Saracens (Lat. Sarraceni, Fr. Sarrasins) was used in the period of the crusades as an indiscriminate term for Muslims. Originally designating one ethnic group in the Arabian Peninsula, by late antiquity it had become a synonym for Arabs, and it was employed by Latin chroniclers of the eighth and ninth centuries to describe the Muslim Arab invaders in the Mediterranean region. In the twelfth century, chroniclers of the First Crusade (1096-1099) and poets of the chansons de geste (Old French epic poems) applied the term to Turks, Arabs, and other Muslims, creating a colorful and wildly inaccurate portrait of Saracens who worshipped pantheon idols, the chief among them Mahomet. At the same time, theologians offered polemical refutations of the Lex Sarracenorum (Law of the Saracens), as they generally called Islam. The travel narratives and romances of the later Middle Ages often blend literary topoi of pagan Saracens with more realistic depictions of Islam. The term Saracen gradually fell into disuse by the seventeenth century, to be replaced by Turk, Mohammedan, and Moslem.
The origins of the Latin word Sarracenus are obscure; the hypothesis of its derivation from the Arabic sharqiyyin (the plural of sharql, “Easterner”) is not universally accepted. Roman writers used the term to designate one ethnic group in eastern Arabia. By the third century, the term designated all of the nomadic Arabs of the peninsula. Some authors affirmed that the Saracens worshiped idols of stone. The theologian Jerome asserted that the Saracens were the descendants of Abraham through his handmaid Hagar and their son, the “wild man” Ishmael (Genesis 16:12); they thus should be properly called Hagarenes or Ishmaelites, but they falsely called themselves Saracens, claiming to be the descendants of Abraham’s legitimate wife Sarah. This etymology was taken up by Isidore of Seville and many subsequent Latin authors. It no doubt seemed to fit the experience of those who chronicled the conquests and raids of the Sar- raceni in the seventh and eighth centuries. Very few chroniclers showed any interest in the religion of these invaders, and those who did showed little awareness of the rise of Islam; they contented themselves with repeating what they found in Jerome and Isidore.
Crusader and Saracen jousting, fourteenth century. Detail from the Luttrell Psalter (MS London, British Library, Add.42130). (HIP/Art Resource)
Hrotsvit (Roswitha), a nun at the abbey of Gandersheim at the turn of the millennium, presents the Saracens in the familiar guise of classical Roman idolaters. She depicts the Saracen King Abderahemen, that is the historical ‘Abd al- Rahmān III, caliph of Cordoba (912-961), as a tyrant who inflicts the death penalty on anyone who blasphemes his golden idols. Chroniclers of the First Crusade (1096-1099), notably Peter Tudebode, Radulph of Caen, and Raymond of Aguilers, depict the crusaders’ Saracen adversaries as pagans who worship various idols, in particular Mahummet. Radulph of Caen goes so far as to assert that when the crusaders took Jerusalem, Tancred entered the Dome of the Rock and there found an idol of Mahummet, which he promptly destroyed. For these authors, the pollution of Jerusalem’s holy places by the supposedly idolatrous rites of the Saracens called for retribution. Fighting against pagans, crusaders could claim to be wreaking vengeance for the pagans’ Crucifixion of Christ and their usurpation of his city; when the crusaders fell in battle, they could claim the mantle of martyrdom. The fight against paganism had a long history, from which Christianity was sure to emerge victorious.
The Old French Chanson de Roland, roughly contemporary with the chronicles of the First Crusade, describes in greater detail the idolatrous cult of the Saracens, devotees of an anti-Trinity of idols: Apolin, Tervagan, and Mahumet. Effigies of these gods adorn the standards of the Saracen troops; the Saracens invoke them in battle, and they destroy their idols when they fail to procure victory for them. Subsequent chansons de geste purvey this same image of Saracen paganism, and the word sar(r)asin is often used indiscriminately to designate all non-Christian enemies, from Africa, Scandinavia, or elsewhere. The twelfth-century epic Floovant, for example, refers to the Frankish king Clovis (d. 511) as a “Saracen” before his conversion to Christianity.
Many writers, in Latin and the various vernacular languages, use Saracen as a synonym for pagan. In English plays of the fourteenth centuries, the Romans are depicted as Saracens who worship idols of “Mahound.” The poet William Langland, in Piers Plowman, refers to the Roman Emperor Trajan as a “Sarasene.” Chroniclers refer to Lithuanian and Wendish pagans as Saracens. The image was so common that writers on Islam who knew better (from the twelfth century on) went to great pains to explain that the Saracens were not pagans.
Saracen on horseback fighting in Sicily, late-thirteenth-century fresco, Tour Ferrande, Pernes-les-Fontaines, France. (The Art Archive/Dagli Orti)
For other medieval writers, Saracen was used to denote the Muslim; Islam was frequently referred to as the Lex Sar- racenorum or Lex Machometi (Law of Muhammad). These authors depict the Saracens not as idolaters, but as heretics, blind followers of the arch-heresiarch Mahomet.
A more ambivalent image of the imagined Saracen world is presented in romances of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, where the treasures of the East beckon and beautiful Saracen princesses are ready to help their Western heroes out of dangerous scrapes. Religious differences for the most part remain comfortably in the background, the supposed paganism of the Saracens an occasional object of curiosity rather than animosity. Another genre that received increasing attention and elaboration in the fourteenth century was the narrative of real or imagined travels to the East. Here the Saracen world has become a distinct part of a larger entity: the Orient. As the traveler moves ever further east, from Latin Europe to the Byzantine world, through the Muslim lands, and perhaps into India, China, or the mythic islands inhabited by dog-headed men, fish-people, or Amazons, the world becomes progressively stranger and more wondrous. The Saracen is no longer the Other par excellence; for some of these authors, the Saracens’ customs and religion now seem comfortably (or disturbingly) close to their own.
In the fourteenth century the boundaries between genres such as epic, romance, travelogue, and so on began to break down, at times producing strange blends. A good example of this is provided by the Guerrino il Meschino by Andrea da Barberino (d. 1431). At several points Andrea depicts Saracens worshiping Muhammad as a god and as part of the standard idolatrous pantheon of the chansons de geste; yet elsewhere he distinguishes clearly between paganism and Islam and condemns Muhammad as a false prophet. His descriptions of religious practices are more exotic than polemical. In the fifteenth century, as the Ottomans seized Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) and pushed into the heart of Europe, the polemical view of the Muslim again returned to the fore, though now, rather than the Saracen, he was presented as the Turk.