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15. Jews, Saracens, ‘Black Men’, Tartars: England in a World of Racial Difference

Geraldine Heng


Britain's liminality, its otherness, its being on the edge of the world … make it in some sense strange and unpredictable. Medieval England, in its dramatically contrasting responses to the non-European, non-Christian nations, races and communities it encountered and found to be irreducibly alien can at first glance appear — like Britain — to be a collective entity altogether strange and unpredictable. For instance, in a European century in which canon law inveighed against heresy, and heretics were persecuted in inquisition and crusade, the English monarch Edward I and his courtiers, in an extraordinary gesture of benevolence, attended a Mass of East Syrian liturgy in 1288 celebrated by Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian monk born in China, of Ongut or Uighur extract, who had been sent with companions on a mission to the West by Arghun Khan, the Il-Khan of the Persian Khanate of the Mongol empire. The Mongols represented by Sauma — a nomadic militant people usually called ‘Tartars’ in English records — had been horrifically evoked earlier in the century by the chronicler of St Albans, Matthew Paris (recording events in narrative and letter under the years 1238, 1241, 1242 and 1243) as a population of cannibals: a monstrous, inhuman race of men with abnormally large heads, who fed on raw flesh and human beings (‘carnibus crudis et etiam humanis vescuntur’), and who were bent on devastating ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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