More research followed the Tour de France’s first foray around Corsica.

On a couple of occasions there when the cyclists were in the countryside, a few horse riders were in the fields keeping pace with them. The image of one or two Corsicans on horseback waving huge national flags had a wild, romantic, adventurous aspect to it.

Corsica flag Wikipedia 450px-Coat_of_Arms_of_Corsica.svgIndeed, if you are on the Cote d’Azur, it is highly probable that you will see the emblem on car registration plates from Corsica (département numbers 2A(jaccio) and 2B(astia)). What I thought was the silhouette of an ancient Corsican turned out to be a Moor’s head, the crest of which is pictured at left.

I wondered if Corsica was the only place to have a face on their flag instead of a crest, stripes or other emblem. I was wrong about that, too. Pictured at right is neighbouring Sardinia’s flag with four Moors’ heads on a Cross of St George. Incidentally, the two islands are so close together (Corsica lies to the north) that they must have been part of the same land mass originally. Sardinia flag Wikipedia Flag_of_the_Italian_region_Sardinia.svg

I’ll discuss the history of the Moor’s head in the Corsican flag first — some of which ties in with Sardinia’s — then go into a more general description of what was a pan-European symbol in heraldry and predated the Arab-European slave trade. A few later depictions, however, do tie in with slavery. Many others appear to relate to the Crusades.

That said, no one can say with certainty what the Moor’s head means on specific crests or flags.

A number of webpages address the Corsican flag but the page with the most comprehensive history is Celtic Cowboy’s illustrated Moors Head. This would make a great subject for a school paper, provided the lecturer/teacher is prepared to examine the entire history, some of which ties into the early Church in Africa.

History of the Corsican flag

Celtic Cowboy’s page includes the text of a 1995 talk given by the Corsican scholar Jerôme Potentini to the Accademia Corsa. This is probably the most comprehensive history of the Moor’s head. A summary follows. Parenthetical insertions are mine.

In heraldry, many noble European families whose names had an etymological tie to the words ‘Maure’ or ‘Moro’ adopted the Moor’s head in their crests and coats of arms. Often, the head looks to the left — dexter in Latin and in heraldic parlance. (The Moors in the Sardinian example face sinister, Latin for ‘the right’.)

In both examples, the Moor’s eyes are what is referred to in heraldry as ‘animated’ — open. In the Corsican and Sardinian context, they represent Maghrebins — North Africans — who arrived on the islands. (Some accounts say that people from the Maghreb settled the islands before the Greeks arrived, however, many others say that the Maghrebins on the flags came later — early Muslim invaders. Whilst they attacked coastal ports before being repelled by the native peoples, they never conquered either island. Corsica and Sardinia might be the only two islands in the Mediterranean to stake that claim.)

The headband might be a ribbon, or tortil, which is placed either on the eyes (in a context preceding execution or slavery) or on the forehead. Others say it was a royal symbol, although historians say that only the Greeks would have worn a headband in that way.

The Genoese might have brought the Moor’s head symbol to Corsica, since they were its rulers over several centuries. The Genoese employed the Moor’s head on their own crests; they were the most active in the slave trade during the Renaissance. Where the head has earrings and pearl necklace, the Moor is a female.

However, there are also popular legends involving Arab pirates and the arrival of the Moor’s head to Corsica. One says a Corsican beheaded a Saracen invader and drew his image on a white cloth to describe his victory over an enemy. Another legend is that Corsairs — Arab pirates — abducted a Corsican’s fiancée and sold her to the King of Aragon. The Corsican managed to free her by killing the King’s lieutenant. He brought the head back as a trophy.

Speaking of Aragon, the Moor’s head was also a well known symbol in that Spanish kingdom. And, for a time, Aragon ruled over Corsica and Sardinia. This was because Pope Boniface VIII handed the islands over to the King of Aragon in 1296 an attempt to stop the dispute between the Pisans and Genoese over them. Although Jerôme Potentini says there is scant evidence to support the Aragonese origins of the Moor’s head, it is said that they adopted it after their king, Peter I, defeated four Moorish kings during the Crusades. If so, this would go some way towards explaining its adoption in the Sardinian flag. Sardinia’s capital, Cagliari, has a number of ancient parchments from Aragon with the symbol. Cagliari’s coat of arms uses the same motif.

During the late 13th and early 14th century, the Kingdom of Aragon had a number of influential supporters in Corsica. In 1376, their leader Arrigo della Rocca used Aragon’s Moor’s head coat of arms. Incidentally, in 1387, Aragon’s Jaume I discontinued the use of the Moor’s head and restored the kingdom’s previous coat of arms.

However, even when France began forays into Corsica in the 1500s, a Corsican in their service used a Moor’s head in his coat of arms. However, Potentini said his research told a different story (emphases mine):

The Moor’s head was allegedly added to the regiment flag to distinguish it from the flag used by Piemontese [regiment]s. The military historian Poli, however, believes that the report was erroneous and that the Moor’s head had been added by modern authors. He said that France would have not tolerated mercenaries using an Aragonese symbol. Corsico-Sardinian mercenaries, however, might have used banners with the Moor’s head. Such banners are shown on several paintings and frescos, carried by Corsican and Sardinian regiments or mercenaries in the service of the pope or Italian republics. A painting, dated before 1466, by Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) in the St. Francis’ church in Arezzo, is the best example of these representations. Corsicans and Sardinians served indistinctively in the same regiments, which might have used the arms of Cagliari on their banner. The conclusion for the XIII-XVIth century period is that Corsican chiefs might have used the Moor’s head as their banner, although this was not the official emblem of Corsica.

Another hypothesis is that an Italian cartographer in the 16th century assigned the island the Moor’s head symbol as it had no other — a leftover from Aragon’s rule (or possibly a nod to Genoese rule which had the same symbol and lasted much longer).

In any event, by the time Pasquale Paoli governed Corsica, the Moor’s head seemed to be so ingrained in the public imagination that he used it as the symbol for the new republic. The reverse side of the flag was to have had an image either of the Mediterranean saint St Dévote (or the Virgin Mary, accounts differ) but the religious image was suppressed. (It is possible that the Corsicans thought that Rome had interfered enough by arbitrarily subjugating them to different kingdoms’ rule.) It is also feasible that the Corsicans were beginning to self-identify as the conquered, enslaved people. The former slaves of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) also used it after the revolt led by Toussaint Louverture in 1799.

And, so the Corsican flag remains today.

The Moor’s head and the early Church — then the Reformation

Whereas the Moor’s head described in the preceding contexts denotes a negative connotation, the earliest use was overwhelmingly positive and relates to the early Church in Africa — St Maurice — specifically.

Modern heraldists have been researching the earliest use of the Moor’s head. The information from one of them, Mario de Valdes y Cocom, featured on a PBS Frontline programme around the Millennium.

In Valdes’s words the reverence of St Maurice began during the Roman Empire, in which he lived, and continued to be significant in the intervening centuries, culminating in the Counter-Reformation:

The insignia of the black head, in a great many instances, was probably meant to represent this soldier saint since a majority of the arms awarded were knightly or military. With 6,666 of his African compatriots, St. Maurice had chosen martyrdom rather than deny his allegiance to his Lord and Saviour, thereby creating for the Christian world an image of the Church Militant that was as impressive numerically as it was colourwise. Here, no doubt, is a major reason why St. Maurice would become the champion of the old Roman church and an opposition symbol to the growing influence of Luther and Calvin. The fact that he was of the same race as the Ethiopian baptized by St. Philip in Acts of the Apostles was undoubtedly an important element to his significance as well. Since this figure from the New Testament was read as a personification of the Gentile world in its entirety, the complexion of St. Maurice and his Theban Legion (the number of which signified an infinite contingent) was also understood as a representation of the Church’s universality

St Maurice is an excellent example of steadfast heroism in martyrdom for Christ. He is an outstanding role model for young black Catholic or Anglican men. Let it not be said that Christianity is a white man’s religion. It was every bit as widespread in pre-Islamic Africa as in Asia Minor, probably more so.

Maurice — the name comes from ‘Moor’ or ‘black’ — was born in Thebes in 250 AD. Thebes is today’s Luxor in Egypt. At the time, Thebes was part of the Roman Empire.

Maurice was a Christian when he joined the Roman army. It is interesting to note that the Roman emperors considered the faith a threat to their rule, yet this young man decided to serve them. Not everyone in Egypt was a Christian at the time. The story has it that Maurice got on well with everyone, even the pagans, in his society.

His courage and ability as a soldier saw him rise to lead the Theban Legion, comprised of 6600 African soldiers. Rome sent the Thebans to defend interests in what is now Switzerland, specifically, near Mont Blanc. The Emperor Maximian ordered the troops to harrass local Christians. Maurice and his men refused to do so.

Maximian punished the legion by decimation — executing every tenth soldier. He then issued more anti-Christian instructions. Some of these might have been a demand to pay homage to Roman gods. Maurice and his men stood firm in their refusal. Maximian’s decimation continued until all the Thebans were killed, including Maurice.

Because Maurice died in the Alps, there are many towns and churches named in his memory in Switzerland, France and Italy. Germany, Austria and Hungary also have sites named after him.

Maurice became a patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors. Through his steadfast example, he represented noble, honourable and God fearing qualities in leadership as well as combat. Therefore, it is not surprising that a representation of him — the Moor’s head — appears in early heraldry and continues today in ages-old family and clan coats of arms.

The Moor’s head and Saracen connotations

In time, it is possible that, with the advent of the Crusades, Moor’s heads signifying an hommage to St Maurice transformed into conquered or defeated Saracens. We might never know.

With nearly every European noble family fighting the Saracens at some point, it is not surprising that the Moor’s head would carry that connotation.

One page with a series of coats of arms from Germany to Slovenia to eastern Europe shows several with a Moor’s head. Some of these might be St Maurice; others might represent a Saracen.  Mittenwald’s coat of arms (underneath the map at the link) could well show St Maurice as the motif is mountainous. The others are less clear.

Whatever the story behind the Moor’s head is — and the meanings appear to be ambiguous — it would be wrong of us to automatically assign it a negative meaning …

Because, one thing we do know about the Moor’s head is that no one knows for certain what its exact meaning is.