February 23, 2018, 12:34:08 PM

Author Topic: Diversity in European Legends  (Read 358 times)

Offline Bradley Darewood

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Diversity in European Legends
« on: January 21, 2018, 05:06:12 AM »

So I would be surprised if I'm the first person to post on this.  I knew that there were black knights of the round table, but I hadn't read this guys blog before and it's really really enlightening.

https://elodieunderglass.com/2012/10/13/713/

"First off, six percent of the Knights of the Round Table were men of color. Granted, that’s only three out of 49 men, but the entire expanded United States Congress is hovering around 13% people of color and only has one black Senator."

Offline xiagan

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Re: Diversity in European Legends
« Reply #1 on: January 21, 2018, 09:41:44 AM »
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline Yora

Re: Diversity in European Legends
« Reply #2 on: January 21, 2018, 09:53:51 AM »
Actual racism is a fairly recent invention. It appeared when it was decided that all men are equal and free but people wanted to keep their slaves. So all men applies only to English, Germans, Dutch, French, and Scandinavians. Everyone else was subhuman and therefore not equal and free.

Previous to that, hate was usually directed at group that were in direct competition with you about farmland, water, and other resources. Which is generally your immediate neighbours who are most of the time ethnically very similar to yourself. Every single man, woman, and child of that group is completely horrible from birth, but that's not attributed to their appearance or place of origin. "They" are not "us" and they cause us trouble, so we hate them and want them gone.
An individual stranger from a distant land is not a problem. He is not involved in the local conflicts, and if he is a faithful Christian/Muslim (depending on where you are) then there is no reason not to treat him as a honored guest. The important part is whether someone can be classified as being a member of a group we're currently fighting with.

Determining how people would have looked would be quite difficult. As the article mentions, characters are not well described - presumedly because audiences would know what people from various places would look like. But the term Asia originally referred to the Arabic lands, while Africa was the name of Libya and Tunesia. These areas where also part of the Roman Empire and they are known to have deployed their Legions wherever they were needed. Some commanders served in both Palestine and Britain during their careers. Saint Maurice is a saint of Switzerland who is said to have been leading a legion from Egypt that was deployed in the Alps.
When the Western Roman empire collapsed, things got really messy with incredibly complex long distant migrations and you had Swedes ending up ruling in Spain and Tunesia. And after that were of course the crusades when you effectively had French colonies in Palestine. And scandinavian traders got to absolutely everywhere. They didn't even stick to the same routes and it can't be ruled out that there were some men who had been to Iceland, Morocco, Russia, and Bagdad during their life.
While most farmers never traveled far from their homes, because your animals need tending every single day as any farmer even today can tell you, distance was never much of a barrier for well over the last 2000 years.
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Offline Not Lu

Re: Diversity in European Legends
« Reply #3 on: January 21, 2018, 05:40:31 PM »
Actual racism is a fairly recent invention. It appeared when it was decided that all men are equal and free but people wanted to keep their slaves. So all men applies only to English, Germans, Dutch, French, and Scandinavians. Everyone else was subhuman and therefore not equal and free.

Previous to that, hate was usually directed at group that were in direct competition with you about farmland, water, and other resources. Which is generally your immediate neighbours who are most of the time ethnically very similar to yourself. Every single man, woman, and child of that group is completely horrible from birth, but that's not attributed to their appearance or place of origin. "They" are not "us" and they cause us trouble, so we hate them and want them gone.
An individual stranger from a distant land is not a problem. He is not involved in the local conflicts, and if he is a faithful Christian/Muslim (depending on where you are) then there is no reason not to treat him as a honored guest. The important part is whether someone can be classified as being a member of a group we're currently fighting with.

Determining how people would have looked would be quite difficult. As the article mentions, characters are not well described - presumedly because audiences would know what people from various places would look like. But the term Asia originally referred to the Arabic lands, while Africa was the name of Libya and Tunesia. These areas where also part of the Roman Empire and they are known to have deployed their Legions wherever they were needed. Some commanders served in both Palestine and Britain during their careers. Saint Maurice is a saint of Switzerland who is said to have been leading a legion from Egypt that was deployed in the Alps.
When the Western Roman empire collapsed, things got really messy with incredibly complex long distant migrations and you had Swedes ending up ruling in Spain and Tunesia. And after that were of course the crusades when you effectively had French colonies in Palestine. And scandinavian traders got to absolutely everywhere. They didn't even stick to the same routes and it can't be ruled out that there were some men who had been to Iceland, Morocco, Russia, and Bagdad during their life.
While most farmers never traveled far from their homes, because your animals need tending every single day as any farmer even today can tell you, distance was never much of a barrier for well over the last 2000 years.

At the root, it's all just tribalism. Those in power change the tribes depending on their situation. It's a great way to manipulate us peasants.

Offline cupiscent

Re: Diversity in European Legends
« Reply #4 on: January 21, 2018, 09:33:28 PM »
There's a great point made in... I think it was the North Sea book I read last year. (So: "The Edge of the World: how the North Sea made us who we are" or something like that.) It talks about identity/nationality being "lived in the present tense" until quite recently. So if you were farming in the Friesian lands and a part of that community, it didn't matter where your family had been a generation ago, you were Friesian.

That book similarly highlighted a problem with looking at legends/myth, that being that the telling is (always) political, and a product of the time when it was told. So most Arthurian stuff is delivered through a romantic/chivalric medieval French lens. I mean, there were absolutely definitely non-white people in Britain in historical Arthurian times; if nothing else, they were Roman soldiers stationed on Hadrian's Wall and we have records of the letters they sent home to African provinces begging for more socks because it was bloody cold here. But that's immaterial because most Arthurian tellings aren't about history, they're about mythology, and that's a product of the time in which its told.

As another f'rinstance (and this is straight from that North Sea book), a whole lot of unpleasant racial overtones get insinuated into Christian mythos when it's being packaged up to present to Norse folk, shaping Christ and his disciples as a band of no-nonsense thanes versus the sly and cunning (and dark) "southern sneaky types".

I guess my tl;dr here is: it's interesting how much it doesn't matter, until it matters.

Offline Not Lu

Re: Diversity in European Legends
« Reply #5 on: January 22, 2018, 01:19:22 AM »
That book similarly highlighted a problem with looking at legends/myth, that being that the telling is (always) political, and a product of the time when it was told.

Hollywood movies are the same. Watch some movies from the 70's then the 80's and keep going by decade and it quickly becomes apparent they're telling their stories based on the cause du jour.

I'd also add that history and religious teachings (the bible, koran, etc.) do the same thing. So when you read history written during the same time as (or close to) the events you're getting a look at the biases and knowledge level at the time.

And of course, what's most important to readers of this forum is that a lot of today's literature is nothing more than "a product of the time when it is told" as cupiscent says.

The challenge for a fantasy writer is to break out of his time and imagine the social, political, and religious of the world they want to create.

Offline Lady Ty

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Re: Diversity in European Legends
« Reply #6 on: February 11, 2018, 10:45:05 PM »
Here is a wonderful cat to throw among the European pigeons, especially those in Trafalgar Square. And it originated from a place I know very well and caves I visited often as a child, in Cheddar, Somerset.

Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin
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Offline Skip

Re: Diversity in European Legends
« Reply #7 on: February 12, 2018, 05:34:41 PM »
Medieval racism is an extremely tricky subject because our sources are thin and difficult to interpret. Much of it has to do with experiences in Spain, which itself is difficult to interpret. Moors could be called black (never brown, afaik) but just as often we'll find no reference at all to color.

Most of our sources--including the Arthur legends--date to the 12thc and later, which means they are heavily influenced by the experience of the Crusades as well as a much stronger influence of Church orthodoxy. The knights of the Round Table, Parzifal, the paladins of Charlemagne, all these were older stories whose earliest version we have are colored by this historical context. We cannot see them in their original. Without entering into the scholarly debate--a long and winding road--I'll just say that there's evidence of racism in the sense of prejudice based on color, and that it's treacherous to claim that the evidence all and always points to the same conclusion. IMO, there's no reliable generalization to be made.

That's why I am wary of the article cited. Yes there are characters in medieval literature with something other than white (or undescribed) skin color. But what does that *mean*? And did it mean the same thing then that it would mean now? The article, by not taking up these questions, implies that the meaning is the same. That's an implication worth examining rather than being taken as self evident.


Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Diversity in European Legends
« Reply #8 on: February 13, 2018, 12:09:15 AM »
My (flawed and incomplete) understanding of Medieval perspectives has been that people were more focused on where people were from (specific local group) and what faith they followed, or at least, as much focused on these as race, and these distinctions were very focused; i.e., people from village A outside city B were not the same thing, despite being less than 9 miles apart. Similarly (I have always understood), a Lebanese is distinct from an Egyptian, etc., instead of calling them all by race.
« Last Edit: February 13, 2018, 12:10:53 AM by The Gem Cutter »
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