The Moors and Their End to Europe’s Dark Ages
A group of African Muslims descended from Northern Africa known as the Moors have never been portrayed correctly. Throughout history, they have been associated with savage barbarians wreaking havoc and sad pitiless figures unable to assimilate into society.[CS1] One of the most famous Moors is Shakespeare’s Othello from the play Othello. A Christian general of the Venetian armies, Othello is respected for serving the state but his marriage to a Venetian woman, Desdemona, is seen as a way to infiltrate white society (Spark Notes). His skin color is the defining factor that Shakespeare makes evident through the language of the other characters such as “an old black ram”, “a Barbary horse”, “the thick-lips”, and sometimes just “the Moor”. This racism also reflects the beliefs of Elizabethan culture at that time.[CS2]
In a critique of another one of Shakespeare’s works, The Merchant of Venice, Kim Hall discusses Queen Elizabeth’s attempt to drive out all the Moors occupying England. Hall includes a proclamation made by the Queen that reads, “…the Queen’s Majesty…is highly discontented to understand the great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which are crept into this realm…most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel, hath given especial commandment that the said kind of people should be with all speed avoided and discharged from Her Majesty’s dominions…” (Hall, 291). During times of famine and starvation, the Moors were blamed as being the consumers of limited resources.[CS3] This threatening image of the Moor influenced Shakespeare’s Othello yet contrasts greatly with their achievements and how they ultimately brought Europe out of the Dark Ages.
The time period after the sack of Rome during the 5th century has lead to a variety of interpretations with different titles. This 1,000 year period has been called the Middle Ages, the Medieval Age, and the Age of Faith, but the first 600 years have been coined the Dark Ages, a most appropriate name for the departure from everything rational. The Italian scholar Petrarch, in condemnation of the Latin literature at that time, deemed to call this period “dark” (All About History). Due to the total lack of all types of literature, others began to use the term as well. To the Catholics, the Age of Faith was a prosperous and productive time when the Church reigned supreme and Christianity was the only source that people depended on and lived by. To others, this 600-year long era was indeed the Dark Ages, a bleak time of backwardness. The collapse of Rome marked the end of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and their knowledge (All About History). There was no development of any kind to contribute to the great cultural and scientific achievements that dominated the past. Many Europeans were illiterate and lived in this new desolate and dreary world, and in desperate need of something, they turned to God and the almighty Roman Catholic Church (Dowling). The question then is how did Christian Europe finally manage to pull itself out of this ditch of darkness?
While Europe was suffering, another culture was experiencing its Golden Age in such close proximity. During the early 700’s, the Moors successfully conquered Spain (Sertima, 87). Known as the Moors, they laid down the foundations of a new civilization based on the science and rational reasoning of antiquity as well as their own discoveries and additions to these fields. Ivan Van Sertima, author of the book Golden Age of the Moor, states, “Using the fruits of ancient knowledge which these primarily Muslim people had preserved from the cultures of Kemet (Egypt) and Greece, the Moors (and Arabs) further developed the ancient wisdom as well as created new areas of science and philosophy,” (Sertima, 185). He goes on to explain that these people were the “custodians” of Egyptian culture, transporting it from Africa to Europe.
The interest in the ancient civilizations was developed in Moorish Spain before the idea even occurred to the rest of Europe. The city of Toledo grew to be the center for translation of classical works. Here, not only were ancient texts restored, but many Arabic authors also had written texts that were translated and distributed. Abulcasis’s encyclopedia called al-Tarif was translated into Latin where it became the standard text for the instruction of European surgeons. Arzachel’s text Judwal became the standard astronomy text at Oxford University (Sertima, 239-241). Many European universities at the time required its students to have an extensive knowledge of Moorish works.
Besides Toledo, other Spanish cities rose in grandeur and sophistication, such as Seville, Granada, and Cordova. Canals and channels were constructed throughout cities in Moorish Spain that provided water not just to farms, but also to mosques, palaces, and public baths. Along with plumbing, city planning included mansions, middle-class homes, shops, bookstores, literary salons, universities, hospitals, and even street lamps and sources for cool air, which acted as air conditioning (Sertima, 219-223). Architecture boomed in Seville with the construction of the Mosque of Seville, the Geraleda of Seville, and the Spanish Court of Seville. The Alcazar Palace in Seville was originally a Moorish fort that has been expanded numerous times over the past few centuries (Sertima, 225).
One of the greatest fields in which the Moors contributed to, and what made their exercises vastly different from the beliefs of the Church, was their approach to medicine. While the Church cured diseases by praying, touching ancient relics, and relying on charms and amulets, the Moors actually took their practice seriously. The occupation of a physician was valued highly and therefore all physicians were academically trained scholars and had to endure rigorous medical training (Sertima, 231). The most common therapy in Western Europe was to cover the patient in leeches in hopes of sucking out the illness. At the same time, the Moors were experts in surgical techniques and tools, varying medicines and cures, and the different functions of the human body. Some of their advancements included pathology, therapeutics, and pharmacology (233). While a Moorish physician named Ibn Khatib declared the plague to be caused by contagions, the Christians chose to believe in the ridiculous claim that the plague was an act from God (Sertima, 239). Personal hygiene, now known to be highly important for a healthy lifestyle, was not a part of Christian life. To the Moors, bathing was an essential element to social life as well as to their health.
The Moors never pushed their culture or religion onto the Christians and Jews that were inhabited in the land they had conquered. Under Muslim rule, these minorities were tolerated and accepted by the Moors and were actually permitted to continue practicing their religions (Sertima, 224-225). Although Muslims did own slaves, their form of slavery was nothing in comparison to the dehumanizing methods the Christians employed. Under the Muslims, slaves had rights and could seek out official assistance if need be. Under the Christians, however, slaves were not humans but mere pieces of property. These barbaric customs can also be seen in the forms of punishment that victims suffered under Christian rule. Prisoners could have their body parts cut off, their eyes poked out, be imprisoned, hanged, drowned, and boiled alive. However, if accused of homicide or rape, one could pay a fee to be pardoned. Under Islamic law, the severest punishment was the severing of one hand, a petty consequence under Christian rule compared to everything else. It was impossible to pay your way out of a crime under Islamic law and before judgment was passed, Muslim rulers first had to consult with the men of law (Sertima, 227-228).
After discovering the vast achievements made by the Moors and their rescuing of the Christians stewing in their own filth and religious corruption, why is that they aren’t given credit for it? Historians dismiss the contributions made by the Moors in order to continue false Eurocentric beliefs, holding Europe responsible for all civilization. They are ignorant of the impact other races and cultures have made on history. Instead of rightfully acknowledging Africans, an attempt is made to “lighten” the race and separate blacks from their achievements (Sertima 173-174).
Once the Dark Ages ended and the entirety of the Middle Ages had finally ceased, the period known as the Renaissance was born. Meaning the “rebirth”, a sudden interest in all things of ancient Rome and Greece surged in popularity (Dowling). [CS4]According to the History Channel website (history.com), the only cultural activity that took place during the Dark Ages was the translation and publication of classical works, which we now know began in Moorish Spain.
With help from Shakespeare’s Othello and Queen Elizabeth’s determination to place the blame of economic stresses on the Moors, their great contributions are often overlooked.[CS5] Allabouthistory.org even states that the Muslims in the Dark Ages “rode through the fallen empire, wreaking havoc and seeding intellectual and social heresy in their wake.” It was quite the opposite in fact. It is with these lies that much of history is based upon that need to be reconstructed in order to honor the truth.
All About History. “The Dark Ages.” 2002-2007. 6 Oct. 2007 http://www.allabouthistory.org/the-dark-ages.htm
Dowling, Mike. “Between Ancient and Modern.” 17 June 2006-2007. 6 Oct. 2007 http://www.mrdowling.com/704renaissance.html
Hall, Kim. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Colonization and Miscegenation in The Merchant of Venice.” The Merchant of Venice, 2006.
The History Channel. “The Dark Ages.” 1996-2007. 3 Oct. 2007 http://www.history.com/
Spark Notes. “Othello.” 2006. 18 Nov. 2007 http://sparknotes.com/shakespeare/othello/
Sertima, Ivan Van. Golden Age of the Moor. New Jersey: Journal of African Civilizations Ltd., Inc., 1992.
[CS1]In the rough draft, I didn’t start talking about the Moors until the second page. These two sentences were necessary to introduce the reader to my subject in the very beginning.
[CS2]The only misconception of the Moors in the rough draft was petty and was at the very end of the essay. I included some examples to open up my paper, such as Shakespeare’s Othello to provide an example of the common representation of Moors.
[CS3]I provided an example of the Elizabethan culture which was the contributing factor for the portrayal of Othello.
[CS4]These two sentences were originally near the beginning of the paper, but I pasted them back here to follow a chronological order of discussing the Dark Ages first and then the Renaissance.
[CS5]I briefly touched on Othello and the Elizabethan era again to conclude the essay on the same note that it had started on.
take me back home!