The first introduction to black people in the ‘Low Countries’ almost certainly occured between AD 200 and 500 when black Africans came to the region in the service of Roman armies.
Research at the University of Newcastle has revealed that black Romans were found in all ranks of the army and that most Roman armies were multi-ethnic. Some Roman emperors, such as Septimius Severus (145-211), were North African in origin. Severus probably marched through the Low Countries with his army in 209 and died in England in 211.
While he may not have been a black African himself, the Historia Augusta does mention a black Ethiopian who served in his army in England. Objects on which black Romans are depicted have also been found in England, although not in the Netherlands as far as is known.
In later Netherlandish art there are certainly many representations of black Romans and black Roman emperors.
The following phase in European history, the Middle Ages, is considerably more important in establishing the roles and image of black people at courts. From the eight century onwards there was a real danger that the Moors, or Muslims, who included many blacks amongst their numbers, would conquer and colonise Europe. They proved formidable opponents.
In subsequent centuries the Moors held sway over the Iberian peninsula, Sicily and Corsica. Both negative and positive representations of black people appear in northern European art and literature from this period of Moorish threat and conquest. Initially these images were chiefly negative, as in the Spiegel Historiaelby Jacob van Maerlant from circa 1330. ( picture Charlemagne )
Positive representations of black people were inspired by the crusaders’ discovery of Christian Ethiopians living in Jerusalem.
When it further emerged that both Ethiopia and Nubia were ruled by Christian kings who were also fighting the Muslims, European crusaders and potentates became increasingly interested in these two lands, believing that they had finally found strong black Christian allies to help them against the Moors.
This idea persisted in art. In Les Très Riches Heures du Jean Duc de Berry(c. 1416) for example, an illumination by the Limburg brothers features three realistic black monks at the foot of the holy cross.