People of Color in European Art History


  1. wickederthanyou:

    medievalpoc:

    Sir Morien, Black Knight of the Round Table

    The tale of Sir Morien, written into Celtic Arthurian canon in the 1200s and contemporaneous with the tales of Sir Galahad, begins thus:

    Herein doth the adventure tell of a knight who was named Morien. And of a Moorish princess was he begotten at that time when Agloval sought far and wide for Lancelot, who was lost, as ye have read here afore.

    I ween that he who made the tale of Lancelot and set it in rhyme forgat, and was heedless of, the fair adventure of Morien. I marvel much that they who were skilled in verse and the making of rhymes did not bring the story to its rightful ending.

    Some quick paraphrasing from ElodieUnderGlass’s blog:

    He decides to visit England alone in the hopes of finding his father, via the quirky but unproductive method of beating up every knight he comes across until they told him where his father was/were actually his father all along. As a teenager, he held his own against the disguised Sir Lancelot in hand-to-hand combat for so long that Sir Gawain begged them to stop fighting, as he couldn’t bear to see such good knights kill each other for stupid reasons.

    image

    Meanwhile, characters in these stories aren’t really visually described unless they have superlative characteristics, such as mysterious all-black armor or remarkably long golden hair. Many knights were described as dark in hair and features. Instead of placing a large flashing sign in the middle of a saga going “THIS PERSON IS TOTALLY A PERSON OF COLOR YOU GUYS, WE REALLY HOPE YOU WILL TAKE THIS INTO ACCOUNT IN FUTURE ADAPTATIONS” the narrative might well have said “Sir Bors, who was dark” and moved on, assuming that readers or listeners would interpret it the way the narrator meant. Sir Morien is described as wearing North African armor, though most images of him are in European gear, possibly because the artists found Moorish armor too hard to draw.

    image

     Interestingly, this narrative makes a large point of describing his skin color, possibly because it was thought to be unusual and dramatic, especially as he seems to match his own shield and armor.

    Here are some quotes from the translated saga of Morien:

    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…

    Had they not heard him call upon God no man had dared face him, deeming that he was the devil or one of his fellows out of hell, for that his steed was so great, and he was taller even than Sir Lancelot, and black withal, as I said afore…

    When the Moor heard these words he laughed with heart and mouth (his teeth were white as chalk, otherwise was he altogether black)…

    Morien’s saga ends when he finds his father (Sir Agrovale of the Round Table) and convinces him to return to Africa and marry Morien’s mother, thus making an honest woman of her and a legitimate son of Morien. Sir Agrovale goes “OH, hey, yeah, I completely forgot I was going to do that! Sorry, son!” and they get married and Sir Morien can therefore legally inherit his mother’s kingdom and gets to be a king.

    You can read the entire translation of Sir Morien’s adventures with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table here.

    Read more about various knights of color from Arthurian Legend here.

    1. Statue of a Knight believed to be representative of Morien (Moriaen), unknown artist, later brought to Magdenburg Dom and called Saint Maurice c. 1220

    2. Miniature from Illuminated Manuscript circa 1350s, of Morien, Moriaen, Maricen, or Saint Maurice, in European Armor

    3. Two later images of Sir Morien from the 1700s, from German language PDF source.

    [x] [x] [x]

    omg that pun XD

    and seriously, I haven’t even got to Sir Palamedes, the Saracen Knight of the Round Table, yet! He overlaps with the legends about Tristan and Isolde (Drustan and Isuelt), as well.

    A lot of artwork from the Middle Ages that features a Black knight is lumped into the category “Saint Maurice” nowadays; the problem is, the words “Morien”, “Maracen” and “Maur” or “Maurice” mean “moor”, which in some contacts meant “Muslim” and in others just meant “Black person”.

    The reason that this statue is more likely to be Sir Morien is because the armor is also painted black; the armor is also of a the Moorish style, with the head and hands covered. The incredible detail on the face, with smile lines and arched eyebrows perfectly delineated, is suggestive that this statue was made in the image of a person with striking features who sat for the artist. The posing of the figure makes it clear that originally, the statue was holding a sword or pollax of some sort. It is easy to imagine that when the original paint was intact, the image of the proud knight with black skin, matching black armor, black surcoat, and “taller even than Sir Lancelot”, must have been an absolute wonder to behold.

    The black and white PDF image is also more likely to be specifically Sir Morien because of the black-on-black armor, which even at such poor quality is a very striking artistic effect and lines up perfectly with the literary descriptions.

    The tendency to dub every single image of a Black person in medieval art that is in armor “Saint Maurice”, just as the tendency to dub every Black person in plainer clothes as “slave”, despite there being no evidence whatsoever that this is the case, is a modern invention. A Black knight in Black armor is more likely to be Sir Morien; a dark skinned knight in a Saracen turban or headdress is more likely to be Sir Palamedes; and a Black knight depicted without a halo is entirely likely to be a portrait of a Black knight in the court at that time.

    The lack of representation in modern fantasy literature is really inexcusable. The all-white reinvention of Medieval Europe commonly depicted in popular literature, films, tv shows and art is entirely that: a fiction. An invention. An erasure. Obviously, people of color have been an essential and integral part of European life, European art, and European literary imagination since time immemorial. To cite “historical accuracy” as a means to project whitewashed images of the past into the future to maintain a fiction of white supremacy is an unconscionable farce.