People of Color in European Art History


  1. [Who tells your history? What should we use history for? Can history provide a perspective on today? Who has power over history?]

    More thought-provoking and challenging displays from the Swedish Historical Museum coming this week, submitted by xanthy-m!

    Reader xanthy-m has submitted more photos from a visit to the Swedish Historical Museum (official website), including displays on historiography, Vikings, Roma and Travelers in Sweden, the racialization of the Saami, Nazi propaganda, and the history of scientific racism. These images will be organized into topical posts coming out periodically this week along with usual art history articles and essays. I hope you all will find them as insightful and provocative as I do.

  2. ☛ Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female | Tor.com

    People are always asking me about Vikings, so I think I’ll go ahead and share this link, but not without also sharing this link, which goes into just how contentious using skeletal remains to try and identify sex and race really are. It’s all quite loaded, and should lead us to question and open our minds to possibilities, rather than closing them to new information. There’s a goldmine of academic articles and resources at the second link as well.

  3. sourcedumal:

    note-a-bear:

    ooooooh

    OOOH LOOK AT THAT HISTORICAL ACCURACY THO

    In which fantasy fiction with characters of color is subjected to the “historical accuracy” test and comes out on top once again…

    (fyi this is the author of The Throne of the Crescent Moon, which has been featured for Fiction Week previously)

  4. sour-bees wrote...

    Is there any art about people of color in the Viking era? It's just that I've always seen viking stuff pertaining to white ppl, but I'm sure other ethnic groups were in the area as well. Sorry if you already posted that though. I must have missed that post!

    I get asked this a lot, and I always have to say that first of all, Viking art doesn’t have many people in it, period. It’s pretty stylized, and a lot of it is metalwork.

    Secondly, the reason so many people are into the idea of Vikings is because they are seen as medieval adventurers…they established cities and trading enclaves along The Silk Road, and there are also Viking settlements in North America. From National Geographic:

    As early as the ninth century Viking merchants nudged eastward along the shores of the White and Black Seas and navigated the shoals of eastern European rivers. They founded cities on major Eurasian trade routes and bartered for the finest wares from the Old World—glassware from the Rhine Valley, silver from the Middle East, shells from the Red Sea, silk from China.

    And they keep finding more stuff from North America that belonged to the people we would call “vikings” today. :) A lot of it is tools, textiles, and some small bits of metalwork. The people living in the area at the time, however, called the Dorset by Archaeologists, did make artworks of people, and some of them are thought to be small portraits of Viking people:

    image

    As opposed to the hostile reception in Newfoundland, where the people had no apparent desire for the Viking’s trade goods, the Dorset had been making a fine living trading with various other people in the region for quite  awhile:

    Moreover, some researchers think the Dorset relished trade. For hundreds of years they had bartered avidly with their aboriginal neighbors for copper and other rare goods. “They may have been the real entrepreneurs of the Arctic,” says Sutherland.

    And since it appears that the Viking towns weren’t occupying any kind of coveted area, and both parties had something the other wanted, these settlements were more or less welcomed. And, for those who have some pretty weird ideas about Vikings, a fair amount of them were women. There’s no evidence that there was any kind of sexual conquest or kidnapping of anyone indigenous; there’s actually evidence that this would have been against the law for both peoples (see this medieval manuscript that documents reparations made by Vikings [Varingians] to a woman who killed her would-be Viking rapist).

    image

    That’s not to say that there weren’t conflicts. Any time you have any group of people living together there will be conflicts of some kind, and sometimes these can turn violent. A pretty ubiquitous law in North America, especially in the Northeast, was that reparation for a person killed in war or by murder, or any other reason, was the replacement of that person. In other words, adoption (prisoners of war were sometimes tortured or killed instead; modern historians seem just as obsessed with this as the initial Europeans in the 17th century who wrote about it with great relish and unseemly titillation).

    There is also a great deal of evidence that intermarriage on cordial terms was practiced regularly in most cultures in North America, Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia (from whence came the Vikings), up until around the 1300s-1400s, when there was something called The Little Ice Age.

    You can read an article talking about these facts here, but unfortunately the writer seems to come to some kind of conclusion that the Vikings left to “preserve their cultural integrity/identity” which just about makes my eyes roll out of my head, and reminds me of this post. I’m serious., they are REALLY pushing it:

    Although the descendants of the Vikings had adjusted to life in the north, there were limits to their assimilation. “They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots,” says [National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Jette] Arneborg. “This growing contradiction between identity and reality was apparently what led to their decline.”

    The above is 100% speculation and only works if you think the Vikings living there  at that time looked down on Inuit people as much as the person who wrote that dreck apparently does.

    The reason I’m posting it is because my interpretation takes a slightly different angle-when the Vikings departed (slowly, over time as the weather got less hospitable for their livestock), it follows reason that a fair amount of people went with them, who were now presumably their family members.

    If this seems somehow farfetched to you, consider also that there are several surviving written accounts from Europeans who colonized North America a few centuries later that clearly described many Northeastern Native Americas as of variably mixed complexion and features, as they would have described them:

    A stranger in the Mandan village is first struck with the different shades of complexion, and various colors of hair, which he sees in a crowd about him and is at once disposed to exclaim that “these are not Indians.” There are a great many of these people whose complexions appear light. Among the women, particularly, there are many whose skins are almost white; with hazel, gray, and blue eyes.

    Why this diversity of complexion I cannot tell, nor can they themselves account for it. Their traditions, so far as I have yet learned them, afford us no information of their having had any knowledge of white men before the visit of Lewis and Clark made to their village …

    As you can see from Catlin’s description of the “Mandan” above, he probably asked some of these people WHY they looked how they looked, and they most likely replied with “what the crap are you talking about, you freak.”

    I will reiterate: Vikings traveled and established outposts like these all over the place. Here’s a rough map of how widespread the material evidence of Viking presence is:

    image

    That arrow marked “Vinland” is kind of all the stuff I just talked about. There were Vikings working as mercenaries for the Byzantine Empire, Vikings trading for Chinese silks (probably purchased from Persia), Egyptian beads, getting involved in the whole Al-Andalus issue in the 800s, you name it.

    And if you’re wondering why at this point people are still writing as if the vikings had some kind of sense of protecting a racial heritage, I will once more direct you to a post submitted by xanthy-m from The Swedish Historical Museum:

    image

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    ^ I’m pretty sure some of these academics are projecting their OWN views of ideas like “vikings” onto the people they’re writing about. I think that once we dig out this thread of bias that runs through the scholarship on these people, we actually stand a chance of getting a lot closer to the truth than we are right now.

    As I have said, i fail to see any evidence that Viking people would have looked down on Inuit people or any other people of color, or been averse to intermarriage and/or cultural as well as commercial exchange. But the people writing on these topics are living now, and are affected by the bias created by how these images, ideas, and perceptions are used by people in the modern era.

    Medievalpoc posts tagged “Vikings”.

  5. There is not just one single true picture of history.

     I’m very excited because xanthy-m has shared some more images from her trip to the Swedish Historical Museum!

    This museum has created some incredible displays, framed in entirely new ways that shine a spotlight on how sometimes our ideas about the past say a lot more about our present concepts and attitudes than they do about history.

    The original submission and commentary regarding it can be read here!

    I’ve collected the ones concerning Vikings in this particular photoset. I am absolutely in love with how the historiographical framing for their display-the idea that these were “periods”, much less the terms for periods, were created much, much later than that in which the people and events described actually took place.

    Not only that, it points out (in clear, accessible language!) that these ideas were created with a purpose, and the purposes they were used for were not always good. You can read a little bit more about the many ways the idea of “Vikings” has been used in post-medieval eras, including for white nationalism, ideas about racial purity, and propaganda in the 20th century.

    You can read medievalpoc posts concerning “Vikings” here.

  6. spacebunnysparkle-empress wrote...

    1/2. answer to your post got too long. I think maybe Martin, as an author, is just portraying the world as it is. in the world we live in, those things are true. It is violent and terrible and men, particularly white men do have the power. For me personally, i see it as a mirror. i feel like he's exposing how awful we can be. plus it makes for conflict and you cant have a good tv or fiction without tons of that. also, in real world,

    sisterofsilence:

    kishiria:

    medievalpoc:

    historically things like rape were either not discussed, considered NBD, or something which meant you must commit suicide because why would anyone want you after that? when i watch/read game of thrones, it makes me think about the brutality in our own lives, and how our media handles that. i dont know if it has that effect on anyone else though.

    1. You’re wrong about social perspectives on violence, including sexual violence, from “history”. Firstly, because you seem to be generalizing the entirety of human history. Secondly,

    imageWoman Kills a Would-Be Rapist and is Presented with his Belongings, manuscript illumination, 12th c., Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS Graecus Vitr. 26-2, fol. 208r. [more; more]

    According to the text of the Madrid manuscript of the “Synopsis historion,” a Byzantine chronicle written by John Skylitzes, “There were some Varangians dispersed in the Thrakesion theme for the winter. One of them coming across a woman of the region in the wilderness put the quality of her virtue to the test. When persuasion failed he resorted to violence, but she seized his Persian-type sword, struck him in the heart and promptly killed him. When the deed became known in the surrounding area, the Varangians held an assembly and crowned the woman, presenting her with all the possessions of her violator, whom they threw aside, unburied, according to the law concerning assassins.” In the image depicting these occurrences, the woman uses a spear to kill her attacker, and the other Varangian men approach her with armfuls of clothing.

    Women’s History in regard to the European Middle Ages, specifically, is so constantly being revised, revisited, and rewritten, what is considered “the norm” and what is considered “exceptional” changes with the day of the week, the phase of the moon, and the latest piece of documentation being debated in various circles.

    You can read this excerpt reviewing Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages in its second incarnation, versus the one from 1988 which the authors claimed focused too much on
    "the positive"…. as you can see, these ideas are constantly in flux, as well they should be! I’m ready for another volume refocusing on the positive, myself…. :|

    In other words, THIS is precisely what I mean-people get these ideas from media and project them onto history a lot of the time. And yes, there are plenty of counter-examples, we can talk about Artemisia Gentilischi, and a million other things, but my point is that you cannot universalize this.

    2. That’s precisely the problem I’m talking about, that GoT is more of a reflection of our CURRENT SOCIETY than it is Medieval European Society, but it’s often being presented as or defended as “Just How Things Were Back Then”. You know, back when DRAGONS.

    3. I think I’m going to have to have a whole speech very soon on how conflict in fiction is 100% possible without replicating or exaggerating gender or race-related oppression (Laurie J. Marks’ Elemental Logic series), AND without erasing gender (Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness) OR people of color (like basically 90% of the genre of epic fantasy. And urban fantasy, for that matter.)

    FYI, the Varangians were Vikings.  This woman killed a fucking Viking and the others honoured her for it.

    Let me rephrase that: a native Byzantian woman defended herself and killed a Varangian (a certain group of ‘vikings’, to be brief) who had come to these lands for trade and as hired guards (its more complex but bear with me). When the other Varangians heard of one of their own having attempted to assault a woman they proceeded to dump his corpse and give her all her belongings. Rather than, ya know, gang up on her like they constantly do in GoT (./vomit).

    It is an extremely interesting manuscript excerpt to look at the interaction of different cultural groups, the way they value eachother within and across said groups, and the expectations on either side. The Varangians responded in the way they would when one of their own had attacked another, and the other had rightfully defended themselves. The fact that the ‘other’ was in this case a woman and of a culturally different group was completely irrelevant to them: someone was assaulted, therefore, it was obvious to them what aught be done - namely compensate her with the deceased’s belongings / holdings.

    Thanks for adding more context to the story.

    I really just want to add one more time that fantasy stories that you read or watch on TV are stories invented by writers. They are not fettered by “historical facts” to have misogyny (or racism, or anything else) hardwired into every storyline supposedly based on history. Their stories are the result of choices that they are responsible for.

  7. vampiresandwerewolves wrote...

    i can't seem to find many things on poc during the viking age. i also can't find much music from then, period. do you have any sources or information about this time period?

    Well, here are all the posts I have tagged Vikings. A lot of people ask about people of color in Viking art, and I always have to kind of explain that there isn’t a lot of Viking art that has images of people in it. As well as overall trends in European Medieval Art. Most of your information is going to come from the well-traveled artworks that support what most of us know: the the Vikings were a very well-traveled people. There are also trade goods like beads and cloth, like Persian and Chinese silk found in grave sites.

    As for music, the Wikipedia page you probably want there is Nordic Folk Music. There isn’t a lot of documentation or surviving instruments involving Viking music, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have any. Chapter 4 of A History of European Folk Music by Jan Ling covers how many of the songs and tales from Scandinavia were part of an overall oral tradition.

  8. quietbang wrote...

    Hey, I know this is outside of your scope so I'm just hoping you can point me in the right direction- I'm looking for images of physically disabled people, literally anywhere, prior to the 19th century. Because I'm kinda sick of being told that I didn't exist, and I can't seem to find anything myself.

    shoreofmysoul:

    medievalpoc:

    I’m a disability activist and it’s part of my day job, too so I actually have a fair bit, I think.

    Here’s a link to a post i made on this a while back, including this book:

    image

    For some pretty interesting but mostly text-based scholarship on disabled people in history, Disability Studies Quarterly offers full text online (EE!), and I *think* they have PDFs that include images and/or artworks.

    This issue in particular has some great articles on Disabled Shakespearean characters and themes.

    Here is a post about a deaf man who greatly confused some Americans in the late 1800s. Here is a painting of the Virgin and Child appearing to a “lame” noblewoman from the 1750s. I have some paintings of Billy Waters and some disabled Black sailors in the British Navy from the 1800s here:

    image

    Here is a PDF excerpt from Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of Disability that includes at least one image from an illuminated manuscript.

    Greg Carrier, a graduate student in Medieval Studies at the intersection of disability wrote a series of guest posts for the Medieval Middle, has a blog here that you can look through to find images and writing about the depiction of disabled people in Medieval Art as well as evidence from writing and I *think* surviving objects as well. For example:

    image

    Here’s a pretty cool resource on a disability/representation exhibit that has a lot of images, including The Beggars by Pieter Brueghel:

    image

    More on that work here.

    There’s a LOT out there, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of it.

    Just in case it’s interesting you can find sources for people with disabilities in Norse society too.

    Norse mythology: The most well known is probably the mythical god Hod, who was blind. He was tricked by Loki into killing his brother Baldur with a mistletoe arrow.

    Odin himself had one eye, since he traded the other one away.

    There’s also the warrior god, Tyr, whose hand was bit off when he leashed Fenris. Having one hand did not stop him from commanding the armies of Asgard.

    Sagas: Most people probably know about Ragnar Lodbrok from History Channel’s Vikings. According to several different sources he and Aslaug had a son, Ivar the Boneless, who was disabled. He had “soft legs” (most likely osteoporosis) and had to be carried into battle on a shield. The sagas describe him as beautiful, wise and strong with sword and bow. He ended up as king of York. (His brother Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye was born with an eye with a distorted pupil).

    In Hávamál there’s this quote:

    The lame may ride a horse,
    The handless may drive a herd,
    The deaf may fight and do well;
    A blind man is better
    Than a burnt one;
    The dead are of no use.

    Archeological finds: Two of the most famous Norse graves found in Norway, Oseberg and Gokstad, has people that archeologists believe had disabilities. The oldest woman from Oseberg had been bedridden when she was younger due to osteoporosis and walked with a limp. The man from Gokstad, a warrior killed in battle, had acromegaly and in addition a permanent knee injury.

    (Interestingly, one DNA study of the younger woman from the Oseberg grave showed that she was most likely of Eastern descent. They have unfortunately not been able to replicate this study and confirm the findings.)

    Ableism TW:
    Laws: There was a practice of leaving unwanted children to die in the wild. With the introduction of Christianity there came laws forbidding this unless the infants had obvious physical disabilites.

  9. bad-mojo:

    medievalpoc:

    archaeo_girl
    submitted to
    medievalpoc
    :
    The Viking Buddhas Thinking of your Ancient Art, would you consider the Viking Age ancient? It’s more early Middle Ages generally speaking.

    I was wondering if you’d seen any of the Viking Buddhas? The Vikings had extensive trade with Asia (some through Russia and extensively through Persia). The most common east Asian trade item found in the Viking world (from what I understand) is silk. Less well known are the “uncommon” but not “rare” occurrence of Buddhas. There are several “classic” style Buddhas found in the Viking world that were likely acquired in trade from eastern Asia (i.e. China) as well as some in the style of southern Asia (i.e. India), but there are also some that are done in a style and with materials that suggests they might have been created in northern Europe, from within the Viking world. The more famous of these (to my knowledge) is the “Oseberg Bucket Buddha” (wikimedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Buckle_from_Oseberg_Vikingship_Buddha.JPG ). It was found in a burial of a very high profile woman.

    From what I’ve been able to find, how these Buddhas fit into the Viking worldview is not known. where they representations of a religious minority? Where they co-opted as representation of Norse gods? Was a Buddha figure incorporated into the Viking pantheon in some areas? Where there immigrants or descendants from east/south Asia living in the Viking world that maintained their religious heritage (we know the Viking brought back people from both raid and trade expeditions from most of the “known” world, as spouses, slaves, and even equals/freemen immigrants, and it was possible for slaves to become freemen). In addition to the Buddhas, there are several figurines, mostly interpreted as Valkyrie or Shield Maidens, that have what art historians and hobbyists describe as “slanted” eyes (how i wish they said “artistic interpretation of a hooded eye” or something less probematic! Even “Asiatic” would have been less loaded, for goodness’ sake. ) ( wikicommons link http://www.flickr.com/photos/28772513@N07/4560502772/ ).

    Actually, in recent years, more connections to the Vikings and Asia have been revealed in both art and literature. In additions to the Buddhas from Helgö and Oseburg, Persian silk fragments previously thought to have been looted from England or Ireland are now thought to have been gained by legitimate trade directly with Persia. Some of the fragments are suspected to have originated even further east in China.

    The literary connection comes from the Saga of Siddharta, which became Baarlams and Josaphat, which was originally Buddha. Apparently a written version of this tale was recorded as a Norse saga in the 13th century.

    There are also some linguistic and genetic connections, but that’s definitely wayyy outside my field.

    photo credit to Saamiblog

    I can’t help it, I gotta comment on this because it’s so exciting.

    It is well-known that the norsemen were pretty keen on adopting gods into their pantheon, the more gods the better! (Which is what happened when they became Christianian, they simply adopted Jesus as yet another god to worship and I have even found proof of that on a rune stone not far from where I live. It was sporting a swastika, which is a heathen symbol, and a Christian cross just below it, but the christianization is an entierly different discussion.)

    The fact that they could have been worshipping an Asian god doesn’t really sound far off to me at all, and frankly it’s pretty exciting to think about.

    What I think is most ironic of all is when people use vikings as a symbol for white sympremacy (yeah, yeah, I repeat this a lot, I know, but it’s something that I will fiercely protect until the day I die) when the vikings themselves were a really curious and multicultural people who (supposedly) took a lot of pride in traveling and trading with people who lived far away. It is believed that it was seen as a symbol of status to own things from far away places. And it would make sense too, because it would indeed be a feat to travel to India and back to Scandinavia again (and required money)

    One of the most obvious signs of Middle Eastern influence however, is the way that they dressed. These are harem pants. (Not all pants looked like this though, and most, if not all, of the archeological finds are from the later Viking Age.)

    There’s also this little quote:

    Vivid colors, flowing silk ribbons, and glittering bits of mirrors - the Vikings dressed with considerably more panache than we previously thought. The men were especially vain, and the women dressed provocatively, but with the advent of Christianity, fashions changed, according to Swedish archeologist Annika Larsson.

    They combined oriental features with Nordic styles. Their clothing was designed to be shown off indoors around the fire,” says textile researcher Annika Larsson, whose research at Uppsala University presents a new picture of the Viking Age.

     - Vikings did not dress the way we thought

    There are also a couple of mythical swords with the word “Ulfberth” embedded in them made from a special kind of crucible steel, and they got those ingots from places like Iran and Afganistan. If you’re really into swords, there’s a really good documentary on youtube about the process of making this kind of sword.

    I even read somewhere that they took musical influence from the Middle East, but I would leave that to my followers because I’m not well-read regarding that aspect at all.

    There are a lot of racists in my country saying that we’re destroying our precious culture (that already is a huge melting pot to begin with) and wasting our money on immigrants, and racists on tumblr using vikings and ancient germanic culture as an avatar for their disgusting beliefs, but they also fail to realize that multiculturalism is a tradition that runs REALLY FAR BACK. Even the vikings did it. We had brown peole in Norway and Sweden back then, some were even free men. Odin facepalms at you. You have no excuse for your shitty opinions.

    (via gap-var-ginnunga)

  10. asperss wrote...

    I'm writing a comic that takes place in Scandinavia around 900 AD, and I want to include POC presence and characters to maintain historical accuracy. Do you have any info on what cultures/peoples were present at that time? I went through the 'scandinavia' and 'vikings' tags that talked about the Sami and Moors, but were there any emigrates from Asia? Any info helps, and thank you for running this blog :D

    nafennasidaur:

    medievalpoc:

    Actually there’s a fair amount of archeological evidence to support some pretty hefty trading with Asia. Some of the coolest stuff is actually tracing the origins of various beads.

    Like, but the thing is you don’t have to act like anyone’s twisting your arm or anything on including people of color. I mean, I’m assuming your writing the comics for an audience and that audience would probably appreciate some diversity. “Historical Accuracy” isn’t some kind of Sword of Damocles attendant upon any who dare secure a readership for their comic, and honestly it sucks that people feel the need to “justify” writing to/for a diverse audience that almost always is expected to identify with the ubiquitous tale of White Man Does A Thing.

    It just goes to show how freaking hostile our society is to representation of women, people of color, queer folks, and disabled people.

    Additional research like this can help you tell a much more interesting story for a lot of people, IMHO. I think a lot of the reason anyone likes Viking stories or stories based on that kind of thing is *because* they were travelers and traders. It’s exciting, it’s adventure, and the Vikings themselves are kind of interesting.

    For example, a book like this one (which I read when I think I was about…I dunno, 9 or 10?), as cloddish and macho as it is, still had some people of color in it, including a Black woman (who sadly makes her only appearance as an enslaved prostitute, along with another woman who is white with red hair. Guess which one gets “saved”. Notice that’s not a question).

    There’s a lot of other weird historical inaccuracies in that book, from what I remember, but travel, commerce and trade is fairly central to the flavor and tone of the book, which is mostly stale urine. I should get it used and re-read just for the hilarious memories, including the guy alone in his hermit-hut like WHY DOES MY PEE CLEAN THINGS???????

    Anyhow it’s mostly terrible don’t get that book.

    TL;DR: Go for it and I hope you have awesome Asian characters as well as other POC in your Viking comic because it’s interesting and cool and can be perfectly historically accurate, but don’t act like someone’s forcing you to do it because *waves arms at the entirety of modern media*.

    This might help a bit with the Saami! (or rather the way the Saami and the Finns were perceived by Vikings)
    Jeremy DeAngelo ”The North and the Depiction of the Finnar in the Icelandic Sagas” Scandinavian Studies Vol. 82, No. 3, Fall 2010, pp. 257-286 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/25769033)
    Also, there were Vikings that emigrated to Russia (‘Varangians’) and there were also a lot of Vikings that traveled through Russia to Constantinople and later (988) Vikings became bodyguards to the Emperor there (the Varangian Guard).

    I don’t know a lot about immigrants from Asia, but POC that would have definitely been in Scandinavia are the Saami (and they would be really interesting! Weather-Witches, Archers and Shapeshifters are all accounted for in Icelandic Sagas!), and (although not exactly POC) the Finnish tribes, and some Slavic tribes. Since some trading routes went around Gibraltar, Africans could have gotten to Scandinavia as well (that would be a really interesting story!). Other possible options from Asia are Osmans, or people from Kazakhstan or Persia. If there were routes that went much farther east than the Caspian Sea, we don’t know about them, but of course people from there might have travelled to places in the west and met with Vikings there! It might be easier to research emigration from specific places in Asia to the west around 900, and then check if Vikings might have been there (and they probably were.)

    It’s also very important when writing about or attempting to represent a specific race of people or culture, you listen to the people who belong to that culture.