This week’s blog comes from Dr Lesley Mickel, Lecturer in Literature img_0025at the University of the Highlands. Here, Lesley reflects on her paper, presented at our recent ‘Exploring Identities Day’.


Accounts relating to the tournament of The Wild/Black Knight and the Black Lady staged by James IV of Scotland in 1507 and 1508 show the interchangeable nature of the terms ‘black’ and ‘wild’. In his Historie and Cronikles of Scotland, (written c. mid 1570s, published 1782) Pitscottie refers to James IV’s tournament as The Black Knight and Black Lady and explains these chivalric identities as the antithesis of the white rose (Yorkist/English?) knight and lady who presented themselves at the tournament.

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Lesley Mickel presenting at HSBI’s ‘Exploring Identities Day’.

The practice of pairing knights and ladies in this way was conventional in the sixteenth century, as reflected in the celebrated Bayonne entertainment (1565) featuring Charles IX of France, where knights and ladies of the same nation appear in pairs with matching costumes. Groupings of this kind are, of course, stereotypical and generalising in terms of race and nationality, but they are visually arresting and were a recurring motif in festivals representing diverse nations – a popular format for court entertainments in Europe. In contrast to Pitscottie, the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland’s accounts relating to James IV’s tournament refer to a ‘wild knight’, indicating the interchangeable, overlapping nature of the terms ‘wild’ and ‘black’. Pitscottie elaborates on James’s adoption of the ‘black’ disguise, showing that blackness was not only associated with exotic or demonic others (as often the case in the discourse of the period), but with great physical strength and power:

The king iustit him selff dissaguysed onknawin and he was callit the blak knicht quha gave battell to all thame that wald fect for their ladyis saik and speciallie of the knichtis and gentilmen of France Ingland and Denmark. The blak knicht sayit thame all bot their was nane that mycht war him at na tyme bot he wan the lady frome thame all for he was verie puissant and strenthie on horseback and faucht and iustit with kind of weaponis that usis thairunto that is to say with spear sword and mass bot their was nocht ane that incountart him that micht byd his straikis he was so strang and puissant in his armes thairfoir the iudge and harraulds gave him the degrie of that tournament that he vsed all kind of turnment maist manlie and knichtlyk of ony that was their at that tyme. (Pitscottie, vol I, pp.243-244)

It seems to me that just as the white rose knight from England represents a Yorkist version of Englishness, James IV uses ‘blackness’ to figure a version of Scottishness based on chivalric military power and strength. Chromatic opposites are used to define a sense of nationhood in relief – we are Scottish, because we are not English. These connections between blackness, wildness and Scottishness can also be seen in the visual language of Highland heraldry where savages or wild men are used as supporters on the shields of noble Scottish families from the Highlands and Islands. James IV’s guise as the ‘Black Knight’ deliberately appropriates associations of wildness and blackness linked with Highland identity to reinforce his personal prestige as a powerful warrior, and his national prestige as ruler over the expanding nation state of Scotland. In maintaining control over the recently subdued Western isles (in 1493 the Lord of the Isles, John MacDonald forfeited his title and estates to the Scottish Crown), James not only conquered this infamously wild and unruly region, but also appropriated its rhetorical construction into the visual iconography and discourse of Scottish kingship.

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Lord of Lewis Coat of Arms

At the banquet following the tournament a great cloud appeared which ‘clekkit up the blak lady’ so that she disappeared – the result of ‘Igramancie’ hinting that the King’s physical prowess resulting in his claim on the Black Lady was matched by his mastery of the natural and supernatural world (Bishop Andrew Foreman devised the special effects). The online Dictionary of the Scots Language tells us that ‘Igramancie’ as a term means more than simply magic, as it is etymologically derived from ‘nigromancy’ – or more specifically, black magic. The king’s power then, has a mysterious origin and powerful although potentially dangerous applications; these magical and spiritual attributes of kingship were carried through into the later Stuart court masques staged at Whitehall and harnessed to a narrative of divine right and power, for example The Masque of Blackness (1605). Appropriating wildness associated with the North was part of a political discourse consolidating territorial claims over the North and a strategy to rewrite a negative narrative of Northerness, producing a rhetoric of Scottish national identity to take its place.

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