Race and Identity in Medieval Europe

*This post is part of our new blog series on Black Europe. This series, edited by Kira Thurman and Anne-Marie Angeloexplores what it means to bring the category of Black Europe to the foreground of scholarship on Europe and the Black Atlantic. 

(Photo: Escorial Codex E, Cantigas de Santa Maria, song 120.)

Medieval identities were a complex mixture of proto-nationality, tribe, and religious affiliation. Nonetheless, in the period from 500 to 1500, European writers did remark upon skin color and cultural differences, and they understood some traits to be inherited. While no stable notion of “race” predominated medieval discussions of difference, recent studies show that medieval color prejudice not only existed, it fed directly into modern scientific racism.1 Until relatively recently, medieval scholars focused on religious difference as the defining factor in cultural prejudice, and modern scholars of race tended to view the medieval period as pre-racial since it preceded the Black Atlantic slave trade. Medieval writers, however, played an essential role in the development of racial discourse, beginning a dehumanizing discussion about dark-skinned people and setting the stage for justifying their enslavement.

While nineteenth-century scientists applied genetics to their systematic though deeply flawed categorizations of mankind, medieval thinkers observed the world and tried to make sense of the process by which certain characteristics were inherited. Though they commented upon skin color at times, they did not always see pigmentation as being inherited. Curiously, they suggested that other attributes might be passed along, such as a “noble” or “treacherous” nature. In the twelfth-century French tale of Floris and Blancheflour, the noble Floris is unable to hide his “true nature” as he tries to pass as a merchant. Likewise, some medieval people thought that future generations could be physically affected by the misdeeds of their parents, as in the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman story Bisclavret, in which the mother’s adulterous affair resulted in her nose being cut off, a physical trait she passed along to her children.

As early as the seventh century, medieval thinkers developed a proto-genetic discourse suggesting that moral and physical traits could be passed from parent to child. Deriving his observations largely from the works of Aristotle as well as agricultural and animal husbandry practices, Isidore of Seville wrote extensively on reproduction in plants and animals. Color played a role, as Isidore described the grafting of black and white grapes to produce variegated grapes. He documented the colors and natural traits of horses as well, recounting the mixing of species such as horses and donkeys to produce a hybrid animal, the mule. This discussion of reproduction in the natural world led to Isidore’s later theories on human procreation, which he envisioned as a battle within the womb. The semen (or male seed) and menstrual blood (or female seed) clash as they come together, and the physical and spiritual makeup of the resultant child depended on whether the mother’s seed or the father’s seed was strongest. If the seeds were equally strong, the child shared attributes from both parents.

Isidore’s theory finds echoes in medieval literature where male and female seed come together. In the early thirteenth-century German romance Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gahmuret, the future father of Parzival, weds the Black Moorish Queen Belacane of Zazamanc in the early pages of the romance. The color of the queen’s skin is brought up as the specific factor that makes her unlike other women who are worthy of a knight’s love: “If there is anything brighter than daylight—the queen in no way resembled it. A woman’s manner she did have, and was on other counts worthy of a knight, but she was unlike a dewy rose: her complexion was black of hue.”2 In contrast, the queen’s positive response to Gahmuret’s beauty is unequivocally linked to his coloring: “The great queen’s eyes caused her grievous pain when they beheld the Angevin, who, being of Love’s color, unlocked her heart whether she wished it or not.” Gahmuret’s whiteness serves as the standard of beauty not only in Europe but for the people of Zazamanc as well, as the text notes that the people of Zazamanc claim, “they had never seen a knight so handsome; their gods were supposed to look like him.”

Soon, however, Gahmuret abandons Belacane, despite the love he claims to have for her, her outstanding character, and the fact that she is pregnant with his child. Even as he leaves her, Gahmuret suggests that their mixed-race child is guaranteed a bright future if he should resemble his father, whose genealogy is filled exclusively with kings. In fact, the child Feirefiz emerges as bicolored, both Black and white, “like a magpie.” The primacy of the white part of Feirefiz is highlighted by the Black queen herself, as “the queen kissed him over and over again on his white spots.” Feirefiz receives baptism in order to marry the maiden in charge of the Holy Grail, leaving his first wife, the queen of India, just as his father before him abandoned an admirable Black queen in favor of a white one. As a Christian, now he can see the Grail. His body, however, retains its unusual coloring.

Strikingly, in the late thirteenth century Middle English romance, King of Tars, a conversion leads to actual changes in physical form and skin color. A white Christian woman is married against her will for political reasons to a Black Muslim. Though the union between the Christian and the Muslim appears on the surface to be troubled simply due to a conflict of differing religions, the author color-codes the conflict. The daughter is said to be “white as the feather of a swan.” On the night the maiden is sent to the sultan, she dreams of being attacked by black dogs and eventually saved by Jesus, imagined as a knight dressed in white, a dream that shows a fear of both religious and racial miscegenation.  They have a child, but the child is a formless blob that turns into a perfect little boy upon baptism.3 The Sultan sees this miracle and agrees to convert. When he is baptized, his skin becomes white. The story ends tragically, with the Sultan’s mother killing her son for converting and the Christian bride fleeing back to England.4

In a third example from yet another locale, the Fille du comte de Ponthieu from thirteenth-century France, a Christian woman marries a Sultan and has two children. She leaves the daughter behind, taking her son with her. While the son is baptized and accepted into the family, even though he is the oldest grandson he is not allowed to inherit the lands of his grandfather. His sister, the daughter who was left behind, remains Muslim, but she, too, is outcast in her society. Religion is not the obstacle for societal acceptance of either child, but something ineffable and immutable is passed from parent to child that blocks their full integration into either Christian or Muslim society.

These three stories from across western Europe illustrate the complex nature of pre-modern racial formations. While crusader kingdoms, pilgrimage, travel, and commerce facilitated contact between peoples, literature provided a space for exploring possibilities should inter-ethnic relationships develop. Conversion is held out as a possibility for a happy ending for biracial couples, but in almost each case, despite the conversion of a spouse, something prevents their happily-ever-after: a spouse inexplicably leaves; marriages prove to be barren; a converted husband is murdered. Parzival opens with a pessimistic outlook for combinations of black and white:

If inconstancy is the heart’s neighbor, the soul will not fail to find it bitter. Blame and praise alike befall when a dauntless man’s spirit is black-and-white-mixed like the magpie’s plumage. Yet he may see blessedness after all, for both colors have a share in him, the color of heaven and the color of hell. Inconstancy’s companion is all black and takes on the hue of darkness, while he of steadfast thoughts clings to white.

The conflation of blackness with blame, hell, and inconstancy leaves little apparent room for mixed-race marriage in medieval Europe. These stories, in which shared religion is insufficient and the narrative is unable to overcome the difference between the characters, point to something insurmountable and inerasable: a largely unspoken sense of racial consciousness already apparent in medieval Europe.

  1.  See, for example, Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Lynn Ramey, Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 2014); Cord J. Whitaker, “Black Metaphors in the King of Tars,” JEGP: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 112, no. 2 (2013); Cord J. Whitaker, “Race and Conversion in Late Medieval England” (Duke University, 2009); Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell, Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic : From Pre- to Postmodern (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); David Goldenberg, “Racism, Color Symbolism, and Color Prejudice,” in The Origins of Racism in the West, ed. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin H. Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  2. Citations from Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, trans. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage (New York: Random House, 1961).
  3.  John Block Friedman notes that the Muslim is often portrayed as a dog, both in image and word in the Middle Ages. Friedman, The Monstrous Races, 67.
  4.  See Cord J.  Whitaker,“Black Metaphors in the King of Tars.” JEGP: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 112, no. 2 (2013).
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Lynn Ramey

Lynn Ramey is Professor of French at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of 'Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages' (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014); 'Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature: Imagination and Cultural Interaction in the French Middle Ages' (Routledge, 2001); and coeditor of 'Race, Class, and Gender in "Medieval" Cinema' (Palgrave, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @lynnramey.