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  • Writer's pictureMicah Goodrich

Medieval Body: Skin

My skin has been rapidly moving between hot, cold, clammy, and dry this week. I have finally contracted COVID-19, despite my best efforts. While this did require that I rearrange the goals of the week for my Medieval Worlds class (i.e. alternate online assignment and a class over Zoom), we are still going strong and continuing our discussion of The King of Tars.

There are many entry points when discussing "Skin" as a medieval body part. Before turning to our literary text of the week, I wanted students to get a sense of the central writing medium of the Middle Ages: skin, or, vellum. When we think of skin, we rarely think of the technology of writing, but this was the writing medium for medieval scribes. Vellum, also called parchment, is animal skin or membrane used as a writing surface. The majority of medieval manuscripts are made from vellum. When I was in grad school, one of my colleagues and good friend, Jake, made a really good but harrowing point. To paraphrase him: Can you imagine how much death was required to create books? He's right. While it isn't on the same level of ecological destruction as paper is now, creating medieval vellum required the skins of a lot of animals. If you're interested, take a look at this video. Stephen Baxter meets up with Wim Visscher, parchment maker, who shows us the process of making vellum. As a content warning, vellum requires scraping animal skin (after it has been removed from the animal) and the video does show this process.

It is an intimate process. When I touch and hold medieval manuscripts, I often think of how weighted and strong the pages feel compared to paper. There is a different texture to vellum that is more akin to tattooing than writing. Take a look at these two manuscripts to view the texture of the animal's hair follicles:

We also find playful attempts by scribes to fill in the rips, tears, holes, and gaps in the manuscripts that they scribe and illuminate:

While we can understand the material reality of skin by looking at manuscripts, it is also crucial to think about how medieval people understood their own skin and the skin of others. I assigned a text this week called The King of Tars. It is a fourteenth-century (probably c. 1330) medieval romance, written in Middle English, and attested in three manuscripts, including the very enormous Auchinleck manuscript.

The story goes something like this (and you can read a facing-page translation here):

There is a Christian King of Tars who has a daughter. The Sultan of Damascus wants to marry the Princess of Tars and the Christian King of Tars refuses this proposal. The Sultan of Damascus begins to wage war in the King of Tars' land and in order to prevent further Christian bloodshed, the Princess of Tars agrees to marry the Sultan of Damascus. They do not immediately wed when the Princess of Tars arrives because she has not converted to Islam and the Sultan of Damascus refuses to convert to Christianity. She has a lot of strange dreams, ends up converting to Islam (but the text tells us she still held her "true" faith), and the two marry and have a child. When the child is born, it is without limbs or a face:

& when þe child was ybore And when the child was delivered Wel sori wimen were þerfore, The women were appalled thereby, For lim no hadde it non. Because it had no limbs. Bot as a rond of flesche yschore But as round as butchered flesh In chaumber it lay hem bifore It lay before them in the chamber Wiþouten blod & bon. Without blood or bone. For sorwe þe leuedi wald dye The lady wished to die from grief For it hadde noiþer nose no eye, For it had neither nose nor eye, Bot lay ded as þe ston. But lay as dead as stone. Þe soudan com to chaumber þat tide, The Sultan came into the chamber then, & wiþ his wiif he gan to chide And his wife he began to blame Þat wo was hir bigon. (ll.577-588) From the woe that had come of her.

The Sultan of Damascus blames the Princess of Tars' inconstant faith to Islam, which she does not deny. She asks the Sultan to pray to his gods and if they can re-form the child, then she will convert. If they cannot then the Sultan must pray to Christ. The following image depicts the Sultan of Damascus on the left praying to his gods (featured as an animal idol) and on the right, they both pray to Christ on the cross.

The King of Tars, NLS Adv MS 19.2.1, fol. 7r
The King of Tars, NLS Adv MS 19.2.1, fol. 7r

If you guessed that this medieval Christian text denounces Islam in favor of Christianity, then you are correct. The Sultan's prayers go unanswered, but his prayers to Christ re-form their child "wiþ limes al hole & fere" (with limbs all whole and healthy). Because of this miracle, the Sultan agrees to convert to Christianity and, in doing so, his skin changes color from black to white:

His hide, þat blac & loþely was, His skin, which was black and ugly, Al white bicom, þurth Godes gras, Became entirely white, through God's grace & clere wiþouten blame. (ll.928-930) and clear without blemish.

The remainder of the narrative follows the newly christened Sultan of Damascus as he and the King of Tars together slaughter all of his Muslim people. It is not a good story, but it does offer a complex portrait of how medieval people - in this case, medieval Western Christians - thought about skin, race, and religion. In order to contextualize this, students read Sierra Lomuto's article "The Mongol Princess of Tars: Global Relations and Racial Formation in The King of Tars (c.1330)," which considers how the English imagined the Mongols (people from Tars or "Tartary") as an "exotic ally", as Lomuto puts it.[1] We know (or I hope we all do) that race is socially constructed. While the Middle Ages did not have a linguistic or theoretical concept of race, the effects of racism were still felt by people living their lives between the sixth and sixteenth centuries. Even though a person’s skin color was not necessarily the arbiter of personhood, it did inform how medieval people in power used difference to justify imperialism in the name of religion. In The King of Tars, the Sultan's skin transformation from black to white is not only indicative of a religious conversation but, as Lomuto argues, because the Princess of Tars is constructed as Mongol not Christian or European, her role in the narrative is to facilitate a white, European colonial fantasy, which is made manifest at the end of the narrative in Muslim genocide.

Lomuto is one voice of many in the recent conversations about premodern race. From Geraldine Heng's The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (2018) to Matthew X. Vernon, The Black Middle Ages: Race and the Construction of the Middle Ages (2018) to Cord Whitaker's Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking (2019), there has been a much-needed uptick in scholarship on premodern race in the last few years. Other scholars like Mary Rambaran-Olm, Kim Hall, Urvashi Chakravarty, Ambereen Dadabhoy, and so many other brilliant people, are also publishing and speaking out on social media to highlight the long-held racism in classics, medieval studies, and early modern studies. This is an enormous and important conversation that I hope my students will continue to engage with in the coming weeks as we move to other parts of the body.

[1] Sierra Lomuto, "The Mongol Princess of Tars: Global Relations and Racial Formation in The King of Tars (c.1330)," Exemplaria 31.3 (2019): 171-192.

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