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  • Imagining the Moor in Medieval Portugal
  • Josiah Blackmore (bio)

For medieval Portugal, Africa was familiar and strange, a known place across the modest parcel of the Mediterranean between the Algarve and Ceuta, and, farther south, an unknown expanse of land that glimmered black under the equatorial sun. And for Portugal, like for Spain, Africa was part of the demographics and history of Iberian culture in the figure of the Moor, at once an “other” and a closer, more intimate presence. Jeffrey J. Cohen reminds us of the “cultural work” of the Saracen (one of the medieval terminological possibilities for “Moor”), “whose dark skin and diabolical physiognomy were the western Middle Ages’ most familiar, most exorbitant embodiment of racial alterity” [189]. Cohen argues, therefore, that the Saracen (grosso modo) existed in a network of literary and ideological productions of western Europe; in the case of Iberia, the Moor was sometimes but not always a Saracen and was both a figure of alterity and of familiarity and sameness, less an aprioristic other and more of a figure that could be variously othered as a marker of boundaries including “race,” spirituality, and sexuality. While this essay does not take on the idea of racial alterity per se, it does assume the notion that in the literary culture of Portugal blackness, in some manner, informed constructions of the Moor. My purpose here is to delineate an understanding of the Moor in medieval Portugal as a construct that resists easy categorizations as an undifferentiated figure of otherness, a consideration that culminates with the work of Gomes Eanes de Zurara (1410?–1474?), the first chronicler of Portuguese exploration into (west) Africa. To this end, I will briefly consider the Moor in representative examples from the livros de linhagens (genealogical books) and the cantigas d’escarnho e de mal dizer (poetry of mockery and insult, hereafter abbreviated CEM), not so much in order to trace a direct influence between these texts and the work of Zurara but to provide an idea of how the Moor was variously fashioned in earlier texts. The analysis here is not exhaustive nor conclusive but suggestive, and is meant to indicate how the Moor—and the idea of the Moor—in Portugal can add to critical conversations on the imaginative and ideological constructions of the Moor and of Africa and its inhabitants.

The formulations of national and cultural identities in European texts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance1 that in some way engage Africa and the African have increasingly [End Page 27] and understandably become an object of interest among literary and cultural theorists. One of the advances in recent years of this critical work is the freeing of the Moor from the strictures of the “self/other” binary that permeated earlier scholarly work on Europeans and their others, especially in the field of imperial/colonial studies or in the study of the conflictive representations of Moors and Europeans in genres such as medieval epic.2 In the medieval field, Cohen’s work on the Saracen is one good example of this more theoretically suggestive approach, since Cohen explores the work of representation as it dovetails with the universalizing claims of psychoanalysis. Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s essay usefully reminds us that the medieval world considered itself as existing in three parts, thus making problematic modern applications of binaries as supposedly informing a medieval perception of “Asian Orient and European Occident” [20]. Other studies, though concerned with postmedieval literatures and histories, also explore the cultural work of the Moor. Such, for instance, is the case with Emily C. Bartels’s articles on the Moor in Shakespeare. Bartels charts the flexibilities and inconsistencies of the term “Moor” in Renaissance England [“Making More” 434], noting especially its “racial” claims. In analyzing the place of postcolonialism as it might inform critical work on Africa in the Renaissance, Bartels questions the model that postcolonial studies assumes as underlying its own practice by arguing that “[postcolonial critiques] continue … to recreate the history of silenced voices through only one model of cultural exchange: one in which European domination is both the motivating force and the inevitable outcome” [“Othello and Africa” 46].

These representative studies of the Moor tag...