was a term widely used among Christian writers in Europe
during the Middle Ages. The term's meaning evolved during its history.
In the early centuries of the Common Era, Greek and Latin writings
used this term to refer to the people who lived in desert areas in and
near the Roman province of Arabia Petraea, and who were specifically
distinguished from others as a people known as Arabs. In Europe
during the Early Middle Ages, the term came to be associated with
tribes of Arabia as well.
By the 12th century, "Saracen" had become synonymous with "Muslim" in
literature. Such expansion in the meaning of the term
had begun centuries earlier among the Byzantine Greeks, as evidenced
in documents from the 8th century. In the Western languages
before the 16th century, "Saracen" was commonly used to refer to
Arabs, and the words "Muslim" and "Islam" were generally not
used (with a few isolated exceptions).
1 Early usage and origins
2 Medieval usage
3 See also
Early usage and origins
12th-century Reliquary of Saint Stanislaus in the
Wawel Cathedral in
Kraków is an exquisite example of
Saracen art from
The term Saraceni may be derived from the Semitic triliteral root srq
"to steal, rob, plunder", and perhaps more specifically from the noun
sāriq (Arabic: سارق), pl. sariqīn (سارقين), which means
"thief, marauder, plunderer". Other possible Semitic roots are šrq
"east" and šrkt "tribe, confederation".
2nd century work, Geography, describes Sarakēnḗ (Ancient
Greek: Σαρακηνή) as a region in the northern Sinai
Ptolemy also mentions a people called the Sarakēnoí
(Ancient Greek: οἱ Σαρακηνοί) living in the northwestern
Arabian Peninsula (near neighbor to the Sinai).
Eusebius in his
Ecclesiastical history narrates an account wherein Pope Dionysius of
Alexandria mentions Saracens in a letter while describing the
persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius: "Many were, in
the Arabian mountain, enslaved by the barbarous 'sarkenoi'." The
Augustan History also refers to an attack by "Saraceni" on Pescennius
Niger's army in
Egypt in 193, but provides little information as to
Hippolytus of Rome
Hippolytus of Rome and Uranius mention three distinct peoples in
Arabia during the first half of the third century: the "Taeni", the
"Saraceni" and the "Arabes". The "Taeni", later identified with the
Arab people called "Tayy", were located around
Khaybar (an oasis north
of Medina) and also in an area stretching up to the Euphrates. The
"Saraceni" were placed north of them. These Saracens, located in
the northern Hejaz, were described as people with a certain military
ability who were opponents of the
Roman Empire and who were classified
by the Romans as barbarians.
The Saracens are described as forming the "equites" (heavy cavalry)
Phoenicia and Thamud. In one document the defeated enemies of
Diocletian's campaign in the
Syrian Desert are described as Saracens.
4th century military reports make no mention of
Arabs but refer
to as 'Saracens' groups ranging as far east as
Mesopotamia that were
involved in battles on both the Sasanian and Roman sides. The
Saracens were named in the Roman administrative document Notitia
Dignitatum—dating from the time of
Theodosius I in the 4th
century—as comprising distinctive units in the Roman army. They were
distinguished in the document from Arabs.
Saracens landing on a coast, 915
Beginning no later than the early fifth century, Christian writers
began to equate Saracens with Arabs. Saracens were associated with
Ishmaelites (descendants of Abraham's older son Ishmael) in some
strands of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic genealogical thinking.The
Jerome (d. 420) are the earliest known version of the
Ishmaelites chose to be called Saracens in order to
identify with Abraham's "free" wife Sarah, rather than as Hagarenes,
which would have highlighted their association with Abraham's "slave
woman" Hagar. This claim was popular during the Middle Ages, but
derives more from Paul’s allegory in the New Testament letter to the
Galatians than from historical data.The name "Saracen" was not
indigenous among the populations so described but was applied to them
by Greco-Roman historians based on Greek place names.
Middle Ages progressed, usage of the term in the Latin West
changed, but its connotation remained negative, associated with
opponents of Christianity, and its exact definition is unclear. In
an 8th-century polemical work,
John of Damascus
John of Damascus criticized the
Saracens as followers of a false prophet and "forerunner[s] to the
By the 12th century, Medieval Europeans had more specific conceptions
of Islam and used the term "Saracen" as an ethnic and religious
marker. In some Medieval literature, Saracens—that is,
Muslims—were described as black-skinned, while Christians were
lighter-skinned. An example is in The King of Tars, a medieval
romance. The Song of Roland, an
Old French 11th-century heroic
poem, refers to the black skin of Saracens as their only exotic
In his Levantine Diary, covering the years 1699-1740, the Damascene
writer ibn Kanan (Arabic: محمد بن كَنّان
الصالحي) used the term sarkan to mean "travel on a military
mission" from the
Near East to parts of Southern Europe which were
Ottoman Empire rule, particularly
Cyprus and Rhodes.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Medieval Christian views on Muhammad
^ a b c Daniel, p. 53.
^ a b c d e f g Retso, pp. 505-506.
^ "Saracen," Encyclopædia Britannica. 2012. Britannica Concise
Encyclopedia. 27 April 2012.
^ Kahf, p. 181.
^ Retsö, p. 96
^ Tolan, John V. (2002). Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European
Imagination. Columbia University Press. p. XV.
^ Shahîd, Irfan (1984). Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the
Study of Byzantium and the Arabs. Dumbarton Oaks. p. 125.
^ Isabel Toral-Niehoff: "Saraca". In: Brill’s New Pauly, ed. Hubert
Cancik et al. Brill Reference Online
(doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1101160). Accessed 8
^ Retsö, p. 457.
^ a b c Retsö, pp. 464–466.
^ Retsö, p. 517.
^ Rubenstein, p. 121.
^ Retsö, pp. 505–506.
^ Daniel, p. 246.
^ "The Fount of Knowledge" . "Gotiska Ärkestiftet av de Sanna
ortodoxt kristna." 28 April 2012.
^ Heng, p. 334.
^ Heng, pp. 231, 422.
^ "The King of Tars", The Crusades Project at the University of
Rochester. 28 April 2012.
^ Kahf, p. 31.
^ "The Chronicles of Ash-Sham". (The Daily Events As of 1111 Hijri /
1699 CE ) and abriged in Yawmiat Shamiyya (Chronicles of Ash-Sham)
"الحوادث اليومية من تاريخ أحد عشر وألف
ومية" October 15, 2015.
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