People of Color in the Medieval Period

I am white, therefore, I guess, no-color. Actually, I’m a lot of colors. Brown spots of freckles float on pink and white skin, the genetic residue of a lot of Brits and Vikings and a smidgeon of Italo/Greco something. Today I saw a announcement advertising a presentation at the Medieval Institute, “Medieval People of Color.” I about gagged.

The people of color in question — the presenters — are from India, China and an Arabian country (I forgot which). If they’re going to talk about “people of color” in medieval times how in hell are they going to do that? Recite “The Alhambra”?

One of the most interesting problems in looking at history is escaping, avoiding, fleeing from our own time, its biases, our “zeitgeist.” One example of this that I know well is how, during the 80s/90s “marginalized populations” fad, medieval scholars decided that lepers were marginalized and there was a plague of leprosy. Their “facts” were 1) for some odd reason from the 11th to the 13th century a lot of leper communities were built all over Europe (this is true; there were). OBVIOUSLY there must have been a shit load of lepers AND lepers were forced to stay in leper hospitals. 2) Sir Walter Scott depicted lepers as the scourge of the middle ages. Oh and we have Cadfael. Cadfail. 3) Medieval doctors could not accurately diagnose leprosy, therefore a lot of those guys probably weren’t lepers at all, but had syphilis.

Looking through the backward telescope, it’s easy to make assumptions. I write historical fiction and I have made a lot of mistakes, so many I don’t even want to do it any more, but one I did not make was that one. I didn’t read history while I was writing Martin of Gfenn (though I did later). I read what the people of the time wrote about lepers. It was vastly different from the history I read later.

Meanwhile, a relatively new science was applying itself to the graves in the innumerable leprosaria in Europe only to discover 1) there were few people and most of them were lepers in the graveyards of any of the leper hospitals and almost NONE in the “regular” graveyards. Meaning, two things a) Medieval doctors were good at diagnosing leprosy, b) medieval lepers in these hospital had it pretty good, c) documents showed the lepers were free to leave but why would they? 3) the number of leper hospitals was related to the role the leper played in Medieval culture; showing kindness to a leper was a sure road to salvation — we don’t think of them this way, but St. Martin of Tours and St. Francis (both famed leper-kissers) were almost pop stars in their time and among their great acts was showing kindness to lepers — what better insurance for a wealthy medieval family than building a leper hospital? and 4) Sir Walter Scott was writing pure fiction. Never mind Cadfael.

So here we are in our “black lives matter” (I believe they do, don’t misunderstand me) world and we’re having a look at “people of color in medieval times.”

The Arabs, Indians and Chinese had developed cultures WAY above most medieval European cultures in almost every respect. Us pink spotty people had NOTHING on any of those people of color. The Chinese are busy writing poetry on paper along with various other inscrutable yellow people things such as inventing cannons, woodblock printing and paper money. The brilliant, brown Arabs are blasting along with advanced mathematics and astronomy. The Indians — various colors from blue/black to pale yellow — are busy influencing the Arabs and, in turn, being influenced. Sadly, from our point of view, they followed a caste system, a misery for many but one which led to the Diamond Sutra. All kinds of cool merchandise (including human beings) is being carried back and forth on the Silk Road.

Of course, these cultures were shaken seriously by the arrival of Genghis Khan who was yellowish/brown.

When the Crusaders of all the predominant European shades went to the Holy Land and began slaughtering people randomly, they also saw things the like of which they had never seen — stone castles, for one, a technology they built on (ha ha damn I’m funny) and employed back in Europe. The cultural exchange that began as a result of the Crusades led to the modern world. As for “victims” — I think Monty Python has done a good job depicting the “cultural ethos of the time.” It was feudalism; we think of “serfs” but it was really about feuds…

Anyway, I’m almost tempted to take my pintoesque coloring to this conference to hear about “People of Color in the Medieval Period,” but I won’t. I’m trying to recover from my recent discovery of the slave trade of kidnapped Europeans to the American colonies. It’s not so much that I’m shocked by the fact that such a trade existed — humans have enslaved each other forever — but that I didn’t know it was REAL until I was 65, reading primary sources — advertisements — in periodicals from the 17th and 18th century. FYI, the Irish were considered an “inferior type” to the Swiss and German (slaves), less healthy, less hardy, less clean and less economical… Is that racism?

The moral of the story?

When are we just going to be PEOPLE? When are we going to be able to transcend the obvious (skin color) and acknowledge both our universally hideous and beautiful human history? It isn’t, ultimately, remarkable to me that we’ve all be enslaved. What’s remarkable is that somewhere along the line — and not that long ago — we decided to stop enslaving each other. The kind of humility that might lead us to accepting others is the same that might allow us to approach the worlds of our ancestors with clearer vision, asking “Who were you?” rather than assuming they were us, with our biases and experiences. They weren’t, but their choices brought us to the present moment, a moment that is unique to each of us. Talk about diversity… Meanwhile, “Come Patsy…”


7 thoughts on “People of Color in the Medieval Period

  1. My first husband great grandfather had come to the U.S. as a slave, or what they called a “lifelong indentured servant.” He got on well with the family and eventually took their name and made quite a life for himself, becoming more of an adopted on than a servant. But the family never got over the whole indenture thing and spend generations trying to prove it wasn’t what it was. I used to laugh about it. A lot.

    • I guess that’s the point. “Tried to prove it wasn’t what it was.” Several of my ancestors were slaves, even the most famous one who was a prisoner of war in the battle of Dunbar

  2. The Human Genome project has been a scandal because of its implications. People who were white, weren’t and people who were of ‘color’ were whiter. Like you I ask myself when are we going to be just people and enjoy the diversity. I learned only recently about the Irish and white slavery. My daughter’s boyfriend, half mexican and half irish, has a sign in his kitchen that reads: ‘Job available, Irish need not apply’, a constant reminder of how brutal some humans can be.

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