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Saracen was a term for Muslims widely used in Europe during the later medieval era. The term's meaning evolved during its history. In the early centuries AD in Greek and Latin it referred to a people who lived in desert areas in and near the Roman province of Arabia, and who were specifically distinguished from Arabs.[1][2] In Europe during the Early Medieval era, the term began to be used to describe Arab tribes as well.[3] By the 12th century, Saracen had become synonymous with Muslim in Medieval Latin literature. This expansion of the meaning had begun centuries earlier among the Byzantine Greeks, as evidenced in Byzantine Greek documents from the 8th century.[1][4][5] In the Western languages before the 16th century the words "Muslim" and "Islam" were not used (with a few isolated exceptions),[6] and instead Saracen was the usual word.

Early usage and origins[edit]

Ptolemy's Geography from the second century [AD] describes Sarakene as a region in the northern Sinai peninsula.[2] Ptolemy also mentions a people called the Sarakenoi living in north-western Arabia (near neighbor to the Sinai).[2] Eusebius of Caesarea references Saracens in his Ecclesiastical history, in which he narrates an account wherein Dionysus, Bishop of Alexandria, mentions Saracens in a letter while describing the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius: "Many were, in the Arabian mountain, enslaved by the barbarous sarkenoi."[2] The Historia Augusta also refers to an attack by Saraceni on Pescennius Niger's army in Egypt in 193 but provides little information on who they might have been.[7]

Both Hippolytus and Uranius mention three distinct peoples in Arabia during the first half of the third century: the Saraceni, the Taeni and the Arabes.[2] The Taeni, later identified with the Arabic speaking people called Tayy, were located around the Khaybar oasis north of Medina, and also in an area stretching up to the Euphrates river, while the Saraceni were placed north of them.[2] These Saracens located in the northern Hejaz appeared as people with a certain military ability who were opponents of the Roman Empire and who were characterized by the Romans as barbarians.[2]

The Saracens are described as forming the equites (heavy cavalry) from Phoenicia and Thamud.[8] In one document the defeated enemies of Diocletian's campaign in the Syrian desert are described as Saracens. Other 4th century military reports make no mention of Arabs but refer to as Saracens groups ranging as far east as Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) that were involved in battles on both the Persian and Roman sides.[8][9] They are described in the Roman administrative document Notitia dignitatum—dating from the time of Theodosius I in the 4th century—as comprising distinctive units in the composition of the Roman army and they are distinguished in the document from Arabs and Iiluturaens.[8]

Medieval usage[edit]

A 12th-century Byzantine manuscript illumination depicting Byzantine Greeks punishing Cretan Saracens in the 9th century. From the Madrid Skylitzes by John Skylitzes.

Beginning no later than the early fifth century, Christian writers came to equate Saracens with Arabs, which in turn linked Saracens with Ishmaelites (descendants of Abraham’s older son Ishmael) in some strands of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic genealogical thinking. The writings of Jerome (d. 420) seem to contain the earliest versions of the claim that Ishmaelites chose to be called Saracens in order to associate themselves with Abraham’s “free” wife Sarah, rather than to use the name Hagarenes, which would highlight their association with Abraham’s “slave woman” Hagar.[10] This claim remained popular throughout the Middle Ages, but derives more from Paul’s allegory in the New Testament letter to the Galatians than from actual historical data. The name "Saracen" was not indigenous to the populations so described, but was applied to them by Greco-Roman historians based on Greek place names.[11]

Usage of the term in the Latin West changed as the Middle Ages progressed, but its connotation remained negative and its exact definition continued to be unclear.[12] In an 8th-century polemical work, John of Damascus criticized the Saracens as followers of a false prophet and "forerunner[s] to the Antichrist."[13] Two centuries later, Europeans perceived Saracens as poor, uneducated idolaters belonging to a group wholly separate from the Arabs who brought Aristotle to the Latin West and the Moors and Berbers fighting Christians in Iberia;[citation needed] someone who got all of his or her information on Islam from medieval sources would not conclude the three groups represented one continuous culture.[12]

By the 12th century, Medieval Europeans had more specific conceptions of Islam and "Saracen" had become an ethnic and religious marker.[1][14] In some Medieval literature Saracens—that is, Muslims—are black-skinned, while Christians are lighter-skinned. An example is in The King of Tars, a medieval romance.[15][16] The Song of Roland, an Old French 11th century heroic poem, takes the association of black skin with Saracens a step further by making it their only exotic feature.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Daniel, p. 53.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Retso, pp. 505-506.
  3. ^ "Saracen." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2012. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 27 April 2012.
  4. ^ Kahf, p. 181.
  5. ^ Retsö, p. 96
  6. ^ Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination, by John V. Tolan, year 2002, p. xv.
  7. ^ Retsö p. 457.
  8. ^ a b c Retsö, pp. 464–466.
  9. ^ Retsö, p. 517.
  10. ^ Rubenstein, p. 121.
  11. ^ Retsö, pp. 505–506.
  12. ^ a b Daniel, p. 246.
  13. ^ "The Fount of Knowledge" . Gotiska Ärkestiftet av de Sanna ortodoxt kristna. 28 April 2012.
  14. ^ Heng, p. 334.
  15. ^ Heng, pp. 231, 422.
  16. ^ "The King of Tars". The Crusades Project at the University of Rochester. 28 April 2012.
  17. ^ Kahf, p. 31.