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Chapter III 


The manner of eating in Abyssinia, their dress, their hospitality, and traffic.

The great lords, and even the Emperor himself, maintain their tables with no great expense. The vessels they make use of are black earthenware, which, the older it is, they set a greater value on. Their way of dressing their meat, an European, till he hath been long accustomed to it, can hardly be persuaded to like; everything they eat smells strong and swims with butter. They make no use of either linen or plates. The persons of rank never touch what they eat, but have their meat cut by their pages, and put into their mouths. When they feast a friend they kill an ox, and set immediately a quarter of him raw upon the table (for their most elegant treat is raw beef newly killed) with pepper and salt; the gall of the ox serves them for oil and vinegar; some, to heighten the delicacy of the entertainment, add a kind of sauce, which they call manta, made of what they take out of the guts of the ox; this they set on the fire, with butter, salt, pepper, and onion. Raw beef, thus relished, is their nicest dish, and is eaten by them with the same appetite and pleasure as we eat the best partridges. They have often done me the favour of helping me to some of this sauce, and I had no way to decline eating it besides telling them it was too good for a missionary.

The common drink of the Abyssins is beer and mead, which they drink to excess when they visit one another; nor can there be a greater offence against good manners than to let the guests go away sober: their liquor is always presented by a servant, who drinks first himself, and then gives the cup to the company, in the order of their quality.

The meaner sort of people here dress themselves very plain; they only wear drawers, and a thick garment of cotton, that covers the rest of their bodies: the people of quality, especially those that frequent the court, run into the contrary extreme, and ruin themselves with costly habits. They wear all sorts of silks, and particularly the fine velvets of Turkey.

They love bright and glaring colours, and dress themselves much in the Turkish manner, except that their clothes are wider, and their drawers cover their legs. Their robes are always full of gold and silver embroidery. They are most exact about their hair, which is long and twisted, and their care of it is such that they go bare- headed whilst they are young for fear of spoiling it, but afterwards wear red caps, and sometimes turbans after the Turkish fashion.

The ladies' dress is yet more magnificent and expensive; their robes are as large as those of the religious, of the order of St. Bernard. They have various ways of dressing their heads, and spare no expense in ear-rings, necklaces, or anything that may contribute to set them off to advantage. They are not much reserved or confined, and have so much liberty in visiting one another that their husbands often suffer by it; but for this evil there is no remedy, especially when a man marries a princess, or one of the royal family. Besides their clothes, the Abyssins have no movables or furniture of much value, or doth their manner of living admit of them.

One custom of this country deserves to be remarked: when a stranger comes to a village, or to the camp, the people are obliged to entertain him and his company according to his rank. As soon as he enters a house (for they have no inns in this nation), the master informs his neighbours that he hath a guest; immediately they bring in bread and all kinds of provisions; and there is great care taken to provide enough, because, if the guest complains, the town is obliged to pay double the value of what they ought to have furnished. This practice is so well established that a stranger goes into a house of one he never saw with the same familiarity and assurance of welcome as into that of an intimate friend or near relation; a custom very convenient, but which gives encouragement to great numbers of vagabonds throughout the kingdom.

There is no money in Abyssinia, except in the eastern provinces, where they have iron coin: but in the chief provinces all commerce is managed by exchange. Their chief trade consists in provisions, cows, sheep, goats, fowls, pepper, and gold, which is weighed out to the purchaser, and principally in salt, which is properly the money of this country.

When the Abyssins are engaged in a law-suit, the two parties make choice of a judge, and plead their own cause before him; and if they cannot agree in their choice, the governor of the place appoints them one, from whom there lies an appeal to the viceroy and to the Emperor himself. All causes are determined on the spot; no writings are produced. The judge sits down on the ground in the midst of the high road, where all that please may be present: the two persons concerned stand before him, with their friends about them, who serve as their attorneys. The plaintiff speaks first, the defendant answers him; each is permitted to rejoin three or four times, then silence is commanded, and the judge takes the opinions of those that are about him. If the evidence be deemed sufficient, he pronounces sentence, which in some cases is decisive and without appeal. He then takes the criminal into custody till he hath made satisfaction; but if it be a crime punishable with death he is delivered over to the prosecutor, who may put him to death at his own discretion.

They have here a particular way of punishing adultery; a woman convicted of that crime is condemned to forfeit all her fortune, is turned out of her husband's house, in a mean dress, and is forbid ever to enter it again; she has only a needle given her to get her living with. Sometimes her head is shaved, except one lock of hair, which is left her, and even that depends on the will of her husband, who has it likewise in his choice whether he will receive her again or not; if he resolves never to admit her they are both at liberty to marry whom they will. There is another custom amongst them yet more extraordinary, which is, that the wife is punished whenever the husband proves false to the marriage contract; this punishment indeed extends no farther than a pecuniary mulct, and what seems more equitable, the husband is obliged to pay a sum of money to his wife. When the husband prosecutes his wife's gallant, if he can produce any proofs of a criminal conversation, he recovers for damages forty cows, forty horses, and forty suits of clothes, and the same number of other things. If the gallant be unable to pay him, he is committed to prison, and continues there during the husband's pleasure, who, if he sets him at liberty before the whole fine be paid, obliges him to take an oath that he is going to procure the rest, that he may be able to make full satisfaction. Then the criminal orders meat and drink to be brought out, they eat and drink together, he asks a formal pardon, which is not granted at first; however, the husband forgives first one part of the debt, and then another, till at length the whole is remitted.

A husband that doth not like his wife may easily find means to make the marriage void, and, what is worse, may dismiss the second wife with less difficulty than he took her, and return to the first; so that marriages in this country are only for a term of years, and last no longer than both parties are pleased with each other, which is one instance how far distant these people are from the purity of the primitive believers, which they pretend to have preserved with so great strictness. The marriages are in short no more than bargains, made with this proviso, that when any discontent shall arise on either side, they may separate, and marry whom they please, each taking back what they brought with them.

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