Medieval sheikhs

Gentile Bellini, Mehmed II, Wikimedia, 1480
Gentile Bellini, Mehmed II, Wikimedia, 1480.

Everyone knows the story: a young, Western heroine meets a swarthy sheikh, is abducted to his desert kingdom where they (eventually) fall in love and live happily ever after. This is the quintessential “sheikh romance,” a distinctive sub-genre of contemporary Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

The number of sheikh titles published has increased exponentially, with more original titles published in the UK since 2000 than in the first 80 years of Harlequin Mills & Boon publishing. This increase in popularity is paradoxically set against a backdrop of heightened tension between the Western world and the East, stemming from the events of 9/11 and culminating in active warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) has been credited as a major influence for the contemporary sheikh romance. But the modern sheikh romance is not the only genre in which a romantic relationship between East and West is imagined against a background of conflict. Today’s sheikh romances share their themes of desire and conflict with another group of romances: Middle English romance. A comparative reading reveals that medieval and modern strategies for dealing with conflict produced by the apparently insurmountable differences between East and West are remarkably similar.

Take, for example, The King of Tars, a romance which was widely read in 14th-century England and which tells the story of a forced marriage between a Christian princess and the Saracen Sultan of Damascus. Forced to convert to Islam by her new husband, the princess secretly retains her Christian beliefs, and their resulting, inter-religious child is born an insensate, limb-less, feature-less lump of flesh.

The romantic union between East and West is thus unproductive, indicating the deep gulf between Saracen and Christian. An echo of this can be seen in some modern sheikh romances: the heroine of The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride wonders “[h]ow could she live here, like this? Yes, she loved him, but she didn’t understand him or his culture. She wanted the hearth and home she knew growing up. Not exclusion. Not seclusion” (p. 155). The distance between East and West is here similarly large and irresolvable.

Yet The King of Tars does find a solution to this difference. After an attempt to baptize the child as Saracen fails to restore him from lumpenness, when the princess christens him according to Christian convention, the child “hadde liif & lim & fas [became alive, with limbs and face]” (line 776). The incursion of Christianity restores the natural order and lineage of the couple. Furthermore the Sultan, so moved by the transformation of his son, himself undergoes conversion to Christianity upon which his skin, until then “blac & loþely [black and ugly]” (line 928) became “[a]l white” (line 929). The transformation from religious difference to religious sameness is symbolized in this shift in skin colour, indicating the future success of the romantic union: difference has been elided as the principal characters are all now Christian.

Although religion is no longer the primary marker of difference in modern sheikh romance, a similar drive towards sameness can be observed in the introduction of Western-style modernity to the sheikh’s kingdom, thereby making the East more acceptably “Western,” reducing the differences between East and West. Common examples are the modernization of infrastructure, introducing democracy and outlawing unacceptably Eastern customs such as polygamy (represented in the vacating of the harem). This impulse of reducing difference between East and West by making the East more Western, thereby lessening conflict, is the same impulse as the medieval Christianizing of the Saracen East in The King of Tars.

So although Hull’s The Sheik has clearly influenced the modern sheikh romance, this medieval romance, which imagines a fantasy romance resolution to the difference which produces conflict, might provide an older precursor, hinting at the long and rich history of the sheikh romance.

E. M. Hull, The Sheik, 1919 (London: Virago, 1996).

The King of Tars: Edited from the Auchinleck Manuscript, Advocates 19.2.1, ed. Judith Perryman, (Heidelberg: Winter, 1980). Text accessible online.

Jane Porter, The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006).

Amy Burge

Amy Burge is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Women's Studies, The University of York.

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