If you were of child in sixteenth century Europe, you would probably be familiar with the
Adagia, a huge collection of proverbs put together by one of the greatest scholars of the period – the Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus. From its first appearance in 1500, its pages were full of pithy little sayings and memorable words of advice, handy both for its wisdom and useful bite-sized snippets of Latin practice for new learners, and among them you would find two reminders.
The first appeared in a list of tasks that were impossible to achieve. ‘Aethiopem lavas; aethiopem dealbas,’ it remonstrated, ‘You are washing or making the Ethiopian white’. In a later 1508 edition, Erasmus would add a note to explain: ‘that inborn blackness of the Ethiopian, which Pliny thinks to be a result of heat from the nearness of the sun, cannot be washed away with water not whitened by any means whatever.’ For Erasmus, it is a useful image for other impossible tasks – like praising someone who does not deserve praise, or teaching one who cannot be taught. For the second, ‘Aethiops non albescit’ (‘An Ethiopian cannot be whitened’), he explained, ‘This is usually said of those who will never change their nature’. Erasmus traced its source back to one of Aesop’s fables, about a man who bought a black slave and tried to wash him clean, ‘leaving him ill, as well as coloured no better than before.’
Erasmus was not the only one to use this image, or these associations. You would find it in the Bible: ‘Can the black Moor change his skin? or the leopard his spots?’ was the rhetorical question posed in Jeremiah 13.23, because those ‘that are accustomed to do evil’ cannot be expected to do any good. No wonder both Aesop’s fable and the idea of ‘washing the Ethiope’ became popular topics for moral illustrations and mottos throughout the sixteenth century across Europe: countless variations of a black man being scrubbed by the Europeans surrounding him, an example of folly and the impossible.
Erasmus first met the future Henry VIII in 1499, the year before the Adagia first emerged in print, when Henry was a precocious and impressionable eight-year-old prince. Over the next decades, Erasmus would visit England often. He was in England from 1509-1514, when John Blanke made his appearance in the Westminster Tournament roll of 1511. It is tempting to imagine their paths crossing – the humanist scholar for whom ‘the Ethiope’ had featured simply as a convenient, accepted metaphor, and Henry’s trumpeter, whose black face refuses to be washed out of history, his very survival in historical records acting both as a reminder of, and a challenge to, all those European assumptions about blackness and black skin.
Professor of Early Modern English Literature and Culture
University of Oxford