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Race in the Middle Ages: Texts for Discussion

Version 1


After Geraldine Heng's book on the Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (2019), and responses to it, there has been an increased willingnessby scholars to address the subject of race or its precursors in the middle ages. The sole goal of the the Sourcebooks project here is to provide primary source texts as a basis for discussion.

"Race" is a term with many possible definitions. There were efforts at pseudoscientific definitions in the 19th and 20th century, but even when those kinds of definitions were quite widely accepted, the word "race" in English and cognates in other languages could also be used in a variety of other ways. Whatever it means it has rarely been simply reducible to skin color. That means it's possible for a social group to be racialized without there being any biological, phenotypical or genetic reason. On other occasions visible difference in appearance is an issue. Here texts or authors are considered as relevent where there is emphasis on the heriditary nature of group membership.

An Important Note.

We have to be wary of coming to definitive general conclusions about what "medieval people" thought or did.

If we were trying to investigate comonn opinions or social norms in the 1840s London, for example, we would be able to work with thousands of pages of literature and and huge amounts of publication in newspapers, diaries and so on - indeed far more than any one scholar could ever read. But it is not like that when we addresses a similar topic in the middle ages. There we need to trawl through scattered references over 1000 years of history and from multiple cultures and languages.

On purely epistemological grounds anything we say about what "mediaeval people" thought cannot be definitive. Take the epic poem Beowulf. There's one manuscript and scholars still find it hard to fix exactly when it was composed or even where. Even if they could fix that, is just one manuscript we have no idea if it had an impact on many people. (The same goes for the Song of Roland and numerous other medieval texts.) There were medieval texts which we know had large audiences, St. Augustine's works, for example, or Chaucer, or especially the Golden Legend (a collection of saints' lives) that exist in very many surviving manuscripts for the middle ages.

These texts, then, provide a basis for discussion, but hardly for any definitive conclusions.


Abû Ûthmân al-Jâhiz (777-868/869 CE)

From The Essays, c. 860 CE

[Wikipedia: Al-Jahiz; Wikipedia: Zanj]

On the Zanj ("Swahili coast") ["Black Africans"]

Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth in whom generosity is as universally well developed as the Zanj. These people have a natural talent for dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine, without needing to learn it. There are no better singers anywhere in the world, no people more polished and eloquent, and no people less given to insulting language. No other nation can surpass them in bodily strength and physical toughness. One of them will lift huge blocks and carry heavy loads that would be beyond the strength of most Bedouins or members of other races. They are courageous, energetic, and generous, which are the virtues of nobility, and also good-tempered and with little propensity to evil. They are always cheerful, smiling, and devoid of malice, which is a sign of noble character.

The Zanj say to the Arabs: You are so ignorant that during the jahiliyya you regarded us as your equals when it came to marrying Arab women, but with the advent of the justice of Islam you decided this practice was bad. Yet the desert is full of Zanj married to Arab wives, and they have been princes and kings and have safeguarded your rights and sheltered you against your enemies.

The Zanj say that God did not make them black in order to disfigure them; rather it is their environment that made them so. The best evidence of this is that there are black tribes among the Arabs, such as the Banu Sulaim bin Mansur, and that all the peoples settled in the Harra, besides the Banu Sulaim are black. These tribes take slaves from among the Ashban to mind their flocks and for irrigation work, manual labor, and domestic service, and their wives from among the Byzantines; and yet it takes less than three generations for the Harra to give them all the complexion of the Banu Sulaim. This Harra is such that the gazelles, ostriches, insects, wolves, foxes, sheep, asses, horses and birds that live there are all black. White and black are the results of environment, the natural properties of water and soil, distance from the sun, and intensity of heat. There is no question of metamorphosis, or of punishment, disfigurement or favor meted out by Allah. Besides, the land of the Banu Sulaim has much in common with the land of the Turks, where the camels, beasts of burden, and everything belonging to these people is similar in appearance: everything of theirs has a Turkish look.


Al Hayqutan (Early 8th Cent CE)

Here, Al Hayqutan, a black poet, respond to jeers from the poet Jahir.

Though I be frizzle-haired, coal-black of skin,
My generosity and honor shine yet brighter.
Blackness of skin does me no harm
When in battle's heat my sword is flailing.
Would you claim glory where there is none?
The Ethiopians are more glorious than you


John Hunwick, "Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery," West Africa, Islam, and the Arab world: studies in honor of Basil Davidson (2006), 75-90 [Internet Archive backup here]

Olayinka Kudus Amuni , "Al-Hayqutan's Riposte to Jarir's caustic Tongue: issues in African response to racism in Arabic poetry," Journal of Oriental and African Studies 2015

Hadith (mid 9th Cent CE)

Sahih Al-Bukhari, a companion of the Prophet:

[Wikipedia: Sahih Al-Bukhari; Wikipedia: Hadith]

"Jabir (Allah be pleased with him) reported: There came a slave [who] pledged allegiance to Allah's Apostle on migration; he (the Holy Prophet did not know that he was a slave. Then there came his master [who] demanded him back, whereupon Allah's Apostle said: Sell him to me. And he bought him for two black slaves, and he did not afterwards take allegiance from anyone until he had asked him whether he was a slave (or a free man)."


Adayshia Johnson, “Ibn Khaldun’s Views on Race: Influences by Early Life/Childhood, Climate, Geography, and Geographic Segmentation,” The Macksey Journal 3, Article 95 (2022)

Moses E. Ochonu, "Slavery, Theology, and Anti-Blackness in the Arab World A Literature Review," Research Africa Reviews 1 (2021) [Internet Archive backup here]

Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. 728 CE)

On Ham (son of Noah)

[Wikipedia: Wahb ibn Munabbih]

A a south Arabian of part Persian origin (d. 728 CE ), who was considered an expert in Jewish legend (isra'iliyyat), is credited the following

Ham, the son of Noah was a white man, fair of face. God—Mighty and Exalted is He —changed his color and the color of his descendants because of the curse of his father. He went off and his offspring followed him and they settled on the sea shore. God increased and multiplied them, and they are the Blacks (al-südan).


John Hunwick, "Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery," West Africa, Islam, and the Arab world: studies in honor of Basil Davidson (2006), 75-90 [Internet Archive backup here]

Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani (Early 10th Cent CE)

[Wikipedia: Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani]

A Persian geographer of the early 10th century here quotes someone whom he merely describes as “a man of discernment” in regard to Iraqis:

The people of Iraq have sound minds, commendable passions, balanced natures, and high proficiency in every art, together with well-proportioned limbs, well-ompounded humors, and a pale brown color, which is the most apt and proper color. They have been well baked in wombs that do not expel them [prematurely] with a blondish or reddish color, with grey-blue eyes and whitish eyebrows such as occurs to the wombs of the Slav women or those like them or comparable to them. The wombs of their women do not overcook them until they are burnt, so that the child comes out something black or pitch-black, malodorous and pungent-smelling, with peppercorn hair, unbalanced limbs, a deficient mind, and depraved passions, such as the Zanj, the Ethiopians, and other blacks who resemble them. The Iraqis are neither unbaked dough nor one cooked and burnt, but between the two.


John Hunwick, "Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery," West Africa, Islam, and the Arab world: studies in honor of Basil Davidson (2006), 75-90 [Internet Archive backup here]

Other Early Arab/Muslim Commentators

Maqdisi, also known as Al-Muqaddasi (fl. 966 CE)

[Wikipedia: Al-Maqdisi]

Kitab al-Bad’ wa-Tarikh, vol. 4

Of the neighbors of the Bujja, Maqdisi had heard that

“There is no marriage among them; the child does not know his father, and they eat people—but God knows best. As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence."


Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201– 74 CE)

[Wikipedia: Nasir al-Din Tusi]


If (all types of men) are taken, from the first, and one placed after another, like the Negro from Zanzibar, in the southernmost countries, the Negro does not differ from an animal in anything except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth—in no other peculiarity or property—except for what God wished. Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being trained than the Negro, and more intelligent.


Adayshia Johnson, “Ibn Khaldun’s Views on Race: Influences by Early Life/Childhood, Climate, Geography, and Geographic Segmentation,” The Macksey Journal 3, Article 95 (2022)

Moses E. Ochonu, "Slavery, Theology, and Anti-Blackness in the Arab World A Literature Review," Research Africa Reviews 1 (2021) [Internet Archive backup here]

Isidore of Seville (c.560-636 AD)

Wikipedia: Isidore of Seville; Wikipedia: Historia de regibus Gotharum, Vandalorum et Suevorum]

On the Virtues of the Goths.

from History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suevi, trans by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The recapitulation of the same Isidorus in praise of the Goths

The most ancient origin of the Goths was from Magog the son of Japhet, from where also the race of the Scythians arose. For the same Goths are proven to have been born from Scythican origin. Hence not far do they differ from the name. For with a letter changed and detracted, they have been called Getians, as though Scythians. Therefore these people, inhabiting the icy cliffs of the North around the Scythican realms, possessed with the rest of the peoples those things which are arduous areas of the mountains. They were driven from these seats of residence by the attack of the people of the Huns, and after crossing the Danubius, they gave themselves to the Romans. But, as they did not sustain their injustices, they were indignant, chose a king for themselves from their crowd, rushed into Thracia, devastated Italy, captured the City after besieging it, attacked the Gallic lands, and after the Pyrenees mountains were laid open, they came all the way into the Spanish lands, and there they established a seat of life and power.

Peoples brisk in nature, quick in ingenuity, relying on the strength of awareness, strong in the rigour of the body, arduous in the height of stature, conspicuous in manner and habit, ready in hand, hard in wounds, as the poet says about them:

The Getians despise death while the wound is praised.

They had such great magnitude of wars, and so extolling virtue of glorious victory, that Rome itself the conqueror of all peoples, subjected to the yoke of captivity, acceded to the Getian triumphs, and the mistress of all nations became in service to them as a servant.

All the nations of Europe trembled at these people, the bolts of the Alps yielded to these people. Also the Vandalic barbarians of wide renown were not so much terrified by their presence as put to flight by mere thought of them. The Alans were extinguished by the vigour of the Goths. Also the Suevi who had been so far bound inside the inaccessible corners of the Spanish lands, experienced the danger of their demise by their arms, and in more disgraceful loss have now come to lack a kingdom, which they held with lazy slothfulness. That said, it is truly wondrous that they held all the way to this point that which they could have come to lack without the testing of defence.

But who will be able to tell of the such great magnitude of the strength of the Gothic people? I pose this question particularly because while it has hardly been allowed for many peoples to reign because of entreaties and gifts, for these people however, liberty has been more fitting through fighting rather than the seeking of peace, and when the necessity of waging war has placed itself in the way, they have applied strength rather than entreaties. Moreover they are sufficiently admirable in the arts of arms, and fight not only with spears, but also with javelins on horseback. They proceed not only in battle on horseback, but also through foot-soldiers. Nonetheless they rely more on the swift course of horsemen, hence also the poet says: 'Whither the Getian proceeds on horse.'

For they love most of all to exercise themselves with weapons and to pray beforehand in battles. They also engage in struggles of games by daily practice. They only lacked up to this point this experience of arms, that they did not study engagement in classical wars on the sea. But after Sisebutus the leader took up the sceptres of the kingdom by the heavenly grace, they have set out by his studies to such great virtue of felicity, that they approach not only the lands, but also the seas themselves with their arms, and the Roman military having been subdued serves them, whom it sees that so many peoples and Hispania itself serve.


Excerpt from Saint Isidore of Seville's History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suevi, translated by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (2021)

Liudprand of Cremona (c.920-972 AD)

[Wikipedia: Liudprand of Cremona]

On the Greeks

During these three weeks, then, Nicephorus had his camp outside of Constantinople, in a place that is called "At the Fountains"; and thither be ordered me to come. And, although I was so weak that not Only standing but even sitting seemed a heavy burden to me, he compelled me to stand before him with uncovered head; a thing which was entirely wrong in my state of ill health. And he said to me: "The envoys of your king Otto who were here before you in the preceding your promised me under oath -and the wording of the oath can be produced-that he would never in any way bring scandal upon our empire. Do you wish for worse scandal than that he calls himself emperor, or that he usurps for himself the provinces of our empire? Both of these things are unbearable; and if both are insupportable, that especially is not to be borne, nay not to be heard of, that he calls himself emperor. But if you will confirm what they promised our majesty, will straightway dismiss you happy and rich." This, moreover, he said not in order that I might expect you to observe the engagement , even if in my foolishness I had made it; but he wished to have in hand something that he might show in time to come to his praise and to our shame.

I answered him: "My most holy master, most wise as he s and full of the spirit of God, foreseeing this which you do desire, wrote me instructions which he also signed with his seal lest I should act counter to them: to the effect that I should not transcend the bounds he set for me." -you know, my august master, what I relied upon when I said this - "Let these instructions be produced, and whatever he shall order, will be confirmed by an oath from me to you. But as to what the former envoys, without the order of in master, promised, swore or wrote,-in the words of Plato: 'the guilt is with the wisher, the god is without fault"

After this we came to the matter of the most noble princes of Capua and Benevento, whom he call, his slaves, and on account of whom an inward grief is troubling him. "Your master," he said, has taken my slaves under his protection; if he will not let them go restore them to their former servitude, he must do without our friendship.

They themselves demand to be taken back under our rule but our imperial dignity refuses them, that they may know and experience how dangerous it is for slaves to fall away from their masters and to flee slavery. And it is more becoming for your master to give them over to me as friend, than to renounce them to me against his will. Indeed they shall learn, if my life holds out, what it is deceive their lord; what it is to desert their servitude. And even now, as I think, they feel what I say,-our soldiers who are beyond the sea, having brought it to pass!"

To this he did not permit me to reply; but, although desired to go away, he ordered me to return to his table. His father sat with him, a man, it seemed to me, a hundred and fifty years old. Before him, as before his so the Greeks call out with hymns of praise - nay, with blatancies - that God may multiply his years. From this we can gather how foolish the Greeks are; how fond of such glory; how adulatory; how greedy. For, not only to an old man but to an utterly worn-out graybeard, they wish what they know for certain that nature itself will not grant. And the worn-out graybeard rejoices that that is wished to him which, as he knows, God will not grant him; and which, if He did, would be to his disadvantage, and not to his advantage. And Nicephorus, if you please could rejoice at being called the prince of peace, and the morning star! To call a weakling strong, a fool wise, a short man tall, a black man white, a sinner holy, is believe me, not praise but contumely. And he who rejoices in having strange attributes called after him, rather than those that are rightly due to him, is altogether like those birds whose eyes the night illumines, the day blinds.

But let us return to the matter in hand, At this meal -a thing that he had not done before-he ordered to read with a loud voice a homily of St. John Chrysostom on the Acts of the apostles. At the end of this reading, when I sought permission to return to you, nodding affirmatively with his bead, he ordered my persecutor to take me back -my fellow citizens and co-denizens, the lions. When this had been done I was not received by him until the thirteenth day before the Calends of August (July 20), but was diligently guarded lest I might enjoy the discourse of anyone who might indicate to me his actions. Meanwhile he ordered Grimizo, Adalbert's messenger, to come to him and bade him return with the imperial fleet, This consisted of twenty- four Chelandian, two Russian, and two Gallic ships -1 do not know if he sent others which I did not see. The bravery of your soldiers, my masters and august emperors, does not require to be encouraged by, the weakness of their adversaries, although this has often been the case with other nations; the hindmost of which, and the weakest in comparison, have struck down the Greek bravery and made it tributary. For just as it would not intimidate you if I announced that they were very strong and comparable to the Macedonian Alexander, so also I do not put courage into you when I narrate their weakness, true as it is. I wish you might believe me, and I know you will believe me, that you with four hundred of your warriors can slay that whole army, if ditches or walls do not prevent. And over this army, in scorn of you, as I think, be has placed in command a sort of man-a sort of, I say, because be has ceased to be a male and was not able to become a female. Adalbert has sent word to Nicephorus that he, has eight thousand knights in armor, and says that, if the Greek army helps him, he can, with them, put to flight or annihilate you. And he asks your rival to send him money, that he may the more readily induce his troops to fight.

Now, however, my masters,

Hark to the wiles of the Greeks, and from one single example learn all.

Nicephorus gave that slave, to whom he had entrusted the army which he had brought together and hired, a considerable sum of money to be disposed of as follows: if Adalbert, as he had promised, should join him with seven thousand and more knights in armor, then he was to distribute among them that sum; and Cono, Adalbert's brother, with his and the Greek army was to attack you; but Adalbert was to be diligently guarded in Bari, until his brother should come back having gained the victory. But if Adalbert when he came should not bring with him- so many thousands of men, lie ordered that he was, to be taken, bound, and given over to you where you came; moreover that the money which was destined for him, Adalbert, should be paid over into your hands! Oh what a warrior, oh what fidelity. He wishes to betray him for whom he pre pares a defender; he prepares a defender for 'him whom he wishes to destroy. Towards neither is he faithful, towards both untrue. He does what he did not need to do, he needed to do what be has not done. But so be it, he acted as one might expect from Greeks! But let us return to the matter in hand.

On the fourteenth day before the Calends of August (July 19) he dismissed that motley fleet, I looking on from my hated abode. On the thirteenth day, moreover (July 20), on which day the flippant Greeks celebrate with theatrical plays the ascension of the prophet Elias, he ordered me to go to him and said - "Our imperial majesty thinks to lead an army against the Assyrians, not as your master does, against followers of Christ. Already last year I wished to do this, but hearing that your master intended to invade the territory of our empire, letting the Assyrians go, we turned our reins against him. His envoy, the Venetian Dominicus met us in Macedonia, and, with much labor and exertion, induced us to return, affirming to us with an oath that your master would never think of such a thing, much less do it. Return therefore," -when I heard this I said to myself, " Thank God!" -" and announce this and this to your master; if he give me satisfaction, return hither again."


Hippolytus, indeed, a certain Sicilian bishop, wrote similarly concerning your empire and our people-I call "our people," namely, all those who are under your rule;-and would that it were true what he prophesied concerning the present times. The other things have hitherto come to pass as he foretold, as I have heard from those who know these books. And of his many sayings I will mention one. For he says that now the saying is to be fulfilled: "The lion and his whelp shall together exterminate the wild ass." The interpretation of which is, according to the Greeks: Leo -that is, the emperor of the Romans or Greeks-and his whelp,-the king, namely, of the Franks - shall together in these days drive out the wild ass - that is, the African king of the Saracens. Which interpretation does not seem to me true, for this reason, that the lion and the whelp, although differing in size, are nevertheless of one nature and species or kind; and, as my knowledge suggests to me, if the lion be the emperor of the Greeks, it is not fitting that the whelp should be the king of the Franks. For although both are men, as the lion and the whelp are both animals, yet they differ in habits as much-I will not say alone as one species from another-but as rational beings from those who have no reason. The whelp differs from the lion only in age; the form is the same, the ferocity the same, the roar the same. The king of the Greeks wears long hair, a tunic, long sleeves, a hood; is lying, crafty, without pity, sly as a fox, proud, falsely humble, miserly, and greedy; lives on garlic, onions, and leeks, and drinks bath-water. The king of the Franks, on the contrary, is beautifully shorn ; wears a garment not at all like a woman's garment, and a hat; is truthful, without guile, merciful enough when it is right, severe when it is necessary, always truly humble, never miserly; does not live on garlic, onions and leeks so as to spare animals and, by not eating them, but selling them, to heap money together. You have heard the difference; do not be willing to accept their interpretation, for either it refers to the future, or it is not true. For it is impossible that Nicephorus, as they falsely say, can be the lion and Otto the whelp, and that they together shall exterminate anyone. For "sooner mutually changing their bounds shall the Parthian exile drink the Araris, or the German the Tigris,". than that Nicephorus and Otto shall become friends and close a treaty with each other.

You have heard the interpretation of the Greeks; hear how that of Liutprand, bishop of Cremona. For I say and not alone do I say, but I affirm-that if the prophecy is to be fulfilled in the present time, the lion and the whelp are the father and the son, Otto and Otto, unlike in nothing only differing in age,-and that they together shall, in this present time, exterminate the wild ass Nicephorus; who not incongruously is compared to the wild ass on account of his vain and empty gladly, and on account of his incestuous marriage with his fellow god-parent and mistress. If now that wild ass shall not be exterminated by our lion and his whelp-by Otto and Otto, the father, namely, and the son, the august emperors of the Romans-then that which Hippolytus wrote will not have been true; for that former interpretation of the Greeks is entirely to be discarded. But oh blessed Jesus, eternal God, the Word of the Father-who does speak to us, unworthy as we are, not by voice but by inspiration - may you be willing to see in this sentence no other interpretation than mine. Command that that lion and that whelp may exterminate and bodily humble this wild ass; to the end that, retiring into himself, subjecting himself to his masters the emperors


Liutprand of Cremona: Report of his Mission to Constantinople

Pope Urban II (c.1035-1099 AD)

[Wikipedia: Pope Urban II]

Comments on the Turks.

Reports of Call to Crusade Speech, Council of Clermont, 1095 AD

Fulcher of Chartres' Report

"Although, O sons of God, you have promised more firmly than ever to keep the peace among yourselves and to preserve the rights of the church, there remains still an important work for you to do. Freshly quickened by the divine correction, you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it.


Balderic of Dol's Report

". . . "We have beard, most beloved brethren, and you have heard what we cannot recount without deep sorrow how, with great hurt and dire sufferings our Christian brothers, members in Christ, are scourged, oppressed, and injured in Jerusalem, in Antioch, and the other cities of the East. Your own blood brothers, your companions, your associates (for you are sons of the same Christ and the same Church) are either subjected in their inherited homes to other masters, or are driven from them, or they come as beggars among us; or, which is far worse, they are flogged and exiled as slaves for sale in their own land. Christian blood, redeemed by the blood of Christ, has been shed, and Christian flesh, akin to the flesh of Christ, has been subjected to unspeakable degradation and servitude. Everywhere in those cities there is sorrow, everywhere misery, everywhere groaning (I say it with a sigh). The churches in which divine mysteries were celebrated in olden times are now, to our sorrow, used as stables for the animals of these people! Holy men do not possess those cities; nay, base and bastard Turks hold sway over our brothers. The blessed Peter first presided as Bishop at Antioch; behold, in his own church the Gentiles have established their superstitions, and the Christian religion, which they ought rather to cherish, they have basely shut out from the ball dedicated to God! The estates given for the support of the saints and the patrimony of nobles set aside for the sustenance of the poor are subject to pagan tyranny, while cruel masters abuse for their own purposes the returns from these lands. The priesthood of God has been ground down into the dust. The sanctuary of God (unspeakable shamel) is everywhere profaned. Whatever Christians still remain in hiding there are sought out with unheard of tortures."


St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153 AD)

[Wikipedia: Bernard of Clairvaux]

On "blackness" and the "blackness of Christ" from his Sermons on the Song of Songs

Note that St Bernard is commenting on the Latin text of the Song of Songs 1:4 when he discusses "I am black but beautiful" (in Latin "Nigra sum, sed formosa". The Hebrew text of the same words (וְֽנָאוָ֔ה אֲנִי֙ שְׁחוֹרָ֤ה) can be construed as "I am Black and beautiful."


Sermon XXV: On the Blackness and the Beauty of the Bridegroom and the Bride

“I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.”

You recollect, my brethren, what I said in my last discourse, that the Spouse is compelled to reply to the attacks of certain envious critics, who, in outward seeming, appear to belong to the company of “young maidens,” but in disposition and sentiment are far removed from them. She answers them with the words, “I am black, but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.” Evidently they had been maligning her, reproaching her with her blackness. But observe the patience and benignity of the Spouse. Not only does she not return insult for insult, but she even meets malediction with benediction, calling them “daughters of Jerusalem,” who, for their malice, deserved to be called daughters of Babylon, or daughters of Baal, or any other opprobrious name that might have occurred to her. Clearly, she has learned from the Prophet, or rather from the unction of grace which teaches mildness, that the “bruised reed” must not be broken, nor the “smoking flax” extinguished. She considered, therefore, that they who of themselves were sufficiently excited, should not be subjected to further provocation, nor have other irritants added to the torturing stings of envy. Rather she endeavoured to be “peaceful with them that hateth peace,” knowing that she is a “debtor” even “to the unwise.” Hence, she preferred to soothe them with words of gentleness, because she was more concerned to secure the salvation of these weaklings, than to avenge the wrong to herself.

Such perfection, my brethren, should be the ambition of all. But it is especially the ideal after which all prelates are bound to strive. For good and faithful superiors are well aware that it is not dignity and pomp that have been committed to their charge, but the eternal salvation of weak and languishing souls. Hence, whenever they discover, by the symptom of a querulous voice, the internal discontent of any of these, although it be manifested by outbursts of reproachful and contumelious language against themselves, they realise that they are physicians rather than masters, and so instead of taking revenge, they immediately provide a remedy for this spiritual paroxysm. Here, then, is the reason why the Spouse calls her censurers “daughters of Jerusalem,” after enduring their malevolence and malignity, in order, namely, with words of kindness, to appease their disaffection, to calm their agitation, and to cure their envy. For it is written, “A mild answer breaketh wrath.” Nevertheless, in certain respects, such souls are really “daughters of Jerusalem,” and the Spouse speaks truth in calling them so. For, on account of the sacraments of the Church, common to them with the good, on account of the common profession of Catholic faith, and the (at least, visible) communion with all the faithful, and the hope of heaven, with regard to which we must not despair of any, so long as they live, no matter how sinful their lives may be—for these reasons, I say, the Spouse is right in giving the title “daughters of Jerusalem” even to the malcontents.

Let us examine what she means by saying “I am black (in colour) but beautiful” (of form—formosa). Is there a contradiction in these words, my brethren? God forbid! But I speak on account of the simple-minded, who are unable to distinguish between colour and form. Form has reference and relation to the composition of bodies, whereas colour, such as blackness, belongs only to the superficies. Not everything, therefore, which happens to be black is on this account alone to be considered as deformed. In the eye, for instance, black colour is not displeasing. Black stones have an agreeable effect in ornamentation. Black hair also enhances the beauty and charm of a clear complexion. And your own experience will furnish you with innumerable examples of the same. Countless are the things which, looking to their colour alone, you would pronounce unprepossessing, but which appear really beautiful in form. In this way, perhaps, the Spouse may combine with the loveliness of her form an unsightly defect of colour; yet this can only be the case in the place of her pilgrimage. For the time shall come when, in the fatherland, her glorious Bridegroom will “present her to Himself a glorious Bride, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing.” But if she said now that she has not blackness, she would deceive herself, and the truth would not be in her. Wherefore, my brethren, wonder not that she confesses her imperfection, saying, “I am black.” Yet, at the same time, she boasts that she is beautiful. How, indeed, could she be otherwise, to whom the Bridegroom said, “Come, My beautiful one”? But she who is invited to come, evidently has not yet arrived at her destination. So, perhaps, this word “come” is used lest we should think the epithet “beautiful” applies, not to the discoloured Spouse, who is still advancing laboriously on her way, but to that blessed one that reigns immaculate in heaven.

But hear why she calls herself black, and why beautiful. Does she mean that she is black because of the benighted life she previously led under the power of the prince of darkness, whilst she still bore the image of the earthly man; and that she is beautiful by reason of the heavenly similitude, into which she was afterwards transformed, when she began to walk in newness of life? But if so, why does she not say in the past tense, “I was black,” rather than in the present, “I am black”? If, nevertheless, any one of you be satisfied with this interpretation, with regard to what follows “as the tents of Cedar, as the curtains of Solomon,” it will be necessary to suppose that the Spouse compares herself to the “tents of Cedar” on account of her former evil life, and to the “curtains of Solomon” on account of her present sanctity. Tents and curtains sometimes mean the same in the Scriptures, as in that passage of Jeremias where he says, “My tents are destroyed on a sudden, and my curtains in a moment.” According to this sense, therefore, she was black, at first, like the hideous tents of Cedar, but later on she became beautiful as the splendid curtains of the King.

Let us now see whether both her blackness and her beauty cannot be explained with reference to her later and reformed life. If we consider the exterior of the saints, that aspect of them which strikes our senses, how lowly and abject they appear, how wretched and contemptible! And yet they are all the while most admirable in their interior, and “beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord.” Does it not seem to you, my brethren, that every such soul can truly reply to those who taunt her with her blackness, “I am black but beautiful”? Would you like me to show you one of these souls, at once black and beautiful? “His epistles indeed, they say, are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible.” This was St. Paul. “O ye daughters of Jerusalem,” do you thus judge St. Paul by his “bodily presence,” and despise him as discoloured and deformed, because you perceive him to be a man of diminutive stature, and afflicted “in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in many more labours, in stripes above measure, in deaths often”? For these are the things that make him black. It is because of these that the Doctor of Nations is reputed inglorious, ignoble, discoloured, obscure, as the “offscouring of all.” Yet is not he the one that was rapt up to paradise, who, passing through the first and the second, penetrated, “by reason of his purity,” even to the third heaven?

O truly most beautiful soul, which, although dwelling in a weak little body, is yet so honoured as to be admitted to the vision of the celestial loveliness, neither rejected by angelic magnificence, nor repelled by the Divine Glory! And do you call such a soul black? She is “black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.” She is black in your judgment, but beautiful in the estimation of God and of His angels. And, although black, she is so only in her exterior. But to St. Paul “it is a very small thing to be judged by you,” or by those who judge “according to the face.” For man “looketh on the face, but God regardeth the heart.” Therefore, even if his exterior is black, he is yet beautiful interiorly; so that he is pleasing to Him to Whom he has striven to approve himself, although not to you, for if he still pleased you he would not be a servant of Christ. O blessed blackness, which begets in us whiteness of soul, luminousness of knowledge, and purity of conscience!

Hear what God promises, through His Prophet, to persons “black” with this kind of blackness, who appear to be discoloured by the humility of penance, or by the fervour of charity, as if by the scorching heat of the sun. “If your sins be as scarlet they shall be made as white as snow; if they be as red as crimson, they shall be white as wool.” Surely, then, we ought not to despise in the saints this outward blackness which becomes the source of interior brightness, and so prepares in the soul the seat of wisdom. For, according to the Wise Man, wisdom “is the brightness of eternal life.” Hence, truly bright must that soul be which she chooses for her seat. But since we know that “the soul of the just man is the seat of wisdom,” I am safe in concluding that the soul of the just man must be also bright and luminous. Indeed, it is likely enough that justice and spiritual brightness mean the same thing. Now, St. Paul was just, since for him was “laid up a crown of justice.” Therefore there can be no doubt that his soul was bright, and therein was seated wisdom, so that he could “speak wisdom amongst the perfect,” “wisdom hidden in a mystery, which none of the princes of this world knew.” Moreover, this brightness of wisdom and justice in him, was either produced or merited by the external blackness of his “bodily presence,” and his “much watchings” and his “fastings often.” Consequently, even the very blackness of St. Paul is far more precious and attractive than any degree of external beauty, than all the pomp and glory of earthly kings. Not to be compared with it is any comeliness of mortal flesh, any fairness of a skin destined as fuel for the flames, any loveliness of a delicately-tinted complexion, soon to be the spoil of death and putrefaction, any magnificence of dress liable to the corrupting influence of age, any splendour of gold and precious stones, or of anything else that passes away with time.

Good reason have the saints, therefore, for devoting and giving themselves up with all diligence to the business of caring for and embellishing the inward man, who is made to the image of God and “renewed day by day”; whilst they contemptuously refuse any adornment or superfluous attention to their outward man “who is corrupted.” For they feel convinced that nothing can be so acceptable to God as His own image, provided it has been restored to its original beauty. Therefore, “all” their “glory is within,” not outside, that is to say, not in the flower of the field, or in the mouths of the multitude, but in the Lord. Hence do they say, “This is our glory, the testimony of our conscience,” because the only witness of their conscience is God, Whom alone they desire to please, and in pleasing Whom the only true and sovereign glory consists. Certainly, no small glory is that which is within, in which even the Lord of glory disdains not to glory, as David tells us when he says, “All the glory of the King’s daughter is within.” Besides, each one’s glory is all the more secure, the more he possesses it within himself, and not in another. However, it is not alone in the interior brightness, but also in the exterior blackness that there is found occasion for glorying, lest anything in the saints should go for loss, but that all things might “co-operate unto good” for them. Hence we see them glorying in tribulations as as well as in hope. “Gladly,” says the Apostle, “will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” O infirmity worthy to be desired with all ardour, which is compensated for by the power of Christ! Who will grant me not only to be infirm, but to be utterly forsaken and abandoned by my own strength and my own power, in order that I may be propped up by the power and strength of the “Lord of virtues”! For “power is made perfect in infirmity,” as Christ bears witness. Hence St. Paul could affirm, “When I am weak, then am I powerful.”

This being so, the Spouse most skilfully turns to her own glory what her censurers taunted her with as a reproach, boasting not only of her beauty, but also of her blackness. For she is not ashamed of this blackness, knowing that the same kind of blackness appeared even in her Bridegroom. And what matter for glorying it is to be assimilated to Him! Therefore, in her eyes there can be nothing so glorious as to “bear the reproach of Christ.” Hence that “voice of exultation and of salvation,” “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of my Lord, Jesus Christ.” The ignominy of the cross is gratifying to him who is not ungrateful to the Crucified. It is blackness indeed, but it is also the image and likeness of the Lord. Go to the Prophet Isaias, and he will describe for you how he beheld Him in spirit. For whom but Christ does he call the “Man of sorrows and acquainted with infirmity,” adding that “there is no beauty in Him nor comeliness”? And he goes on, “And we have reputed Him, as it were, a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But He was wounded for our iniquities, He was bruised for our sins, and by His bruises we are healed.” Behold what makes Him black! Add to this the testimony of holy David, “Beautiful in form above the sons of men,” and you will have verified in the Bridegroom all that the Spouse witnesses of herself when she says, “I am black but beautiful.”

Does it not, then, seem to you, my brethren, that according to what has been said, He also could have replied to the Jews who reproached Him, “I am black but beautiful, O ye” sons “of Jerusalem.” Black assuredly was He in Whom there was “no beauty nor comeliness.” Black also as being “a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people.” Again, why should I be afraid to call Him black Who even made Himself “sin,” as the Apostle declares? Lastly, contemplate Him, clad in a ragged and dirty mantle, livid with wounds, defiled with spittle, pale with the pallor of death, and surely now at least you will acknowledge Him to be black. Then question the apostles as to the appearance He presented on the mountain; or ask the angels what is it that makes them desire to gaze upon Him, and you will doubtless marvel at what they shall tell you of His beauty. Therefore, He is beautiful in Himself, but black for our sakes. Yet even in Thy Human Form, according to which Thou art my Brother, how beautiful Thou art to me, O Lord Jesus! Not because of the mighty miracles of Thy divine power, which render Thee so illustrious, but “on account of Thy truth, and Thy meekness, and Thy justice.” Blessed is the man who diligently studies Thee conversing as a Man amongst men, and endeavours to imitate Thee in the practice of these virtues, to the utmost of his power! Already has Thy “beautiful one” obtained this part of her beatitude, the first fruits, as it were, of her dowry, being neither slow to copy what is beautiful in Thee, nor ashamed to participate in the sufferings which make Thee black. For this reason also she said, “I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.” And she added the comparisons, “as the tents of Cedar, as the curtains of Solomon.” But these latter expressions are obscure, and we are too weary now to enter upon their exposition. You shall therefore have an opportunity for “knocking” by prayer at the door of Wisdom. If you knock sincerely, there is One Who will come to open for you these mysteries. Nor will He delay to open, since it is He Himself Who invites you to knock. For He it is that “openeth and no man shutteth,” the Bridegroom of the Church, Jesus Christ, Our Lord, Who is blessed for evermore. Amen.


Sermon XXVIII: The Curtains of Solomon are Explained in Reference to the Blackness of the Bridegroom and the Bride

“As the curtains of Solomon.”

You remember, I suppose, what, in my opinion, those curtains are to which the Spouse compares her beauty, and to what Solomon they belong, that is, if we wish to refer the simile drawn from them to the illustration and commendation of that beauty. But if we prefer to understand this, as well as the comparison with the tents of Cedar, of the Spouse’s blackness, I can think of no other curtains of Solomon, but those which the King used himself whenever it pleased him to dwell in tents. The exterior of such curtains, if indeed there were any, must doubtless have been discoloured and blackened from daily exposure to the sun and from the injurious effects of the frequent rains. Nor were they so exposed without reason, but in order that he who reposed within, decked with his royal ornaments, might be preserved from any stain of defilement. By this similitude, therefore, the Spouse does not deny her blackness, but excuses it. Never shall she disdain any robe which charity forms and the judgment of truth does not condemn. For “who is weak and” she “is not weak? Who is scandalised and” she “is not on fire?” She assumes the swarthiness of compassion in order to cure or to soothe the maladies of evil passion in others. She grows dark through zeal for brightness, she becomes black in the quest after beauty.

Thus, the blackness of One makes many white, not the blackness caused by sin, but that which results from solicitude. As we read, “It is expedient for you that one Man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” It is expedient that One should be discoloured for the sake of all, “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” lest the whole nation should be condemned on account of the blackness of sin; that the Splendour and the Figure of the Substance of the Divinity be shrouded in the form of a servant to save the life of a servant; that the Brightness of Eternal Life should grow dim in the flesh for the purification of the flesh; that He Who is “beautiful above the sons of men” should, in order to enlighten the sons of men, suffer the eclipse of His Passion, the disgrace of the cross, the discoloration of death; and that He should be divested completely of all beauty and comeliness, that so He might win for Himself in the Church a comely and beautiful Spouse, without spot or wrinkle. I recognise King Solomon’s curtain. Rather, I embrace Solomon Himself under His black curtain. For even Solomon has blackness, but only in His curtain, that is, in His skin. He is dark exteriorly, dark in His skin, not in His interior, because “all the glory of the King’s daughter is within.” Within is the White Light of the Divinity, the loveliness of the virtues, the splendour of glory, the purity of innocence. But all this beauty is concealed under the ignoble hue of infirmity. For “His look is, as it were, hidden and despised,” whilst He is being “tempted in all things like as we are, without sin.” I recognise the symbol and type of our sin-blackened nature. I recognise those curtains, those garments of skins wherewith our guilty first parents covered their nakedness. For He made Himself black, “taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men and in habit found as a man.” I recognise under the skin of the kid, which signifies sin, the Hand of Him “Who hath done no sin,” and the Neck through which the thought of evil never passed, and therefore “neither was there deceit in His Mouth.” I know that thou art of a gentle nature, “meek and humble of heart,” of gracious aspect and amiable disposition, for Thou art “anointed with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.” How, then, dost Thou now appear rough and hairy like Esau? What means this blackness? And these wrinkles on Thy Brow that should be white and smooth? Whence this hairy covering on Thy Hands? Ah, yes, I understand. They are mine. These hairy Hands signify that Thou hast taken upon Thee the likeness of my sinful flesh. This shagginess I recognise as my own, and as holy Job predicted, in my own skin “I see God, my Saviour.”

But it was not Rebecca, but Mary, that clothed this my Jacob, Who was the more deserving to receive a paternal blessing than His type, in proportion as He was born of a holier Mother. And rightly does He appear in my garments, since it is for me that the blessing is obtained, for me the inheritance is solicited. For He has heard His Father promising “Ask of Me and I will give Thee the Gentiles for Thy inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for Thy possession.” “Thy inheritance,” the Father says, and “Thy possession I will give to Thee.” But how canst Thou give Him what is His already? And why dost thou bid Him to ask? Or how is that His which it is necessary He should ask for? It is, therefore, not for Himself He is to ask, but for me. And it is for this that He has assumed my nature, in order to plead my cause. For, as the Prophet declares, “the chastisement of our peace is upon Him, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” “Wherefore,” concludes the Apostle, “it behoved Him in all things to be made like to His brethren, that He might become merciful.” Hence, “the voice indeed is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” What is heard from Him is His own, but that which is seen in Him is ours. What He speaks is “spirit and life,” what He exhibits to our sight is mortality and death. We see one thing and we believe another. Sense reports Him black, but faith discovers Him to be white and beautiful. Black in truth He is, but only to the eyes of the foolish. For to the minds of the faithful He appears wondrously fair and lovely. He is “black but beautiful,” black in the estimation of Herod, beautiful in the confession of the Thief and in the faith of the Centurion.

Certainly, His exceeding beauty did not escape the observation of him who exclaimed, “Indeed, this Man was the Son of God.” But wherein he discovered that beauty, we have now, my brethren, to ascertain. For if he attended to external appearances, in what respect did the Saviour show Himself beautiful, in what the Son of God? What did He exhibit to the eyes of the spectators except unsightliness and blackness, whilst, hanging between two criminals, with His arms extended on the cross, He became an Object of ridicule to the malignant, and of compassion to the faithful? He alone excited laughter, Who alone could have excited fear, and Who alone could have demanded honour. How, then, did the Centurion discover the beauty of the Crucified, and the Divine Sonship of Him Who “was reputed with the wicked”? It is neither right nor necessary for me to reply to this question, since the vigilance of the Evangelist has not allowed it to pass unanswered. For thus we read, “And the Centurion, who stood over against Him, seeing that crying out in this manner, He had given up the ghost, said: Indeed, this Man was the Son of God.” It was, therefore, at the sound of His voice that he believed. It was the voice, not the Face, that revealed to him the Son of God. For perhaps he was one of those sheep of His, whereof He said, “My sheep hear My voice.”

Hearing discovered that which escaped the sense of sight. The eye was imposed upon by the colour, but the truth entered the mind through the avenue of the ear. For the eye pronounced Christ to be weak, unsightly, miserable, a Man condemned to a most ignominious death. But the ear recognised that He was beautiful, that He was the Son of God, not, however, the ear of the Jews, because they were “uncircumcised in ears.” With good reason, therefore, did St. Peter cut of the external ear of the servant, in order to open a way for truth, that the truth might emancipate him, that is, might make him free. The Centurion also was uncircumcised, but not in ear, since from one cry of the dying Saviour, he recognised in Him the Lord of Majesty amidst so many evidences of weakness. And as he believed what he did not see, he did not contemn that which met his eye. It was not what he beheld that made him believe, but what he heard, because “faith cometh by hearing.” It were more fitting, indeed, that truth should enter the soul by the upper windows of the eyes. But this, O my soul, is reserved for the next life, when we shall see “face to face.” Meantime, let the remedy find its way into our minds through the same aperture as the malady of old; let life follow in the tracks of death; let light travel in the path of darkness; and let the antidote of truth enter by the same door as the poison of the old serpent, and heal the eye, which is “troubled,” in order that it may serenely contemplate Him Who is inaccessible to trouble. So let the ear, which was the first gate open to death, be also the first open to life. Let the hearing, which was the means of destroying the sight, be made the means of its restoration; because unless we believe we shall not be able to understand. Consequently, merit belongs to hearing, and reward to sight. Hence the Psalmist sings, “To my hearing Thou shalt give joy and gladness.” For the Beatific Vision is the reward of faithful hearing, because it is by faithful hearing that we merit the Beatific Vision. Again, the Lord says, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.” Now, the eye that is to behold God must first be purified by the faith that “cometh by hearing,” as we read, “purifying their hearts by faith.”

In the meantime, then, until the sense of sight is fully prepared for its most perfect functions, let the hearing be aroused and exercised in receiving truth. Happy the man of whom Truth Itself bears witness, saying, “At the hearing of the ear he hath obeyed Me!” For I shall then only be worthy to see, if before seeing I shall have been found obedient. Securely shall I gaze upon my Lord, if He has already received the service of my obedience. How blessed was he who said, “The Lord hath opened my car, and I do not resist, I have not gone back!” Here you have a pattern of voluntary obedience, and also an example of perseverance. For he who docs not contradict is prompt to obey; and he has perseverance who turns not back. Both virtues are necessary, since “God loveth a cheerful giver,” and “he that shall persevere unto the end he shall be saved.” Would that the Lord would open my ear, that the word of truth might enter my heart, and purify my eye, and prepare it for the blissful Vision! Then I, too, might say to God, “Thine Ear hath heard the preparation of my heart.” Then might I, too, with His other obedient servants, hear from Him, “And you are clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” For not all who hear are cleansed, but only those that obey. “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” Such a heedful hearing is required by Him Who commands, saying, “Hear, O Israel.” And it is this hearing of obedience that he offered who said, “Speak, Lord, because Thy servant heareth.” The same is promised by the Psalmist, when he says, “I will hear what the Lord God will speak in me.”

“Hearken, O daughter, and see.” So speaks the Holy Ghost, my brethren, wishing thus to make us understand the order He observes in leading souls to perfection, first instructing the ear and afterwards delighting the vision. Why, then, do you strain your eyes for the sight of the divine beauty, when you ought rather to be preparing your ears to receive the divine truth? Are you yearning to see Christ? But it is necessary to hear Him first, and to hear of Him, so that when you do see Him, you may be able to say, “As we have heard, so have we seen.” Through so narrow and so small an opening as the aperture of the eye you cannot surely hope to take in a glory so immense. But you may do by hearing what is impossible to sight. Being then a sinner, I could not see God when He called, saying, “Adam, where art thou?” Yet I heard Him. But if the hearing be found pious, vigilant and faithful, it will restore the lost vision. Faith will certainly purge the eye “troubled” by impiety; and the eye that has been closed by the sin of insubordination will be opened by the merit of obedience. This the Psalmist acknowledges as having occurred in his own case, when he sings, “By Thy commandments I have had understanding.” For the observance of the divine precepts gives back the understanding which had been lost through transgression. And notice in the case of holy Isaac, how in his old age his hearing, as we read, was more perfect than any of the other senses. Dim were the eyes of the Patriarch, unreliable his faculties of taste and touch. Only his hearing continued unimpaired. And what wonder if the ear is percipient of truth, since “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”? For the word of Christ is truth. “The voice, indeed,” said Isaac, “is the voice of Jacob.” Nothing more true. “But the hands are the hands of Esau.” Nothing more false. Thou art here in error, holy Patriarch. The resemblance of the hands deceives thee. Nor is there discernment of truth in thy taste, although it is true in its estimate of savour. For how can that faculty be said to pronounce truly, since it judges the food eaten to be venison, which, in reality, is only the flesh of the domestic kids? Much less oughtest thou to look for truth in the testimony of thine eye which perceives nothing at all. There is neither truth in the eye, nor true wisdom. “Woe to you,” says the Prophet, “who are wise in your own eyes.” Surely that cannot be true wisdom which is thus accursed. It is the “wisdom of this world,” which is “foolishness with God.”

But good and true wisdom “is drawn out of secret places,” as blessed Job believed. Why then seek it outside, in your bodily senses? Wisdom resides in the heart as taste in the palate. Seek not wisdom in the material eye, since flesh and blood do not reveal it, but only the Spirit of God. Neither should you look for it in the taste of the mouth, because “it is not found in the land of them that live in delights,” as Job tells us. Nor in the touch of the hand, for the same holy man declares, “If I have kissed my hand with my mouth, which is very great iniquity, and a denial against the Most High God.” As I understand it, the hand is thus kissed when wisdom, which is God’s gift, is ascribed, not to Him, but to our own merits. Isaac was a wise man, yet he was led astray by his senses. Hearing alone takes hold of the truth, because it alone has perception of the word. Justly, therefore, is the still carnally-minded woman, Magdalen, forbidden to touch the reanimated Flesh of the Word, because she gave more credit to the eye than to the oracle, that is to say, to the sense of the body, than to the word of God. For she did not believe Him risen, though He had promised to rise, whereas she believed Him dead on the testimony of her senses. Nor did her eye rest until her sight had been satisfied, because she had no consolation from faith, no confidence in the promise of God. But is it not so, that heaven and earth and everything visible to this eye of flesh must pass away and perish, ere one jot or one tittle of all that God has spoken shall be suffered to fall to the ground? And yet she, who found no consolation in the word of the Lord, ceased from her weeping at the vision of her eye, placing greater reliance on experience than on faith. Nevertheless, experience is often deceptive.

She is, therefore, invited to give the preference to the more certain knowledge of faith, which attains to things beyond the reach of the senses, beyond the range of experience. “Do not touch Me,” said the risen Saviour. That is to say, “Cease to confide in thy fallacious senses. Rely upon my word. Accustom thyself to being led by the influence of faith. Faith is infallible, it apprehends the invisible, it is a stranger to the poverty of sense. Nay, it even transcends the limits of human reason, the capacity of nature, the bounds of experience. Why ask the eye about objects beyond its possibilities of vision? And why should the hand endeavour to touch that which is altogether above its reach. The knowledge given by either of these faculties is of comparatively little worth. But faith will certainly speak to thee of Me, without detracting aught from My Majesty. Learn to receive with more certainty and to follow with fuller confidence what it shall teach thee. ‘Do not touch Me, for I am not yet ascended to My Father.’ ” As if to say that when He is ascended, she shall have the permission or the power to touch Him. And indeed that power she shall have, but with her affection, not with her hand; with her will, not with her eye; with faith, not with the senses. “Why,” He asks, “dost thou seek to touch Me now, whilst with the bodily sense thou dost estimate the glory of My Resurrection? Knowest thou not that even in the days of My passible life, the eyes of My disciples were unable to bear the glory of My mortal Body, momentarily transfigured. I still condescend, indeed, to the weakness of thy senses, by presenting to thee the form of a servant which thou canst recognise from thy past experience. But My glory ‘is become wonderful to’ thee; ‘it is high’ and thou canst ‘not reach to it.’ Defer, therefore, thy judgment; postpone thy verdict; do not entrust thy senses with so important a decision, but reserve it to faith, which, as comprehending more fully, will pronounce sentence more worthily and with more truth and confidence. For faith, in that deep and mystical breast of hers, comprehends ‘what is the breadth and length, and height, and depth’ of this glory. What ‘eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered the heart of man,’ that faith bears within herself, wrapped round with mystery and preserved under seal.

“She, therefore, may worthily touch Me, who shall behold Me enthroned with the Father, no longer in an humble, but in a heavenly form, in the same Flesh indeed as to substance, but different as to degree of glory. Why Wouldst thou touch what as yet is uncomely? Wait that thou mayst touch Me when I am revealed in My perfect beauty. For I, Who am now unprepossessing by comparison, shall be truly beautiful then. Now I appear imperfect to the faculties of touch and of sight. I appear imperfect to thee, who art thyself imperfect, in that thou dost follow sense in preference to faith. Make thyself beautiful, and then mayst thou touch Me. Thou shalt make thyself beautiful by rendering thyself faithful. Thus beautiful thyself, thou shalt more worthily and more blissfully touch Me in My beauty. Thou shalt touch Me with the hand of faith, with the finger of desire, with the embrace of devotion, with the eye of the intellect. But shall I still be black? God forbid! Thy Beloved shall be beautiful beyond question and beyond compare, for He shall be ‘white and ruddy’ as being surrounded with roses and lilies of the valley, that is, by the choirs of martyrs and virgins. Nor shall I in the midst of both companies appear alien to either, since I am Myself both a Martyr and a Virgin. For how could I be alien to the white choirs of virgins, being not only a Virgin, but the Son of a virgin, and the Bridegroom of a virgin? Or to the roseate army of martyrs, I, Who am the Motive, the Virtue, the Reward, and the Model of martyrs? When thou art such thyself, then mayst thou touch Me Who am such, and touch Me in such a way. Then canst thou say, ‘My Beloved is white and ruddy, chosen out of thousands.’ ‘Thousands of thousands’ are with thy Beloved, ‘and ten thousand times a hundred thousand’ surround Him, yet nigh Him is there none. Perhaps thou hast need to fear, lest, in seeking Him Whom thou lovest, thou shouldst mistake for Him one of the multitude of His attendants? But no, thou shalt have no hesitation in singling Him out. He shall easily draw thy attention, being ‘chosen out of thousands,’ and of peerless glory; and thou shalt say, ‘This is My Beloved, this Beautiful One, in His robe, walking in the greatness of His strength.’ No longer, therefore, shall He walk in the black skin, which up to this had to be presented to the eyes of His enemies, that they might despise Him Whom they were to slay, and now even to the eyes of His friends, that they might recognise Him after His Resurrection. No longer, I say, shall He appear under a black curtain, but in white robes, beautiful not only above the sons of men, but above even the angelic spirits. Why, then, dost thou wish to touch Me, whilst still in this humble habit, this servile form, this contemptible appearance? Touch Me when I manifest Myself all radiant with heavenly beauty, ‘crowned with honour and glory,’ terrible in the Majesty of My Godhead, yet sweet and mild in My native serenity.”

Here, my brethren, we must admire the prudence of the Spouse and the profound wisdom of her words. Under the shade of Solomon’s curtains, that is, in the flesh, she seeks the Glory of the Divinity, she seeks Life in death, the summit of honour and majesty in disgrace, and under the black mantle of the Crucified, the whiteness of innocence and the splendour of virtue. For it was thus that those royal curtains, black though they were, and contemptible, preserved under their awning the bright and precious ornaments of an exceedingly wealthy monarch. Wisely does she refrain from despising the blackness of the curtains, perceiving the beauty concealed underneath. But that blackness was despised by some who knew nothing of the treasure it covered. “For if they had known it,” says St. Paul, “they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory.” King Herod knew it not, and hence his contempt for Christ. Neither did the Synagogue know it, since she reproached the Saviour with His suffering and His weakness, saying, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save; if He be the King of Israel, let Him come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him.” But the Thief, from the cross whereon he was hanging, recognised that hidden beauty of Him Who was also suspended on His cross, and he acknowledged and proclaimed the purity of His innocence. “This Man,” said he, “hath done no evil.” He also, at the same time, confessed the Glory of His royal Majesty by the prayer, “Remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom.” This beauty under blackness was likewise detected by the Centurion, who declared the Crucified to be the Son of God, as it is now by the Church, which emulates the blackness in order to participate in the beauty. She is not ashamed either to appear or to be called black, so that she may be able to say to her Beloved, “The reproaches of them that reproached Thee are fallen upon me.” Yet surely she is but “black as the curtains of Solomon,” that is to say, only in her exterior, and not also within. For there is nothing black in the interior of this Solomon of mine. Observe that she does not say, “I am black as Solomon,” but only “as the curtains,” that is, as the skin “of Solomon,” because the blackness of the true Peaceful One is all on the surface. The blackness of guilt shows itself within. Sin discolours the interior before it appears exteriorly to the eye. So it is written, “From the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies, these are the things that defile a man.” God forbid that blackness of this kind should be found in Solomon! No, such defilement you shall never discover in Him Who is truly called the Peaceful. For He, “Who taketh away the sins of the world,” ought Himself to be without sin, in order that He may be found worthy to win peace for sinners, and so may be justly entitled to the name of Solomon.

But there is, besides, the blackness of afflicted penitence, which appears when we conceive a heart-felt sorrow for our sins. I do not think that Solomon will contemn me for this kind of blackness, if voluntarily assumed on account of my transgressions, because “a contrite and humbled heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” There is also the blackness of tender compassion, which we exhibit whenever we sympathise with our suffering brethren, as if we were discoloured by our neighbour’s misfortune. Neither do I think that this blackness will be displeasing to our Peaceful One, since He Himself condescended to assume it for our sakes, “Who bore our sins in His Body upon the tree.” Another kind of blackness is that of persecution. This should be valued as a most beautiful ornament, when borne for the sake of justice and truth. Hence we read that the apostles “went from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus.” And the Lord says: “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice sake.” It is in this blackness, most of all, as I think, that the Church glories. It is this she endeavours to copy more eagerly than any other of the black curtains of Solomon. She has even been promised a participation in it, in the words of Christ, “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”

Therefore the Spouse goes on to say, “Do not consider that I am brown, because the sun hath altered my colour.” That is to say, “Do not find fault with me as uncomely because Thou dost not find me fair and blooming under the stress of affliction, nor beautifully tinted, according to human standards of beauty. Why wouldst Thou reproach me with a blackness due to the violence of persecution rather than to the defilement of transgression? Or perhaps by the sun she means the zeal for justice by which she is inflamed and aroused against the malignant, saying with the Psalmist, “The zeal of Thy house hath eaten me up”; and “My zeal hath made me pine away, because my enemies forgot Thy words”; also, “A fainting hath taken hold of me, because of the wicked that forsake Thy law”; likewise, “Have I not hated them, O Lord, that hated Thee, and pined away because of Thy enemies?” She also carefully follows the advice of the Wise Man, “Hast thou daughters? Shew not thy countenance gay towards them.” For herein she is counselled to exhibit not the brightness of serenity, but the darkness of severity to such as are lax and effeminate and haters of discipline. Or again, to be discoloured by the sun may mean to burn with the flame of fraternal charity, like St. Paul, to “weep with them that weep,” to be weak with the weak, to be on fire when any is scandalised. Still another interpretation: we may understand the Spouse as saying, “Christ, the Sun of Justice, has discoloured me, because I languish with the love of Him.” Such languor destroys in a manner the natural hue, and causes a swooning of the spirit, so to speak, through the intense ardour of the soul’s desires. Hence the Prophet testifies, “I remembered God and was delighted, and was exercised, and my spirit swooned away.” Therefore, the ardour of desire, like a burning sun, darkens the complexion of the pilgrim longing for the Vision of Glory, whilst impatience is begotten of disappointment and eagerness of love is tormented by delay. Which of us, my brethren, is so on fire with holy love, that in his yearning to behold Christ, he loathes and leaves aside all the brightness and joy of earthly glory and gratification, protesting to Him in the words of the Prophet Jeremias, “And I have not desired the day of man, Thou knowest,” and saying with holy David, “My soul refused to be comforted,” that is, she disdained to be brightened with the empty joys of worldly honours. Or, finally, she may have meant this: “The Sun hath darkened my colour by the contrast with His own Divine Splendour. For as I draw nigh to Him I am made more sensible of my own duskiness. I obtain a clearer knowledge of my own blackness, and I despise my ugliness. Yet in other respects I am truly beautiful. Why do you call me black, since I yield only to the Sun in loveliness?” But what follows seems to me to accord better with the interpretation of the blackness as the effect of violence. For the Spouse clearly indicates that she suffered persecution, by adding “The sons of my mother have fought against me.” But I shall take this as my text in the morrow’s discourse. To-day you must be satisfied with what you have already heard concerning the glory and by the grace of the Bridegroom of the Church, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is God, blessed for ever. Amen.


St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles, translated by a Priest of Melleray (1920)

An alternative online version is Darrell Wright, ed. St. Bernard on the Song of Songs (2008)

Gerald of Wales (c.1146-c.1223 AD)

[Wikipedia: Gerald of Wales]

On the Welsh and the Irish

From The Description of Wales

We shall now consider the nature and character of the nation.


This people is light and active, hardy rather than strong, and entirely bred up to the use of arms; for not only the nobles, but all the people are trained to war, and when the trumpet sounds the alarm, the husbandman rushes as eagerly from his plough as the courtier from his court; for here it is not found that, as in other places,

“Agricolis labor actus in orbem,”

returns; for in the months of March and April only the soil is once ploughed for oats, and again in the summer a third time, and in winter for wheat.  Almost all the people live upon the produce of their herds, with oats, milk, cheese, and butter; eating flesh in larger proportions than bread.  They pay no attention to commerce, shipping, or manufactures, and suffer no interruption but by martial exercises.  They anxiously study the defence of their country and their liberty; for these they fight, for these they undergo hardships, and for these willingly sacrifice their lives; they esteem it a disgrace to die in bed, an honour to die in the field of battle; using the poet’s expressions,—

         “Procul hinc avertite pacem,
Nobilitas cum pace perit.”

Nor is it wonderful if it degenerates, for the ancestors of these men, the Æneadæ, rushed to arms in the cause of liberty.  It is remarkable that this people, though unarmed, dares attack an armed foe; the infantry defy the cavalry, and by their activity and courage generally prove victors.  They resemble in disposition and situation those conquerors whom the poet Lucan mentions:

— —“Populi quos despicit Arctos,
Felices errore suo, quos ille timorum
Maximus haud urget leti metus, inde ruendi
In ferrum, mens prona viris, amimæque capaces,
Mortis et ignavum redituræ parsere vitæ.”

They make use of light arms, which do not impede their agility, small coats of mail, bundles of arrows, and long lances, helmets and shields, and more rarely greaves plated with iron.  The higher class go to battle mounted on swift and generous steeds, which their country produces; but the greater part of the people fight on foot, on account of the marshy nature and unevenness of the soil.  The horsemen as their situation or occasion requires, willingly serve as infantry, in attacking or retreating; and they either walk bare-footed, or make use of high shoes, roughly constructed with untanned leather.  In time of peace, the young men, by penetrating the deep recesses of the woods, and climbing the tops of mountains, learn by practice to endure fatigue through day and night; and as they meditate on war during peace, they acquire the art of fighting by accustoming themselves to the use of the lance, and by inuring themselves to hard exercise.

In our time, king Henry II., in reply to the inquiries of Emanuel, emperor of Constantinople, concerning the situation, nature, and striking peculiarities of the British island, among other remarkable circumstances mentioned the following: “That in a certain part of the island there was a people, called Welsh, so bold and ferocious that, when unarmed, they did not fear to encounter an armed force; being ready to shed their blood in defence of their country, and to sacrifice their lives for renown; which is the more surprising, as the beasts of the field over the whole face of the island became gentle, but these desperate men could not be tamed.  The wild animals, and particularly the stags and hinds, are so abundant, owing to the little molestation they receive, that in our time, in the northern parts of the island towards the Peak, when pursued by the hounds and hunters, they contributed, by their numbers, to their own destruction.”


Not addicted to gluttony or drunkenness, this people who incur no expense in food or dress, and whose minds are always bent upon the defence of their country, and on the means of plunder, are wholly employed in the care of their horses and furniture.  Accustomed to fast from morning till evening, and trusting to the care of Providence, they dedicate the whole day to business, and in the evening partake of a moderate meal; and even if they have none, or only a very scanty one, they patiently wait till the next evening; and, neither deterred by cold nor hunger, they employ the dark and stormy nights in watching the hostile motions of their enemies.


No one of this nation ever begs, for the houses of all are common to all; and they consider liberality and hospitality amongst the first virtues.  So much does hospitality here rejoice in communication, that it is neither offered nor requested by travellers, who, on entering any house, only deliver up their arms.  When water is offered to them, if they suffer their feet to be washed, they are received as guests; for the offer of water to wash the feet is with this nation an hospitable invitation.  But if they refuse the proffered service, they only wish for morning refreshment, not lodging.  The young men move about in troops and families under the direction of a chosen leader.  Attached only to arms and ease, and ever ready to stand forth in defence of their country, they have free admittance into every house as if it were their own.

Those who arrive in the morning are entertained till evening with the conversation of young women, and the music of the harp; for each house has its young women and harps allotted to this purpose.  Two circumstances here deserve notice: that as no nation labours more under the vice of jealousy than the Irish, so none is more free from it than the Welsh: and in each family the art of playing on the harp is held preferable to any other learning.  In the evening, when no more guests are expected, the meal is prepared according to the number and dignity of the persons assembled, and according to the wealth of the family who entertains.  The kitchen does not supply many dishes, nor high-seasoned incitements to eating.  The house is not furnished with tables, cloths, or napkins.  They study nature more than splendour, for which reason, the guests being seated in threes, instead of couples as elsewhere, they place the dishes before them all at once upon rushes and fresh grass, in large platters or trenchers.  They also make use of a thin and broad cake of bread, baked every day, such as in old writings was called lagana; and they sometimes add chopped meat, with broth.  Such a repast was formerly used by the noble youth, from whom this nation boasts its descent, and whose manners it still partly imitates, according to the word of the poet:

“Heu! mensas consumimus, inquit Iulus.”

While the family is engaged in waiting on the guests, the host and hostess stand up, paying unremitting attention to everything, and take no food till all the company are satisfied; that in case of any deficiency, it may fall upon them.  A bed made of rushes, and covered with a coarse kind of cloth manufactured in the country, called brychan, is then placed along the side of the room, and they all in common lie down to sleep; nor is their dress at night different from that by day, for at all seasons they defend themselves from the cold only by a thin cloak and tunic.  The fire continues to burn by night as well as by day, at their feet, and they receive much comfort from the natural heat of the persons lying near them; but when the under side begins to be tired with the hardness of the bed, or the upper one to suffer from cold, they immediately leap up, and go to the fire, which soon relieves them from both inconveniences; and then returning to their couch, they expose alternately their sides to the cold, and to the hardness of the bed.


The men and women cut their hair close round to the ears and eyes.  The women, after the manner of the Parthians, cover their heads with a large white veil, folded together in the form of a crown.

Both sexes exceed any other nation in attention to their teeth, which they render like ivory, by constantly rubbing them with green hazel and wiping with a woollen cloth.  For their better preservation, they abstain from hot meats, and eat only such as are cold, warm, or temperate.  The men shave all their beard except the moustaches (gernoboda).  This custom is not recent, but was observed in ancient and remote ages, as we find in the works of Julius Cæsar, who says,  “The Britons shave every part of their body except their head and upper lip;” and to render themselves more active, and avoid the fate of Absalon in their excursions through the woods, they are accustomed to cut even the hair from their heads; so that this nation more than any other shaves off all pilosity.  Julius also adds, that the Britons, previous to an engagement, anointed their faces with a nitrous ointment, which gave them so ghastly and shining an appearance, that the enemy could scarcely bear to look at them, particularly if the rays of the sun were reflected on them.


These people being of a sharp and acute intellect, and gifted with a rich and powerful understanding, excel in whatever studies they pursue, and are more quick and cunning than the other inhabitants of a western clime.

Their musical instruments charm and delight the ear with their sweetness, are borne along by such celerity and delicacy of modulation, producing such a consonance from the rapidity of seemingly discordant touches, that I shall briefly repeat what is set forth in our Irish Topography on the subject of the musical instruments of the three nations.  It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers, the musical proportions can be preserved, and that throughout the difficult modulations on their various instruments, the harmony is completed with such a sweet velocity, so unequal an equality, so discordant a concord, as if the chords sounded together fourths or fifths.  They always begin from B flat, and return to the same, that the whole may be completed under the sweetness of a pleasing sound.  They enter into a movement, and conclude it in so delicate a manner, and play the little notes so sportively under the blunter sounds of the base strings, enlivening with wanton levity, or communicating a deeper internal sensation of pleasure, so that the perfection of their art appears in the concealment of it:

“Si lateat, prosit;
— — ferat ars deprensa pudorem.”

“Art profits when concealed,
Disgraces when revealed.”

From this cause, those very strains which afford deep and unspeakable mental delight to those who have skilfully penetrated into the mysteries of the art, fatigue rather than gratify the ears of others, who seeing, do not perceive, and hearing, do not understand; and by whom the finest music is esteemed no better than a confused and disorderly noise, and will be heard with unwillingness and disgust.

They make use of three instruments, the harp, the pipe, and the crwth or crowd (chorus). 

They omit no part of natural rhetoric in the management of civil actions, in quickness of invention, disposition, refutation, and confirmation.  In their rhymed songs and set speeches they are so subtle and ingenious, that they produce, in their native tongue, ornaments of wonderful and exquisite invention both in the words and sentences.  Hence arise those poets whom they call Bards, of whom you will find many in this nation, endowed with the above faculty, according to the poet’s observation:

“Plurima concreti fuderunt carmina Bardi.”

But they make use of alliteration (anominatione) in preference to all other ornaments of rhetoric, and that particular kind which joins by consonancy the first letters or syllables of words.  So much do the English and Welsh nations employ this ornament of words in all exquisite composition, that no sentence is esteemed to be elegantly spoken, no oration to be otherwise than uncouth and unrefined, unless it be fully polished with the file of this figure.  Thus in the British tongue:

“Digawn Duw da i unic.”

“Wrth bob crybwyll rhaïd pwyll parawd.”

And in English,

“God is together gammen and wisedom.”

The same ornament of speech is also frequent in the Latin language.  Virgil says,

“Tales casus Cassandra canebat.”

And again, in his address to Augustus,

“Dum dubitet natura marem, faceretve puellam,
Natus es, o pulcher, pene puella, puer.”

This ornament occurs not in any language we know so frequently as in the two first; it is, indeed, surprising that the French, in other respects so ornamented, should be entirely ignorant of this verbal elegance so much adopted in other languages.  Nor can I believe that the English and Welsh, so different and adverse to each other, could designedly have agreed in the usage of this figure; but I should rather suppose that it had grown habitual to both by long custom, as it pleases the ear by a transition from similar to similar sounds.  Cicero, in his book “On Elocution,” observes of such who know the practice, not the art, “Other persons when they read good orations or poems, approve of the orators or poets, not understanding the reason why, being affected, they approve; because they cannot know in what place, of what nature, nor how that effect is caused which so highly delights them.”


In their musical concerts they do not sing in unison like the inhabitants of other countries, but in many different parts; so that in a company of singers, which one very frequently meets with in Wales, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers, who all at length unite, with organic melody, in one consonance and the soft sweetness of B flat.  In the northern district of Britain, beyond the Humber, and on the borders of Yorkshire, the inhabitants make use of the same kind of symphonious harmony, but with less variety; singing only in two parts, one murmuring in the base, the other warbling in the acute or treble.  Neither of the two nations has acquired this peculiarity by art, but by long habit, which has rendered it natural and familiar; and the practice is now so firmly rooted in them, that it is unusual to hear a simple and single melody well sung; and, what is still more wonderful, the children, even from their infancy, sing in the same manner.  As the English in general do not adopt this mode of singing, but only those of the northern countries, I believe that it was from the Danes and Norwegians, by whom these parts of the island were more frequently invaded, and held longer under their dominion, that the natives contracted their mode of singing as well as speaking.


The heads of different families, in order to excite the laughter of their guests, and gain credit by their sayings, make use of great facetiousness in their conversation; at one time uttering their jokes in a light, easy manner, at another time, under the disguise of equivocation, passing the severest censures.  For the sake of explanation I shall here subjoin a few examples.  Tegeingl is the name of a province in North Wales, over which David, son of Owen, had dominion, and which had once been in the possession of his brother.  The same word also was the name of a certain woman with whom, it was said, each brother had an intrigue, from which circumstance arose this term of reproach, “To have Tegeingl, after Tegeingl had been in possession of his brother.”

At another time, when Rhys, son of Gruffydd, prince of South Wales, accompanied by a multitude of his people, devoutly entered the church of St. David’s, previous to an intended journey, the oblations having been made, and mass solemnised, a young man came to him in the church, and publicly declared himself to be his son, threw himself at his feet, and with tears humbly requested that the truth of this assertion might be ascertained by the trial of the burning iron.  Intelligence of this circumstance being conveyed to his family and his two sons, who had just gone out of the church, a youth who was present made this remark: “This is not wonderful; some have brought gold, and others silver, as offerings; but this man, who had neither, brought what he had, namely, iron;” thus taunting him with his poverty.  On mentioning a certain house that was strongly built and almost impregnable, one of the company said, “This house indeed is strong, for if it should contain food it could never be got at,” thus alluding both to the food and to the house.  In like manner, a person, wishing to hint at the avaricious disposition of the mistress of a house, said, “I only find fault with our hostess for putting too little butter to her salt,” whereas the accessory should be put to the principal; thus, by a subtle transposition of the words, converting the accessory into the principal, by making it appear to abound in quantity.  Many similar sayings of great men and philosophers are recorded in the Saturnalia of Macrobius.  When Cicero saw his son-in-law, Lentulus, a man of small stature, with a long sword by his side: “Who,” says he, “has girded my son-in-law to that sword?” thus changing the accessary into the principal.  The same person, on seeing the half-length portrait of his brother Quintus Cicero, drawn with very large features and an immense shield, exclaimed, “Half of my brother is greater than the whole!”  When the sister of Faustus had an intrigue with a fuller, “Is it strange,” says he, “that my sister has a spot, when she is connected with a fuller?”  When Antiochus showed Hannibal his army, and the great warlike preparations he had made against the Romans, and asked him, “Thinkest thou, O Hannibal, that these are sufficient for the Romans?”  Hannibal, ridiculing the unmilitary appearance of the soldiers, wittily and severely replied, “I certainly think them sufficient for the Romans, however greedy;” Antiochus asking his opinion about the military preparations, and Hannibal alluding to them as becoming a prey to the Romans.


Nature hath given not only to the highest, but also to the inferior, classes of the people of this nation, a boldness and confidence in speaking and answering, even in the presence of their princes and chieftains.  The Romans and Franks had the same faculty; but neither the English, nor the Saxons and Germans, from whom they are descended, had it.  It is in vain urged, that this defect may arise from the state of servitude which the English endured; for the Saxons and Germans, who enjoy their liberty, have the same failing, and derive this natural coldness of disposition from the frozen region they inhabit; the English also, although placed in a distant climate, still retain the exterior fairness of complexion and inward coldness of disposition, as inseparable from their original and natural character.  The Britons, on the contrary, transplanted from the hot and parched regions of Dardania into these more temperate districts, as

“Cœlum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt,”

still retain their brown complexion and that natural warmth of temper from which their confidence is derived.  For three nations, remnants of the Greeks after the destruction of Troy, fled from Asia into different parts of Europe, the Romans under Æneas, the Franks under Antenor, and the Britons under Brutus; and from thence arose that courage, that nobleness of mind, that ancient dignity, that acuteness of understanding, and confidence of speech, for which these three nations are so highly distinguished.  But the Britons, from having been detained longer in Greece than the other two nations, after the destruction of their country, and having migrated at a later period into the western parts of Europe, retained in a greater degree the primitive words and phrases of their native language.  You will find amongst them the names Oenus, Resus, Æneas, Hector, Achilles, Heliodorus, Theodorus, Ajax, Evander, Uliex, Anianus, Elisa, Guendolena, and many others, bearing marks of their antiquity.  It is also to be observed, that almost all words in the British language correspond either with the Greek or Latin, as ὑδωζ, water, is called in British, dwr; ἁλς, salt, in British, halen; ονομα, eno, a name; πεντε, pump, five; δεκα, deg, ten.  The Latins also use the words frænum, tripos, gladius, lorica; the Britons, froyn (ffrwyn), trepet (tribedd), cleddyf, and lluric (llurig); unicus is made unic (unig); canis, can (cwn); and belua, beleu.



The Welsh esteem noble birth and generous descent above all things, and are, therefore, more desirous of marrying into noble than rich families.  Even the common people retain their genealogy, and can not only readily recount the names of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, but even refer back to the sixth or seventh generation, or beyond them, in this manner: Rhys, son of Gruffydd, son of Rhys, son of Tewdwr, son of Eineon, son of Owen, son of Howel, son of Cadell, son of Roderic Mawr, and so on.

Being particularly attached to family descent, they revenge with vehemence the injuries which may tend to the disgrace of their blood; and being naturally of a vindictive and passionate disposition, they are ever ready to avenge not only recent but ancient affronts; they neither inhabit towns, villages, nor castles, but lead a solitary life in the woods, on the borders of which they do not erect sumptuous palaces, nor lofty stone buildings, but content themselves with small huts made of the boughs of trees twisted together, constructed with little labour and expense, and sufficient to endure throughout the year.  They have neither orchards nor gardens, but gladly eat the fruit of both when given to them.  The greater part of their land is laid down to pasturage; little is cultivated, a very small quantity is ornamented with flowers, and a still smaller is sown.  They seldom yoke less than four oxen to their ploughs; the driver walks before, but backwards, and when he falls down, is frequently exposed to danger from the refractory oxen.  Instead of small sickles in mowing, they make use of a moderate-sized piece of iron formed like a knife, with two pieces of wood fixed loosely and flexibly to the head, which they think a more expeditious instrument; but since

“Segnius irritant animos demissa per aures,
Quam quæ sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus,”

their mode of using it will be better known by inspection than by any description.  The boats which they employ in fishing or in crossing the rivers are made of twigs, not oblong nor pointed, but almost round, or rather triangular, covered both within and without with raw hides.  When a salmon thrown into one of these boats strikes it hard with his tail, he often oversets it, and endangers both the vessel and its navigator.  The fishermen, according to the custom of the country, in going to and from the rivers, carry these boats on their shoulders; on which occasion that famous dealer in fables, Bleddercus, who lived a little before our time, thus mysteriously said: “There is amongst us a people who, when they go out in search of prey, carry their horses on their backs to the place of plunder; in order to catch their prey, they leap upon their horses, and when it is taken, carry their horses home again upon their shoulders.”


Gerald of Wales, The Description of Wales (J.M. Dent 1912)

See also Georgia, Henley, "Through the Ethnographer’s Eyes: Rhetoric, Ethnicity and Quotation in the Welsh and Irish Works of Gerald of Wales," CSANA Yearbook: Rhetoric and Reality: Studies in Medieval Celtic Literature in Honor of Daniel F. Melia 11-12 (2014), :63-74.


From the Topography of Ireland III: 10

"I have considered it not superfluous to give a short account of the condition of this nation, both bodily and mentally; I mean their state of cultivation, both interior and exterior. This people are not tenderly nursed from their birth, as others are; for besides the rude fare they receive from their parents, which is only just sufficient for their sustenance, as to the rest, almost all is left to nature. They are not placed in cradles, or swathed, nor are their tender limbs either formented by constant bathings, or adjusted with art. For the midwives make no use of warm water, nor raise their noses, nor depress the face, nor stretch the legs; but nature alone, with very slight aids from art, disposes and adjusts the limbs to which she has given birth just as she pleases. As if to prove that what she is able to form, she does not cease to shape also, she gives growth and proportions to these people, until they arrive at perfect vigour, tall and handsome in person, and with agreeable and ruddy countenances. But although they are richly endowed with the gifts of nature, their want of civilisation, shown both in their dress and mental culture makes them a barbarous people. For they wear but little woollen, and nearly all they use is black, that being the colour of the sheep in all this country. Their clothes are also made after a barbarous fashion.

Their custom is to wear small, close-fitting hoods, hanging below the shoulders a cubit's length, and generally made of parti-coloured strips sewn together. Under these, they use woollen rugs instead of cloaks, with breeches and hose of one piece or hose and breeches joined together, which are usually dyed of some colour. Likewise, in riding, they neither use saddles, nor boots, nor spurs, but only carry a rod in their hand, having a crook at the upper end, with which they both urge forward and guide their horses. They use reins which serve the purpose both of a bridle and a bit, and do not prevent the horses from feeding, as they always live on grass. Moreover, they go into battle without armour, considering it a burthen (burden) and esteeming it brave and honourable to fight without it.

But, they are armed with three kinds of weapons: namely, short spears and two darts; in which they follow the customs of the Basclenses (Basques); and they also carry heavy battle axes of iron, exceedingly well-wrought and tempered. These they borrowed from the Norwegians and Ostmen of when we shall speak hereafter. But in striking with the battle-axe they use only one hand, instead of both, clasping the haft firmly, and raising it above the head, so as to direct the blow with such force that neither the helmets which protect our head, nor the platting of the coat of mail which defends the rest of our bodies, can resist the stroke. Thus, it has happened in my own time, that one blow of the axe has cut off a knight's thigh, although it was encased in iron, the thigh and leg falling on one side of his horse, and the body of the dying horseman on the other. When other weapons fail, they hurl stones against the enemy in battle with such quickness and dexterity, that they do more execution than the slingers of any other nation.

The Irish are a rude people, subsisting on the produce of their cattle only, and living themselves like beasts – a people that has not yet departed from the primitive habits of pastoral life. In the common course of things, mankind progresses from the forest to the field, from the field to the town and to the social conditions of citizens; but this nation, holding agricultural labour in contempt, and little coveting the wealth of towns, as well as being exceedingly averse to civil institutions – lead the same life their fathers did in the woods and open pastures, neither willing to abandon their old habits or learn anything new. They, therefore, only make patches of tillage; their pastures are short of herbage; cultivation is very rare and there is scarcely any land sown. This want of tilled fields arises from the neglect of those who should cultivate them; for theirs are large tracts which are naturally fertile and productive. The whole habits of the people are contrary to agricultural pursuits, so that the rich glebe is barren for want of husbandmen, the fields demanding labour which is not forthcoming.


This people then, is truly barbarous, being not only barbarous in their dress but suffering their hair and beards to grow enormously in an uncouth manner, just like the modern fashion recently introduced; indeed, all their habits are barbarisms. But habits are formed by mutual intercourse; and as these people inhabit a country so remote from the rest of the world and lying at its furthest extremity, forming is it were, another world, and are thus excluded from civilised nations, they learn nothing and practise nothing, but the barbarism in which they are born and bred and which sticks to them like a second nature. Whatever natural gifts they possess are excellent, in whatever requires industry they are worthless".


Giraldus Cambrensis, The Topography of Ireland, translated by Thomas Forester, revised and edited with additional notes by Thomas Wright (London, 1905) [Internet Archive back up here] or

Judah Halevi (c.1075-1141 CE)

[Wikipedia: Judah Halevi]

On the Israelites from The Kuzari

25. The Rabbi: In this way I answered thy first question. In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him:'The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,' viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: 'The God of heaven and earth,' nor 'my Creator and thine sent me.' In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel:'I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,' but He did not say:'I am the Creator of the world and your Creator. Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these, things. first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.

26. Al Khazari: If this be so, then your belief is confined to yourselves?

27. The Rabbi: Yes, but any Gentile who joins us unconditionally shares our good fortune without, however, being quite equal to us. If the Law were binding on us only because God created us, the white and the black man would be equal, since He created them all. But the Law was given to us because He led us out of Egypt, and remained attached to us, because we are the cream of mankind.


57. The Rabbi: Didst thou ever hear of a nation which possessed different traditions with regard to the generally acknowledged week which begins with the Sunday and ends with the Sabbath? How is it possible that the people of China could agree with those of the western islands without common beginning, agreement and convention?

58. Al Khazari: Such a thing would only have been possible if they had all come to an agreement This, however, is improbable, unless all men are the descendants of Adam, of Noah, or of some other ancestor from whom they received the hebdomadal calculation.

59. The Rabbi: That is what I meant. East and West agree on the decimal system. What instinct induced them to keep to the number ten, unless it was a tradition handed down by the first one who did so?

60. Al Khazari: Does it not weaken thy belief if thou art told that the Indians have antiquities and buildings which they consider to be millions of years old?

61. The Rabbi: It would, indeed, weaken my belief had they a fixed form of religion, or a book concerning which a multitude of people held the same opinion, and in which no historical discrepancy could be found. Such a book, however, does not exist. Apart from this, they are a dissolute, unreliable people, and arouse the indignation of the followers of religions through their talk, whilst they anger them with their idols, talismans, and witchcraft. To such things they pin their faith, and deride those who boast of the possession of a divine book. Yet they only possess a few books, and these were written to mislead the weak-minded. To this class belong astrological writings, in which they speak of ten thousands of years, as the book on the Nabataean Agriculture, in which are mentioned the names of Janbushar, Sagrit and Roanai. It is believed that they lived before Adam, who was the disciple of Janbushar, and such like.

62. Al Khazari: If I had supported my arguments by reference to a negro people, i.e. a people not united upon a common law, thy answer would have been correct. Now what is thy opinion of the philosophers who, as the result of their careful researches, agree that the world is without beginning, and here it does not concern tens of thousands, and not millions, but unlimited numbers of years.

63. The Rabbi: There is an excuse for the Philosophers. Being Grecians, science and religion did not come to them as inheritances. They belong to the descendants of Japheth, who inhabited the north, whilst that knowledge coming from Adam, and supported by the divine influence, is only to be found among the progeny of Shem, who represented the successors of Noah and constituted, as it were, his essence. This knowledge has always been connected with this essence, and will always remain so. The Greeks only received it when they became powerful, from Persia. The Persians had it from the Chaldaeans. It was only then that the famous [Greek] Philosophers arose, but as soon as Rome assumed political leadership they produced no philosopher worthy the name.

64. Al Khazari: Does this mean that Aristotle's philosophy is not deserving of credence?

65. The Rabbi: Certainly. He exerted his mind, because he had no tradition from any reliable source at his disposal. He meditated on the beginning and end of the world, but found as much difficulty in the theory of a beginning as in that of eternity. Finally, these abstract speculations which made for eternity, prevailed, and he found no reason to inquire into the chronology or derivation of those who lived before him. Had he lived among a people with well authenticated and generally acknowledged traditions, he would have applied his deductions and arguments to establish the theory of creation, however difficult. instead of eternity, which is even much more difficult to accept.


94. Al Khazari: This is what makes thee tedious and makes thee appear partial to thy people. What sin could be greater than this, and what deed could have exceeded this?

95. The Rabbi: Bear with me a little while that I show the lofty station of the people. For me it is sufficient that God chose them as His people from all nations of the world, and allowed His influence to rest on all of them, and that they nearly approached being addressed by Him. It even descended on their women, among whom were prophetesses, whilst since Adam only isolated individuals had been inspired till then. Adam was perfection itself, because no flaw could be found in a work of a wise and Almighty Creator, wrought from a substance chosen by Him, and fashioned according to His own design. There was no restraining influence, no fear of atavism, no question of nutrition or education during the years of childhood and growth; neither was there the influence of climate, water, or soil to consider. For He created him in the form of an adolescent, perfect in body and mind. The soul with which he was endowed was perfect; his intellect was the loftiest which it is possible for a human being to possess, and beyond this he was gifted with the divine power of such high rank, that it brought him into connexion with beings divine and spiritual, and enabled him, with slight reflection, to comprehend the great truths without instruction. We call him God's son, and we call all those who were like him also sons of God. He left many children, of whom the only one capable of taking his place was Abel, because he alone was like him. After he had been slain by Cain through jealousy of this privilege, it passed to his brother Seth, who also was like Adam, being [as it were] his essence and heart, whilst the others were like husks and rotten fruit. The essence of Seth, then, passed to Enoch, and in this way the divine influence was inherited by isolated individuals down to Noah. They are compared to the heart ; they resembled Adam, and were styled sons of God. They were perfect outwardly and inwardly, their lives, knowledge and ability being likewise faultless. Their lives fix the chronology from Adam to Noah, as well as from Noah to Abraham. There were some, however, among them who did not come under divine influence, as Terah, but his son Abraham was the disciple of his grandfather Eber, and was born in the lifetime of Noah. Thus the divine spirit descended from the grandfather to the grandchildren. Abraham represented the essence of Eber, being his disciple, and for this reason he was called Ibri. Eber represented the essence of Shem, the latter that of Noah. He inherited the temperate zone, the centre and principal pare of which is Palestine, the land of prophecy. Japheth turned towards north, and Ham towards south. The essence of Abraham passed over to Isaac, to the exclusion of the other sons who were all removed from the land, the special inheritance of Isaac. The prerogative of Isaac descended on Jacob, whilst Esau was sent from the land which belonged to Jacob. The sons of the latter were all worthy of the divine influence, as well as of the country distinguished by the divine spirit. This is the first instance of the divine influence descending on a number of people, whereas it had previously only been vouchsafed to isolated individuals. Then God tended them in Egypt, multiplied and aggrandised them, as a tree with a sound root grows until it produces perfect fruit, resembling the first fruit from which it was planted, viz. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his brethren. The seed further produced Moses, Aaron and Miriam, Bezaleel, Oholiab, and the chiefs of the tribes, the seventy Elders, who were all endowed with the spirit of prophecy; then Joshua, Kaleb, Hur, and many others. Then they became worthy of having the divine light and providence made visible to them. If disobedient men existed among them, they were hated, but remained, without doubt, of the essence inasmuch as they were part of it on account of their descent and nature, and begat children who were of the same stamp. An ungodly man received consideration in proportion to the minuteness of the essence with which he was endowed, for it reappeared in his children and grandchildren according to the purity of their lineage. This is how we regard Terah and others in whom the divine afflatus was not visible, though, to a certain extent, it underlay his natural disposition, so that he begat a descendant filled with the essence, which was not the case with all the posterity of Ham and Japhet. We perceive a similar phenomenon in nature at large. Many people do not resemble their father, but take after their grandfathers. There cannot, consequently, be any doubt that this nature and resemblance was hidden in the father, although it did not become visible outwardly, as was the nature of Eber in his children, until it reappeared in Abraham.

96. Al Khazari : This is the true greatness, which descended direct from Adam. He was the noblest creature on earth. Therefore you rank above all the other inhabitants of the earth. But what of this privilege at the time when that sin was committed ?

97. The Rabbi: All nations were given to idolatry at that time. Even had they been philosophers, discoursing on the unity and government of God, they would have been unable to dispense with images, and would have taught the masses that a divine influence hovered over this image, which was distinguished by some miraculous feature. Some of them ascribed this to God, even as we to-day treat some particular spots with reverence, going so far as to believe ourselves blessed by their dust and stones. Others ascribed it to the spiritual influence of some star or constellation, or of a talisman, or to other things of that kind. The people did not pay so much attention to a single law as to a tangible image in which they believed. The Israelites had been promised that something visible would descend on them from God which they could follow, as they followed the pillars of cloud and fire when they departed from Egypt. This they pointed out, and turned to it, praising it, and worshipping God in its presence. Thus they also turned towards the cloud which hovered over Moses while God spake with him; they remained standing and adoring God opposite to it. Now when the people had heard the proclamation of the Ten Commandments, and Moses had ascended the mount in order to receive the inscribed tables which he was to bring down to them, and then make an ark which was to be the point towards which they should direct their gaze during their devotions,* they waited for his return clad in the same apparel in which they had witnessed the drama on Sinai. without removing their jewels or changing their clothes, remaining just as he left them, expecting every moment to see him return. He, however, tarried forty days, although he had not provided himself with food, having only left them with the intention of returning the same day. An evil spirit overpowered a portion of the people, and they began to divide into parties and factions. Many views and opinions were expressed, till at last some decided to do like the other nations, and seek an object in which they could have faith, without, however, prejudicing the supremacy of Him who had brought them out of Egypt. On the contrary, this was to be something to which they could point when relating the wonders of God, as the Philistines did with the ark when they said that God dwelt within it. We do the same with the sky and every other object concerning which we know that it is set in motion by the divine will exclusively, and not by any accident or desire of man or nature. Their sin consisted in the manufacture of an image of a forbidden thing, and in attributing divine power to a creation of their own, something chosen by themselves without the guidance of God. Some excuse may be found for them in the dissension which had broken out among them, and in the fact that out of six hundred thousand souls the number of those who worshiped the calf was below three thousand. For those of higher station who assisted in making it an excuse, might. be found in the fact that they wished to clearly separate the disobedient from the pious, in order to slay those who would worship the calf. On the other hand, they sinned in causing what was only a sin of intention to become a sin in deed. This sin was not on a par with an entire lapse from all obedience to Him who had led them out of Egypt, as only one of His commands was violated by them. God had forbidden images, and in spite of this they made one. They should have waited and not have assumed power, have arranged a place of worship, an altar, and sacrifices. This had been done by the advice of the astrologers and magicians among them, who were of opinion that their actions based on their ideas would be more correct than the true ones. They resembled the fool of whom we spoke, who entered the surgery of a physician and dealt out death instead of healing to those who came there. At the same time the people did not intend to give up their allegiance to God. On the contrary, they were, in theory, more zealous in their devotion. They therefore approached Aaron, and he, desiring to make their plan public, assisted them in their undertaking. For this reason he is to be blamed for changing their theoretical disobedience into a reality. The whole affair is repulsive to us, because in this age the majority of nations have abandoned the worship of images. It appeared less objectionable at that time, because all nations were then idolators. Had their sin consisted in constructing a house of worship of their own, and making a place of prayer, offering and veneration, the matter would not have been so grave, because nowadays we also build our houses of worship, hold them in great respect, and seek blessing through their means. We even say that God dwells in them, and that they are surrounded by angels. If this mere not essential for the gathering of our community, it would be as unknown as it was at the time of the kings, when the people were forbidden to erect places of worship, called heights. The pious kings destroyed them, lest they be venerated beside the house chosen by God in which He was to be worshiped according to His own ordinances. There was nothing strange in the form of the cherubim made by His command. In spite of these things, those who worshiped the calf were punished on the same day, and three thousand out of six hundred thousand were slain. The Manna, however, did not cease falling for their maintenance, nor the cloud to give them shade, nor the pillar of fire to guide them. Prophecy continued spreading and increasing among them, and nothing that had been granted was taken from them, except the two tables, which Moses broke. But then he pleaded for their restoration; they were restored, and the sin was forgiven.

    [* editor's note: In the original, a clause is inserted which I place here in order to facilitate the reading: In this was the divine covenant and God's last creation, the tablets. To it also belonged the cloud, the Urim, and all miracles by its instrumentality]

98. Al Khazari: The theory I had formed, and the opinion of what I saw in my dream thou now confirmest, viz. that man can only merit divine influence by acting according to God's commands And even were it not so, most men strive to obtain it, even astrologers, magicians, fire and sun worshippers, dualists, etc.

99.The Rabbi: Thou art right. Our laws were written in the Torah by Moses, who had them direct from God, and handed them down to the masses assembled in the desert. There was no necessity to quote any older authority with regard to the single chapters and verses, nor with regard to the description of sacrifices, where and in what manner they were to be offered up, and what was to be done with the blood and the limbs, etc. Everything was clearly stated by God, as the smallest matter missing would interfere with the completeness of the whole thing. It is here, as in the formations of nature, which are composed of such minute elements that they defy perception, and if their mutual relation suffered the smallest change, the whole formation would be damaged, that plant or animal, or limb, would be imperfect and nonexisting. In the same manner the law prescribes how the sacrificed animal should be dismembered, and what should be done with each limb, what should be eaten and what burnt, who should eat and who burn, and which section of priests should have the charge of offering it up, and which dared not. Il also prescribed in what condition those who brought the offerings must be, so that they should be faultless, both as regards appearance and apparel, especially the High Priest, who had the privilege of entering the place of Divinity which enclosed God's glory, the ark and the Torah. To this are attached the rules for cleanliness and purity, and the various grades of purification, sanctification, and prayer, the description of which would lead us too far. In all these matters they had to rely on the reading of the Torah, combined with the traditions of the Rabbis, based on God's communications to Moses. In the same manner the form of the Tabernacle was shown to Moses on the mountain, viz. the tabernacle, the interior, the candlestick, the ark, and the surrounding court, with its pillars, coverings, and all appurtenances, were caused by God to appear to him in their real shape, in the form in which He commanded to have them executed. In the same way was the temple of Solomon built according to the model revealed to David. 80 also mill the last sanctuary promised us be shaped and arranged according to the details seen by the prophet Ezekiel. In the service of God there is no arguing reasoning, and debating Had this been possible, philosophers with their wisdom and acumen would have achieved even more than Israel.

100. Al Khazari: Thus the human mind can accept the Law cheerfully and unhesitatingly, without doubting that a prophet would come to the oppressed and enslaved people, and promise them that they would at an appointed time, thus and without delay, be delivered from bondage Moses led them to Palestine against seven nations, each of which was stronger than they were, assigned to each tribe its portion of the land before they reached it. All this was accomplished in the shortest space of time, and accompanied by miraculous events. This proves the omnipotence of the Sender as well as the greatness of the Messenger, and the high station of those who alone received this message. Had he said: 'I was sent to guide the whole world in the right path,' and would only have partially fulfilled his task, his message would have been deficient, since the divine will would not have been carried out completely. The perfection of his work was marred by the fact that his book was written in Hebrew, which made it unintelligible to the peoples of Sind, India, and Khazar. They would, therefore, be unable to practise his laws till some centuries had elapsed, or they had been prepared for it by changes of conquest, or alliance, but not through the revelation of that prophet himself, or of another who would stand up for him, and testify to his law.

101. The Rabbi: Moses invited only his people and those of his own tongue to accept his lam, whilst God promised that there should at all times be prophets to expound his law. This He did so long as they found favour in His sight, and His presence was with them.

102. Al Khazari: Would it not have been better or more commensurate with divine wisdom, if all mankind had been guided in the true path?

103. The Rabbi: Or would it not have been best for all animals to have been reasonable beings z Thou base, apparently, forgotten what we said previously concerning the genealogy of Adam's progeny, and how the spirit of divine prophecy rested on one person, who was chosen from his brethren, and the essence of his father. It was he in whom this divine light was concentrated. He was the kernel, whilst the others were as shells which had no share in it. The sons of Jacob were, however, distinguished from other people by godly qualities, which made them, so to speak, an angelic caste. Each of them, being permeated by the divine essence, endeavoured to attain the degree of prophecy, and most of them succeeded in so doing. Those who were not successful strove to approach it by means of pious acts, sanctity, purity, and intercourse with prophets. Know that he who converses with a prophet experiences spiritualization during the time he listens to his oration. He differs from his own kind in the purity of soul, in a yearning for the [higher] degrees and attachment to the qualities of meekness and purity. This was a manifest proof to them, and a clear and convincing sign of reward hereafter. For the only result to be expected from this is that the human soul becomes divine. being detached from material senses, joining the highest world, and enjoying the vision of the divine light, and hearing the divine speech. Such a soul is safe from death, even after its physical organs hare perished If thou, then, findest a religion the knowledge and practice of which assists in the attainment of this degree, at the place pointed out and with the conditions laid down by it, this is beyond doubt the religion which insures the immortality of the soul after the demise of the body.


See also the discussion of Halevi in S.J. Pearce, "The Inquisitor and the Moseret: The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages and the New English Colonialism in Jewish Historiography," Medieval Encounters 26 (2020), 145-190. or

Al-Dimashqi (d. 1327 CE)

[Wikipedia: Al-Dimashqi]

A 14th cent Syrian geographer

On the Equatorial Region

The equatorial region is inhabited by communities of Blacks who are to be numbered among the savages and beasts. Their complexions and hair are burnt and they are physically and morally deviant. Their brains almost boil from the sun’s excessive heat…… The human being who dwells there is a crude fellow, with a very black complexion, burnt hair, unruly, with stinking sweat, and an abnormal constitution, most closely resembling in his moral qualities a savage, or animals. He cannot dwell in the 2nd zone, let alone the 3rd and 4th, just as the people of the 1st zone live not in the 6th, nor those of the 6th in the 1st, or the equatorial region, because of the difference in the quality of the air and the heat of the sun. God knows best!


We shall now give an account of what has been said about the inhabitants of the seven zones in regard to their physique and their moral qualities, and the reasons for this. The 1st zone is from the equator, extending to what lies beyond it and behind it. It contains the following nations: the Zanj, the Süd!n, the ˘abasha, the Nüba, etc. Their blackness is due to the sun . . . Since its heat is extreme and it rises over them and is directly over their heads twice in a year, and remains close to them, it gives them a burning heat, and their hair, pursuant to the natural processes, becomes jet-black, curly and peppercorn-like, closely resembling hair that has been brought close to a fire until it has become scorched. The most convincing proof that it is scorched is that it does not grow any longer. Their skins are hairless and smooth, since the sun cleans the filth from their bodies and draws it out. Their brains have little humidity for similar reasons and hence their intelligence is dim, their thoughts are not sustained, and their minds are inflexible, so that opposites, such a good faith and deceit, honesty and treachery, do not coexist among them. No divinely revealed laws have been found among them, nor has any divine messenger been sent among them, for they are incapable of handling opposites together, whereas divine laws consist of commanding and forbidding, and creating desire and fear. The moral characteristics found in their belief systems are close to the instincts found naturally in animals, which require no learning to bring them out of the realm of potentiality into that of reality, like the braveness to be found in a lion, and the cunning in a fox.


John Hunwick, "Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery," West Africa, Islam, and the Arab world: studies in honor of Basil Davidson (2006), 75-90 [Internet Archive backup here]

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 CE)

On Black People

[Wikiepedia: Ibn Khaldun]

From The Muqaddimah

We have seen that Negroes are in general characterized by levity, excitability, and great emotionalism. They are found eager to dance whenever they hear a melody. They are everywhere described as stupid. . . . Beyond [the Sahel] to the south there is no civilization in the proper sense. There are only humans who are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings. They live in thickets and caves, and eat herbs and unprepared grain. They frequently eat each other. They cannot be considered human beings.


Therefore, the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.


The inhabitants of the zones that are far from temperate, such as the 1st, 2nd, 6th and 7th, are also farther removed from being temperate in all their conditions. Their buildings are of clay and reeds, their foodstuffs are sorghum and herbs. Their clothing is the leaves of trees which they sew together to cover themselves, or animal skins. Most of them go naked. The fruits and seasonings of their countries are strange and inclined to be intemperate. In their business dealings they do not use the two noble metals [silver and gold], but copper, iron, or skins, upon which they set a value for the purpose of business dealings. Their qualities of character, moreover, are close to those of dumb animals. It has even been reported that the Negroes of the first zone dwell in caves and thickets, eat herbs, live in savage isolation, a do not congregate, and eat each other. The same applies to the Slavs[i.e. northern Europeans in general] . The reason for this is that their remoteness from being temperate produces in them a disposition and character similar to those of dumb animals, and they become correspondingly remote from humanity.


The inhabitants of the middle zones are temperate [i.e. wellbalanced] in their physiques and character and in their ways of life. They have all the natural conditions necessary for a civilized life, such as ways of making a living, dwellings, crafts, sciences, political leadership, and royal authority. Thus they have [the various manifestations of] prophecy, religious groups, dynasties, religious laws, sciences, countries, cities, buildings, horticulture, splendid crafts, and everything else that is well balanced.


John Hunwick, "Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery," West Africa, Islam, and the Arab world: studies in honor of Basil Davidson (2006), 75-90 [Internet Archive backup here]

Adayshia Johnson, “Ibn Khaldun’s Views on Race: Influences by Early Life/Childhood, Climate, Geography, and Geographic Segmentation,” The Macksey Journal 3, Article 95 (2022)

Moses E. Ochonu, "Slavery, Theology, and Anti-Blackness in the Arab World A Literature Review," Research Africa Reviews 1 (2021) [Internet Archive backup here]

See also Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah full text, trans. by Franz Rosenthal [At Muslim Philosophy] [Internet Archive version here]

Arab Slave Market Reports

On the distinction between 'abd (Black) and mamluk (white) slaves in Arab slave markets



Jacobus de Voragine (c.1230-1298 AD)

[Wikipedia: Jacobus de Voragine; Wikipedia: Golden Legend]

Race in the Golden Legend

A Miracle Story of St Cosmas and Damian

Felix, the eighth pope after S. Gregory, did do make a noble church at Rome of the saints Cosmo and Damian, and there was a man which served devoutly the holy martyrs in that church, who a canker had consumed all his thigh. And as he slept, the holy martyrs Cosmo and Damian, appeared to him their devout servant, bringing with them an instrument and ointment of whom that one said to that other: Where shall we have flesh when we have cut away the rotten flesh to fill the void place? Then that other said to him: There is an Ethiopian that this day is buried in the churchyard of S. Peter ad Vincula, which is yet fresh, let us bear this thither, and take we out of that morian's flesh and fill this place withal. And so they fetched the thigh of the sick man and so changed that one for that other. And when the sick man awoke and felt no pain, he put forth his hand and felt his leg without hurt, and then took a candle, and saw well that it was not his thigh, but that it was another. And when he was well come to himself, he sprang out of his bed for joy, and recounted to all the people how it was happed to him, and that which he had seen in his sleep, and how he was healed. And they sent hastily to the tomb of the dead man, and found the thigh of him cut off, and that other thigh in the tomb instead of his. Then let us pray unto these holy martyrs to be our succour and help in all our hurts, blechures and sores, and that by their merits after this life we may come to everlasting bliss in heaven. Amen.


See reference and discussion by Micah James Goodrich, "Visual and textual depiction of violence against a Black body." Synapsis (2020) [Internet Archive backup here]

The King of Tars (c. 1330 AD)

[Wikipedia: The King of Tars]

This is a long text, so links to versions at other internet sites are give.

It is of interest because the plot focuses on a Christian princess who is marries the Sultan of Damascus to preserve he father's kingdom. Although she conforms to Islam, she remains a Christian. When their "mixed" child is born without a face or arms and legs, the princess has the child baptised and the child is cured. At that the Sultan converts to Christianity.

[Line 907]

And when there was daylight
the powerful Sultan began to
get up from where he lay.
He made his way to the priest
and helped him in every way he could
that pertained to his role.
And when the priest had then
prepared everything that appertained to this
in every way, the Sultan willingly
took off all his clothes
to receive his baptism.

The Christian priest was called Cleophas;
he named the Sultan of Damascus
after his own name.
His skin, that was black and hideous,
became entirely white through God's grace,
and pure, without sin.
And when the Sultan saw that sight
he believed well in God almighty;
his worry turned to joy.
And when the priest had said everything
and put holy water upon him,
they went together to the chamber.

When he arrived where the lady lay,
"look, lady", he began to say,
"for certain, your God is trustworthy".
The lady thanked God that day;
she wept for joy with her grey eyes —
she hardly recognised her husband.
Then she knew well in her heart
that he did not believe in Mahoun at all,
because his colour had changed.
Because her husband had been christened thus
all her mistery had gone away —
her joy began to grow again


Excerpt from The King of Tars, translated by Alaric Hall [Internet Archive backup here]

Original text: The King of Tars, by: John H. Chandler (Editor) (2015) TEAMS/University of Rochester [Internet Archive backup here]

See Also The King of Tars | Þe king of Tars, Stanford Global Medieval Sourceboo] [Internet Archive backup here]

Toledo Degree on Limpezia del Sangre 1449 AD

Sentencia-Estatuto de Toledo, 1449

[Wikipedia: Limpezia de Sangre]

The first legislation on limpezia del sangre (purity of blood)

Sentencia-Estatuto de Toledo, 1449, trans Kenneth Baxter Wolf

This text, from Toledo in 1449, is the earliest known reference to Jewish blood, as opposed to Jewish beliefs and rituals (judaizing), being held against Christian conversos in Spain. The underlying issue seems to have been fears on the part of the "old Christian" ruling class in Toledo that there power was threatened by the rise of the "new Christians," the descendants of Jewish converts to Christianity who, for the most part, had been forcibly baptized during the infamous progroms of 1391.

We, Pedro Sarmiento, head repostero (1) of our lord the king (2)...and head mayor of the very noble and loyal city of Toledo, along with the mayors, constables, knights, squires, citizens and common people of the said city of Toledo, proclaim and declare that, in as much as it is well known through civil and canon law that conversos (3) of Jewish lineage, being suspect in the faith of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, frequently belittle it by judaizing, they shall not be allowed to hold office or benefices public or private through which they might cause harm, aggravation, or bad treatment to good old Christians (Christianos viejos lindos), nor shall they be able to act as witnesses against them….

In as much as it has been shown that a large portion of the city’s conversos descending from the Jewish line are persons very suspect in the holy Catholic faith; that they hold and believe great errors against the articles of the holy Catholic faith; that they keep the rites and ceremonies of the old law; that they say and affirm that our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ was man of their lineage who was killed and whom the Christians worship as God; that they say that there is both a god and a goddess (4) in heaven; and in as much as, on holy Thursday (5)--while the holy oil and chrism is being consecrated in the church of Toledo and the body of our Redeemer is being placed on the altar—the said conversos slaughter lambs and eat them and make other kinds of holocausts and sacrifices, thus judaizing…;

And in as much as the said conversos live and act without fear of God and have shown and still show themselves to be enemies of the said city and of the old Christians living in it; and in as much as at their solicitation a royal tax was placed on the said city by the constable don Alvaro de Luna (6) and his followers and allies--our enemies--who waged cruel war armed with blood and fire, inflicting slaughter, damage, and theft on us, as if they were Moors, enemies of the Christian faith; wars, damages and evils which the Jews, enemies of our holy Catholic faith from the time of the passion of our Savior Jesus Christ have always caused; which, according to the old chronicles--when this city was surrounded by our enemies the Moors under Tariq (7) their leader, after the death of King Roderic (8)--the Jews who lived in Toledo at the time also did, making a treaty and selling the said city and its Christians and letting the Moors enter, after which 306 Old Christians of the city were put to the sword and more than 106, men and women, young and old, who were taken from the cathedral and from the church of the Santa Leocadia, and carried off into captivity as prisoners;

And because the said conversos descended from Jews have through great deceit taken and robbed great and innumerable quantities of maravedis and silver from our lord the king and from his rents and rights and taxes, and have destroyed and ruined many noble ladies, knights and hidalgos; and because they have oppressed, destroyed and robbed all the most ancient houses of the “Old Christians” of this city and of all the realms of Castile, as is well known; and in as much as during the time that they held public offices in this city and its environs, the greater part of the city was depopulated and destroyed and the land and places of the city lost and alienated, since they took all the maravedis in the form of rent and interest, to such an extent that all the goods and honors of the countryside were consumed and destroyed, becoming lords to destroy the holy Catholic faith and the Old believing Christians in it; and in confirmation of this it is known that the said conversos of this city a short time ago rose up and armed themselves and set out to destroy all the “Old Christians” and me, the said Pedro Sarmiento, throwing us out of the city and handing it over to our enemies....; (9)

Therefore we find that we ought to declare and do declare that all the said conversos descended from the perverse line of the Jews, in whatever situation they may be..., be held as incapable and unworthy to hold public or private office in the said city of Toledo and in its lands, by means of which they would be able to hold lordship over Old Christians believing in the holy Catholic faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ and cause damage, injury, and to be incapable and unworthy of giving testimony and faith as public notaries or as witnesses…

Notes by translator:

1 The repostero, in any noble household, was traditionally the one responsible for the dining implements. Here we can assume that it was a largely honorific title.

2 Juan II (1406-54).

3 Converso is the usual Castilian term for a Jewish convert to Christianity.

4. A concept connected to the cabalist movement within medieval Iberian Judaism. The idea of a female counterpart to God—known as Shekhina—may have been influenced by Latin Christian devotion of Mary which intensified in the twelfth century.

5 The Thursday before Easter, a day of fasting for Christians.

6 The royal favorite for most of Juan’s reign, Alvaro de Luna essentially ruled Castilla with only minor interruptions from 1420 until his execution in 1453. Faced with heavy opposition from Aragón, Alvaro visited Toledo in January, 1449, and imposed a tax on the citizens to support his war effort. A converso merchant named Alonso Cota worked with him to secure the funding, thus becoming the focus of “Old Christian” hostility.

7 Tariq ibn Ziyad, the first of the Muslim invaders of Spain in 711.

8 The last of the Visigothic Christian kings of Spain, apparently killed in the pivotal battle against Tariq near Arcos de la Frontera.

9 A reference to the struggles within Toledo, with the “Old Christians” generally opposing Alvaro de Luna and the conversos supporting him. Once the constable had withdrawn from the city, the “Old Christians” acted quickly to restrict converso access to power in the city government.


Sentencia-Estatuto de Toledo, 1449 translated from the Spanish by Kenneth Baxter Wolf [Internet Archive backup here] [Aso at] [Not: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.]

Bearn Laws against the Cagots c. 1500

[Wikipedia: Cagot]

Mandating discrimination against the Cagots, a racialised people of southwestern France.

The church ritual excluding them.

"The Cagots lived like outcasts and and were struck by taboos. There were a considerable number of prohibitions dictated by superstition weighed on them: some were oral, but others were transcribed in the "fors" (laws) of Navarre and Béarn of the 13th and 14th centuries.

When a Cagot was recognized and the decision to proscribe him taken, he was torn from its family andt was covered with a mortuary sheet. The head of the parish came to take him in procession, led him to the church, where he was placed in a chapel to hear the prayers of the dead and receive sprinklings, before being led to the house he was to occupy. 'As he arrived at the door, above which was placed a small bell surmounted by a cross, the <Cagot>, before stripping himself of his habit, knelt down, the priest made a touching speech, then exhorted him to patience and reminded him of the tribulations of Jesus Christ, and indicated tohim, above his head, ready to receive him, heaven, the abode of those who were afflicted on earth. The patient then took off his clothes, put on his "ladre tartarelle", took his ratchet so that in future everyone would have to flee before him. Then the priest, in a loud voice, informed him, in these terms, of the prohibitions prescribed by the ritual:

I forbid you to go out without your filthy coat.
I forbid you to go out barefoot.
I forbid you to go through the narrow streets.
I forbid you to talk to anyone when he's downwind.
I forbid you to go to any church, to any mountain, to any fair, to any market, to any gathering of men.
I forbid you to drink and wash your hands, either in a fountain or in a river.
I forbid you to handle any merchandise before you have bought it.
I forbid you to touch the children. 
I forbid you to give them anything.
Finally, I forbid you to live with any woman other than your own. 


This formula is translated from Wikipedia (French) Cagot. Source given Amans-Alexis Montel, Histoire des Français des divers états au cours des cinq derniers siècles, (Paris, Janet et Cotelle, 1833)

See also Jorge Álvarez, "Agotes, the mysterious cursed race of the Basque-Navarrese Pyrenees," (2019) [Interent Archive backup here]

William Dunbar (1459/60-bef.1530 AD)

[Wikipedia: William Dunbar]

William Dunbar - Of ane black moor’

Text of the original poem.

71. Of a Black Moor
[My ladye with the mekle lippis]

Lang heff I maed of ladyes quhytt,
Nou of an blak I will indytt
That landet furth of the last schippis.
Quhou fain wald I descryve perfytt
My ladye with the mekle lippis.

Quhou schou is tute mowitt lyk an aep,
And lyk a gangarall onto graep,
And quhou hir schort catt nois up skippis,
And quhou schou schynes lyk ony saep,
My ladye with the mekle lippis.

Quhen schou is claid in reche apparrall,
Schou blinkis als brycht as an tar barrell.
Quhen schou was born the son tholit clippis,
The nycht be fain faucht in hir querrell -
My ladye with the mekle lippis.

Quhai for hir saek with speir and scheld
Preiffis maest mychtellye in the feld,
Sall kis and withe hir go in grippis,
And fra thyne furth hir luff sall weld -
My ladye with the mekle lippis.

And quhai in fedle receaves schaem
And tynis thair his knychtlie naem,
Sall cum behind and kis hir hippis
And nevir to uther confort claem,
My ladye with the mekle lippis.


William Dunbar, Poems Comic, Satiric, and Parodic, ed John Conlee from: William Dunbar: The Complete Works (2004) [Internet Archive backup here]

Translation - About a black Moor

I’ve long written about white ladies
So now I’ll write about a black one
Who disembarked from the most recently arrived ships.
How pleased I’d be to describe to perfection
My lady with the large lips,

How her mouth protrudes like an ape’s,
And how she is like a toad to the touch,
And how her short cat-like nose turns up,
And how she shines like any kind of soap*,
My lady with the large lips.

When she is dressed in expensive clothes,
She glitters as brightly as a barrel of tar.
The sun underwent an eclipse when she was born,
The night* willingly fought as her champion —
My lady with the large lips.

Whoever proves himself for her sake most powerfully
With spear and shield in the jousting-field
Must kiss and grapple with her,
And from then on will have earned* her love —
My lady with the large lips.

And whoever is subject to shame in the field
And there loses his knightly reputation
Must come behind and kiss her hips
And never lay claim to any other consolation
From my lady with the large lips.

* (Translator’s note: I wonder if Dunbar is thinking here of medieval ‘black soap’ and ‘white soap’?)

* (Translator’s note: punning on night/knight.)


Of Ane Blak Moir, translated by Jenni Nuttall, Stylisticienne (2020) [Internet Archive backup here]

Further Reading

Jonathan Hsy & Julie Orlemanski: Race and medieval studies: a partial bibliography postmedieval 8 (2017) 500-531, (2017)

Wikipedia: Race (Human categorization)


Sources: listed with each item

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