With a canon as historically rich as The Old Guard, it is understandable that fandom has found itself latching on to dated terms. Some of them are mostly harmless, some of them carry implications. The word Saracen, which has been a consistent part of the TOG fandom landscape since its inception barely two months ago, is one of those terms.
Before we proceed to historical background, here is the tldr; version and what is really essential for writers to grasp: the only acceptable use of Saracen is in historical fiction, but even then only with full awareness of its evolving meaning through time, which hopefully what I have written below can help you with.
> on a meta level: in a modern context, it is used by white supremacists with a very specific agenda, as a dog-whistle implying that Arab-coded people in Europe today are invaders that need to be purged.
> on a canon level: considering what the word meant when he was first alive, Nicky would not, even (and especially!) jokingly, ever call Yusuf that word after they actually got together. He would recognize it as a term carrying centuries of propaganda teaching Europeans that people like Yusuf were savages to be killed. Yusuf also would not call himself a Saracen. They can tease each other about the fact they were enemies (although I don’t read the “we killed each other” exchange as mutual teasing, only Yusuf’s tone is playful), but they wouldn’t bring into it slurs used by people who believe(d) things Nicolò admits he painfully had to unlearn (“the love of my life was of the people I’d been taught to hate”).
Genesis of the term & etymological background
I’ve seen Saracen defined as a pejorative Medieval synonym for Arab/Muslim, as well as infidel/pagan. It is… a little bit more complicated than that.
As an appellation, Saracen predates the Middle Ages, and it also predates Christianity. The word Sarakenos (plural Sarakinoi) can be found in Ancient Greek and Ptolemaic texts describing the Arabian Peninsula, although at the time the Arabs are mostly designated by the word araves, drawing a distinction between the two— it is very likely that the people identified as the Sarakinoi were simply a different Arab tribe at war with the one hellenophones called “Arabs”. They are classified by the Greeks and later by the Romans as Barbarians, which at the time is not a pejorative term, but that classification will be used just a few centuries later retroactively to justify violence.
Etymologically, Saracen carries in Arabic implications of savagery and thievery (سارق). The roots of the word are debated, but even the least loaded possibility still ties the term to the concept of invasion, of hordes coming from the east. In the 7th and 8th centuries, Christian authors like Isidorus Hispalensis in Sevilla and Yuhanna ad-Dimashqi in Mar Saba linked the word to the biblical figure of Sarah, but these are retroactive interpretations.
It is important to note here that none of the versions of the word, in any language (including Arabic) were ever an endonym: they were only ever used as a descriptor by outsiders, never by the people identified as Saracens themselves.
Medieval socio-political context
In the Middle Ages, Saracen becomes the most popular way of calling the people of the Arabian Peninsula. At first the people of the Maghreb are understood still as a separate entity, and mostly identified as Moors; but quickly Saracen stops meaning ethnically Arab, from Western Asia, and starts meaning Muslim. It is then widely applied to everyone living in the Islamic world regardless of religion or ethnicity, unless there is a political purpose in differentiating a specific group of people— when talking about “freeing” the Christians in eastern lands, for example.
By the 8th century, at large the word is carrying the implication of heretic, but not necessarily of pagan. By the 10th century, it is widely understood as “enemy of Christianity”. The propaganda preparing Western Christians for an expedition to West Asia introduces then the notion of paganism into the collective Western European imaginary of ~the Muslim. By the 12th century, most likely as a direct result of the first crusade, it is, for lack of a better word, a racial marker: the Saracens are described in writings as physically different from Western Europeans.
In the Carolingian empire, the figure of the sarrazin is at first an ever-shifting enemy: it indiscriminately serves as a moniker for any enemy of the empire who is not also Roman Catholic. This includes the Moors of al-Andalus and the Sicilian Fatimid, but it also applies to the alpine pagans (who were ethnically Gauls and Franks just like the Carolingians). Most importantly, it will be retroactively applied to the Basque tribes the Franks fought in Roncevaux on the 15th of august 778, a battle that will then take a monumental place in the Frankish collective consciousness as an extremely violent massacre of the Frank army by Arabs. In France, the Chanson de Roland (a revisionist 11th century retelling of the Roncevaux battle, unsurprisingly imbued with anachronistic post-crusade islamophobia) was taught as a historical fact well into the 20th century.
While geographically in Western Europe, things were obviously different in Islamic Iberia, due to its very specific sociocultural situation and demographic makeup as an extension of the Maghreb on European soil. It is ironically however the very existence of al-Andalus that will cement Saracen and Moor as slurs carrying heavy implications to this day: modern Spanish national identity is built around the mythology of the Reconquista, the “liberation” of the Iberian peninsula from the “Moorish invaders”.
The concept of Reconquista is a modern one: the term itself is introduced in Spanish historiography in the 19th century. Before that, the eight centuries of intermittent war between Maghrebi dynasties and various Christian kingdoms was understood as just that: a series of military conflicts. This is not to say that there was no contemporary propaganda, but the notion of a coherent, continuous struggle by Iberian christians to “reconquer” the peninsula from a common enemy is an ulterior fabrication. In reality, both Muslim and Christian rulers fought among themselves, and Muslim-Christian alliances were commonplace. there were even a few marriages of convenience between Muslim and Christian ruling families in order to ensure mutual protection against rival nobles and kings! On both sides, mercenaries would fight for whoever paid the most; it was not uncommon for lords to hire Muslims and Christians, resulting in small interfaith private armies roaming the peninsula. In urban centers under Muslim rule, although they never enjoyed the same rights as Muslim citizens, Christians and Jews lived for long stretches of time under relative freedom, both social and religious. The fall of al-Andalus was catastrophic for Iberian Jews; under Christian rule the religious persecution jewish people experienced for centuries before that in the rest of Western Europe extended to Hispania, culminating in the Alhambra Decree, which resulted in the expulsion of the majority of its Sephardi population. Arguably, the fall of al-Andalus also laid the groundwork for Castilian supremacy: under the guise of taking back land from the Muslims, Iberian Christian kingdoms kept stealing territory from each other; but most importantly, the identification of the southern part of Spain with Moorish culture irremediably tainted it as an exploitable (and on some level foreign) region.
In the late 11th century, the Catholic mindset experiences a radical shift: while until then clashes in Iberia and Southern France had been territorial disputes, about power and control of the land and resources and subjects, under the influence of the pope (and to a certain extent of French high ranking members of the church) the fight in Iberia becomes linked to the Fight For Christendom as a concept, and is now an ideological war. Catholic authorities explicitly start encouraging knights and soldiers to fight “infidels” instead of each other, and the Church unearths the Augustinian concept of just war to justify killing heretics as religiously necessary. The appellation of Saracen, in that context, is essentially a death mark. In the Western Christian collective imaginary, there is suddenly no greater villain. Military orders like the famous knight templars were founded with one goal in mind: to destroy the Iberian Muslim states, and then, in time, to take the Levant too.
Because of course, as it was never truly about reconquest, Iberian powers didn’t stop fighting once they had effectively thrown the Muslims out of their homeland: they extended the war overseas. the Spaniards would become the poster-children of military Catholicism in the centuries following the destruction of al-Andalus. First in Africa and Western Asia, and later, infamously, on the American continent and in the Philippines. The Conquistadors were of course sent to steal resources for the Spanish Crown, but the ideological foundation of the conquest of the Americas absolutely was this mission to christianize that started with the crusades. The same mentality served as fuel for Portuguese imperialism in the second half of the millennium, and eventually for Italian imperialism too.
Post-Medieval & Modern impact
The myth of the Reconquista, and as such of the constant looming figure of the Saracen enemy, was also the foundation of Spanish Fascism. Francoist ideology, steeped in Spanish (read here: Castilian) nationalism and Catholic fundamentalism, was the logical conclusion of centuries of imperialist plunder justified by a reconstructed narrative of just war, of war of civilization, of war of christianization. Modern Castilian national identity is indissociable from a romanticized retelling of the brave efforts of united Spanish Christian armies pushing dark-skinned, monstrous invaders back into the sea.
On the Sardinian flag still today, the decapitated heads of four Moors serve as a reminder of victory. The coat of arms of the city of Alcanadre also proudly displays five decapitated turban-wearing North-Africans. These are only a few examples: the figure of the dead Moor was particularly popular in Medieval heraldry.
Spanish nationalism built itself in opposition to Catalonia, it’s true; but also in superiority to Andalusia— land of the ambiguously brown, of the converts, of the Gitanos, of the exploited working class. Land where in music and food and architecture, 781 years of Muslim presence cannot be erased.
Fascism is imperialism turned inwards, and as such the influence of these narratives can of course also be observed in the brutality of Spanish colonialism in North-Africa, particularly in the use of chemical warfare on civilians in the Rif war. Still to this day, the Kingdom of Spain occupies African land in Sebta (Ceuta), Mlilt (Melilla), and Badis (Penon de Velez de la Gomera).
With the advent of modern colonialism— the very euphemistically named Age of Discovery, “Saracen” slowly fell out of use. By the 18th century, Muslims were mostly referred to as Mohammedans in a purely descriptive context. Saracen endured, however, as a term used purposely to evoke the image of the enemy, while simultaneously the Arab was rebranded from powerful invader to uncivilized and inferior, a fine justification for enslavement and plunder in the colonies. The until then widely accepted contributions of Maghrebi and Arab scientists and philosophers were scrapped from the collective consciousness. The French Academy got rid of dozens of busts of arabophone scientists when the French first entered Northwestern Africa through the conquest of Algeria: their logic (that the natives were people with no culture and technology and no claim to their own land) would have been incoherent otherwise.
When I was fourteen, in 2008, in my high school in the IDF region, the word sarrazin was used liberally in history class, and the anachronistic retelling of history painstakingly built by the Catholic Church over centuries was presented as facts. A few years later, I would come to realize that these myths are the bedrock of far-right ideology in France today, with concepts such as “le grand remplacement” (“great replacement”), the idea that Muslim Africans are engaged in a conspiracy to “replace” the white population of Europe. This is directly tied to the revival of crusader symbolism, the idea of an age-old “clash of civilizations”, and generally the rewriting of Western European history as culturally self-sufficient and self-developing when in reality Western Europe was fundamentally influenced by North-African and Anatolian culture, and for most of its history in constant exchange with it one way or another, in peace and in war.
My personal understanding of racism in white-majority countries only extends to the francophone west (France/Belgium/Quebec), but it isn’t hard to extrapolate that the implications are the same in the rest of Western Europe, and most likely also in anglo settler colonies, where over the past two decades crusader imagery has also come to be indissociable from neo-fascism.
This is the modern political environment in which we evolve today. The Old Guard has given us an unprecedented dilemma in representation: the character of Yusuf al-Kaysani embodies this ever-evolving relationship between North-Africa and Western Europe. Yusuf moves through the ages as a North-African, Arabic-speaking man; witnesses the Western world paint him and people who look like him as all these things through history. His death at the hand of a crusader in 1099, the fact he then goes on to build a life with that very crusader, all this is extremely symbolic and has the potential to be an incredible metaphor.
This also sadly means that fandom is treading complicated, muddy waters, and even innocuous choices can be loaded. This should not be seen, however, as an uncrossable barrier. I did not write this to tell you not to write about Yusuf— on the contrary!
It is instead an opportunity for learning— an opportunity for politically conscious storytelling. Fandom is a place of joy and escapism, yes, but fandom also prides itself in its transformative value— in being a space where the mistreatment of oppressed people in mainstream media can be corrected as an act of radical love. We have long understood this for gender and sexuality, but we still struggle to apply that same reasoning to race.
We can have fun and we can do better. We can have fun while doing better. The world is beautiful and complex. Let's treat each other with care.