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An Ethiopian Monk And A Dominican Friar Walk Into A Bar

…and the patriarch of Antioch looks up from his drink and says…

By Cait Stevenson

There’s no question that the term “medieval world” means something radically different today than it did in 1953. That’s when R. W. Southern published the massively important, paradigm-shifting, and somehow still readable The Making of the Middle Ages—which accepted a thin arc of northern France and England, almost exclusively, as making the Middle Ages. Today, the adventurous follow the Indian Ocean trade currents from the Swahili city-states to Arabia to India; archaeological data about the Mongols serves as evidence for the environmental history of Europe; you could sink an aircraft carrier under the weight of “perceptions of the [Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Zoroastrian] Other” scholarship.

13th century map of Jerusalem

But tied to increasing comfort with the idea of a “global Middle Ages,” designed to break the white European hegemony on the era’s historiography, has been a lingering unease to think in terms of global Christianity. But the existence of a Christian world was no less true in the high Middle Ages than in late antiquity or the age of empire. This refers to the presence of thriving Christian communities, of course, but equally to moments of connection between them.

One of the most important places that Christians encountered each other was, naturally enough, in Jerusalem. Although scholars have recently questioned the existence of a native Near Eastern Christian population in Jerusalem upon the Latin Crusaders’ arrival in 1099, groups from all points of the medieval world wound their way to the city over the next century. After his conquest in 1187, Saladin extended exemptions from one of his new taxes to Coptic, Greek, Georgian, and Ethiopian Christians.

In 1237, during the brief sequel of Latin rule, one Ethiopian monk decided to work this system to his—and his kingdom’s—advantage.

Ethiopia in a 1467 version of Ptolemy Cosmographia

Ethiopia and its Church had somewhat of a hierarchy problem: they were dependent on the Coptic patriarch in Alexandria to consecrate their metropolitan and bishops. This kept the Ethiopian Church tied theologically and politically to the Egyptian Church rather more than the Ethiopians preferred, especially as they came into increasing contact in places like Jerusalem.

For its part, Jerusalem lay on the eastern side of the boundary between the patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch. This had traditionally made sense, given Coptic Christianity’s basis in northeastern Africa. But the increasing numbers of Copts in the city from the twelfth century onward led Alexandrian patriarch Cyril III ibn Laqlaq to cross jurisdictional borders and consecrate a Coptic bishop for the city in 1237.

This did not make the Patriarch of Antioch very happy, and it was apparently quite public knowledge that it did not make him happy. An Ethiopian monk named Thomas saw this as his opening. He requested that Antiochene primate Ignatius consecrate him as the metropolitan of Ethiopia (“Abyssinia”). It would allow Ignatius to jibe back at the Copts for superseding his authority in Jerusalem, and provide a layer of independence for the Ethiopian Church from their northern neighbors.

Ignatius and advisors, according to Syrian chronicler Bar Hebraeus, contemplated the action but worried about religious-political ramifications from the Copts (z.B. for Syriac Christians in Alexandrian territory). He wanted a fourth-party mediator. Who could that be? Well, the Franks weren’t mixed up in this controversy, were they?

And that is the story of how a Dominican friar wound up as chief negotiator in a major diplomatic incident between the Coptic and Jacobite patriarchs set off by an Ethiopian monk.

He wasn’t very good at his job, unfortunately. No resolution was ever negotiated. And the Dominican’s apparent original disapproval of Thomas’ consecration was overridden by fiat. According to Bar Hebraeus, Ignatius ended up consecrating Thomas but justifying his actions to Cyril as a “translation mistake.” Right.

This high-profile case shows just how connected both the different churches and their members could be in the Middle Ages. It’s also noteworthy what a secondary and ineffective role the Latin Church played in the whole situation—present and accepted, including in authoritative roles, but not any kind of “final word” or highest hierarchical level.

Looking back from the modern and especially early modern world, it seems impossible to separate “global Christianity” from European imperialism. The case of the ambitious Ethiopian monk suggests that a medieval global Christianity might be more fruitfully approached by abandoning a Western Europe-centric view.

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

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