Robert de Clari was a French knight who was part of the ill-fated Fourth Crusade. In his account of the Crusade, Conquest of Constantinople (which he wrote around 1216), he offers a tantalizing account of the presence of Africans in medieval Europe. From it, we can begin to construct a wider picture when placed in context with other sources.
According to Robert’s account, in 1203 the Crusaders on the Fourth Crusade were in Constantinople playing a part in a major imperial power struggle. They had come there upon the request of Alexios IV Angelos, with the aim to restore his deposed father, Isaac II Angelos, to the throne, ultimately resulting in both being jointly named as co-emperors.
While they were in the city, they witnessed an unnamed Nubian king. As Robert described:
And while the barons were there at the palace, a king came there whose skin was all black, and he had a cross in the middle of his forehead that had been made with a hot iron. This king was living in a very rich abbey in the city, in which the former emperor Alexios had commanded that he should be lodged and of which he was to be lord and owner as long as he wanted to stay there.
Robert’s description of the king having a branded cross on his forehead would have been true for a Nubian at that time (a practice that is still occasionally continued today among some communities). This is a detail he was unlikely to have made up, which means that it likely was true.