Race, Class and Religion

Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Recovering a “Lost” Medieval Africa: Interview with Chapurukha Kusimba, part I


This is Part XIV of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages.

You can find the rest of our special series here.

If I asked you to imagine medieval France, you could likely close your eyes and summon a reasonably detailed image. You could probably do the same for Italy, Spain, or Jerusalem. After reading the other articles in our series, Sicily might not be such a problem, and places like Hungary, Kiev, or Tunisia might even be in your repertoire. And even though they are not typically thought of as “medieval” (as Dr. O’Doherty explained in her “Where were the Middle Ages?”), you might at least have a few details about further flung places like India, China, or Mongolia.

But what about Africa—specifically, sub-Saharan Africa?

The kingdom of Kongo and its leader Mvemba a Nzinga, as represented in Civilization VI. Image courtesy of Brandon S. Pilcher, https://tyrannoninja.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/africa-in-sid-meiers-civilization-series/.

Even as a medievalist, I will confess to drawing a blank. Having played the Civilization series of games, I was familiar with the names Mansa Musa and Mvemba a Nzinga, but knew little else about them, or the rest of the continent and its peoples. And in the absence of knowledge, we begin to fall back on stereotypes—imagining the continent much the same way as the European colonizers did: full of tribal people in thatched huts holding spears.

This is a problem, and a core one for our current exploration of Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages. Even though sub-Saharan Africa is not typically labeled “medieval,” people from sub-Saharan Africa—either travelers or by ancestry—were very much a part of the medieval world. And as we learned from our essays on maps, medieval people—especially Islamic traders—had travelled there.

Much of the lack of popular knowledge is a product of racist, imperialist attitudes towards Africa—even among professional historians. Take, for example, an infamous statement by Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. He stated that Africans have no history because they have no documentary history, and that prior to European colonization, African history was no more than “the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.”

Trevor-Roper opined this in the 1960s. Thankfully, he is continually being proven wrong by the burgeoning fields of African history, anthropology and archaeology. But, as we have explored continually in this series, popular perceptions of the past are often slow to catch up, especially when they are fighting against a racist headwind—one that, in this case, says that Africa is either unknowable, or not worth knowing. This attitude claims that it is, and was, a place without culture, sophistication, or the agency to decide its own fate. But that could not be further from the truth.

Chapurukha Kusimba, Professor of Anthropology at American University.

To begin to correct this, I was fortunate to be able to sit down with Professor Chapurukha Kusimba in his office at American University. Professor Kusimba is an Anthropologist and Archaeologist who specializes in the archaeology and cultures of East Africa. He has done landmark excavations in several sites on the Swahili coast and Madagascar, and the author of over a hundred books and articles, including the landmark The Rise and Fall of Swahili States.

Our conversation ranged widely across the continent, the misperceptions of Africa and Africans, and his life’s work. Below is the first part of our conversation—where Professor Kusimba reveals a medieval world very different from how we are accustomed to viewing it—when Asia, rather than Europe, was the world.

Methodological Racism

Professor Kusimba began by addressing how crucial it is that people study early Africa, as well as and the long-held prejudices that led to ignoring an entire continent:

Professor Kusimba: Without Africa there would be no humanity. Africa is the birthplace; we are all African in a sense. The notion of Africa as a place that lacks agency has been countered by many historians.

TPM: How did this idea that Africa has no agency come to be?

Kusimba: There are Judeo-Christian notions that explain away their agency. On the one hand, you have the “Hobbesian dilemma”: an idea that somehow promoted European exceptionalism vis a vis the ideas for justifying enslavement of African. The big question in our time is how could human beings do this to fellow human beings? I think the discussions of slavery and enslavement, ironically, has focused on only black versus white issues.  In reality Europeans have a long history of enslaving each other!

TPM: If you look at the Roman Empire…

Kusimba: Greeks and later Romans sought slaves in central Europe; Persians too were equal opportunity enslavers. As were Ancient Africans of the Nile Valley. Today, some medieval scholars deny or only grudgingly accept the African identity of Egyptians.  So, the justification of slavery—of Africans arising from their lack of agency and history—is often attributed to the work of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  He saw Africa as a place that really didn’t merit anything worth talking about.

TPM: And as we know, Hegel was massively racist.

Kusimba: I think, for the most part, it was many 18th and 19th century European thinkers. In Africa, often we go back to the late colonial period in the 1960s, to Oxford Regius Professor of History Hugh Trevor-Roper. In writing and thinking about history, historians relied, as many still do, on written documents. With the exception of a few, historians were slow in utilizing anthropological sources in the writing of history. Oral traditions had not yet been incorporated into “history.” So, he rightly, in his time, declared that the only history visible in Africa were European activities. It was a world in which documentary evidence was preciously scarce and historians did not understand those documents written in African languages, like Geez, Hausa, or Swahili.

So, when you think about that period—the 1850s—when Europeans begin to venture into Africa, first as explorers and later as colonizers, there was little documentation. Europeans writing about colonial Africa had to rely on oral texts and, sometimes used Arabic texts where they existed.  But even these texts were equally biased. Like Europeans, Arabs had their own prejudices. For them the world was composed of the people of the book, who included Jews, Christians, and Muslims—and everyone else: Kafirs.

So, Arab writers, even the most liberal of the time, they viewed Africans through their own lens. For example, even an uncritical reading of One Thousand and One Nightsʾalf layla wa-layla, reveals a very racist document.  Because the devil incarnate is usually this black creature; writings about representations of Africa through the Arabian Nights series are equally as racist.

TPM: So the denigration of Africa was pretty universal.

Kusimba: In Swahili, we say “An empty hand, a dry hand cannot be licked” ‘Mkono mtupu haulambwi. That is to say, when one is, poorer one has a lesser network. You are powerless. Everybody will feel they are justified to step on you as they forge ahead.

When Asia was the World

Professor Kusimba and I discussed the way that Western Europe’s central role in the Middle Ages has more to do with later scholars than historical realities. A truly accurate view of the world during the Middle Ages should focus on Asia as the proverbial center of an increasingly globalizing world:

Kusimba: I think many historians and economic historians now characterize the period from the Tang dynasty in the 8th century to the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 16th as the period when Asia was the world. In many ways Asian empires, including the Islamic Caliphates, China, and India, were economically and politically powerful. At the time, the world revolved around them.  Much of the progress we now attribute to the Silk Road—maritime and overland trade—arose there.

That is the time when major transformations in science and technology, in commerce, in standardization of currency, banking, finance, all of these institutions come to bear. And in many of these empires, including the Mughals of India and the Safavids of Persia, had a huge impact in the entire “old-world” political economy. Commerce between the Mediterranean world and Southern Europe, North Africa, East Africa, South Asia, and East Asia was regular—the entire region was completely intertwined. People moved back and forth and settled temporarily—but mostly permanently—wherever their fortunes took them.

One of the major attractions of this period is that these Muslim and Buddhist empires were extremely trader-friendly. And I think that because the Muslim caliphates spread across this entire region, from North Africa, including parts of West Africa, North East Africa, going all the way to Central Asia, this means that as any Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, or even Zoroastrian merchant could travel the length of the world without risking molestation. The rules of doing commerce had become, essentially, standardized. Merchants, whatever their religious affiliations, were welcome in all these lands without risk of being enslaved. And so this 800-year period is when we can rightly talk about a period of early globalization.

TPM: Early globalization.

Kusimba: Exactly, this was the coming together of economic and political elites. There was always a tension among them. But this period is characterized by a rare rapprochement. So archaeologically, when you look at the period between at least 750, up to 1500, or even up to the present, you will recover at these port regions that were part of the Silk Road network–from Guangzhou [Canton] all the way to Mombasa and Zanzibar—find the same artifacts.

TPM: Trading the same things everywhere?

Diffusion map of qingbai-ware [chinese-style pottery] finds in Arabia and East African archaeology. Source: Bing Zhao. 2015. “Chinese-style ceramics in East Africa from the 9th to 16th century: A case of changing value and symbols in the multi-partner global trade.” Afriques 6. Available

Kusimba: The same trade goods; very similar. The same elite tastes, people consuming the same things. I can show you some of the trade ceramics that we find, or Chinese silks, which were the fashion of elite work everywhere.   Indian cloth was bought and sold across the region. As for jewelry, South Asian trade beads were popular from hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari to the elite men and women of Cairo. Beginning in the 1800s and 1900s we find Venetian beads beginning to venture into these markets.  Today, an excavation of a Dutch settlement site in South Africa, a Native American village in New France (Illinois), or colonial fortress in Wisconsin will yield the same Venetian beads. So it speaks to the globalization that has been going on since the eighth century but also speaks to a tide that was turning in Europe’s favor.

In terms of my work, I study the period between the rise of Islam, from the death of Prophet Mohammad, to the European advent, following the Portuguese successful circumnavigation around Africa and in search for direct sea route to India. And then of course, Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

And so on the one hand, during the Tang Dynasty a unified imperial China rose to become a superpower. China’s investment—both imperial as well as private—in major industrial complexes resulted in their monopoly of probably 80% of the world’s demand of porcelain and silk.  At the same time, we also see major investments in institutions of learning, the rise of Universities.  People went to China, Baghdad, Isfahan, Cairo, Toledo, and so on for further education, as they do today in America.  They studied many disciplines, from medicine, to mathematics, geometry, calligraphy, commerce, poetry and so on.

TPM: And you see this much more in China than in Europe?

Kusimba: Much more in China. You see the rise of Universities in Baghdad, In Damascus, Aleppo, many of these places. You see the development of what I call “Think Tanks”, much like the Brookings Institute that we see today. These think tanks were incredible because they attracted and welcomed diverse scholars who were united by their love of knowledge. At these universities, you would find Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist students and faculty. They were all there, meeting and discussing the major topics of their time and writing about them.  All this was supported and financed by the state. Some of the best poetry, developments in geometry, discoveries in medicine, investment in ceramic production were invented at this time.  The father of modern medicine, Ibn Sina, an Uzbekistani, is from this period. So were poets like Rumi. Leo Africanus and Ibn Khaldun’s writings, among other scholars of the time, have left us rich archives to excavate.

TPM: Do you see these advances in your work?

We are now doing these elemental analyses of the ceramics that we get. And we know that these guys are thinking about ways to improve their products.  These advances were not accidental. They arose from the deep desire to know and willingness of the state and economic elite to invest in scientific exploration. You can imagine that there is a huge kiln, supported and financed by the state. But you can also visualize chemists who are carrying out experiments and ensuring that they finesse the processes of making pottery. You can see these developments being made.

TPM: These research institutes, where did they exist? What were the names of the most well-known, prodigious, famous ones?

Kusimba: If you look at Isfahan [ed., in modern day Iran], Aleppo, Baghdad, Basra, and of course Alexandria, Cairo. There are all these centers of learning, from Mumbai to Spain, and many of these places, that are developing. And, in West Africa, you have Timbuktu. And then you have Buddhist Confucian schools, some of those Universities develop as temples. So many of these scholars moved from temple to temple, from mosque to mosque to learn.  There was a huge network of scholars along with the vast networks of merchants. But there is a real belief in literacy. For Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists scholars, literacy was really a thing. They loved knowledge. And although many of the scholars were armchair scholars, they collaborated with merchants. They would ask them to bring back seeds of different plants from different parts of the world so they could experiment with them.

TPM: That’s fascinating.

Kusimba: But why is this important? This is important because even as archaeologists digging about in these remote places that no one has ever hard off or cares to know, it is really important that we engage with the writings of these early scholars. Because without engaging with the writings of these early scholars, we soon run into the same inventions and biases that we criticized.

Next week, I continue the interview where he reveals the Africa he knows—not lost in the mists, but powerful, sophisticated, and intimately connected with the rest of the world.

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Race, Class and ReligionRace, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Feeling ‘British’


This is Part XIII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Eric Weiskott.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

A lot of the excellent new work that has been done on race and racism in the Middle Ages—both in this series and also within academia—focuses either on telling the stories of people of color in the Middle Ages, or understanding how the racial categorizations of people of color came to be. But whiteness, as a racial category, was also under construction during this period. In medieval Britain, there was a centuries-long dispute over who had the right to feel British.

Over the course of the Middle Ages, ‘Britishness’—the right to claim British identity—became racial property. I call this racial identity a ‘property’ (an idea I’m taking from Cheryl I. Harris) to emphasize its status as an object of political power. Like real estate, Britishness in the Middle Ages became a thing to be owned. And it had value. By appropriating the anti-imperialist ideas of the very peoples they had subjugated, English writers represented themselves as the heroes of their political history.

One way to see how this worked is to notice who claimed the identity, and who was barred from claiming it. Celtic-language speakers on the island (i.e., the pre-Roman peoples of the island, including the Scots and Welsh) were the original target of the label ‘British,’ but these people were pushed aside as the English took it for themselves. Britishness didn’t include Jews, who lived as a religious and ethnic minority in medieval England until their expulsion by royal decree in 1290. It didn’t include Africans, either, whose presence in England in small numbers is attested from Roman times and especially toward the end of the Middle Ages as the trade routes connecting Europe and Africa grew more numerous and more heavily trafficked. Feeling British was not an experience available to everyone.

Postcolonial Britain

Perhaps paradoxically, for all of its recorded history, the island of Great Britain has been a postcolonial space. The Romans invaded in the first century CE. The Angles, Saxons, and other continental West-Germanic-speaking peoples did in the fifth century, the Vikings in the ninth through eleventh centuries, and the Normans in 1066. Over this time, the terms Briton and British acquired two different meanings. These terms could refer to:

  1. indigenous Celtic-speaking peoples as opposed to the descendants of continental invaders, or
  2. all the (white) inhabitants of the island.
Kingdoms of Great Britain, circa 600 CE.

The difference mattered politically, in terms of governance and land ownership. As a result, the word British became an ideological battleground in medieval genres of writing as disparate as historiography, prophecy, and romance. Writing in medieval Britain spanned multiple languages, including Latin, Norman French, Old and Middle English, Welsh, and Old Norse. This essay emphasizes the Middle English language, in which the concept of Britishness realized its full force as a political weapon.

For modern people, the very term British conceals the multiethnic and postcolonial reality of life in Britain, both medieval and contemporary. It implies that the people who inhabit, and inhabited, Great Britain are one monolithic people—or that the identity can be claimed by one group.

For centuries after their arrival, the Anglo-Saxons and the native Celtic speakers lived interspersed among several relatively independent kingdoms. (The precise number of kingdoms is debatable and changed over time.) Speakers of different languages intermingled, though many Celtic speakers retreated westward, to present-day Wales, in response to the Anglo-Saxon settlements. Later, multiple kingdoms merged into a new polity known as England (Old English Englaland ‘land of the English’), centered in the south. At that time, the term English (OE englisc) could be contrasted with British (OE bryttisc). The word British, derived from Latin, referred exclusively to Celtic speakers on the island and in Brittany in present-day France.

Remembering the Britons

The publication of a new history would soon change that. In the 1120s or 1130s, half a century after the Norman Conquest of England and Wales, a Welsh cleric named Geoffrey (now commonly known as Geoffrey of Monmouth) published a chronicle in Latin called History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Brittaniae). Geoffrey’s work narrates some of the major episodes in British history, from the arrival of the legendary Brutus of Troy (allegedly after the destruction of Troy in around 1200 BCE) to the reign of the seventh-century CE Welsh king Cadwallader. It is also the first work to connect King Arthur and Merlin, who had previously been characters in their own, separate, stories. History of the Kings of Britain concerns British history before and after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, and it adopts the political perspective of the indigenous peoples. Its core message is that the English have dispossessed the Britons, and the Britons must await the return of Arthur to regain political control of the island. Arthur is king of the Britons, not the English.

Yet the political situation in Geoffrey’s Britain was far more fluid than ‘British vs. English.’ A covert purpose of Geoffrey’s book was to empower the Norman aristocracy in Britain to speak with authority about politics on the island. Geoffrey chose to write in Latin, the most prestigious language known to him, rather than in English, French, or Welsh.

But to use Geoffrey’s book as political ammunition, one had to ‘become’ British. So, this is exactly what both the English- and French-speaking elites began to do. In this way, Geoffrey gave later writers a vocabulary for negotiating the relationship between ethnicity and authority.

Seeing and Making the Future

King Vortigern and the Prophet Merlin | Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 476, 2v

Geoffrey didn’t just engage in history, he also engaged in prophecy. Book seven of the History of the Kings of Britain includes The Prophecies of Merlin (Prophetiae Merlini). In this book, Merlin tells the future of the Saxon (i.e., English) and British (i.e., Celtic-speaking) peoples at the request of King Vortigern. The juxtaposition of history and prophecy—since an apparently historical figure is, in this case, telling the future—may seem strange, but it was widespread in the Middle Ages. History and prophecy were often two sides of the same coin.

Subsequent English political prophecies—yes, this was a fairly common genre—drew heavily on Geoffrey’s History in order to define Britishness and to position the English as victims. For example, an anonymous fifteenth-century genealogical scroll now held at the British Library ends with a prose passage. In it, an angel prophetically admonishes Cadwallader, the last ‘British’ king. The passage derives from the conclusion of Geoffrey’s History. In Middle English, it reads, in part:

Thow ner non of thyn herys of thy blode shal not inherete this lande ageyn vnto the tyme that tho pepyl. that inhabyde it be funde in the same synnys. that thou and thyne ar drewyn out for at this tyme. […] And than shal be a fynal distructione of the Saxonnes and Normans and of al other strangeres of this lande.

(Neither you nor any of the heirs of your blood shall inherit this land again until the time that the people who inhabit it are caught in the same sins for which you and yours are driven out at this time. […] And then there shall be a final destruction of the Saxons and Normans and of all other strangers in this country.)

As you might expect, prophecy is never really about the future. It is about what happened in the past and what should be done in the present. Behind the address to an ancient British king is an Englishman speaking to other Englishmen. The rest of the manuscript is in Latin, the language of history, law, and the church. This more intimate and literary passage appears in English. In a turn toward the extreme—at least from a modern perspective—the text looks forward to the genocide (“fynal distructione”) “of the Saxonnes and Normans.”

Geneological Rondel for King Arthur | Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole Rolls 26

In the British Library scroll one can see how history writing was used to reinterpret a racial/ethnic category for a specific political purpose. The scroll was created in the 1460s, during the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, and is a work of propaganda meant to bolster the claim to the throne of the Yorkist Edward IV. The English writer casts himself, and his English audience, as spiritual descendants of Cadwallader and the Britons; he equates an anti-Saxon stance with a pro-Yorkist one. Such an equation is a flat contradiction in modern ethnic terms, but it made sense in the context of fifteenth-century politics and history writing.

Once it had been translated from Latin and Welsh into English, political prophecy served new political ends. For English readers, prophecy relocated strife between actually existing British peoples onto the distant past. Though they were relative newcomers, the English used prophecy to imagine themselves as natives rather than “strangeres of this lande.” To make room for the English, the actual indigenous (Celtic-speaking) peoples had to recede to the background of politics.

Britishness and Romance

Romance was the most popular literary genre in medieval England, so it was a natural place for English writers to explore what it meant to be British. The Brut, written in the late twelfth century, is arguably the earliest known romance in English. It is a translation of a translation: an English adaptation of a French version of Geoffrey’s Latin History. The Brut reimagines British history as an adventure story, complete with glittering battle scenes and epic speeches. Under the guidance of the author (known in the text only as “Lawman”), King Arthur comes into his own as a legendary hero—no longer a pseudo-historical figure, but the adventurous leader we know today.

Lawman sometimes uses the term Briton (Early Middle English Brutte) in the older sense, to mean ‘speaker of a Celtic language.’ At other times he uses the word in the newer sense, to mean ‘(white) inhabitant of Britain.’ An example of the newer sense is a moment in the King Arthur section when Lawman equates the Bruttes who hope for the return of Arthur and the Anglen (‘English’) whom Arthur will lead in a rebellion against Norman oppressors. In this text, both the word British and the word English have become something like racial designations, over and above linguistic difference in Lawman’s Britain.

British vs. English

The Daily Mail, the UK’s most popular right-wing tabloid engages in subtle and not-so-subtle racist dogwhistling that contributes to current debates on whether ‘British’ means ‘white.’

In historiography, prophecy, and romance, Britishness became a cudgel for enforcing a new sense of (racial) belonging. That sense of belonging, of feeling British, was linked with the claims that England and the English made over the entire island of Britain (and, in fact, beyond it—to Ireland and France).

In claiming Britishness, the English set the stage for the modern nationalism that enabled the British Empire, and created ambiguity between the Modern English terms English and British. Welsh people today are unlikely to say British when they mean English, or vice versa, but English-speaking residents of England are prone to this political/semantic slippage.

In the twenty-first century, conflict over whether British continues to mean ‘white’ has surged in the news and in national politics. Far-right nationalists, such as members of Britain First, oppose a racially diverse UK and seek to recover a precolonial, monocultural imaginary status quo. As we have seen, in the recorded history of Britain, no such status quo ever existed. Since the time of the earliest written texts, Britain has always been multicultural. The racialized difference between medieval and modern immigrants—say, Vikings vs. Pakistanis—is due, in part, to medieval battles over Britishness.

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Miraculous Bleach and Giant Feet: Were Medieval People Racist? II

01 Cosmographia

This is Part XII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Dr. Dark Age.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

This bizarre image is from a 1544 book called the Cosmographia, a catalogue of peoples of the earth. The Cosmographia itself, though slightly post-medieval, is based on the medieval pseudo-travelogue Mandeville’s Travels. Though it presents itself as a true account, modern readers know that Mandeville’s Travels is completely invented. But Mandeville’s book was quite influential in medieval times and for centuries afterward: Christopher Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh are said to have consulted Mandeville before their colonial explorations. Mandeville’s messages about the earth’s different people—particularly the earth’s different races—thus may have played a role in the centuries of conquest, slavery, and discrimination that would follow the Middle Ages.

The races Mandeville says he encountered are rather unconventional. Take the Ethiopian “sciapod,” the man with the huge foot in the image above. His foot is large, according to Mandeville, so he can shield himself from the hot African sun. And standing to his left, hanging out between a Cyclops and a dog-headed man, is the “Indian” Blemmyae: a man with a face in his chest—because he has no head. Mandeville tells us his condition is a curse from God, possibly for cannibalism.

Clearly, Mandeville had distressing ideas about what foreign bodies looked like. Perhaps even more disturbing were his ideas about why they looked that way. Obviously, he never actually encountered the strange races he imagined, but like many medieval people, Mandeville believed that a body’s external appearance revealed a person’s internal qualities. The foreign bodies he imagined took shape based on this fantasy.

Medieval people believed that bodies were fraught with meaning, and not just foreign bodies. An external change in appearance could be evidence of an internal emotional or religious condition. If a knight lost his color, for instance, he was usually diagnosed with lovesickness. But there are less benign examples. Leprosy was sometimes considered a physical manifestation of sin devouring the body, which led to the social ostracizing and abuse of its victims.

The Asgard alien “Thor” from the Stargate TV series looks very much like a prototypical “grey” alien.

Before we get ahead of ourselves and decide humanity abandoned this kind of ignorant thinking when we discovered that the earth revolved around the sun, consider the way a lot of modern science fiction imagines aliens. From Whitley Streiber’s Communion and Stargate’s Asgard to Men in Black and even the “alien” emoji, we expect people from outer space to have enormous heads and eyes, but no body hair. Ostensibly, their large heads represent their greater intelligence. Their lack of hair may connote their disconnection from what we consider to be our own lowly ‘animal’ natures and the great heights of civilization these aliens have obtained.

In other words, both now and in the Middle Ages, the body is not just a biological machine or a shell for a soul. Some people imagine that it functions as a prophetic tome, an external text we think we can “read” to determine a person’s internal characteristics. This notion that bodies can be interpreted to learn about geography, culture, illness, or sin form the foundation of the complicated medieval concept of race. And some of its most problematic features are still with us today.

Racism’s Childhood

Until recently, many scholars considered the Middle Ages innocent of racism. They claimed that the origins of modern-day racism lay in the Renaissance, when Europe launched the transatlantic slave trade. Any comparison between medieval and modern ideas about race risked charges of “presentism”: superimposing contemporary values inappropriately onto the past. Yet although medieval ideas about race, bodies, and color differ from our own, difference is not the same thing as disconnection. Rather, as the late Italian scholar Umberto Eco has argued, “looking at the Middle Ages means looking at our infancy, in the same way that a doctor, to understand our present state of health, asks us about our childhood.” And as it turns out, looking at the Middle Ages can teach us a lot about both our deeply ingrained ideas about bodies and the racism that we are still confronted with today.

An apt example lies in one of the most perplexing moments in the medieval understanding of bodies. The Middle English poem The King of Tars, (which Rachel Moss has recently written about very poignantly), features a Muslim Sultan who converts to Christianity. At the moment of his conversion, the angels don’t sing. There’s no applause. Lightening doesn’t strike a mosque or anything. Instead, something even more bizarre happens: when he converts, the sultan turns from black to white.

Worse yet is the poem’s depiction of an interracial child. Before his conversion, the Sultan has a son with his Christian wife. But that child is born a shapeless lump of flesh with no bones. As soon as the child is baptized as a Christian, however, it instantly transforms into an beautiful, healthy infant. Apparently some white medieval poets, like some contemporary politicians, had issues with “somebody else’s babies.”

Mapping Race

So what does the sciapod pictured above—the original Bigfoot, so to speak—have to do with the color-coded conversion of the Sultan and his child? The answer is complicated. When we look for the historical roots of complex ideas, thinking in linear terms can be inexact, at best. Instead, I like to think of historical concepts as a web. If you begin to trace one of the strands, you’ll often find that it’s inextricable from a veritable tangle of other strands.

Julius Caesar.

For instance, one foundation of the medieval conception of race is “geographical determinism,” an idea that Paul and I have discussed in earlier posts. Geographical determinism is the theory that different environmental conditions—like proximity to the sun, access to water, and weather—create different human bodies and minds. This is the same convenient theory Julius Caesar employed to argue that Rome had the perfect conditions for human flourishing. The ancient Roman claim to environmental perfection was obviously not ideologically neutral: it led to a skewed view that saw that the rest of the world as somehow flawed.

Consider classical descriptions of Ethiopians. Ancient Greeks and Romans used the term “Ethiopian” to incorrectly conflate the residents of sub-Egyptian Africa. The word comes from the Greek Aethiops, which may have meant “sunburnt,” “fiery-looking,” or more literally, “burnt face.” The geographically-based designation “Ethiopian,” then, carries an implication of African Otherness, because of its companion assumption that the “unburnt” face is, presumably, just a face.

But while we might find a thread that leads to anti-African discrimination in some ancient etymologies, we cannot yet explain the hierarchy of whiteness that feeds contemporary racism. After all, the ancients themselves were darker than the whiter northern Europeans, whom the Romans considered strong and spirited, but not particularly bright. Instead, we have to trace this thread forward in time, and further north.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, 1485

Medieval clerics, who often relied upon Roman texts, adopted their tendency to paint all of Africa with the broad Ethiopian brush. Their geographical determinism was also equally biased, just in a more northerly direction.  Bartholomeus Anglicus, a thirteenth-century Franciscan monk, posited that the men of Africa were “burnt” by their proximity to sun. Bartholomeus argued that this gave them dark skin and curly hair, but because Bartholomeus also thought that courage could leak out of a man’s pores when he sweat, he claimed that Africans would be “cowards.” By contrast, men of the north (like Bartholomaeus himself, by eye-rollingly happy coincidence) were lucky enough to live in cold weather that “stoppeth the pores” and kept the people “bolde and hardy.” Albertus Magnus, his thirteenth-century contemporary, argued that Indians were bound to be good at magic and mathematics because a little heat could make a person smarter—but he declared that Ethiopians would be incapable of such things because they are exposed to too much heat.

At this point, it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish geographical determinism from “ordinary” racism. Still, there is one thing Albertus believed that we do not: over the course of generations, he argued, people with black skin who were relocated to a cold climate would eventually turn white. To medieval Europeans, as Paul has pointed out, skin color was a changeable trait, not a permanent marker. And so we have another ingredient in our Sultanic conversion stew—that in the medieval mind, skin color can change with the weather.

Still, medieval climate change cannot fully explain the deeply problematic portrayal of the Sultan and his son in King of Tars. First of all, when the Sultan turns white, he’s still on his home turf. Second of all, his conversion is instantaneous, miraculous. We must consider, then, another crucial ingredient of his conversion, which is that the poet thought the Sultan’s formerly black body might be caused by his Muslim faith.

Seeing the Light?

Unraveling this thread gets us closer to the roots of the dichotomy between blackness and whiteness. Taken literally, the dichotomy is very strange: what made white people decide that they were white, as opposed to, say, beige? The privileging of whiteness, as scholars who dare to delve into medieval prejudice have discovered, may be the result of theological hierarchy. The color white was often used as a metaphor for spiritual purity; by the same token, some medieval writers used the color black to symbolize spiritual darkness.

Writers like the twelfth-century poet Chrétien de Troyes use blackness as a symbol of demonic nature: Chrétien’s Percival features a magical maiden who rides up on a mule, bearing a fierce-looking whip, who curses the hero. The narrator tells us, “You’ve never seen iron as black as her neck and hands.” This damsel’s exaggerated color is meant to imply her demonic origins: the narrator goes on to compare her to creatures who live in the bowels of hell. Likewise, when his hero Yvain rescues a group of ladies who are being held prisoner and forced to sew clothing continuously, their captors are described as the sons of a demon who are “black and hideous.”

Whiteness, on the other hand, is used to connote beauty or spiritual purity. Romance heroines such as Chrétien’s Enide and Fenice are described as “fairer and whiter than the Lily-flower” with bosoms “whiter than the new-fallen snow.” (This depiction also marks class distinction, which I will address below.)  And as Paul notes, in the German romance Parzival, Fierefiz’s mother demonstrates her devotion to her black-and-white child’s Christian father by constantly kissing his white spots.

Some believe that these imagined connections between skin color and faith began during the Crusades. The Northern European crusaders found that the Jews and Muslims they encountered in the south had darker skin, and thus, they may have begun to associate this visible difference with a “stain” on their enemies’ souls. As a result, geographical determinism became inextricably entangled with religious thought.

White Gold

There is a final thread we need to consider, and this is the way medieval Europeans thought about class. Nobility was considered a God-given gift that gave aristocrats the right to rule. In medieval romance, class, like ethnicity and faith, can also be read on the body. Darker skin was sometimes considered a symbol of a lower class station, partly because of the hierarchy of whiteness, and partly for more practical reasons: nobles did not have to labor outdoors. Thus the heroine of the thirteenth-century romance Silence, a noblewoman masquerading as both a minstrel and a man, must stain her glistening white skin with dye so that she will not reveal herself as royalty.

So now we have a fuller picture of what on earth the author of The King of Tars was thinking when he transformed his Sultan from black to white. But it isn’t a pretty picture at all. The Sultan’s white skin is a marker of his internal ‘purification.’ This medieval poet believed that a person’s faith in the Christian God could help him transcend “limitations” of biology or birth. At the same time, conversion is also the force that colonizes both his black body and the Islamic world, erasing faith and their culture. The Sultan’s body becomes metaphorical ground for the pre-colonial fantasies of northern Europe.

Leaving Infancy Behind

Despite the fact that medieval ideas about race and bodies are not the same as modern ones, some of our worst stereotypes about the meaning of bodies and skin color began to take shape in the medieval past. And in the Renaissance, this confluence of ideas about race, geography, and faith led to the horrifying conclusion that the children of Africa carried the “curse of Ham” and were therefore destined to be enslaved. Even in today’s supposedly ‘enlightened’ scientific age we persist in looking for physical evidence of the condition of someone’s soul and of their supposedly “natural” capabilities and inclinations. As advances in genetic research lead to casual metaphors about who does or doesn’t have democracy “in their DNA,” we must take care not to return to turning bodies into texts that we think we can read.

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Where do the “White Middle Ages” come from?

The Pilgrimage to Canterbury 1806-7 by Thomas Stothard 1755-1834

This is Part XI of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Dr. Helen Young. Her book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, is available from Amazon and direct from Routledge.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

As this series has been exploring, the idea of a “white, racially pure Middle Ages” has been used for political ends by right-wing extremists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But it is not only extremists who believe in it. There is evidence to show that many (perhaps most) people get their ideas about the Middle Ages from popular culture rather than from school or books written by scholars – and popular cultural re-imaginings of the European Middle Ages almost exclusively feature characters who are white. Even in fantasy versions of the past like Game of Thrones or the Dragon Age video game series, the idea that there were no people of colour in Europe during the Middle Ages is used to explain away a lack of diverse representation.

But where does this notion come from? Where are those images of the medieval past from in the first place? How did the idea of the Middle Ages become so entangled with the idea of a white race? To answer this we need to look back to the era when our current ideas about race and about Middle Ages developed: the eighteenth century.

Making “Race”

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), one of the founding fathers of biology, and of scientific racism.

As Paul Sturtevant explored in “Is Race Real?”, the idea of “race” is a cultural invention which developed over time and which therefore has a history. Most contemporary histories of the concept of race, and of specific racial identities like “whiteness”, tend to focus on the intellectual circles and key thinkers where important developments originated.

The idea of a “white” race emerged during the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Carl Linnaeus first categorised humans into races in 1738 in his highly influential Systema Naturae, which sought to classify the entire natural world. By the tenth edition in 1758, he had expanded his original brief descriptions to include physical and sociological descriptions. Homo europaeus, as he called Europeans, were white-skinned, with societies organised by the rule of law. In the second half of the eighteenth-century his ideas were well-known, and arguments raged in the public sphere about the causes of the differences—both physical and cultural—across the spectrum of humanity.

It is probably not surprising that all the European thinkers who took part in these debates always placed themselves at the pinnacle of racial hierarchies.

Making “Race” Popular

Despite being disproven by at least sixty years of modern science, the power of race and racism have not been broken. Important social theorists of race, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, argue that intellectual and conceptual debates about race often have “dramatic” consequences that impact whole societies. It is therefore vital that we understand how the ideas of race and white superiority became wide-spread among everyday people.

Oliver Goldsmith, who is probably now best remembered as the author of the popular novel The Vicar of Wakefield, was just one of the figures who contributed to making whiteness popular in Britain and its former colonies with his A History of Earth and Animated Nature (1774). His work was a translation and adaptation of Linnaeus and other early biologists.

Goldsmith was not as convinced that races were as fundamentally different as many of his contemporaries. But he was still very clear that Europeans were supreme among humanity. He wrote:

They [those variations] are actual marks of degeneracy in the human form; and we may consider the European figure and colour as standards to which to refer all other varieties.

He also wrote that whiteness was the best skin tone in terms of beauty and its ability to show emotion, and that Europeans resembled God more closely than other people.

An image from the 1822 printing of Goldsmith’s A History of Earth and Animated Nature (vol II, p. 76), showing his typology of races.

Although Goldsmith was mostly translating others’ work and did not add much to others’ ideas about race, he is an important figure because he made those ideas accessible to a wide audience. A History of Earth and Animated Nature was one of many publications that helped popularise biological writings of and the idea of race. It was reprinted in 1790, and at least six times in the nineteenth century in the UK and in America. In one American edition the chapter on race was moved to the beginning of the volume. The publisher likely thought it was particularly important.

Hannah Arendt has argued that race, in English thought, “was born of the desire to extend the benefits of noble standards to all classes.” Democracy, liberty and equality were important political ideas in the eighteenth century as emblematized in the French and American Revolutions. Race allowed Europeans—and European settlers in America and elsewhere—to create a new system of hierarchies and see themselves as collectively superior.

Once “race” was popularised and adopted by western society, white people had a whole system of science justifying the idea that they were racially superior. This was a crucial moment as a powerful ideological and political tool was built into new national economies and global trade through systems like slavery, and white dispossession of indigenous peoples in settler colonies, and the plunder of resources from around the world by European powers.

Making “Race” Medieval

But what does all this have to do with the Middle Ages? The eighteenth-century idea that humanity was divided into separate racial groups with distinct physical, cultural and social features inherited from—and shared with—their ancestors meant that history had to be reassessed. European nations needed to create new stories about their national origins that worked within a racial framework.

Classical Greece and Rome had been viewed as the height of human achievement and civilisation. Powerful nations like England and France which could not trace their racial descent back to those places needed a new source for identity. They found it in the Middle Ages, among the very peoples who had, according to the thought of the day, destroyed Rome. We have never completely let go of the idea that the Middle Ages were barbaric, but since the 1760s western nations found things to take pride (often undeservedly) in the medieval period as well. Racial origins are among them.

There were hierarchies within the hierarchy that placed whites at the global peak of humanity. European nations vied with each other to expand their empires around the world, and argued over racial divisions within the broader category of homo europaeus as they looked to racial origins for justifications of the success and failure of their nations and their rivals’. It was in the debates about which nations shared a common ancestry and whose ancestors were superior that much of the intellectual and cultural work that went into creating modern concepts of whiteness was done.

Making “Race” Linguistic

Studies of the history of languages (philology) caused people who had not thought of themselves as being linked to other nations to begin to see kinships across national boundaries. Despite being inherently cultural, language thus became a marker of racial connection.

One of the results of the interest language as a marker of racial connection was a growing interest in the Middle Ages. Medieval manuscripts were often the oldest written records of a language and could serve as evidence in those debates. The medieval period was also the source of the earliest historical writings about, for example, English people by English people.

Most of the white-washing of the Middle Ages was done in those debates which focused within Europe rather than in writings about races on a global scale, at least it the early stages. An example is in the publications of Goldsmith’s close friend Thomas Percy. Percy believed very strongly that the English, the Scandinavians, and the Germans were descended from the same “Gothic” race, while the Irish, Scots, and French (among others) were descended from a “Celtic” race.

This image is from page xxiv of Percy’s 1770 Northern Antiquities. It shows his vision of the branches of Gothic language in the style of a family tree.

Although he is not much remembered now, his studies of the Middle Ages were very widely read and influential at the time. The first Five Pieces of Runic Verse Translated from the Islandic Language (1763) made strong claims about the close relationships of English, Scandinavian and Germany based mostly on language.

His best-known publication was the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) a three-volume collection of (purportedly) medieval ballads. Most were early modern not medieval as he claimed, and many were very heavily re-written by Percy to make them more appealing to his readers. Each volume contained a framing essay which presented its contents as the cultural heritage of the English race. Some of his theories were challenged but the volume was so popular that he was able to argue back in second edition in 1767. In that revised version he aimed to show that the Saxons, Vikings, and Normans were all ‘Gothic’ peoples, which meant that the modern English could think of themselves as racially pure.

Percy’s final medievalist publication was Northern Antiquities (1770) a translation of the work of Paul-Henri Mallet who had conflated the Celts and Goths (also called Teutons or Germanic people) in widely-read history of Denmark. Percy began his translation in the early 1760s and from that time was committed to showing the Goths and Celts were different races. In a letter in 1764 he wrote that Mallet’s was “a mistake which I shall endeavour to rectify in my translation.”  When his translation was eventually published he included many notes and an entire Preface dedicated to showing that they were racially different, drawing on historical, linguistic, and scientific discourses to support his claim.

All three of his medievalist publications aimed to make contemporary readers see themselves as connected to the Middle Ages because of racial descent. The examples of medieval poetry they contained gave readers something tangible to connect the idea of race and identity to.

Making “Race” Popular Cultural

Reliques was so popular that four editions were produced in Percy’s lifetime. The massively influential author Sir Walter Scott (of Ivanhoe and Waverly fame) called them “beloved volumes.” Under its influence the vastly popular English Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge rejected the elaborate forms and style of the eighteenth century for a simpler, ostensibly medieval, aesthetic. Key figures of the German Romantic movement were inspired by his ideas including Johann Gottfried von Herder, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the brothers Grimm—whose fairy tale collection was ultimately modelled on Percy’s ballad anthology.

The Reliques was re-printed throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. They were printed in cheap mass-market editions, in luxury versions, and even in editions aimed at children. A nineteenth-century edition praised Percy for having “pointed out the essential difference between the Celtic and Teutonic races.”

Percy invested a decades’ worth of work in trying to show that those races were different, pointing to the Middle Ages as his the ultimate source of evidence. Percy engaged in what Omi and Winant call “making up people” and his publications presented (pseudo)medieval material as objects of national and “racial” pride for his English readers. In many ways, they reshaped English identity around a framework of race and medievalism. Other writers and antiquarians across Europe followed his model, either directly inspired by reading his public

Siege of Acre, by Dominique Papety (c. 1840). Art depicting the Crusades, such as this, became popular in the 19th century, and was steeped in racist imagery.

ations, or indirectly through the ideas of others. And thus, the Middle Ages were tied to the European concept of white racial identity.

But Percy and Goldsmith are just two of the hundreds of thinkers and authors who contributed to connecting whiteness to the Middle Ages.

The 1760s marked the beginning of an explosion of medievalism across Europe. Architecture, the arts, and literature took a medievalist turn. These medievalisms were often driven by, or at least participated in, ethno-nationalist ways of thinking.

Once the idea of race was widely accepted, European Middle Ages needed to be understood as ‘whites only’ territory for those ‘races’ to have the ‘pure’ origin they needed.  In fictional versions of the Middle Ages like Sir Walter Scott’s novels, people of colour only appear rarely. They are enemies and potential invaders in crusader tales, but are not part of the medieval Christian white societies of Europe.

The race-based nationalism of Scott and his literary descendants (J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, and many others) both relied on and helped create medieval Europe as the crucible of white European nations. As I argue in my recent book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, the genre conventions created in the early years of mass popular culture have shaped western popular- cultural versions of the Middle Ages ever since.

Making “Race” Academic

It was not just fictional versions of the Middle Ages that worked to make them ‘whites only’ spaces in the modern imagination. Not only have academic disciplines  been twisted to racial ends (as James M. Harland wrote earlier in this series); in the case of language studies, academic disciplines were founded on ideas about race.

In the eighteenth century there were no English departments in universities. Amateur antiquarianism like Percy’s became an academic discipline in the nineteenth century. There is a racial dimension to the way they were structured, and how many remain structured today. When I began graduate studies in an English department it taught Old Norse and Old English (Germanic languages) alongside Middle English and literature, and of course modern literature. Old French was not taught—despite the profound influence of French on modern English which resulted from the Norman Conquest. Medieval Spanish, or Middle Arabic were not. Many departments are organized this way in the English-speaking world.

This reaches back to the philological theories like Percy’s which presented Old Norse as the cultural property of English speakers because of an imaginary shared Gothic racial ancestry. French and Spanish, from another family of languages (Romance), was not. Arabic certainly was not. The idea that English literature is separate to the literature of other languages as as field of study goes back to the race-based ideas that underpinned philology.

The Celts, Goths, and other peoples of Europe could collectively be thought of (by those invested in racial paradigms) as homo europaeus because they had a shared, unique Middle Ages. In order for their race to be distinct, their history needed to be made distinct. So, those features of the medieval period that we think of as distinctive and definitive (knights, castles, feudalism, etc.) were not thought to be found in the histories of cultures outside Europe. Any similar features that were found in other cultures were actively ignored or dismissed. This meant that for centuries ‘medieval’ was made to mean ‘white’.

Undoing the Damage

Idris Elba as Norse God Heimdall in the Thor series of films. Elba’s casting initially caused consternation among racists online.

The white-washing of the Middle Ages is now being challenged in popular culture and by scholars. Actors of colour are now sometimes cast in medievalist roles such as Angle Coulby as Gwen (Guinevere) in the TV show Merlin, and Idria Elba as the Norse God Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor movies. The “People of Colour in European Art History” tumblr seeks to break down the idea that ‘historically accurate’ means ‘whites only’ in representations of the Middle Ages. Scholars are exploring the Global Middle Ages in research and teaching. The legacies of linguistic ideas of race are losing power because of new approaches to multilingualism and national borders.

We have to continue this work, and demand that scholars and pop-culture creators offer us new visions of the Middle Ages that are not mired in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racist thought. The Middle Ages were made white in the eighteenth century, but they do not have to stay that way.

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The Poet of the Mediterranean: Ibn Hamdis


This is Part X of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Luca Asmonti.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

In 1059, Pope Nicholas II did something a bit odd: he crowned Robert Guiscard, a Northern French adventurer of Norse extraction, Count of Sicily, Apulia, and Calabria. However, Sicily was, at that time, under Arab control. It had been for over two centuries. The laborious process of conquest of the island by the Normans took almost thirty years; Palermo fell in 1072, as Trapani did in 1077, and Syracuse in 1086. The last Sicilian city to capitulate to the Normans was Noto; by 1089, the history of Siqilliyat—the Arabic word for Arab-ruled Sicily—had come to an end.

Sicily was under Arabic control for more than two centuries. At the height of Arabic Sicily in the early ninth century, Palermo was a prosperous city of about 100,000 souls, and the ruling emir maintained an elegant and learned court. By the end of Siqilliyat, Palermo became known as the city of five hundred mosques, and the Arabs had introduced cotton and citrus to the island. For those who enjoy Limoncello, you can thank the Arab rulers of Sicily.

The legacy of Arab rule would shape the island’s culture and identity for much longer than those two hundred. But, somewhat like ancient Sparta, Arabic Sicily appears like a ‘mirage’ which we can only see through the eyes of others—be they the Norman conquerors, or the diasporic daughters and sons of Siqilliyat who left after it had fallen into the hands of the Northern invaders.

The most famous of the wandering sons of Siqilliyat is the poet Ibn Hamdis. Ibn Hamdis is a man whose gorgeous, heartbreaking poetry has resonated throughout the ages, and stands as among the greatest poetry of his, or any, age. And more, his poetry resonates in distinct harmony with other poets of the Mediterranean, revealing to us a world far more linked than we have been led to believe.

A Poet of Exile

Ibn Hamdis was born either in Syracuse or Noto around 1055, a scion of an important house of the southeastern region of Sicily known as the Val di Noto. When he was still in his early twenties, Ibn Hamdis decided to leave Sicily with his wife, seeking a career as a court poet—particularly as a panegyrist, one who specializes in eulogies.

In Seville, Spain, he was welcomed at the court of the Abbadid prince Muhammad al-Muʿtamid, a man celebrated for his magnanimity and literary proclivities. But when Seville was taken by the Almoravids in 1091, Ibn Hamdis migrated to Africa. He then spent time at the Zirid court of Mahdiya, in present-day Tunisia, in Bijaya, the seat of the Algerian house of the Hammadids, and in Aghmat, Morocco. In the final years of his life, Ibn Hamdis lived in Majorca, where he died around 1133.

The main themes of the Diwan—the poetic corpus of work—of Ibn Hamdis are the virtues of his patrons and, most importantly, of Sicily: the lost glory of Muslim Siqilliyat and the joyful world of the poet’s youth.

In the following verses, the poet mourns the past valour of his homeland, remembering the glory days of the Muslim conquest:

Oh, Sicily! Destiny has deceived her

and she had protected the people of her time


How many are the eyes made sleepless by fear

that had been lulled to sleep by safety?


I see my nation—the Christians have imposed disgrace upon it

when once its glory was firmly established by my people


And the nation of infidels was once clothed in fear of her,

but now she is clad in the armor of fear of them


I no longer see the Arab lions among them

and in their hands you would see the unbelievers become prey


Oh my eye, you have not seen their like—squadrons

of war heroes in battle trampling their enemy.


How many a shining sword! You imagine them

radiant shooting stars in the thick of the night


Standing out among the sword-edges of the armored warriors

he cuts the helmets from the horsemen


I never imagined that the heat of fire might cool

when it falls upon the palm leaves in the arid heat of summer.

But Siqilliyat was not just the terrain for fierce battles. The island nostalgically remembered by Ibn Hamdis was also a veritable Paradise.

I remember Sicily, as agony

Stirs in my soul remembrances of her.


An abode for the pleasures of my youth, now vacated,

Once inhabited by the noblest of people.


For I have been banished from Paradise,

And I [long to] tell you its story.


Were it not for the saltiness of tears

I would imagine my tears as rivers.


I laughed at twenty out of youthful passion;

Now I cry at sixty for her crimes.


Do not exacerbate my faults on your own account,

Since God never ceases to forgive them.

The theme of al-hanın ila lawtan, nostalgia for one’s homeland, was a typical theme in pre-Islamic poetic style qasida (‘odes’). This was part of a wider repertoire of traditional motifs, themes, and images, which constituted the toolkit of the professional panegyrist of the Arabic Middle Ages. In this case, the poet is not mourning a lost person, but a lost place and time.

A Poet of a Changing World

Certainly, the Sicily described by the poet featured a number of stylized elements which were first and foremost intended to satisfy the literary fantasies of his audience. The eleventh century was a difficult one for many Muslim empires, as power shifted and fragmented. The literary echoes of the golden Age of Arabic culture and power was consoling and validating for many who found themselves within a world in conflict.

That being said, Ibn Hamdis’ meditations on war, nostalgia and exile, as well as on his own personal experiences, places him within a broader Mediterranean poetic tradition.

The central themes of Ibn Hamdis’ verses—war and nostalgia—are also the key ideas which inspired Homer’s, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Even more intriguingly, the literary persona of Ibn Hamdis, who defines himself by the woes of exile, and the longing for a homeland which has lost its power and dignity—bears extraordinary resemblances with some of great lyric poets of ancient Greece.

Take Theognis of Megara (from the sixth century BC). He also was a member of his city’s aristocracy, who also had to endure the humiliation of exile, and of a wandering life far from home. He wrote:

I have heard the shrill voice of the bird, son of Polypaus, which is come to tell mankind to plough in season; and it hath smitten my heart black to think that others possess my flowery fields, nor for me do the mules draw the yoke of the plough, by reason of this most hateful voyage.

Like the verses of Ibn Hamdis, Theognis’ art intertwines the passions and sorrows of exile with those of waning youth, and impending old age:

Love himself riseth in due season, when the earth swelleth and bloweth with the flowers of Spring; ay, then cometh Love from Cyprus’ beauteous isle with joy for man throughout the world.

A Poet of The Sicilian Heart

Mediterranean poets also had a distinctive way of writing about the finer things in life. Some of the most distinctive elements of Mediterranean culture are two environments: the banquet and the garden. These spaces were devoted to what the Romans called otium: leisure time devoted to conversation, friendship, and self-improvement.

In the Palatine Chapel of Palermo, there is an extraordinary example of this. The vaulted ceiling of this twelfth-century Norman Chapel was made in an Arabic style—a muqarnasthat is better seen than described:

The magnificent painted muqarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily.
Another view of the magnificent muqarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel, in Palermo, Sicily.
A detail of the magnificent muqarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily.
Arabic-styled figures enjoying wine in a detail from the muqarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily.

Painted onto this muqarnas are powerful images of this enchanted world of otium. Each tiny niche in the ceiling is populated by hunting princes, singing bards and, believe it or not, wine-drinking revelers. For wine is the flavor and essence of this refined Mediterranean world, as Ibn Hamdis knew very well:

A youth who has studied wine until he knows

The prime of the wines, and their vintage


He counts for any kind of wine you wish

Its age, and he knows the wine merchant.

Expanding on this, in a famous essay published in 1969, “Sicilia e sicilitudine” (“Sicily and Sicilitude”), Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia described the unique abilities of the best Sicilian authors. They are able to observe and describe the life of their homeland with such vigour and intensity that their stories become immediately relevant to a universal audience.

An arabic-styled woman musician, depicted in the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily.

Strategically placed at the heart of the Mediterranean, the history and identity of Sicily were defined by this centrality. The island thus attracted the appetites of ambitious outside powers, leaving it vulnerable and uncertain, as successive waves of foreign masters came and went. This was never as true as it was during the Middle Ages. And, this is why in order to understand the richness and complexity of those centuries, there is arguably no better place to start than Sicily. Ibn Hamdis, the Arabic poet who loved wine and the pleasures of life, is the perfect product of that land rich of surprises and contradictions.

A Poet of the Mediterranean

Thus, to fully appreciate the importance of Ibn Hamdis, we should change our perspective; we should see him as a Mediterranean poet rather than an Arabic one.  Adopting this Mediterranean perspective is essential—it dismantles the myth of the “Whites only” medieval world, and better captures the true complexity of those crucial centuries.

Reading Ibn Hamdis is important. It helps us to challenge the dominant view of the Mediterranean Sea as a spatial boundary between a North and a South, and between development and backwardness. It challenges the idea of the Middle Ages as a temporal hiatus between the classical age and the time of its rediscovery. Ibn Hamdis shows us the bonds among the cultures of the Mediterranean. He shows us the unity of a world which we tend to fragment with superimposed notions of North and South, East and West, Muslim and Christian.

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Finding Islamic Culture in a Christian Space


This is Part IX of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Dr. Clare Vernon.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

This is the medieval church of St Nicholas, in the city of Bari in Southern Italy, which was built in the eleventh century to house the bones of St Nicholas (aka Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus).  From the outside, it looks exactly how you would expect a medieval church to look, right?  It looks old and Christian, and perhaps quintessentially European.  But inside, we find intriguing evidence showing how medieval culture was not exclusively Christian or European.

Discovering Islamic Culture in Christian Space

The Bishop’s throne at the Church of St. Nicholas, Bari, Italy. Photo by the Author.

Here is the most sacred part of the church: the area behind the main altar, where we find Bishop’s throne. The seat, as you can see, is held up by three men of different ethnicities.

The two men at the corners are modelled on ancient Roman images of slaves; they are wearing loincloths and grimacing under the weight of their marble, and Episcopal, burden.  They depict people of two different ethnicities: one has hair that coils into tight ringlets, and the other has hair that is coarse and wavy.  Between them, a third figure somewhat nonchalantly helps to support the Bishop’s seat.  Thanks to historian Rowan Dorin’s excellent research on how this figure is dressed, we know that he is a Muslim (the hat in particular is a dead giveaway).  Not only that, but the style of this sculpture is very similar to contemporary Islamic sculpture from Egypt. If we zoom out and look at the surroundings of the throne, we can see further evidence of Muslim culture.  The magnificent floor on which the throne stands is made up of small pieces of multi-coloured stone tessellated to form shapes and patterns.

Detail of the Bishop's throne showing men of several religions and ethnicities supporting the Bishop.
Detail of the Bishop’s throne showing men of several religions and ethnicities supporting the Bishop. Photo by the author.

Running along the wall behind the throne is a band of mosaic decoration made up of repeated Arabic letters. Perhaps this is not what you expected to see in a medieval church.


Mosaic with Arabic lettering, in the Church of St. Nicholas, Bari, Italy. Photo by the author.
Mosaic with Arabic lettering, in the Church of St. Nicholas, Bari, Italy. Photo by the author.

So how did Islamic culture find its way into this Christian space? And how would it have been perceived by the medieval people who built the church and worshipped within it?

Southern Italy and Diversity in the Mediterranean

Today, the Mediterranean Sea is encircled by nations predominantly made up of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The current refugee crisis is a poignant illustration of how navigable—if treacherous—the sea is, and how connected the people who live on its shores can be.  In that respect, things were no different a thousand years ago (or indeed two thousand or five thousand years ago).  For a better understanding of this, let’s look in a bit more detail at the south of Italy at the time the church of St Nicholas was built.

In the early Middle Ages (roughly from the sixth to the eleventh century), the city of Bari and the surrounding area was ruled, at different times, by Muslims, Orthodox/Greek Christians and Catholic/Latin Christians. For about twenty years in the ninth century the city was under Muslim rule: a congregational mosque was built, and the Christian population lived under Islamic law. Later, the city was conquered by the Holy Roman Emperor Louis II and reverted to Christian rule.  For the rest of the Middle Ages, the region oscillated between being governed by representatives of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople (who were Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christians) and local Italian princes (Catholic Lombards originally from what is now northern Italy, who used Latin as their written and sacred language).  In the eleventh century, when the church of St Nicholas was built, the whole of southern Italy was conquered by Normans, who had arrived from northern France.

Throughout this period, the city of Bari had grown rich and famous through commerce. Businessmen from Bari travelled the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. Mainly they travelled to ports in the south and east of the Mediterranean, where they traded with Muslim and Byzantine merchants. They sold Italian staple products, such as timber, olive oil and wine, and purchased sought-after luxuries such as silk, spices, gold and ivory. Returning home, they sold these for significant profits, and then repeated the process.  As a consequence of all this repeated conquest and continuing trade, the city had a diverse population.  The majority of the citizens were Latin Catholics and Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, as well as significant communities of Armenians and Jews. There may have also been a small, stable, community of Muslims in the city but there isn’t enough evidence for us to be sure.

Certainly, the merchants of Bari would have been on familiar terms with their Muslim business partners and with Islamic art. Exchange and dialogue with the Muslim world was crucial to the economic prosperity of the city.  The Arabic mosaic pavement in the church of St Nicholas was probably made by Christian artists copying from an object made in another part of the Mediterranean by Muslim artists—probably a textile or a piece of metalwork or ivory.

What is ‘European Culture’?

This is a tiny snapshot of the many thousands of interactions that took place between Muslim and Christian people in the Middle Ages.  In the first few months of 2017, bringing Islamic culture into Christian sacred space has been both topical and controversial.  In January, a Qur’an recitation in Glasgow cathedral sparked hostility. In February, an exhibition in Gloucester cathedral, which explores different faiths was vandalised. Last week, Channel 4 News broadcasted a piece on the neo-fascist self-styled “alt-right” in the UK. One of the participants stated that her objections to immigration stemmed from her belief that, “European culture [is] being snowed under”.

The sacred space in Bari, and other medieval churches, reminds us that when we hear statements such as these we need to question them, and push back against their assumptions and implications.  There is an underlying assumption in that statement that “European culture” is a homogenous, static and monolithic entity, and another that European culture can be diluted (or perhaps polluted?) by sustained contact with people who are thought to be part of a different culture. In reality, when we study the history of European culture, it reveals to us that Europe and its many cultures have been woven over centuries from thousands of diverse threads. It has never been a homogenous entity with clearly defined boundaries, and it never will be.

Further Reading

If you’d like to learn more about diversity in medieval Mediterranean art, these are some good places to start.

  1. Diversity by design’, Apollo: The International Art Magazine, June 2016, Volume CLXXXIII, No. 643, pp. 80–85.
  2. Museum With No Frontiers.
  3. Qantara.

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Race, Class and ReligionRace, Racism, and the Middle Ages

A Wonder of the Multicultural Medieval World: The Tabula Rogeriana


This is Part VIII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

Relevant xkcd. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of www.xkcd.com/977

Everyone loves maps (or at least they should!). Most of us at least appreciate them for what they do (thank you, Google Maps, blessed among apps, for helping me get to work this morning). But you have to admit, from the humblest world map hanging in an elementary school classroom to the intricate and bizarre Waterman Butterfly, maps are not just functional. They help us better understand our world, inspire us to look beyond our limitations, and see ourselves as part of something bigger.

To be a good cartographer, especially in the eras before aerial photography and GPS, you had to be a mathematician, a geographer, and an artist rolled into one. One of the greatest mapmakers of all time added to that list scholar, traveller, and, in a manner of speaking, journalist. He was a Muslim. He was a refugee. And he was a genius. His work went unequalled for the better part of three hundred years. His full name was Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Idris al-‘Ala bi-Amr Alla. But we know him, simply, as al-Idrisi. His magnum opus is a book of maps called the Tabula Rogeriana or—as it is in Arabic, the Kitab Rujjar. He made it in Sicily in the twelfth century, and it depicts the world from Iceland to China, and many, many places in-between.

A Man on the Edge(s)

Al-Idrisi always seemed to live at the intersection of worlds. He was born at the turn of the 12th century (ca 1100 CE) in the North African city of Sabta (now Ceuta, Spain), right along the coasts of the straits of Gibraltar that divide Africa and Europe. He was then educated in Córdoba, the heart of Islamic Spain, and subsequently traveled extensively through North Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe—including trips through Christian Spain, France, and England.

But al-Idrisi had enemies due to his birthright. He had been born into the house of the nobles of the city of Málaga (in the map below, to the upper right). These nobles had a claim on the Caliphate that had, at least until recently, ruled the entirety of Muslim Spain.  But the Caliphate had collapsed into infighting. Thus, al-Idrisi’s very existence as an heir to the Caliphate brought along with it some very powerful enemies in a country rocked by civil war.

Al-Idrisi found refuge in the court of Roger II, the greatest of the Norman kings of Sicily. Rewinding just a bit, in the two hundred years prior to al-Idrisi’s birth, Danish and Norse armies invaded and conquered the North of France. There, they quickly set up colonies that mixed the local population with settlers from their homelands and drew immigrants from the Danelaw (Danish-controlled North England). But these colonies quickly adopted local customs and languages, and, for all intents and purposes, integrated into the local populations.  Thus, the Normans came into being—their name not taken from their origins in the North of France, but from places far north of that.

These Normans were clearly adept at conquest, and so, over the hundred years prior to al-Idrisi’s birth, they managed to sail from northern France, through the Mediterranean, to conquer the southern half of Italy. And thus, we are given a Sicilian King with French-Norse ancestry and the unlikely name of ‘Roger’, ruling over a kingdom largely populated with Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Arabs.

Thus—returning to al-Idrisi, when he came to the court of Roger II, he found himself somewhere extraordinary. Sicily was (and remains) sandwiched between the Latin-Christian world to the north and west, the Byzantine-Greek world to the north and east, and the Muslim world to the south. It is at the periphery of each, which places it at the very center of all. Norman Sicily was a vibrant hub of trade, travel, and commerce, and Roger II was wise enough to encourage this through a policy of religious tolerance that encouraged multicultural exchange—both literal and metaphorical.

Scholars disagree on Roger’s exact motivation for inviting al-Idrisi to his court; he may have initially simply wanted another bargaining chip in his efforts to gain control over more Muslim-held territory. But Roger quickly learned that al-Idrisi was no mere bargaining chip, but a man of extraordinary abilities. Roger commissioned al-Idrisi to create maps for him of the entire known world.

Making a World

Setting to work, al-Idrisi consulted all the books and travel reports he could find, synthesizing knowledge from Arabic, Latin and Classical sources on the subject. He extensively interviewed the travelers and traders who came to the island about the places they had come from and the places they had seen.

Al-Idrisi’s work fundamentally reveals the amount of cooperation and collaboration between people of different faiths, colors, and cultures present even in the twelfth century. Al-Idrisi reported the stories of people who had been to China, and which city produced the best silks (apparently, Quanzhou). He reported a tantalizing tale of a group of Muslim explorers who, blown vastly off-course, may have found themselves in the Americas, and who struggled to return (though from their confused reports they could have been several other places in the Atlantic). He met Norse traders who told him of the Northern Island colonies (Iceland or Greenland), and Africans who helped him map both the east and west coasts of that continent.

And though his maps were flat, he was very well aware that the Earth was a sphere, and calculated its circumference to within 10% of its real size.

Roger asked al-Idrisi to inscribe this map of the world onto a huge six-foot disc of solid silver to be displayed in his court. This, apparently, was accomplished—but as you might expect of a giant piece of precious metal, it did not survive the centuries. What we do have of al-Idrisi’s extraordinary works are several books of regional maps—Atlases—and extensive geographical commentaries in both Latin and Arabic. Scholars have subsequently combined these regional maps into a grand map of the world, seen here (click the image for an ultra-high resolution version).

The Tabula Rogeriana of al-Idrisi. Modern copy, with the complete world reassembled by modern scholars from the individual pages of al-Idrisi’s atlas.

For those unaccustomed to medieval maps (and even some who are), it may look a bit odd. On the left edge (west) you see the Iberian peninsula where it reaches towards North Africa; the Italian peninsula is to its right, on its side. Each brown dot represents a city; Italy and Sicily are covered in them. It is clear that this is a sea trading map, intimately familiar with, and interested in, cities along the coast. Great Britain is, perhaps appropriately, shaped a bit like a teapot above France at the top—you can see “Londra” labelled if you look carefully.

But as you look east, that is where things get interesting. The Persian Gulf is depicted, as is Sri Lanka and India. A staggering number of cities are labeled in central Asia, as are several islands off the Southeast Asian coasts. While the shapes may be distorted, this is not a mapmaker living in a particularly “dark” age.

…’Cause It’s Freaking Me Out

For those of you who are fans of The West Wing, there is a fun extra wrinkle. In Season 2, Episode 16 of the show, White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg meets with the fictitious group “Cartographers for Social Equality”, who explain to her that the commonly known Mercator projection world map is both vastly inaccurate and reflective of imperialist values.

C.J.’s world is turned upside down when they show her how the world she has been shown on maps is not the world as it is. This is only exacerbated when the cartographers show her, in a piece de resistance, a map with south at the top; her worldview is literally turned upside-down.

The Cartographers for Social Equality would have been very pleased with al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana, not just because it was a work of extraordinary ability that reflected an encompassing worldview. They would have also appreciated it because al-Idrisi oriented all of his maps in that book, too, with South at the top. Thus, the proper way to view his work is like this.

The Tabula Rogeriana, right-side up. See the original at the Library of Congress website.

A Wonder of the World

As we have discussed in three of the previous articles in this series, the white supremacist viewpoint argues—even requires—that the greatest works of humankind were, and are, produced by white people. And more, their views insist that multiculturalism has a debasing effect on a people, and that immigrants and refugees are a drain on society. Al-Idrisi’s map is a work of genius that was wrought not just within a multicultural society, but as a direct product of multiculturalism. It is one of the wonders of the multicultural world.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Where were the Middle Ages?


This is Part VII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Marianne O’Doherty. You can buy her award-winning book The Indies and the Medieval West: Thought, Report, Imagination at Amazon.com or from Brepols Publishers.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

The image conjured up in your mind by the term ‘Middle Ages’ is probably determined by where you were born, were educated, and live. If you are English, you likely think of the English Middle Ages; if you are French, likely the French version (and so forth). Paul Sturtevant’s research has explored the ways many young people from the US and UK intuitively think of the Middle Ages. Largely, they see it, at its broadest, as a western European phenomenon—and some even as a time period that only ever happened in England. Hollywood films and other fictional medievalisms (both historical and fantastical) in the Anglo-American world nurtures this belief, with endless iterations of the medieval set in the English landscape. But if you grew up in France, visiting Carcassone (or playing Carcassone) you would certainly think of the Middle Ages as continental European. If you grew up in Eastern Europe, your mental image of the period might well have been shaped by the art and architecture of Prague’s Golden Age under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles/Karel IV. And so on.

The global dominance of Anglo-American film, television, and historical-fantasy fiction might be homogenizing these multiple Middle Ages. But the fact remains that the Middle Ages were multiple. To some extent, they still are perceived differently depending on where you are standing. This means that you cannot necessarily designate all sorts of moments and phenomena across the globe ‘medieval’ as long as they happened around the same time. Which brings us to a question that my husband asked me when he saw the title of this piece:

Don’t You Mean “When Were the Middle Ages?” …or, “What Were the Middle Ages?”

The temporal idea of the Middle Ages is connected to geography in a fundamental (if awkward) way. The Middle Ages is a relative term, not an absolute one. This period is conventionally placed between two other (perceived) eras; the beginning of the Middle Ages is at the end of Antiquity, which is conventionally, if arbitrarily, marked by the sack of Rome in 410 and the subsequent fall of the Western Roman Empire. The end of the Middle Ages is bookended by a European renaissance that thought of itself as returning to classical ideals.

Interior of the Church of St Denis, Paris. Generally acknowledged to be the first Gothic building (dedicated 1144).

Renaissance thinkers first coined an idea of a ‘Middle Age’, and defined themselves against their medieval forebears. But from very early on, this way of looking at the past was given not just temporal boundaries, but spatial and racial ones as well. For example, Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 work Lives of the Artists characterised renaissance visual aesthetics as an Italian, specifically Florentine, phenomenon. Vasari contrasted these aesthetics with what he saw as the grotesquery of much post-Roman, pre-Renaissance art and architecture. Many of his strongest criticisms were reserved for what he called German style, a style he called “monstruous and barbaric,” in which elements “lack” order so completely “that it would be better called disorder or confusion.”

The origins of the German style were, in Vasari’s mind, Northern European. Their presence in his homeland represented alien intrusion to the Italian urban landscapes in which they had been offensively placed. He felt that those responsible for them were of another race: the gotti–the Goths.

Vasari’s history of architectural aesthetics is total nonsense. But it is fascinating nonsense, and defined many of our ideas about the Middle Ages. Vasari conflated together the standard late-medieval architectural style (that, thanks to Vasari, we now know as Gothic) with a specific gens (a tribe or race), the Goths. By doing so, he created a non-logical but powerfully emotive connection between this style and the gens responsible for the sack of Rome in 410. All sorts of implicit consequences flow from this emotive connection: the medieval is foreign; to exile the medieval is not just to become modern, but to return to our true selves.

So, in a sense, we might say that if ‘the Middle Ages’ did end up being associated more strongly with Northern Europe (broadly understood) than other places, that might be because renaissance thinkers put them there—and later people believed them. It turns out that muddling up space with time is an old habit, as is racializing thinking about temporal difference and attributing aspects of our own culture that we don’t like to other peoples, who, we then insist, rightfully belong to those other spaces and other times.

Drawing the Borders of the Middle Ages

Since we inherit our understanding of what—and where—the Middle Ages were from renaissance thinkers, what they thought matters. This is because, knowingly or otherwise, we have inherited some of their preconceptions and prejudices. The first of these is that the end of the Western Roman Empire is an epoch-defining event. But what are the implications of this for using the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’ to talk about the people and places that come after that (maybe) epoch-defining event? Should we apply the terms only to places which were, at some point, conquered by the Empire?

The Western Roman Empire at its greatest extent ca. AD 395.

Certainly not, since that would mean we would not be able to talk about ‘medieval Ireland’ at all—even when discussing its conquest and colonisation by ‘medieval England’. And what would we say about areas at some point under the control Eastern Roman Empire, which endured until 1453 as what we know as the Byzantine Empire?

In practice, scholars tend to use the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’ more as time-concepts than space-concepts. We tend to use the term to talk about a period broadly between 400 and 1500 AD. At the same time, we avoid talking too much about the problem that this produces: assuming that a supposedly epoch-defining event in Western Europe has equivalent significance elsewhere.

Across much of Europe, the period of the fall of the Western Roman Empire can very broadly be associated with some significant social and political changes. Similarly, around 1500, major cultural, theological, technological, and political upheavals (the reformation, the popularisation of print, encounters in the Americas) can, rightly or wrongly, be used as markers of significant change. But none of these matter at all in China, Japan, Ethiopia, Tabriz, Samarkand, Delhi, or the Americas.

This leads those historians (such as myself) who work on cultural interactions in particular into a difficult double-bind. We might like to think of ourselves as inclusive. We like to consider these other places to be part of ‘the medieval world’ or a ‘global Middle Ages’. But we need to be alert to the non-medievalness of such places in their own terms. Attempting to draw the whole world, and all of its peoples, into one’s own flawed historical periodization system is massively arrogant. 

Let’s Go to the Map

Final plate of the Catalan Atlas, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Espagnol 30. The image shows the Antichrist deceiving the people with false Miracles and, in the far North East, Isaiah’s prophecy.

So, we’ve opened our eyes to a wider temporal and geographical world in which the ‘medieval’ sits. But where does this alertness take us? To my mind, it opens up a couple of important questions.

  1. What did that wider world look like to medieval travellers who went to all sorts of places and interacted with all sorts of peoples?
  2. How did these interactions disrupt medieval people’s sense of their spatial and temporal space in the world? And,
  3. How do they disrupt our spatial and temporal sense of the Middle Ages?

First, we need to recognise that medieval peoples’ senses of their own space and time was different to our sense (whatever that sense is) of the Middle Ages. But, like the renaissance thinking that came after it, much medieval thought divided the world up into ages, and related these to particular historical moments and places.

For example, for much of the later Middle Ages, people across Europe considered their own moment to be nearing the ‘end.’ There were, though, many different ways of thinking about this. The German chronicler Otto of Freising, writing in the heartlands of the twelfth-century Holy Roman Empire, divided the world up into a sequence of Empires. He considered himself to be living in the final days of the Roman Empire (about 700 years after historians today date the end of the Empire), which was the last of these. For Otto, the Empire had gradually moved from the East westward to the German lands, where, declining and debased, it would eventually be succeeded by the coming of the Antichrist and the end of the world.

Later in the Middle Ages, the Franciscan and Dominican monastic orders created missionary orders which sought to spread Christianity to far-flung places. At the same time, there was significant Latin Christian missionary activity in Asia. As a result of both, medieval people began looking at medieval Europe’s place in time and space quite differently.

The Catalan Atlas, probably produced by the Majorcan-Jewish mapmaker Cresques Abraham in 1375, shows a much more up-to-date vision of the world than the vast majority of surviving world maps produced before it (for an amazing exception, see the works of Arab cartographer and geographer al-Idrisi, produced for the Court of Roger II of Sicily). The Catalan Atlas also seems to suggest that the world was heading towards an end. The Antichrist, whose arrival, according to the Book of Revelation, will usher in the second coming of Christ and the last judgement, is shown deceiving the faithful with false miracles. A legend at the very edge of the depicted world, in the far north east, predicts the conversion of all the world’s peoples to Christianity before the end comes.

According to the Prophet Isiah “I shall send those who are saved to the peoples of the sea, to Africa and Lydia” and “I will send to the isles far off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles.” What we see here is a belief that the whole world, as far as the seas beyond China, is moving steadily towards a form of universal Christian empire. Once that is achieved, the multiple lands, islands and peoples that the Atlas represents will all belong to one world, and the end of the world can begin.

Imposing Yourself on the World, and Vice Versa

Like the renaissance thinkers that followed them, and like scholars today, then, medieval people tried to impose order upon the temporally and geographically disparate worlds around them. But travelling in that wider world, encountering and interacting with the real humans inhabiting it, had a tendency to disrupt these orderly visions of time and space—in particular the notion that the whole world was on a trajectory towards universal Christendom. When Popes Innocent IV and Louis IX sent envoys to the Mongol Khans in the thirteenth century, they discovered that these Eastern rulers, believing in their own ‘divine mandate to conquer the world’ expected the submission of the West.

Fantasies of the westwards movement of Empire across the world—where world dominance was thought to have begun in the East, then moved to Rome, then Byzantium, then Western Europe—were bluntly challenged by Venetian traveller Marco Polo in the 1290s. It was very clear to Polo that the Mongol Khan Kublai was not only the greatest emperor of the world at that time, but the greatest lord that the world had ever known. After travelling in the Indian Ocean in the early fourteenth century, Dominican missionary William Adam recognised the daunting scale of the task before those trying to convert all the peoples of the world in preparation for its end: “we, who are the true Christians, are not the tenth, no, not the twentieth of all men” (quoted in Larner, Marco Polo and the discovery of the World, p. 121).

The ‘ruc’ in an early sixteenth-century manuscript of Marco Polo. Marco describes the bird as like a giant eagle, large enough to pick up an elephant. However, he also calls it a ‘grifon’, and it is here pictured as a gryphon: part bird, part lion. Bibliothèque de lArsenal, Ms-5219, fol. 152v.

Attention to interactions across the world in the period we call the Middle Ages also disrupts scholars of the Middle Ages; it does—and should—make us all uncomfortable about the assumptions that underlie our understandings of the Middle Ages and scholarly terminology. For example, I am a scholar of texts and maps that witness cultural contact— from Marco Polo’s Divisament dou Monde (Description of the World), to Franciscan and Dominican missionary narratives, to maps like the Catalan Atlas shown here. I have lost count of the number of times it has become necessary to reach across religious traditions, languages, and cultures to understand something about a text.

Fabulous creatures such as Marco Polo’s ruc, or gryphon, a giant bird that he locates on Madagascar, belong to Arabic travellers tales and fables, from which they pass into many traditions, including the European. Sharon Kinoshita has argued that we should see Marco’s Book, which we tend to think of as European, as much a product of a Mongol literary culture as medieval European.

And then there is the almost incredible story of Pietro Rombulo of Messina, an Italian who spent most of his life in Ethiopia in the early fifteenth century, a period that one scholar has dubbed the Ethiopian Age of exploration. Rombulo spent more than a decade in the diplomatic service of the great Ethiopian king Zara Yaqob. He travelled widely in the Ethiopian’s service—seeking alliances for the kings of India, Sri Lanka, and China. Rombulo finally returned to Sicily in 1450 as Zara Yaqub’s ambassador to King Alfonso of Sicily and Aragon. Pietro’s story, captured almost accidentally in the chronicle of a humanist scholar whom he met in Naples and then buried for over four hundred years in his unread work, reminds us how much we don’t know. It shows how much has been lost of the contacts and exchanges between Western European lands and wider worlds between 500 and 1500. But it also reminds us that those white, European, Middle Ages that still often seem so central in scholarship and in popular culture are on the periphery of other important and wonderful stories.

Does the Medieval World Have Borders?

The uncomfortable truth is that, as a place-concept that involves both space and time, the ‘medieval world’ doesn’t have borders that can be drawn on a modern map. However, we can be certain that the medieval world is not a mono-cultural, white space; far from it. In the world I study, the post-Roman, Islamic regions of the Middle East and North Africa belong to the same networks of material and cultural exchange as Al-Andalus and Christian Spain, as France, Italy, England and Ireland, Greece, and so on. When medieval people viewed their world, they envisaged it as stretching from the ‘land of Darkness’ (as Marco Polo calls it) of northern Asia, to Madagascar and Sumatra in the south, and as far east as Japan. Our horizons, when we think about the Middle Ages, need to stretch across these distances and cultures too.

Continue to Part VIII: A Wonder Of The Multicultural Medieval World: The Tabula Rogeriana

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Race, Class and ReligionRace, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Were Medieval People Racist?


This is Part VI of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages.

Go back to the beginning of the series here.

Dr. Dark Age’s previous article in this series, A Brief History of a Terrible Idea: The “Dark Enlightenment”, briefly touched upon a tricky question: were medieval people racist?

For those familiar with some of the more horrible parts of the Middle Ages, such as the mass murders and expulsions of the Jews, the Crusades, or the wars in the Baltics, the answer might seem obvious: of course they were. And these well-known events corroborate a commonly held misconception about medieval people: that they were, at their core, worse people than we are. Heaping racism onto the other false idiocies and barbarities that are too-often part of today’s definition of the “medieval” is not that far of an intellectual leap. The Middle Ages are used, as Eric Weiskott put it, as “the negative mirror image of secularist modernity.”

But the truth is, as always, more complicated. As it turns out, medieval people’s ideas about what “race” actually means are quite different from our contemporary ideas about race. As I discussed last week, “race” is a concept that is entirely invented and socially constructed. Therefore it is unsurprising that medieval ideas about race could be fundamentally different to our own.

As an example of how complicated and strange medieval views on race could be, let’s focus on a text notorious for its complex and contradictory portrayal of race: the story of Percival. The two best-known medieval versions of the story are the 12th century French version, Perceval, the Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes, and the 13th century German version, Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Both of these stories tackle regionalism, hybridity, and racial and religious conflict in surprisingly different ways, considering their subject matter is, at its core, the same. But first, a little background on race in the medieval mind.

The Chicken and Egg Problem of Medieval Racism

Until recently, medievalists were reluctant to use modern terms like “racism” to discuss medieval texts at all for a variety of reasons. First of all, the word “race” did not exist for the majority of the Middle Ages. As the OED explains, “race” was first used with this meaning in English in 1547 (just after the end of the Middle Ages) and similar words in French, Spanish and Portuguese only arose about hundred years prior.

Secondly, the words they did use, like the Latin “gens”, “natio”, and “populus” (all meaning, roughly, “people”) bore a few interesting quirks. As Robert Bartlett explains:

For the majority of medieval writers, ethnicity was defined by and manifested in culture as much as, or more than, descent. The classic and much quoted definition of Regino of Prum (d. 915) asserts that ‘the various nations differ in descent, customs, language, and law’ […] Of the four criteria listed here, only one is biological.

Bartlett unintentionally makes an important point: racial and racist stereotypes—even ostensibly positive ones (such as “Asians are good at math”)—by definition, conflate and confuse biology and culture. As discussed in Part IV of this series, this is the defining problem of race and racism—the misattribution of cultural observations (or vile prejudices) to biological realities.

But despite the similarities in the way these racial constructs conflate biology and culture, the categories the medieval West used to define other people were far more complicated, and far more flexible, than our own.

Medieval writers who used terms like “gens”, “natio”, and “populus” also conflated biology and culture far more finely than people who discuss “race” today. For example, Bartlett cites 14th-century Scottish chronicler John of Fordun, who saw the Scottish Highlanders and Lowlanders as two different “gens.” And in typical racist fashion, Fordun assigns attributes to each of them:

The race of the sea coasts is domesticated, civilized, faithful, patient, cultivated, decently dressed, refined and peaceable, devout in church worship, yet always ready to withstand any harm done by its enemies. The island or mountain race, however, is wild, untamed, primitive, intractable, inclined to plunder, leisure-loving, quick to learn, skilful, handsome in appearance but vilely dressed, and continually fiercely opposed to the English people and language, but also to their own nation, on account of the difference of language.

Even more interestingly, many medieval writers seemed to think that a race’s characteristics could change over time. This could happen by that group either relocating to a different place (since both skin color and other racial attributes were thought to be a byproduct of climate and location), or seemingly for no reason at all.

This flies in the face of contemporary racist ideas; contemporary racists base their claims on the idea that racial characteristics are both inherent and eternal—that groups are good or bad inherently because they always have been. Many medieval people seem not to have thought this way at all.

Blood is as Thick as Gold

A people apart? A depiction of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. British Library Royal MS 18 E I f.175.

Some medieval writers loaded their idea of race with aspects that today we might call intersectionality. For example, the medieval aristocratic class often viewed themselves as a breed apart from the people they ruled—believing they had more in common (due to shared bloodlines and status) with aristocrats in other kingdoms than the people of their own. This took on a shared identity, to which the nobility assigned traits that suited their purposes: knights were not only better warriors—inherently—than their peers, but they were also better looking. King Arthur is, of course, the best-known example of how a medieval man supposedly carried nobility, and with it special power, in his blood.

This is reflected in the Percival story. Percival was raised in the Welsh wilderness, but despite his humble upbringings, he is immediately recognized as one of their own by other knights. The reason is because he is just so very, very pretty:

The warriors eyed him closely. God’s skill lay in his creation, they saw […] no man’s appearance had ever turned out better since Adam’s time. Because of this his praise ranged far and wide in women’s mouths.

When he arrives at Arthur’s court for the first time,

They marked his complexion. That indeed was self-evident–never was lovelier fruit sired nor ladied. God was in a sweet mood for breeding when he wrought Parzival, who feared few terrors.

The knights of the court sometimes mock him for his backwardness, but they recognize him as one of their own by his skills in battle and his unparalleled beauty.

Descendants of this medieval idea of fine-grained race have been deployed in some of our most enduring popular culture, where special powers are passed through special families. The superpower-giving mutations of the X-Men are a classic example, which is why the comics and films often grapple allegorically with racial issues. The force-wielding power of Jedi Knights—midi-chlorian nonsense notwithstanding—is also passed within families. The question of Rey’s parentage that has consumed Star Wars fans since episode VII’s release has focused exclusively on Jedi. The Harry Potter series refreshingly breaks this paradigm, not just by introducing “muggle-born” wizards, but by framing one of its anti-racist narratives as pitting those who promote fine-grained bloodline racism versus those who are accepting of “muggle-born” and “half-blood” wizards.

Writing Racism

Racist discourses, where writers casually remark upon the positive or negative stereotypes of large groups of people—and where “race” and “culture” blend and are interchangeable—can be found commonly. But that is not to say that every medieval person, and that every medieval society, was uniformly racist; there is a silver lining to be found. In fact, it is relatively easy to find egalitarian portrayals of people of other races across medieval art and literature.

For example, the German version of the story, Parzifal, is broadly a reinterpretation of the story as it had been told by Chrétien, but interestingly, Wolfram’s German version includes a prequel that tells the story of Percival’s father, Gahmuret. Gahmuret was an adventurer-knight who, perhaps like Wolfram himself, had no particular issues with people of other races or faiths. On his adventures, he puts himself in the service of the king of Baghdad and fights alongside Saracens. He then travels to a legendary kingdom in Africa, where he marries its queen, Belcane. Together they have a son—Percival’s half-brother, Feirefiz—who is Percival’s equal in all aspects of knighthood—as a warrior, as a wealthy man, and as a lover. Wolfram writes:

He became a wood-waster—the jousts of his hands shattered many a spear, riddling shields with holes.

And Feirefiz was no aberration. One could also point to the other literal black knights in the Arthurian canon—not one “token”, but a cadre of four: Sir Morien, Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir, and Sir Segwarides. Or one could point to various positive depictions of Africans in medieval art, as catalogued on the popular Tumblr page People of Color in European Art History, or explored in the crucial book on the topic The Image of the Black in Western Art, Part II.

Race and Faith

It’s almost impossible to talk about medieval race without talking about religion. Today faith is often considered a category separate from race. This is a byproduct of the evangelical natures of Islam and Christianity, where the faithful are exhorted to convert those outside their community. Judaism is often cited as one of only a few modern-day counterexamples, where lineage and religion are more closely tied (though in no way exclusively, since there exists a long tradition of conversion to Judaism as well). However these notions of community, lineage, and religion were more closely bound together in the Middle Ages, as Bartlett explains:

Especially in a period like the Middle Ages, when religion meant membership of a community much more than adherence to a set of principles or beliefs, there was a sense in which one was born a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, just as one was born English or Persian.

This is evident in the curious condition of Feirefiz’s skin, which is mottled black and white:

The lady gave birth to a son, who was of two colors. By him God devised a miracle—both black and white was his appearance. The queen kissed him incessantly, very often on his white marks. […] his hair and his entire skin became, in hue, like that of a magpie.

Feirefiz and Parzifal duelling. Seems the illustrator may have missed one detail. Cod. Pal. germ. 339, I. Buch, Blatt 540v.

Setting aside the abysmal medieval understanding of genetics—obviously biracial children do not have mottled skin (barring those with vitiligo)—the queen is partial to his white spots not because she prefers whiteness for the sake of whiteness, but because those represent Feirefiz’s father, and possibly, his father’s Christianity. And moreover, Wolfram characterizes his skin not in negative terms, but as one of God’s miracles.

Fascinatingly—and something that will be discussed in more depth in a later article in this series—in medieval literature there are even instances where a character’s skin changes with his conversion. Feirefiz, however, is not one of these characters.

Ultimately, Feirefiz decides to convert to Christianity. When he does, he immediately gains the ability to see the Holy Grail—something only Percival had been able to do. His life trajectory parallels Percival’s in many ways, each rising from the disadvantages of an absent father to find fame and glory through their heroism.

 Looking to the Authors

Characters never exist in a vacuum. The characters of the X-Men, of Star Wars, and of Harry Potter tell us something about how their authors see the world. Similarly, Feirefiz, Percival, and Gahmuret reveal something about the author of Parzifal, Wolfram. Despite, seemingly, every opportunity to cast aspersions on people from Africa or the Middle East, Wolfram never does. Gahmuret pledges himself to the king of Baghdad because he is a good and generous overlord, plain and simple. Gahmuret falls in love with Belacane and her skin color is immaterial. Feirefiz’s skin is a curiosity, to be sure, but no impediment in any way. And, on several occasions, Wolfram states explicitly that those with black skin are no less able in everything that mattered to him (beauty, wealth, and prowess) than people with white skin.

But of course, not all medieval people were so unbiased. To find one, we need only look at the French version of Percival. This earlier version does not contain the Feirefiz subplot or the Gahmuret prequel story. Worse, its author Chrétien de Troyes injects vastly anti-Semitic language into his story, for example in a passing mention of Jesus’ Crucifixion:

This death was holy, for our Lord / both saved the living and restored / the dead from death to life again. / The traitor Jews, who should be slain / like dogs, established in their hate / our great good and their wretched state, / for when they raised Him on a cross, / they saved us and ensured their loss.

Blaming Jews for the death of Christ is among the oldest anti-Semitic slanders in the book. And interestingly—likely tellingly—despite the fact that Wolfram copied a significant amount from the earlier work by Chrétien, his anti-Semitism does not seem to have been transferred.

So that brings us squarely back to the initial question: “were medieval people racist?” Some medieval people definitely were. Even though their idea of what constitutes a “race” differed fundamentally, and they deployed different words to describe it, the fact remains that they did bear prejudiced ideas based upon superficial physical differences. But, like people today, many medieval people were not. People like Wolfram valued cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and showed ample respect for those different to them. And that basic respect was necessary for trade, and for learning, to exist. As Dr. DarkAge put it,

Al-Andalus, aka Muslim Spain, was right next to France. Parts of France were also England, and vice versa. The Vikings landed in all those places. Western European culture relied heavily on philosophical, literary, commercial, and scientific exchanges with people who were not white.

To this list of more-cosmopolitan and multicultural societies, one can add Norman Sicily, the Byzantine Empire, the Vikings (who seemed ever-eager to adapt to and adopt new cultures), and others that we will explore as this series continues.

The easiest possible answer to the question is this: Medieval people were likely not significantly more racist than we are today (if such a thing could even be quantified). In both times, if you look to find racism, both personal, institutional, and structural, it can be readily found. And in both times, you can find those who reject it. What we can say is that medieval racism was very different. This should not offer us any comfort; nothing gives modern-day racism a pass. Racism is a problem that plagues most periods and cultures in humanity, but the most successful, innovative and just societies are those that can most effectively conquer it.

Continue to Part VII in our series: “Where Were the Middle Ages?

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