Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Why the Blackman in the 1241 Domesday Abbreviato ?

Illuminated capital letter ‘I’ taken from the Domesday Abbreviatio entry for Derbyshire, possibly c.1241;
National Archive Catalogue reference: E 36/284
I was first introduced to this striking image by Marika Sherwood in some BASA correspondence a couple of years ago, at the time I didn’t  consider  it any further as to use the historian’s cliché ‘it wasn’t my period’ !

However two things in the past month have forced me to reconsider: first, I came across similar images while preparing for a Black Hidden Histories tour of the V&A’s collection; secondly I met the image again while reading Onyeka’s informative and very readable new book – Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins I'm reading it right now hope to have my review of it online early next week

The National Archive correspondence that Marika shared with BASA’s email group was inconclusive as to the image’s presence and status, while Onyeka infers that the image could indicate the ‘useful roles [black people played] in that society’.

My current research would indicate that some idea of his status can be determined which, regrettably, indicates that this black man was probably seen not to be so ‘useful’ to his society, in fact quite the opposite.

What is the Domesday Abbreviato  ?

Marika’s correspondence with the National Archive gives a useful description of the Document – Domesday Abbreviato  1241 - as well as stating the National Archive’s view on the presence of the black man:

The document itself is an abridgement of Domesday Book, possibly produced for use in the Exchequer in the mid-13th century. It has numerous illuminations and illustrations. Some of these are drawings of historical events, some are portraits of the main landholders in a particular county, but most are purely decorative illustrations used to mark the beginning of a new county section. The image of the black man falls into the latter category: it appears at the beginning of the section describing William the Conqueror's holdings in Derbyshire and its previous Anglo-Saxon tenants, and we can be quite certain that no one mentioned on that folio was African.

Why is he there?

We cannot even confidently infer that the scribe had seen a black man in person: many of the other illustrations are of long-dead historical figures or mythical animals, which the scribe clearly can never have seen. Therefore all we can confidently infer is that he had either seen a black person, heard a description of one, or seen a depiction of one in another source. Further, we can assume that he thought it would be an interesting and attractive addition to the manuscript.

In contrast Onyeka is more upbeat:

There are …images of Africans that show Tudor society did not inherit from its medieval past, an idea that [black Africans] were automatically inferior. Some of these image show Africans were familiar to people in mediaeval England and other representations’ imply they had a useful role in society. One of these representations is of an African in the Abbreviatio Domesday (1241) and its important because in a similar way to some Tudor images, the African is not displayed as fantastic or strange 

The Marnhull Orphrey (1315-35)
The Marnhull Orphrey

The image that brought to my mind the Domesday Abbreviato’s blackman was from The Marnhull Orphrey (1315-35) from the V&A collection.

The Marnhull Orphrey is a cross-shaped decorative strip which would originally have been sewn onto the back of a chasuble, the outermost liturgical vestment worn by clergy for the celebration of the Catholic Mass. The rich and exquisite embroidery is worked in silver and silver-gilt thread and coloured silks on a linen background, it depicts scenes from Christ’s Passion

Comparing the two men whipping Christ in the Marnhull Orphrey and the Domesday Abbreviato’s black man one can see they are dressed very similarly.

The depiction of the dress of the figures is significant as it picks out high status and low status, good and bad. Long robes since Roman times had denoted high rank, while the short tunic worn over hose was the reserve of the labourer.

Detail: Domesday Arbbreviato       Detail :The Marnhull Orphrey
The Virgin's gown follows the conventions of mediaeval depictions of dress in manuscripts, as her green gown is lined with brown with shield shapes, a shorthand for fur, and a sign of status in medieval dress. Equally the dress of St John (on the Christ’s left), St Peter and St Paul the two saints, shown on the left and right panels, respectively in the picture above, all three saints have long, flowing robes indicating their high rank and status.

The depiction of the lower ranking individuals are equally suggestive: the two men flaying Christ wear short tunics and variegated hose , very similar dress to the black man in the Domesday Abbreviato, indicating the common low labourer status of all three figures.

Michel Pastoureau in his book The Devil's Cloth. A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric explains the significance of the checks and stripes in the hosiery of those three figures:

In the medieval Western world, there are a great number of individuals – real or imaginary- whom society, literature and iconography endow with striped clothing. In one way or another, they are all outcasts or reprobates, from the Jew and heretic to the clown and the juggler, and including not only the leper, the hangman, and the prostitute but also the disloyal knight of the Round Table, the madman of Psalms and the character of Judas. They all disturb or pervert the established order; they all more or less to do with the devil.

It is well documented in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that striped dress had a demeaning, pejorative or clearly diabolic quality. This belief was justified by reference to the Old Testament book of Leviticus 19: 19 which was at one time during the period translated as you will not wear garments made of two colours. To do so was to break an order from God leaving one open to being seen as a  devil. Today the accepted reading of this verse is you will not wear garments made of two fibers, for during the 13th and 14th centuries the first translation prevailed producing the images shown.

So , perhaps the Domesday Abbreviato’s black man is depicted through his attire as one who would disturb or pervert the order of society, contrary to Onyeka’s  belief that he would be ‘useful’  to society.  Similarly it might be argued that his dress indicated he is not the ‘interesting and attractive addition to the manuscript’ the National Archive would have us believe.

To conclude, why has the Derbyshire section of the Domesday Abbreviato a black man as one who would disturb or pervert  remains a mystery yet to be solved. However what we do know his attire marks him out as one who is depraved, set on disruption of society – outside of any Christian society like those flaying Christ in the Marnhull Orphrey.  A pejorative image of a black man that sadly seems to have persisted throughout the period, the Abbreviato and Orphrey are over a century apart  and its impact on later periods I am still accessing.

Pastoureau, Michel, (2001) The Devil's Cloth. A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric. New York, Columbia University Press
Williamson, Paul (1986) The Medieval Treasury: the art of the Middle Ages in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Onyeka, (2013), Blackamoores: Black Africans in Tudor England their presence, status and origins, Narrative Eye and The Circle with a Dot, London

Electronic Sources
Domesday Book | Domesday legacy
accessed Sunday, November 10, 2013
BASA Newsgroup correspondence by Dr Marika Sherwood, 12/08/2011
‘St Edmundsbury Local History - The Little Domesday’ Book
accessed Sunday, November 10, 2013
The Marnhull Orphrey (Orpherys)
accessed Sunday, November 10, 2013

1 comment:

Michael said...

Note the stripes.....

This intriguing and highly unusual sixteenth-century portrait probably represents a woman named Elisabet, who was a fool employed by Anne of Hungary (1503–1547), wife of Ferdinand I (1503–1564), Archduke of Austria and later Holy Roman Emperor. The painting has been in Britain since the early nineteenth century, when it was described as a work by Quinten Massys (1465/66–1530) in a sale catalogue of 1814 and later attributed to Lucas Cranach (1472–1553).