Making whiteness matter: The King of Tars


While many critics read the King of Tars’s white bodies as the a priori ground of the text’s racial-religious identities, I maintain that the narrative’s whiteness is more malleable and unstable. This interpretation attends to the historical and cultural logic that gave rise to The King of Tars’s iteration of racialized bodies. Considering historical connections between this narrative and Christian exchanges with Mongols in the decades before the text’s composition suggests that the narrative recuperates distinct racial hierarchies precisely where they were indeterminate historically, while retaining traces of that racial plasticity in its fantasized white bodies. The text materializes the period’s desires to expand Christendom, even figuratively, and to reify unstable racial identifications instantiated by conversions real and fantasized. Illuminating the traces of a constructed white racial body draws whiteness into the text’s production of racial-religious identities – via ideological and performative plasticity – that heretofore have adhered exclusively to readings of black bodies in the narrative.

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  1. 1.

    Instructive here is Crenshaw’s idea of racial identity as irreducibly intersectional with other loci of identification, such as gender, class and religion (Crenshaw, 1991).

  2. 2.

    Analogs include: the entry for 1299 in Flores Historiarum (1300–1307); Istorie Fiorentine (1307–1330); Rishanger’s Chronica (1307–1327); a letter to Jayme II of Aragon (1300–1307); the Annales Sancti Rudberti Salisburgenses (1280–1300); and Ottokar’s Österreichische Reimchronik (1306–1308). See Perryman for each analog’s synopsis and discussion of the Middle English poem’s historical connections to them (Perryman, 1980, 42–45). Hornstein and Krause provide complete texts of each source (Hornstein, 1939, 1941b; Krause, 1888).

  3. 3.

    See, as well, Amitai-Preiss (1996, 9–10) for a discussion of Ghazan’s syncretic religion.

  4. 4.

    The Chronicle of Bury St. Edmonds repeats this fantasy of Ghazan as willing, and profitable, Christian ally: ‘And lo! when the enemies of the Christians had thus been brought to naught and destroyed, the great khan restored to the Christians all the lands which in former times they possessed’ (Chronicle of Bury St. Edmonds 1212–1301, 1964, ll. 154–155).

  5. 5.

    All references to the King of Tars are taken from Perryman’s 1980 edition, which draws primarily from the Auchinleck MS witness, cited parenthetically by line numbers.

  6. 6.

    Guibert of Nogent, for example, imagines an epileptic Muhammad devoured by a herd of pigs (Guibert of Nogent, 1879, 128–130). Steven Kruger’s discussion of fantastical Saracen monstrosity is instructive, as is Cohen’s discussion of Saracen representations that ‘conjoin desire and disgust’ (Kruger, 1997, 160–161; Cohen, 2001, 200; see also Cohen, 2003; Friedman, 1981 and Uebel, 1996).

  7. 7.

    Further, Whitaker argues that the Sultan’s violent massacre of those of his community who will not convert to Christianity continues his penchant for violence (Whitaker, 2013, 25–29).

  8. 8.

    Following Heng and others, I use the hyphenated ‘in-form(ed)’ to stress that doctrinal differences here effect, not just how flesh can mean, but the biology of flesh itself. See also Lampert (2010, 64–85) for a discussion of black and white imagery. Gilbert (2004, 111) usefully links the work of the princess and the Virgin Mary.

  9. 9.

    Whitaker reads this scene as a still-black body clothed in white, suggesting ‘that one body can display the ostensibly incommensurate somatic markers of Christian and non-Christian identity – blackness and whiteness – at once’ (Whitaker, 2013, 18–20).

  10. 10.

    See Hornstein (1940, 355–356). Calkin (2005b, 110–111) also agrees with this reading of the princess’ conversion scene. See also Heng’s discussion (2003, 234–236) of the implications of the feigned conversion as proof text of the normativity of whiteness and the white racial body. While I disagree that the white racial body remains un-disrupted throughout the narrative, her analysis of the feigned conversion informs my own understanding of the potential for racial-religious illegibility or/via proximity here.

  11. 11.

    No other analog depicts the skin color change of the Sultan, nor does any other version include as many references to skin color and animal associations as racial-religious distinctives.

  12. 12.

    See the entry for ‘blē’ in the Middle English Dictionary.

  13. 13.

    See the online edition of Guy of Warwick.


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Sincere thanks to Cord Whitaker and the anonymous reviewers of this article for their insightful and gracious comments. And thanks as well to Doug Sugano for years of mentoring, even from afar.

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Friedman, J. Making whiteness matter: The King of Tars. Postmedieval 6, 52–63 (2015).

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