Brain, you are on notice. I mean it. I see what you did there, mister. Don’t think you’re getting away with something.
I recently received a message asking about what kind of jobs and occupations a Medieval European of color might have, as they had only seen “merchant” and “solider” listed as possible occupations in specific articles.
Part of the problem is framing the inquiry that way, since at this point it’s reasonable to assume they would have been doing more or less the same thing as everyone else, as dictated by economics, society, culture, and technology.
Maybe it is confusing to some of my readers that I post a fair amount of text on Rome and Roman demographics, but this is actually directly connected to Medieval Europe, since “the fall of the Roman Empire” is generally considered to signify the “start date” of the Medieval Era. But the reason I refer to this is because
1. By the first century AD, Rome had already expanded into Africa quite a bit, i.e. “Africa” was a Roman Province. To get an idea of the sheer amount of population migration involved in that, about 1/3 of the Numidian population under Hadrian consisted of retired Roman military veterans.
2. During the campaign, Septimius Severus sent something like a hundred thousand soldiers into Northern Europe in an attempt to subdue it. He personally led about 40,000 to Hadrian’s Wall.
3. Which would have been on top of anyone from the Middle East , Asia Minor, South Asia, Western Africa and Northern Africa who had already decided to go there for whatever reason or by accident, as well as Romans who just decided to stay there.
So, Roman Empire falls, chaos ensues, something something Invasions, various plagues and smallpox. Records of…anything, become kind of spotty for a while, representational art and portraiture just kind of goes away for a few centuries, you have people running away from and towards the Byzantine Empire, you have people running away from and toward upheaval over religion centered in the Middle East/Constantinople (tracing how the Black Madonnas got into Northern Europe helps give an idea on the movement of people), there are some Crusades happening, and then you have a little bit more surviving evidence once you get to like, the Mongolian Empire.
Once records start to reappear/survive, they include financial accounts like these ones from the Scottish Court in the 15th-16th centuries, where various people whose “race” was written down are employed as domestic servants, musicians, and just men and women who were there being diplomatically present for whatever reason.
You’ve got musicians in the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII who records and portraits survive, you’ve got this guy in the 1400s, you’ve got this kiddo in the 1500s, You’ve got Philippa of Hainault being Queen of England. You have representation and characters of color in art and literature, like Saint Maurice in Germany/The Holy Roman Empire, Sir Morien, Parzival and Feirefiz, et cet in your Arthurian canon.
The more surviving artwork there is, the more you see random studies in art and mentions in literature, especially as you move toward the Renaissance.
In late Medieval/Early Renaissance Venice, you can check out records of specific occupations associated with Black men- working as Gondoliers.
You can read a little more here about how Black men in Italy were considered to be naturally inclined and skilled at swimming, sailing, and other nautical occupations.
As for traders, Italy was the port of call for many, many traders and travelers from the Islamic world as well as the “Far East”, (a little more on that here), but sometimes people are also just your random, average peasants in the Netherlands, doing their peasant thing:
Part of the problem in determining something like, “there was definitely a cobbler from India living in Brussels during X year” is that because race was not constructed the way we see it now, no one wrote down “the cobbler is brown!!!” because well, whatever. Who could even write, anyways?
There are some instances where Illuminated Manuscripts show average people or even just actual people doing average or actual activities, rather than being completely focused on telling biblical stories or representing important events in a more symbolic way. The problem with determining race in these works is that well, if you’re a Medieval French person drawing Medieval French people, unless you have an idea constructed that “this is a person who looks Other or Different”, they way you draw them isn’t going to be racially marked or stereotyped in the way I have discussed in this painting from the 1700s in Britain. <—Because those are racial stereotypes we can still see in the media today, they are “Recognizable”.
When you compare it to this Netherlandish work c. 1540s, the art style isn’t that much different, but they lack the racial “markers” we think of from the stereotypes we see. In the depictions of actual people, you see variance in skin tones and possibly hair texture, which if you compare it with biblical figures from the same page, they appear much whiter of skin than some of the aristocrats that represent actual Netherlanders:
You can see similar variance in skin tones in Boccaccio’s The Fall of Princes, which is meant to depict (in this full page) the wheel of fortune grinding kings and peasants alike:
For some reason it annoys some people when I post images that are “ambiguously” raced, even though I make it fairly clear about the whole “remember that time when the Romans” thing, but like I’ve said many times, I don’t have magical powers that prevent people from believing everyone everywhere was always white forever.
Another occupation for Medieval people of color in Europe would have also included traveling around being important and engaging in pastimes with other wealthy and important people. For example, this French Book of Hunting by Gaston Phoebus shows some wealthy businessmen hunting with Phillip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy:
Sometimes people of color were depicted a having “exotic” occupations. This illustration of an Elephant and its drivers includes some white people with blond or grey hair, two or three South Asian people, and a man in the back with the goad who is most likely meant to be Black. Peraldus’s enthusiasm rather surpasses his actual skills, but the time spent on each driver’s hair in both color and texture is quite charming:
And to come full circle, if you look at Medieval European art that is meant to depict “regular people”, whether religious in nature or not, you come across people who are ambiguously raced, brown-skinned and black-haired, and others who are meant to be specifically, Black or Asian.
And a lot of them are doing what you’d more or less expect human beings to do: farming, talking, walking around, riding in or sailing a boat, going to weddings or into service, making music, writing or drawing, or joining the military.