Race and Ethnicity: Saracens and Jews in Middle English Literature


Ashley R. Conklin
University of Rochester

As modern, Western people living in a post-slavery world, we tend to regard race as solely biological; a person’s race is determined by their appearance, markers like skin and hair color, facial features, etc. We also tend to assume that race is a fairly recent invention, born of modern political and economic structures and “the Enlightenment and its spawn of racial technologies describing body and nature through pseudoscientific discourses pivoting on biology as the ground of essence, reference, and definition.” This sort of exploitative and scientific language does not appear in premodern writings; therefore, race is often considered anachronistic when applied to the Middle Ages.

However, recent work by scholars such as Thomas Hahn, Geraldine Heng, Lisa Lampert, and many others, have shown race existed in the Middle Ages in a variety of complicated and imbricated ways, ways that still have meaning for us as modern scholars and people. Cord J. Whitaker eloquently states what is at stake in racial discussions of the Middle Ages—and also what is at stake in ignoring these discussions—in his introduction to a special issue of postmedieval:

To be black is to be other to the European Middle Ages, and this fact has had major implications for the construction of modernity and the place of race in it. It is but a short hop from imagining blackness as other in the Middle Ages to imagining it as absent in the period altogether. If blackness is not present in the European Middle Ages, then the evidence of black people’s abiding presence in modernity…means that they must be exclusively modern. (5)

Which is not to say that modern conceptions of blackness are interchangeable with those present in the Middle Ages. But although the strict black-white binary seen in antebellum racial rhetoric is not applicable to medieval race, color does signify in a variety of ways. In Christianity, blackness frequently denotes sinfulness and whiteness indicates purity. Colors can also have class associations; for example, white and red are attributes ascribed to the nobility, whereas brown is a descriptor for lower class figures. Color and other biological markers are attached to groups of people in ways that might initially seem unfamiliar to modern readers but in ways that signify racial differentiation.

In the Middle Ages, race is as much determined by culture and religion as by biology. The figures in this study are “othered” as much for their non-Christian religion as for their appearance. This might sound strange to modern readers, whose identities are often less determined by religion than non-secular factors, but consider how this means of racializing a group of people might be especially pertinent post 9/11. Geraldine Heng astutely points out:

Definitions of race in practice today at airport security checkpoints, in the news media, and in public political discourse flaunt ethnoracial categories decided on the basis of religious identity (‘Muslims’ being grouped into a de facto race), national or geopolitical origin (‘Middle Easterners’), or membership in a linguistic community (Arab-speakers standing in for Arabs—Arabs themselves, in Census 2000, not having been imagined yet as a race).

These sorts of religious, geographical, cultural distinctions are present throughout Middle English constructions of race. Perhaps our modern perceptions of race are not as advanced as we would like to think.

This bibliography attempts to give a representative, though far from exhaustive, look at racial and ethnic constructions of Saracens and Jews in Middle English literature. It is important to keep in mind that these texts are all written for a medieval English audience, therefore the default perspective of these texts is that of an English Christian. This means that Saracens and Jews are generally figures representing a multiplicity of meanings that help create an identity for the “normative” Christian-English body in a way that is perhaps not unlike the way blackness creates meaning for whiteness in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. These figures often serve as foils to Christian heroes, therefore Saracens and Jews frequently embody negative characteristics and stereotypes rather than representing real, multidimensional people. These depictions are often wildly inaccurate and occasionally conflated—both Saracens and Jews can be seen worshipping Apollyon or Termagant with some regularity.

This bibliography is organized as follows: first, I begin with a critical background of race in the Middle Ages, then move into Saracens specifically with primary and secondary sources, and finally do the same with Jewish figures.

Critical Background

Suzanne Conklin Akbari. Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

In this monograph, Akbari engages with the discourse of medieval Orientalism. She plans to investigate the nature of Orientalism itself, beginning with tenuous relations/adaptations of Foucault, clearly defining her terms, and then moving on to look at specific medieval texts, canonical and marginal, “in order to generate a thick description of premodern Orientalism” (8-9). Akbari’s book engages with a multifaceted racial discourse that effectively explains how each component (such as geography) factors into a medieval Christian understanding of race and how all of the components relate. The organization of chapters into discrete aspects of race allows students to focus on a particular interest, such as the Saracen body, with the understanding that this is only a single piece of a larger, more complicated conception of race.

The introduction can be difficult for students to follow, as it lays out her methodology for examining the relationship between Orientalism and Michel Foucault and Orientalism and medieval discourse. While of interest to more advanced scholars who might want to see how she navigates the problems of anachronism—and she does so quite skillfully—it might be a bit beyond the purview of students who lack a background in Edward Said or Foucault. However, there are other chapters in this text which are worth mentioning for classroom applications.

Chapter 1 is of particular interest to students and useful in dispelling common assumptions about medieval conceptions of the world. It is also useful in showing how religion, science, and geography overlap in various ways so that these different categories of thinking about race can never be wholly isolated from the others. She identifies geography as a hierarchizing force; essentially, medieval maps and encyclopedias are a means of ordering the world according to a natural and Christian hierarchy. Medieval geography is intimately related to race, since climate is seen as a cause for specific racial traits. This geography of race provides context to many Middle English texts which take place either entirely or partly in non-European places. Mappaemundi are also always a potential hotspot of multimedia engagement with medieval resources. The latter part of this chapter focuses on The Book of John Mandeville and its more “even-handed, tolerant view of Islam” (54) than seen in many texts.

Chapter 3 focuses specifically on the Jews from a medieval Christian perspective and, like earlier chapters, connects geography and the body to the question of race. This chapter initiates a discussion of “ethnic and religious difference” (114); the difference between Christian and Jewish races is not only belief but such distinctions are heavily grounded in the body. This approach to race as spiritual and bodily continues with Saracen bodies in Chapter 4.

Robert Bartlett, “Chapter 8: Race Relations on the Frontiers of Latin Europe (1): Language and Law” and “Chapter 9: Race Relations on the Frontiers of Latin Europe (2): Power and Blood.” In The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change 950-1350. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Pp. 197-220 and 221-242.

These chapters provide a straightforward overview of the historical development of race in Europe. Chapter 8 looks at earlier medieval constructions of race as primarily cultural. Bartlett states that “customs, language, and law…[are] the primary badges of ethnicity” (197) rather than the biological component present in modern definitions of race. Bartlett identifies ethnic laws as a place where premodern racial differentiation can be seen. Different cultural parties, often identified as such by the languages they spoke, were subject to different sets of laws; these did not necessarily punish minorities but they do signal legal differences based solely upon cultural differences, which Bartlett identifies as racial.

In Chapter 9, Bartlett traces the development of a more biological definition of race in the 14th century through evidence of increased anxiety about foreign blood. For example, Bartlett identifies foreigners in the church and foreign bloodlines appearing in royal dynasties as particular places where racial anxiety crops up. These chapters give historical context for the development of race during the time period the literature was written.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Many of the Saracens encountered within these texts are giants, so it seems useful to have access to an academic source that deals with the problem of giants and monsters within medieval texts. These creatures are also a source of student engagement, and I can imagine lively discussions sparked from asking: What does it mean that this character is both a Saracen and a giant? Which of his characteristics align with being a giant and which with a Saracen? Is it even possible to separate them? Cohen’s monograph provides an excellent theoretical overview of the giant in relation to many texts that appear in this bibliography and other canonical medieval works. His “methodology combines psychoanalysis with several schools of postmodern identity theory” (xvi), which could sound intimidating to students, but the book is readable for a variety of levels and, moreover, is enjoyable to read for the subject matter and clear prose. The organization of the book is especially student-friendly; the chapters, which deal with specific themes like “Body, Nation, Family” in Chapter 2, are all subdivided into more detailed topics so it will be easy for students or instructors to excerpt relevant passages.

Thomas Hahn, ed. Special Issue “Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001).

This special issue of JMEMS examines different facets of medieval race in conjunction with a variety of medieval texts. Thomas Hahn’s introductory essay is especially good at detailing the signification of color in the Middle Ages, which are more nuanced than modern expectations might allow for. While all of the articles are of interest to those studying race in the medieval period, articles that focus primarily on English texts are:

  • Thomas Hahn. “The Difference the Middle Ages Makes: Color and Race before the Modern World,” 1-38.
  • Robert Bartlett. “Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity,” 39-56.
  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. “On Saracen Enjoyment: Some Fantasies of Race in Late Medieval France and England,” 113-46.
  • Linda Lomperis. “Medieval Travel Writing and the Question of Race,” 147-64.
  • William Chester Jordan. “Why ‘Race’?,” 165-74.

I have included William Chester Jordan’s concluding response to the essays because it opens up new lines of inquiry that, even 15 years after the initial publication, still deserve answers. His preference for the term “ethnic identity” and his questioning of the usefulness of race as a fixed category certainly anticipated new conceptions of race and its malleability.

Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages.” In Literature Compass 8.5 (2011): 258-274. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00790.x. and “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages II: Locations of Medieval Race.” In Literature Compass 8.5 (2011): 332-350, DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00795.x.

The first part of this two-part article identifies the medieval period as a generally ignored gap in racial theory. This is due to the lack of what modern scholars consider racial language as well as an absence of the political and economic exploitation and the Enlightenment-based biological designations typically associated with modern racism. Heng also gives an excellent overview of the recent racial work medievalists have done, citing two main groups: those who identify race as a bodily designation and those who identify race as a cultural demarcation. Heng ultimately wants a definition of race that encompasses its mutability; she wants to see race not as a stable definition across time but as a sort of process through which human difference—bodily, cultural, religious, economic, etc.—is the means for assigning hierarchy. Human privilege is based on how we read and assign value to these differences, and the emphasis on various aspects of human difference will shift over time.

This article does an excellent job of setting up the discourse surrounding racial theory and how it relates to Medieval Studies. At times, Heng’s language becomes difficult for students to follow, but for the most part her explanations and justifications for articulating race are quite clear. This is an excellent resource for boiling down the historical trajectory and major issues when studying race in the medieval period.

Part 2 of the essay expands upon her exploration of race by identifying specific instances of race-creation during the Middle Ages. She looks at Lateran IV dress and conduct laws and popular libel stories as a means through which Jewishness is turned into a racial designation. Like Akbari, Heng states that non-Christians are differentiated not only spiritually but also biologically and geographically. Heng briefly discusses skin color toward the conclusion of her essay; since she wants to emphasize the multivarious and interconnected aspects of medieval race without giving precedence to color, she leaves her discussion of skin color until toward the conclusion of her essay. This shift in priorities makes this article especially useful with students who likely expect the opposite. These two essays can be used in tandem or separately depending on individual class needs.

Cord J. Whitaker, ed. Special Issue “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages.” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 6.1 (2015).

This issue explores current issues and concerns in medieval race studies. Cord J. Whitaker’s introduction is of particular interest to instructors faced with students who question the relevancy of studying race in the Middle Ages or who still believe that Europe in the medieval period was entirely white. The articles that focus primarily on Middle English texts are:

  • Cord J. Whitaker. “Race-ing the dragon: the Middle Ages, race and trippin’ into the future,” 3-11.
  • Randy P. Schiff. “On firm Carthaginian ground: ethnic boundary fluidity and Chaucer’s Dido,” 23-35.
  • Asa Simon Mittman. “Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?,” 36-51.
  • Jamie Friedman. “Making whiteness matter: The King of Tars,” 52-63.
  • Michelle R. Warren. “‘The last syllable of modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean,” 79-93.

Although Warren’s article focuses primarily on allusions to and appropriations of Chaucer, this article seems like a fun and really effective way to demonstrate to students the life and multiple meanings even such a canonical text can have.


The primary definition of Saracen according to the Middle English Dictionary is “(a) a Turk; also, an Arab; also, a Moslem;—often with ref. to the Crusades,” but it may also mean “(b) a heathen, pagan; an infidel” more generally, or “(e) one of the pagan invaders of England, esp. a Dane or Saxon.” All of these definitions appear in the literature in this bibliography, though the most frequent occurrence seems to be in specific reference to Muslims. This is undoubtedly because Saracens appears most frequently in conjunction with crusading, whether in a text that might be categorized wholly as crusade literature or a romance more focused on a specific hero that then travels to the Holy Land as part of his chivalric journey.

As fictional representations of a potentially real Islamic threat, Saracens are depicted as enemies of the Christian hero and Christendom more generally. These Saracens represent a territorial and religious danger to Europe and as such, they are often depicted as stock romance villains motivated by an uncomplicated need to conquer and kill Christians. One purpose of these stories is likely to imagine a supreme and unconquerable Christendom at a time when the Ottoman Empire was demonstrating military superiority over the West. Geraldine Heng’s Empire of Magic makes a cohesive argument about how crusading literature exorcises historical and social pressures and helps create a unified national identity in Middle English literature. The figure of the Saracen as the racial-religious other that needs to be suppressed is central to her argument.

Despite being based upon real figures, the Saracens of Middle English literature are a far cry from accurate representations of Muslim beliefs. They are almost always idolaters, worshipping a variety of pagan deities, and occasionally writers even seem to conflate Saracen beliefs with those held by Jews. These figures demonstrate beliefs that the medieval English may have held about Muslims, or at least meanings that the medieval English associated with Saracens, rather than any indication of what Islam looked like during this time period.

This bibliography is organized by section based on patterns of Saracens seen within Middle English literature. The individual section introductions give more specific details about each. The sections are as follows: Constance Narratives, The Converted Saracen, Penitential/Crusade Romances, Charlemagne Romances, Viking Saracens, and Arthurian Saracens.

Constance Narratives

In the Constance Narrative tradition, a woman’s “constancy” and Christian faith is tested by a series of misfortunes. These narratives tend to have a repeated plot-device: twice, she is cast out to sea in a rudderless boat with no provisions, so that her survival becomes wholly dependent upon divine will. This is generally punishment for a sexual crime, of which Constance is innocent. Most commonly, Constance’s jealous mother-in-law falsely accuses her of birthing a monstrous child or Constance’s father attempts to initiate an incestuous relationship. She is then set adrift by the father she refused or the mother-in-law. At the conclusion of the romance, usually through a series of recognitions, she and her son are reunited with her estranged husband and father, and the wicked mother-in-law is discovered and punished. These tales are often read as somewhat hagiographical, and generally the woman passively accepts her fate. Saracens frequently appear in these stories, as Constance’s first, generally unconsummated marriage, is often to a Sultan.

See the introduction to Emaré by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury for more details of the tradition.

Primary Sources

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Man of Law’s Tale.” In The Riverside Chaucer. Third edition. Ed. Larry Benson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Pp. 87-104.

Chaucer’s Constance is one of the most famous exemplars. In this tale, the Sultan of Syria becomes so enamored of Constance’s beauty and piety that he wants to marry her and agrees to convert from Islam to Christianity. His mother, the “sowdanesse,” is angry that her son plans to convert their entire nation and kills him and all of the Christians on the day of his wedding. Constance is set adrift in a boat. Eventually, through the grace of God, she makes her way to the shores of pagan Britain, in Northumbria. She ends up marrying King Alla, and is set adrift yet again by a wicked mother-in-law; this time she is falsely accused of bearing two monstrous children. God guides Constance back to Rome, and there is a recognition scene and reunion with her husband. He dies shortly after they are reunited, and she returns to Rome for the remainder of her holy life.

In addition to the ultimate message of perseverance and continued faith in God, this story also uses common stereotypes of the uncivilized pagan other, primarily through the repeated trope of the wicked, non-Christian mother-in-law. The Sultan’s mother is the instigator of not only Constance’s exile by ship but also the murder of her own son and the other Christians. A mother who can kill her own son seems particularly unnatural, and her motives are entirely caught up with her identity as a Saracen. She riles up the local lords by telling them that their beliefs and identities will be stripped from them (337-43). She is a sharp contrast to the meek and accepting figure of Constance, who is equally unhappy with marrying the Sultan and traveling to “Barbre” lands (281). Constance is eventually redeemed because she remains faithful throughout her trials and trusts in God.

This is a fairly typical and highly inaccurate representation of wicked Saracen figures as a foil for the good Christians. Although the pagan people Constance encounters in Britain are similarly misguided and occasionally malignant, most are actually quite kind to Constance. Perhaps this differing characterization of pagan peoples is due to location: pre-Christian Britain rather than a seat of Islamic power. In the case of the people of Syria, all except for the murdered Sultan only pretend to convert and actually intend malice toward Constance and the other Christians.

Emaré. In The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. Pp.145-84.

Emaré is a Breton Lay in which the titular character is a Constance-figure. Like most Constance-figures, she is cast out in a boat twice, the first time because she refuses to submit to her father’s incestuous desires and the second time through the jealousy of her mother-in-law who falsely accuses her of giving birth to a monster. Emaré is sustained on these journeys through divine will, and eventually the family is fully reunited.

There are few Saracen figures in this tale. Emaré’s husband leaves her to aid the King of France against the Saracens, which allows the mother-in-law to get rid of Emaré, but the most interesting mention of Saracens is in conjunction with the beautiful garment that Emaré wears. This has been an item of critical debate, and editors Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury give an excellent overview of this in their introduction to this lay (p. 149-50). In short, the robe was made by an Emir’s daughter for her lover, the son of a Sultan, and when Emaré wears the robe her beauty becomes unearthly. The debate about the garment’s function—is it supernatural, is it a sign of female temptation—could add another facet to the discussion of race and associations of the east with exoticism even when there are no apparent Saracen characters within a poem.

John Gower. “Tale of Constance.” In Confessio Amantis. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Vol 2. 2nd Edition. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2013. Pp. 49-71.

This tale appears in Book 2 of Gower’s eight-book Confessio. This long poem is a collection of classical and medieval stories that were compiled to be both instructional and entertaining. “The Tale of Constance” is grouped with tales demonstrating envy; in particular, it is meant to instruct the reader about Detraction, or the ills of rumor. The plots of Chaucer’s and Gower’s Constance narratives are very similar, but unsurprising considering the lesson this story is meant to impart, Gower’s version emphasizes envy as the main motivator for the treasonous actions of Constance’s two mothers-in-law.

In this tale, the Saracens play a fairly minor role. Constance marries the Sultan of “Barbarie” (2.599) in order to forge a peace between Rome and the East. When this alliance is made, the Sultan sends twelve noble hostages back to Rome as a sign of good faith, and the Pope wants Constance to go in order to convert the Saracens. As in Chaucer, conversion and assimilation of the pagan East seems to be a primary motivator of this marriage. However, unlike the character in Chaucer’s tale, the Sultan’s mother decides to massacre the Christians and her son because of envy rather than because of the religious and cultural threat that Constance poses. The Sultaness states: “myn astat shal so be lassed” (2.649); her own position in the court will be lessened by the marriage to Constance, so her attack seems more about her personal status than that of her people. Because this tale is so similar to that of Chaucer, these could pair well together in a classroom discussion, perhaps concerning different uses of Saracen figures by two authors who are telling essentially the same story.

The King of Tars. Ed. John H. Chandler. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2015.

According to John Chandler’s introduction to his edition, The King of Tars is “an early variant of the Constance tale” (p. 1). Unlike other versions of the Constance narrative, this Christian princess actively chooses to marry the Sultan of Damas as a means of stopping the war between their two kingdoms. Also unlike Constance, this princess pretends to convert to Islam and consummates her marriage. The Sultan discovers the falseness of her conversion when she gives birth to a monstrous blob-child. The princess and the Sultan then compete in a faith-off in which they each try to cure the child through their respective faiths. When the baby is baptized, he is granted human form, and when the Sultan converts to Christianity, his black skin turns white.

While the romance is ostensibly about the transformational power of faith and baptism, the undesirability of non-Christians and what ultimately requires transformation is coded as racial. Physical differences and religion are inextricably mingled in this text; in many ways the physical exterior, whether the Sultan’s darker skin or the baby’s monstrous form, are what reveal this spiritual lack. The Sultan and his child become not only Christian but European Christians. Race is incredibly malleable in this story, and students will be able to question what is being said about interreligious, interracial marriage with such dramatic transformations.

Critical Sources

Siobhain Bly Calkin. “Marking Religion on the Body: Saracens, Categorization, and ‘The King of Tars.’ In The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 104.2 (2005): 219-38.

Calkin’s article argues that the Sultan’s change from black to white with his conversion is a recuperative fantasy about how easily one can read identity through appearance; this is a reaction to the “horror of integration and miscegenation” that occurs through misreading identity in the poem (221). Calkin emphasizes how Muslim and Christian biological and religious identity becomes blurred through the marriage of the Eastern Sultan and the Western princess. The danger of this intermingling climaxes in the birth of the monstrous child, which is a direct result of the Sultan’s inability to see that his wife has not renounced her faith and which indicates the danger of this lack of clearly defined religious and biological borders. The fantasy of these borders is reinforced by the ending in which the Sultan and the monstrous child are transformed, both biologically and religiously, into Western Christians. This article puts the stakes of religion and race into clear focus and relation to each other and presents these complex ideas in clear and precise terms. Calkin contextualizes her argument with background on medieval medical thinking and contemporaneous political events in such a way that even students with introductory knowledge of either will find her argument accessible.

The Converted Saracen

There are two types of converted Saracens that typically appear in Middle English romance. The first is a male Saracen, a knight, who is praised for his prowess; he is frequently described as the best of knights—except that he’s Saracen. The Saracen knight fights the hero of the romance, is defeated by him, and converts to Christianity because he suddenly understands the true power of God and that his gods were false. There is very little of what modern readers would consider “racial” language; the Saracen knight is described first and foremost as a knight, and his physical attributes are otherwise indistinct from the Christian hero. In a sense, he was always a pre-Christian warrior, just waiting to be converted. Firumbras, who can be found in the section on Charlemagne romances, is one example of this figure.

The other type is the converted Saracen princess, who shares many characteristics with her male counterpart. Just as the knight is described as the flower of chivalry, the princess is described as the most beautiful woman in the world. Her beauty and behavior fit the mold of the ideal romance lady; she just happens to be Saracen. Often, though not always, the Saracen princess plays an active role in helping her paramour, the Christian hero of the story, against her own father. One such example of this is Floripas from the Charlemagne romances.

Primary Sources

Bevis of Hampton. In Four Romances of England. Ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999. Pp. 187-340.

Due to the length and imbricated plotlines of this text, it might be difficult to study the entire text in a classroom. However, the episodic nature of this romance could make it usable for a more targeted approach depending on thematic subject matter. To aid with navigating the text, the Bevis introduction in the METS edition helpfully divides the romance into numbered episodes with brief summaries of each. Of particular interest to those studying Saracens are some of the earlier moments in the romance when Bevis’ mother, after remarrying, sells him into slavery in heathen lands and Bevis’ progression from slave to knight. He is purchased by King Ermin whose daughter Josian falls in love with Bevis. These sections begin around lines 500 to 1400, which is midway through the introduction’s Episode 1 and continues into Episode 2.

Josian is a perfect example of the Saracen princess who converts to Christianity. She helps Bevis throughout, especially against other Saracens, and agrees to convert out of love. Josian is loyal and beautiful, the perfect romance lady except for her religion; essentially, she is a pre-Christian figure, and it is only a matter of time until she converts and becomes properly Christian. This portion of the text is especially interesting because Josian is not a silent, passive lady as many students might expect. She speaks boldly to both Bevis and her father, and her actions frequently aid Bevis throughout his enslavement. Josian is a dynamic, compelling character, and there are numerous examples of other Saracen figures, such as Ermin’s more stereotypical treacherous steward, to open conversations about race in this text.

Floris and Blancheflour. In Sentimental and Humorous Romances. Ed. Erik Kooper. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006. Pp. 1-52.

Floris and Blancheflour reverses the usual interracial/religious coupling by having the hero, Floris, be a pagan prince of Spain and Blancheflour, his love interest, a Christian slave. Floris and Blancheflour are raised together in the Spanish court and become basically inseparable. King Fenix is concerned that his son will become corrupted by Blancheflour’s Christianity, so he sells her to the Emir of Babylon and tells Floris that she has died. Floris becomes love-sick and nearly dies, and to save him, King Fenix confesses the truth. Eventually Floris and Blancheflour are reunited and marry, and Floris becomes a Christian. This romance is especially interesting because against expectations it is the hero that is a pagan who must convert. This reverses the typical mold of a hero who imposes conversion upon a secondary character.

Octavian. In Four Middle English Romances. Ed. Harriet Hudson. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996. Pp.45-114.

Despite being titled “Octavian,” the story mostly follows the adventures of his son, Florent, as he recovers his heritage. The narrative employs the “calumniated queen” trope, similar to “The Man of Law’s Tale,” where the Empress, Octavian’s wife, is accused of adultery by her mother-in-law and exiled. Florent is stolen by an ape and is eventually adopted by a butcher. As with the case of most “fair unknown” children, Florent’s inherent nobility is revealed by his longing for noble trappings—a falcon and horse in this instance—and he eventually becomes a knight. In the meantime, a Sultan attacks France, and Florent wants to prove himself by fighting the Sultan’s giant. The Sultan has a daughter, Marsabelle, who is described as the most beautiful woman in the world. Eventually, Octavian defeats the Sultan, marries Marsabelle, the Empress is proven innocent, and she and Florent are reunited with Octavian.

One of the themes that runs throughout this romance is the heritability of race. Marsabelle, despite being born a Saracen, is depicted as European. She’s more beautiful than even Christian women and she’s described as “whitt als lely floure” (1478), which connotes moral qualities as much as complexion. Her Saracen heritage is something that is not biological; she can easily shed her “Saracen-ness” by conversion because she is already an ideal romance lady. This mutability is interesting in relation to Florent’s seemingly fixed position as a noble figure; despite being raised by a butcher, his nobility consistently shines through his lower class upbringing. This is an ideal text for sparking student discussion about biological or cultural race creation while also exposing them to common romance tropes.

The Turke and Sir Gawain. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. Pp. 337-58.

The word “Saracen” is never used in the text The Turke and Sir Gawain. However, as Thomas Hahn states in his introduction to this tale, the term “‘Turk’ defines otherness through geography, politics, religion and class” and is often used in conjunction with the term Saracen (p. 338). This is also evident in the Middle English Dictionary, which includes Turk as a definition of Saracen.

Like the Sultan in King of Tars, the Turk is transformed from black Muslim to white Christian, but this conversion is more overtly violent, as it is a sword and not baptism that transforms the Turk. These two texts could be used together to illustrate different types of racial/religious violence. These texts show the threat behind conversion: be baptized or be killed. In The Turke, much of the threat is downplayed because it is the Turk who commands Gawain to behead him. He wants and even initiates his conversion.

Penitential/Crusade Romances

The following penitential and crusade romances are driven by the same religious concerns despite differing in scope. In a penitential romance, the focus is generally a single main protagonist atoning for past sins. This is a personal journey from chivalric hero to a more spiritual figure. Crusade literature, even while focused on a single figure, such as Richard the Lionheart, is more concerned with larger constructions of identity, such as England on a national scale or Western Christendom (see Heng, “The Romance of England” below). Both penitential and crusade narratives use a war against a pagan east as a way to form larger national or religious identities. The battles against the Saracens in these narratives, like those of the Charlemagne group, test religious superiority through physical demonstration of prowess, not simply military might on its own; God determines the outcome of these battles by blessing his champions with victory, and the romances generally make explicitly clear that military victory is through God’s will, not the earthly strength of men.

Primary Sources

Richard Coer de Lyon. Ed. Peter Larkin. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2015.

Richard, at 7240 lines, is a massive text that would likely be difficult to cover in the classroom in its entirety. Because it is a crusade text, like The Sultan of Babylon and The Siege of Milan, there are many instances of encounters between the English and the Saracens; however the most famous and most frequently studied episode depicts Richard’s cannibalism of a Saracen (3069-3758). Richard is unwell during the siege of Acre and craves pork, but his men are unable to find any. His men kill and serve a Saracen “yonge and fat” (3088) to the king, telling him that the meat is pork. The “pork” helps Richard recover his appetite and health, and the next day Richard fights so successfully that he routs the Sultans forces. When Richard discovers the source of the meat, he laughs and makes a joke about how good Saracens are to eat and that his men will never have to worry about starvation so long as they have Saracens to fight. As the war continues, Richard uses this moment of mistaken cannibalism to terrorize the Saracens. He serves Saracen lords the heads of aristocratic Saracen captives, eats one in front of them, and then tells them to tell Saladin that he and his men will continue to feast even if he blocks their supply lines: he’ll eat Saracens. This section of the text has garnered interest among critics because it is so unusual in that it seems to place Richard, a Christian English king, in a position normally reserved for those who are considered savage or inhuman. Richard could be used very effectively alongside either The Sultan of Babylon or The Siege of Milan to complicate expected patterns of behavior in texts that are so racially and religiously charged. As a final note, Peter Larkin’s introduction gives a clearly written, detailed contextual background about the poem as a whole and the cannibalism incident in specific.

Sir Gowther. In The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. Pp. 263-308.

Sir Gowther is primarily a story about the son of a fiend seeking redemption for youthful crimes, including the rape and murder of nuns. Many of his crimes are specifically committed against Christians, and his redemption involves pilgrimage to Rome. As a part of Gowther’s penance, he becomes mute and is only allowed to eat from the mouths of dogs. He ends up in an Emperor’s court, whose beautiful daughter is also mute, and who is pursued by a Sultan who wishes to marry her. The Sultan and his Saracen followers besiege the Emperor. In the following battles, Gowther prays for and receives a succession of holy armor of varying types—black, then red, then white—in which he fights with the Emperor’s army. This culminates in Gowther killing the Sultan and ultimately marrying the princess.

In this romance, the Saracens are referred to as “blake” (478), perhaps in appearance or deeds. The Sultan is singled out as a “hethon hownde” (392), athough he is primarily described in romance terms—by the fineness of his clothing and jewels—and has very little presence. His character is undeveloped, and he never even speaks. It is clear he is there to function as the means of unifying Gowther’s warlike prowess with his newfound Christian faith. In considering moments where race and religion overlap Gowther is an especially interesting figure for students because he begins as a demonic entity, physically and in behavior, and ends his life as a pseudo-saint.

Stanzaic Guy of Warwick. Ed. Alison Wiggins. Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 2004.

This early 14th-century romance is often characterized as a penitential romance. The protagonist, Guy, achieves the usual ends of romance—love and status—early on when he marries Felice and becomes the heir to Warwick, but then he spends the rest of the narrative repenting for the violence that his earthly desires inspired. Guy forsakes his earthly possessions and his marriage and becomes a sort of crusader-pilgrim. He decides to travel “barfot bi doun and dale” (345) in repentance, though most of his penance arises from battles against Saracens. Guy’s first test of prowess and spiritual worthiness is in his battle against the Sultan’s champion, Amoraunt. Amoraunt is a black Saracen giant, described as a fiend from hell; he is a figure of both religious and physical monstrosity. It is clear during the battle that Guy’s success rests not only on prowess and the legendary if not magical components of his armaments but on his faith and the grace of God. Guy’s final battle in the romance is against another giant, Colbrand, who fights for the Danes who are invading England. The Danes are Christian, but Colbrand is a giant out of “Afrike” (2816) and, like Amoraunt, is described as “a fende of Helle” (3060). Colbrand also prays to “Apolin” (3187), which is a common indication in romance that he is Muslim. Guy, with the help of God, triumphs and then resumes his anonymous identity and settles in Warwick. Just before he dies, he sends for his wife, Felice, and when he sees her he ascends to Heaven, carried by 1007 angels.

Critical Sources

Geraldine Heng. “Chapter 8: The Romance of England: Richard Coer de Lyon, Saracens, Jews, and the Politics of Race and Nation.” In The Postcolonial Middle Ages. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Pp.135-71.

This article was later expanded into a chapter in her monograph Empire of Magic. The expanded chapter also includes a section on sexuality, but I have chosen this earlier version because the narrower focus seems more manageable for students. This chapter discusses one of the most famous moments of Richard Coer de Lyon in which Richard cannibalizes a Saracen. In this romance, Heng argues, this act of cannibalism is a racially charged joke and a tool that helps create an English national identity. The chapter, which is divided into clearly-labeled sections, contextualizes this argument through brief historical background and a detailed close reading of Richard. Heng also considers how this scene might be read in relation to Jews, who, after all, are the community most frequently accused of cannibalistic tendencies through the various blood and murder libel stories circulating during the late medieval period. This article could be used very effectively with the relevant excerpt from Richard and seems like a catalyst for provoking lively discussion about this shocking scene and the political uses of romance.

Jesus Montaño. “Sir Gowther: Imagining Race in Late Medieval England.” In Meeting the Foreign in the Middle Ages. Ed. Albrecht Classen. New York: Routledge, 2002. Pp. 118-32.

Montaño looks at Sir Gowther within the context of crusade literature’s drive to be victorious over a non-Christian other. In this instance, Montaño argues that Gowther functions as a Saracen figure within the text; therefore, examining how Gowther is represented can help one “map the biological and cultural constructions of race and ethnicity” (119). According to Montaño, Gowther’s demonic birth resembles the offspring of Saracen and Christian marriages, such as represented by the monstrous child in King of Tars. Gowther’s role as part-demon is similar to that of the Saracen, since both exist outside of the Christian community and pose a threat to it. Saracens are also frequently represented in romance in demonic terms. Montaño highlights Gowther’s falchion, a curved sword associated with Saracens rather than Christian knights, as a key aspect of his identity. This article is useful for engaging with the anxieties of miscegenation present in Sir Gowther and can help create a conversation between this romance and others, like King of Tars or the other Constance narratives, that deal with similar themes.

Charlemagne Romances

The Charlemagne romances focus on the court of the historical French king and his 12 Peers or Douzepeers. Saracens frequently appear in the Charlemagne romances, since he is a king primarily known for defending Christendom against the threat of Islam. The opening description of Charlemagne in The Siege of Milan, for example, describes him as “the heghe kinge of alle/That ofte sythes made hethyn men for to falle” (4-5). These romances tend to focus upon the heroic acts of his Douzepeers against assorted Eastern forces. The Middle English versions are translations or adaptations from French sources and tend to be divided into three groups, two of which are represented in this bibliography: the Firumbras Group and the Otinel Group, named after the pivotal Saracen character who converts in the romance.

Some typical features in these romances are as follows: Roland and Oliver, generally the greatest of the 12; Ganelon, who gives Charlemagne bad advice and inevitably betrays him; a Saracen knight or prince such as Otuel or Firumbras who converts after being defeated in single combat by a Christian knight (usually Roland or Oliver).

Primary Sources

The Firumbras Group

Firumbras. In Firumbras and Otuel and Roland: edited from MS. Brit. Mus. Addit. 37492. Ed. Mary Isabelle O’Sullivan. EETS. London: Oxford University Press, 1935. Reprinted by EETS and Kraus Reprint Co, 1971. Pp. xi-xlii, 3-58.

Firumbras would easily fit into the converted Saracen section, since the victories of Charlemagne and his Douzepeers against Balam the Admiral are dependent upon the actions of Firumbras and Floripas, his children. In this text, the Douzepeers are freed from imprisonment by Floripas because of her love for Guy, one of the Douzepeers, and Firumbras helps Charlemagne defeat his father in battle. Balam, unlike his children, refuses to convert to Christianity and is killed.

In Firumbras, the Saracens are associated with necromancy. Manby steals Floripas’ magical girdle by charming the knights to sleep. Manby, unlike the thief in The Sultan of Babylon, attempts to rape the princess before escaping, but God’s grace and Sir Guy save her. There is also a scene where the Saracens attempt to burn the tower the French are hiding in and “thorow crafte…and quentyse of gynne” (801), Floripas turns the flames back upon the Saracens. It is unclear if this is meant to be some sort of magical act or cleverness on her part.

Also, this text occasionally grafts Jewish terminology onto Saracen practices, such as when the heathen temple is referred to as a “synagog” (246). The worship of Islam is also inaccurate, as within the temple there are idols of Mahoun, Termegaunt, and Jupiter, among others. When Roland destroys the idols, Floripas says “They ne be but metal and stynkke as an honde” (277)—students might find this association of idolatry with smell unusual, but it’s a good example to show how smell has a moral quality during the Middle Ages. The Saracens are rarely described with the physical detail that Sultan uses to differentiate them from the French, but one of the few Saracens we do get a description of is the giant who guards the bridge Charlemagne’s army needs to cross to rescue Roland and the Douzepeers. This giant is clearly an analogue to the giant Alogolofre from Sultan and is similarly described with body parts in monstrous proportions. He is also “blak” (1255), and it’s not entirely clear whether this color is tied to his position as a giant or as a Saracen or a combination of both, since no other Saracens seem to be identified by skin color.

This romance is an analogue of The Sultan of Babylon (see citation below), although according to the introduction to this edition, they likely did not come from the same source. This text is shorter and more focused than that of Sultan; however, this edition may be more difficult for students, since the EETS texts tend not to modernize spellings or provide marginal glosses. The text does have marginal notations that briefly summarize events. Also, it is worth noting that there are several gaps in this text, though they do not seem to hinder an understanding of the story.

The Sultan of Babylon. In Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances. Ed. Alan Lupack. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990. Pp. 1-104.

The physical and geographical variety of Saracens in The Sultan of Babylon demonstrates the paradox inherent in the term “Saracen.” The 300,000 men of the Sultan’s army are gathered from lands spanning from Asia to Africa, are referred to as Saracens, and seem to worship the same set of pagan deities—Mahounde, Apolyne, and Termagaunt among the most mentioned—yet they are far from uniform in their appearance: “Some bloo, some yolowe, some blake as More” (1005). Firumbras and Floripas, the Sultan’s son and daughter respectively, are not physically described at all. One might be led to assume they look like Europeans; this is supported by descriptions of Floripas’ maidens as “white as swan[s]” (2749), their easy conversion to Christianity, and Floripas’ marriage to Sir Guy, a nephew of Charlemagne. The conversion and assimilation of the Sultan’s children is in fact integral to Charlemagne’s victory. Firumbras joins Charlemagne’s army and rallies them to rescue the king from a Saracen stronghold, and Floripas saves the captured Douzepeers from execution and starvation. Floripas is an especially feisty and entertaining character, and students will no doubt enjoy a character who shatters preconceptions of the passive medieval woman by boldly speaking back to her father when he threatens her with hanging, essentially telling him it’s a shame he didn’t break his neck when he leapt out the window to escape capture by the freed Douzepeers. In this way, the text fits equally well into discussion of converted Saracen princesses.

Other Saracens, however, are less sympathetically drawn and many even verge on the monstrous. The Sultan is initially described as a powerful leader, but the text makes it clear that he is an inferior foil to Charlemagne; though the Sultan is able to conquer Rome, it is less his martial ability than the sinfulness of Christendom that allows him to succeed. The Sultan’s followers are described even less favorably. The Ethiopians are depicted as plainly monstrous, perhaps even demonic. King Estragot is large and powerful and possibly descended from “Belsabubbis” (357), and he has a boar’s head. Another Ethiopian, Alagolofure, is a giant with leopard’s spots and head and tusks like a boar. In this text, we get the full range of possible meanings of “Saracen.”

Although the episodes in the text seem somewhat disconnected and the plot moves quickly and jumps between locations and events, the action is not difficult to follow. The vibrant action of the narrative and the slippery nature of the term “Saracen” will likely create lively student discussions.

The Otinel Group

Otuel. In The English Charlemagne Romances Part IV: The Taill of Rauf Coilyear with the Fragments of Roland and Vernagu and Otuel. Ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage. EETS. London: Oxford University Press, 1882. Reprinted 1969. Pp. v-xvi, 65-116.

King Garcy of Lombardy is primarily identified as a killer of Christians, and Charlemagne, as a king and warrior of Christendom, is placed in direct opposition to him. Garcy wants to rule all of Christendom and convert its inhabitants into heathens. He sends his knight, Otuel, to convey this message to Charlemagne and challenge Roland to single combat. This battle and Otuel’s conversion to Christianity occupy nearly the first half of the romance, and the battle to subdue Garcy occurs in the second half.

Although Otuel is frequently described as rude and arrogant, he is otherwise as proper and powerful a knight as Roland. In the opening battle, he and Roland both accidentally kill each other’s horses and chivalrously wait for the other to get up before attacking. Roland and Otuel are presented as parallel figures; both are nephews to their respective kings and among their most powerful warriors. Additionally, the text itself describes them in tandem: “Bothe knightes were gode & stronge,/& foughten to gider swithe longe” (507-08). Otuel and Roland seem like true equals in this battle, separated only by faith, which is perhaps not that surprising since Otuel is destined to convert at the end of the romance. He, like Firumbras in The Sultan of Babylon, is a pre-Christian figure more than he is strictly heathen. Unlike Ferumbras, who is defeated by Oliver and then converts, Otuel is converted by a miracle that occurs during the battle; when the French knights pray, a dove lands on his head, and Otuel pauses and tells Roland he will become Christian. Otuel even fights and kills a former ally, King Clarel, in single combat in defense of God. He also helps capture King Garcy. When Otuel leads Garcy to Charlemagne, the manuscript breaks off.

During the battles between French and Saracen knights, there is no clear distinction between them. The Saracens are not exoticized or physically described at all; they are simply enemy knights who desire to kill the Christians.

Otuel and Roland. In Firumbras and Otuel and Roland: edited from MS. Brit. Mus. Addit. 37492. Ed. Mary Isabelle O’Sullivan. EETS. London: Oxford University Press, 1935. Reprinted by EETS and Kraus Reprint Co, 1971. Pp. xlii-lxxxiii, 59-146.

The plot of this romance is very similar to that of Otuel, though at over 2700 lines it is significantly longer. The beginning of Otuel and Roland is concerned with the battle between the two knights and Otuel’s miraculous conversion and subsequent fealty to Charlemagne. As in Otuel, he helps capture and convert Garcy. This romance, unlike the other, does not end with Garcy’s conversion. Charlemagne’s war against the Saracens is carried on against Ebrahim, the king of Spain who also appears in Roland and Vernagu. After winning Spain and converting or hanging the surviving Saracens, the narrative shifts focus to the death of Roland. In this version of events, the traitor Gwynes (an analogue to Ganelon, the more familiar traitor of Charlemagne romance) betrays the French to Saracens who serve the Sultan of Babylon so that all of the Douzepeers are ambushed and killed. Roland manages to kill the Saracen leader, Mansure, but, as in the French Song of Roland, he is badly wounded by blowing his horn so loudly that it bursts his temples. Charlemagne rides once more to battle to avenge his fallen Frenchmen, and God’s favor is shown through the sun shining for three straight days until Charlemagne is victorious. The romance ends with Gwynes being drawn and quartered and the burial of Roland, Oliver, and all the Douzepeers. Otuel is among the knights who survive, and is specifically singled out in the final battle as the knight who kills the King of Persia, so he clearly becomes an important part of Charlemagne’s surviving court, despite his beginnings as a Saracen.

There are some unusual religious miracles within this text worth mentioning although they are not explicitly racial. As Charlemagne prepares for battle against the King of Navarre, he prays to God and Mary to know who will die in battle and has a vision in which some of his knights have a red cross on their shoulder to mark their deaths. As a result, he has these ill-fated knights remain safely at home. When Charlemagne returns, the men he tried to save are dead anyway; despite being the favored side in the war, no one can escape their appointed death. Also, near the end of the narrative, Charlemagne learns of Roland’s death through Bishop Turpin’s vision of angels and fiends. We are told that as Turpin says mass, the angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael carry Roland’s soul over Charlemagne’s chapel, and Turpin hears a great clamor of fiends. When questioned, the fiends tell him that they carry Mansure’s soul to hell because he has served them faithfully but that Roland resides in Paradise. Narratively, this serves to inform Charlemagne of Roland’s passing, but it also seems to draw a strict dichotomy between Christian and Saracen belief, where though both are dead, the Christian is saved and the Saracen is damned.

The Siege of Milan. In Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances. Ed. Alan Lupack. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990. Pp. 105-60.

This romance depicts a holy war between the French and the Saracens in which God miraculously aids the Christian warriors against the Saracens holding the city of Milan. The poem opens with a description of the Sultan Arabas conquering various cities of Christendom, filling them with “hethyn kyn” (20), and destroying religious icons and replacing them with idols to his pagan gods. Arabas is interested not only in conquering Christian lands but also in converting the people to Islam. He offers Alantyne, the King of Milan, lordship over his city and all of Lombardy if he will convert and threatens Alantyne with the dismemberment and death of his children if he refuses. Alantyne’s prayers to God are answered by an angel who tells the king that Charlemagne will aid him. On this same night, Charlemagne also dreams of an angel who calls him Christ’s warrior on earth, and he sees this angel strike down the walls of Milan; thus, Charlemagne and his French warriors are explicitly chosen by God to avenge Christendom and are identified as the victors from the beginning of the romance. The actual battle and victory are not depicted in this text, as it breaks off as the siege of the city begins.

Milan’s Saracens are religious others—and this is clearly a religiously driven text and conflict—but they are not differentiated from the French by appearance or culture. In fact, the Saracens are hardly described at all. Unlike in The Sultan of Babylon, in which the Saracen habits and appearances are exoticized, here they are a seemingly faceless enemy, defined solely through their worship of “Mahownn” (395). The only obvious exoticism similar to that in Sultan is a brief mention of the Sultan Garcy who receives a tribute of 60 maidens from the King of Macedon. Garcy has sexual relations with all 60 and then marries them to his knights (866-71). In this way, he is linked to sexual excesses, but this seems to be a singular moment in this text. Are we to assume that the Saracens look, dress, fight, eat, etc. like the French and are only different because of their religion? The lack of descriptors seems to suggest so and that the primary and most important distinction in this text is religion. God is, after all, the sole hope of French victory—and the text says as much while Roland’s army of 40,000 is being slaughtered.

Roland and Vernagu. In The English Charlemagne Romances Part IV: The Taill of Rauf Coilyear with the Fragments of Roland and Vernagu and Otuel. Ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage. EETS. London: Oxford University Press, 1882. Reprinted 1969. Pp. v-xvi, 37-61.

This text opens with four men of power: Charlemagne, Emperor Constantius of Constantinople, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Ebrahim, the Saracen King of Spain. With this dynamic, the poem seems to be creating an Eastern and Western Christendom that is united against the Saracen threat; the racial division here is, as in many of the Charlemagne romances, primarily one of religion. Ebrahim, the Saracen enemy, is primarily identified as a slayer of Christian men and has exiled the Patriarch, and religious visions and iconography appear throughout the text. There are moments similar to some in The Siege of Milan, such as when the angel sends Constantius to Charlemagne, and Charlemagne has a vision—this time of St. James not an angel—in which he is assured of victory and told that all who engage in this holy battle will find salvation. This war is a holy crusade and is concerned with both salvation and recovering lost land. As such, there is a convert-or-die mentality at play throughout the romance. At Pampiloun, Charlemagne prays for the walls to fall, and when they do, 10,000 Saracens are converted by the miracle. Those who refuse to convert are hanged. Charlemagne continues this movement throughout Spain until he has conquered—and presumably converted—the entire country. After conquering all of Spain, Charlemagne breaks all the idols and builds churches with the spoils of war.

The second half of this poem tells of the single combat between Vernagu, a giant Saracen, and Roland. As in Milan, religion is the primary difference between the French and the Saracens, but with Vernagu, a Saracen sent by the Sultan of Babylon to fight with Charlemagne, we get the first bodily indications of race. He’s 40 feet tall, and his physical characteristics are described in monstrous proportion: his face is four feet wide with a foot-long nose and his eyebrows are like bristles. He is “lotheliche/& was swart as piche” (482-83). Vernagu fights Charlemagne’s knights one by one and carries them off under his arm, almost as if they were children. All knights fail until Roland challenges Vernagu. This fight lasts for days, and in the midst of this fight Roland teaches Vernagu all about the tenets of Christian faith. Once Vernagu understands, he states that their battle should become a battle to see whose god is mightier. Roland agrees and prays to God for aid; an angel appears again and tells Roland he’ll win. When Roland injures Vernagu, the giant prays for help from his gods, but no one answers. Roland decapitates him. This is an unambiguous display of Christian superiority.

The poem is fun to read and quick-paced. It is short—only 880 lines—and action-packed. There are a few brief interludes of religious exposition, but even these moments are fairly entertaining. The dishonest executor who is carried off to Hell by fiends is particularly engaging (373-421). Overall, this is an enjoyable read for students who are interested in seeing how religion can be prioritized within racial conflicts.

Viking Saracens

Modern readers commonly associate the term Saracen with Muslims and the Middle East, but in the Middle Ages this is not always the case. In some instances, without accompanying references to the deities Middle English literature associates with Islam, the term can simply refer to non-Christians. See Mordred’s Saracen army in the entry for the Alliterative Morte in the Arthurian section for another example.

Primary Sources

King Horn. In Four Romances of England. Ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999. Pp. 11-72.

King Horn is one of the earliest Middle English romances, and as such, “Saracen” simply means “pagan” without the later Middle English associations with Islam or the Middle East. In fact, usual markers of Islam, such as worship of Mahoun or one of the other frequently named idols are entirely absent from this text. The poem opens with a Saracen invasion of England. The Saracens—Vikings, in this case—are largely flat characters; their only motivation seems to be killing Christians, taking over their lands, and converting those who remain to pagan worship. They seem like a stock evil enemy that the exiled Horn must defeat in order to reclaim his father’s kingdom.

Secondary Sources

Kathy Cawsey. “Disorienting Orientalism: Finding Saracens in Strange Places in Late Medieval English Manuscripts.” In Exemplaria 21.4 (2009): 380-97.

Cawsey opens her article by describing the illumination of British Library Harley 2278 fol 98v.—Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund. In these images, the invading Danes appear to look more like Middle Eastern Saracens than Vikings. There are other examples of “Saracen” headgear throughout the MS, and Cawsey uses the hats as a means of tracing the assimilation of Edmund’s foreign courtiers. She applies this comingled view of Dane-Saracen to the Viking-Saracens of King Horn, teasing out the metaphorical or literal meanings of the phrase “Sarazins blake” (1333), finally settling on the term “hybrid” as the most effective means of understanding the ambiguity of these figures. Looking at the images Cawsey cites (available free through the Digitised Manuscripts section of the British Library website) in conjunction with the Saracens of King Horn could lead to interesting discussions about the conflation of race in medieval texts and some possibilities of what medieval readers might imagine. This would also allow students to experience firsthand the manuscript resources available for research projects. The end of the article brings in the Constance stories told by Gower and Chaucer, which compare British pagans with those from the Middle East through the parallel storylines rather than the strict conflation that seems to happen in the earlier examples.

Arthurian Saracens

King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table are among the most iconic figures in literature from the Middle Ages. Arthur’s kingdom is an idealized place of justice and chivalry, but the story of Camelot is typically tragic; Arthur’s kingdom generally falls because of Arthur’s personal weaknesses as a king and internal betrayals.

The Saracens in Middle English Arthurian literature tend to be the same sort of stock non-Christian romance villains that appear throughout this bibliography. However, the Saracen knight Palomides is an interesting deviation from the typical pattern, as he is a lone figure who becomes incorporated into the Round Table despite his foreign and non-Christian origins.

Primary Sources

Alliterative Morte Arthure. In King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1974. Revised by Edward E. Foster. Kalamazoon, MI: 1994. Pp. 129-284.

The Alliterative Morte details the rise and fall of King Arthur with particular attention to his role as a conqueror. As such, much of the poem is concerned with battle scenes. The Saracens appear in the Roman section of the poem, in which Arthur fights against the Emperor Lucius; the Saracens are from lands that owe fealty to Rome and are allied with Lucius against Arthur. These Saracens are largely from various eastern lands, and so it seems like the battle lines are drawn between a Western army and that of an Eastern, non-Christian army, similar to crusade literature. However, Mordred, whom Arthur has left as warden of England while he conquers Europe, also employs Saracens in his rebellious army. It is unclear where these Saracens come from, since the majority of his army is Saxon or from other pagan tribes native to the English isles. This poem could provide an interesting medium to discuss the slippery nature of the term “Saracen,” which is most commonly used in relationship to non-Western peoples but can also simply mean “pagan.” This poem can be challenging for students due to its length and the antiquated diction frequently used in alliterative verse which can obscure the meaning of passages. However reading the alliterative lines aloud showcases the sounds and energy that motivate the poem and can be an entertaining way to practice pronunciation and rhythm.

Sir Perceval of Galles. Sir Perceval of Galles and Ywain and Gawain. Ed. Mary Flowers Braswell. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. Pp.1-76.

Perceval is a Fair Unknown romance. Fair Unknown texts are concerned with the growth of an inexperienced and unidentified young knight into a mature figure who learns of and has earned his noble heritage. Perceval’s mother Acheflour fled Arthur’s court because of the violence of the chivalric world; her husband was killed in a tournament, so she wished to raise her son where he would not become a knight. This does not succeed, and Perceval, a youth ignorant of courtly manners and even of God, makes his way to Arthur’s court to demand a knighthood of him. Perceval performs a series of trials, first against the Red Knight who is taunting Arthur and who killed Perceval’s father years before, then against the Sultan besieging Lady Lufamour, and finally against a giant, the Sultan’s brother, whom he encounters a year after he defeats the Sultan and marries the lady. The Sultan and other Saracen characters are fairly flat, stereotypical enemies, but the battles between Perceval and the knights are a bit unusual because of his lack of knowledge about proper knighthood. This is an entertaining Arthurian romance to read because Perceval is so delightfully dense; students will no doubt be amused by Perceval’s lack of knowledge about knightly behavior, frequent threats to burn people, and his struggles to remove knights from their armor.

Sir Thomas Malory. Book of Sir Tristram de Lyonesse. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Ed. Helen Cooper. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Reprinted 2008. Pp. 169-309.

Malory’s text is likely far too long to read in a classroom in its entirety, but Helen Cooper’s arrangement into discrete books makes it fairly easy to excerpt key sections. One of the most interesting sections that represent Saracens is the Tristram section because it contains the story of Palomides, a Saracen knight who serves King Arthur. The Book of Sir Tristram is also quite long, so focusing on a couple of subsections is probably the best approach to teaching Palomides. I suggest looking at the first chapter of The Book of Sir Tristram, specifically pp.178-202, because this shows the introduction of Palomides to the narrative and focuses on his quarrel with Tristram for the love of Isolde. Also see the conclusion of the Book of Sir Tristram, pp. 304-09, for Palomides’ christening.

Palomides is an unusual figure because he competes in tournaments prior to his conversion, and he is partially incorporated into the chivalric world even before he is Christian. Primarily, he is Tristram’s rival for the love of La Beale Isolde, though his quest to win her love is ultimately doomed. Isolde does not desire Palomides’ love, but she protects him in battles with Tristram because she does not wish for him to die unchristened. In one instance, Isolde intervenes in a battle between her competing lovers, saying “I would be loath that he should die a Saracen” (p. 201). At the end of the Tristram section, Palomides converts, but this is basically the end of his narrative; immediately after he is christened, he goes seeking the mysterious Questing Beast. Although Palomides seems to fit the mold of the converted Saracen who is then integrated into Christian society, he, unlike the figures of Otuel or Firumbras, remains on the margins of Arthur’s court.

The Turke and Sir Gawain. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. Pp. 337-58.

The word “Saracen” is never used in the text The Turke and Sir Gawain. However, as Thomas Hahn states in his introduction to this tale, the term “‘Turk’ defines otherness through geography, politics, religion and class” and is often used in conjunction with the term Saracen (p. 338). This is also evident in the Middle English Dictionary, which includes Turk as a definition of Saracen.

Like the Sultan in King of Tars, the Turk is transformed from black Muslim to white Christian, but this conversion is more overtly violent, as it is a sword and not baptism that transforms the Turk. These two texts could be used together to illustrate different types of racial/religious violence. These texts show the threat behind conversion: be baptized or be killed. In The Turke, much of the threat is downplayed because it is the Turk who commands Gawain to behead him. He wants and even initiates his conversion.

Secondary Sources

Dorsey Armstrong. “The (Non-) Christian Knight in Malory: A Contradiction in Terms?” Arthuriana 16.2 (Summer 2006), pp. 30-3.

Armstrong’s succinct analysis of the threat of religion to the chivalric cohesiveness of Arthur’s court identifies both paganness and extreme Christianity as a threat to the Round Table. Although “race” per se does not feature in Armstrong’s discussion, religion as a point of disunity is a theme that recurs throughout the texts of this bibliography. It seems important to include a source that looks not only at the threat of the “Other” religion, embodied by the Saracen knight Palomides, but also the threat of an internal, overbearing Christianity, as portrayed through the hyper-Christian Galahad.

Jacqueline de Weever, ed. Special Issue “Saracens in Malory.” Arthuriana 16.4 (Winter 2006).

This special issue of Arthuriana is dedicated to understanding the term “Saracen” as it appears in Malory’s Morte Darthur. All of the articles are of interest to scholars of Saracens, and the introduction is particularly good for giving background of the use of the term and of Palomides, the Round Table’s Saracen knight.


  • Jacqueline de Weever. “Introduction: The Saracen as Narrative Knot,” 4-9.
  • Meg Roland. “Arthur and the Turks,” 10-28.
  • Donald L. Hoffman. “Assimilating Saracens: The Aliens in Malory’s Morte Darthur,” 43-64.
  • Maghan Keita. “Saracens and Black Knights,” 65-77.


As with the Saracens, an accurate representation of Jewish belief is not important to the Middle English writers representing the Jews. Jewish figures are as likely to be seen worshipping an idol of Appolyon or calling out to Mahoun as a Saracen is. However, Jews are infrequently seen in romance or crusade texts; though they are often depicted, like Saracens, as enemies to Christians, they are not typically chivalric enemies. Jews do not often appear as important figures in secular tales. Instead, they are often featured in stories with religious agendas, like Marian miracles or mystery plays.

According to the MED, a Jew is “(a) one of the Jewish race or religion, one following the Mosaic law in biblical or post-biblical times,” “(b) one of the Jews of the New Testament.” This definition makes it clear that “Jew” is not simply a religious designation but is also a racial category. Unlike “Saracen,” a term which seems to encompass multiple ethnicities and geographies, such as Turk or Arab, Jews seem to be considered largely homogenous. This does not mean that they were simpler figures; in fact, medieval Christians had a very complicated relationship with them. One of the paradoxes of the Christian faith is that it is founded out of Judaism, and as such, Old Testament figures are revered as the patriarchs of Christianity. However, this reverence becomes problematic with the Passion of Christ; in medieval Christian discourse, Jews feature as those primarily held responsible for the killing of Christ. As such, they become associated with a number of negative characteristics, such as blindness, for not recognizing Christ’s divinity, murder, treachery. These negative associations continue through accusations of blood libel and ritual murder against Jews. These libels were stories about Jews murdering Christian youths, which often resulted in real-life mob actions against Jewish communities. The English fascination with these stories seems especially odd considering that in 1290, the Jews were expelled from England by royal decree.

The section on Jews is broken into three primary categories: Libels, The Vengeance of Our Lord, and the Mystery Plays.


Jewish figures appear most frequently in Middle English texts in conjunction with libelous accusations of violent intent against Christians. Geraldine Heng outlines three distinct but interrelated accusations that circulate most frequently. The first is the ritual murder libel in which Jews are accused of reenacting the Passion upon young Christian boys. This is especially closely related to the blood libel, in which Jews bake the blood of Christian boys into Passover bread. The third accusation is that Jews steal the Eucharist and torture it in order to reenact the Passion. These fictional crimes are imbued with ritualistic overtones and suggest that the Jews as a group are heavily invested in actively opposing Christians. The libels allow medieval Christians to imagine the Jews as potentially dangerous figures living among them, and there are historical instances of mob and juridical violence linked to these stories. The most famous of these anti-Jewish attacks occurred in Lincoln in 1255. A young Christian boy, Hugh, was found murdered, the Jews were accused of the crime, and at least eighteen Jews were found guilty and hanged for the crime. This Hugh of Lincoln is the martyred Christian boy that Chaucer’s Prioress invokes at the end of her tale.

Primary Sources

Beverly Boyd. The Middle English Miracles of the Virgin. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1964.

This collection is an excellent sampling of Marian miracles from a variety of Middle English sources, including the Vernon MS, the Auchinleck MS, the South English Legendary, and Hoccleve. Many of these stories are considered sources or analogues of “The Prioress’s Tale,” and could spark interesting student conversations in conjunction with said tale. The stories are generally short and clearly labeled by manuscript and approximate dating. In addition to the tales themselves, Boyd’s introduction to the volume gives a brief overview of what Marian miracles are and their transmission history. As she says herself “the tales are an interesting cross section of medieval thought, culture, and narrative traditions” (10) and will help give deeper context to any class engaging with “The Prioress’s Tale.”

Generally, Marian miracles show the Virgin Mary acting as her role as an intercessor in human salvation. Some, such as the example of “The Pilgrim of St. James,” show Mary facing off with Satan for the possession of a man’s soul. Though a man dies in sin, Mary returns him to life so he has a chance to perform penance and purify his soul for Heaven. In these sorts of stories, Mary is a source of mercy and salvation. Marian miracles are also infamous for their anti-Judaic content, such as with “The Child Slain by Jews,” a close analogue to Chaucer’s tale. “The Jewish Boy” is another problematic narrative, in which a Jewish father throws his son into an oven after the boy goes to church. The child is saved from burning by Mary “that maiden milde” (157) whom he recognizes from her icon in the church. The boy’s mother is converted by the miracle, and the father is sentenced to burn in the oven. Both of these narratives seem to fall within the murder libel stereotype, in which a Jew is responsible for killing a child, generally a Christian child.

Geoffrey Chaucer. “The Prioress’s Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer. Third edition. Ed. Larry Benson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Pp. 209-11.

“The Prioress’s Tale” is, for modern readers, one of Chaucer’s most controversial stories. Set in “Asye,” it pulls characteristics from Marian miracle tales, in which an innocent, Christian youth is murdered by Jews. In this story, a “litel clergeon” who demonstrates Christian piety by singing “O alma redemptoris” as he traverses the Jewish quarter in order to reach his school, is murdered by a Jewish assassin and hidden in the privy. He is discovered by his mother and other Christian townfolk by his miraculous singing, which continues after his throat has been cut. The Jews are summarily tried and executed, and the clergeon relates the miracle to the local priest: the Virgin Mary placed a “greyn” on his tongue, and he will cease singing when it is removed. The priest removes the grain and the litel clergeon falls silent and is buried. The Prioress concludes her tale by reminding her audience of Hugh of Lincoln, a young boy who was supposedly killed by Jews in 1255. Chaucer is such a canonical medieval author, that this text should be included in any discussion of libel stories or representations of Jews in the Middle Ages. This text could also be used in conjunction with its Marian analogues to demonstrate the popularity of such stereotypes.

The Play of the Sacrament. Medieval Drama. Ed. David Bevington. Hougton Mifflin, 1975. Reprinted Hackett Publishing Co, Inc., 2012. Pp. 754-88.

This play dramatizes the host desecration libel made against Jews. This a text that modern readers and students in particular struggle with because it is extremely anti-Semitic but also humorous at times, and it is difficult to reconcile the two. This play is more troublesome because the banns claim that the events depicted actually happened, and one can imagine the real social and political effect this may have had on listening audiences. In this play, Jonathas and his cohort—all Jews—purchase the Eucharist from a clerk in order to test to see if it is actually the true flesh of Christ. They perform various tortures upon the host and the miracles that ensue—the wafer bleeds, Jonathas’ hand comes off when it becomes attached to the wafer, Jesus appears and berates the Jews, etc.—cause the Jews to become believers and convert to Christianity.

Bevington’s edition is one of the standard anthologies of dramas used in the classroom. His brief introduction gives some background information on host desecration stories and where this play fits generically within medieval drama. He also gives excellent information about staging practices.

Secondary Sources

Adrienne Williams Boyarin. Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010.

Boyarin’s monograph focuses on the short miracle stories that are commonly known as Marian miracles. Marian stories appear in vernacular collections in a variety of European languages—and also in Arabic and African languages (4). Boyarin is interested in investigating what happened in England in the 250-year gap between the development of these tales in Latin and their apparent vernacular popularity in the 15th century; though they appear in some earlier collections, in England, the popularity is not comparable to that of Europe in general until later.

The entire monograph is a comprehensive source for anyone studying Marian miracles in England. For those who are not studying this genre in depth and perhaps are encountering it through “The Prioress’s Tale” and other singular miracle stories, the introduction and first chapter of the book are excellent resources. The introduction gives a general overview of the book itself, as one might expect, but it also gives an account of historical developments of Marian devotion. The first chapter is especially useful for understanding the troubled nature of categorizing Marian miracles in the English tradition and the relationship between Latin miracles and the later vernacular miracles. Boyarin also summarizes and analyzes specific miracle stories within this chapter.

Robert Chazan. The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Most history books focus on the history of the dominant culture and have a limited view of minority cultures. This book flips this narrative and instead focuses on the history of Jewish communities in Europe, and European history is characterized in relation to them, which makes this history book an excellent source for anyone studying medieval Jews and who doesn’t want to wade through mountains of extraneous material. Chazan’s prose is clear, and the book is arranged into chapters both geographically and thematically, so it is easy to navigate and target just the information you need. The framing chapters look at the bigger picture of Jewish communities as a whole across Europe between the years 1000-1500. One of the biggest changes during this time is geographical; prior to 1000 Jews typically lived in the Middle East and Africa and after this time they began moving more steadily into Europe, which is also around the time we start seeing an increase of anti-Jewish polemic in Christian discourse—and vice-versa. These framing chapters are useful for understanding what is happening within Jewish communities of the late medieval period and for understanding the overall consequences of these changes throughout Europe.

On a more specific—but equally helpful—level, Chazan dedicates the central chapters of his text to specific geographical locations, such as a chapter on Northern France and England. These chapters provide detailed, specific information about historical events concerning Jews in these areas and would pair especially well with literature created in those locations. The index is particularly helpful in pinpointing areas of interest.

Miri Rubin. Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Rubin’s study of the host desecration stories that circulated during the late Middle Ages was groundbreaking at the time of publication and remains one of the most informative monographs on this topic. She traces its inception during the late thirteenth century and its evolution. Rubin looks at the narrative within the context of its historical moment, both as giving meaning to and taking meaning from the historical events that occurred contemporaneously with host desecration narratives. Most of the surviving texts are from the position of Christian authorities; these, like most of the texts in this bibliography, are medieval Christian texts about Jews. Despite that, Rubin makes clear, she’s interested not only in finding the violent moments in which people seem incited by the tale but also in finding evidence of Christian resistance to this stereotypical representation of Jews.

In addition to thoroughly examining the Christian representation of this narrative, Rubin also provides a brief glimpse at the other side of the story in what she calls “Interjection: What did Jews Think of the Eucharist? According to Jews and According to Christians.” In these 10 or so pages, there are excerpts from Christian and Jewish sources concerning the nature of the Eucharist, and Rubin discusses how the language of these polemics changes over time and how we can see the increased stakes in protecting the Eucharist and transubstantiation after Lateran IV. For students, this is also great exposure to a variety of primary texts and gives a sense of the sort of religious dialogue that may have been active while texts like “The Prioress’s Tale” or the Play of the Sacrament were written and read.

The Vengeance of Our Lord

The “Vengeance of Our Lord” is a narrative tradition in which the Jewish figures in the narrative are punished by the righteous vengeance of God for their complicity in Christ’s death. This narrative depicts the historical war between the Jews and the Romans, culminating in the sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. This tradition emphasizes the triumph of Christianity over Judaism and has appeared in a variety of genres in the later Middle Ages.

Siege of Jerusalem. Ed. Michael Livingston. Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS Middle English Text Series, Medieval Institute Publications, 2004.

This late 14th-century alliterative romance is infamous for its rampant anti-Semitism. In this retelling of the destruction of Jerusalem, Vespasian and Titus, father and son Roman generals and future emperors, are anachronistically converted to Christianity when they are miraculously healed of various physical ailments. This conflict therefore becomes not a matter of lapsed tribute between Judea and old, pagan, corrupt Rome under Nero, but instead retribution for the death of Christ and a sort of mass conversion and triumph of Christendom over both pagan Rome and the old law of the Jews.

This poem has been infrequently studied due to its difficult subject matter. This poem, despite having a fairly straightforward narrative logic of the destruction of Jerusalem, is complicated in its depiction of Jewish figures. On one level, they are the enemy that must be punished and utterly destroyed for killing Christ, and the overall plot of the poem moves toward this end. The violence against Jewish bodies is spectacular and moves beyond the stock violence of missing limbs and decapitations typically found in romance. Caiaphas and his clerks are flayed alive in a particularly horrific scene, and the torment of their deaths is compounded by the psychological suffering of the besieged Jews who witness the torture of their former leaders. But even during what should be dehumanizing moments, we as readers are not allowed to forget that the Jews are people. They are filled with grief, and when they witness these atrocities, many fling themselves from the walls of Jerusalem in woe. Even Titus, their destroyer, feels pity for the physical privation of the starving Jews. The Jews of this poem exist in a paradoxical space in which they must be destroyed (and medieval readers familiar with the history would know that the fall of Jerusalem is the conclusion of this story) but at the same time this destruction is intensely conflicted because of the physical suffering. This intersection of spectacular violence and pity is one reason that this narrative is so difficult to deal with. Siege is an important representation of this tradition but more mature students would likely be able to cope with the subject matter.

Mystery Plays

The mystery plays were an important part of medieval culture and celebration of biblical matters. These plays, of which we have four main groupings—York, N-town, Towneley, and Chester—tell the full scope of biblical history from the Creation to the Final Judgment. As such, these plays are especially interesting in relation to Jewish figures. The Jewish patriarchs are presented positively and revered throughout these texts, but the Jews are also blamed extensively for the murder of Christ in the Passion Plays of these cycles. These plays can be an interesting way of demonstrating to students the complicated relationship that medieval Christians had to Judaism. Additionally, many of these plays have been performed and recorded in recent years, and the viewing of these plays can add a multimedia dimension to the classroom.

In a previous volume of this journal, Scott O’Neil has compiled an excellent bibliography on medieval drama and its possible pedagogical uses. For a more in-depth consideration of these cycle plays, I highly recommend his bibliography as a resource. [can we link directly to it?]

Merrall Llewelyn Price. “Re-membering the Jews: Theatrical Violence in the N-Town Marian Plays.” In Comparative Drama 41.4 (2007/2008), 439-63.

Price examines the Marian miracles of the mystery plays—the N-Town cycle, specifically—in relation to the power of Mary’s virgin body. In N-Town’s “Nativity,” one of Mary’s Jewish midwives doubts Mary’s virginity after Christ’s birth, touches Mary to determine the truth, and is afflicted with a withered hand. When she repents and converts, she is healed. Price convincingly argues that Marian miracles that end with conversions rather than death are equally anti-Semitic, since the Jewish presence is obliterated either way. There is a similar moment in “The Assumption,” where a Jewish priest attempts to defile Mary’s funeral bier and is punished until he repents. In addition to discussing N-Town itself, this article identifies other Middle English versions of these miracles, which can be especially helpful to give students a sense of the popularity of these stories. Price also provides brief historical context for the development of the figure of the “doubting Jew” in relation to the Cult of the Virgin and the discourse of Marian miracles as a whole. This article could be useful in discussing N-Town or as an addition to a course that already includes “The Prioress’s Tale.”

Saracens and Jews

The Book of John Mandeville. Ed. Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007.

Mandeville is an unusual text in that it claims to be a factual travel narrative written by Sir John Mandeville but is actually a compilation of various sources dealing with matters of the East. Despite this, Mandeville was likely a very popular medieval text, as it appears in numerous manuscripts in various languages. This text is unique in this bibliography in that it explicitly refers to both Saracens and Jews, and I have singled this text out in its own section because much of the meaning derived from these figures seems to be in the way the author relates them to each other.

Mandeville is perhaps best known for its depiction of the monstrous races of the Far East, but it is also frequently cited by critics for its unusually tolerant views of Saracens. The narrator praises the Sultan of Babylon for his respectful protection of the holy places of Jerusalem, and even claims that the Saracens revere the places where holy patriarchs are buried. Islam is described as so close to Christianity that Saracens are easily converted. This along with reverence that the Saracens display for Christian holy places is doubtless a reassuring view of the non-Christians who held Jerusalem at that time. Additionally, according to the narrator, the Sultan says that the Saracens are able to hold Jerusalem only because of the sins of the Christians. If they repent, they will be too powerful to resist. The reformed Christians will recover the holy land and convert the Saracens, successfully spreading Christianity throughout the world.

In a sharp contrast to this relatively benign view of the Saracens, the Jews who are mentioned in Mandeville are particularly ill-regarded. There is a monstrous race of Jews mentioned in Chapter 14 of the text, who are called the kin of Gog Magog. Alexander chased these Jews into the hills and prayed to God to imprison them there. They will remain in the hills until the time of the Anti-Christ when they will emerge to torment the Christians. The narrator adds that because these men speak only Hebrew, all Jews must learn Hebrew so they can understand each other. The narrator is thus presenting the Jews as maliciously united against Christians, biding their time until the Apocalypse.