Erasing People of Colour in European History

One of my favourite blogs right now is People of Color in Medieval History over on Tumblr. The site has become very popular, with pickups in the media and growing discussion, all by highlighting a simple fact: people of colour existed in medieval Europe. It’s a fact that seems to surprise many people, along with many other minority narratives in history, and I love both how informative the blog is, and the wealth of information it contains about how people are erased from history by the dominant narratives.

Traditional narratives of European history usually suggest that Europe was uniformly white; think about the examples of art from the Middle Ages that you’ve seen. Consider songs, stories, and other works you’ve been exposed to, illustrations in your history books, and the presentation of medieval society. You, like me, were probably shown a tide of white people, like buxon maidens with long blonde braids and brunettes with arched eyebrows and weird complicated headgear.

But that’s only one part of Europe’s history. The other part is that of the people of colour who lived, worked, and played a very active role in medieval society. They show up in works of art, and they’re actively cropped out or played down. The people who choose art for textbooks and other presentations of medieval art deliberately gloss over depictions of people of colour in favour of white people, creating the illusion that artists only painted, drew, and sketched whites, and that only whites existed to be depicted in art.

Yet, we have ample evidence to the contrary. We have scores of documents illustrating that a lively population of people of colour lived, thrived, and worked in Europe in the middle ages, including in Spain, Italy, Germany, England, and many other places. Many people of African descent moved through Europe, but they weren’t the only ones: Japanese envoys lived in Italy, for example, and Middle Eastern people traded and traveled in Europe. We can see evidence not only of their presence in the form of property owners, traders, and members of the community, but also in the cultural traditions they exchanged with white Europeans.

Look, for example, at Spain and Portugal, which included populations of both Middle Eastern and African descent as a large and important part of the kingdom. So much so, in fact, that some of the royal lineage included people of colour. The famous Moorish or ‘Spanish-style’ architecture the region is so famous for comes from populations of Muslims who lived in the region alongside their Christian counterparts, bringing their complex and stunning architectural traditions with them.

People of colour are verbally described in legal records, contemporary writings including poetry and plays, and other documents. They also show up in medieval art, in a variety of roles. Some were heads of household, including high-ranked nobles. Others were servants and attendants. They show up in street scenes as casual passers-by, and in battles as part of one or both sides fighting for various causes.

Despite this wealth of evidence, when asked about the presence of people of colour in Europe, many people seem to believe this is a relatively recent development in European history. When confronted with depictions of people of colour in these settings, either in historical documents or in works of fiction and other creative works, people seem actively irritated or even offended by the suggestion that Europe wasn’t universally white—and, strictly speaking, the region has never been inhabited solely by white people (complex discussions about racial identity and how it has shifted over the millennia aside, people of a variety of ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds have always been present in Europe).

Having the victor’s sense of history disrupted can be upsetting, for the victors; much as many US schools leave out key components of US history (such as the use of internment camps in the Second World War, or the use of low-income people of colour and disabled people for gruesome medical experiments), the white community chooses to be highly selective about what parts of history it shows around the world. Europe is seen as a bastion of whiteness, and thus, it’s projected as a place with a purely white cultural history, a narrative that persists because of white cultural dominance.

While historians and people who actively work to seek out information on the subject are more informed, it’s difficult to push this information to the general population in the face of so much pressure to suppress it. It’s challenging to present it in classrooms when teachers insist there’s ‘no time’ to include it—curious indeed how there’s never any time to include minority histories or expansions of the historical record that account for more historical complexity and depth. It’s difficult to change textbooks when the people who write and dictate the content in textbooks stick to a very narrow set of rules, some enforced by authorities who would object to, for example, the inclusion of an image of people of color in a medieval setting in a European history textbook even though it would be accurate.

The burden of reclaiming and opening history has fallen upon people of colour in this case, and it’s ludicrous: when the narrative is controlled, owned, and operated by whites, it is the responsibility of the white population to change the narrative and force a shift in the way history is presented. We are the ones who write the textbooks, who set the teaching standards (and the flaws with standardized curricula are many). We are the ones who curate the art, who decide what is shown and what is not, who make decisions about how history is presented to our youth.

Thus, the onus is on us to admit that our history isn’t the only history.