Black Knights In The Middle Ages – Fact or Fiction?!

When we think of the Middle Ages then we usually imagine brave knights in shining armor. In both movies and video games, but also in our imagination, these knights usually have white skin. But did all knights in the Middle Ages have white skin? Or were there also men of color among the knights?

Several black knights (like Sir Morien the Moor) or mixed-race knights (like Feirefiz) are mentioned in the Tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. Additionally, 3 of the 49 Knights of the Round Table are also portrayed as men of color. The incorporation of non-white knights into the Arthurian sagas by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170-1220) reflects the presence of non-white/black soldiers and knights in medieval Europe.

Let`s take a closer look.

People of Color in Medieval Europe – an overview

Before we can talk about the existence of black knights in medieval Europe, we first have to talk about the misleading idea of a white and completely Christian medieval Europe. I actually wrote an entire article on the topic so please feel free to check it out for more detailed information.

Not only did the Christianization of the Baltics through the Prussian crusades continue until the end of the 14th century. The Reconquista, the retaking of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control was also only completed in 1492 at the very end of the Middle Ages.

More on the Reconquista and the birth of the Kingdom of Portugal in my article here.

So there were contact zones where Christians and Muslims not only meet but live next to each other for centuries. Good examples of these regions aside from the Iberian Peninsula are Southern Italy and Sicily.

But not only Christians and Muslims lived next to each other in these contact areas (like for example the Iberian Peninsula or Sicily), so did people with different skin colors.

Here you can find out more about just how common black Africans were on the Iberian Peninsula and in Sicily during the Middle Ages. Especially the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was known for his multi-ethnical entourage and court with black servants and trumpeters. Here you can find a medieval painting that shows parts of Frederick II`s entourage.

But black Africans can also be found in the person of many saints.

Saint Maurice – a Black African as the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire

Even Saint Maurice, who had been the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire since the 10th century was depicted as a Black African man since the 12th century. For more information on why the skin color of Saint Maurice was changed in the 12th century, I would like to recommend you my article here.

But not only saints with black skin are depicted in medieval statues, paintings, and literature. So are black knights.

Feirefiz – a mixed-race knight at the court of King Arthur

The presence of knights with dark or black skin color can best be showcased with the help of the most famous medieval tale. The tale of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table*.

Additionally, the Parzival poem* also gives us a lot of information regarding the presence of knights with back skin at the court of king Arthur.

The epic poem Parzival is one of the greatest works of medieval literature and was written by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German knight who lived from 1170 to 1220. He relied on fragmented older tales and lore when he wrote the story.

In the poem „Parzival“ we are also introduced to Feirefiz, the mixed-race half-brother of Parzival. The father of Feirefiz and Parzival is Gahmuret, a French knight who travels into the Middle East (Baghdad) and eventually marries the Moorish queen Belacane (the black mother of Feirefiz). Because Feirefiz has a white father and a black mother his skin is described by Wolfram von Eschenbach as having white and black patches.

However. The portrayal of Feirefiz as a mixed-raced knight is not negatively connoted by Wolfram von Eschenbach, quite the opposite.

Feirefiz, who came to Europe with a Saracen army to seek his father, runs into his half-brother Parsival. Since they don`t recognize each other they start fighting. Feirefiz can prove himself as equal to Parsival in this fight, the two travel to the court of king Arthur where Parzival is then picked up by the Grail servant Cundrie and brought to the Grail castle of Munsalvaesche.

Parzival invites his half-brother to join him and together they arrive at the Grail castle where Parzival becomes the new Grail king.

Feirefiz, who is not Christian can not see the grail. But Feirefiz eventually agrees to be baptized and as soon as he is baptized he can see the Holy Grail. So the mixed-raced knight Feirefiz archives what most Knight of the Round Table never could: He sees the Holy Grail! That alone should be sign enough that Wolfram von Eschenbach gives his mixed-raced knight a good connotation!

As for the fate of Feirefiz: He marries one of the Grail bearers (a woman called Repanse de Schoye) and returns with her to his land of origin where they preach Christianity.

And this is where we can bring it back to Saint Maurice, who is portrayed as a Black African. Portraying saints as black African men was a popular way in the Middle Ages to showcase Christian universalism. Do you want to find out more about that? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.

But Feirefiz is by far not the only man of color in the tale of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table*. 3 of the 49 Knights of King Arthur`s Round Table (the Saracen brothers Sir Safir, Sir Palamedes, and Sir Segwarides, who came from Bagdhad in modern-day Iraq) were men of color. Additionally, other people of color appear in the tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table without becoming a knight of the Round Table themselves.

The best example for that is Sir Morien the Moor*.

Sir Morien the Moor – a black knight at the court of King Arthur

Sir Morien the Moor is described as „he was all black, even as I tell ye: his head, his body, and his hands were all black, saving only his teeth (…) When the Moor heard these words he laughed with heart and mouth (his teeth were white as chalk, otherwise was he altogether black (…)“. In case you want to read about the full paragraph and all the other advantages of Sir Morien the Moor (and why and how he came to England) I would like to recommend you the translated version of the 13th-century saga of Morien*.

Ok, so we can see that there is quite some evidence for knights with black skin color in the tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table*.

But does that really tell us anything about the reality of the Middle Ages?

So: Were there black knights in medieval Europe?

Well, I believe it does. Sir Morien the Moor, Parzival, and Feirefiz (as well as many other parts of the tales of King Arthur) were added in the 13th century, around the same time Saint Maurice was turned into a black African man. Here you can find out more about why Saint Maurice was turned from a white into a black man in the 12/13th century.

It seems like the incorporation of non-white knights and knights with black skin into the Arthurian sagas by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170-1220) reflects the presence of non-white/black soldiers and knights in Europe and also shows the Christian writer grappling with the encounter of Islam (as presented through the figures of Feirefiz and the brothers Sir Safir, Sir Palamedes, and Sir Segwarides.

And in the Late Middle Ages the king of Castile, one of the Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula, relied on a bodyguard of Moorish knights during the Civil Wars. Here you can find out more about that.

The ancestors of these men had most likely come to the Iberian Peninsula as a result of the Muslim Expansion in the Early Middle Ages. But that is a story for another time.

I hope you enjoyed our trip into the Middle Ages and medieval literature.

Do you want to find out more about knights? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about the effectiveness of medieval knights in combat.

And here you can find the surprising answer to the question of whether or not knights ever used firearms.

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

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival*


King Arthur: Sir Thomas Malory’s History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table*

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

Parzival: A mixed-race knight joins the round table

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