The Moors in Antiquity


ACCORDING to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Moors, as early as the Middle Ages and as late as the 17th Century, were “…commonly sup-posed to be black or very swarthy, and hence the word is often used for negro.” 

There is considerable difficulty, however, in determining the ethnicity of the early Moors through terminology alone. 

Indeed, there are several terms that have been used to identify the Moors. 

Arabic texts, for example, rarely used the word ‘Moor’, and instead applied the term ‘Berber’ (a word thought by some to be pejorative) to the early non-Arab peoples of north-west Africa. 

And when not employing that term, they utilised the clan names of the Berbers themselves. 

In addition, early Christian sources often applied the term ‘Saracen’ indiscriminately to Muslim populations in general, including the Moors. 

The term ‘Moor’ 

Although scholars generally agree that the word ‘Moor’ is derived from ‘Mauri’, there are profound disagreements on what the word originally meant and how it was applied. 

Philip K. Hitti contends that the term ‘Moor’ has a geographic designation meaning Western. 

Hitti, the author of the comprehensive History of the Arabs, writes that: 

The Romans called Western Africa Mauretania and its inhabitants Mauri (presumably of Phoenician origin meaning ‘western’), whence [the] Spanish Moro, [and the] English Moor. The Berbers, therefore, were the Moors proper, but the term was conventionally applied to all Moslems of Spain and north-western Africa.”

Using Greek and Roman sources, Frank M. Snowden has pointed out that the Mauri (a northwest African people whose colour received frequent notice) were described as nigri (black) and adusti (scorched). 

The Roman dramatist Platus (254-184 BC) maintained that the Latin word ‘maurus’ was a synonym for Niger. 

In contrasting the Moors of the 6th Century with another racial group in North Africa, Procopius (ca. 550) wrote that they were “…not black- skinned like the Moors.” 

Isidore, a Catholic scholar and the Archbishop of Seville (587-636) wrote that the word ‘maurus’ meant black.

With the sudden eruption of the Arabs, during the middle of the 7th Century, ‘Mauri’ disappears for a time from the historical records. 

It re-emerges, however, in medieval literature. 

For example, in a Middle English romance called Kyng Alisa under ( ca. 1175), the conqueror Darius has, among his troops, a contingent of soldiers led by Duke Mauryn. Regarding Mauryn, J.B. Friedman writes that, “… it sounds rather like Moor in this context.” As late as 1398 we find the following reference to the Moors: “Also the nacyn (nation) of Maurys (Moors) theyr blacke colour comyth of the inner partes.” 

There are Irish records of a Viking raid on Spain and North Africa in 862. 

During the raid, a number of blacks were captured and some carried to Dublin. 

In Ireland they were known as ‘blue men’ (Irish, fir gorma; Old Norse, blamenn). 

The entry is under the title: Three Fragments Copied from Ancient Sources, and sheds further light on the ethnicity of the Moors. The entry reads: 

“After that, the Scandinavians went through the country, and ravaged it; and they burned the whole land; and they brought a great host of [the Moors] in captivity with them to Ireland. These are the ‘blue men’ (fir gorma); because the Moors are the same as negroes; Mauretania is the same as negro-land.”

A vital source of information regarding medieval Spain is the Cantigas of Santa Maria. Sponsored and allegedly written by Alfonso X (1254-86), the Cantigas represent a survey of secular medieval attitudes and actions. 

At least 28 of the long poems deal primarily with Moors. One mentions Yusuf ibn Tachfin and the Almoravid conquests. 

This may indicate that the clearly distinct blacks identified as Moors in most of the Cantigas are most intimately connected with the Almoravid invasions of Spain during the 11th Century. 

Medieval illuminators portrayed blacks in the Cantigas in a variety of roles; from members of the aristocracy to the military. Included among the aristo­cratic images of Islamic Spain is a blackman receiving gifts from a caliph or emir

In another, two ‘Noble Moors’ are shown playing chess while being attended by black and white servants and musicians. In the Almoravid army, Moors are shown as foot soldiers, bowmen, lancers on horseback, as well as high-ranking officers. 

They are also shown as menials, musicians and Chris­tian converts.  

During the Middle Ages, because of his dark complexion and Islamic faith, the Moor became, in Europe, a symbol of guile, evil and hate. In medieval literature, demonic figures were commonly depicted with black faces. Among Satan’s titles in medieval folklore were: ‘Black Knight’, ‘Black Man’, ‘Black Ethiopian’ and ‘Big Negro’. 

In the Cantiga 185 of King Alfonso the Wise of Spain (1254-86), three Moors attacking the Castle of Chincoya are described as “…black as Satan.” 

In Cantiga 329, an extremely blackman who has stolen objects from a Christian church is identified as a Moor. 

In the Poema de Fernan Gonzalez, devils and Moors are equally described as ‘carbonientos’ — literally the ‘coal-faced’ ones.

French historian Jean Devisse writes that: “The Castilians were at first acutely aware of the power of black fighting men, and in time transferred the old feeling of hostility from Aethiops to the black Moor …”

As is well known, not all of the battles during these years of Islamic domination resulted in Moorish victories. For example, during a fierce engagement in 1096, between the Moors and Spanish Christians, four Moorish princes were killed. 

Around 1281, Peter III of Aragon commemorated this Christian victory with the amorial bearings of a cross cantoned between four woolly-haired Moors. This coat of arms was updated by the Hapsburg King Charles on a gold coin shortly after 1700. 

Moors with broad noses, thick lips and woolly heads (upon which rest crowns), dominate the coin. 

During the European Renaissance, explorers, writers and scholars began to apply the term ‘moor’ to blacks in general. 

A prominent example of this tendency can be found in the work of Richard Hakluyt, a 15th Century traveller. 

Hakluyt recorded that: “In old times the people of Africa were called aethiops and nigritae, which we now call Moores, Moorens, or Negroes.” 

Shakespearean scholar Elmer E. Stoll provides additional insight regarding the use of the word ‘moor’ as it relates to late Medieval and early Renaissance Europe: 

“A striking proof that the word Moor was, as among the Germans at this time, exactly equivalent to negro, is not only its use as applied to the curly-haired, thick-lipped Aaron in Titus Andronicus, but also the con-stant interchange of the two words as applied to the equally unmistakable negro Eleazar, in Lust’s Dominion.” 


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