James Bruce and his Copies of Ethiopic Enoch

Hessayon, Ariel. 2023. James Bruce and his Copies of Ethiopic Enoch. In: Ariel Hessayon; Annette Yoshiko Reed and Gabriele Boccaccini, eds. Rediscovering Enoch? The Antediluvian Past from the Fifteenth to Nineteenth Centuries. Leiden: Brill, pp. 209-257. ISBN 9789004529793 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

In this essay I want to investigate what happened to the manuscripts that James Bruce brought back from his travels, particularly four copies of the book of Enoch. Since Gabriele Boccaccini has solved the “mystery” of Bruce’s “fourth” manuscript copy of Ethiopic Enoch (Vat. et. 71) in his recent ground-breaking article, I will deal relatively briefly with that document here. Instead my focus is on the copy that Bruce gave to Louis XV (BnF Éthiopien 49) together with those he transported to the British Isles (MSS. Bodl. Or. 531 and Bruce 74). The first section covers the period from September 1769 to June 1774 and deals with, among other things, Bruce’s travels in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia; his acquisition and commissioning of manuscripts; journey to France and then the Italian Peninsula; gifts of plant seeds and documents to important figures and institutions; his social network; and reactions to his boasts, embellishments and lies. The second section covers from July 1774 to December 1787 and gives particular attention to Bruce’s knowledge of non-European languages, his unsuccessful attempt to complete a translation of Ethiopic Enoch, and his other scholarly interests. The third covers from January 1788 to April 1794 and focuses on the composition, publication, and critical reception of Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790), particularly with regard to increasing interest in Ethiopic Enoch. The fourth and final section briefly assesses Bruce’s legacy as well as providing an answer to the important question of why no European undertook a complete translation of Ethiopic Enoch during his lifetime.

For this study I have consulted a wide range of sources, notably contemporary travel narratives, diaries, memoirs, biographies, correspondence, newspapers, periodicals and auction catalogues, as well as records of the British Museum, Bodleian Library, and British and Foreign Bible Society. Moreover, my discussion should be situated within broader contexts—particularly European attitudes towards Africa and its inhabitants coupled with exploration and missionary activity within that continent; the acquisition of manuscripts written in non-European languages by private collectors, university libraries and national museums as well as the choices made by governmental treasuries and their advisers as to which manuscripts they should purchase; the prestige accrued by individuals and institutions from possessing these artefacts; transnational and cross-confessional scholarly engagement with these texts; and their eventual translation, dissemination, appropriation and repurposing not just by artists and poets but certain Protestant nonconformists. It should also be placed against a wider backdrop of the Jacobite risings, Seven Years’ War, Anglo-French War and French Revolution. As we shall see, Bruce’s arrogance, vanity and tetchiness, combined with a tendency to exaggerate his own exploits, would have significant repercussions for the initial reactions throughout Western Europe to his scarcely believable accounts—and with them his claim to have brought back “all the Abyssinian books of the Old Testament,” including several copies of the book of Enoch. Yet in this instance, for all the rambling prose and preposterous anecdotes that went into fashioning his outsized self-image, Bruce was telling the truth; even if he was also hiding part of it. Such was the fate of this intrepid Scottish Marco Polo.

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13 February 2023Published

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13 Mar 2023 10:31

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14 Mar 2023 03:11



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