Representing Islam in Medieval Christian Europe: Orlando Furioso and the Saracens

One particular topic has always caught my attention: representations of the other and stereotypes. I do not know what made me so interested; the origin, the perpetuation of the same stereotypes, or their sometimes conflictual nature. Maybe it was the abundance of stereotypes: national; regional; gender; and religious stereotypes. I believe that representations and stereotypes are a part of our daily life. People feel better when they are able to categorize and in that way make sense of the world. However, these representations can become very problematic. The problem arises when these assumptions cloud your view of everyday life and you judge people on the basis of what you think you know about them. It gets even worse when legislation is built on these assumptions. For example the burqa ban in the Netherlands, which is partly built on the idea that women are oppressed within their religion and the law is meant to liberate them.



In this blog I want to look into historic representations of Muslims. I do not want to highlight the stereotypes and representations we see today. Rather, I want to see in which ways Islam has been represented in Europe in the past. My focus will be on a 16th century Italian poem describing a story within the historical event of the war between Muslims and Christians. I want to look at the representation of Islam in the poem Orlando Furioso. In what way are Saracens/Muslims represented in the poem? How are Christians portrayed in relation to the Saracens? Are the Saracens demonized or portrayed as equals and how is that done?

Orlando Furioso, ‘the raging Roland’, is an epic poem from the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto. The poem was first published in 1516 and the third and final version in 1532. The story is situated against the background of the war between the Christian emperor Charlemagne and his Christian paladins, and the Saracen King Agramente and his army who are crossing the seas to Europe to avenge his father’s death. The background therefore refers to a story of Christians versus Muslims.

Ariosto does not follow historical or geographical accuracy, and the poem wanders from real places all over the world to imaginative places. However, it means that he, like he does with the spaces, may exaggerate the stereotypes or attributes of the characters. It makes it interesting to examine the representation of Muslims/Moors/Saracens in the story.

The most important plot is of the paladin, a foremost knight of Charlemagne, Orlando and his unrequited love for the pagan princess Angelica.

She falls in love with a wounded Saracen knight, Medoro. Orlando forgets his duty to fight for Christianity and becomes mad. When he regains sanity he kills King Agramente. Another important plotline includes the love between the female Christian warrior Bradamante and the Saracen Ruggiero. They too have to endure many ups and downs. Ruggiero converts to Christianity and kills Rodomonte, a Saracen who accuses Ruggiero of being a traitor to the Saracen cause.

The poem is divided into 46 ‘canti’ each covering around eight-line stanzas. It is one of the longest poems in European literature. Here, I will focus on the Canto Primo, the first verse, because it sets the tone of the story and therefore paints the picture on how Saracens are seen throughout the poem, based on two English translations of the poem, one more literal translated by William Stewart rose in 1831 and one translated by David. R. Slavitt in 2019. In the first verse Angelica escapes during a battle between the Saracens and the Christians and encounters Christian and Saracen knights who all fall in love with her. Even though the motives of the war are not necessarily religious: King Agraments is invading France to avenge his father; the poem is clear that it is a religious fight. Orlando is said to be “Helping the Christians win the War”, while the Saracens are called “the Christian’s foe” or “paynims”, which translates to heathen, pagan or Saracen.

The entire poem of Ariosto is built on both the differences between Saracens and Christians, as well as upon the similarities and relationships between them. The plot of the Christian Orlando losing sight of his duty for a ‘pagan’ woman and the love story between the Christian female warrior and the Saracen Ruggiero show the similarities and temptation of the Saracens and Christians together. At the same time there is a fight between the two religions. In the first verse the following example of such a relationship is portrayed: when two knights see Angelica escape, they both fall in love with her and try to catch her. One is a Christian knight, the other a Saracen knight. In the beginning they start fighting each other, but they resume the search together when they realize she has run away. “o pleasing and so reasonable an idea this was that the Christian and the Pagan became, at least for the moment, friends.”

As is shown in the previous example, the Saracens are called: Saracens, Moors, and pagans. The word ‘pagan’ is used more often to describe someone who is not Christian. Both the Saracen and Christian ‘soldiers’ are called knights in the poem and the Saracen knight is shown to have a chivalry code, which means that they behave according to similar rules as the Christians do and show that they are not pictured as uncivil or backwards. However, the description and circumstances under which Angelica meets the knights is different. When Angelica encounters the Christian knight he is described as carrying his shield “in knightly wise” and he is better when compared to a “farm lad”. While when she encounters the Saracen knight, Ferrau, he is portrayed in “grisly plight”, “begrimed with dust, and bathed with sweat and blood”. Thus, a very grim picture in comparison to the Christian knight. Later on, Angelica meets a Saracen king of Circassia, who first mourns his love for her because she is presumably not a virgin anymore, however when he finds out she is still a virgin, he plans to rape her. Before he can execute his plans, he loses a battle from the female warrior Bradamente. The Saracen king is portrayed as a mean man who then loses from a woman, which gets him into a ‘rotten mood’. The two Saracen men who are introduced in the first verse are two different characters, however their first appearance is a bleak first impression in comparison to the appearances of the Christian knights. The poem starts by introducing some of the knights that are mentioned, before the story begins. The Saracen knights are only introduced in the story itself.

In relation to the Christians, Saracen are portrayed as having similar chivalric codes, they are shown to have some of the values that Christians have and that there are possibilities of friendship and relationships between the two. However, the Saracens are not completely portrayed as equals, since in the first verse the Saracens are put in a more grim light. Since this is just the first verse of the poem, it is hard to paint the picture of the entire poem, however it has shown the first glance of a bigger story.

Many scholars have already looked at the representation of Islam in Medieval times. A study on the image of Muslims in the Western imagination shows that the image of the Muslim from Western perspective can be traced back to the Medieval times, specifically to the eighth and ninth centuries. In these centuries the image of the Muslim monster also emerged from Christian imagination. An important foundation of the later “Muslim monster” is created in this time with the image of Muhammed as the “progenitor of a monstrous race of Saracens”. Arjana focuses on the image of the Muslim Monster, although I agree that many depictions from Christian sources do not portray Muslims in a positive light, focusing solely on the accounts of Muslim Monsters gives a distorted view on how Islam was portrayed. There was both admiration and fear for Muslims in Christian Europe. How were they able to convert so many people to Islam? Why was Islam so similar to Christianity? In the eleventh century Christian European authors depicted the ‘Saracen’ religion as pagan idolatry. However, when the information and knowledge of Islam spread over Europe and the Turks emerge as a world power, Christian writers learned more about Islam through trade and other contact, therefore they could not maintain the pagan paradigm. The image of Islam changed to a religion of Christian heresy. The focus on heresy is interesting, since in the twelfth century anxiety arose among Christians about heretics, because heretics used the same sources of authority as the Christians did and derived similar arguments from these sources. How were they able to distinguish what was false or true?

These accounts can also be found in the first verse of Orlando Furioso: the comparison between the Saracen and Christianity; the use of pagan but also the similarities between their chivalry; the description of Saracens as almost equals, but in a worse light than the Christians.
The poem of Orlando Furioso has been adapted many times, in stories, operas, music and art. Even today, the poem is still told in different versions, for example in the puppet play in Sicily: Opera dei Pupi. Over time the view on Islam and the representation of Islam has had its turning points. One possible direction for further investigation: how have the Muslim figures in the poem been depicted in different times and places?


• Ariosto, Lodovico. Translated by William Stewart Rose. Orlando Furioso: The Frenzy of Orlando. 1831,
• Ariosto, Ludovico. Translated by David R. Slavitt, Orlando Furioso, A New Verse Translation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.
• Arjana, Sophia Rose. Muslims in the Western Imagination. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
• Farris, Sara R. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
• Ross, Charles S. “Introduction.” Ludovico Ariosto. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Orlando Furioso, A New Verse Translation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.
• Tolan, John V. Saracens Islam in the Medieval European Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.


Laurie Wissink

December 2019