Black Africans in the Middle Ages – The Truth!

When we imagine the Middle Ages, then most of us (probably influenced by movies) imagine people with white skin. But was that really the case? That was the question I asked myself after I visited the Magdeburg Cathedrale and saw the statue of Saint Maurice. The statue was created around 1240/50 and depicts Saint Maurice with black skin and the facial features of a Black African.

So I would like to share my findings regarding the presence of Black Africans in medieval Europe in the following.

Proof of the presence of Black Africans in Sicily, Southern Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula exists, dating back to at least the 13th century. North of the Alps, Black Africans were less common but were still present, either as diplomats, traders, pilgrims, or for example in the entourage of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. And even Saint Maurice, the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire, was depicted as a Black African.

Let`s take a closer look!

Were there People of Color in medieval Europe?

When we think of the Middle Ages, then we oftentimes imagine two separated worlds. Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East and North Africa. But that is actually not correct. Medieval Europe was a lot less dominated by Christianity than one might think. The Prussian crusades against the Pagan tribes in the Baltics lasted into the late 14th century and the southern parts of Europe (Sicily, Southern Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula) were controlled by Muslims for varying parts of the Middle Ages. The Reconquista, the recapture of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims, was only finished in 1492!

So for most of the Middle Ages, Sicily, Southern Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula were zones of contact where both Christians and Muslims lived next to each other over centuries. And while living next to each other was not always peaceful, it still resulted in an important transfer of knowledge and innovation.

Ok, so we have areas of medieval Europe where both Christians and Muslims lived. But how does that help the question of whether or not Black Africans existed in the Middle Ages?

Well, one result of the early medieval Muslim expansion was that not only Northern Africa, but also the routes for the slave trade from Central Africa to Northern Africa and the Mediterranean fell under Muslim control.

As a result Black Africans already came to the Muslim-controlled Iberian Peninsula and Sicily in the late 11th century, either as slaves or as feared warriors. And Black African slaves also appeared in the Christian-controlled parts of Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula since the 12th century due to a period of mutual tolerance between Christians and Muslims in these regions.

It is actually quite interesting that the presence of Black African slaves would later mostly shift into the areas under Christian control. The reason for that might be the Islamization of Central Africa and the ban on keeping fellow believers as slaves in Islam. 

There are a lot of contracts from as early as the 13th century that prove the existence of Black African slaves in Catalonia, Aragon, and the island of Mallorca!

But these Black African slaves did not only exist on the Iberian Peninsula.

When Sicily and Southern Italy (until then controlled by Abbasid Muslims) were conquered by the Normans, the Muslim community survived and prospered under Norman rule. That created a unique cultural mix that can still be felt in many corners of Sicily. And the fact that the new Norman rulers adopted much of the Muslim organization (like a test for prospective doctors originally developed in Badgad) earned some of the Norman kings the nick-name of „the baptized caliphs“.

And not only innovations were adapted, but the new Norman rulers also kept the enslavement of Black Africans.

The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (the grandson of Frederick Barbarossa) also held black servants and musicians at his court. They also accompanied him when he left Sicily for the Northern Parts of the Holy Roman Empire in modern-day Germany. After all, Frederick II was of Sicilian/Norman descent through his mother Constance of Sicily, and of German descent through his father, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.

By the way, Frederick II was not only Holy Roman Emperor but also a passionate falconer. He actually wrote a book about falconry that is still consulted by falconers today. If you are interested in the book on falconry written by Frederick II, then you can find a translated version here* on Amazon.

Aside from his curious mind and his love for falconry Frederick II is also known for another thing. His death in 1250 is commonly seen as the end of the High Middle Ages.

But black slaves were not only held in the medieval contact areas between Muslims and Christians. One document from the year 1450 reports a black slave in service to the English king. And there are also other quite interesting hints at the presence of People of Color north of the Alps.

Saint Maurice & the 13th-century Statue of a Black African

An especially interesting medieval depiction of a Black African can be found in the Cathedral of Magdeburg in Northern Germany. There you can find a statue of Saint Maurice that clearly depicts Maurice as a Black African (here you can see for yourself).

The statue of Saint Maurice, the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire since the 10th century, dates back to the years between 1240/50 and clearly depicts Maurice as a black man of African descent. Today the statue stands inside the cathedral of Magdeburg.

But not only that, Saint Maurice is also depicted as wearing a knight’s armor. So that obviously bears one question: Were there really black knights in the Middle Ages? You can find the answer in my article here.

By the way. Saint Maurice has not always been portrayed as black. It was only in the 12th century (and from then onwards) that Saint Maurice was portrayed as a Black African. Before he had been portrayed as a light-skinned Roman officer. The reason why Saint Maurice was turned into a Black African in the 12th century by the Hohenstaufen dynasty, the same dynasty Frederick II descended from.

It is actually not a coincidence that once again we meet the name of Frederick II in this context. By turning Saint Maurice from a light-skinned man into a Black African the Hohenstaufen dynasty (including Frederick II) symbolized their hopes of uniting the Northern parts of the Holy Roman Empire with the Norman kingdom in Southern Italy and Sicily. By turning the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire into a Black African man, Frederick II highlighted both his political power and his expansionist aims.

Saint Maurice is not the only medieval saint that is portrayed with black skin. The goal of portraying saints with black skin was to evoke cosmopolitanism and Christian universalism!

But not only saints were portrayed with dark or black skin.

Were there Black knights in Medieval Europe?

People of Color even exist in the most medieval of all medieval tales, the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table*.

But that is a story for another time. Here you can find out more about people of color in the tale of king Arthur and the answer to the question of whether or not there were knights in the Middle Ages.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Dione Flühler-Kreis: Die Darstellung des Mohren im Mittelalter (Zürich 1980).

St. Maurice in Magdeburg

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