The Black Ellesmere Shipman

Chaucer describes the Shipman in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales as possibly from Dartmouth in Devon, as armed with a dagger, as lacking a “nice” conscience, and as experienced in the weathers, harbors, and tides from Sweden to Spain. He also describes him as brown from the sun, “The hoote somer hadde maad his hewe al broun” (CT, I, 394). The Ellesmere portraitist follows Chaucer in depicting the dagger, which hangs from a strap about his neck so that it is directly under his arm and easy to grab (Figure 1). He also depicts the Shipman as dark or black. Rather than the fair or brown hair that the other pilgrims have, he gives the Shipman tightly curled black hair and a forked curly black beard. [1] Although Chaucer’s description does not seem to indicate a person of African descent, it does indicate a geographic ambit that would include familiarity with north Africa. The Ellesmere portrait expands upon Chaucer. In so doing, the portrait prompts further questions about the demographic composition of early fifteenth century England, about the networks within which the Ellesmere manuscript was patronized and created, and about the Ellesmere manuscript’s planner or supervisor, whose ordinatio evinces his understanding that Chaucer saw England as connected culturally, economically, and politically to the world outside its watery borders .[2]

Figure 1. Courtesy of the Huntington Library. San Marino, Huntington Library MS EL 26 C 9, fol. 143v.

The most recent work on Blacks in early England suggests how little we actually know about the population of medieval Britain. There were certainly Blacks, either from Africa or Spain, in the Roman legions that occupied England and were a part of the forces on Hadrian’s Wall at least by 208 CE.[3] There are well- documented Early Modern references to “moors,” “blackamoores,” and “negars” in English parish records, to Black musicians in European courts, including those of Henry VII and Henry VIII, and to Black workers of lower but free status.[4] There were also many Africans throughout southern Europe, some of whom either worked on or were enslaved on the ships that enabled the medieval global economy that Chaucer alludes to in The Man of Law’s Tale with Constance’s sea journey from Syria to Northumbria.[5] English people, such as Chaucer, who travelled for business, war, diplomacy, or pilgrimage would have been aware that the world was not composed of white Europeans with light, straight hair and, in fact, could slip into Wales and find a nation with genetic links to Iberia rather than to Germany or Sweden.

Chaucer’s reference to skin color might be simply what he implies — the Shipman is out in the sun and weather and is brown — but the Ellesmere artist adds hair, beard, and features that suggest more than a weathered visage and possibly link the Shipman to other late medieval European images of Blacks. The work of Jean Devisse and Michel Mollat, which has been augmented by Paul H.D. Kaplan, for the project The Image of the Black in Western Art provides both a trove of early images and a historical and cultural commentary upon the appearances and uses of Blacks in the European visual arts, which become more common from the middle of the fourteenth century .[6] A fragment from a carved tympanum from the central portal of the west façade of Notre Dame Cathedral (c. 1220-30), which depicts the Resurrection of the Dead, includes a young black man; and a mosaic from the former Trinitarian Convent in Rome depicts Christ freeing two captives, one white and one Black.[7] During the later Middle Ages, artists increasingly darken the complexion of one of the Magi, of the knight St. Maurice, and of Prester John.[8] About 1305 Giotto depicted a black man in “The Flagellation” section of his cycle of scenes from the life of Christ in the Scrovegni Chapel. In 1375, Abraham Cresques completed for Charles V of France his great Catalan Atlas, which included Africa. The king of Mali, Mansa Musa, who demonstrated to the world his power and wealth when he went on hadj in 1324,  stopping in Alexandria before continuing on, is depicted wearing a massive gold crown and holding up a nugget of gold the size of a softball. [9] In 1329 Pietro Lorenzetti included a well-dressed black man in his altarpiece for the Church of the Carmine in Sienna, where he walks companionably with a group of white citizens in a civic procession. Peter Mark speculates that the scene suggests the realities of daily life in a prosperous Italian city, where citizens were well aware of Africa whose wealth in gold, ivory, salt, and slaves was carried on trans-Saharan routes to merchandizers in Egypt, in Sicily, and in southern European ports. They would have seen both free and unfree Africans. Boccaccio’s tale of Alatiel in Decameron 2.7 suggests the intermixing of peoples from the Middle East, north Africa, and Europe within the trading networks of the Mediterranean. [10] As recent archaeological studies have  demonstrated, Africa was actively linked to a sophisticated global economy whose networks, established by alliances among Arab traders and African princes, fed the appetite for luxury goods in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. During the fifteenth century, when Portugal began exploring the west African coast and establishing its own trading networks, a number of maps were produced that evince a growing knowledge of African geography and society . [11]

Figure 2. Courtesy of the British Library Board. London, British library MS Add. 42130, fol. 157r.

By the early fifteenth century the Ellesmere artist would have had maps of the world available, along with more instances of Black figures, including some notable English manuscript examples.[12] The Luttrell Psalter (London, British Library MS Add. 42130), produced in the first half of the fourteenth century for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, contains figures of “foreigners,” some of whom are Black.[13] Opposite Psalm 86:4 (“Behold, the foreigners and Tyre, and the people of the Ethiopians, these were there.”) on folio157r, there are three hairy and bearded men, one purplish with flowing robes and an Eastern headdress; one white and armed; one dark and entirely naked, holding a green club (Figure 2). Michael Camille has suggested that these figures are “others” or foreigners and represent Sir Geoffrey’s enemies — a Saracen, a traitor, and an Ethiopian whose nakedness contrasts to Sir Geoffrey, who is encased in elaborate armor. He argues that, at a time when plans for a new crusade to the Holy Lands were being considered, both dark-skinned external opponents and light-skinned traitors constitute “foreignness,” or those opposed to a holy chivalric endeavor. There are other Black figures — a monkey carter, the executioner of St. John the Baptist, a Black knight, and a dark Scots knight — which suggest the artists’ knowledge of conventional details like angry profiles and unruly hair that were attached to Africans or Moors.

The Luttrell Psalter artist’s depiction of the Ethiopian’s long, lean naked body seems to resonate in the work of a later artist who depicted the Temperaments for John of Foxton’s Liber Cosmographiae (Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.15.21), produced in York in 1408. The naked figure of Melancholic Man (Figure 3), has the dark long lean body and wiry hair and beard of the Luttrell figure. He holds a crow or raven and carries coins in his mouth as signs of the link between melancholy and avarice; he stabs hims elf as do the vices Despair and Anger.[14] Both figures are torqued to their rights and hold weapons in their left hands. Although neither represents a virtue, both are depicted with care for their expressions. The Luttrell Psalter figure looks and gestures towards the text, and Melancholy Man looks downward as he inserts a knife into his right breast. One may be foreign and threatening to the world of the Luttrell family and the other lost in self-destroying melancholy, but both are human beings, not caricatures of barbarians. Each artist has worked towards a complexity that suggests an effort to depict idea, affect, and character.

Figure 3. Courtesy of The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Melancholy, Liber Cosmographiae, Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.15.21, fol. 14v.

The Ellesmere Shipman shares skin tone, hair, and beard with these two Black figures. Because he is in the left margin, he is torqued left, with his left arm raised; he holds the reins with his right hand with his knife securely under his right arm. The white cap to the Shipman’s knife handle is similar to that of Melancholic Man, as is the knife’s size. Where Melancholy’s knife is embedded in his breast, the Shipman’s is directly above his right hand and ready to use. If he were using Melancholy as a model for the Shipman, it would be easy for the Ellesmere artist to move that right hand and arm from the position required to stick the knife into the breast to a position of readiness. Unlike the Luttrell Ethiopian and Melancholy, the Shipman is fully clothed in a black tunic and leggings not unlike Chaucer’s clothing depicted in the same manuscript. Where Chaucer has a black head covering, the Shipman wears a red hat. The Ellesmere artist gave the Shipman a face that is neither grotesque nor threatening. The Shipman’s head and facial expression has an affinity to that of an elegantly modeled St. Maurice painted c. 1420-30. This St. Maurice carries the Holy Lance on his left, rests his right hand on his sword as he gazes forward (Figure 4). Devisse notes that the panel, now separated and in an evangelical church in Quittelsdorf, Germany, has “kinship” with early fifteenth century Bohemian paintings. For Chaucerians, the Bohemian provenance is suggestive, since the cult of a Black St. Maurice had become popular in Bohemia after Charles IV, father of Queen Anne, had Maurice represented as a Black knight in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Karlstein Castle. [15]

Figure 4. Courtesy of Hickey & Robertson, Houston/The Menil Foundation. St. Maurice.jpg

The networks of influence suggested by the affinities among these figures adumbrate the lines of communication among medieval artists working on deluxe manuscripts for patrons who existed in a realm of political and cultural facility inhabited by an interconnected group of families. The Luttrell Psalter was probably created in Lincolnshire and, as Lucy Freeman Sandler, quoting E.G. Millar, notes, “represents East Anglian art in its ‘decadence.’ ”[16] The manuscript did not remain with the Luttrell family, but passed on soon after its completion when Sir Geoffrey died. By the late fourteenth century, it was owned by Joan de Bohun and then by members of the Fitzalan family, of which she was a member. Joan de Bohun was the matriarch of a family known for manuscript appreciation and production, as well as for political influence.[17] John de Foxton’s Liber Cosmographiae was probably made in York and was donated to the Trinitarian Convent in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, but there are also signs that it may have been once owned by John Erghome, prior of the Augustinian convent at York, whose library and family are associated with book-collecting and -learning in late medieval England.[18] Friedman speculates that, while the first pictures — those of the Temperaments — were painted in York, the manuscript may have been sent south for its later more sophisticated mythological pictures.[19] The Ellesmere manuscript was probably made in London and carefully planned and researched both textually and artistic ally for a wealthy patron.[20] Though the manuscript was written by a single scribe, there were three illustrators; the illustrator known as Hand A, who painted seventeen of the portraits, did the Shipman. [21] As Alfred David notes, the manuscript itself might have been commissioned by Thomas Chaucer and soon after completion passed to John de Vere, twelfth earl of Oxford, possibly “by way of Thomas Beaufort or John of Bedford,”  thus travelling through Lancastrian hands.[22] The de Bohuns were in the immediate circle  around Edward III, and their own support of and service to the crown was manifest in ties of marriage.  Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester was married to Eleanor, the older daughter of Humphrey and Joan de Bohun, and Henry of Bolinbroke’s, later Henry IV, first wife, Mary, was the younger of the de Bohun sisters. Though Humphrey died in 1373, Joan lived until 1419 as one of the “power women” of late medieval England, remaining actively involved in politics, culture, and the maintenance and growth of her vast estates in Essex.

Manuscripts such as these, commissioned and/or owned by noble families of wealth and prestige, were carefully planned by a supervisor, who would have directed each piece of the manuscript’s construction. Though an artist might not have had access to the text, the supervisor would have been familiar enough with the text to outline a plan of illustration. The work of Edwin Ford Piper, which emphasized that the portraits are not simply decorative but represent an “interpretation based on careful study of Chaucer’s text,” and of Martin Stevens, which noted the importance of the placement of the portraits opposite the tales and thus the linkage between teller and tale, was and is critical to understanding the shaping of the Ellesmere manuscript. Richard K. Emmerson has carried this interest in the interpretive valence of the portraits a step farther, arguing that we should avoid the need to tie the image only to the text and, instead, read the images as both figural and discursive, in the sense that they can serve as readings of the text designed to shape a reader’s response to it. He prioritizes the role of the supervisor for the manuscript, who he believes made the two key decisions to have the pictures depict the tellers rather than the actions of their tales and to underline the relationship between teller and tale by placing them next to the tales, rather than in the General Prologue [23]

In this essay I extend Emmerson’s argument for what are the supervisor’s analytical and strategic decisions by reading the Shipman as belonging to an affinity of Black figures of a particular English line of descent. The company into which I have inserted the Ellesmere Shipman is a company of dark-skinned slender standing figures, each of whom has both hands employed, has black curly hair, is bearded, and bears a recognizable facial expression. The Shipman is, of course, riding a horse. However, since the artist has elongated his upper body and depicted his knees as unbent (a stance closest to that of the portrait of Chaucer), he rides as though he is standing. Both he and the Bohemian (?) St. Maurice are well-dressed in European clothing befitting their stations. Each of these figures is a sign — of foreignness, of melancholy, of occupation, or of sanctity — but each is also depicted as a human being. Together, they suggest that the supervisor went beyond Chaucer’s description of the Shipman as brown from the sun because he was attuned to the realities of life in early fifteenth-century port cities, aware of artistic ideas about Blacks in English art, and alert to the variety of the world that Chaucer evokes in the Canterbury Tales.

The supervisor may be Chaucer’s earliest perceptive critic. The quacking, honking, chrring, and cooing of the bird parliament becomes speech in the Tales and not the elevated courtly speech of Pandarus and Troilus. Chaucer’s Tales depict an England on the move — from every shire to Canterbury, from poverty to hoped-for wealth, from England to the Paris suburbs, to Orleans, to Italy, to Syria, to the realm of the great Khan — whose people cannot “be fitted” into an ideogram of order where obedient and silent peasants support the nobilities of church and state. The portraits of the pilgrims the Ellesmere manuscript are depictions of motions—of horses, of men and women on horses, of hand gestures, of bleeding wounds, of backs hunched forward, of arms raised.These are not portraits of noble men and women, nor are they portraits of uniform “English” pilgrims. As Scott points out, some skin tones are cinnamon, some white, some grayish, and one is black. In her prologue, the Wife of Bath proclaims, “I ne loved nevere by no discretioun,/ But evere folwede myn appetit,/ Al were he short or long, or blak, or whit” (CT III.622-4). Chaucer sets this line up so that “short” parallels “black” and “long” “white.”

The Wife here merely avers her catholic sexual appetite. However she does not say green or purple; she names a skin tone that belongs to human beings and may well have belonged to some human beings walking the streets of late medieval London. Where early printed editions of the works of Chaucer present the Shipman as another straight-haired European, the Ellesmere artist does not. [24] In so doing, the supervisor indicates an understanding of the bewildering variety and urgency of the pilgrims, who compose a social body politic where the feet are already on their way to becoming hands, a social body where the old metaphors of social order no longer apply. Camille has suggested that the Luttrell Psalter, or its supervisor, constructed a national identity in the illustrations. [25] The Ellesmere supervisor, hand-in-glove with Chaucer, offered a new reading of nation — not in terms of noble identities, laboring peasants, and threatening foreigners, but in terms of motion, of work, of narratives whose inconsistencies bespeak the confusions of their tellers and the ongoing movement between the shires of England and the world.

Works Cited

[1] Throughout this essay I have used the essays (cited individually) collected in Martin Stevens and Daniel Woodward, eds., The Ellesmere Chaucer: Essays in Interpretation (San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1995). The volume also contains a fold-out frontispiece of all the portraits. For a description of the Ellesmere pictures, see Kathleen L. Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts (London: Harvey Miller Publishers. 1996), pp. 114-7, Shipman at 142. Scott discusses the various skin tones of the pilgrims and notes the Shipman’s black skin tone, but does not mention the unruly black hair, beard, and prominent white corneas that were conventional details in medieval depictions of Africans.

[2] For an argument for a “global” Chaucer, see Marion Turner, Chaucer: a European Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019). In Island Garden: England’s Language of Nation from Gildas to Marvell (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2012), I have argued that those watery borders could be seen as defenses or entry points and the concept of an island nation used to encourage suspicion of or involvement in the world.

[3] BC 2, Primary History, Black History, 14 November 2012.;

[4] Onyeka, Blackmoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins (London: Narrative Eye, 2013); Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors: the Untold Story (London: One World Publications, 2017).

[5] See Lynn Staley, Following Chaucer: Offices of the Active Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020), pp. 107-16.

[6] David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., The Image of the Black in Western Art

(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), vol. 2, pts. 1 and 2.

[7] Jean Devisse in Bindman and Gates, the Image of the Black in Western Art, 2.1, pp.

145-8, fig. 110, 111, 112,113.

[8] For St, Maurice, see Jean Devise in Bindman and Gates, Image of the Black, vol 2, pt1, pp. 149-82. For the Magi and Prester John, see Jean Devise and Michel Mollat in vol. 2, pt. 2, pp. 31-82. See also Paul H.D. Kaplan’s Introduction to the New Edition of the project in vol. 2, pt. 2, pp. 1-30.

[9] See Devise and Mollat in Bindman and Gates, The Image of the Black in Western Art, new edition (2010), pp. 117-121.

[10] See Staley, Following Chaucer, pp. 111-2.

 [11] Peter Mark, Africans in European Eyes: the Portrayal of Black Africans in Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Europe (Syracuse: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, 1974), pp. 41-4. For the Magi, see pp. 44-53. For African trading networks, see François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar, The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, trans.Troy Tice (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2018); Charles Dibble, ed., Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019). For a history of mapping, see P.D. A. Harvey, Medieval Maps (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).

[12] For English maps, including maps now lost, see Evelyn Edson, Mapping Time and Space: How Medieval Mapmakers Viewed Their World (London: the British Library, 1997), especially pp. 135-44. In the Polychronicon, Ranulf Higden says that in Ethoiopia are men colored by the sun. He goes on to repeat the myths about barbarous races that dwell in these lands. See Higden, R. (2012). Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden, monachi Cestrensis: Together with the English Translations of John Trevisa and of an Unknown Writer of the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge Library Collection – Rolls) (C. Babington, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139225380, chap. XIX, pp. 156-9.

 [13] I am drawing here upon Michael Camille’s discussion of “foreigner” in his Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 276-94. For the illustrations, see figures 124, 125, 126, 127, 131. for the Luttrell Psalter, see Lucy Freeman Sandler, Gothic Manuscripts 1285-1385, 2 vols. (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1986), pp. 119-21.

[14] For discussions of the iconography, see John B. Friedman, ed., John de Foxton’s “Liber cosmographiae” (1408): an Edition and Codicological Study, Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History, 5 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988), p. liii; Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts, pp. 114-5. The picture is also reproduced in Bindman and Gates, The Image of the Black in Western Art, p. 47, fig. 15.

[15] Devisse, in Bindman, The Image of the Black in Western Art, 2, 1, 167-70. See figure 119 for the painting.

[16] Sandler, Gothic Manuscripts, p. 120.

[17] See Lucy Freeman Sandler, “Political Imagery in the Bohun Manuscripts,” in English Manuscript Studies, 1100-1700, vol. 10, ed. A.S.G. Edwards (London: British Library, 2002), pp. 114-53.

[18] Friedman, John de Foxton’s “Liber Cosmographiae, p. xviii; Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts, p. 116. See also K.W. Humphries, “The Library of John Erghome and Personal Libraries of the Fourteenth Century in England,” Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. Scientific Section, 18 (1982): 106-23; J.W. Clark, “The Catalogue of the Library of the Augustinian Friars at York, now first edited from the manuscript at Trinity College, Dublin,” Fasciculus (Cambridge, 1909) pp. 2-96.

[19] John B. Friedman, “John Siferwas and the Mythological Illustrations in the Liber Cosmographiae of Johnb de Foxton,” Speculum, 58 (1983): 391-418. Although Scott rejects Friedman’s suggestion of John Siferwas as the “de Foxton master,” she accepts that the manuscript may have been sent to southern England for these paintings. (Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts, p. 116.)

[20] See M.B. Parkes, “The Planning and Construction of the Ellesmere Manuscript,” 41- 48; Ralph Hanna III, “(The ) Editing (of) the Ellesmere Text,” 225-244; Derek Pearsall, “The Ellesmere Manuscript and Contemporary English Literary Manuscripts,” pp. 263-280 in Stevens and Woodward, The Ellesmere Chaucer.

[21] Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts, p. 141.

[22] Alfred David, “The Ownership and Use of the Ellesmere Manuscript,” pp. 307-326, in Stevens and Woodward, The Ellesmere Chaucer. For ownership and patronage, see Ralph Hanna III and A.S.G. Edwards, “Rotheley, the De Vere Circle, and the Ellesmere Chaucer,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 58 (1995): 11-35.

[23] Edwin Ford Piper, “The Miniatures of the Ellesmere Chaucer,” Philogical Quarterly 3 (1924): 241-65; Martin Stevens, “The Ellesmere Miniatures as illustrations of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,” Studies in Iconography 7-8 (1981-82): 113-34; Richard K. Emmerson, “Text and Image in the Ellesmere Portriats of the Tale-Tellers,” pp. 143-170, in Stevens and Woodward, The Ellesmere Chaucer.

[24] On early editions, see Betsy Bowden, “Visual Portraits of the Canterbury Pilgrims 1484(?)-1809,” in Stevens and Woodward, Ellesmere Chaucer, pp. 171-204. These editions are available on EEBO.

[25] See Camille, Mirror in Parchment, p. 347.