Yes, there were Black people in Renaissance Europe

Ifind that spring time is the prep season for one of my deepest nerd loves: Renaissance Faires. I start pulling hand-made dresses out of storage, mending linen shirts, scouring local thrift stores for baskets and metal plates. When I enter this season again, I think of all the things I wish I’d known when I started, the words of encouragement I wish someone had given me. Maybe you’ve always been interested in Renaissance Faires. Maybe you want to know more about them. Maybe you need these words of support to give something new a try.

Dear me,

You’ve always loved history. Regardless of geography or blood, knowing how the past functioned, not in dates and names but in daily details, has always been fascinating. So this is not unknown ground for you. And Renaissance Faires are fun: spending the day outside, geeking endlessly about the minutia of history with other like-minded folk, doing hands on demonstrations for kids. There’s nothing here you don’t like.

Sure, you may be the only Black person there, definitely one of a few, but don’t let that stop you. The chances of anyone throwing rocks at you are low. The chances of anyone laughing at you are high, but when has that stopped you before?

And why not the European Renaissance? This is the moment when Europe formed itself as a separate place. Systemic, oppressive Colonialism starts here. Concepts of Democracy and Equality start here. These are concepts you want to explore, if only because they say so much about American-ness, our ideals and our lies. Some will try to tell you that you are wrong, out of time, out of place. They are wrong. African people have always been travelers, traders, and scholars. The Mediterranean has never been impenetrable and we have always been everywhere. Their ignorance is not the truth.

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You’ll have to study and be on point with your facts, because they will test you. As in so many other things, you’ll have to be twice as good with your knowledge and twice and loud to be heard. Start reading Machiavelli and Dante. Refer to reputable sites like People of Color in European Art History for pictures and leads. Study the Moorish invasion of Andalusia and their 700 years of civilization. Study how it ended in 1492, forcing all of that knowledge out into Europe, to found universities and salons of learning.

Be ready for questions, not just hostile ones, but curious ones, because people want to know. There will be a Black family with kids who will want to talk.Tell them about how people of African descent impacted the European past. Remind them we were everywhere. [quote_right]Tell them about how people of African descent impacted the European past. Remind them we were everywhere.[/quote_right] There will be a well-meaning White woman with questions about women in society. She will want to touch your turban. Don’t let her. Do tell her how to tie one. Do recommend a book and encourage her to remember that women in the past were like her. They wanted to raise useful citizens, keep a house halfway clean, and look decent on a Sunday.

But be ready for the hostile questions too. A Renaissance Faire may be the best parts of the Renaissance, but it can be the worst parts of America. Don’t be afraid to walk past the loud drunken crowd of men at the ale stand, but do take an escort. Don’t try to talk sense to the racist who wants to yell at you about revisionism, about how this is his history, not yours. Let your allies be allies and step between you.  If that fails, call security. [quote_center ] Don’t try to talk sense to the racist who wants to yell at you about revisionism, about how this is his history, not yours

Don’t just learn the history, learn a persona too. Pick a character, an aspect of your personality, and make it huge. Inhabit this character as a way to bring history to life. Answer people’s questions as your persona, use her as a frame around which to learn and as a vehicle to teach. This is your chance to be larger than life, to let your inner Shakespearean actor out. Learn to project, to take up space, to command a crowd. Enjoy the audience. These are skills that will support you everywhere.

And dear self, insist on being Black, not color-blind, not white with a tan. Wear yellow and orange and red with a headwrap and bright jewelry. When people ask if you’re a Nubian, and they will, laugh and correct them. Explode their assumptions and enjoy every moment of it. Learn and play and teach all weekend then go back to your day-to-day exhausted, but looking forward to the next weekend. It is as much fun as it seems, and there are more of us out here than you think.

 
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Are you a Black Ren Faire goer, gearing up for the season? Hit me on Twitter or Instagram with your pictures, I’d love to see them!

Photo Credits:

Top image from the Medieval POC (People of Color in European Art History) Tumblr

Two photographs of author courtesy of Bill Watters

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  • thalassaraptor

    Thank you! As someone who has been in love with historical recreation for a long time – and history long before that – it was a revelation to learn that there was a history of Black people in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards and it was lively and dynamic. It was also irritatingly difficult to locate until recently; while it is getting easier to find the sources and the images, it is sill far from ideal. That said, it is especially thrilling when people of colour join the merry band at Faires and historical events. As a Director of a historical crew, I long to see more non-pasty faces as performers. I raise a tankard to you!

  • Jan Swingle

    Thank you. Sometimes it takes courage simply to not be invisible.

  • Melissa Moore

    Renaissance Fairs and cosplay are not my thing, but I appreciate art and history in general, and many those of you who go all out and “be” other people. This article is very inspiring, especially how you tell yourself to interact with the uninformed 😉

  • GinaG

    I love this. And this is what I needed to prepare for next year’s Ren Faire!

  • Eljo

    I need to do a bit more research for this fall (ours starts Labor Day weekend) so I can be a bit more authentic. Money was an issue in my costume as well as general ignorance. I knew Africans existed in Medieval Europe. They existed in ancient Europe. Just never saw much about it.

    Not sure why that surprises me, I’ve lived in this country my whole life.

  • Cate

    Thanks for this! My seventh grade students are dying to learn more about the lives of people of color during the Middle Ages. I appreciate your resources and experience!

  • Bbadness

    Our Ren Festival is in the Sprinf here in AZ and just ended. We didn’t go this year but the kids love it. We’ll go again next year and maybe even dress up. My kids are pretty well versed in Medieval history. My oldest did his 1st book report on Leonardo Da Vinci!

  • Vermouth

    I mean hell, Rome had a dynasty of black emperors, and Scotland had a couple black kings, so like… honestly, we can blame mostly the Victorians for whitewashing medieval European history, imo. Fuck the Victorians.

    • steam1912

      Yeah, that pretty much sums up Victorian historical revisionism in a nutshell!

  • J Thomas

    I think the main thing is have fun.

    Make up your backstory and it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit improbable. Nobody complains much about people who want to play aristocrats even though the tremendous majority of europeans were serfs or a few generations from serfs.

    If somebody wants to obnoxiously argue that their grasp of history is better than yours, ask them whether they’re having fun. If they claim they are, then tell them to go find somebody they can do it with consensually.

    Have fun!

  • Californiashorty

    Love the article. One of my white co-worker with whom I share the love of renfaires shared this with me. I go to the faire with a group of friends in PA. I am queen of a dark realm whose foolish husband was killed in battle and left me to lead the country. I go to England’s faire to visit the Queen in solidarity. I wish I could send you pictures.

    • Maureen

      Oh please, do get pictures! I love costuming, and getting broader (non-white) history into the bargain is even better – more, please!

  • Jennifer

    Your pictures are gorgeous.
    I don’t want to be patronizing, but I have to thank you anyway. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for coming to these events. Thank you for being willing to be present as well as the willingness to do the research. Whenever I see a person of color at a re-creation event, especially one that is rocking their persona, it’s so wonderful– and when I can go and ask them to tell me more about their research and I learn something, I’m thrilled.
    You don’t need my approval, of course– but thank you anyway.

  • jabbaslavegirl

    Beautiful!

  • Carina Lawson-Williams

    As a chatelaine for the SCA- thank you for this – maybe you have an idea how much this means, how important it is …this is such a huge gift – thank you

  • Anna Nim

    An escort at the ale stand (?) is not needed. I have been managing, working at and drinking at them for the past 19 years without incident. Baudy taverns are a lot of fun and where massive amount of acceptance is found. You’re in costume, you are accepted. Know just a bit about history and you will be able to out talk 90% of them without reading massive amounts of books-you should read anything of course, but not to have a good time, be accepted or represent your ethnicity in a historical fashion. It isn’t a high school nerd pop quiz, but a festival.

  • Jack

    This is all true–but let’s have some honesty. They came as conquerors, in the 700s. They took over Spain, and, with other Muslims, renamed it Al-Andalus.

    It took the Spanish over 700 years to get rid of them.

    • Paul

      So was there something dishonest about calling it an invasion?

    • Rebecca Kovar

      Sort of the same way we invaded and renamed the land and the indigenous population still can’t get rid of us? I mean, that’s the entire history of colonization, no matter who is doing it.

  • Elspeth Harilow

    That was a lovely read! I enjoyed your attitude about your Ren Faires, and the whole game of reenacting – would love to event with you, you sound like fun! Enjoy, and keep on having fun – it’s the best thing to have!

  • Kathryn O’Connor

    My ex husband taught me that Steiner said Ren Fairs were about exploring your past incarnation during that time frame since he believed most humans reincarnated every 400 years (there are exceptions to that) and most of us alive lived in that time period. Since we can reincarnate in different genders and races, some of us who aren’t European now were back then and vice versa

  • Inea Atenveldt

    If you like Ren faires, come visit the SCA, Society for Creative Anachronism!! Online SCA.ORG is the place to start. We differ from Ren Faire in that we exist to teach historical persona, medieval skills (ie sewing, embroidery, felting, iron work, metalsmithing, anything they would have done in PERIOD), and our events concentrate on both history and having fun! Our period ends 1600. Pretty much anything before that is in period. Pick your time and place! The SCA is in 30 countries around the world now and just celebrated our 50th year in existence! COME JOIN US!!!

  • Goodewyfe

    Huzzah and well said!
    *Be the responsible bridge for folks to learn more and/or better. Challenge the assumptions just by being an honest person.
    Our world is not one that suffers combative and defensive people well, unless they’re in the joust field. What we do helps to fix the revisions when we do it well, with grace and determination.
    I wish I could visit your fair and you could visit mine. Enlarge your world, one fair at a time! 🙂

  • Aurore

    I am a waltz dancer in Paris (Debutante at le bal des parisiennes 2016) and in love with history and all the historical events from antiquity to the 70s. It is hard to defend the black presence when it comes to those events. So thank you for your informative words!

  • Pauline Costianes

    “AFFECTED” the European past, not “impacted it”, unless they packed, wedged, or physicallyi collided with it, which is the definition of the verb “impact”

  • coxkaren6

    Thank you! Remember Augustine of Hippo and St. Maurice, Othello and (I think) St. Caspar the Wise Man, the Fatamids in Egypt, the Berber dynasty in Seville. There are tons of opportunities!

  • Maquiame

    http://www.realhistoryww.com Whites are not natives to Europe – Ancient and Modern Britons

  • JanitaPoe

    Just retweeted your tweet about this (I’m @PoeCommunicate).
    Also, here’s a Pinterest board with tons of images of blacks in Europe during the Renaissance: https://www.pinterest.com/jbeldo/the-holy-grail/

  • Mary

    There was a fine fellow at our southern California faire who dressed as a Moor. A short fellow, he called himself ” a little moor” Calvin could go on all day long, in character, and knew his history. What a guy, boy I miss him..man the day some woman dressed up as a stereotypical harem girl and her husband walked by, and he yelled “how much for the woman” and the fight that almost started was the story of legend and one he loved to tell. He had a million of them. What an entertainer..and salesman

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