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On the significance of details: Black Achilles medieval and modern


-- This blog post was written by Dr Tine Scheijnen, postdoctoral researcher in the Novel Saints research group. 


Google Oops 

When googling ‘Black Achilles’, hits pop up such as ‘blackwashing history’, ‘politically correct inaccuracy’, or ‘racist backlash’ (on 4/9/2020), all related to the 2018 BBC series about the Trojan War. Why? Because the black actor David Gyasi was cast as Achilles. Most of the internet reactions are from people who are either outraged or feel the urge to defend what appears to be a daring choice… It is a detail, surely; one among many in a 21st-century interpretation of ancient heroes, yet visibly a sensitive one. Tim Whitmarsh points out that one of the issues often raised – ‘whether it is historically correct to depict Achilles as a black man?’ – is not the right question to ask in a context of cultural reception. That the debate concerning historical accuracy has raged so furiously is an indicator of our modern day controversies.


I was completely unaware of the media storm and on my own ‘black Achilles’ business. But browsing through the pages of search results about the TV show, the parallel with my own reason for googling those words struck me: I, too, was curious about a dark-skinned Achilles I had come across in a source, and I (too?) was wondering what might have inspired the artist to make such a remarkable choice. I was looking for texts, paintings, or others that might have set the example – I found none. Only, the source that had raised my curiosity was not a 21st-century TV show, but a 14th-century poem. Indeed, the BBC was not the first to stage Achilles as a black man. A brief Middle English romance (which I doubt BBC would have been aware of) beat them to it by centuries. The skin colour of ‘my’ medieval Achilles is mentioned as a detail in two verses – easily missed, even when reading the text carefully. Still, it is not an innocent detail – not today, but neither in the Middle Ages. 


Medieval Troy

The Middle Ages were wild about the Trojan War, because the story was believed to explain European roots: the Trojans who survived the fall of their city travelled west to become the ancestors of Europeans, among whom the English. For this reason the topic was popular in medieval songs, romances, and even historical texts. The middle English poem I have been researching, Seege or Batayle of Troye, is a bit of everything: it contains love intrigue, is written in rhyme, and was probably meant to be sung aloud for an audience; and in one manuscript, it serves as the introduction to a historiographical treatise. It is brief in comparison to the other Troy texts from the Middle English tradition: only ca. 2,000 verses long. Still it recounts the entire Trojan War, which is a tale of generations: Jason and Hercules’ expedition for the Golden Fleece results in a first sack of Troy. King Priam then rebuilds the city, but years later his son Paris brings home the Greek queen Helen, with the Greek fleet furiously on their heels. The second siege, ‘the one we all know’, takes a decade. Eventually, Troy is once more (and now forever) reduced to ashes.[1]  

The Seege has a lot to tell in few words. Precisely this brevity makes the poem so interesting: it needs to be selective. The Middle Ages had a lot of story material available about the Trojan War and indeed other Middle English Troy texts stayed closer to what earlier authors had already written: they only translated or made very limited changes. The Seege faced an additional challenge: to size down the story to ‘performable length’. Scenes needed to be shortened, details deleted, characters changed, perhaps rendered less complex – you might compare it to reworking a book into a movie: the general idea remains the same, but a new format calls for new choices. Essentially, the plot has to become more compact.[2]


Rewriting Achilles

Achilles is one of the main heroes in the Seege, so his characterization naturally undergoes this process. He is described as a strong fighter, invincible on account of his impenetrable skin (his mother gave him a divine bath when he was young). Most importantly, he slays Hector (the Trojan champion), so the Greeks owe part of their victory to him. Readers from any time would recognize Achilles in these features. The Seege has done a good job in capturing his essence. But there is also a new detail: Achilles’ mother, who is traditionally a sea goddess, is said to be ‘a witch’. She uses ‘the water of hell’ to render Achilles invulnerable.[3] Her dark magic has an unusual side effect: it literally blackens Achilles’ skin. He turns ‘black as Mohammed’, to be precise (line 1350). And as if to confirm that, Achilles swears ‘by Mohammed’ once as well (line 1334). Although these details are mentioned in two minor passages, there is no room for doubt: the Seege portrays Achilles as the Greek warrior hero we all know… and as a black Muslim (in the medieval context, we might commonly think of a  ‘Saracen’ or a ‘Moor’, although the precise term is never specified in the text).

This is neither neutral nor innocent. Western medieval literature is known to use a clearly racial discourse at times: in stories about the crusades, for example, features such as a black skin characteristically portray non-Christians as Other; the ones to be defeated. The Seege, too, is a story about ‘East vs. West’, but with a twist: the ‘Eastern’ Trojans are supposed to be the ancestors of the medieval audience and thus ‘the good guys’. The Greeks are the enemies. With this in mind, it makes sense to a medieval audience that a narrator depicts the Greek Achilles as black: they would remember other stories and songs where the English knight defeats his black opponent (e.g. Guy of Warwick vs. the black giant Amoraunt)[4]  and analogously recognize a black Achilles as ‘the enemy’ in the Seege. In the same fashion, witchcraft is easier to understand than the divine powers of an unknown pagan goddess. So the black skin – alongside his Muslim religion and mother’s witchcraft –  is perhaps ‘just’ a narrative trick. The Seege also gives Achilles credit for his prowess. He is a strong fighter and more honest than several Trojans; a real champion. But the suggestion that he is Othered persists: Achilles is branded as someone opposed to the ‘Us’ that the audience would relate to. This is in stark contrast with the staging of a black Achilles in the modern TV series, which offers a clear message of inclusion. 

Still, from one end of the spectrum to the other, both sources can be seen to engage in the same debate. The black skin detail in the Seege evokes a West/East clash with underlying messages about religious superiority and political supremacy of one part of the world over another, those groups being (at least partly) defined by the colour of skin. Sound familiar? 


Unsettling? Good. 

If it does, we owe it to our present-day context not to ignore this detail. With #BlackLivesMatter fresh on our minds, the connection is evident. The ongoing protests aim to raise awareness about the fact that, while racism can manifest itself in obvious ways, it also often lingers in less tangible places – sometimes hidden in the details. Black Achilles in the Seege is such a detail. Fully aware of the risks of anachronism, a modern reader can still legitimately identify the added layer of significance that our present-day situation adds to a medieval text. In fact, this is what is going on in the academic field as we speak. Medieval studies about ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are thriving – not merely because the Middle Ages were indeed a melting pot of interacting (and conflicting) peoples, cultures, and religions, but also because there are still too many (accidental, but also conscious) misconceptions about the medieval past, even in academic contexts.[5] The current call to raise awareness is loud. By being more open and explicit about these issues, we can use them as ‘a springboard for improving our contemporary world’.[6] In this context, the Seege might indeed be used to build a bridge from the past to the present. 


Back to the future…

An important job of a literary scholar – and indeed any reader – is to keep reading texts that unsettle us; to try and understand the contexts in which they were written; and to ensure we understand what happened in the past. Our second job is about today: to describe these findings, publish them, and talk about them at conferences and (yes, also, and importantly) informally, e.g. in pubs. The past should not be censured, but it should be contextualized. When information is passed on, this has to happen with attention to the present-day socio-political contexts. I experienced this not long ago, when an editor of my forthcoming article about the Seege (see footnote 3) helpfully suggested I rephrase a few words in order to avoid ‘an unintentional racist slur’. What, in something I drafted?! The devil is, indeed, in the details! So my best intention in this piece may also be corrected by those who find fault here – raising awareness works both ways. 

And then there is our third, perhaps most important task: to use these findings as a stepping-stone towards the future. We must consider how best to give texts such as the Seege new significance, a place in our education: what message can we draw from the past to reflect on the future? I strongly believe that we must dare to face these texts. History is never complete. For centuries, authors have used and reused old Troy stories to create new ones; what no longer fitted in their own context was updated. In the same way, we can now select passages from the Seege to scrutinize them in current debates about diversity and equality. It is our responsibility to use what we have read to constructive ends. What follows will be more than mere textual criticism: it forms a catalyst for new ideas, a call to action. 

For me, this is a recent realization but I’m eager to join the debate, since this does concern us all. Colour of skin on the screen, in a text, or in the street ought to be but a detail. Literary scholars can help to make that difference. The impact of my Seege text may be minor, but offered up in sufficient portions, plankton feeds the whale. As Josephine Quinn reflects on racism in classics, ‘we have an opportunity here (…) to show how relevant, inclusive and positively anti-elitist our field can be.’ Similar voices grow louder in Medieval studies. And only if all fields join forces, the whale will start to move… 



[1] If you are a classicist and/or currently frowning: yes, this sounds rather unhomeric and unvergilian. Two important inspirations for Troy stories in the Middle Ages were Dictys and Dares: their versions sounded more like history and were easier to accept for a Christian audience with a political interest in the story (though Vergil and the Ilias Latina were not forgotten in certain milieus).

[2] The best edition in which to read The Seege or Batayle of Troye still dates back to 1927 (Barnicle: No. 172 of the Early English Text Society series). Middle English is more or less understandable with some knowledge of modern English, given a glossary and if you read the difficult pieces out loud.

[3] If you are curious about the details: I have an article forthcoming on this topic: ‘The wicked witch of the West? Thetis’ controversial transformations in 14th century Middle English vernacular’ (in a volume about the reception of Thetis). So no spoilers here!

[4] You can read about this and more examples in McDonald’s volume Pulp Fictions of Medieval England (2004). E.g. McDonald’s on Richard Coeur de Lion (chapter 6), Jane Gilbert on King of Tars (chapter 5) and Rebecca Wilcox on Guy of Warwick (chapter 10).

[5] I cannot explain this issue in detail here, but a very recent and informative overview of current research and the issues at stake can be found in chapter 13 of the 2020 Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth (edited by Smith & Henley, Brill; chapter ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth and Race’ by Lumbley: 369-396).

[6] Quote drawn from Thomas Jenkins’ book Antiquity Now (p. 159), which indicates that similar debates are ongoing in other fields than Medieval Studies as well.