Sir Walter Scott, Jews and Saracens, and Other Sundry Subjects

by Ibn Warraq

From New English Review, May 2009. 


Edward Said, the late Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has, in his influential Orientalism, a characteristically shallow, sneering aside on Sir Walter Scott, and, in particular, on his novel, The Talisman:
                     “In Scott’s novel The Talisman (1825), Sir Kenneth (of the Crouching Leopard) battles a single Saracen to a standoff somewhere in the Palestinian desert; as the Crusader and his opponent, who is Saladin in disguise, later engage in conversation, the Christian discovers his Muslim antagonist to be not so bad a fellow after all. Yet he remarks:
                ‘I well thought…that your blinded race had their descent
                 from the foul fiend, without whose aid you would never
                 have been able to maintain this blessed land of Palestine
                 against so many valiant soldiers of God. I speak not thus
                 of thee in particular, Saracen, but generally of thy people
                 and religion. Strange is it to me, however, not that you
                 should have the descent from the Evil One, but that you
                 should boast of it.’
                 “For indeed the Saracen does boast of tracing his race’s line back to Eblis, the Muslim Lucifer. But what is truly curious is not the feeble historicism by which Scott makes the scene “medieval,” letting Christian attack Muslim theologically in a way nineteenth-century Europeans would not (they would, though); rather, it is the airy condescension of damning a whole people “generally” while mitigating the offense with a cool “I don’t mean you in particular.””
Not only does Said make the unwarranted assumption that Sir Kenneth is voicing Scott’s thoughts [Said would have done well to heed Waugh’s motto to Brideshead Revisited, “I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they”], he misunderstands and or at least fails to mention, the entire import of Scott’s novel, the contrast between the two cultures, particularly in the early chapters, with the Muslim one emerging to its advantage many times over. We come away from the novel with a sense of the chivalrous superiority of the Saracens.[1] (Incidentally, Said accuses Scott, creator of the historical novel, of “feeble historicism”, when he clearly means “historicity”).
Sir Walter Scott, under the influence of the Scottish historian William Robertson, who had perpetuated the Enlightenment myth of the superiority of Islamic civilization, continued the theme of the vain and avaricious Christian Crusaders in contrast to the chivalrous and honorable Saracens. Jonathan Riley-Smith summarizes Scott’s influence on the entire Romantic movement and their attitude to the Crusades:
“Four of Scott’s novels involved crusades and crusaders. Count Robert of Paris [1831] was set in Constantinople at the time of the First Crusade; the other three were set during the Third Crusade. Ivanhoe [1819] and The Betrothed [1825] were concerned with events on the home front, while the plot of The Talisman [1825] was set in Palestine and centered on the friendship between a Scottish knight and Saladin, who appeared in a bewildering array of disguises, including that of a skilled physician who cured King Richard of England. The novels painted a picture of crusaders who were brave and glamorous, but also vainglorious, avaricious, childish, and boorish. Few of them were genuinely moved by religion or the crusade ideal; most had taken the cross out of pride, greed, or ambition. The worst of them were the brothers of the military orders, who may have been courageous and disciplined but were also arrogant, privileged, corrupt, voluptuous, and unprincipled. An additional theme, the cultural superiority of the Muslims, which was only hinted at in the other novels, pervaded The Talisman”.[2]
Edward Said, in fact, chose the one novel of the crusades which explicitly extolled the virtues of the Saracens and the superiority of their culture, and not the contrary, as he claimed in Orientalism. I shall come back to The Talisman, once I have gone through the other three novels involving crusades or crusaders.
IVANHOE [1819]
Ivanhoe, set in late Twelfth Century England, also displays Scott’s more general concerns, his commitment to religious and racial tolerance, and his Enlightenment abhorrence of superstition and fanaticism, whether the unreflective kind of the masses, or the more dogmatic variety of the religious bigot.
Scott, though often considered a respectable historian, is quite cavalier with the historical facts in Ivanhoe, or as A.N.Wilson put it, “wildly inaccurate”.[3] Scott himself admits the unhistorical nature of many of the details in a footnote, “…but neither will I allow that the author of a modern antique romance is obliged to confine himself to the introduction of those manners only which can be proved to have absolutely existed in the times he is depicting, so that he restrain himself to such as are plausible and natural, and contain no obvious anachronism”.[4] And yet, Scott does manage to recreate a vivid past which he treats with respect, and, paceRiley-Smith, does not dismiss the Age of Chivalry as a total fraud. Scott wrote in his Essay on Chivalry that, “from the wild and overstrained courtesies of Chivalry have been derived our present system of manners. It is certainly not faultless….Yet it has grace and dignity unknown to classic times, when women were slaves, and men coarse and vulgar, or overbearing and brutal as suited their humour, without respect to that of the rest of their society. Such being the tone and spirit of Chivalry, derived from love, devotion, and valour…”.[5]
Saracens do not play a significant role in the novel, though a minor controversy was drummed up by those who objected to Scott’s introduction of two putatively black Muslim slaves at the beginning of the novel. Here is Scott’s description of the two slaves, Hamet and Abdallah, “These two squires [the crusader, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and his companion] were followed by two attendants, whose dark visages, white turbans, and the Oriental form of their garments, showed them to be natives of some distant Eastern country. The whole appearance of this warrior and his retinue was wild and outlandish; the dress of his squires was gorgeous, and his Eastern attendants wore silver collars round their throats, and bracelets of the same metal upon their swarthy legs and arms, of which the latter were naked from the elbow, and the former from mid-leg to ankle…. They were armed with crooked sabers, having the hilt and baldric inlaid with gold, and matched with Turkish daggers of yet more costly workmanship. Each of them bore at his saddle-bow a bundle of darts or javelins, about four feet in length, having sharp steel heads, a weapon much in use among the Saracens, and of which the memory is yet preserved in the martial exercise called el jerrid, still practiced in Eastern countries. “The steeds of these attendants were in appearance as foreign as their riders. They were of Saracen origin, and consequently of Arabian descent;….”[6]
A few pages later, the Crusader, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, describes the two slaves, rather confusingly, as “our Turkish captives”.[7]That he perhaps had blacks in mind rather than Turks, or at least ethnic Turks, is borne out by Scott’s footnote on slaves,
“The severe accuracy of some critics has objected to the complexion of the slaves of Brian de Bois-Guilbert, as being totally out of costume and propriety. I remember the same objection being made to a set of sable functionaries whom my friend, Mat Lewis, introduced as the guards and mischief-doing satellites of the wicked Baron in his Castle Spectre.[8] Mat treated the objection with great contempt, and averred in reply, that he made the slaves black in order to obtain a striking effect of contrast, and that, could he have derived a similar advantage from making his heroine blue, blue she should have been.
“I do not pretend to plead the immunities of my order so highly as this ; but neither will I allow that the author of a modern antique romance is obliged to confine himself to the introduction of those manners only which can be proved to have absolutely existed in the times he is depicting, so that he restrain himself to such as are plausible and natural, and contain no obvious anachronism. In this point of view, what can be more natural than that the Templars, who, we know, copied closely the luxuries of the Asiatic warriors with whom they fought, should use the service of the enslaved Africans whom the fate of war transferred to new masters? I am sure, if there are no precise proofs of their having done so, there is nothing, on the other hand, that can entitle us positively to conclude that they never did. Besides, there is an instance in romance.
“John of Rampayne, an excellent juggler and minstrel, undertook to effect the escape of one Audulf de Bracy, by presenting himself in disguise at the court of the king, where he was confined. For this purpose, he stained ‘ his hair and his whole body entirely as black as jet, so that nothing was white but his teeth,’ and succeeded in imposing himself on the king as an Ethiopian minstrel. He effected, by stratagem, the escape of the prisoner. Negroes, therefore, must have been known in England in the dark ages.”[9]
In defence of Sir Walter Scott, there were indeed blacks in Britain before the 12 century. Ironically, there were Africans in Britain even before the arrival of the English; they were soldiers in the Roman Imperial Army stationed in the South. Among the troops defending Hadrian’s Wall was a division of “moors”, raised in North Africa, and garrisoned near Carlisle, north of England in the Third Century C.E. [10] Archaeological finds in Norfolk suggest a black presence in Britain round the year 1000 C.E.[11] When the records are no longer silent, we have further firm evidence of blacks in Britain in the 16th Century. But, the intervening years – the years of the events in Ivanhoe – must also have had their share of blacks.
The real tension in the novel is provided by the antagonism of the Saxons for the Normans -the former determined to preserve their rites, ritual, language, and land from the overwhelming manners and sheer force of arms of the latter. Caught between the two are the fortunes of a Jewish money-lender, and his beautiful daughter, Rebecca. Along the way, Scott praises the original ideals of the Crusaders, but pours scorn on the grubby reality of their actual behaviour. Cedric, the Saxon, father of Crusader Ivanhoe, has this to say about the pilgrims and crusaders: “Palestine! how many ears are turned to the tales which dissolute crusaders, or hypocritical pilgrims, bring from that fatal land! I too might ask—I too might enquire—I too might listen with a beating heart to fables which the wily strollers devise to cheat us into hospitality —but no—The son who has disobeyed me is no longer mine; nor will I concern myself more for his fate than for that of the most worthless among the millions that ever shaped the cross on their shoulder, rushed into excess and blood-guiltiness, and called it an accomplishment of the will of God.”[12]
It would be foolish to impute these sentiments of a character in his novel to Scott, but there is good external evidence to think that they do reflect his personal views. He tells us that King Richard’s repeated victories in the Holy Land, “had been rendered fruitless, his romantic attempts to besiege Jerusalem disappointed, and the fruit of all the glory which he had acquired had dwindled into an uncertain truce with the Sultan Saladin.”[13] In other words, Richard’s act may have been “romantic”, but ultimately “fruitless,” and the result, “an uncertain truce.” Again, it is Scott speaking in his own voice, when he contrasts the original shield of Bois-Guilbert which the latter exchanges for one with a more pretentious device, the original high-mindedness giving way to cupidity, “His first had only borne the general device of his rider, representing two knights riding upon one horse, an emblem expressive of the original humility and poverty of the Templars, qualities they had since exchanged for the arrogance and wealth that finally occasioned their suppression.”[14]
Scott more generally is concerned with fanaticism, one could even take the motto, usually attributed to Scott himself, to Chapter XXXV as the motto to the entire novel,
        “Arouse the tiger of Hyrcanian deserts,
        Strive with half-starved lion for his prey;
        Lesser the risk, than rouse the slumbering fire
        Of wild fanaticism.”[15]
The real heroine of the novel is Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of Isaac, the Jewish merchant. In describing the attitudes of various characters to Jews, Scott is able to paint a sympathetic portrait of a despised people in Twelfth Century England, and implicitly criticize religious fanaticism as a source of perpetual strife and instability.
In Part Two, we shall look at the historical reality of the life of Jews in Medieval England, and Scott’s imaginative, empathic evocation of their plight.
[1] Paul Pelckmans. Walter Scott’s Orient: The Talisman. In Oriental Propects Edd. Barfoot, D’Haen. Rodopi: Amsterdam & New York, 1998, p.99
[2] Jonathan Riley-Smith. The Crusades, Christianity,and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, p.65.
[3] A.N.Wilson. Introduction, Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1986, p.viii
[4] Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1986, p.552.
[5] The Miscellaneous Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott Bart , Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1847 Vol. VI, p.49.
[6] Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1986, pp.20-21.
[7] Ibid.,p.26
[8] Matthew Lewis [1775-1818] Castle Spectre [1796]
[9] Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1986, pp.551-552.
[10] Peter Fryer. Staying Power. The History of Black People in Britain. [3rd Edn.] University of Alberta: 1987, p.1.
[11] Ibid.,p.2.
[12] Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1986, pp.38-39.
[13] Ibid.,p.81.
[14] Ibid.,p.97. 
[15] Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1986, p.387.