The story centers around a group of people that get lost during in the woods and -for no apparent reason- suddenly find themselves in 13th century Europe (the Netherlands, to be precise). They don't know how they got there and there doesn't seem to be much they can do about it, so they stay in a small town for at least year till they figure out what has happened to them. In the meantime they try and make a living for themselves. Some of them find work, some use their skills and knowledge from the future to make a living. One of them is a woman who has a dark skin.

My questions are:

  • How would people in the middle ages react to a dark-skinned person? There is no harbor in town and it's quite small, so chances are they've never seen someone with a dark skin. However, they might know of their existence because of the crusades: the story is placed at the start of the 13th century in the middle of the 5th crusade (not that the protagonists were involved, but a lot of dutch people participated in it so it must have been a thing at the time).

  • What would be a good occupation for my character? The original idea was to have her take on some medicinal activities, maybe even in disguise, but this was also at the time of witch burnings and such and I'm not sure how well people would've reacted to that.

Any recommendations for research literature are also welcome!

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    $\begingroup$ Hi, I presume you have already checked out en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moors ? Apparently they could do quite well. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ Hi! Yes, the moors were more in the south of Europe though and I can't imagine a small city in the swamps of the low lands saw/knew a lot of them. I find it very difficult to imagine the world view of a normal villager at the time though; how someone who hadn't seen much more than the next village imagined the rest of the world to be $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ Why stay in a small town? Larger cities are pretty much always more friendly to strangers, and have more opportunities to work in a cash economy like your time travelers are presumably used to. And it's not like the Netherlands is especially hard to travel through. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ You might check out twitter.com/medievalpoc $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 1:35
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    $\begingroup$ This is an aside to the main question, however it's also worth for reality's sake to watch this little clip on 'how far back in time could you travel and still understand English?" youtube.com/watch?v=8fxy6ZaMOq8 $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 3:13

6 Answers 6


She can be an Ethiopian Christian Pilgrim.

council of florence https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Florence


In 1441 some Ethiopian monks travelled from Jerusalem to attend the Council in Florence which discussed possible union between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. The arrival of the Christian monks caused something of a sensation. It began two centuries of contact in which there were hopes to bring the Ethiopians into the Catholic fold...

Would a small town in the Netherlands be aware that there might be a distant foreign Christian kingdom? Yes they would!


Prester John (Latin: Presbyter Johannes) was a legendary Christian patriarch, presbyter (elder) and king who was popular in European chronicles and tradition from the 12th through the 17th centuries. He was said to rule over a Nestorian (Church of the East) Christian nation lost amid the Muslims and pagans of the Orient, in which the Patriarch of the Saint Thomas Christians resided.

Your traveler can say she is on a pilgrimage to visit some Christian site and get a blessing to take back to her ill husband. The people will be interested in her because of her exotic provenance but more comfortable because she is christian and also interested in the local holy site. She can make her living telling stories of distant lands and peoples. Probably no-one will pay her gold for stories, but they will put her up and feed her.

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    $\begingroup$ Good job on the Ethiopian Christian. The Ethiopian church traces it lineage to the einuch baptized by he the apostle Phillip in Acts 8, so the religious people of Europe would have a connection. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 4:25

People of color were rare but not unheard of in those days. Gypsies in the East and Moors in the west were known to be slightly darker skinned. The most venerated Polish painting of Madonna depicts Her as dark skinned woman. The people knew that faraway lands had different races, you only need some reason to be in Europe.

In medieval Europe your religion and social class were more important than skin colour. An independent woman was more suspicious than a dark skinned person. Most women had three choices - marriage, monastery or prostitution.

Tell them you are a noble woman from the realm of Priest John. You were captured and enslaved by the Mohammedans and later rescued by your current friends. This gives you some sympathy from the very religious folk you meet. Explain that you can't go home because your country is separated from Christian Europe by the enemies.

As a bonus, being a captive from faraway lands you can explain some of your knowledge. People can be bit more forgiving of the exotic wisdom. Medicine is a good idea, but don't push it too far. Being a Moorish witch is not much better than local witch.

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    $\begingroup$ Skip medicine entirely. The moment MC saves someone from "certain death" using modern knowledge the church and nobility will be on her heels. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 13:09
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    $\begingroup$ The Polish painting did not originally depict her as a dark skinned woman, so this is a rather poor example. It happened due to the varnish darkening over time. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Noctiphobia I'm not so sure. Here is the same picture without the riza(i.e. metal cover). You can see that the halo is quite bright which implies the skin color was a deliberate artistic choice. This article describes many more dark-skinned depictions of Madonna, lots of which were created in Europe. $\endgroup$
    – undercat
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 13:09
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    $\begingroup$ @undercat the halo seems to be made of gold leaf, so it would not have darkened if the paint did. $\endgroup$
    – Aetol
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ @BlueFootedBooby my mistake, I missed that it was the varnish that supposedly darkened rather than the paint. $\endgroup$
    – Aetol
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 15:20

It's important to note 2 things about the Spanish Moors that are germane to your question;

1) There was at least one major win of the 'Re-conquest' of the Moors in Spain that occurred in the 13th Century (under Alphonse VIII)

2) It was the sacking of the Moors that led to many of the developments in mathematics and science within the Christian worlds from that time through a couple of centuries because the Moors had been spending considerably more effort in enlightening themselves than the Christians of the time.

As an educated guess, your dark skinned time refugee would struggle socially, but the people of the Netherlands would express little concern or surprise at the technological or mathematical expertise of your traveler, assuming that she was a Moor. This would actually be a benefit to her because it's a convenient excuse as to why her language, customs, and occasional gaffes (like using Okay instead of All Right) may be forgiven.

To be blunt, in that era she's going to get more resistance from being a woman than she is being black but if she knows what she's doing she could easily set herself up in midwifery. That wouldn't be seen as that big a leap for women at the time, she'd already know more than the women of the day in many respects, and perhaps most importantly, if she saves mother and child from some awkward situations a couple of times over, all thoughts of witchcraft will probably go away on the grounds that there's no deodorant quite like success in this field.

Personally, I'd keep her away from technical or engineering fields - don't let her be a blacksmith or design buildings or do accounts for the local businesses. Their math was very different to modern mathematics for a start, and standing out in such fields, especially as a woman, is an ideal way to attract said unwanted attention of witch hunters.

As per comments, several other important notes about this answer; First is that serious witch hunting progroms weren't in force in the 13th century, although some historical texts do point out that witchcraft was still something seen as suspicious in that time.

Muslim learning was already being introduced into Europe during that time, although perhaps not as widely spread as it was to become during the reconquest of Spain. The comments below do provide such additional insights.

  • $\begingroup$ Witch-hunt as popularly depicted, involving death penalty and burning started after the 13th century and peaked around the 16th-17th centuries $\endgroup$
    – Rafael
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ your dark skinned time refugee would struggle socially Any time traveler would have this problem as they would have extreme difficulty even understanding old local speech (and idioms) as well as understanding social norms and attitudes and taboos. The dark skinned woman might even have an advantage in the sense she looks foreign and may (or may not) have more allowances made for her strange behavior and problems fitting in. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ "The first 'Re-conquest' of the Moors in Spain occurred in the 13th Century." Actually, it began centuries earlier and ended at the close of the 15th century. I'm genuinely curious as to what your definition of "first reconquest" is. Can you elaborate? $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 3:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Dan I took that directly from the wikipedia site above - there is a piece in the section on Iberian Moors that talks about the Moors being driven out in 1212 by Alphonso VIII. I agree with you about the general reconquest, and if I've misread the above I'll edit, but that is the source of the statement I've used above. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 4:08
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    $\begingroup$ Hey Tim, excellent answer as always, but please do put the link in your answer. Comments may be deleted at any time for any reason. They are volatile. Answers are forever. We should actively move content (i.e. make it permanent) from comments to answers more often!! $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 13:11

The association between skin color and slavery is a pretty modern one.

By the 1800s, Europeans had mostly stopped enslaving other Europeans, and Native Americans were no longer selling other Native Americans as slaves either. That meant that most slaves in existence happened to be from equatorial Africa, and thus they had black skin.

Of course, there were also Europeans enslaved to Africans, but that was mostly in north Africa.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand why you bring up slavery, and the 1800s? OP never talks about slavery, and asks about 13th century Europe. $\endgroup$
    – pipe
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ As the negative associations of skin color mostly arose in the 1800s, going to the 1300s would not be as risky. $\endgroup$
    – db48x
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ @db48x, what about associations with dark skinned people being foreign infidels? $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ The inquisition is ramping up right about that time, but the character is said to be in the Netherlands. The Spanish Inquisition was much more concerned with Islam than the others (for obvious reasons). In other parts of Europe the Inquisition was much more concerned with heresy from within the Church. I don't know enough about it to say much more than that; some research would be indicated. $\endgroup$
    – db48x
    Commented Dec 22, 2018 at 7:08

There are dark skinned persons, and dark skinned persons.

In 13th century Europe there were two groups of people who were strongly discriminated against: Jews (who were not "dark skinned") and Gypsies (who were "dark skinned"). People of North African or Arab descent (who are "dark skinned" Europoids) were not discriminated against because of their appearance, but rather because of their religion. People of sub-saharan African descent would have been perceived as exotic, and not discriminated against any more than any other stranger.

Remember that in the Middle Ages anybody from a village more than a few miles away was a stranger, and people were generally strongly xenophobic.

By and large, people of sub-saharan African descent were known to exist, and there were a few of them living in Europe, at least towards the end of the Middle Ages. Portugal had a few thousand, England and France a few hundred, and there is a record of a black soldier in Gustav Vasa's (reigned 1523–1560) Swedish army. (Fun factoid: the black Swedish soldier was called Antinous Blåman, "Blue Man"; the Swedes perceived him as blue, not black. He married and had children, and for all we know his descendants still live in Sweden.)

Ah, and witch burning is a modern phenomenon, not a medieval one. As long as the "dark skinned person" does not behave like a Gypsy, and has a convincing story how come they are Christian (of the correct variety of Christianism for the locale), all is fine.

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    $\begingroup$ 13th Century is well before Luther, so "correct variety" is Catholicism (and depending on the needs of the story, other flavours probably wouldn't be too much trouble.) $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinBonner, what about Cathars, Fraticelll and Waldensians? Also, dark skinned person would most likely assumed to be Ethiopian Orthodox of all christians. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 14:21

Be a leper.

Good excuse to cover up. Nobody will touch you and in fact will give you stuff to leave. If the woman has the assistance of the group, she should be able to survive without too much hassle

Another other option is a pilgrim. The group can speak for her and with extensive robes remain hidden.

Final option is to be blatant and open by being a travelling merchant from a far away land.

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    $\begingroup$ You got the first idea from "Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves", don't you? :) $\endgroup$
    – DarthDonut
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ That's the one with Kevin Costner. I would never admit to watching a Costner movie.... $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 23:21

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