Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Mystery of Stephen the African

The lower half of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, showing Western Europe on the left and Africa on the right.

This is Part XVIII of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Sihong Lin.

You can find the rest of our special series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages here.

Woody Strode and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960).

We are accustomed to seeing people of colour in Ancient Rome. It is easy to think of examples from films set during the Empire—Djimon Hounsou and Omid Djalili in Gladiator, Omar Sharif in The Fall of the Roman Empire, or Woody Strode in Spartacus. The same is sadly not true for depictions of people of colour in the Middle Ages. This has fed the idea that as soon as the Roman Empire collapsed, its people of colour disappeared from Western Europe.

The reality was, of course, far more complicated.

Sometime in the late sixth century, a priest named Stephen, in Auxerre, France, was asked by his bishop to write a biography of a fifth-century saint. This was not particularly unusual for the time and we know that Stephen agreed to the request, as we still have the priest’s reply and the Life he eventually composed.

So far, so good.

What makes this cache of documents unique, however, is that two different ninth-century sources referred to Stephen as Stephanus Africanus: “Stephen the African.”

Stephen the African

This is a curious epithet. If you read it literally, of course, this suggests that Stephen was originally from Africa. L.-M. Duru, the nineteenth-century editor of these texts, did so, and confidently stated that “the woes of his country no doubt forced him [Stephen] to leave it”. This was in reference to the Moorish revolts in North Africa in the late-sixth century, and therefore placed the priest within a firm geographical and historical context.

Unfortunately, this cannot be proven by any evidence; as is often the case with nineteenth-century historians, it should be taken only as a suggestion that matched Duru’s own preconceptions.

We now know, for example, that the epithet Africanus did not necessarily mean that Stephen was from Africa. Mark Handley, author of Dying on Foreign Shores: Travel and Mobility in the Late-antique West, has convincingly shown that “regional” names in this period can have little to do with their bearers’ place of origin. Take for example a Roman woman: Caecilia Graecula—Caecilia the Greek. Despite what her name would imply, her epitaph suggests, instead, that she was originally from Spain, not Greece. Given the social nature of nicknames, Stephen may even have earned the name simply because he had a dark complexion.

Stephen very well could have been from Africa. We will never know for sure. Even so, we can explore the context around his hypothetical life. Just how plausible is it that a man born in Africa could become a priest in Auxerre in the sixth century? Were people from Africa migrating to Europe in the Early Middle Ages?

African/European Migration in the Early Middle Ages

Before we go further, I have to point out that the only incontrovertible evidence from the earliest part of the Middle Ages relates to people from North Africa, not sub-Saharan Africa. There is some evidence of trade between the Mediterranean world and the more-distant parts of Africa, including some surprising finds in east Africa that originated in Anglo-Saxon England. But we do not have enough evidence to confirm instances of individuals moving from so far south into Europe, or vice versa.

North Africa, on the other hand, had been a long-standing part of the Roman Empire. After 535, though Roman authority in Western Europe had collapsed, North Africa was once again ruled by a Roman government—the one in Constantinople. This empire is frequently referred to as “Byzantium” by historians, but at this point it was still indisputably Roman. They saw themselves as Roman, and called themselves Roman.

Despite its continuing Romanness, early medieval North Africa remains understudied. It also hardly features at all in how the public imagines the Middle Ages. But that is a failure of the modern imagination, since North Africa was not at all forgotten in the early medieval West.

Spain and North Africa

Over the course of the sixth century, the wars of famous Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I brought North Africa, Italy, and even parts of Spain under Roman rule. But this did not mean stability. Moorish unrest led to a great deal of turmoil in North Africa, which caused several North Africans to become refugees in Spain.

According to a seventh-century author, Ildefonsus of Toledo, a North African hermit named Donatus fled this danger to Spain with “seventy monks and a great collection of books”, around the year 570. The seventh century Lives of the Meridan Fathers also records how another African, Nanctus, moved to Spain for unknown reasons and ended up receiving the patronage of King Leovigild (568-586). Admittedly Nanctus met a messy end: he was allegedly murdered by some of his tenants who disliked how poorly the abbot dressed. Even so, it is striking how much he seems to have prospered in the years prior to his murder.

Interestingly, migration was not just from North Africa to Europe, but also occurred the other way. A little later in the Lives, we are told that an unfortunate Gothic bishop named Sunna fled to Mauretania, the western region of North Africa. Historians disagree on whether it was a forced exile, or a more voluntary move to convert the locals to Christianity. But in either case, from the privileged perspective of the elite of Merida (in Spain), North Africa was seemingly not far away at all.

Isidore of Seville, and Possibly Africa

Isidore of Seville (right), not only a noted bishop and the patron saint of the Internet, but also linked to North Africa. Meister des Codex 167. Click to enlarge.

These are only a few scattered references to North Africans in Europe. But other, circumstantial, evidence indicates that they were not unique exceptions. Historian Roger Collins has, for example, suggested that Isidore of Seville may have originated from “outside the Iberian peninsula, possibly in Africa”.

Saint Isidore of Seville was the dominant voice in the Spanish Church during the late sixth and early seventh centuries. He was archbishop of Seville, and such an impressive scholar that he is widely considered to be the last great “Father of the Church”. His histories of the Iberian Peninsula were the bedrock of Spanish histories for centuries, and he is widely cited as a leading light of Christian thought by writers like Chaucer and Dante.

Collins believes Isidore may have been North African. His argument relies, in part, on Isidore and his brothers’ rather un-Spanish names. These are not fool-proof indicators of their origins. But when combined with the preservation of sixth-century North African texts and the growing veneration of African saints in Spain at the time, it is tantalisingly plausible. Indeed, the most useful narrative of the unrest in North Africa was written by John of Biclaro—a contemporary writing in Spain. Clearly, some members of the Spanish Church were very interested in news from North Africa.

Gaul and North Africa

The Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the Seventh Century. Click to enlarge.

Of course, you may think, Spain makes sense because of how close it is to North Africa. But what evidence is there for Gaul (now modern-day France), the supposed home of our “Stephen the African”? The contemporary textual evidence is sadly non-existent, though there are some oblique hints in the sources. Gregory of Tours, the foremost historian of Merovingian Gaul, described in the early 590s a Frankish embassy to Constantinople that briefly stayed in Carthage. These envoys were no push-overs and quickly got themselves into a brawl with the local guards. In Gregory’s telling, one surviving Frank eventually boasted that:

The prefect of the town sent to attack us two or three thousand men whom he had collected […] I, too, would have been cut down in that fracas, had I not had the courage to defend myself like a man.

Ignoring the ambassador’s (much exaggerated) bravado, this alleged “fracas” in Carthage is also a hint to North Africa’s place as a pit-stop for travelers between Gaul and the Empire.

Other examples can be found in the seventh century, when the Eastern Roman Empire faced an unprecedented crisis. It was buckling under the pressures of its war against Persia, and the subsequent Arab conquests. Both of these have been thought to be the final nail in the coffin for cross-cultural exchange within the Mediterranean, though as the previous essays in this series have shown, that is not the case.

We can still add some colour to this picture. One seventh-century anti-Jewish polemic written in North Africa provided a tantalising detail. Its fictional protagonist, a merchant from Constantinople, had promised that:

if I arrived in Africa or Gaul, I would sell the cloths and bring the gold back intact to the holy and royal city [Constantinople].

This brief comment hardly represents reality, but it is perhaps an indication of how such a journey was not yet wildly unrealistic in the minds of contemporaries—that the two places remained connected.

Archaeological evidence can also shed some light on this question. For example, there was a measurable influx of imperial gold coins—probably minted in Carthage—into Gaul in the early seventh century. This suggests that imperial diplomats continued to travel from North Africa to meet with Frankish kings. More specifically, a coin hoard buried in south-west France around 660 has been interpreted by historian Michael McCormick as evidence of North African refugees fleeing the war in their home province. Despite the distance and lack of written sources, it was clearly still possible for North Africans to cross the Mediterranean.

England and North Africa

We are on firmer ground, surprisingly, for Anglo-Saxon England, as we have a far more promising lead in the seventh century. According to the Venerable Bede, the most famous of all the early medieval historians, a North African abbot named Hadrian travelled to Canterbury from Naples. He then became the right-hand man of the Archbishop of Canterbury—Theodore of Tarsus, who was, incidentally, a Greek monk from what is now Turkey. Together, the two men make a fascinating duo: a North African abbot, working in tandem with a Greek archbishop from Anatolia, with both becoming respected members of Anglo-Saxon society.

Of course, Hadrian was at the apex of the church hierarchy, so his experience may not have been representative of that of other North African migrants. Recent analysis of burials in the British Isles, however, provides us with something more concrete. A small number of individuals buried in and around the seventh century in south Wales, the Isle of Man, Northumberland, and Cambridgeshire have all been found to be from the southern Mediterranean, with North Africa being one of the likelier possibilities for their origins. At the moment, there are nearly twenty probable results; this number will grow larger as more research is completed.

These conclusions rely on the analysis of chemical isotopes in their teeth; depending on what you ate and drank as a child, your teeth contain different amount of oxygen and strontium. As different regions yield different results, it is possible to see whether someone was local to where they were buried. These findings are therefore remarkable indications of some of the options available to those born within the Roman Empire in this era. Even the British Isles were a plausible destination for emigration for people much further afield.

The textual evidence is similarly telling. In his eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede included the following speech:

We learned that it [method of dating Easter] was observed at one and the same time in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece, and throughout the whole world.

In Bede’s eyes, England was clearly part of a much wider Christian world—a world that included far more than just Europe. In their eyes, the British Isles were situated at its very edge, while the city of Rome was its symbolic heart. With the centre of their faith in the distant Mediterranean, it is natural that North Africa and the Middle East continued to feature in the Anglo-Saxons’ collective imagination. This is especially true since a few individuals from these faraway places, though few in number, likely lived among them, and possibly vice versa.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Ultimately, we can say very little for certain about “Stephen the African”. But we can say quite confidently that other North Africans, whether anonymous or more well-known, did move to Western Europe during the early parts of the Middle Ages. Given the dominance of Latin Christian culture in North Africa at that time, there may indeed have been a priest named Stephen among them. But even if Stephen was not an African, there were many who were.

Some of these North Africans held positions of power and influence, but many more—as evidenced by the burials in England—were seemingly ordinary people. For all the grand historical trends discussed by historians, such as the decline of long-distance trade or changes in culture, individuals still moved from place to place to find a better life. Their lived experiences, though mediated through unrepresentative texts, provide the needed corrective to how the Middle Ages is still imagined.

It is difficult to make many strong conclusions about specific individuals from this period. But it seems clear that North Africa was an integral part of the early medieval world. The persistent mobility of people, ideas, and texts between the two continents means that, when thinking about the Early Middle Ages, we should always keep North Africa in mind.  Certainly, when we study this period, “Europe” as a concept is less than useful. In the twenty-first century, it is surely now more important than ever to also tell these stories, and to reincorporate Africa and its people into our ideas of the medieval world.

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Sihong Lin

The author Sihong Lin

Sihong Lin is a PhD student at the University of Manchester. His thesis focuses on cross-cultural interactions between the Roman Empire and the ‘post-Roman’ West, around 500-700. His research interests extend to the wider world of late antiquity, particularly the church and its role in facilitating the exchange of ideas, and the study of mobility in the Middle Ages. His has a rarely updated blog, Byzantine Perspectives, and can also be found on Twitter as @shlin28.