Stop Saying There Were No Black People in Medieval Europe

I’m a woman with a doctorate who also happens to love popular culture. Most of the time cinema or television is where my mind goes to rest, regroup and rejuvenate.

Men in Moorish dress for a parade in the city of Orihuela, Spain

Sometimes, like last week, the nerdy side and the contemporary side clash. That’s exactly what happened when I read criticism of John Boyega’s comments about the HBO hit Game of Thrones. He made an eloquent point:  there are no black main characters who are not slaves, liberated slaves, or working for the advancement of white people in the series watched by millions of viewers around the world. We make an event of it in my house, shunning social media for 24 hours until its available in the vast corners of the realm like Qatar.

(If you’re not into pop culture, the show is based on the series of books by G.R.R. Martin and set in a mythical civilization akin to medieval Europe.)

There weren’t black people in medieval Europe, wrote commenters on every thread where the original GQ interview was regrugitated. Different versions of the same protest included there weren’t that many or be happy there are some tan white people and let them pass for non-whites.

Expanding on the theme: Boyega was a nobody and now he has opinions. He should be glad he got one and keep his mouth shut.

Hadn’t any of these people read or seen a performance (or one of the films) of Othello? Shakespeare’s play alludes to the history of Moors on the Iberian peninsula. Othello is a black man married to a white woman encited to jealousy by a devious advisor. Okay so maybe not, being a 3 act play, etc. What about the film with a once relatively unknown Julia Stiles, Josh Harnett and Mekhi Phifer, set in high school?

Speaking of Shakespeare, here is a writer in Elizabeath England who was ultra conscious of the ravages of importing people, spreading colonialism, and building empires. Again, was everyone sleeping through The Tempest in high school? (That’s the one about the white sorcerer who lands on an island and makes the native his slave…)

As I lamented the lack of awareness about European history last Friday night – yes I am THAT friend, weekend buzz kill in our ever approachign 40s – my friend said she didn’t learn about the Moors in Spain until college. That gave me pause.

This gave me pause.

When did I first know that the Moors, aka people from Africa, set up in Spain and Portugal from the 8th (MIDDLE AGES) to the 15th century, running things very, very well, until they were expelled aka kicked out, ushering in the Spanish Inquisition and the decline of the Spanish empire? To this day towns like Alcoli do re-enactments (think Civil War battle replays) of the army sending the Moors out. In fact there are festivals all over Spain that commemorate this history that most Americans probably never learn.

Moors and Christians Festival

Was in it AP European History in 11th or 12th grade when my teacher, as passionate about history as he was about being the school’s assistant soccer coach, taught us that along with the Moors, the Spainish divested themselves of their moneylenders, aka Jewish residents, and therefore triggered an economic crash ending the golden age of Spain? (Fine so what we once used to describe “Moors” no longer exists as an identity for a people group they are a mix of ancestors including African and Arab ancestry….)

Was it he or my college professor who made the link for us that the expulsion of the Moors, Jews, and anyone else who was different, was a prelude to the dangers of expelling people, on par with the later roundup of anyone who was different in Hitler’s Germany?

You know what memory is like.

Slippery at best and a quick footed dancer even in sleep.

I couldn’t tell you right now (or ever)  if it was in my high school or college history class that we learned, in today’s terms, immigrants are good for social and economic diversity. At the end of my first year I found out I didn’t have to take the European History because I had placed out on my AP test. My professor was sheepish and apologized since I had done extra work to be eligible for a Honors section of the course.

At the end of my first year I found out I didn’t have to take the European History because I had placed out on my AP test. My professor was sheepish and apologized since I had done extra work to be eligible for a Honors section of the course.

“That’s okay,” I said after a moment of GTFO ARE YOU SERIOUS I WASTED A SEMESTER??? “We wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Sounds like I was an ass-kisser, and  it’s true I can be very diplomatic.

Yet this particular professor I stayed in touch with and became my lifelong friend. Who knows – maybe we would have met later on in The World Since 1945 and it would have been the same. There was no honors section of that course, four of huddled around a desk in her office on which papers, books, and notebooks teetered in stacks that would inspire the makers of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. She tried to convince me to become a history major since I had enough courses – all I had to do was add one more senior seminar.

I was already double majoring in Psychology and English because my favorite professor in that department – also my advisor – made the same argument (all I needed was two courses). Ready for the ‘real world’ or the next step in my life I said no and went on to graduates in literature.

All this to say do I only know about the Moors in Spain because of passionate teachers in my life? Yes.

We need passionate teachers who can inspire writers to grow up and tell the stories of those who are on the margins. Because those people also transmit knowledge that becomes tacit as we grow older.

We need good teachers so we can be more accurate keyboard warriors.

When we’re educated well we aren’t threatened when others want to join the table. We support them because we know a flourishing society is when all members contribute.  help spark a conversation about the current mainstream. Whether or not people are prepared to listen.

We can spark a conversation about the current mainstream. Whether or not people are prepared to listen.

 

Reader Comments

  1. Matt Baker

    There may well have been “black” people in medival Europe. In fact there certainly were in Spain before the reconquista.
    However a few things must be remembered.
    Anyone looking arabic in the middle ages was termed “black”.

    Then we have to look at the natural distribution of people around the world by their race.
    Northern africa – Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Egypt – These guys all look Middle Eastern to us but in the middle ages they would be called “black”.
    Middle East – The crusader states etc… all these people were called in the middle ages “black”.
    Sub-Saharan Africans – all countries south of the sahara desert, these are the only native places of people we would normally call “black” in this day and age. Yes, there are black populations in the USA because they were brought from mainly West Africa as slaves. There are also, now entirely, “black” islands in the caribean like Haiti but the original inhabitants of these islands were the carib indians looking similar to native american indians. And the name for the caribean comes from these indians.

    But we don’t have to look at these natural distributions really.
    The most important thing to judge this whole question is religion.
    Northern Africa during the middle ages was 100% muslim. Now westerners could for some extent understand muslims – muslims respected Jesus as a prophet of Allah.
    They would never however respect the multi-god religions of the sub saharan africans.

    Before 1100, the Catholic Church suppressed what they believed to be heresy, usually through a system of ecclesiastical proscription or imprisonment, but without using torture, and seldom resorting to executions. Such punishments were opposed by a number of clergymen and theologians, although some countries punished heresy with the death penalty.
    In the 12th century, to counter the spread of Catharism, prosecution of heretics became more frequent. The Church charged councils composed of bishops and archbishops with establishing inquisitions (the Episcopal Inquisition). The first Inquisition was temporarily established in Languedoc (south of France) in 1184. The murder of Pope Innocent’s papal legate Pierre de Castelnau in 1208 sparked the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229). The Inquisition was permanently established in 1229, run largely by the Dominicans in Rome and later at Carcassonne in Languedoc.

    When Jerusalem was captured during the first crusade 1099 every Jew and Muslim was put to death. No muslim was allowed to live in the city proper. The other muslims, living outside of the city, had no rights under the christian kingdom and would have to regulate themselves with their own courts.

    The Albigensian Crusade or the Cathar Crusade (1209–1229; French: Croisade des albigeois, Occitan: Crosada dels albigeses) was a 20-year military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism in Languedoc, in southern France. This was just a divergent form of christianity, not a different religion. Just a difference in interpreting the bible and christian beliefs. 200,000 to 1,000,000 people were murdered. The first use of the word “genocide” was used to refer to this by Raphael Lemkin.
    This was just a heresy a difference from the accepted teachings of the church. If you worshiped a different religion you could accept less tollerence.

    When the Spanish drove the muslims out of Spain the treaty of Granada 1491 said that Jews and Muslims could keep their religion if they paid a tax – the jizya. Otherwise they were executed.
    By the 16th century the Spanish inquisition had deemed the practise of any religion other than catholic christianity a crime against the state and the perpetrators were either executed or exciled.

    Lets skip to the chase. People were executed in Europe for not following the exact catholic church doctrine – another religion – your dead.
    The last case of an execution by the inquisition was that of the schoolmaster Cayetano Ripoll, accused of deism by the waning Spanish Inquisition and hanged on 26 July 1826 in Valencia after a two-year trial.[35] Eight years later in 1834, Spain, the last remaining government to still be providing the Catholic Church with the right to pronounce and effect capital punishment, formally withdrew that right from the Church.

    No-one in africa or the middle east was christian therefore they were not welcome in Europe. (the eastern orthodox Christians would have suffered the same persecution if they had gone to Europe.)

    • Mohana

      Yes thank you! So complex and yet such a shame most of us don’t get this in high school. Lucky ones can get in college if you take an elective or are a Humanities major.

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