African-Persna-art - 8/31/17
"Picking a Medieval African Persona" by Sofya Chyudskaya Smolyanina, OP.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
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Picking a Medieval African Persona
by Sofya Chyudskaya Smolyanina, OP
Africa is a big continent and had several cultures that were actively trading and creating magnificent legacies during the middle ages. This page is a starting place to research more information for personal knowledge and recreating a medieval African persona for the SCA. This is by no means meant to be an in-depth researched piece, but something for me to jot down some ideas on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Medieval African Cultures at a Glance
Ghana / Mali / Benin
These first two kingdoms covered roughly a similar area in what is today Mali (not to be confused with Modern Ghana, which is located further south). Benin was located closer to where Ghana is today. There is some similarity between these kingdoms; although we don’t know much about Benin beyond some beautiful bronze plaques that have survived, there is enough similarity in artwork to indicate some shared cultural history. These cultures had an animistic religion, although Muslim traders brought Islam and the Arabic written language to Mali, Ghana and Mali. Timbuktu became a major center of scholarly learning in the Muslim world. The cultures thrived up into the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese came in and peed all over everything. If you are looking for a persona connected to the heritage of West Africa, pagan animistic or Muslim religion, opportunities to recreate wooden or bronze sculpture, consider looking into one of these cultures.
Ethiopia had a very rich culture with connections to the ancient Middle East. According to legend, Ethiopians trace their Judeo-Christian heritage back to the Queen of Sheba, a legendary Ethiopian queen who had a child by King Solomon. Ethiopian culture adopted Christianity early on and it evolved completely independently of Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity. Ethiopia is the only African culture that was never conquered by Arabs or Europeans, and remained its own kingdom from ancient times up through the 1960s, when its people overthrew their king in favor of a more modern form of government. Ethiopians had their own written language, and still has some very beautiful ancient synagogues and medieval churches with surviving illuminated manuscripts. If you are looking for an African persona with similarities to European religions, art, and architecture, Ethiopia might be for you.
Located on the Southeastern coast, Zimbabwe enjoyed good trade relationships with Arab merchants (who brought goods from Arabia, India, and China), Portugese (in the sixteenth century), and other African civilizations. It’s possible that ancient Greeks knew of this civilization. Pottery shards found in the area indicate an ancient trade relationship with Egypt as well. There is a beautiful mosque near the coast made entirely out of coral, and further inland is a formidable castle. Zimbabwe had a lot of gold to mine and use for trade. After establishing trade with Arabs, Zimbabwean culture became Muslim. A Zimbabwean persona might be a good choice if you like gold metalwork, castles, Arabic influences, and ties to Western Europe via Portugal in late period.
North African Arab / Berber / Egypt
During the Middle Ages, the peoples along the North African coast and Sahara were more heavily influenced by Islam and Arabic culture. The Berbers were a nomadic people throughout this area. Egypt, Carthage, and much of the coast was considered part of the Roman Empire until Arabs conquered it in the 8th century. Closer to the west there was trade and interaction with sub-Saharan West African kingdoms and Islamic Spain. You might consider a persona from this area if you are interested in Islamic / Arabic culture, Mediterranean climate, the desert lifestyle, or attacking Spain.
Resources for More Information, presented in a disorganized heap:
Hunwick, John O. (2003). Timbuktu and the Songahy Empire: Al-Sa’di’s Ta’rikh Al-sudan Down to 1613 and other Contemporary Documents. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 488 Pages. ISBN 9-00412-822-4.
The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa by Patricia and Frederick McKissack
African History on the Internet page by Stnford Junior University has lots of links to books, articles, and other helpful resources.
National Museum of African Art – a place to look for period art that could help determine costuming and lifestyle choices for a persona
Ibn Battuta in Black Africa by Said Hamdun
Ancient Africa’s Black Kingdoms
Lost Kingdoms of Africa – this is a GREAT four-part BBC series
which I’ve already gushed about here.
Youtube – search results for Medieval Africa.
Not everything here is terribly scholarly, but you can surf from one interesting video to another for hours.
Copyright 2014 by Anne McKinney. <sofyachy at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.