Historical Accuracy: People of Color Existed in Medieval Europe


Since it’s Black History Month (which should be every month) and Zack Snyder just announced a “faithful” King Arthur retelling, I wanted to spend a moment on the idea of “historical accuracy.”

Edmund Leighton may have had Arthurian legend in mind when he painted God Speed!, but he envisions a very particular version of it. A very white version.

Specifically, I’d like to talk about how the Middle Ages has been co-opted by racists to fuel this idea that there was ever an all-white Europe.

There wasn’t.

There just simply was not. For as long as there have been people, there has been movement, migration. And that means that, within pretty much any given population at any particular time, there were people of various shades.

So, allow me to take you on a grand tour, and maybe then you can stop whining about “historical accuracy” when it comes to including characters of Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, and other descent in books.

Check the Evolutionary Record

First off, we have to acknowledge that humanity evolved out of Africa, which means that, at some point, humanity was all Black. Black is the original form of humanity.

I’m not saying that to co-opt a Black identity—“we’re all a little bit Black, lol!” That’s not on. What I am saying is that Black people were here first; they’ve been here longest. Everyone else is derivative. Show some damn respect.

As people moved out of Africa, they mingled with other hominids. The Neanderthals are the most famous example. There were others, who likely also moved “out of Africa” at various points in evolutionary history. That’s not to say all hominid species arose in Africa. Rather, most evolutionary branches lead back there. Mixture between hominid groups then gave rise to more variations in the genome. Eventually, we get new species.

(We’re homo sapiens sapienshomo sapiens is a different, earlier hominid.)

There are certainly “white” genes and “brown” genes and “Asian” genes in various populations. Indigenous peoples show some similarities with Southeast Asians. There are “light-skinned” and “dark-skinned” Asians. Italians and Spaniards tend to have darker features, similar to folks from the Middle East, and there are groups in the former Soviet states that also trend toward those features.

So, by and large, that means there’s just natural variation in the human genome, compounded by both environmental factors and mixture with other hominids like the Neanderthals. White folks are likely to have just as much, if not more, genetically similarity to Black or brown folks as they are to other white people.

The Cradle of Civilization Is Largely Brown

Most of our first “great civilizations” belong to people we’d characterize as brown or, at least, non-white today. Mesopotamia is centered on Jordan, Palestine, and other Middle Eastern countries. Jesus was a brown guy—as were most Jews at the time. Egyptians were also likely “brown” people, if not Black folks.

Phoenicia, Persia, and even Carthage are all civilizations with a good deal of color to go around. At the same time, we also have the Indus River civilization, the Chinese empire, and more forming too.

So, we have all these great empires forming. Empires, civilization, usually means there’s migration as well. People come to the city centers or set up farms. They might migrate out of an area where politics turn against them. There’s also trade and military expedition. So now we have a lot of people starting to move about and then settle down. And they’re moving first out of Africa, then out of the Middle East and Asia.

Historical Accuracy for Classical Antiquity

Now we get to Greece and Rome. Greece dealt with the Phoenicians (brown people), the Egyptians (brown people). Persia (modern-day Iran, so also brown people) tried to take them over. In addition, Alexander the Great traveled to India (which is, you guessed it, full of brown people)!

Egyptian hieroglyphics, like those pictured here, are among the oldest writing systems.
Guess who invented writing. Not the British! (Lady Escabia/Pexels.com)

Now try telling me there were no brown people anywhere in Greece. The Greeks inhabited the Mediterranean world. At this point, that world was, by and large, brown and Black. Most of the people the Greeks did trade with would not have been “white people.”

And the Greeks were the small potatoes in this arrangement. The people they were trading with were very powerful. So we can likely imagine slavery bringing brown or Black people to Greece. But could we also imagine a wealthy Egyptian merchant coming to hang out in Athens to oversee a new business enterprise? What about an ambassador of sorts? Or how about a very rich person who’d pissed off the pharaoh during a power play, so they need to get out of Egypt fast? They resettle somewhere in Greece. We might have farmers or craftspeople moving around too.

Whoa, look, we have brown and Black people everywhere over here! And they’re not just slaves or what have you. In fact, a lot of them are likely wealthy and respected by the Greeks.

Rome Does Multiculturalism

Okay, so the Greeks expand their little empire. But eventually Rome shows up. Rome does something similar, creating a very large empire across the Mediterranean, through the Fertile Crescent, Greece, stretching all the way to India.

The Romans tended to take over by adopting the local customs. They sent in Roman politicians and armed forces, and they enforced Roman law. But they also allowed for local customs and religion.

And again, a lot of these subjects of the Roman Empire would be brown or Black. People of color also likely rose through the ranks in their local areas, becoming educated and powerful. Roman elites would have needed to work with local elites to establish a power base in any given area.

We also have war with Carthage (Libya), which was supposedly a Phoenician colony. But again, it’s likely full of brown and Black people. And so we have Hannibal entering what is today Spain and trying to take elephants over the Pyrenees.

How many brown or Black people gave up on going home and just plonked down there? How many people moved through the Roman Empire, coming up through various ports to further parts of the empire—like Britannia or Gaul or wherever else—to test their luck? And how many joined the Roman army and got shuffled around that way?

Historical Accuracy and Medieval Europe

Now, Medieval Europe is where most imagine this insular, all-white society. Like after Rome fell, the people of the British Isles and France booted out everyone who wasn’t white.

Highly unlikely! This is a very racist myth that started building in the Victorian era and was advanced by eugenicists. It eventually came to be embodied in Nazi histories.

But all right, let’s debunk it right here and now. Medieval Europe was never some “all white” society.

The Moorish Kingdom of Al-Andalus

First off, we have the Moors in Spain. They were Arab and North African Muslims who crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and established a caliphate. They ruled Grenada and other southern areas of Spain for quite some time. It was Ferdinand and Isabella (who chartered Christopher Columbus to sail the ocean blue in 1492) who defeated the Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus and made Spain “all Christian.”

Art from medieval Spain shows two musicians, one Black and one white, playing together.
According to medieval artists, Spain and al-Andalus had some wicked jam sessions.

Think about that. Spain wasn’t a fully Christian kingdom between 700 and 1500 CE, give or take. That’s almost a millennium where there was a “brown” kingdom on the European landmass.

We also know that, despite oppression, some Moors stayed, even after the kingdom “fell.” We also know there were Jewish populations moving around Europe. Keep in mind that the Jews had been displaced from their homelands in the Middle East. Some of them were almost undoubtedly “brown” people.

Religion Is a Stronger Creed

We can also imagine that Black people may have continued to travel to Europe, even if we don’t talk about it much. There may have been populations, particularly in Spain and Italy, long after the fall of the Roman Empire. There were likely Black people living in former Roman territories like Britain and France and Germany.

We can even imagine that there may even have been Black Christians who came to Rome from Africa or brown Christians who came north, particularly as the Muslim empire expanded. Some may have moved into areas of Russia and Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Turks made raids as far as Hungary in the late Middle Ages, and the Mongols also swept across Eastern Europe. The Romani people originated in India.

Persecution, religion, and other factors almost undoubtedly caused people to move around. That still holds true today.

By the end of the Middle Ages, we have trade picking up along the Silk Road. We have people going to “the Orient.” We have knowledge flowing back from the Arab world, and we have missionaries to China.

We have the Portuguese sailing down around the Horn of Africa and likely encountering Black peoples who lived there. And we have them sailing to the east, to Indonesia, to Myanmar and all the countries in between India and China, which those civilizations were already aware of. The Portuguese also came to the New World and they went to Japan as well. The world, at this point, becomes far more interconnected with Europe.

Back to the Medieval World

As noted, travel happened for a few reasons. Trade, escaping persecution, invasion–all are grounds for packing up and moving somewhere else.

People, particularly Christians in the Middle East, may have moved through a sort of “diaspora.” We could see that happening in Northern Africa as well. Incursions from the east, particularly the Ottomans and the Mongols, would have brought “ethnic others” to Europe. So too would Black and brown people have entered Europe through migratory flow between North Africa and other Mediterranean ports, particularly the Moorish kingdom in Spain.

And we might well imagine merchants continued trade routes that had been established by the Romans. That would be in addition to “native” populations springing up in former Roman territories, thanks to the flow of people Rome facilitated, particularly through the army or even the need for educated individuals to take up positions of power.

Don’t Forget the Crusades

We also have the Crusades, which saw Western Europeans heading east to Jerusalem, where they established a kingdom that lasted for a few hundred years.

It’s doubtless that the people who stayed likely mixed with the local population. In the event some of them returned, they may have brought back “people of color” who were newly converted Christians to live in Europe. These people likely occupied a number of positions in society.

Literature Shines a Light on Historical Accuracy

We have evidence of people of color existing in Europe at this time through a literary record. These aren’t perhaps factual accounts, but they suggest familiarity with Black and brown people that an all-white Europe probably wouldn’t produce.

Perhaps most famously, two Knights of the Round Table are people of color. Sir Moriaen is Black, and Sir Palamedes is “a Saracen”—a brown man from the Middle East.

Grayscale photography of a medieval knight's armor.
Many illustrators hide this by showing the two dressed like this. (Mike/Pexels.com)

Shakespeare is a little late, but we also knew he drew on many earlier sources. So we might suspect that his Othello—a Moor—was also recorded in those earlier sources, or that he was amalgamating several stories and sources into the singular figure of Othello. Other authors include (problematic) Moorish characters, and Saladin became an incredibly popular figure in the European imagination. Some authors even suggested the Arab military leader accompanied Sir Hugh on a raucous tour of Europe.

That account is entirely fabricated. But what if there was a military leader who came back to tour Europe? Maybe it wasn’t Saladin, but maybe curious brown nobles came to Europe with their new “pals” to see what it was like. And that’s how we get this tale of Saladin touring around.

That’s neither here nor there. What we can take from this is that Europeans were aware of brown and Black people. There were perhaps not large communities, but they existed in all social strata—Sir Moriaen and Sir Palamedes attest to that.

Viking Trade

And yes, even in that “white” stronghold of the Viking north, we can well imagine there were brown people. The Vikings traveled south, through Ukraine and Russia, to reach the Middle East. They traded there. We have accounts from Arab observers, and there are also Viking-era hoards of Middle Eastern coins.

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to suggest that some brown folks likely came back with the Vikings. Some would be slaves, while others might have arrived as brides. Still others would be honored and esteemed guests, merchants and nobles who were interested in visiting the homelands of these shrewd navigators.

So, What Is “Historical Accuracy”?

The historical records here show that one thing is true across time. People of all colors move between places. As travel methods improved, they were able to move farther. Trade routes expanded. That also led to more military conquests and such.

We can see this as history moves from being centered on Africa and the Fertile Crescent, into the Mediterranean at large. The it moves further east and west from that center, slowly expanding to encompass people from all across the Eurasia landmass and Africa.

It’s utterly ridiculous, given the spread of empire and trade, to suggest that Europe was some all-white monolith at any point in its history as Europe. Even in Greco-Roman times, there was likely a flow of brown and Black people through various parts of the empire, for many different reasons. Into the medieval period, we see trade, religion, and war continue to move people between settlements.

Thus, it becomes inconceivable that Europe was ever all-white. Sir Moriaen and Sir Palamedes would beg to differ with that view, as would the Moorish kingdom of Spain that no doubt inspired these and other characters of color.

And it’s inconceivable that every brown or Black body entered Europe in a state of slavery. That’s true even into the age of imperialism, discovery, and right down through the colonial period. Some people were no doubt invited to see the splendor of Europe. Leaders, nobles, merchants would have entered European ports on very different terms. Even if we might imagine that most of the people who entered were in a state of bondage, it’s not necessarily true that all were—nor that they remained that way either.

Thus, it’s possible to see that people of color have existed in what we think of as “white nations” at pretty much every juncture of history, and that they occupied positions at levels of society. And, over time, the size of these populations—and likely the diversity of them—also changed.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Imperialist Slave Trade

We shouldn’t lose sight of the idea that the majority of Black and brown people who entered Europe in the last five or six centuries likely did so in the most dire of situations. We also need to acknowledge that racism changed and evolved, and that “later” migrants no doubt faced steeper opposition.

That’s not to say no one was racist in the Middle Ages. They certainly saw difference, but the modern construct of race as we know it was not present in Europe in the year 1200.

So, there is very much a horrible history of slavery and denigration, impoverishment and violence, suspicion and hatred. But people of color are not a modern invention in European history, and nor were they relegated to only being slaves or indentured servants.

To believe that, to argue that the existence of people of color in Europe prior to a certain date or that they were all enslaved, is to buy into a very particular historical myth—one advanced by racists and Nazis.

So, if you’re not a racist or a Nazi, it’s time to stop believing Europe was totally white as snow before the 1900s or something. It wasn’t, and historical accuracy begs that we acknowledge that and deconstruct a racist myth that’s been allowed to linger on for far too long.

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