Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival is remarkable for many reasons, but in particular because it features Feirefis, whose mixed-race origins are marked by his black mottled skin, “like that of a magpie.” Over the course of the story, he travels to Christian Europe in search of his father and encounters Parzival, the hero of the poem and his half-brother. They battle to a draw before discovering they are related, and Feirefis goes on to join King Arthur’s Round Table and the Grail Quest before becoming a missionary to the East.
The earliest illustrated manuscripts of Parzival are fascinating not least because they depict the non-white characters, most notably Feirefis and his mother Belakane, as white. A general explanation for the failure to give these characters different features than white characters could lie in a presumption that admirable figures must have light skin even when the story indicates they do not. However, it is also important to pay attention to the processes by which such manuscripts were produced. For the Lauber manuscript reproduced here, for example, we know that the text and the images were produced independently of each other. The artists were given a very brief rubric, often absent necessary identifying details like distinctive appearance, and so they filled the empty spaces with recognizable ideal types (noble knights, courtly ladies, etc.) distinguished only by their clothing or accessories. Illustrators in later centuries could not plead ignorance, though, and made different choices on how to depict Feirefis or whether to include him at all.
Source: Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival (Hagenau: Werkstatt Diebold Lauber, ca. 1443-1446), Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 339, Bd. 2, 546VS.
Duel between Parzival and the pagan Feirefiz (ca. 1443-1446) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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