Saracen

Saracen is term for a Muslim that is primarily used historically to refer to Muslims during the medieval period and especially in reference to the Crusades. But it dates to antiquity, long before Islam arose as a religion, and its original sense was much more circumscribed. Its correct etymology isn’t all that interesting, but it does have a fascinating false etymology that circulated widely in Europe during the medieval period.

Saracen enters English from Latin (saracenus), which got it from Greek (σαρακηνός, sarakenos). The Greek probably comes from the Arabic root sharq, meaning east, and it originally referred to a people dwelling in the Sinai peninsula and what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia.

The word is first recorded in Greek as an adjective describing a species of rush growing in the Sinai in Dioscorides’s On Medical Material, a pharmacology written c. 50 C.E. But it’s Claudius Ptolemy’s second century Geographia that first mentions Saracens as a distinct group of people. He uses sarakēnē to refer to a region in the northern Sinai peninsula and sarakēnoí as a name for a people in northwestern Arabia. Eusebius takes the word into Latin in his fourth century Historia Ecclesiastica, where he quotes a letter from Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, that refers to the sarakēnoí of Arabia as existing c. 250 C.E.

The use of Saracen in English dates to the Old English period. For example, there is this from the Old English translation of Orosius’s History Against the Pagans:

Seo Ægyptus þe us near is, be norþan hire is þæt land Palastine, & be eastan hiere Sarracene þæt land & be westan hire Libia þæt land, & be suþan hire se beorg þe mon hæt Climax.
(Egypt is near us, to its north is the land of Palestine, and to its east is the land of the Saracens, and to the west of it is the land of Libya, and to its south is the mountain that men call Climax.)

In the medieval era, it was common for European writers to claim that the word Saracen derived from a claim of the Arab peoples that that they descended from Sarah and her son Isaac, rather than the slave Hagar and her son Ishmael, and in so doing, so the allegation claims, the Arabs were claiming a false genealogical legitimacy. Jerome gives this false etymology in his early fifth century commentary of the biblical book of Ezekiel. And Isidore, in his early seventh century Etymologiae, writes:

The Saracens are so called either because they claim to be descendents of Sarah or, as the pagans say, because they are of Syrian origin, as if the word were Syriginae. They live in a very large deserted region. They are also Ishmaelites, as the Book of Genesis teaches us, because they sprang from Ishmael, and Agarines, from the name Agar (i.e., Hagar). As we have said, they are called Saracens from an alteration of their name, because they are proud to be descendents of Sarah.

Isidore’s Etymologiae impute theological significance to the etymologies of words and are, by modern standards, laughably wrong, but they were widely copied and read and do provide historical insight into the beliefs of medieval Europeans.

Isidore appears to be using Saracen in the original, narrow sense, of a particular group of people, but the meaning of the word would be expanded to refer to all Muslims or even more broadly to those non-Christians in lands to the east. Saracen was not used to refer to Christian Arabs. An early example of this broader sense is the Rituale ecclesiæ Dunelmensis (Rite of the Church of Durham), an early ninth-century collection of Latin liturgical texts and with an interlinear Old English gloss:

Beatus thomas apostolus requiesat emina, in india saracenorum.
ðe ead’ thom’ ap’ gerestað | gireste æt frvmma in ðær byrig on india saracina.
(The blessed apostle Thomas dwells in Emina, in India of the Saracens.)

So the word Saracen in medieval writing is a non-specific term, referring generally to non-Christians of the east, and in particular to Muslims, and to medieval Europeans carried negative connotations because it supposedly characterized them as making a false claim of being descended from a more favored line of descent.


Sources:

American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, 2019, s. v. Saracen, n.

Bately, Janet, ed. The Old English Orosius, Early English Text Society, SS 6, Oxford University Press, 1980, 1.1.11.

Heng, Geraldine, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 2018, 110–12.

Isidore, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. and ed. by Stephen A. Barney, et al. Cambridge University Press, 2006, 195.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989, s. v. Saracen, n. and adj.

Retsö, Jan, The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads, RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

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