Of Ane Blak Moir

Dr Nicola Clark of the University of Chichester and I hope that an Open Access Modern English translation of what Prof Karl Steel of Brooklyn College has called a “precociously racist” poem will prove useful for those studying and learning about black lives in Early Modern Britain. Prof Steel has written an excellent blogpost on teaching the poem, in part exploring its use of rhetorical convention as well as giving suggestions for further reading on the poem and its contexts. You can find the translation further down this page.

Portrait of Katharina, a 20-year old servant of the
Portuguese factor João Brandão , by Albrecht Durer (1521)

As Dr Clark writes, “‘Of Ane Blak Moir’ (‘About a black Moor’) was written by the poet William Dunbar at the court of James IV of Scotland probably in 1507 or 1508; it is sometimes called ‘My ladye with the mekle lippis’ (‘My lady with the large lips’). The poem describes a black woman recently arrived in Scotland, most likely from a Portuguese slave ship, and the role she may have been given to play in a court tournament.

Dunbar did not invent his subject or the situation in which he placed her. In 1507, King James IV held a tournament of the Wild Knight and the Black Lady, in which the Black Lady was the prize, and the tournament was repeated again the following year. The Wild Knight (who is also referred to as the Black Knight), possibly the king himself, won the Black Lady through prowess at arms across forty days of jousting.

Though we cannot know for certain who played the part of the Black Lady (Joyce Green MacDonald points out that black leather sleeves and gloves were bought for her costume which might suggest a white woman played the role), she may equally have been one of two women who arrived at the Scottish court in 1504 and are called ‘Margaret More’ and ‘Elen/Helenore More’ in surviving accounts. They, and several black men, were aboard Portuguese slave ships captured by the Scots.

Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives chronicles what the records can tell us about the life of these women and of Peter the More and an unnamed African drummer and his family at James’s court. The women were assimilated into the household of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister and Queen of Scotland, and appear in accounts in this capacity thereafter. Dunbar, working at the court as a scribe, secretary and chaplain, would therefore probably have known the woman that he depicts in such misogynistic and racist fashion.”

The text of the original poem can be found as item 71 here.

[About a black Moor]

I’ve long written about white ladies
So now I’ll write about a black one
Who disembarked from the most recently arrived ships.
How pleased I’d be to describe to perfection
My lady with the large lips,

How her mouth protrudes like an ape’s,
And how she is like a toad to the touch,
And how her short cat-like nose turns up,
And how she shines like any kind of soap*,
My lady with the large lips.

When she is dressed in expensive clothes,
She glitters as brightly as a barrel of tar.
The sun underwent an eclipse when she was born,
The night* willingly fought as her champion —
My lady with the large lips.

Whoever proves himself for her sake most powerfully
With spear and shield in the jousting-field
Must kiss and grapple with her,
And from then on will have earned* her love —
My lady with the large lips.

And whoever is subject to shame in the field
And there loses his knightly reputation
Must come behind and kiss her hips
And never lay claim to any other consolation
From my lady with the large lips.

* (Translator’s note: I wonder if Dunbar is thinking here of medieval ‘black soap’ and ‘white soap’?)

* (Translator’s note: punning on night/knight.)

* (Translator’s note: ‘hir luff sall weld’ could be translated as ‘will command her love’, or perhaps ‘will control her love’. Welden in Middle English (weild in Scots) can also mean ‘to marry/be married to someone’ or ‘to take as a lover’.)

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