The King of Tars, a Middle English romance written c. 1331-40, tells the following story: a black Muslim Sultan wages war on the country of a white Christian princess until she agrees to marry him. He makes her convert to Islam in order for the marriage to take place. She appears to convert but secretly maintains her Christian beliefs. Once married, she becomes pregnant. The birthed child, however, is not quite as expected:
|& when þe child was ybore||And when the child was born|
|Wel sori wimen were þerfore,||The women were very sad|
|For lim no hadde it non.||Because it didn’t have any limbs.|
|Bot as a rond of flesche yschore||Instead, as a sphere or lump of flesh|
|In chaumber it lay hem bifore||It lay before them in the room|
|Wiþouten blod & bon.||Without blood and bone.|
|For sorwe þe leuedi wald dye||The lady would have died for sorrow|
|For it hadde noiþer nose no eye,||Because it didn’t have a nose or eyes,|
|Bot lay ded as þe ston.||But lay dead as a stone.|
(The King of Tars, lines 577-585 – taken from the Auchinleck Manuscript).
The lump of flesh lacks ‘liif & lim & fas’ (‘life and limb and face’, line 776). The Sultan blames the princess’s Christian beliefs for their offspring’s physical state, while she blames his Islamic faith. He takes the offspring to statues of his ‘idols’ and asks them to transform the flesh into a child. This doesn’t work. It is only when the flesh is baptised by a priest that it miraculously turns into a healthy, living – and white – baby boy.
Clearly, from the perspective of this writer, some people are more human than others and it is markers such as race and religion that determine one’s claims to humanity.
So how exactly would the offspring, in its initial lump-of-flesh state, have been imagined by a medieval audience?
They might have pictured the offspring as similar to bear cubs, animals born as lumps of flesh that must be licked into shape and life by their mothers. You can see some medieval images of bears licking bear cubs into shape in the ‘gallery’ section at the Medieval Bestiary.
Things get more complicated if we consider the lump of flesh produced in The King of Tars as something believed to be a real medical possibility during the medieval period, an entity known as a mola matricis.
The main definition of a mola matricis is a lump of flesh produced by the uterus. There is another definition, however, in which the mola matricis is said to be shaped like an embryo and can move because of ‘the spirit generated in it’ (the term ‘spirit’ has lots of possible meanings, including ‘animacy’, ‘consciousness’ or ‘soul’) – but is nevertheless not a human being.
What if the lump of flesh in The King of Tars is haunted by this alternative definition of the mola matricis? What if the lump of flesh is simultaneously imagined as an entity shaped like a human and able to move because of a ‘spirit’ in it (animation, consciousness, soul), yet still not counted as human? What does this tell us about how we define the human?
I was initially hesitant to include this as a snapshot for the project. Given that the text is so clearly racist and Islamophobic, I was worried that students would be disinclined to engage with the material or view it as reaffirming a stereotype in which the medieval is aligned with anything negative. It then occurred to me that, rather than seeing this snapshot as completely divorced from today, students may instead recognise this snapshot as uncomfortably close. Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism are current concerns, issues that have of course been present for a while but have surely been heightened by recent votes/elections, refugee crises, rhetoric surrounding migration, wars and terrorism.
The King of Tars may offer a negative view of the past, but it also offers a disturbing reflection of today. We can probably think of current examples which show how the humanity of various groups of people is suspended. The lump of flesh in The King of Tars arguably exposes, in a very physical way, how this process of suspending and bestowing humanity works.
This medieval ‘snapshot’ of what it means to be human is one of a series to inspire Karrie Fransman’s medieval comics artwork. To read more, go to project + snapshots.
Dr Sophia Wilson (@SAWmedieval) is a medievalist whose research encompasses plays, romance and hagiography from the late medieval period and written in Middle English. Her research concerns the concept of the human and portrayal of the human body in late medieval literature, and examines the extent to which nonhuman matter or nonhuman creatures inform the medieval concept of the human.