Update: → „People of Color in European Art History“ is an awesome Tumblr with more pictural and other evidence then I could ever find in a lifetime.
I’ve seen the following line of argument coming up in number of different situations (it seems to never get old) when talking about diversity in fantasy/„historical“ settings: „This is fantasy based on Medieval Europe™ and there where no People of Color in Europe at that time.1 Therefore it is okay not to/would be inaccurate to feature PoC in this fantasy setting.“ This is flawed on several levels:
1. Most of the stories in question feature dragons, zombies, women in very strange armor etc. so PoC would not be that „fantastical“ in these settings.
2. There were – of course – PoC in actual medieval Europe. There are PoC everywhere in Europe today,2 why would they not have been there at any point in time before now? The assumption that Vikings might have traveled as far as America3 but everybody else just stayed at home is pretty strange. Humans have always migrated (yes, not just as visitors or traders) and always will.
So on this page I’ll collect examples of PoC in (and before) medieval Europe. This will not be easy, because history is written by the winners (white men) and if we look at the amount of whitewashing that’s going on today it’s fair to assume that this has been done in former times. But here we go:
→ One of the women3 buried in the Oseberg ship was probably from Iran.
→ The Ivory Bangle Lady, a high-status woman4 of North African descent, living in 4th century York. This indicates that Britain was far more diverse at that time then it is now generally assumed. (Via) In fact it is possible that 20% of the cities population were „long distant migrants. (Via) That is one in five.
→ The National Archives of the UK also state that there have been PoC in Britain since Roman times (2nd century), coming to the country as soldiers and some staying after finishing their service. Other PoC where in Britain because they were the descendants of slaves the Vikings abducted from North Africa (this should be true for Nordic countries too). (Via)
→ Ahmed ibn Fadlan, an Arab scholar from the 10th century traveled to what is today’s Russia, eyewitnessing a Viking ship burial.
→ Ibrâhîm ibn Ya`qûb was a hebrew-arab scholar who gave written accounts Hedeby/Haithabu/Schleswig (on the border of today’s Denmark/Germany) as well as being the first do mention Prague in writing and giving reliable information on Poland.
→ Muslim cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi visited Portugal, France, Hungary and England (York) in his youth.
→ Rabban Bar Sauma, a monk and diplomat born near modern-day Beijing traveled west as far as Paris in the 13th century. Just look at this map! A journey silimar in epicness was made by Hasekura Tsunenaga in the 17th century.
→ Arab (and Jewish) scholars brought astronomy, medicine, architecture etc. to medieval Spain (see this documentary on BBC), France and southern Italy.
→ Mongol tribes invaded East Europe (as far as Poland and Hungary) in the 13th century (this didn’t mean they only burned everything and then went home. Some of them obviously stayed there). The conical princess’ headdress was inspired by Mongol fashion.
If you know more examples feel free to write me an e-mail.
1 I guess people get this „knowledge“ from history books (written mostly by white people) and Hollywood media (made mostly by white people)?
2 Letting aside the massive problem of when you get to be „European“, what/who defines you as white or POC (now and in the past) etc: this is a subject I know little about but depending on your view you could perceive a lot of (especially southern) Europeans as PoC anyway (even if they themselves identify as white). Boundaries are fluid and it’s all in the eye of the beholder …
3 And even might have brought Native Americans back (here’s more) = Native American Vikings, yeah!
4 Yay for more real live high status historical women!