Medieval and Early Modern African Literature

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This page is intended to provide information on the pre-nineteenth-century literatures of the African continent. Medieval (600s through 1400s approx.); early modern (1400s through 1700s approx.)


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Some Medieval and Early Modern Abyssinian Texts in Ge'ez

Ge'ez writing in Ethiopia dates to at least the 300s CE.

Kebra Nagast (the Glory of the Kings). Early versions may date to 1200 or earlier, late versions may date to the 1500s. Approximately 100 chapters. Describes the lives of biblical and Ethiopian kings and queens, including the sixth-century Ethiopian King Kaleb. Devotes forty chapters to the Queen of Sheba .

Tarike Nagast (Royal Chronicles). Written by official court scribes about the deeds of Ethiopian kings, the existing texts start in 1314 and continue into the 1800s. Just one of these chronicles is The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon: King of Ethiopia (1314-1344), written as a vivid eye-witness account.

Metshihafe (sermons). Orthodox priests wrote sermons, some of which were actually theological treatises on important questions of the day. A series of these have been attributed to Emperor Zera Yaqob (1434-1468) but may date to much earlier. Zera Yaqob elevates Mary to the status of a goddess in long poetic sections; sometimes he defends magical practices.

Mashafa Mestira Samay Wamedr ( The Book of the Mysteries of Heaven and Earth). Dating to the 1400s, this text explains how everything was created.

Zena Eskender (The History of Alexander the Great). Although parts of this tale resemble ancient tales circulating throughout the middle east about Alexander the Great, in the Ethiopian versions, Alexander is a pious Christian.

Diggua (hymns). Many volumes of hymns exist, some dating to the 1600s, 1400s, and perhaps even the 500s. For instance, Igzi'abher Negse is attributed to Emperor Zera Yaqob.

Mezmure Kristos (Psalms of Christ) probably dates to the 1500s. Composed in imitation of the biblical psalms, each of the 151 Ge'ez poems is the exact length of each of the 151 biblical psalms, down to the number of lines and the number of letters in each line. This extraordinary feat is made even more extraordinary in that it rhymes, which the biblical psalms do not. The text carries sidenotes (rather than footnotes) and an extensive bibliography.

Gedlat (Acts of the Saints). There are dozens and dozens of texts in Ge'ez about the saints, some are translations of texts from Arabic, Coptic, or Greek, others are original. Among the original texts are two of the earliest, one about the Ethiopian saint Takla Haymanot and another about Emperor Lalibela (both of whom lived in the 1200s).

Qeddâsê (Liturgy). The Ethiopian liturgy was the first of the eastern Christian liturgies to be published in Europe—in Rome in 1548.

Confession of Faith. The Ethiopian emperor Galâudêwos (Claudius) wrote this defense of the Ethiopian faith in 1555, it was published in Europe not long after.


Some Early Modern West African Texts in Arabic

Arabic writing in Hausaland (northern Nigeria and Niger) dates to the end of the 1400s.

Mai Idris of Bornu (late 1500s). Written by Ahmad Ibn Fartuwa of Niger, imam of the warrior West African king Idris Alawma, about his reign.

Tarikh es-Soudan (early 1600s). Written by Abd-al-Rahman al Sadi of Timbuktu about the lives and wars of the kings of Mali in the 1200s.


Some Early Modern West African Texts in European Languages

West African texts written in European languages date to at least the early1700s.

A Thesis on Slavery by the Former Slave Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, 1717-1747 (in Latin). Written in 1742 by Capitein (Akan), who was sold into slavery from the continent and went on to study in the Netherlands, it includes an autobiographical preface.

Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings (in English). Written in 1787 by Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (Fanti), after being sold into slavery from the continent.

Letters of Philip Quaque, or Kweku, from Cape Coast Castle, 1765-1811 (in English). Written to his English missionary society after Quaque (Akan) returned to the Gold Coast from studying in England.

On the Rights of Africans in Europe (in Latin). A now lost treatise written by William Anton Amo (Akan) in 1729. He also wrote several other dissertations, one of which survived: The Art of Philosophizing Soberly and Accurately .

The Diary of Antera Duke of Old Calabar (in pidgin English). Written by a slave-trading West African chief, Antera Duke (Efik), from 1785 to 1788.

Letters of Efik slave traders Little Ephraim Robin John and Ancona Robin Robin John to Charles Wesley, the Methodist hymnodist (in English). Late 1700s.

Geometry and Fortification (in Russian). Written by Abram Petrovich Ganibal (1697–1781), the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin. He was captured as a child near Chad and became the slave of Peter the Great. He wrote a two-volume, unpublished textbook on military fortification, which includes an autobiographical preface.

 

 

© 2006. Wendy Belcher. All rights reserved.

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