George Orwell, 1984, ‘Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’
History is written from the perspective of the powerful – leaving out or re-writing the narratives of the powerless. Since living in London, I’ve had the privilege of visiting continental Europe several times. During my guided tours in France, Switzerland or Austria, I often asked, ‘What stories are not being told who is being written out of history?’. As October is Black History Month in the UK, I’m reminded of the story of the Abbey of St. Maurice in Switzerland.
Tucked away i a picturesque Swiss hillside, you’ll find 6th century Abbey dedicated to St. Maurice. Who was Saint Maurice and why does he have an Abbey dedicated to him?
Saint Maurice was born in AD 250 in Thebes (Nubia) present day Sudan. He was Christian during an age when Christianity was still seen as a threat to the Roman Empire. Despite his religious beliefs, he rose through the ranks of the Roman military to lead the famous Theban Legion. Maurice had a strong bond with his soldiers as they were fellow Christians from his home region of Thebes. When the Roman Emperor ordered Maurice to commit atrocities against Christians in Gaul State (modern-day Switzerland), he refused to harm fellow Christians. The entire Theban Legion was executed for insubordination.
In 515, King Sigismund of Burgundy dedicated the Abbey to St. Maurice on the site where the legion was massacred. While the historical importance of Theban Legion and St. Maurice is not disputed today, the appearance of the legion is deeply controversial. While German churches iconolize St. Maurice as a Nubian Roman solider with dark skin, France, Italy and Switzerland depict St. Maurice and the Theban Legion as white. In essence ignoring earlier historical references to Nubia as the birthplace and origins of St. Maurice and re-writing the appearance to match the prevailing narrative of non-Nubian Roman soldiers. Reclaiming these narratives are not important for the present but for the future.
‘Those who tell the stories rule society’. – Plato
If you would like to read more about St. Maurice and about other reclaimed history, the links below are a useful first step in your journey.
- PBS spread on the Image of St. Maurice
- World History Lense – Hidden black figures
- Black Europe – British Gallery
- BBC Black History Month – Women in History Feature
- AfroEurope Documentary Research
- Afripedia – Focused on redefining the narrative of the African diaspora through creative arts