Diversity in the Historic and Modern Middle Ages

The Middle Ages in popular imagination tends to be filled with knights in shining armor rescuing maidens from castles. It’s a Hollywood trope borne of Victorian romances, and as a result is highly centered on a fictionalized and white-washed idea of European history. And it isn’t true.

People have always travelled, which means that multicultural and multi-ethnic cosmopolitanism is not a modern creation. Medieval cities like London, Tenochtitlan, Paris, Timbuktu, and Istanbul resemble their modern counterparts more than we might initially assume. Then, as now, cities were hubs for trade, immigration, and cultural exchange. Archaeological evidence, written documents, and period art all depict a world as interconnected and vast as the one we live in today. Medieval Europe was both culturally richer and more diverse than we often give it credit for.

The Helgo Buddha
The Helgo Buddha statue, found in a Viking Burial mound from the sixth century. In the collection of the Swedish History Museum.
Sprawling trade networks and migrant communities have been documented since the Bronze Age. Buddhists have had a presence in Europe since the 3rd Century BCE due to the far-reaching conquests of Alexander the Great. A syncretic form of Greco-Buddhism originated a century earlier in Bactria, and spread as far as the Black Sea. Buddhist art and imported Persian silks were also excavated from Viking burials, indicating that both people and goods traveled between Western and Northern Europe and Central and South Asia for centuries. Vikings also had peaceful interactions with the Islamic world, as noted by Ahmad ibn Fadlan when he met with a group in the 10th century and witnessed for himself a Viking ship burial.

Rome, with its vast empire, was also quite the multicultural melting pot. Jewish communities in Rome itself were present and established in the early first century - and in fact the expulsion of that very community is noted in no less than four contemporaneous sources, indicating that then, as now, multiculturalism was not always harmonious.

Yet, despite sometimes uneasy ethnic integration within the empire, Rome’s multiculturalism went all the way to the top. Philip the Arab was a Roman emperor, and the Severan dynasty had maternal roots in Phoenicia - what is now Lebanon and Syria. Trade routes between Rome and China were well-established, and where trades goods go, often entire communities follow. It would therefore be plausible to imagine a Chinese trading family setting up shop somewhere in Roman Europe, as it would be to imagine a Roman family setting up shop on a trade route to China -- or members of either of these civilizations setting up shop in South Asia.

Nor did trade between Europe and Asia cease when Western Rome fell. Thanks to both religious pilgrimage and the Crusades, it was not unusual for medieval Europeans to settle permanently in the Levant or people from the Middle East and North Africa to travel to and settle in Europe. This ultimately resulted in lasting mutual impact on cuisine, art, politics, and architecture - and in some cases, even on the naming conventions of immigrant communities. This kind of inter-connectivity is more common than we think, and when it comes to the eastern Mediterranean, travel and cultural exchange is as old as civilization itself.

Waves of immigration are not limited to the Silk Road and the Mediterranean basin. Hungary was settled by Turkic tribes in the 8th Century, the Magyars in the 9th Century, then invaded and settled again by the Mongols in the 13th Century. The Jász people, a recognized sub-group, are an Iranic people who came from Ossetia, and have lived in Hungary since the 13th Century. A country we normally think of as “simply European” is in fact a very rich cultural and ethnic melting pot!

While Marco Polo is arguably the most famous 13th Century European Silk Road traveller, he was far from the only one of his kind. European migration to China was well established in the 13th and 14th Centuries, following Byzantine contacts with China and the Mongol empire, all carrying on the tradition of earlier Hellenistic trade and contact with South and East Asia.

Although we usually think of national borders as hard boundaries, the lines between Europe and the Middle East were anything but static. While we normally think of the Ottoman empire as quintessentially Middle Eastern, at its height in the 16th Century, the empire spanned three continents, including not just Turkey and the Levant, but much of North Africa and most of eastern Europe, with its most eastern province located in Aceh in what is now Indonesia.

Ottoman Europe included most of the southeastern part of the continent, including Serbia, Romania, Albania, and Hungary. Janissaries, elite and highly respected crack soldiers in the Ottoman military, were as a general rule taken from these Christian European communities.

Trade and war with Poland was the norm for the Ottoman empire, and trade and war with the Republic of Venice was similarly common. As always, where trade goes, people follow - it was not unusual to find Europeans settled permanently in the heart of the Ottoman empire, nor Ottomans living abroad in Europe and Asia for similar reasons.

Cover image from translation of
                        Al Farghani's work
One of the cover pages of a 15th century translation of al Farghani's Elements of Astronomy depicting him teaching a student. From the Library of Congress.
While popular culture would have us think of historic Europe as being a mostly white, Christian enclave with a couple of Jewish communities scattered about, entire portions of Europe have long been anything but. Al-Andalus consisted of most of the Iberian peninsula and was ruled and populated by Muslim North Africans from 711 to 1492. A culturally and intellectually rich society, al-Andalus was an ethnically and religiously diverse mixture of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It produced famous astronomers, poets, and artists with intellectual centers in Cordoba, Seville, and Toledo drawing scholars from across Europe and the Mediterranean. In the Toledo School of Translators, Christian scholars worked on Latin translations of major Islamic astronomical texts such as Greater Introduction (to Astrology) by Abu Ma’Shar and Al-Farghani's On the Science of the Stars in the 12th century.

The Jewish Golden Age in Spain produced scholars and philosophers and linguists whose names remain influential today, such as Samuel Ha-Nagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Judah Halevi. Also part of the Toledo School of Translators, Iberian Jewish scholars worked to translate Arabic texts into Romance languages as well as translating Greek and Latin texts into Arabic, an intellectual venture that had lasting impact on the scholarship of Europe and the Mediterranean.

Andalusian art and architecture influenced the Church as well; the pointed arch, a common feature in Western Gothic church architecture ultimately entered Europe via the Muslim communities in Sicily and Iberia. The intellectual glories of Al-Andalus continue to have a lasting impact on the rest of European society.

The Emirate of Sicily was also a Muslim kingdom in Europe, which lasted from 831 to 1091. Similar to al-Andalus, this kingdom was a comparatively tolerant society with a rich tapestry of cultures and a strong intellectual tradition. The Arab-Norman architecture developed during this time period remains a much-beloved cultural legacy of the island today. The Schola Medica Salernitana was the first medical college of its kind, and was founded in the 9th Century. Relying on both Greek and Arab medical texts, this school produced the finest doctors on the entire continent, and was one of the only ones to train both men and women.

The Islamic empires in the Middle East also established trade routes to South and East Asia and Africa, along with exchanging war and trade with European kingdoms. Ibn Battuta travelled across North Africa, Somalia, the Swahili Coast, Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Anatolia, India, China, Timbuktu and the Kingdom of Mali, altogether traveling more than renowned medieval travellers Marco Polo and Zheng He.

African empires, including the Christian kingdoms of Nubia and Ethiopia, were also flourishing during this time. Trade between Central and Southern Africa and Europe was often enough directed via Middle Eastern intermediaries, but the richness of these kingdoms were known directly to European powers as well.

In one particularly odd example, in 859, a force of 62 Viking ships defeated a Moorish military force in the emirate of Nekor, in what is now the city of Rif in Morocco, when they took umbrage against being told to stop pillaging. They hung out for about a week, then sailed back to Spain and eventually up the coast back home.

The Kanem-Bornu empire in central trans-Saharan Africa was established around the year 700, and became known to Arab geographers soon after. Europeans were mapping Ethiopia and the Congo by the 15th Century, which set the stage for later colonial projects, including the slave trade. Portugal established trade routes all along the West African coast and into interior and southern Africa, including the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.

The Seven Kingdoms of Kongo dia Nlaza, who traded rich textiles to Portugal, were absorbed into the Kingdom of Kongo and warred with Portugal in the 16th Century, and this event was recorded by the Portuguese Jesuit priest Mateus Cardoso in 1622. Portuguese trade is also how Europeans became aware of the Kingdom of Benin and other West and South African kingdoms. The Empire of Mali, established in the 13th Century, became a rich and vast empire well known in both the Middle East and Europe, reaching its height in the 15th Century, with a booming trade in both gold and salt.

However, the African diaspora in Europe dates much earlier than European colonial conquest of the African interior, and records of Africans in Europe appear as early as the 12th Century. Many of them were Muslims from Sicily, but by no means all.

Adoration of the Magi
"The Adoration of the Magi" stained glass window by Master of the Holy Kindred (c1500) depicting a black magi.
African saints appear in Germany around this time, and soon it was standard to depict one of the three Magi as Black. Members of the African diaspora had places in royal courts, universities, and all walks of life throughout this time period. By the 15th Century, the slave trade was forcing Africans from many ethnicities and cultures to come to Europe, but members of the African diaspora continued to be present in all walks of life.

Period works of art often depict members of the African diaspora as part of wider European society. Sir Morien of Arthurian legend is often depicted as Black. Shakespeare’s Othello was also depicted as Black. Othello was a fictional Moorish general in the Venetian military, but as “Moor” was a catch-all term for many ethnicities of Islamic Northern Africa, Othello’s ethnic origin remains a subject of debate.

Nor is the SCA limited to the Old World. At least one thousand indigenous languages are spoken in the Americas today, and even more were spoken during the 15th Century, the time of first contact with European settlers. Much has been lost thanks to the ravages of European colonization. European conquest of the Americas primarily took place between the 16th and 18th Centuries during Europe’s Age of Exploration, which means only the earliest elements of European interaction with these indigenous cultures fall within the scope of the SCA.

That being said, the Vikings created a short-lived settlement in Vinland and part of what is now Newfoundland in Canada in the year 1000. While the Norse did not establish any long-lasting settlements in North America, Norse settlement of Greenland lasted for over 500 years. In that time they sometimes clashed with indigenous peoples of the Arctic circle, including the Inuit.

During the first century of European colonization of the Americas, the great maritime powers of Spain and Portugal raided the wealth of a great many peoples, cultures, and empires, including the Taino of Hispaniola, the Inca, Maya, Nahua, and the Zapoteca. The Tairona people, known for their goldwork, revolted against Spanish rule in 1599, exactly one hundred years after the Spanish set foot in the Americas. Their descendants, the Kogi, are considered a largely intact pre-Columbian culture, and their persistence means the Tairona are the only indigienous people of the Andes to have successfully resisted being fully conquered by the Europeans.

In 15th Century North America, the British and French settlers came face to face with the Iroquois Confederacy made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, as well as the Roanoke people further down the coast. Some members of these cultures traveled back with the colonists to Europe, such as Wanchese, who visited England in 1584.

The SCA recognizes this diverse and complicated history and encourages members to explore it fully. Participants are welcome to adopt and explore any persona, whether or not it would have been part of the European experience. Any pre-17th Century culture or civilization is included. You can find a range of resources for re-enacting Ottoman history, Persian history and other Middle-Eastern cultures, Meso-American history, various African cultures, South Asian cultures, Japanese history, and more.

The world then, as now, is vast and diverse.

Essay by Berakha bat Mira v'Shlomo & Jon Chesey