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Thread: On the nature of Sir Palomides and the Saracens in Arthurian Literature

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    On the nature of Sir Palomides and the Saracens in Arthurian Literature

    We all know the general take on Palomides: he was a "black" and a anachronistic Muslim in a generally
    christian Britain. But did Malory and other medieval authors of Arthurian romance *really*
    see Palomides that way? In this short discussion I'd like to argue that this may not be the case. My objective is not
    to convince anyone of my "position", since in any event I don't subscribe to any in
    particular, but simply to put out a line of reasoning that I think is worth considering.
    I also make no claims on being an Arthurian scholar, not even an amateur scholar, nor do I have
    a degree in medieval history. My purpose is simply to put a few ideas out there and get some feedback from people
    more familiar then me with Arthurian literature. I based my ideas on this matter on Keith Baines' book,
    which is an abridged but otherwise mostly faithful translation of Mallory (or so he says). I also used Anne Karr's book The Arthurian Companion 2nd edition, as well as a good dose of Google-fu. I'd be interested to know, from someone with a unabridged translation of Mallory, if there are any references that contradict what I say here. I decided to do a new thread to follow up on an old one where I made a post (waaaaay after the thread was originally made) but got no answers. So on we go:


    In Mallory's Le Mort D'Arthur, we read about Saracen armies all the time. They aid various
    Kings in attacks against, for example, Cornwall, specially during the early days of Arthur's kingdom
    but also later during his reign. These armies march over land and other times they arrive by sea
    with naval forces. These armies are never identified as being foreign invaders, or mercenaries.
    All we know is that they are "Saracens".

    We also read in Mallory that the city (kingdom?) of Sarras is the source of the name "Saracen".
    Sarras, we are told, is a city in Britain, according to Anne Karr's opinion possibly situated in the Isle
    of Man. It is also a city of pagans, and curiously, this island has always been associated
    with Britain's pagan past, being a sacred locale, if I remember correctly. It's population, when Galahad & Friends
    reach it, are never characterized as being any "different", in physiognomy or outlook, from
    the rest of the christian characters. There is only one reference in Malory where the word "Saracen"
    is clearly associated, anachronistically, with the Muslims, and that's when the King of Cornwall, Mark,
    fabricates letters as being from the Pope, commanding him to go on a Crusade to the Holy Land.

    As for Sir Palomides, the only reference to him being "black" is from T. H. White's book, a modern
    author and therefore useless for deriving any conclusions (not to mention that it is not clear
    what sense of the word was White trying to convey). Neither Mallory nor any other medieval author makes any comment regarding Palomides appearance. One could argue that Mallory makes no comments regarding the appearance of *any*
    character except to refer to their "good looks". However, Mallory *does* make a reference to
    the appearance of a particular knight: The Invisible Knight, we are told, is "black-faced".
    This seems like a racial allusion, although it is difficult to know what a British writer
    of the 15th century would mean by someone being "black": would that mean someone of clearly
    sub-Saharan physical characteristics? Or would they use the same word for a dark skinned
    middle-easterner or southern-European? Perhaps someone with more scholarly knowledge could
    be of help here.

    Regardless, none of the various knights we read about in Mallory who, we are told, are
    saracens are ever physically characterized as being any different from anyone else in Britain
    (or in Italy, in the case of the pagan knight Arthur finds there). Furthermore, their outlook, behaviour, dress and equipment,
    is always the same as any christian/European knight. All, except for the Invisible Knight,
    that is. I would find it strange that if Palomides was indeed envisioned as being "black" (at least
    in the sub-Saharan sense) by the European authors of the middle-ages that none of those authors would remark so in any of the surviving texts, specially in Palomides' case.

    Also worthy of note here is that Palomides' family (brother, mother, and apparently father
    in some versions) are never referred to as coming originally from somewhere else outside Britain.
    His family even holds an estate, and her mother in Mallory lives in a castle. Also interesting is
    that in some versions, Palomides is related to King Pellinore, in others is even told to be his
    son.

    There is another curious story regarding the characterization of "non-white" characters in
    Arthurian literature. That is found in Parzifal, from Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival's father, Gahmuret,
    at one point marries the Queen of the Zazamancs. She is characterized by Eschenbach as being clearly black.
    If that is supposed to correspond to the stereotypical image of the sub-Saharan African is anyone's guess
    but it seems probable that her skin is meant to be pretty dark and not just a common tone of Mediterranean olive skin.
    Why Eschenbach decided to have such a character as Queen to a North-African kingdom similar to a
    Muslim kingdom is anyone's guess, but it is compatible with many of the Berber people's found in
    North-Africa even today, some of which, although not having the structural physiognomy of sub-Saharans,
    do have very dark skin. Plus, we know that many many Muslim leaders of importance were Berbers, although of what skin color is an open question. I personally like to imagine the Queen as a pitch dark sub-Saharan-type African beauty,
    but I fully admit to partiality here (plus, it makes for a far more exotic beauty). More telling is
    her son by Gahmuret, Feirefiz, who has one of the funkiest genetics of all time,
    with his patchwork black-and-white skin, which further reinforces the notion that the skin of
    his mother was pretty dark. Contrast that with Palomides or any of the other Saracen characters, which go physically
    uncharacterized.

    But Feirefiz is even more interesting than that, because it further enlightens us regarding the use
    of the term "Saracen" as used in the middle-ages. In Eschenbach's tale, Gahmuret serves the Saracens
    of Baghdad, supposedly anachronistic Muslims. So far so good, and everything conforms to
    our preconceived/stereotyped modern notions of what "Saracen" is supposed to mean. However, we are told
    by Eschenbach what is the deity that Feirefiz the Saracen worships: he worships Jupiter...
    This could mean that the entire Zazamanc kingdom is actually Roman pagan, not Muslim, as usually
    assumed. Or maybe Feirefiz is a one-of-a-kind character. Unfortunately, Eschenbach can't answer that one. Regardless,
    here we have a clear example of a Saracen who is not a Muslim, but simply a pagan, as per the original meaning of the word.

    I won't bother you more with this already too long text, but I just want to make a few final comments. It is clear
    that the middle-ages authors of Arthurian legends, like everyone else in those days, considered
    a Saracen to be simply a pagan or heathen. Feirefiz is a good wake-up call in that regard. The Norseman
    in Byzantium were also called Saracens, and if my memory serves me correctly, so were the pagans of Lithuania in the North, or the Vikings, at one time or another.
    Malory, as well as any decently educated noble, was surely aware of Britain's pagan past (e.g. the Celtic tribes from Caesar's texts on the invasion of Britain, Galia, etc) Plus, plenty of old recognizable pagan worship places, old forts, etc, were certainly known and identified as being from Britain's (and elsewhere in Europe's) pagan past. Plenty of folklore certainly aided in that
    view. My point is simply that based on all this I'm not certain that Palomides and other Saracen knights
    from Mallory (as well as from other writers) are really supposed to be seen as anachronistic Muslims. It seems
    to me that, on the contrary, a case could be made that these Saracens were intended by Mallory to be simply British pagan
    knights still revering Britain's old religion(s). Or maybe even an allusion to the old Roman pagan religion, like Feirefiz.
    But as far as I know from the texts, there is no reason to assume that an Arthurian Saracen is automatically a Muslim, and even less a "black". This seems to be an unjustified preconception given the evidence.

    Ironically, this would make the Arthurian legends much closer to what Pendragon is already doing with its pervasive pagan knights.

    Is there anything in Mallory or in scholarly Arthurian studies that contradicts the evidence I mentioned above? I'm really curious if this idea has any legs to stand on.

    Thanks.
    "SIR PALAMEDE the Saracen
    Rode by the marge of many a sea:
    He had slain a thousand evil men
    And set a thousand ladies free"

  2. #2
    Senior Member Greg Stafford's Avatar
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    Re: On the nature of Sir Palomides and the Saracens in Arthurian Literature

    > Is there anything in Mallory or in scholarly Arthurian studies that contradicts the evidence I mentioned above? I'm really > curious if this idea has any legs to stand on

    ONly that the Muslims were considered, in the Middle Ages, to worship Jupiter
    -- Greg Stafford
    Game Designer

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    Re: On the nature of Sir Palomides and the Saracens in Arthurian Literature

    [quote author=Greg Stafford link=topic=2098.msg17012#msg17012 date=1384320231]
    > Is there anything in Mallory or in scholarly Arthurian studies that contradicts the evidence I mentioned above? I'm really > curious if this idea has any legs to stand on

    ONly that the Muslims were considered, in the Middle Ages, to worship Jupiter
    [/quote]

    Interesting, I had no idea that was the case. I never came across that information. Well, so much for my "hypothesis". Time for some google-fu :
    "SIR PALAMEDE the Saracen
    Rode by the marge of many a sea:
    He had slain a thousand evil men
    And set a thousand ladies free"

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    Re: On the nature of Sir Palomides and the Saracens in Arthurian Literature

    I found more info that goes against what I posted originally.

    Sarras: http://kingarthur.wikia.com/wiki/Sarras

    Malory may have moved Sarras to Britain for fictional purposes, or maybe it's somewhat vague in Malory (Anne Karr and other writers also interpret Sarras as being in Britain). However, the info in that link makes it clear that other sources place Sarras near Egypt.


    Regarding their religion: http://kingarthur.wikia.com/wiki/Saracens

    The author [of Estoire del Saint Graal] insists that the Saracens were named from their city of Sarras, because in this city they first clarified their religion and founded the Saracen sect which continued until the coming of Muhammed. Then the author falls into confusion, referring to days before the founding of their faith when each one worshiped what pleased him until the time when they “established the worship of the sun and the moon and the other planets.

    At any rate, the author imagines Sarras, in the days of Joseph of Arimathea, as the center of prosperous civilization and worshiping many gods. He is not clear whether in the time of Joseph of Arimathea (or in the time of Arthur), the days of Muhammed were long ago or were yet to come.
    This one is interesting:

    Near the end of The Chariot portion of the Prose Lancelot, Nascien relates to Gawain how, long ago, Joseph of Arimathea on a missionary journey in Britain met a Saracen, later named Matagran, whose brother Argon was wounded. Joseph promised to heal Argon with God’s help and the Saracen asked which god, noting that “we have only four gods—Mahom, Apolin, Tervagant, and Jupiter”. Later, when Joseph met Argon, Argon referred to the same four gods. Joseph through preaching and prayer healed Argon. The two brothers and other Saracens converted to Christianity.

    Here the author seems to identify British paganism with the Muslim faith as he misunderstands it. Saracen is simply a word for any polytheistic pagan, whether from the east or native to Britain. Of course, the story could be taken to refer to a settlement of eastern Saracens in Britain. But these Saracens still worship Mahom, that is Muhammed, as a god.
    This kind of goes along the lines of what I posted originally. But the worship of Mahon (Muhammed) weights the evidence toward these pagans being references to muslims, regardless of the fictional liberties of the authors and what they see as Britain's and Rome's past pagan religions.


    There's an interesting part about Palomides in that page:

    Palamedes and his father Esclabor are referred to as paynims, or pagans, or Saracens, and their origin stems to the east, accounts differing as to whether Esclabor was still childless when he came to Britain and fathered his children in a giantess in Britain (as in the Post-Vulgate Cycle) or whether he brought his children with him (as in Guiron the Courteous).
    Is there anything in the original works that states unambiguously that Esclabor came from the East? Just curious, since it is clear for me now that "Saracen" is being used as a proxy for an anachronistic Muslim.

    Greg, thanks a bunch for your comment.

    EDIT: found a nice verse on that website that I've appropriated for my signature. ;D
    "SIR PALAMEDE the Saracen
    Rode by the marge of many a sea:
    He had slain a thousand evil men
    And set a thousand ladies free"

  5. #5

    Re: On the nature of Sir Palomides and the Saracens in Arthurian Literature

    [quote author=Greg Stafford link=topic=2098.msg17012#msg17012 date=1384320231]
    > Is there anything in Mallory or in scholarly Arthurian studies that contradicts the evidence I mentioned above? I'm really > curious if this idea has any legs to stand on

    ONly that the Muslims were considered, in the Middle Ages, to worship Jupiter
    [/quote]

    It might be interesting to ditch the Muslim element entirely and replace it with some variation on old Roman cults.







  6. #6
    Senior Member Greg Stafford's Avatar
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    This is quite a resurrection thread
    It might be interesting to ditch the Muslim element entirely and replace it with some variation on old Roman cults.
    On this point, I would just remind that BoK&L has late-classic Paganism on page 80, in the form of Neoplatonist religion.
    While classical Paganism, with Jupiter and Apollo etc., might have been practiced among some peasantry, it was not in wide practice even during the reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate (363 AD)
    -- Greg Stafford
    Game Designer

  7. #7
    Senior Member Greg Stafford's Avatar
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    It is always nice to find something after not being able to do so for a long while

    http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/...ts/morien.html

    https://hucipher.wordpress.com/2017/...-black-knight/
    -- Greg Stafford
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