Among the private drawings of the great Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer are two moving likenesses of African Europeans – so vivid and timeless you half expect them to look up and come to life. In Nuremberg in 1508, he sketched a young man with a small beard wearing a simple cloak. A decade on, lodging with a Portuguese merchant in Antwerp, he captured the image of a young woman of the household. “Katharina, 20 years old”, Dürer wrote above her portrait, to remind himself of their encounter. Later, designing his own coat of arms, he centred it around the bust of a Moor.
As Olivette Otele shows in her fascinating book, there was nothing very exceptional about any of this. By the 16th century, the black presence in European life and culture took many forms, and there was a long history of Africans living on the continent. Dürer could as easily have met such persons in Italy, Spain, or the Low Countries, as in the heart of Germany. And, in linking his own status explicitly with the image of a black man, he was probably following a heraldic tradition inaugurated by the Hohenstaufen emperors themselves.
Of course, like all people, Europeans had a tradition of exoticising and “othering” people of alien lands and cultures. But for most of European history, religious difference was a far more important vector of prejudice than skin colour or geographic origin. Throughout the middle ages and into the Renaissance, the divide between Christians and Muslims trumped most other considerations. Before the 17th century, there is much less evidence of preconceptions about Africans per se – certainly compared with the virulence of Christian antisemitism, or the racialised notions of inferiority projected by some white-skinned groups on to others, such as the English on to the Irish.
Even “Europe” and “Africa” were only weak labels. The distance from Sicily to Tunis is the same as from London to Paris, and the peoples living around the Mediterranean had always mingled with each other. Among the north African rulers and notables of the Roman empire were the emperor Septimius Severus; Marcus Aurelius’s tutor, the consul Marcus Cornelius Fronto; and the rhetorician and novelist, Apuleius. Later medieval Egypt was governed by the Mamluks, white African Muslims of European descent. Frederick II, king of Sicily (and, from 1220, Holy Roman emperor) welcomed Africans to his court, employed many of them in his service, and even made one (John “the Moor”) his lord chamberlain. Until the end of the 15th century, Arab and north African Muslims ruled over most of the Iberian peninsula; a few years later, the first Medici duke of Florence, Alessandro, was born to an African mother.