[Please be aware that today’s Secret History contains discussion of racist imagery and quotes racist slurs from a medieval poem]
27. Ellen Moor
Right, first things first — in the interests of historical accuracy, the Secret Historian would like to point out that the image above is not actually a picture of Ellen Moor — it’s an image taken from a 15th-century German manuscript, Konrad Kyser’s Bellifortis, and it depicts Makeda, Queen of Sheba. More below the main post**.
So! It appears that the tumblrverse is having another attack of the debate that goes
'Medievalist fantasy fiction doesn't have any characters of colour, and that pisses lots of us off!'
'But there weren't any people of colour in Europe in the Middle Ages! So it's only historically accurate that there are no PoC in Middle Earth!'
'What, so elves and wizards and magic rings and countless examples of deus ex eagle are perfectly OK but a few brown Hobbits are out of the question?’
'Umm… stop being so politically correct! It's just a story!'
Etc., etc., repeat until someone starts going on about the Hartlepool Monkey and I slope off to the bar.
The Secret Historian is not going to give her specific opinions on that debate today, boys and girls and everyone else — but she is going to tell you about some real-life Black people who lived in medieval Scotland.
James IV, king of Scotland from 1488 until 1513, was, by all accounts, a wildly charismatic and cosmopolitan monarch. He spoke eight languages, including French, Spanish, English, Latin and Scottish Gaelic (he was, in fact, the last fluently Gaelic-speaking king of Scotland) and loved entertaining visitors from all over Europe; in particular, he repeatedly challenged his bros from France, Burgundy and the Low Countries to come over for tournaments and dress-up parties. His court was home to poets, musicians and entertainers from far and wide — and the Treasurer’s Records show that some of them were ‘Moors’, a term which might suggest they’d travelled from Northern Africa or had been commandeered, purchased or rescued from an early Atlantic-trade slave ship. I’ve seen some people try to make the argument that medieval accounts of ‘Moors’ are actually about people who ‘aren’t really Black’ or ‘wouldn’t count as Black nowadays’ — you’ll see why I don’t think this is the case here in a few paragraphs below.
We have evidence that the ‘Moors’ at James’ court performed as entertainers — we have specific mentions of them playing the drums and dancing — and at least one female member of the company served as an attendant to Queen Margaret. Although they served the King and his family, their position was not necessarily a low or servile one — waiting on members of the royal family was considered an honour, and many noble families had daughters who served as handmaidens to the Queen. The records also show James spending significant money on prestigious gifts for the Moors, just as he did for other members of the royal household: in 1512, a woman named as ‘Blak Elene’ or ‘Elen More’ (Black Ellen, or Ellen Moor) recieved five French crowns from the Treasury, a woman named ‘Blak Margaret’ was given an expensive gown in 1513, and as late as 1527, when James’ son James V was on the throne, a woman named ‘Helenor the blak moire’ receives another gift of money (there’s some possibility that ‘Helenor’ and ‘Elene’ might have been the same person). There’s also a particularly sweet story about James taking an interest in a ‘Moris barne’, a newly-born ‘Moorish’ baby, presumably the small son or daughter of one of the group and asking the parents to bring the baby to meet him.
So what makes me think that the Scottish ‘Moors’ probably weren’t light-skinned people from the Middle East or Southern Spain? (Although TBH, going around claiming that medieval European depictions of Moors ‘don’t count as Black enough’ is phenomenally self-serving and messed-up in itself). Well, we also know about them from another, less historical, source. The poet William Dunbar made his living (and appears to have derived a lot of fun!) from writing playful, celebratory and sometimes bitingly snarky verses about James IV and his court. Dunbar wrote a poem about a tournament that was held in 1507 (and repeated in 1508) in which the prize was the honour of a kiss from ‘the Black lady’. There’s plenty of evidence to show that this tournament really did take place (twice): it appears in court records and in chronicle accounts.
I’ve got to tell you, Dunbar’s poem is, well, not exactly nice. It makes ruthless fun of both the knights who are competing and the woman who is their ‘prize’, and one of the ways in which it does this is by mocking her appearance. You can read the poem in full here — it’s quite uncomfortable reading, and I’d append a large warning for racist and misogynist language (which also applies to the excerpt below). However, what’s interesting for the sake of the ‘No PoC in medieval Europe’ argument is that Dunbar’s mockery is, to my eyes at least, very obviously mockery of a woman who has African features. The poet repeatedly refers to her as ‘my ladye with the mekle lippis' ('my lady with the large lips'), says that she is 'tute mowitt' ('large-mouthed'), has a short broad nose (he compares it to a cat's), and that her skin 'blinkis als brycht as a tar barrel' ('shines as brightly as a tar-barrel'). The knights, for their part, are told that 'Quhai for hir saek with speir and scheld / Preffis maest mychtellye in the feld, / Sall kis and with hir go in grippis (‘He who [fights] for her sake with spear and shield / And proves most mighty in the field, / Shall kiss her and hold her in his arms’), while the loser ‘quhai in fedle receawes schaem / And tynish thair his kynchtie naem, / Sall cum behind and kis hir hippis (‘he who receives shame in the field, / And tarnishes his knightly name, / Shall go behind and kiss her ‘hips’ (backside)’); presumably a marker of shame and humiliation.
It’s worth pointing out here that we don’t know whether the actual tournaments in 1507 and 1508 were as unpleasant as Dunbar makes them sound, and we also don’t know on what basis the lady whose kisses were being offered up took part — was it voluntary, or otherwise? Did the knights jousting for her favour really think that she was ‘ugly’ and that the competition was a joke, or is that just the slant that the poem takes? Did the loser actually have to kiss the lady’s ‘hippis’, or is that something Dunbar added to his poem for comic effect? (Another historical disclaimer here: we also don’t actually know whether Ellen Moor was the ‘Black Lady’ of the tournament — it might have been Margaret, it might have been another ‘Moor’ lady whose name doesn’t survive in the records, and literary historian Louise Fradenburg suggests that it might even have been a white woman dressed in a black costume).
I do wonder what Ellen Moor and her friends thought when they read this poem (or heard it read), though. Did she take it in stride as part of good old Dunbar’s shenanigans (he really is that nasty to many of the people he writes about, and is particularly vile towards Scottish Highlanders in another satirical poem), or was it as hurtful for her to hear as it would be for someone living today? Professor Joan Anim-Addo has an interesting article in this book (no preview, unfortunately) talking about Dunbar’s poem as an inception moment in racist European discourse, and I do think she has a point.
In the final shakedown, though… while this isn’t necessarily a comforting or pleasant picture of the life of an African-descended person in Scotland in the late Middle Ages, it does show very strong evidence for a group of recognisably Black people who were living, working and taking part in public life in a fairly remote corner of Northern Europe at the end of the medieval/beginning of the Early Modern period. Yes, a late-medieval/early renaissance king’s court is a special and privileged environment… but if you want an example of how PoC could be included in a medievalist fantasy setting, I think Ellen Moor and company are a great place to start. And yes, there is of course the possibility that you can read the situation as James ‘keeping’ these people as ‘exotic curiosities’… but again, surely thinking about how that would feel to the people involved would make an interesting jumping-off point for a novel or fantast adventure in itself.
And anyone who seriously wants to claim that such a story would be impossibly unrealistic, uninteresting or not worth telling, well… they can come and kiss my hippis too.
Read excerpts about the Moors at James’ court from the Treasurer’s Accounts at the National Archives of Scotland: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/early_times/moors.htm
John Conlee’s online edition of Dunbar’s poems: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/dunint.htm
Google Books link: Historian Katie Stevenson writes about the Tournaments of the Wild Knight and the Black Lady in 1507 and 1508: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=qsctXA-JVZIC&lpg=PP1&dq=chivalry%20and%20knighthood%20in%20scotland%20black%20lady&pg=PA94#v=onepage&q=black%20lady&f=false
Google Books link: Account of the tournament in Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=J8rVeu2go8IC&lpg=PA3&dq=tournament%20of%20the%20black%20lady%20staying%20power&pg=PA3#v=onepage&q=tournament%20of%20the%20black%20lady%20staying%20power&f=false
Google Books link: Imtiaz Habib, Black LIves in the English Archives 1500-1677:http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=B2F-SVZD08kC&lpg=PA33&dq=tournament%20of%20the%20black%20lady%20habib&pg=PA33#v=onepage&q=tournament%20of%20the%20black%20lady%20habib&f=false
Details on the Bellifortis manuscript, from which the image for this post is taken, at the City Museum of Ingoldstadt (German page): http://www.ingolstadt.de/stadtmuseum/reload_frameset.cfm?url=http%3A//www.ingolstadt.de/stadtmuseum/documents/ast_2003_konrad_kyeser_mi.ht [ETA: Damn, this page uses frames which don’t support deep-linking — however, if you click into the search box and search for ‘Konrad Kyeser’, it’s the first result that comes up].
** Continued note on the image for this post:
I originally came across a version of this image in an article about Nalo Hopkinson in the New Yorker, which you can read here, and then tracked down a higher-quality version. It seems to be legit, as there’s also a black-and-white photo of the same manuscript image on the page of the City Museum of Ingoldstadt (see link above), which hosted an exhibition about Kyeser in 2003 — although of course, I’m always happy to hear otherwise if anyone out there knows more about its provenance. I chose this image for this post both because the green silky dress that the woman in the picture is wearing is actually quite close to what ‘the black lady’ is described as wearing in one of the chronicle accounts and because the image — beautiful dress, golden headdress and cloak, although perhaps not the crown itself — are suitable for a woman participating in a courtly pageant-type event.