People of Colour in European History
Updated: May 9, 2022
Knights, Vikings, Emperors, and everywhere else you didn't know there were brown people.
In the present day and age, it’s amazing we still have to say this, but: not everyone in European history was white. Every time a book, tv show, or video game shows a character of colour, audiences bring out the same tired old cries of “historical inaccuracy.” It happens even when the story is fantasy: they can suspend disbelief for dragons and wizards, but Black people? (scoff) A step too far.
It’s amazing we still have to say this, but: not everyone in European history was white.
Everything from trade routes to art history to DNA evidence demonstrates the simple truth that people travelled. This episode is the first of a two-part series about some of the historical people of colour in Europe, as a starting point for anyone who would like to imagine the past with better accuracy. There is no way to achieve perfect historical accuracy–every measure, from statistics to skeletal analysis, has major failings–but the best we can do is to make the picture better a little bit at a time.
Part one: Classical Antiquity
The Roman Empire at its greatest extent stretched from north-western Europe to north Africa and central Asia, and had trade contacts beyond even that. Most people are roughly familiar with the scope of Roman contact thanks to depictions of nonwhite gladiators in film, but many still harbour the unconscious bias that diversity was only seen amongst the enslaved. We at Two Drunk History Nerds would like to bust that assumption wide open by starting with Septimus Severus: Rome’s first African emperor.
Septimus Severus was born in 145 CE at Leptis Magna, one of the leading cities of Roman Africa, in what is modern-day Libya. He is the first Roman emperor to have been born in the provinces to a family of non-Italian origin. He’s shown here in the Severan Tondo, with his Syrian wife and their two children (one of whose faces have been vandalised.)
In a fantastic project, artist Daniel Voshart has meticulously re-created the faces of the 54 emperors of the principate, from 27 BC to 285 AD. Here is his reconstruction of what several members of the Severan dynasty might have looked like, alongside comparative source material.
His son, Caracalla, formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
Marcus Opellius Macrinus, a man of Amazigh ancestry born in Roman Mauritania, who murdered the unpopular Caracalla and became Emperor in his stead.
His son, Diadumenian, who served as co-emperor until the family was overthrown.
These portraits always bring up the question: were any of those men really Black? The question is tricky: ‘Black,’ as an identity with a capital B, is a modern concept that didn't exist in Roman times.
‘Black’ as an ethnic identity refers to the shared cultural experience of people who suffered through the transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws, and current institutionalised racism in America. Most individuals who identify as Black had their previous tribal identities erased, when their ancestors were trafficked.
While it is very important to acknowledge this identity, it is equally important to avoid oversimplification. Some light-skinned people of mixed race identify as Black with a capital B because of their lived and family experiences, and some dark-skinned people prefer to spell black all-lowercase and identify by their individual ethnic group. This is especially common if they were born in modern Africa and have no hereditary association with the slave trade–although again, this is not universal to the entire continent of Africa. Black as an identity is much more common in places such as South Africa, where Dutch colonisation and apartheid dramatically affected people’s lives on the basis of skin colour.
By the same token, a modern North African living in America is ‘African American’, even though they might not be Black. Those North Africans often grow very tired of reminding other Americans that places like Egypt are–in fact!--in Africa.
In the Roman era, people didn’t generalise race into overarching “whiteness” or “blackness” as we do today. This is not to say Romans were without prejudice; they were simply ethnocentric in greater detail.
In the Roman era, people didn’t generalise race into overarching “whiteness” or “blackness” as we do today. To quote Frank Snowden in his essay “Art and the Somatic Norm Image”:
"The ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism. [...] Ancient society, [...] for all its faults and failures, never made color the basis for judging a man.”
This is not to say Romans were without prejudice; they were simply ethnocentric in greater detail. For one example, many Romans considered themselves “autochthones”--indiginous inhabitants of Italy who had sprung from the earth itself–and superior to people from the outer provinces. What is important to bear in mind here is that other parts of Europe were also ‘outer provinces’ to the Roman view. While a modern American might consider a German and an Italian to both be “white”, Romans clearly differentiated Germanic “barbarians” as a different ethnic group.
Returning to the question of the Roman Emperors mentioned above, Macrinus was Amazigh, the nomadic peoples of the Sahara desert, sometimes still known by the exonym ‘berber.’ ‘Berber’ is a derogatory term which derives from the Roman word ‘Barbaros’ or ‘barbarian.’ The endonym they use for themselves is ‘Amazigh,’ for a singular person like Macrinus, and Imazighen in plural. Modern Imazighen people include a diverse array of tribes and have skin tones that range from fair to very dark and both smooth and textured hair.
Emperor Septimus Severus was Punic, the Semetic people group associated with the destroyed city of Carthage. Semites are a group of ethnicities from the ancient Levant including Akkadians, Phonecians, Jews, and Arabs. The Semetic language group is a branch of the Afro-Asiatic family that includes Hebrew and Arabic, as well as dead branches like Aramaic and Canaanite, and lesser known modern branches like Amharic and Tigrinya–both spoken by tens of millions of people in Ethiopia–as well as Maltese, the only Semetic official language of the European Union.
We at Two Drunk History Nerds are not arguing that these Roman emperors would definitely have appeared in a way that modern Americans would understand as Black, although–given the diversity of skin tones among Imazighen–Macrinus certainly might have. Rather, we are holding them up as examples of Roman Emperors who were not Italian, nor any type of European, and would definitely not have appeared ‘white’. They are proof that powerful figures in historical films do not have to be played exclusively by white actors in order to be ‘accurate.’
Rome also had inhabitants that would certainly look black to the modern eye: Aethiops. ‘Aethiopia’ originally referred to Sudan and Nubia, then later to any part of sub-Saharan Africa south of Egypt and the Maghreb, and eventually was limited to modern Ethiopia, but it has always referred to places where Black Africans were the majority. Black Africans have had documented contact with Europeans since at least the eighth century BCE. Homer is the first written record to mention them: in book one of the Iliad, Thetis visits Olympus to meet Zeus, but Zeus is currently visiting Ethiopia. Homer’s contemporary Hesiod mentions Memnon, King of the Ethiopians, depicted here on a sixth century BCE vase with deeply melanated skin and textured hair.
A Black African dynasty from Sudan took control of Egypt around the same time. The Egyptian priest Manetho, in his “History of Egypt”, describes the 25th Kushite dynasty as “Aethiopian.” The Kingdom of Kush started in Napata, in modern day Sudan. From there, they annexed their way north into Egypt.
In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus provides the most detailed description of Egypt’s southern neighbours yet:
“Where the south declines towards the setting sun lies the country called Aethiopia, the last inhabited land in that direction. There gold is obtained in great plenty, huge elephants abound, with wild trees of all sorts, and ebony; and the men are taller, handsomer, and longer lived than anywhere else.”
Classical sources show no negative bias towards darker skin. Seneca the younger wrote: The colour of an Æthiop is not remarkable among his own people, nor is any man in Germania ashamed of red hair rolled into a knot.
By the first century BCE, the Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum was experiencing its golden age, and trade with Rome flourished. Classical sources show no negative bias towards darker skin. Romans describe more fear and aversion towards the lighter-skinned barbarians in Gaul and Germania, but philosophers cautioned against even that. In the first century CE, Seneca the Younger wrote:
“The colour of an Æthiop is not remarkable among his own people, nor is any man in Germania ashamed of red hair rolled into a knot. You cannot call anything peculiar or disgraceful in a particular man if it is the general character of his nation.”
Saint Maurice was the 3rd century leader of the Theban legion, and a declared Christian at a time when the new religion was still considered a threat to the Roman Empire. His legion, composed entirely of Christian Thebans, refused to harass local Christians in Gaul. After repeated defiance of orders, Emperor Maximian had the whole legion executed, for which Maurice was later canonised. He became the patron saint of Holy Roman Emperors, as well as soldiers, swordsmiths, armies, and infantrymen.
By the second century CE, African soldiers are recorded to have travelled as far as Roman Britannia. When Septimus Severus campaigned north of Hadrian’s wall, the Historia Augusta mentions a specific incident with an Ethiopian soldier. Known in his cohort as a famous prankster, he trolled the Emperor by presenting him with a garland of cyprus boughs: an omen of death. This unsettled Severus enough to make it into the written record.
The prankster wasn’t the only recorded African soldier, either. The wall was garrisoned by a unit of “Aurelian Moors” recruited from Roman Mauretania. The unit established a long-term base by the third century: Alballavra, known today as Burgh-by-Sands. This makes the town the first known African community in Britain.
Isotope analysis of Roman skeletons in the Yorkshire Museum revealed that 20% were long distance migrants, over 10% of African descent.
Perhaps due to his own mixed heritage, Severus legalised marriage between soldiers and local women. This may have contributed to the existence of one of the wealthiest inhabitants of fourth-century York: a woman of black African ancestry buried in a stone sarcophagus with luxury items like a mirror, a blue glass perfume jar, and a stunning set of contrasting black and white bangles made of Yorkshire jet and African elephant ivory.
Isotope analysis of Roman skeletons in the Yorkshire Museum revealed that 20% were long distance migrants, over 10% of African descent. Chemical elements in the ivory bangle lady’s teeth show she was brought up in a warm, coastal climate, and her skull shape suggests mixed ancestry, including Black features. Her case particularly helps contradict the assumption that any early African migrants to Britain must have been low status and male, such as conscripts or slaves. Her remains can be visited at the Yorkshire Museum.
Part Two: The Middle Ages and Renaissance
The 2020 costume drama ‘The Spanish Princess’ received considerable backlash for portraying black characters in Tudor England, but ironically, all the characters involved were based on real people. The supporting character of Catalina de Cardones, or ‘Lina’ as she is called on the show, is based on a real lady of the bedchamber in service to Catherine of Aragon. The fictional Lina’s backstory of being a secret Muslim pretending to have converted to Christianity in order to survive in service to the Spanish crown matches what would have really happened during the reconquista of Ferdinand and Isabella. Captured Muslims were commonly offered the choice of slavery or death, and Catherine of Aragon’s entourage arrived in England with a variety of Muslims and Jews.
It’s important to note that unlike Spain, England did not have a code of slavery at the time, and English servants were free people of all colours who earned wages, as they would for any sort of work. Parish records and accounting rolls attest matter-of-factly to black and Arabic servants, tradesmen, musicians, and more. Records show them negotiating wages, getting married, receiving gifts, and participating in other ordinary business of life.
Tudor England did not have a code of slavery at the time, and English servants were free people of all colours who earned wages. Parish records and accounting rolls attest matter-of-factly to black people negotiating wages, getting married--including to white people--receiving gifts, and participating in other ordinary business of life.
The records from "St Botolph's outside Aldgate" in the late 16th century are particularly interesting, showcasing an enormous amount of diversity. Alongside French and Dutch immigrants, there lived several "West Indians" from the Americas, an "East Indian" from what would today be Bengal, a Persian, and at least 25 black people. Nor were these immigrants inherently of low social standing. Some had high-status, costly Christian funerals, with bearers and fine black cloth, an indicator of both wealth and the high esteem in which their community held them.
The detail in the Botolph's register is amazing.
For one example, in 1597 we hear about Mary Fillis, a black woman 20 years of age, the daughter of a Moorish shovel maker and basket maker who had been in England 13 or 14 years and for a long while worked as a servant of Widow Barker in Mark Lane. After entering the employ of Millicent Porter, a seamstress living in East Smithfield, and now "taking some howld of faith in Jesus Chryst, was desyrous to becom a Christian, Wherefore shee made sute by hir said mistres to have some conference with the Curat".
The vicar of St Botolph's examined her in her faith, and "answering him verie Christian lyke", she did her catechisms, said the Lord's Prayer, and was baptised on Friday 3 June 1597 in front of the congregation. Among her witnesses were a group of five women, mostly wives of leading parishioners. She became a "lyvely member" of the church in Aldgate.
A well-recorded black Englishman who made a cameo appearance in the same TV series was John Blanke the trumpeter. Some modern audiences who could grumpily accept the argument that Spain might have some contact with Africa–such as across that extremely short distance known as the ‘strait of Gibraltar’--objected wildly to seeing a black actor amongst the row of white actors in the background of Tudor England. Unfortunately for them, John Blanke was very real, and is shown twice in the Westminster tournament rolls. He appears on the show amongst the Tudor entourage in a row of trumpeters, costumed and arrayed exactly as he is in contemporary illustrations. There is no ‘interpretation’ necessary to his existence or appearance; we have his picture, his name, and a record of his wages. We know he married in April 1512, and Henry VIII liked him enough to give him an extremely expensive wedding gift of a purple velvet gown and hat.
Tudor era wedding records are often particularly surprising to the modern eye, as England had no laws regulating intermarriage between people of differing skin colour. Both parties only needed to be of the same religion, and Christian persons of colour were free to intermarry with local English. After twenty-six years, the real-world Lina elected to get married and leave the Queen’s service. Her eventual husband, a Muslim crossbowman, also features in the TV series. Here is a great article listing numerous specifically documented people of colour in Tudor England, and another is here. We recommend a couple of excellent instagram and twitter accounts that collect and post historical images: Black Aristocrat and Medieval POC. The examples shown here just barely scratch the surface.
Getting into the apocryphal, Sir Morien, one of the knights of the Round Table, is very explicitly black. In "The Tale of Sir Morien," he is given as the son of an African princess and another knight of the round table, and is described as follows.
“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)…”
There were also three Arabic knights of the Round Table, the sons of King Esclabor of Babylon: Sir Palamedes, Sir Saffir, and Sir Segwarides. There’s also Sir Feirefiz, son of an African Muslim noblewoman and an English knight, who is described as ‘spotted black and white like a magpie’. Some modern scholars believe this is a metaphor for his mixed parentage, but Sir Morien was also of mixed parentage and is show as solidly melanated in the contemporary 1350 illustration above. In Sir Feirefiz' s case, it may be that the author was attempting to describe a man of colour with vitiligo. No contemporary illustrations exist of him, but below is a modern interpretation shared by BeautyInOddity on DeviantArt.
More extensive thoughts can be found in this blog entry by elodieunderglass but in brief: at least five Arthurian knights were explicitly men of colour, not even counting uncertain cases like ‘Sir Bors, who was dark,’ and Sir Pertilope, who was green.
Widespread stories and artwork prove that mediaeval Britons were completely comfortable with characters of colour, cast in a positive light as national heroes, or venerated as saints.
Now, Arthurian legend is just that: legend, the kind that includes godlike wizards and women lying about in ponds distributing swords as a method of government. But the tales were amassed from the twelfth to fourteenth century, and there is much surviving artwork from the period. Even if none of the characters existed in real life, the stories prove that mediaeval Britons were completely comfortable with characters of colour, cast in a positive light as national heroes.
Similarly, all the mediaeval depictions of St Maurice, such as the famous statue in Magdeburg Cathedral shown above and the painting of his Theban legion below, date from the 12th to 16th century. While we don’t know for sure what the real St Maurice looked like–he lived nearly a thousand years earlier–the iconography proves that mediaeval Europeans were happy to venerate a saint they saw as black
Saint Maurice is hardly the only melanated religious figure in mediaeval art. King Caspar–one of the three wise men who came to visit Jesus in the manger–is almost always depicted as black. The wise men aren’t described in the Bible as being from any particular country, though some traditions hold that they may have been Persian, Arabic, or Indian.
The Queen of Sheba is another famous biblical figure depicted as black in mediaeval manuscripts. There are Jewish, Islamic, and Ethiopian elaborations to her canon, and she is given many different ancestries in different traditions.
According to St Albert, the dark skin of Christ was a well-known fact.
The biblical figure that startles modern people the most is the Virgin Mary, but there are numerous instances of black madonnas in artwork, many of them very old.
More recent scholars have tried to explain away the blackness of these portrayals as an issue of smoke damage or other discoloration, but 15th-century scholar Gabriel di Barletta, quoting 13th-century St. Albert the Great, had this to say:
“You ask: Was the Virgin dark or fair? Albertus Magnus says that she was not simply dark, nor simply red-haired, nor just fair-haired … Mary was a blend of complexions, partaking of all of them, because a face partaking of all of them is a beautiful one … And yet this, says Albertus, we must admit: she was a little on the dark side. There are three reasons for thinking this-firstly by reason of complexion, since Jews tend to be dark and she was a Jewess; secondly by reason of witness, since St. Luke made the three pictures of her now at Rome, Loreto and Bologna, and these are brown-complexioned; thirdly, by reason of affinity. A son commonly takes after his mother, and vice versa; Christ was dark, therefore…”
It’s notable that according to St Albert, the dark skin of Christ was a well-known fact, from which one might draw conclusions about the appearance of his mother. Given the attitude of mediaeval Europeans, audiences today have no excuse.
Part Three: Mediaeval Africans of Power
If we asked you to name the richest man in human history, who would you name? Jeff Bezos? Elon Musk? John D Rockerfeller? All are good guesses, but some economic historians believe that distinction belongs to the 13th century Emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa. ‘Mansa’ is the Mandinka word for ‘Emperor’, and his regnal name was Musa Keita I.
Mansa Musa, the wealthiest man in human history, made it rain so hard he accidentally crashed the economy of Egypt.
Imperial Mali was enormous, including much of what is now Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, and the Gambia. Malian gold from secret mines was the primary commodity of trans-Saharan trade, and Mansa Musa quite literally put that fact on European maps.
Musa was a devout Muslim, and in 1324 set out on hajj: the pilgrimage to Mecca considered a mandatory religious duty for all Muslims who are physically and financially capable. Musa's journey was documented by numerous eyewitnesses, and is recorded across a variety of written and oral accounts. He took with him:
“60,000 men, all wearing brocade and Persian silk, including 12,000 slaves, who each carried 4 lbs of gold bars, and heralds dressed in silks, who bore gold staffs, organized horses, and handled bags. Musa provided all necessities for the procession, feeding the entire company of men and animals. Those animals included 80 camels which each carried up to 300 lbs of gold dust. Musa gave the gold to the poor he met along his route. Musa not only gave to the cities he passed on the way to Mecca, including Cairo and Medina, but also traded gold for souvenirs, and he built a mosque every Friday."
If you’re immediately reminded of the “Prince Ali” sequence in Disney’s Aladdin, you’re right: the splashy entrance is based on Musa’s real-life journey.
Historians and economists aren’t able to accurately estimate Musa’s net worth; the contemporary records of him are too breathless and extreme. But what they all clearly communicate is that he had–and gave away–more gold than any of them had ever seen, and more than they could numerically comprehend. While all stories about him should be taken as legends that were likely exaggerated by the awe he inspired, there is no doubt Musa made waves across the Muslim world. The story goes that he spent or gave away so much gold in the countries he passed, it became ordinary and lost value. Yes, you read that right. He made it rain so hard, he accidentally crashed the economy of Egypt.
On the way back from Mecca, it’s believed he tried to fix this rampant inflation by borrowing money back at exorbitant interest rates. He may have run out of funds, or he may have been trying to single-handedly control the price of gold in the Mediterranean, like a mediaeval version of the Federal Reserve or European Central Bank. His fame reached well into Europe, and he is depicted on the Catalan Atlas (above) holding a nugget of gold.
Powerful Africans weren’t only Muslim. Christianity had deep roots there as well. At least two early popes were of African descent:
Victor I, in the late second century, who declared Easter should always be celebrated on a Sunday.
And Miltiades, in the early fourth century, known for condemning the re-baptism of apostated clergy.
Saint Hadrian of Canterbury was a seventh century African scholar who transformed the church in Anglo-Saxon England. He was twice offered the Archbishopric of Canterbury, but modestly declined, preferring to remain the abbot of Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s. His contemporaries describe him as deeply educated and a brilliant teacher. He remains an inspiration for Christian migrants and people of colour in Britain to this day.
Another staggeringly ambitious pilgrimage undertaken by a mediaeval African king was recorded by French knight Robert de Clari, in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade:
“While the barons were there at the palace, a king came there whose skin was all black, and he had a cross in the middle of his forehead that had been made with a hot iron. This king was living in a very rich abbey in the city, in which the former emperor Alexios had commanded that he should be lodged and of which he was to be lord and owner as long as he wanted to stay there. … When the emperor saw him coming, he rose to meet him and did great honour to him. And the emperor asked the barons: “Do you know who this man is?” “Not at all, sire,” said the barons. “I’faith,” said the emperor, “this is the king of Nubia, who is come on pilgrimage to this city.”
Although de Clari never mentions which king of Nubia he witnessed, clues indicate it was likely King Moses George. The Byzantines saw no reason to make special comment; Constantinople prided itself on its ability to welcome many embassies and host many different cultures, and the visit wasn’t extraordinary in their eyes. Eustathios, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, noted that they hosted Ethiopians at the court of Emperor Manuel I. By the visit of King Moses George, it seems there were translators readily available:
“Then they had an interpreter talk to him and ask him where his land was, and he answered the interpreter in his own language that his land was a hundred days’ journey still beyond Jerusalem, and he had come from there to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. … And he said he wanted to go on pilgrimage to Rome, and from Rome to [the shrine of] Saint James ... and then come back to Jerusalem, if he should live so long, and die there.”
Constantinople prided itself on its ability to host many different cultures and had Amharic translators readily available. By the 1400s, Ethiopian embassies had established relations in Spain, France, and Italy, and the church of Santo Stefano delgi Abissini in Rome was dedicated specifically for Ethiopians to use.
This ambitious route covers some 13,000 kilometres, from the city of Aksum to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela. The Spanish shrine was one of the most popular pilgrimages in mediaeval Europe, and multiple accounts mention Nubians as one of the 72 different nations from which pilgrims came. By the 1400s, Ethiopian embassies had established relations in Spain, France, and Italy, and the church of Santo Stefano delgi Abissini in Rome was dedicated specifically for Ethiopians to use.
Another Christian African nation with extensive European contacts was the Kingdom of Kongo. Historically, its territory included parts of what is now Angola, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Kwango river in the east, and from the Congo river in the north to the Kwanza river in the south. Some viewers may be familiar with Congo’s 19th century colonial struggles with Portugal and Belgium, but in the high middle ages, it was an independent Christian state.
The Christianisation of the region began in 1485, when the ruling king, Nzinga a Nkuwu, took an interest. He sent a large mission to Europe to study Christianity and language. They returned with Catholic priests, who baptised the king. Nzinga adopted the Christian name João I in honour of Portugal’s king at the time, João II. His son, Alfonso Mvemba a Nzinga, established Christianity as the state religion. With the help of Portuguese advisors, he created a syncretic version that fused older traditional beliefs with Christian ones.
European relations were not always friendly, and 17th century King Garcia II Nkanga a Lukeni a Nzenze a Ntumba, or Garcia Alfonso for short, is often hailed as the greatest King of Kongo for his near-complete expulsion of the Portuguese. But he was a complex figure, and is also notorious for his leading role in the transatlantic slave trade. Proving with finality that African nations did not see themselves as singularly ‘Black,’ King Garcia was more than happy to sell off political prisoners and captured enemies as slaves.
The King of Kongo saw himself as an international leader, on equal footing with the other imperial powers of the era.
He saw himself as king of his own unique nation, and other African kingdoms as his political rivals, no better or worse than the various European kingdoms. He fought or traded with his political peers as suited his own interests. The portraits shown below are of his ambassador, Don Miguel de Castro, and servants, painted on a diplomatic mission to the Netherlands. Their presence in Europe and their dress demonstrates that the King of Kongo saw himself as an international leader, on equal footing with the other imperial powers of the era.
Much of the natter around the 2020 costume drama ‘Bridgerton’ centred on the notion it was impossible for a black man to be powerful in Europe, much less to be a European duke. Below is a photo of the actor in question, Regé-Jean Page, in "Merchant of Venice" at the Globe.
To the bigots who do not believe a face like Regé-Jean Page's should represent a European Duke, we have three simple words: Alessandro de Medici.
The son of a black servant and Giulio de’ Medici, who later became Pope Clement VII, Alessandro rose to power after a number of unexpected deaths in the Medici family. Mediaeval Florence has a chequered history of coups and counter-coups, sometimes a republic, sometimes under control of the Medici clan. Florence threw off Medici authority during Alessandro’s adolescence, but in 1530, when he was twenty-one, the Medicis recaptured it, aided by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. By agreement between the Emperor and the Pope, Alessandro was created Duke of Florence–transforming the Republic into a hereditary monarchy, and making Alessandro the first black head of state in Europe.
To the bigots who do not believe a face like Regé-Jean Page's should represent a European Duke, we have three simple words: Alessandro de Medici.
His six-year reign was turbulent, plagued by rivalry with a cousin who believed he should have been made Duke instead, and the exiled Republicans. His government drew both praise and criticism. His common sense and feeling for justice won him popular affection, and he was perceived by some as a champion of the poor and helpless, but the vocal exiles characterised him as harsh, depraved, and incompetent. His cousin, en route to denounce him to the Emperor, died under questionable circumstances. The Emperor continued to back Alessandro. Alessandro even married the Emperor’s daughter Margaret, but in 1537, he was assassinated by another rival cousin.
His fascinating story is the subject of a short film by Daphne di Cinto, a black Italian actor and director. Some viewers may recognise her from Bridgerton, where she played the Duke’s mother. As she herself has joked, her life has now come full circle to mothering the story of the real-world black Duke.
We hope you’ve come away from this episode with a sense that Africa is not a monolithic place, no more than Europe is. Both continents contain a vast array of different people groups with different appearances, languages, religions, and cultures, and have had contact with each other through most of recorded history. In part two, we’ll venture eastward to explore the historical contact between Europe and Asia.
For a brief and easy-to-read primer on the history of mediaeval Africa, we highly recommend The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa by Patricia and Frederick McKissak.
African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa by Michael Gomez goes much more in-depth, but is also a much more formidable read.
The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages by François-Xavier Fauvelle is also excellent, but requires some pre-existing knowledge of African history to get through.
Focusing more specifically on the connections between Africa and Europe,
Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe by Verena Krebs explores why Ethiopian kings pursued diplomatic contact with mediaeval Europe.
Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa by Kathleen Bickford Berzock looks at how the trans-Saharan gold trade was central to the medieval world.
If you can only buy one book to learn more about everything hinted at in this series, we emphatically recommend Global Medieval Contexts 500–1500: Connections and Comparisons by Kimberly Klimek, Pamela L. Troyer, Sarah Davis-Secord, and Bryan C. Keene. Although expensive--it is a textbook--it is designed for students new to the subject and exceptionally easy to read without being simplistic. It provides a unique wide-lens introduction to world history and explores vital networks and relationships that shaped mediaeval societies.
Finally, the visually-inclined amongst you will adore Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World through Illuminated Manuscripts by Bryan C Keene. Manuscripts are prisms through which we can glimpse how premodern peoples conceived of and perceived the world, its many cultures, and everyone’s place in it. Most such textbooks are Eurocentric, but this one examines decorated books, objects, narratives, and materials produced across the globe from Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the Americas in the middle ages.
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