Medieval England, Medieval Europe, Morgan Freeman, Racial Issues, Religious Issues, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
One of the more unusual elements of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, dir. Kevin Reynolds) is Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a black Muslim who helps Robin escape from a Muslim prison in Jerusalem. He declares that he owes Robin a life debt (which, by the way, is pretty much an entirely literary concept, without much basis in the real world) and so he returns to England with Robin, whom he insists on calling “Christian”.
Azeem is a new additional to the Robin Hood corpus, with no parallel in the medieval literature or even the earlier Robin Hood films. He seems to have been inspired by the British tv series Robin of Sherwood’s Nasir, a Muslim assassin brought to England as a prisoner who eventually escapes and joins the Merry Men. In RH:PoT’s original script, Freeman’s character was called Nasir until the name was changed to avoid the risk of copyright infringement.
So the character is a very recent addition to the stories of Robin Hood. But he naturally raises the issue of whether people like Azeem were around in medieval England. This is really two separate questions. Were there black people in medieval England and were there Muslims in England?
Black People in Medieval England
There is some modest evidence that there were black people in Roman Britain (and again, as a reminder, race is a modern social construct, not a biological one, so speaking about ‘black people’ and ‘white people’ in the Middle Ages is a bit of a simplification). The Roman military routinely recruited soldiers from one region of the Empire and stationed them in a completely different region. Consequently, some of the Roman soldiers stationed in Britain may have included black men recruited from regions of North Africa that had contact with Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Egypt or Mauritania (Roman Morocco). Men from Mauritania were referred to as ‘Moors’, and an inscription near the Aballava fort on Hadrian’s Wall makes reference to a group of “Aurelian Moors” stationed there in the 3rd century AD. We also have a reference to an ‘Ethiopian’ at Hadrian’s Wall. Some of these men probably intermarried with local women and had children. A recent study of the teeth of Roman-era bodies from York determined that around 12% of the population of Roman York may have come from Africa, although North Africa was certainly more common than Sub-Saharan Africa. Other studies of Roman-era cemeteries have found that the percentage of Sub-Saharans buried ranged from 11% to 24%, dropping to 6% in the early 5th century. Most of these bodies appear to have been free rather than slave burials. A 2007 DNA study found evidence of a rare DNA marker from Guinea-Bassau in several men with modern Yorkshire surnames, who might therefore be descended from these soldiers. And in the late 2nd/early 3rd century, many high-ranking Roman officials came from North Africa, some of whom held office in Britain; there is some chance that some of these men were of Sub-Saharan descent. It is also likely that some of the slaves brought to Roman Britain were Sub-Saharans. So it is possible that still in the early Middle Ages, there were men and women of Sub-Saharan ancestry, although whether their skin color and facial features would have marked them as ‘black’ by modern standards is another matter.
In the late 7th century, Pope Vitalian sent Hadrian, a monk from somewhere in North Africa, to Britain, where he became the abbot of a monastery in Canterbury. Hadrian is described as being a Berber, and therefore was probably fair-skinned, but little is known about the man’s ancestry, so it is not impossible that he might have been of Sub-Saharan descent. During the Viking Age, Vikings raided the Iberian coastline and may well have raided parts of North Africa, so it is not impossible that they might have taken black people as slaves and brought them back to the British Isles, but at this point this is nothing more than speculation without evidence to support it.
By the 12th century, when RH:PoT is set, it is unlikely that there were more than a small handful of men and women of African origin or descent in the British Isles. Whereas Italy and the Iberian peninsula had fairly regular contact with North Africa and thus did have modest numbers of black men and women living there, Britain was a fair distance from those parts of Europe. It is certainly possible that a few ‘Moors’ came to Britain, most likely along trade routes from the Iberian peninsula to ports like Bristol. But there were not large enough numbers of them to leave more than very sporadic evidence of their presence behind. For example, in 2013, analysis of a skeleton found in a river in Gloucestershire determined that it belonged to a woman between 18 and 24 who had come from Sub-Saharan Africa some time between 896 and 1025 AD. Who she was and how she got to England is a mystery, but the fact that her body was thrown into a river instead of given a proper burial suggests she may have been low-status, such as a slave. This body is the clearest proof that any person from Sub-Saharan Africa lived in England before the end of the Middle Ages.
Medieval people certainly knew that some people had black skin. St Maurice was pictured as a black man, and Balthasar, one of the Three Wise Men, was often depicted that way as well. A manuscript produced in England around 1241 depicts a black man clinging to a large initial letter. If artists understood that some people had black skin, the most likely possibility is that they had seen such people or knew those who had.
So it seems likely that there were at least small numbers of black men and women in medieval England. They were probably fairly rare, and most likely to be encountered in the larger cities, having come there probably from the Iberian peninsula for commercial reasons or perhaps as the slave or servant of a wealthy man or woman. But the notion of a black man who traveled from Jerusalem to Nottingham in the 1190s is not impossible, although such a man would certainly have been very unusual.
Muslims in Medieval England
Were there Muslims in medieval England? Here the basic answer is no. England was not a religiously pluralistic society. With the exception of the tiny Jewish community (expelled in the 1290s), by the 11th century everyone in England was expected to be Christian, and would have been baptized into the Christian community a few days after birth. Muslims would have enjoyed no legal protection whatsoever. So it is very unlikely the Muslim merchants from the Iberian peninsula would have come to England to sell their wares. Not impossible, but extremely improbable.
Having said that, however, archaeologists digging in the remains of the Franciscan friary in Ipswich, England, in the 1990s discovered a skeleton of a man born somewhere in North Africa (probably Tunisia, and probably of Berber or Arabic descent) in the period between 1190 and 1300. This means that he was almost certainly born as a Muslim. But he had lived the last decade of life in England, probably at the Franciscan friary. An additional 8 skeletons found on the site also appear to have come from North Africa. Who were these 9 presumably Muslim North Africans and how had they come to live out their last years in a Franciscan friary? One plausible theory is that they were prisoners captured during the 8th Crusade, which briefly attacked Tunisia. The Franciscans are also known to have attempted missionary work in North Africa in this period, so perhaps these 9 were converts won during one of those missions. Regardless, the fact that they were buried in a Franciscan cemetery strongly points to them having converted from Islam to Christianity. So while there may have been a small number of men and women who were born as Muslims living in England, it is improbable that there were any practicing Muslims, although we cannot completely eliminate the possibility of a Muslim dignitary or merchant having briefly visited the region. So while Azeem as a black man in England is possible (if somewhat unlikely), Azeem as a Muslim is pretty implausible.
Want to Know More?
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves [Double Sided]is available on Amazon.
There isn’t a whole lot of scholarship on black people in medieval England, but there is an excellent Tumblr devoted to People of Color in European Art History that demonstrates that some medieval artists definitely knew that black people existed.
Matt Oldham said:
The recent BBC ROBIN HOOD show kind of tried to have it both ways by having Robin return from the Crusades with this huge appreciation for the Muslim world. It manifested itself this time around with Robin adopting the weapons of the Moors including the scimitar and compound bow. What funny is that some people I’ve talked to have already pointed out that an Islamic compound bow from that time period would have fallen apart after being in the English climate for any period of time. Any thoughts on that?
I’m not an expert on medieval bows, but that certainly sounds plausible to me. Muslim compound bows would have been designed in a much drier climate than England, so it may have reacted poorly to the cool, moist conditions.
Europeans were not reluctant to adapt Muslim technology when they found it useful. So the fact that they didn’t import the compound bow or scimitar suggests they didn’t find it very useful or better then Western analogs.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Harry Jacobowitz said:
As I’m sure you know, Yorkshire was an area of heavy Scandinavian settlement in the Viking era. Guinea-Bissau was well outside the Roman Empire, but not beyond the potential reach of Viking ships. Still another possible source was the post-Columbian slave trade, which targeted an area that included Guinea-Bissau (but is not relevant to the issue of whether there were Blacks in medieval England). Therefore, to my mind, without knowing more about it than you have written above, the Guinea-Bissau DNA is more plausibly a product of one of those two later sources, though I do not disagree with you that a Roman era origin cannot be ruled out.
Yes, it is possible that the Viking reached Guinea-Bissau. But there’s no evidence they went further south than the Mediterranean, and we have only two references to that. So that’s why I suggested contact with Morocco as a possibility.
And yes, the Roman DNA connection is tenuous. That’s why I said ‘might’.
Matt Oldham said:
The idea of Robin Hood having a Muslim compatriot briefly caught on in other areas in 1991, particularly in the comic book world. Eclipse Comics published a three issue Robin Hood miniseries that year which featured Robin getting assistance from a Moor who in the story is initially part of King Richard’s entourage. I can’t remember the specifics (or the Moor’s name) but I believe the Moor switches sides when he learns that Richard plans to betray and kill Robin (a rare instance of the two not being allies).
Also in 1991 Mark Ryan who played Nasir on ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, making him the first Muslim companion of Robin Hood, co-authored the fourth annual of DC’s revived “Green Arrow”. The story, which unsurprisingly given Ryan’s involvement drew heavily from the ROBIN OF SHERWOOD tv series, saw Green Arrow’s long time love Black Canary thrown back in time. There she meets Robin and his gang, gets mistaken for Marion, and helps them defeat an Evil Alchemist. The story heavily insinuates that Green Arrow and Black Canary are the modern day reincarnations of Robin and Marion. So this was really Canary visiting her former life.
Once again I can’t remember the Moor’s name, but I know he was not called Nasir or Azeem for copyright purposes.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’ve occasionally contemplated doing a history of Robin Hood’s evolution. But it’s way too much for this blog, and would require me to watch a LOT of tv series.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I wonder how such a person would have been treated in medieval England?
Assuming this was someone who had no connections to anyone locally (outside of the band of outlaws who brought him to England in the first place), how would people have reacted to his presence?
How would they have treated him just upon seeing him, and then how would they treat him after realizing he practiced a religion which was so different from their own (from their own rather limited perspective, at least)?
And, a perhaps somewhat harder question to answer, how the hell are you meant to draw your scimitar when its blade is wider than the opening of its scabbard?
My guess is that he would have been arrested and executed if he had refused to convert to Christianity, especially if he was a bandit.
Matt Oldham said:
I can actually answer the drawing the sword question there. This photo doesn’t show it but Azeem’s scabbard is actually split open on the blunt side about a third of the way down from the top. This allows him to draw the sword. The split is most clearly visible in the scene where Robin and Azeem are spying on the Sheriff’s convoy (where the “they can’t count anyway” gag occurs). You can see Azeem’s sword falling through the split as it is slung over his back.
Patrick Wiley said:
I think Aelarsen is correct with respect to his religion.
In terms of appearance, if we’re literally talking about someone who looked like Morgan Freeman he’d probably get some funny looks but not provoke much more of a scandal. His complexion is light enough that people would probably assume he’d tanned in the sun, possibly from being a laborer or from his outlaw lifestyle. The structure of his face and texture of his hair might be strange but not shocking.
If instead we had someone much darker, like someone from the Sudan for example, people might be curious, confused, fearful even. I don’t think the average person would have been familiar with ‘Aethiopians” at the time. Even literate people like priests and monks would only have read about them in passing. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that some might think he was some sort of mystical being like a Fae.
Margaret Goshorn-Maroney said:
Have you ever considered examining the historicity of a movie like “12 Years a Slave”? Or do you prefer to focus on movies that made a poor showing of historical accuracy?
I have t had a chance to see it yet. But it’s definitely on my list
Interesting article. Might I suggest that you look to fixing your site here? The layout in Chrome, Firefox, and IE is all screwed up. You’ve got misaligned pictures and overlapping text in the upper portion of every page on your WordPress.
Yes, I’m aware of the problem. Someone hacked the site to put a pirate link onto my page. I’m currently working to get it fixed.
Pingback: ‘Robin Hood – A Origem’ traz personagem com escarificações
I’m very confused about something, can you tell me what you mean by “race is a social construct, not a biological one”?!?! This is extremely hilarious and flies in the face of everything we know about biology and science. What data do you have to back up this comical assertion?
A highly amused Turk.
Rather than write a long essay about it, I’ll point you to some short articles that explain it quite well. Try this one: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/what-we-mean-when-we-say-race-is-a-social-construct/275872/
Here’s a good that points out that biologists think it’s not a useful concept: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/race-is-a-social-construct-scientists-argue/
And here’s one that gets deeper into the science and how the idea of ‘race’ evolved: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-genetics-science-africa/
So I’m not sure what supposed ‘facts of everything we know about biology and science’ you’re referring to, but it sounds like what you think you know is wrong.
Hmmm rather dubious about some of the claims you make here.
First of all the data I’ve seen on Roman garrisons (e.g in the Vindolanda tablets) only mention a few North African soldiers. I’ve never seen any mention of sub-saharan Africans as Roman soldiers.
But secondly, even if all of those North Africans stayed in Britain, that’s 1000 years before Robin Hood. Dark skin genes would’ve long been diluted out of the gene pool when 99.9% of the population was white. The only way you could avoid that is if there was a separated population of dark-skinned people which only bred amongst themselves.
Thirdly, race is definitely not a social construct. This is a confusion between the genetic underpinnings and the human categorisation. The human categorisation is absolutely a social construct and has changed constantly over time and in different places (Obama would not be called ‘black’ in Nigeria for example).
But that’s different than the genetic underpinnings. The genes that create dark skin are pretty much the same today as they were 1000 years ago. That’s not socially constructed. It’s definitely true that race is a very fuzzy category and it’s not hugely scientifically useful because it’s too broad for most genetic analysis, but still definitely not a social construct.
The reality is that you can find SOME scientists saying that simply because they’re scared of getting called racist when their research reveals racial differences that people are sensitive about. Anything involving psychological differences people are very sensitive about if you point out racial differences.
There are references to a unit of Aurelian Moors stationed at Hadrian’s Wall over a period of about 200 years (including a 3rd century graffito saying they were ‘numerous’. When Septimius Severus visited the wall, he encountered a dark-skinned soldier.
Analysis of two cemeteries at York found that 25-33% of the bodies (a total of about 100 bodies total, IIRC) had skull-shapes of a clear Sub-Saharan type, indicating that a significant percentage of the population at least had Sub-Saharan ancestry, if not personal origins there. Since about 20% of the total population was shown, via isotope analysis, to not be native to Britain, it’s likely that some of those with Sub-Saharan skulls were personally from Africa. York Lady, buried sometimes between between 350 and 400 AD, was a high-status women with a Sub-Saharan skull type. Beachy Head Lady, buried in Sussex around 200 or 250, also possessed Sub-Saharan ancestry, although she grew up in southern Britain. At least one modern Yorkshire surname corresponds with men who have a specific DNA marker only found in West Africa.
The Roman Empire was VASTLY more multi-ethnic than popular imagination would have it. There was a clearly a substantial population of Sub-Saharan Africans in northern Britain for at least two centuries.
And yes, race is a social construct, not a biological one. It uses some biological factors, such as skin color, but it has also historically drawn on completely non-biological factors such as religion. In the 19th century, Catholics were not considered white in the US, for example.
LikeLiked by 1 person
North Africans had been trading work Sub-Saharan Africa for luxury goods like ivory and ostrich feathers and slaves for millennia. It would be very surprising if those genes weren’t circulating. A Muslim would not have been welcome in medieval England regardless of color. A dark skinned Christian however might meet with nothing worse than curiosity.
LikeLiked by 1 person
“(and again, as a reminder, race is a modern social construct, not a biological one, so speaking about ‘black people’ and ‘white people’ in the Middle Ages is a bit of a simplification)”. This is a very fashionable way to see things, but I am afraid it is confusing (and confused). The word “race” is not an accurate biological description, but there IS a sum of features that characterize collectively people from different parts of the world – such as skin color, eye shape, fat distribution, the presence or absence of certain enzymes etc etc. All these are biological features. No “social construct” involved in any of these.
Yes, but there is no physical trait or gene that all “Black” people (or white people) have in common that they do not also have in common with members of other ‘races’. The range of skin colors we call ‘Black’ is bizarrely wide, and yet we insist they are all the same group. The different human ‘races’ have more in common genetically than two different breeds of domesticated dogs or cats—Rottweilers vs German Shepherds or Siamese vs Domestic Short Hairs.
It is purely arbitrary to group humans by skin tone rather than hair color, eye color, or length of arms. It’s a random characteristic that Western culture only began to ascribe meaning to about 400 years ago.
Race is a socially-constructed quality that is rooted in arbitrarily-chosen biological traits. That’s not the same thing as race being a biological characteristic.
As I said, there is a sum of features that characterize collectively people from different parts of the world. Of course there is no “black” or “white” or “asian” gene, but the sum of those feature objectively, biologically, characterize someone as coming from Africa, Europe etc.