Black-a-Moors in the European Imagination: Beyond Dolce and Gabbana

Last month fashion icons Dolce & Gabbana sent models down the runway sporting earrings carved in the likeness of black women. The uproar was instantaneous. One story described the earrings as “slave-like,” linking them to a long history of black caricatures. Another lampooned D&G for engaging in “cartoonish, debasing, subaltern imagery that would make even your politically incorrect Grandpa think twice.” The official media term for them became, “slave earrings.”

D&G hastily scrambled to provide an explanation on their e-zine Swide, claiming the images were not meant to display racism or slavery, but instead reflected the legacy of Italy’s medieval contact with the Afro-Eastern Muslim world–Moors to be exact:

The head is inspired by Moorish features. Moorish is a term used to define many peoples throughout history. Medieval and early modern Europeans applied the name to the Berbers, Arabs, Muslim Iberians and West Africans, although it has to be said that the term ‘Moorish’ has no real ethnological value. In Sicily’s case it defines the conquerors of Sicily. The first Muslim conquest of southern Italy lasted 75 years, from 827 to 902 AD.

True enough, Italy has a long history of such “black-a-moor” imagery, that has since the late middle ages adorned architecture, statues, paintings and more. Yet, it’s probably a bit much to insinuate that there is no relationship to slavery, which similarly turned black bodies into easily traded commodities. While black-a-moor images predate the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it’s not hard to see how they would later be impacted by slavery as bondage and blackness became intertwined. A great deal of black-a-moor art for instance is decorative: faces adorning buildings, statues of servants or even carved black heads for drinking cups. Certainly, in the exotic headdress and bright clothing, the objectification of blackness and Islamic relatedness, there is at the least a very obvious air of Orientalism at work.

Whatever the case with D&G’s choice of fashion, the controversy opens up a space to discuss the presence of black-a-moors in Europe. Or better put, the black-a-moor of the European imagination.

Black-a-Moor nobles playing chess and being waited upon by servants, from The Book of Games by Alfonso X in the 13th century

As a catch-all phrase, the term Moor was initially used to describe the Muslim forces who conquered the Iberian peninsula in 711 AD, occupying it for the much of the next several centuries and making further conquests into Southern Italy. While some of these Moors were Arabic, most were likely Berbers–the latter group defining the varied peoples who have long called North Africa (the Maghreb) home. Among these forces were also black Africans [note: this is not a regionally-limiting (e.g., Sub-Saharan) definition, as the Maghreb was hardly homogenous and the term Berber is more an ethnolinguistic term than a “racialized” one, transcending any monolithic phenotype]. Their numbers never seemed to be the majority, though their presence increased during certain eras such as the 11th century Almoravid dynasty, whose religious appeals drew adherents from as far as the Sahel. Despite their shifting numbers, these blacks left an indelible impression on the European imagination. Often termed black-a-moors (to distinguish them from so-called “tawny” Moors), they appear continuously in medieval literature and art, as villains or heroes in semi-historical legendary sagas–especially in a military setting.

This may have historical roots. Medievalist Michael O’Callaghan points out a preference for black guards in Muslim ruled Spain.  “A corps of professional soldiers paid regular wages proved to be a more valuable instrument of war,” O’Callaghan says of the Umayyad dynasty ruler Al-Hakam. “Al-Hakam I was the first to recruit large numbers of mercenaries, including Berbers and Sudanese Negroes. Although many of the guardsmen were slaves and freedmen, they came to enjoy an exceptional political and military importance.”

Christians (L) and Muslim Arabs, Berbers and black Africans (R) clash in medieval artwork.

Researcher Miriam DeCosta looks at the military imagery of blacks in the 13th century medieval Spanish manuscript, the Cantigas. Though most Moors in the work are not depicted as distinctly black (no one has yet gone about the politically incorrect process of determining if any of the Moors of lighter “tawny” hues are “mixed-race;”), their presence is nevertheless verifiable. “Black Moors are not always presented as servants or captives,” he notes, “indeed, according to medieval illuminators, they seem to have held prominent positions in Moorish society, particularly the military ….”

In one of the more fantastic presentations, the semi-legendary Spanish romance El Cid gives an account of “negresses” in the service of the Berber king Bucar:

“And there came with him thirty and six Kings, and one Moorish Queen, who was a negress, and she brought with her two hundred horsewomen, all negresses like herself, all having their hair shorn save a tuft on the top… they were all armed in coats of mail and with Turkish bows. King Bucar… bade that Moorish negress with her archers to take their station near the city…. that Moorish Negress was so skilful in drawing the Turkish bow, that it was held for a marvel, and it is said that they called her in Arabic Nugueymat Turya, which is to say, the Star of the Archers.”

The stories of the Battle of El Cid (by Rodrigo Diaz) became popularized after his death–reproduced in the 13th thru 16th centuries. The quote above is from an English version, an amalgam done in 1808. While we are likely dealing more so with legend than history (El Cid is thought to be a mostly fictional propaganda piece affirming Spanish Christian nationality following the Reconquista), and it’s hard to know exactly when this particular scene entered the epic, it does illustrate the legacy of black-a-moors as threatening military figures in the European imagination.

Moorish soldiers of diverse backgrounds, Spanish Cantigas

black-a-moor sailor among Muslim naval fleet.

This notion of malevolent armies of black-a-moors was not unique to Spain, and find their way into several sagas elsewhere in Western Europe. The most famous is likely the 12th century medieval Frankish Epic, The Song of Roland, which describes the Saracen king Marsile as “cankered with guile and every felony” and who “loves murder and treachery.” As a Muslim he is accused as one who “fears not God, the Son of Saint Mary” and is described as “black…as molten pitch that seethes.”

The epic goes on to describe Marsile’s army: “Ethiope, a cursed land indeed; the blackamoors from there are in his keep, Broad in the nose they are and flat in ear, Fifty thousand and more in his company… When Roland sees those misbegotten men, Who are more black than ink is on the pen, With no part white, only their teeth….”

Roland (L) battles Marsile (R), black “heathen” Saracen king in the Song of Roland. Courtesy of Grandes Chroniques de France, Bibliothèque Nationale

In the 12th century Sowdone of Babylone, the Christian Duke Savaris is slain in battle by Astrogot a black giant of Ethiopia, a “king of great strength” who was “the devil’s son of Bezelbubb’s line.” In his command is another giant named Alagolafore, born of Ethiopia with skin both “black and hard.” Both are depicted as bestial, with heads part-human and part-animal, and strikingly reminiscent of medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien’s “black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues” who accompany the swarthy Haradrim and Southrons from Far Harad to the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

DeCosta investigates similar themes in the Cantigas, highlighting the ways in which “Spanish poets and illuminators of the period used the color black [chiefly black skin] in a pejorative way, associating it with the devil or evil” in relationship to their view of Muslim enemies. DeCosta points to Cantiga 185 where three black-a-moor soldiers attacking the Castle of Chincoya are described as “black as Satan.” In Cantiga 329 a black man who has stolen holy objects from a Christian church is identified as a Moor. There are even depictions of black-a-moor soldiers as faithful servants of the anti-Christ. DeCosta notes that though non-black figures are depicted as Moors in the Cantigas as well (the majority in fact), it is the blacks who seem to hold a central theme of negativity.

This appears to be part of a blurring of anti-black and anti-Islamic sentiment, specifically in Christian Iberian memories of the 12th century Almoravid invasions. Whether they are “racist,” in our full power-dynamic rendering of the term, is a bit harder to gauge. While medieval Europeans were certainly ethnocentric (like probably everyone) and gave subjective rankings to differences in skin color, notions of “biological race” were centuries away from being theorized.

In fact, while these accounts are negative, they do not make assertions of black inferiority. Rather, blackness has become intertwined with one of the most important differentiating factors of the time–religion. Blackness here is associated with the dread of the Muslim world, and what historian Jerome Branche calls “the millennial association of darkness and the diabolical in the Christian tradition, of blacks as the incarnation of evil.” It is therefore noticeable that when black-a-moors were depicted as non-Muslims in European folktales and legends, this negativity could drop away almost altogether.

In the next post, from heroes to servants to slaves–the shifting roles of black-a-moors in the European imagination.

Part Two:

Black-a-Moors in the European Imagination II: Beyond Dolce and Gabbana


Jerome Branche, Colonialism and Race in Luso-Hispanic Literature (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006).

Miriam DeCosta, “The Portrayal of Blacks in a Spanish Medieval Manuscript,” Negro History Bulletin 37, No. 1 (1973).

Jean Devisse, “From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood,” in The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. 2. From the Early Christian Era to the Age of Discovery, Pt. 1, trans. W.G. Ryan (1989).

Tom Earle and Kate J. P. Lowe, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Dorothee Metlitzki,The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (Yale University Press, 2005).

Jessie Laidlay Weston, (trans. from 13th century Middle Dutch, 1901). Morien: A Metrical Romance Rendered into English from the Middle Dutch (London: Nutt. archived online: 2006)

Chronicle of the Cid, 12th to 16th century, trans. from the Spanish-

The Online Medieval and Classical Library- The Song of Roland-12th century

The Sowdone of Babylon-

4 thoughts on “Black-a-Moors in the European Imagination: Beyond Dolce and Gabbana

  1. Pingback: People of Color in European Art History

  2. I found your article interesting. I think we need more dialogue on the subject. What I am able to discern so far is that Europeans tend to ignore the blackness of the Moors and many Afrocentric historians exaggerate the blackness without recognizing the Arab contribution. I once read something from a black lecture that stated: “The Moors; when black people ruled the world.” So much that is written by black people has become “feel good history” and it detracts from the influences that blacks did have on history. I guess a market for that type of stuff has developed. However, I hate books and articles that are inaccurate, poorly researched and poorly written. All history is biased one way or another. However, your article seems balanced and moreover you dare to question. I believe it is the job of the historian not to echo the words of past historians, but the search the treasures of history for golden nuggets of truth. That is what I am all about.

    • Richard,

      Thanks for reading! Glad you found the article interesting. You are probably correct in your points of “ignoring” and/or “exaggerating.” The ignoring part is rather odd, as many western works (e.g. Othello) for a very long time stressed the “blackness” of the “Moors.” I think this cemented in the minds of many, including later Afrocentric historians. While some of them exaggerate (I don’t believe all of them even agree), they also did however bring “black Africans” back into the picture of Islamic Spain–to show a more diverse and cosmopolitan society. I tried to strike a balance in this article. “Moors” tend to change depictions depending on time and place in European thought. And the actual Islamic invaders themselves came from various locales. Many in fact, especially during certain periods, appear to be North African Berbers–rather than Arabs. And Berber is not always a monolithic category. Wrapped up in this are all our modern assumptions of race and the past, with social and political meanings. In history, that thing called “truth” can be hard to come by.


  3. Pingback: Rac(e)ing The Dothraki Twerk Team- Game of Thrones Absent “Sistas” | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

Share your thoughts, cuz I'm not just writing to hear myself talk....

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s