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The Ethiopic Psalter of 1513
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The Ethiopic Psalter of 1513

First leaf showing woodcut in red of King David playing the harp in a wooded landscape.First leaf (recto) showing full page woodcut of King David playing the harp. In 1513 the first book to be printed in the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez was issued from the press of Marcellus Silber, one of the many printers of German origin then living and working in Rome. This book, entitled the Psalterium David et cantica aliqua in lingua Chaldea, represented the fruition of a remarkable collaboration between the Ethiopian Christian community in Rome and a German churchman who had become fascinated with their liturgy, language and culture, Johann Potken.

Potken (ca 1470-ca 1525) was provost of the collegiate church of St Georg in Köln, but his appointment as a papal proto-notary brought him to the Roman curia and there he became acquainted with Ethiopian churchmen. Curious about their worship, he attended services at their church in Rome, the church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini (the Ethiopian community was well established in Rome by the 16th century and had been granted a church of their own by Pope Sixtus IV in 1479), and started to learn Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopian church liturgy. His teacher was an Ethiopian friar, abbas Thomas Walda Samuel, then residing in Rome as the guest of Pope Leo X.

Eventually Potken felt himself competent enough in his command of the language to set about publishing the Psalms and the Song of Solomon in Ge’ez. As no books had been printed in this language before, Potken had to commission the cutting of founts of type in Ge’ez script himself. One of Potken’s sources for the text was a manuscript Ge’ez Psalter which still survives in the Vatican Library (Vat. etiop. 20) and which he is known to have borrowed. By the early 16th century the Vatican Library held several manuscript Ge’ez Psalters and Potken is thought to have drawn on a range of sources to create his text.

Oddly, despite his long study of the Ge’ez language and evident erudition, Potken made the fundamental mistake of believing that Ge’ez was a version of the Aramaic or Chaldean language, and he never swerved from this belief, referring consistently to the language of the Psalter as Chaldean. Three years after the publication of the Psalter Potken returned to Germany, where he continued to study the Ge’ez language and published another edition of the Psalter in 1516, this time with parallel texts in Hebrew, Greek, Ge’ez and Latin.

Our copy of the Psalter was given to King’s by the orientalist and collector, William Marsden (1754-1836), who presented his library to the College shortly before his death. It also contains extensive manuscript annotations in the hand of the German theological scholar August Pfeiffer (1640-98). The navigation menu on the right provides access to a digital facsimile of our copy.

PLEASE NOTE: This exhibition was created for the web.


This book has been digitised as part of a collaborative project with Lambeth Palace Library (whose copy of the Psalter has also been selectively digitised). The project has been led and the digitisation undertaken by Dr Ian Christie Miller.

Logo of Ordre Souverain Militaire et Hospitalier de Saint Jean de Jérusalem, Chevaliers Oecuméniques de Rhodes et de Malte, OSJThe project has been made possible by a grant from the Ordre Souverain Militaire et Hospitalier de Saint Jean de Jérusalem, Chevaliers Oecuméniques de Rhodes et de Malte, OSJ.

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