventions of its period and includes informed accounts of Ethiopian geography, customs, religious life and belief as well as history as understood today. It rests on an extraordinary range of sources—earlier accounts by Portuguese and Jesuit authors and Ethiopian texts, both cited extensively, some in recensions now lost—and the author’s own observations, which drew on his wide travels in the country and his frequent, extended visits to the Ethiopian royal court.
The translation, which reads well, is based on a critically reconstituted Portuguese text published in 2008. It is richly illustrated with contemporary prints plus a few modern maps and photographs of the ruins of Jesuit-era buildings—a church and a castle. The editors have assigned much of their commentary to an extended introduction and a glossary. The latter is a partial success at best and contains a number of errors. The Oromo are described as “mostly nomadic pastoralists” and ethnically as “Nilotic,” whereas the great majority are settled farmers of Kushitic descent (p. 375). It is not clear that “bahrey,” one of the key terms in the Jesuit-Orthodox dialogue concerning [End Page 836] the Nature of Christ, is accurately rendered as “breath.” The name of Susenyos’s queen...