Blacks in Medieval Europe- Perceptions & Legacy

Charlemagne (L) battles Marsile (R), black "heathen" Saracen king in the Song of Roland. Grandes Chroniques de France . Bibliothèque Nationale


And Ethiope a cursed land indeed;

The blackamoors there are in his keep,

Broad in the nose they are and flat in the ear,

Fifty thousand and more in company,

These canter forth with arrogance and heat--Song of Roland, 12th century, CLXIII 1915-1920



In 711AD medieval Spain was invaded by armies from the Muslim world--Arabs, Berbers and black Africans. Collectively they would be called Moors by Europeans. Though their numbers in the overall Moorish occupation varied throughout the centuries these black Africans would leave a lasting impression--entering legends, stories, religious iconography, artwork and popular folklore. For the most part it is hard to separate reality from fiction with these tales, as they often appear in semi-legendary ballads long after the events they purport to portray. What is most important however is that their legacy shows medieval European writers and artists were familiar with black Africans in their midst.

Most writers agree that the image of blacks in early medieval Spain and Western Europe was generally negative. This can be seen in such works as the 12th century medieval Frankish Epic, The Song of Roland which describes the black Saracen king Marsile as "cankered with guile and every felony" and who "loves murder and treachery."  As a Muslim he is accused as one who "fears not God, the Son of Saint Mary" and is described as " molten pitch that seethes."

The epic goes on to say of his army: "Ethiope, a cursed land indeed; the blackamoors from there are in his keep, Broad in the nose they are and flat in ear, Fifty thousand and more in his company... When Rolland sees those misbegotten men, Who are more black than ink is on the pen, With no part white, only their teeth except..." Still, though blacks are portrayed as enemies, they are often highly regarded for their military prowess.

In the Spanish romance of the semi-legendary El Cid (taken from varied books written from the 11th to 16th century) there is an equally negative yet appraising military account of black female warriors in the service of the Berber king Bucar:

Three days after the Cid had departed King Bucar came into the
port of Valencia, and landed with all his power, which was so great
that there is not a man in the world who could give account of the
Moors whom he brought. And there came with him thirty and six Kings,
and one Moorish Queen, who was a Negress, and she brought with her two
hundred horsewomen, all Negresses like herself, all having their hair
shorn save a tuft on the top, and this was in token that they came as
if upon a pilgrimage, and to obtain the remission of their sins; and
they were all armed in coats of mail and with Turkish bows....--The Chronicle of El Cid, Book XI, verse VI.

The epic claims that this "Moorish Negress was so skillflul in drawing the Turkish bow, that it was held for a marvel, and it is said that they called her in Arabic Nugueymat Turya, which is to say, the Star of the Archers." 

Historian Miriam DeCosta investigates the similarly negative portrayal of blacks in the thirteenth century Cantigas of Spain. DeCosta highlights the manner in which "Spanish poets and illuminators of the period used the color black [chiefly black skin] in a pejorative way, associating it with the devil or evil." DeCosta points to Cantiga 185 where three Moors attacking the Castle of Chincoya are described as "black as Satan." In Cantiga 329 a black man who has stolen objects from a Christian church is identified as a Moor. There are even depictions of black moors as faithful servants of the anti-Christ. DeCosta notes that though other racial figures are depicted as Moors in the Cantigas as well, the black figures seem to hold a central theme of negativity.

Yet this negative view of blacks is not universal, and tends to be associated with their Islamic faith by the heavily Christian (and religiously xenophobic) medieval European world. When depicted as non-Muslims, black-a-moors take on a more benign persona. The 13th century Middle Dutch Arthurian tale Morien tells the tale of a son of a Knight of the Round Table. As the folklore goes Aglovale--one of  King Arthur's knights--travels in the Moorish lands while searching for Lancelot. There he falls in love with a Moorish princess who gives birth to a son, Morien. Years later, while searching for the Holy Grail, Arthur's knights encounter a grown Morien:

"On the ninth day there came riding towards them a knight on a goodly steed, and well armed withal. He was all black, even as I tell ye: his head, his body, and his hands were all black, saving only his teeth. His shield and his armour were even those of a Moor, and black as a raven....[he] bared his head, which was black as pitch; that was the fashion of his land--Moors are black as burnt brands."--Morien, 13th century.

Morien's blackness, though frequently mentioned, is not used as a negative qualifier. In fact, as if making this point to medieval readers, the epic states: "But in all that men would praise in a knight was he fair, after his kind. Though he were black, what was he the worse?"

Historian Mario Valdes Y Cocom also illustrates how many blacks came to symbolize ideas of holiness and were heavily associated with ideas of Christendom (even as they were also associated with the Islamic world): the mythical King Prester John of Ethiopia and the Greek Sir Pallamedes, also a knight (perhaps one in the same with Morien), of the round table. Of interest is the story of a Moorish orphan in the Netherlands by the name of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). This mythical black boy was sometimes associated as a helper to the equally mythical Sinterklaas (Santa Claus). Today Black Peter is remembered in a controversial sense during the Christmas holidays, when many Dutch don "black-face" (akin to American minstrels) in celebration.

Zwarte Piete, Moorish helper of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus)

The legacy of blacks in medieval Europe lasted well beyond the Islamic period and extended into the Renaissance. They appear frequently in literature, iconography and historical writings. Following the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, many can be found throughout Europe. The term eventually became interlinked with African slaves, newly arriving to Europe in large numbers. In fact one of the first slave raids on the Guinea Coast by Portuguese soldiers is described as a foray against "Moors." By the 1500s there were numerous of these described "black-a-moors," either from the newly emerging slave trade or the broken Islamic power bases, throughout Europe.

black trumpeter John Blanke, Westminster Tournament Roll (1511)

In 1507 at the court of King James IV of Scotland there is mention of a "Helenor in the Court Accounts, possibly Ellen More, who reached Edinburgh by way of the port of Leith and acted a principal role in 'the tournament of the black knight and the black lady,' in which the king of Scotland played the part of the black knight." Ellen More incidentally may also be one in the same with "Black Elen." John Blanke a Black trumpeter, was a regular musician at the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII in the early 1500s. There were at least two other described black Moorish women of the royal court who held positions of some status as they are said to have held maidservants and expensive gowns. There is also mention of a "Nageir the More." In 1501 one of the King's Minstrels was Peter the Moryen or Moor who is described as black.

Greek Christian figure Pallamedes, said to be a Moorish prince

Meanwhile in Sicily, Frederick II (1197-1250), of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, maintained a close relationship with the remaining Moors in the region.  He retained a black Moorish chamberlain who was constantly at his side. Though breaking the Muslim power base in the region, he also solicited their aid in his struggle with the papacy. After resettling conquered Muslims on the Italian mainland at Lucera, the monarch was said to have recruited an elite guard of 16,000 Moorish troops; recent genetic testing shows that most were NW Africans but, as with other Moorish populations, there were likely black Africans among them. Probably one of the most famous depictions of black-a-moors among the Italian city states, possibly inspired by this Moorish presence, would emerge in the 1603 play The Tragedy of Othello by English writer William Shakespeare.

Sources & References

Brunson, James and Runoko Rashidi. "The Moors in Antiquity" in Golden Age of the Moor, ed. Ivan Van Sertima (1991)

Chronicle of the Cid, 12th to 16th century, trans. from the Spanish-

Cocom, Mario de Valdes. "Sigillum Secretum: On the image of the Blackamoor in European Heraldry" in The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families, PBS (1995).

Cristian Capelli et al. "Moors and Saracens in Europe: estimating the medieval North African male legacy in southern Europe." European Journal of Human Genetics (2009) 17, 848–852

DeCosta, Miriam. "The Portrayal of Blacks in a Spanish Medieval Manuscript." Negro History Bulletin 37, No. 1 (1973), 194

Devisse, Jean. "From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood," in The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. 2. From the Early Christian Era to the Age of Discovery, Pt. 1, trans. W.G. Ryan (1989).

Earle, Tom and Kate J. P. Lowe. Black Africans in Renaissance Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2005).

Edwards, Paul and James Walvin. "Africans in Britian, 1500-1800." in African Diaspora: Interpretive Essays, eds. Martin L. Kilson and Robert I. Rotberg (1976).

The Online Medieval and Classical Library- The Song of Roland-12th century

United Kingdom National Archives- Black Presence: Early Times.

Weston, Jessie Laidlay (trans. from 13th century Middle Dutch, 1901). Morien: A Metrical Romance Rendered into English from the Middle Dutch. London: Nutt. archived online: 2006

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