Robin Hood has had many companions over the years and more recently, in the age of Hollywood, these have become more diverse, so too the actors who portray them. Dr Adam Simmons from Nottingham Trent University considers the history of these depictions and who they could have been during the Middle Ages.
‘Something different is happening here’. Such was the phrase used by Jamie Foxx in an interview with his co-star Taren Egerton to The IMDb Show to describe their 2018 contemporary remake of the classic story of Robin Hood. Whilst the film gave the tale a modern twist, one thing that certainly was not different was the historical significance of a black actor playing a major lead in the Robin Hood story whose character was equally doused in historical possibility in addition to casting an internationally recognised actor. Similarly, this was also the case for Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Azeem in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Both offer gateways into a broader, too commonly ignored, discussion: African diasporas in the medieval Midlands in an historical context.
The medieval African presence in the wider Midlands area has long been pondered thanks to the so-called Derbyshire man in a thirteenth-century abbreviated manuscript of the Domesday Book. The image of an African man, seemingly of low status, is associated with the entries for Derbyshire manors and appears to be very suggestive of an otherwise largely unknown regional community. The depiction of the man has particularly been suggested to reflect migration to the British Isles during the Crusades, either willingly or as prisoners. For any film lovers out there, this may immediately spark thoughts of one of the most iconic companions of Robin Hood, especially as far as the films are concerned, Azeem (or to give him his full name Azeem Edin Bashir Al Bakir), Robin Hood’s Muslim companion. Morgan Freeman’s Azeem and Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood remain close companions throughout following their escape from a Jerusalem jail from the film’s outset. The very notion of intolerance within the Crusader States, which has long been a key component of the narrative of the Crusades, is increasingly being challenged. Whilst only a film, what may it suggest for understanding history? Nothing specific about Azeem’s origins are ever suggested in the film, but should this be considered nothing more than a director’s choice to cast an established and internationally recognised actor? The whole story of Robin and Azeem in the film, whilst fictional, actually comes very close to a possible reality. If anything, there is more suggestive evidence to support the existence of many multiple real-life ‘Azeems’ than there is for a real-life Robin Hood.
Remarkably, following from Morgan Freeman’s appearance in the American TV show African American Lives 2 (2008), hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr on PBS – a US genealogy show similar to the UK’s Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC) – DNA analysis showed that at least some of his ancestors were Tuareg and Songhai, who mostly resided in areas of modern Mali and wester Niger, among other areas. Whilst completely unrelated to the choice to cast Morgan Freeman as Azeem, his subsequent appearance on African American Lives even further highlights that he was a historically significant actor to play Azeem. Mali was home to the kingdom of Mali between the early thirteenth century to the fifteenth century, which had expanded into areas once ruled by the kingdom of Ghāna. Many rulers of Mali, including the odd neighbouring ruler, undertook the Hajj to Mecca, most famously Mansa Musa in 1324-5. It is more than likely that others of Ghāna and Mali travelled to Egypt and beyond. Similarly, many black Africans, known broadly as the al-Sūdān to contemporary Muslim writers, formed large contingents of Egyptian armies. Not all were slaves, or at least not for the entirety of their lives. A black African Muslim was just as likely to have travelled to Jerusalem as part of a military expedition or as a trader or even a wanderer, as any non-black Muslim. Once there, there is no reason to conclude that at least some did not remain. Historically- speaking, Azeem could reflect one of these Africans. References to ‘Saracens’ or ‘Moors’ should not immediately be assumed to have been North African/Saharan Imazighen, Arabs, or Syrians.
The presence of a North African ‘Moor’, such as Jamie Foxx’s ‘Little John’, could equally be supported by a wider historical context. Unlike Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx may not have such a direct link to his character’s possible origins (as far is known), but it further opens up the discussion for African diasporas in medieval Britain. Another Muslim kingdom of the Sahara was Kānem, situated in modern-day Chad. We know that multiple of its rulers also undertook the Hajj to Mecca and are even implied to have funded projects in Cairo along the way. For Little John to have been a Muslim from Kānem, or indeed Mali, who had been met in the Holy Land would be perfectly feasible. Any companion, whether free or enslaved, coming from the Holy Land to Britain during the Crusades were by no means guaranteed to be of a certain ethnicity. Indeed, Crusader sources often chose to focus on religion rather than race so, conceivably, a Muslim ‘Saracen’ was just as possible to have been a West African Muslim as an East or South Asian Muslim, than an ethnic Arab.
If we choose to only look for diversity only when names or origins are clear, we risk ignoring so much more context. Both Morgan Freeman’s Azeem and Jamie Foxx’s Little John do much more than act as examples of each actors’ skills as entertainers, but also act as representations of representative historical realities. Their casting had no agenda, but, as it turns out, both were entertaining and reflect a more than possible historically accurate narrative to accompany the broader tale of Robin Hood. As work continues on this question and more evidence is uncovered, it is only a matter of time before a greater picture emerges. In comparison to Europe, English has less known evidence of the scale of the presence of its black population but this is the result of the evidence, rather than the reality. It is remarkable how much narrative already well-known sources can still provide, especially when we consider the question of who a ‘Saracen’ or ‘Moor’ could be. This does not even begin to touch on how many more artistic depictions like the Derbyshire man may still be brought to public attention and what future archaeological finds, such as the few known burials in Gloucestershire, East Anglia, and at Whithorn in Scotland, dating to between the tenth and early thirteenth centuries, may suggest for broadening our understanding of the black presence across medieval England and further afield.