Lecture by Mairi Cowan
Given at A Celebration of Early Modern Studies, University of Toronto (2013)
Were sub-Saharan Africans part of the court of a medieval Scottish king? New research by Mairi Cowan, a lecturer at the University of Toronto, suggests that several people from Africa were in the court of James IV (1488-1513) where they served as a kind of exotic entertainment.
In examining various records relating to James IV, Cowan has discovered several references to people identified as Moors – including Peter the Moor; the Moor Taubroner; the Moor Lasses; the Black Ladies; Helen Moor and Margaret Moor. The first reference dates back to March 1501, when records show that 15s 4d. was given to “the Moreyn.” While other historians have practically ignored their presence, Cowan believes these people were actually slaves brought to Scotland.
One record from 1505 refers to a William Wod being paid to transport Moors from Portugal to Scotland. Cowan adds that she does not believe that these people were Moors from the Iberian peninsula, but rather sub-Saharan Africans. They are also often referred to as ‘Black’ – for example Margaret Moor is also called Margaret Black.
They were brought to Scotland to be kept around the court as entertainers, and as unusual people. James IV had a large group of assorted foreign peoples, including a French alchemist and a quartet of Italian musicians. Peter the Moor was often associated with these musicians, and may have been a drummer.
Cowan also notes an unusual event that happened in the years 1507 and 1508, when the royal court held the ‘Tournament of the Wild Knight and the Black Lady’ – a kind of medieval play where King James himself was the Wild Knight, who led his forces against those of the Black Lady, who was dressed beautifully and carried around in a chair.
While these people were slaves, in keeping with the practices of other European courts, King James IV did pay them (in fact their wages were more than a typical Scot who worked at the court would make) and provided other services for them. For example, a doctor was paid 35s to attend to Moor Taubroner for several weeks. Meanwhile, Peter the Moor was given £3 by the King as a kind of gift when he left the court, presumably to go find work elsewhere.
Cowan sees this as interesting cultural interaction, one that was very rare in the Middle Ages, but emerged at the end of the 15th century. She has recently published the book Death, Life, and Religious Change in Scottish Towns, c. 1350-1560, which examines lay religious culture in Scottish towns between the Black Death and the Protestant Reformation.