Saracens and racial Otherness in Middle English romance

Claire Harrill considers how 'Saracen' characters are portrayed in Middle English romances, and what these texts can reveal about ideas of Otherness in this period.

It is tempting to think about the characters in Middle English romances (c. 14–15th centuries) as inhabiting a purely white world, and one in which racial Otherness was strictly defined and policed. Middle English romances seem to demonstrate an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality insofar as they tend to describe anyone from national, racial or religious groups they consider ‘Other’ as ‘Saracens’. But ‘Saracen’ isn’t a fixed idea in the Middle Ages, and it seems to be possible, in some romances, for individuals to lose their ‘Saracen’ status. With this in mind, what does it mean to be a ‘Saracen’ in Middle English romance, and what can this tell us about shifting ideas of racial Otherness in these texts?

The Middle English word ‘Sarasin’ (Saracen) and its variants covers a wide range of meanings from ‘a Turk; also an Arab; also, a Moslem [sic]’ to anyone ‘non-Christian’ or ‘one of the pagan invaders of England, esp. a Dane or Saxon’ (Middle English Dictionary). While we most commonly see ‘Saracen’ in reference to characters who are from the Muslim Middle East, it is more generally a mark of cultural and religious rather than specifically racial difference.

Othering in Richard Coer de Lion and King of Tars

Saracen men are Othered more extremely than Saracen women in the Middle English popular romances. In Richard Coer de Lion – a fictionalised account of the life of King Richard I – Saladin’s Saracen forces are perceived as so Other that Richard and his men find no problem in eating them and remark that they taste like pork. Richard is the daughter of a fairy and undertakes the anatomically improbable feat of ripping out the heart of a lion through its mouth. He is, to some extent, Other himself, but nonetheless the line between Christian and Saracen man is as absolute as that between human and animal. Richard’s power, in the romance, rests on his readiness to breach both borders – human/animal and Christian/Saracen – and his consumption of Saracen flesh places them and their territory in the same position as the lion: inhuman creatures that Richard can consume and overpower.

This red line similarly exists in King of Tars. In this romance, the Sultan of Damascus demands the daughter of the King of Tars as his bride. He refuses to convert to Christianity, and the direct result of this is that his child is born in an unusual condition:

And when the child was ybore,
Wel sori wimen were therfore,
For lim no hadde it non,
Bot as a rond of flesche yschore
In chaumber it lay hem bifore
Withouten blod and bon.
For sorwe the levedi wald dye,
For it hadde noither nose no eye
Bot lay ded as the ston.

[And when the child was born,
The women were sorry, therefore,
For it had no limbs at all,
But like a lump of hacked flesh
It lay before them in the chamber.
For sorrow the lady wished to die
Because it had neither nose or eyes
But lay dead as a stone.]

Because he is not a Christian, the Sultan is not able to imprint any of his identity on the child. In a seamless blending of xenophobia and Aristotelian misogyny, the mother’s identity is not enough to shape the child, and the father’s lack of Christian belief precludes him from fathering a human child with a Christian woman. Here, it is the father’s Christianity, rather than DNA, that provides a child with an identity.

Challenging Otherness in Havelock the Dane

In these two representations of Middle-Eastern Saracen men, the only way for them to escape the category of ‘Saracen’ is through conversion. However, when we consider Danish ‘Saracens’, there is surviving evidence that the category was up for debate – depending on who was writing the narrative. In the late 13th-century King Horn, our questing hero is accosted by ‘Sarazins’ who seem to be Vikings. Yet in the romance Havelock the Dane – written at roughly the same time, but crucially in the north of England in an area known as the Danelaw – Vikings are not invaders, heathens, or Saracens, and are not even visually identifiable as Other.

Havelock the Dane features a popular lost-king narrative in which a young prince of Denmark is rescued by servants from a murderous usurper and brought to safety in Grimsby. While Havelock is visually identifiable as royal to the extent that a bright light shines out of his mouth and he bears a ‘kynemark’ on his shoulder in the shape of a cross, he is not visually identifiable as Danish and spends his early life pretending to be a local of the north of England. It is the wicked usurpers who claim that the Danes are violent and heathenish, that they ‘brenne kirkes and prestes binde; / [They] strangleth monkes and nunnes bothe’. In this context, then, the text demands that we reject the standard claims against the Danish Others. Havelock the Dane works to dispel ideas of racial, national and religious Otherness and to promote integration and harmony. At the end of the romance, Havelock marries the English princess Goldborw, to the universal approval of ‘Henglishe ant Denshe, heye and lowe’.

Saracen women in Bevis of Hampton and Sir Launfal

Although these romances present the racial and religious Otherness of Saracen women – or women associated with the Saracen world – as less problematic in some ways, their portrayal still smacks of Orientalism. These women are sexualised, exoticised and offer a fantasy outlet of sexual freedom to many of the male heroes.

Bevis of Hampton sees our eponymous hero among Saracens when his wicked mother arranges for the murder of his father. At the court of the King of Armenia, Bevis becomes the object of affection for the king’s daughter, Josian, but he refuses to marry her until she converts to Christianity. Josian is a remarkable heroine: she converts for Bevis and uses both magic and murder to protect herself from subsequent marriage attempts from Saracen suitors. She is kidnapped and raises their twin sons on her own, supporting them by working as a minstrel. She searches faithfully for Bevis who is spending his time defeating Saracens and enjoying jolly adventures around and about Europe. When Bevis dies, however, he chooses to be buried with his horse and not with his faithful wife.

Josian is more active, persistent and enterprising than many of the women we usually find in popular romances, who are often confined within castles while the men adventure. This may be because she is Saracen-born, though this is partially deproblematised by her conversion and marriage to Bevis. Bevis is able to impregnate Josian and, probably on account of his good Christian nature, none of these children are born as featureless lumps of matter. Nonetheless, Bevis’ real devotion appears to be his horse, with whom not only is he buried, but with whom he spends significantly more time than with his Saracen-turned-Christian wife. Josian is certainly not as Other as the Saracen men in King of Tars or Richard Coer de Lion, but neither is she afforded the same status as Christian love-objects.

In some romances, Saracen women are depicted as appealing, alternative love-objects to Christian women. By virtue of not being Christian, they are often portrayed as more sexually available, more exotic and more enticing. In Sir Launfal, the fairy-woman Tryamour is little more than wish fulfilment personified. She declares and immediately offers her love and an ever-refilling purse of money to a poor and lonely knight, Sir Launfal. It is no coincidence that Tryamour is described in terms that link her fairy Otherness and her sexual availability to the enticements offered by the Saracen world:

The pavyloun was wrouth, forsothe, ywys,
All of werk of Sarsynys,
The pomelles of crystall;
Upon the toppe an ern ther stod
Of bournede golde, ryche and good,
Ylorysched wyth ryche amall.
Hys eyn wer carbonkeles bryght -
As the mone they schon anyght,
That spreteth out ovyr all.
Alysaundre the conquerour,
Ne Kyng Artour yn hys most honour,
Ne hadde noon scwych juell!

[The pavilion was made, in truth I say,
All the work of Saracens,
The poles topped with crystal;
On the top stood an eagle
Of burnished gold, rich and good
Decorated with costly enamel.
His eyes were bright rubies
And shone like the moon at night,
That spread over all.
Alexander the Conqueror
And King Arthur, in all his honour,
Never had such a jewel. ]

Here, the fairy world is conflated with the Eastern world – particularly in its association with luxury goods such as silk, pearls and precious stones – and explicitly and directly compared with the compromised and unsatisfactory British Arthurian world Launfal eventually leaves behind. But this is not exactly an endorsement of an Eastern world, or the women who inhabit it. Tryamour offers Launfal all of his desires, but at a price. Launfal leaves his own world behind and is taken ‘ynto Fayrye’. Tryamour is enticing and powerful as well as monstrous and violent: she blinds Queen Guinevere by blowing in her eyes. At the end of this romance, it’s not the case that the easternised world of ‘Fayrye’ is presented as a good alternative, but rather that it is the only alternative to a troubled and troubling human world that offers no justice.

Just as these romances do not offer a monolithic view of love, adventure, truth or rule, they do not offer a monolithic understanding of racial Otherness. What is evident, however, is that this was a matter of anxiety and discussion throughout the Middle Ages. In some Middle English romances, the ‘Saracen’ is so Other as to be animal, while in other texts Saracens are just a conversion away from absorbed into the acceptable Christian world. We must also take care not to over-read, or read in absolute terms, the meanings or potential meanings of Saracen Otherness. Bevis’ perplexing decision to be buried with his horse rather than his wife might be a statement on her racial status, but it might just as easily be a statement on his failings as a husband and a father. We are not encouraged to see Josian as perverse or immoral, but she does travel, earn money and commit murder (albeit of a Saracen man) and is treated differently from how Christian romance heroines often are. The association between the East and sexual availability and luxury goods is made clear in Sir Launfal, as is the threat presented by the Other be it Eastern or supernatural. The East was an imaginative space in medieval popular romance, in which what was forbidden in the Christian world could be explored on the literary plane. Likewise the Saracen was a shifting figure onto which anxieties about race, culture and religion were projected, explored and dissected. A group (Saxons, Vikings) could be Saracens in one romance, and in another contemporary text be natives, Christians, saviours and rightful rulers. From their representation, we can see how shifting and multivalent ideas of Otherness were in these rich and diverse texts, and how Otherness could be reduced and even erased, bringing the Saracen ‘Other’ into the heart of the Christian world.

Suggested reading

Siobham Bly Calkin, ‘Defining Christian Knighthood in a Saracen World: Changing Depictions of the Protagonist in Sir Bevis of Hampton’, in Sir Bevis of Hampton in Literary Tradition, ed. by Jennifer Fellows (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2008), pp. 127–44.

Jamie Fiedman, ‘Making Whiteness Matter: The King of Tars’, Postmedieval (6:1), pp. 52–63.

Geraldine Heng, ‘The Romance of England: Richard Coeur de Lyon, Jews, Saracens and the Politics of Race and Nation’ in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), pp. 135–72.

Nicola McDonald, ‘Eating People and the Alimentary logic of Richard Coeur de Lion’ in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in popular romance, ed. by Nicola McDonald (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), pp. 124–50.

Diane Speed, ‘The Saracens of King Horn’, Speculum (65: 3), pp. 564–95.

Blog posts on the wider topic of race in the Middle Ages:

Dorothy Kim, ‘Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy’ (28 August 2017), <http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/teaching-medieval-studies-in-time-of.html>.

Helen Young, ‘Where do the “White Middle Ages” Come From?’ (21 March 2017), <https://www.publicmedievalist.com/white-middle-ages-come/>.

  • Claire Harrill
  • Dr Claire Harrill was previously a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Birmingham where she taught The Canterbury Tales, Medieval Romance and Introduction to Poetry. Her research interests include queens and queenship, Anglo-Scottish relations and female book patrons. She now works for the Widening Participation charity, the Brilliant Club. She has a cat called Chaucer.

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