The earliest datable reference to Saracens is found in Ptolemy’s Geography (2nd century), which describes Sarakene as a region in the Northern Sinai named after the town Saraka located between Egypt and Palestine. There are references to that area containing Saracens, Taeni, and Arabes in that area, all separate peoples. The Notitia dignitatum, dating from the time of Diocletian, during the 3rd century, distinguishes between Arabs, Iiluturaens and Saracensas, comprising distinctive units within the Roman army.
The Estoire del Saint Graal appears to know something of the above account. It inserts an account of Saracen origins in its story of Joseph of Arimathea after describing how Joseph and his people left Jerusalem and arrived at the city of Sarras between Babylon and Salamandre. Salamandre is unknown, but Babylon in medieval texts usually refers to Cairo as it presumably does here where King Evalach of is later at war with Egypt which seems to be close by. Sarras would be the unknown Saraka from which the Saracens reputedly took their name.
The author first discards another theory that the Saracens were named from Sarah the wife of Abraham, for Sarah has only one son, Isaac, who was a Jew like his father.
The author insists that the Saracens were named from their city of Sarras, because in this city they first clarified their religion and founded the Saracen sect which continued until the coming of Muhammed. Then the author falls into confusion, referring to days before the founding of their faith when each one worshiped what pleased him until the time when they “established the worship of the sun and the moon and the other planets.”
At any rate, the author imagines Sarras, in the days of Joseph of Arimathea, as the center of prosperous civilization and worshiping many gods. He is not clear whether in the time of Joseph of Arimathea (or in the time of Arthur), the days of Muhammed were long ago or were yet to come.
Saracen Equivalent to PaganEdit
Near the end of The Chariot portion of the Prose Lancelot, Nascien relates to Gawain how, long ago, Joseph of Arimathea on a missionary journey in Britain met a Saracen, later named Matagran, whose brother Argon was wounded. Joseph promised to heal Argon with God’s help and the Saracen asked which god, noting that “we have only four gods—Mahom, Apolin, Tervagant, and Jupiter”. Later, when Joseph met Argon, Argon referred to the same four gods. Joseph through preaching and prayer healed Argon. The two brothers and other Saracens converted to Christianity.
Here the author seems to identify British paganism with the Muslim faith as he misunderstands it. Saracen is simply a word for any polytheistic pagan, whether from the east or native to Britain. Of course, the story could be taken to refer to a settlement of eastern Saracens in Britain. But these Saracens still worship Mahom, that is Muhammed, as a god.
The story is retold in the Estoire del Saint Graal, but here the protagonist is Joseph of Arimathea’s son Josephes. This version is translated into English as The Life of Joseph of Arimathy. The story is also told in the Estoire de Grimaud in which the god Apolin is replaced by the god Cahu.
Palamedes the SaracenEdit
Palamedes and his father Esclabor are referred to as paynims, or pagans, or Saracens, and their origin stems to the east, accounts differing as to whether Esclabor was still childless when he came to Britain and fathered his children in a giantess in Britain (as in the Post-Vulgate Cycle) or whether he brought his children with him (as in Guiron the Courteous).
But Esclabor’s son Palamedes is almost always an exemplar of knighthood: strong, brave, intelligent, and moral. Palamedes has his failings, but arguably they are little worse than Tristan’s failings. Palamedes is highly esteemed by all the good knights. His religious beliefs, whatever they are, are not discussed at all. The authors avoid putting Palamedes into situations where religion might matter. But the author of the death of Tristan and Yseult in the Prose Tristan also carefully avoids having Tristan and Yseult die with benefit of clergy, even though in this version the death of Tristan, at least, is long known to be coming.
The authors apparently felt that religion really was often not that important, although they could not say that openly.