The Rarely Depicted Presence of Black/African People in European History - Black History Month
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
There were black/African people in pre-modern Europe during the Medieval and Tudor times! And no, they were not necessarily enslaved. Some were affluent members of the society, iconic fictional characters, revered Saints, and even Knights.
As you probably know, the UK Black History Month is a time to educate people on Black history/culture. With this in mind, this post takes it way back to ancient times by highlighting the rich, inspiring—but often little known—history of Black people in European history.
Black People in Pre-Modern Europe
From folklores of Merlin, King Arthur, to intriguing tales of Robin Hood, European history is undeniably intriguing. Thoughts of the mediaeval period bring flashes of huge stone castles, straw-roofed villages, monasteries with stained glass, and brave knights wielding swords while clad in shining armour. Well, at least this is how films depict the period based on historical records.
But one aspect that raises eyebrows is the scarcity of Black people in the narratives. This might lead some to assume that Black/African people did not play a role in that part of history—when in fact pre-modern Europe was more diverse than most of us have been led to assume.
Here are some Black people from pre-modern Europe:
· The Black Tudors
Few eras in British history—if any—have garnered as much attention as the Tudors (1485-1603). The monarchy was characterized by religious reforms, wars, and betrayals like none other—as depicted in the popular Showtime series, The Tudor, among other films.
What most people don’t realize is that people of African descent were a part of the Tudor society—whereby they were accepted and given the same rights as anyone else.
According to Miranda Kaufman in her book Black Tudors: The Untold Story, “They lived in a world where skin colour was less important than religion, class or talent: before the English became heavily involved in the slave trade, and before they founded their first surviving colony in the Americas.”
“Their stories challenge the traditional narrative that racial slavery was inevitable and that it was imported to colonial Virginia from Tudor England. They force us to re-examine the 17th century to find out what had caused perceptions to change so radically.”
Image ©2003 S. Ross Browne
Image: The Guardian
One of the most mentioned Black Tudor was a man named John Blanke. He is seen on the top left corner of the image above—which is a tapestry commemorating the Field of Cloth of Gold, 1520. The U.K. National Archives notes that he was a revered musician who regularly played for Henry VII and Henry VIII.
Image: The National Archives
In one of the images, John Blanke is wearing yellow and brown that’s similar to all the other trumpeters in the entourage—but he stands out from the group due to his green turban. As suggested in an article titled “John Blanke: The Most Famous African in Tudor England,” the flat design of the turban may be reminiscent of an Andalusian or North African Islamic heritage.
Another image shows Blanke dressed in scarlet cloth during Henry VIII’s coronation. The scarlet hue was reserved for high-ranking servants in the royal court—suggesting the social status of Blanke.
While John Blanke is clearly the most well-known Black Tudor, he was not the only one. Others include Jacques Francis (a salvage diver), Diego (a circumnavigator), Mary Fillis (a servant), Dederi Jaquoah, (a prince and a merchant), Anne Cobbie (prostitute), Edward Swarthye (porter), Reasonable Blackman (silk weaver), and Cattelena of Almondsbury (an independent single woman).
· Saint Maurice – Knight of the Holy Lance
Contrary to popular assumptions, Africans were a key part of Christianity and Medieval history—from thriving African Kingdoms such as the kingdom of Nubia to iconic figures like Saint Maurice.
Historical records of Saint Maurice—which means “like a Moor” in Latin—are mainly contained in writing by Bishop Euchenus of Lyon. Also known as Saint Mauritius, he was admired for his exceptional character and faith.
Saint Maurice is said to have been the commander of a Roman Legion during A.D. 300—with a contingent of around 6,600 Christian soldiers. When he was ordered by emperor Maximian to suppress a Christian uprising, he refused to persecute fellow Christians – a noble act that cost him his life.
Image: Medievalpoc on Tumblr
The outfit donned by Saint Maurice is a testament to his status in Medieval society. In both art pieces, he is wearing a suit of armour that denotes Knighthood.
The gold hues and headpiece also suggest that Saint Maurice was a high ranking official at the time.
For more on the presence of Africans in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, check out this exhibition at the Walters Art Museum.
· Sir Morien – Black Knight of the Round Table
You know the tales; the tales of the valiant knights of the round table. But did you know that they were not all white?
Early texts vividly describe Sir Morien as Black. To quote a translation of the saga of Morien (as seen in ancienttexts.org), “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…”
In the image, Sir Morien sports a Bascinet helmet that dates to the 13th Century—right around the time of the Arthurian Romances.
Image: Medievalpoc on Tumblr
· The Ivory Bangle Lady
Image: Yorkshire Museum
In a study published in the Journal of Antiquity (covered by the Daily Mail), researchers from the University of Reading's Department of Archaeology discovered that people of North African descent lived in Britain thousands of years ago.
Of particular interest were the artefacts and remains of an African woman—dubbed the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’. According to the researchers, “This skull is particularly interesting, because the stone sarcophagus she was buried in, and the richness of the grave goods, means she was a very wealthy woman, absolutely from the top end of York society…Her case contradicts assumptions that may derive from more recent historical experience, namely that immigrants are low status and male, and that African individuals are likely to have been slaves.”
“We're looking at a population mix which is much closer to contemporary Britain than previous historians had suspected.”
The takeaway is that there’s a rich—yet largely untold—history of Black/African people in European. Pre-modern Europe was clearly more diverse than most people assume. In celebration of Black History Month in the UK, it’s important to understand that people of African descent worked and lived freely in pre-modern Europe—climbing the social hierarchy like other citizens at their time.