Black German Saint

Julius Caesar himself brought Black Legions to Germany, many of which remained and never returned. Even as early as the tenth century Emperor Otto I (962-973) brought the remains of a Nubian Black African Legionnaire named Maurice to his royal territories of Saxony.

It is almost certain that Maurice was not the first African soldier to be interned upon German soil, but his name continues to ring throughout history. His life was not long but venerated and can be encompassed within a few short sentences. Born around 250 AD he converted to Christianity when Christianity was a threat to the dying, and still officially pagan, Roman Empire. But he did not allow religion to get in the way of his career, or more importantly career advancement. Maurice joined the Roman army, moved quickly through the ranks, and was eventually promoted to lead the Theban legion, which consisted of 6,600 solders.[i]

During the course of a revolt his legion was called to Gaul, a region encompassing large parts of Western Europe and pieces of what would later become Germany on the west bank of the Rhine. The act of bringing Black Roman soldiers to quell pockets of resistance within the crumbling empire was not uncommon. What was uncommon was that when the Theban Legion was ordered to harass a pocket of local Christians they refused. Or so it was later written by Eucherius, Bishop of Lyon (c. 434-450). Every tenth soldier was killed, but under the encouragement of Maurice the legion still refused, until each one of the 6,600 solders was executed.

Maurice would later be recognized by the Christian Church as a martyr and venerated as St. Maurice, one of the most prominent saints within the Holy Roman Empire (encompassing huge regions of central Europe including modern day Germany). The sword and spurs of Saint Maurice would become part of the regalia used at coronations of the Austro-Hungarian Emperors until 1916; between 962-973 Emperor Otto I laid his remains to rest in the Magdeburg Cathedral. If you go there now you can still find the sculpture of a Black Roman legion soldier carved in stone.

Many early representations of Saint Maurice dating from the 13th century or even earlier often depict him with a noble dark face in rich shades of brown and ebony. But as time passed these depictions shifted. The color of his skin faded. What was once a rich deep brown whitened; by the 16th century, St. Maurice was no longer Black and no longer African. In paintings such as “Martyrdom of St Maurice and the Theban Legion” by Jacopo Pontormo (1531), and “The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice” by El Greco (1580-82), St. Maurice has become startling white, European, bleached. He has, in other words, been whitewashed by the desires of the painters and the societies they served.

So why, you might ask, is a long-dead saint important? Because Black European History, especially Black German history, has so often been whitewashed, and Maurice the soldier, Maurice the martyr, Maurice the venerated German saint, is a beautiful example of the little white lies history has been whispering for far too long. As the ancient sword and spurs of Saint Maurice proclaim, Black German history did not spring from the wreckage of the First and Second World Wars, or even German colonization, as it was once believed. Black history has been here far longer and yet, like the body and face of Maurice, has been actively whitened and negligently forgotten over time. But we forget history at our own peril.[1]

[1] For more on the subject of Black German History across the centuries please read: Not So Plain as Black and White: Afro-German Culture and History, 1890-2000, edited by Patricia M. Mazón, and Reinhild Steingröver; Eine afro-deutsche Geschichte: Zur Lebenssituation von Afrikanern und Afro-Deutschen in Deutschland von 1884 bis 1950, by Katharina Oguntoye; and Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, edited by May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz, with a forward by Audre Lorde.


[i] “Our church celebrates Saint Maurice Feast on October 5.”, Saint Maurice Coptic Orthodox Church, diocese of Los Angeles, CA





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