In 711AD medieval Spain was invaded by the armies of Islam. These invaders would rule the region for the next several hundred years, build lasting monuments and leaving an unmistakable influence on the culture of Europe in the area of science, medicine, literature and music for centuries to come. Among these invaders were Arabs, Berbers (in their variable ancestries) and black Africans. Collectively they would be Moors by Europeans. And the Black-a-Moors, as black Africans involved in the society were called, would become well remembered.

 

Though originally from the Latin Mauri meaning "swarthy or black", the term Moor became applied to all Muslims in general by several Europeans. Though argued upon quite often how variable that application was, what is mutually agreed upon is that Moor regardless of its origins came to represent Muslim. And it was used interchangeably with "arabe" or "musulman" despite one's racial or ethnic identity. Thus the historiography shows that the term Moor has varied meanings that have changed over time. The only constant has been its association with the blacks of the Latin description. Exhaustive studies have been made to sort out these blacks, often seen amid depictions of Arabic and lighter Berbers.

Beyond finding and identifying these blacks has been the question as to their roles and status in medieval Europe. The roles most assigned to blacks in Muslim Spain by writers are that of soldier and slave. Most modern writers associate the one word agreed upon to mean black, Sudanese, with the word slave.

Michael Brett in "The Moors" writes that blacks were imported over the years as slaves from the western and central Sudan, and employed as servants and soldiers as well as concubines". Like Brett, most writers simultaneously refer to these black slaves as soldiers as well.

There are a few writers however who offer a more complex description of the status of these slave soldiers. Michael O'Callaghan in his work, "A History of Medieval Spain" remarks that slavery within the Muslim world afforded movement along the social ladder regardless of one's status. O'Callaghan gives us a little more insight, remarking that the Umayyad dynasty ruler Al-Hakam "recruited a large bodyguard of Negroes".

O'Callaghan also mentions accounts of "mounted Negro archers wearing white capes". He states that with Muslim Spain's constant warfare with itself or the Christians, there was a constant need for troops. He states the following, "A corps of professional soldiers paid regular wages proved to be a more valuable instrument of war. Al-Hakam I was the first to recruit large numbers of mercenaries, including Berbers and Sudanese Negroes. Although many of the guardsmen were slaves and freedmen, they came to enjoy an exceptional political and military importance".

It is of note that O'Callaghan describes the slave army as "mercenaries" as slave may be too simple a description, or perhaps even a misleading one. Richard Fletcher in his work "Moorish Spain" also points to the confusing label of the term "slave" when referring to the Muslim military. He states, "slave is perhaps a misleading term, since by no means all such soldiers were unfree. Mercenary or simply 'professional' might be more appropriate". O'Callaghan cites an Arab jurist of Almoravid Seville who speaks of "Negro soldiers who wore the Almoravid veil".

Miriam DeCosta looks to the medieval Spanish manuscript, the "Cantigas", to explain the status of black soldiers in Muslim Spain. He points to pictures of the Almoravid army in the "Cantigas" stating, "Black Moors are not always presented as servants or captives; indeed, according to medieval illuminators, they seem to have held prominent positions in Moorish society, particularly the military. The Almoravid army was commonly divided by rank into foot soldiers or advance guard, bowsmen, lancers on horseback and generals".

Art historian James Brunson and historian Runoko Rashidi use Viking Sagas to point out the presence of black Saracens in Muslim naval fleets. They quote from a translation of the thirteenth century Icelandic Orkneyinga that recounts a battle on the Mediterranean sea between Vikings and black Saracens which states, "Once both parties were aboard there was fierce fighting' the people on the drumond being Saracens, whom we call infidels of Mohommad, among them a good many black men, who put up a strong resistance".

As the Viking saga continues, "Erling, honored aimer of spears, eagerly advanced towards the vessel in victory, with banners of blood; the black warriors, brave lads, we captured or killed, crimsoning our blade. Busy with this drumond business our blades we bloodied on the blacks"

Eleventh century Spanish depiction of the reputed heads of four slain Moorish princes killed in battle with Aragonese forces. There have been literal and symbolic interpretations of the artwork.

Moorish Artwork
Moorish Artwork

To highlight the social mobility of these soldiers DeCosta points to Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the leader of the Almoravid forces that recapture Spain in the 11th Century. DeCosta remarks that Yusuf is said to be a Sanhaja Berber "from the Sudan near Ghana". He also makes mention of the Arab chronicler Al-Fasi who describes Yusuf as a "brown man with wooly hair". DeCosta contends that this description places Yusuf as a Berber of at the least partial black-African heritage.

H.T. Norris in his work, "The Berbers in Arabic Literature", recounts that among Yusuf's troops was personal retinue of 4,000 black soldiers carrying hippopotamus skin shields, peculiar bows, Yazani spears, Zabian javelins, and moving to constant sound of drumming. Norris states, "The bizarre aspect of the African army was a valuable psychological weapon".

Brunson and Rashidi also write of black women warriors among the Almoravids. They cite the medieval epic "Romance of the Cid" that also speaks of black Berber Almoravid women. "This group of women consisted of three hundred Almoravid Amazons led by a 'Black Moorish woman' named Nugaymath Turquia".

Rashidi and Brunons cite Norris who states further of this black Berber, "She appears in the Primera Cronica General of Alfonso X (El Sabio), king of Castille and Leon (1252-84). The Primera was completed about 1289 under his successor Sancho IV. The events are associated with the Almoravid siege of Valencia after the death of the Cid. Nugaymath Turquia is the leader of a band of three hundred Amazons. They are negresses, they have their heads shaven, leaving only a topknot, they are on a pilgrimage and they are armed with Turkish bows".

Norris goes further to quote from the actual text stating, "King Bucar ordered that black Moorish woman to encamp nears the town with all her company That Moorish woman was so shrewd a master archer with the Turkish bow that it was a wonder to behold, and for that reason (the History) says the Moors called in her in Arabic nugaymath turquia, which means 'star of the archers of Turkey'".

Beyond the roles of soldier and slave, there is little written on blacks in Muslim Spain. Very few writers associate any blacks with members of the nobility. Hugh Kennedy in "Muslim Spain and Portugal" cites a possible reference to a black noble. Kennedy describes Al-Hakam, who ruled the Umayyad Amirate, as "tall, thin, haughty and strikingly dark in complexion". This is Kennedy's only reference to Al-Hakam' appearance, noting that he is of different appearance than his Arab father. But Kennedy never explains the reason for this.

Moorish Artwork
Moorish Artwork

DeCosta refers to the Cantigas for evidence of black nobility in Muslim Spain. He states "blacks also figured among the Moorish aristocracy". He points to pictures within the Cantigas that depict black nobles. One of these is a picture depicting a rich sultan dispensing gifts among other members of the nobility. One of those depicted is a black figure.

Despite his seemingly larger than life accomplishments, it is generally accepted that Imhotep was an actual historical persona. His numerous deeds, actual or attributed, were enough to ensure that his name would be remembered thousands of years after his death.

Brunson and Rashidi also look to the Cantigas for evidence of Black nobility in Muslim Spain. They highlight a picture depicting two black "Moorish" noblemen playing chess. Both black and white servants wait upon them.

 

The perception of blacks in Muslim Spain by their Arab allies is not a topic that has received much attention. Rather there is more interest on how Arabs in other parts of the Muslim world regarded blacks. Historian Bernard Lewis has probably done the most specific work in this area. He remarks that color prejudice against blacks began to increase in the 7th Century AD.

His reasoning for this included Arab ethnocentrism and the increasing role of blacks as slaves. Lewis points to poetic satire aimed at the black son of one of the Prophet Mohammad's close companions, who was appointed governor of Sistan in 671 and again in 697. Writing of him, an Arab poet calls him a "stinking Nubian black - God put no light in their complexions!"

Bernard makes the argument that this negative view of blacks had begun to extend throughout the Muslim world.

Brunson and Rashidi note that in Spain, the Arabs have disdain for their Berber allies. This bias is especially reserved for the darker Berbers whom Brunson and Rashidi believe were black. They cite a reference of bias by a high-ranking Arab who refuses to work next to an equally high ranking Almohad, "because the dark-skinned Berber seemed to him far below his own intellectual standards".

Such bias towards Berbers is the most frequently discussed by historians. But as most of these writers do not consider the possibility of black Berbers, this bias is blamed upon Arab ethnocentrism as opposed to racial animosity. Brunson and Rashidi contend that the Arab view of their superiority over the nomadic Berber groups resulted in many forms of bias directed against the Berbers. They point out that Berbers were given poor land allotments and levied heavier taxes. Fletcher cites this unequal treatment as the cause for a large Berber revolt in the Maghreb in 739. Brunson and Rashidi assert that a partial reason for this bias may have been the heterogeneous (mixed) nature of some Berber populations.

Brunson and Rashidi cite such bias as a cause for a reactionary 9th century work "The Superiority of the Black Races Over the Whites" by a black Muslim scholar, Uthman' Amr ibn Bahr al-Jahiz. They point out that al-Jahiz included the Berbers and Moors among these blacks.

The perception and impact of Blacks upon the European psyche is a much more studied topic. Most writers agree that the image of blacks in early medieval Spain and Western Europe is generally negative. Brunson and Rashidi refer to the European perception of blacks as written in the medieval Frankish Epic, The Song of Roland. They note that it is harshly negative. They quote directly from the epic which states, "At their head rides the Saracen Abisme [Abyssinian?]: no worse criminal rides in that company, stained with the marks of his crimes and great treasons, lacking the faith in God, Saint Mary's son. And he is black, as black as melted pitch"

The epic further states, "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 Roland sees that unbelieving race, those hordes and hordes blacker than the blackest ink - no shred of white on them except their teeth".

Rashidi and Brunson note that while these blacks are depicted as vile and repulsive, they are also depicted as "beautifully arrayed in battle". Miriam DeCosta's work investigates the portrayal of blacks in the thirteenth-century "Cantigas" of Spain. In the "Cantigas" DeCosta highlights the manner in which "Spanish poets and illuminators of the period used the color black in a pejorative way, associating it with the devil or evil". He further points out that though other racial figures are depicted as Moors as well, the black figures seem to hold a central theme of negativity.

Brunson and Rashidi also point to such negative attitudes of blacks in medieval literature. They state of this, "In medieval literature demonic figures were commonly depicted with black faces. Among Satan's titles in medieval folklore were: "Black Knight" "Black Man", "Black Ethiopian", and "Big Negro". In the Cantiga 185 of King Alfonso the Wise of Spain (1254-86), three Moors attacking the Castle of Chincoya are described as "black as Satan". In Cantiga 329, an extremely black man who has stolen objects from a Christian church is identified as a Moor, In the Poema de Fernan Gonzalez, devils and Moors are equally described as "carbonientos" - literally the "coal-faced ones".

This negative view of blacks is thought to be associated to their role as non-Christians. Brunson and Rashidi also note that this view of blacks takes a remarkable turn in later years. They point to medieval literature and art outside of Europe that discuss Sir Morien who is described as black in the medieval Dutch version of Lancelot. They quote from the prose that Morien was "black as pitch; that was the fashion of his land - Moors are black as burnt brands". Brunson and Rashidi point out that the text states of Morien, "in all that men would praise in a knight was he fair - though he were black, what was he the worse?" Brunson and Rashidi also point to the popular Christian Knight St. Maurice as a positive black image in medieval European thought.

St. Maurice
St. Maurice

Mario Valdes Y Cocom also illustrates how many blacks came to symbolize ideas of holiness and were heavily associated with ideas of Christendom: From the mythical Prester John to 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. This mythical black boy was sometimes associated as a helper to the equally mythical Sinterklaas (Santa Claus).

Pallamedes
Pallamedes

The legacy of blacks in Europe lasted well beyond the Islamic period. 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 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.

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".

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. Frederick II (1197-1250), of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, maintained a close relationship with the remaining Moors in Sicily.

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, many of them no doubt black Africans. Within Sicily there was even a structure named, "The Gate of the Blacks".

 

 

 

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