English 4113 – More on the King of Tars and Skin Tone

Auchinleck ms, 7ra

The copy of the King of Tars in the Auchinleck manuscript opens with a rare illustration, rare in that it’s in the manuscript at all — as so many of the others have been cut out — and rare in that it illustrates an inter-religious marriage, one between a Muslim husband, the Sultan of Damascus, and his Christian wife, the Princess of Tars, daughter of the aforementioned king whose name quite unfairly lends the romance its title.

It’s a startling image because, at first sight, the Princess’s skin is every bit as dark as the Sultan’s. Their shared skin tone violates a key features of the romance’s narrative: the first stanza ends by telling us that the princess’s skin is as “white as a swan’s feather,” a color the story never changes (her “ble” (565), her expression or appearance, changes in some way when she becomes pregnant, but that’s it).  Although the Princess pretends to be Muslim, and although she’s dressed in “heathen” clothing (381), the romance never indicates that her skin color changes to match her husband’s.

The Sultan, by important contrast, is dark skinned, “black” according to the narrative. His skin color isn’t, however, a narrative concern until it comes time for the miraculous transformations. Only when he first looks on his offspring, newly transformed by its baptism, does the narrative tell us that he’s black (793); then it tells us once again, when he transforms:

His hide that blac and lothely was
Al white bicom thurth Godes gras
And clere withouten blame. (922-24)
[his skin [note that the text uses “hide” to describe the skin of the Princess’s parents too] that was black and ugly becomes white through God’s grace, and faultlessly bright]

Later, after the Sultan converts, he throws 30,000 captured Muslim solders into his prisons and threatens them with death if they don’t also become Christian. The King of Tars calls them “blo and blac” (1220). That is, by the time the romance is drawing to its end, it’s become committed to representing Muslims as dark-skinned and Christians as light-skinned.

Because divergent skin color, split between white and black, becomes enormously important to the narrative, I would have presumed that image would have represented the Sultan and the Princess’s skin tone differently. I would have assumed his skin would be dark in the first image, and light in the second, and that her skin, represented only in the second image, would be light. Furthermore, because the narrative associates being Christian with having light-colored skin, I would have assumed that the same pigment would have been used for the crucifix as for the princess. While the crucifix isn’t a person, of course, I would have presumed that object it represents would have, itself, been painted.

But — and there are many such objections to follow — the Auchinleck illustration did not, in fact, depict both Princess and Sultan as dark-skinned. The pigment has evidently been discolored, as is evident in another illustration in the Auchinleck, of King Richard of England and his soldiers, every bit as dark-skinned as these two. I’m guessing this image shows Richard and his troops in an amphibious assault of what might be a Muslim-held fortress: but everyone in it has the same skin tone, and I presume, now, that they once had light-colored skin, that the pigment is the same as that in the King of Tars illustration, and that it has become similarly discolored.

Auchinleck ms. f. 326ra

Nor does the light tone of the altar’s crucifix indicate anything useful: such a crucifix — as Shirin Fozi observed to me on social media — would not likely have been a crucifix of wood painted to look like skin. We might assume that the light tones of this crucifix are meant to represent, for example, a metal, precious or otherwise, or ivory.

It’s not uncommon for medieval illustrations to diverge from the text. That divergence isn’t, of course, a “problem” unique to medieval illustrators. In this case, we can note that the Princess’s clothing isn’t noticeably “heathen.” I would have figured, however, that because the Sultan’s skin color is a central concern of the Middle English narrative, that the illustration would have taken pains to show him as dark skinned prior to his baptism.

At the moment, we’re left with a few possibilities:

  1. The illustration once showed the Princess and the Sultan with identical, light skin tones
  2. If so, it’s because the illustration doesn’t pay careful attention to the narrative
  3. Or because it’s reluctant to show a marriage between a light-skinned woman and a dark-skinned man (in this regard, then, the princess’s lack of “heathen” costume, and the refusal to show them praying together to a “Muslim” idol, is part and parcel of their shared skin tone; it’s perhaps because differences in skin color, coded by moderns as “racial,” have been made so important since Transatlantic Slavery, that we might ascribe the skin color such importance — for a medieval illustrator, perhaps differences in costume and forms of worship would have been much more important)
  4. Or because the illustration is familiar with one of the analogues of the King of Tars, which have nothing to say about the Sultan’s skin color (for more on this, see my earlier post here).

I may be at an impasse.

For more, see this, on the painting of human skin tones in medieval painting; for color changes in pigment, here and, more briefly, here; for a comparison to another Middle English manuscript of the King of Tars, unillustrated, see here; for commentary on the King of Tars image above, but without, so far as I can tell, anything on the skin tone, Maidie Hilmo, Medieval Images, Icons, and Illustrated English Literary Texts: From the Ruthwell Cross to the Ellesmere Chaucer (Routledge, 2004); and for some commentary on “blue” as a color marker for dark skin, Richard Cole, “Racial Thinking in Old Norse Literature: The Case of the Blámaðr“, Saga-Book 39 (2015): 21-40.

Among the art historians, thanks: Or Vallah, Shirin Fozi, Heather C. McCune Bruhn, and Pamela Patton; among the literature scholars, thanks: Sarah Star, Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Megan Cook, Lydia Kertz, and Isabel Davis. All mistakes, which I’m sure are considerable, are my own.

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