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Book Review: François-Xavier Fauvelle’s The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages

Published: 5 December 2022 - Lisa Taberner

Originally published in 2013 under the title Le rhinocéros d'or, French academic François-Xavier Fauvelle, a leading historian of ancient Africa, presents an underappreciated and underrepresented ‘golden age’ of Africa in the Middle Ages. Translated into English in 2018 by Troy Tice, a Medieval historian in his own right, The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages is now engaging a wider audience with its straight-forward and conversational style. Fauvelle’s work is especially appealing to students and new academics for its unpretentious language, but the evidence-rich and seldom-probed subject matter also attract those more established in their fields. “The rarity of our sources creates an obligation… to consider each trace a document, be it a written text, an architectural monument, or a tiny piece of charcoal.”[1] Fauvelle’s background in archaeology helps to bring those traces to life, more as a narrative than a textbook, engaging readers in Africa’s storied Middle Ages.

Book Cover

Figure 1: The Golden Rhinoceros by François-Xavier Fauvelle. English edition cover.

A series of internet and library searches for books on the topic of Africa in the Middle Ages reveals Fauvelle’s work to consistently be in the top results with only a handful of competitors, most of which contextualise Africa through its relationships with Europe and Asia. The Golden Rhinoceros, alongside titles such as African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa by Michael Gomez, and Medieval Africa: 1250-1800 by Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, is one of very few to take an African-centric view of the African Middle Ages. Indeed, Fauvelle ends his narrative where traditional African histories begin: with the arrival of Europeans. While Fauvelle does discuss trade and travel with non-African nations and the global connections of Africa at the time, he hones his focus especially on the relationships between the peoples, cultures, and cities of Africa.

In chapter ten for example, ‘The King of Zâfûn Enters Marrakesh: Morocco and the Western Sahel, around the Second Quarter of the Twelfth Century’, Fauvelle describes the foundation of the city of Marrakesh around the year 1070. He goes on to discuss its growth in the Maghreb (Northwest Africa), and a visit from the King of Zâfûn, an area described by historian al-Bakrî in the eleventh century as being a nation of Sudan.[2] Fauvelle quotes an anonymous witness, a resident of Marrakesh in the early-to-mid-twelfth century, describing the arrival of the king as he entered the Maghreb: “[H]e was tall, of deep black complexion and veiled… He entered the palace of the Commander of the Muslims mounted, while the latter walked in front of him.”[3] Fauvelle uses this account to facilitate a wider discussion of the diplomatic relations between the rulers of two African nations. He analyses the King of Zâfûn’s mounted entrance, as well as his host’s humbler reception on foot, creating an engaging narrative, reinforced by his archaeological and historiographical expertise, that utilises the eye-witness evidence of the rulers’ appearance, dress, and actions to point to nuanced political and religious relationships between the two African cultures


Figure 2: Medina of Marrakesh (Morocco), UNESCO World Heritage.

Fauvelle’s archaeological style of writing history is especially evident in the titular chapter of the book. ‘The Golden Rhinoceros: Northeastern South Africa, Thirteenth Century’ opens on a description of the landscape surrounding Mapungubwe, a sandstone hill and cluster of archaeological sites on the South African side of the country’s borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe. The description paints an image for readers and connects them with the setting and circumstances of the discovery of the Golden Rhinoceros by a group of local men. The chapter is rich with archaeological descriptions and depicts evidence found at the site, indicative of Fauvelle’s predilection for writing about tangible historical sources. The narrative unfolds through stories, not as a usual academic textbook, but with no less information packed into the few pages of this chapter.

'The Golden Rhinoceros' is, of course, the primary piece of archaeological evidence referenced in this chapter. Only a few inches in size, made of wood and hammered gold, it depicts, surprisingly, an Indian rhinoceros; bearing one-horn, unlike its two-horned African equivalent. This suggests that the item was imported, and that there was trade taking place in the area long before Europeans settled there. Other items were discovered on the site, creating a picture of a historic kingdom, and Fauvelle expands on these pieces of evidence to explain how Mapungubwe became a topic of much debate among white scholars during the South African apartheid period. If, as the evidence suggests, Mapungubwe was once home to the ancestors of black Bantu people who were, at the time, restricted to living in reserves or townships, it would mean that a civilised native culture existed in the area long before the white colonists who wanted to believe that they were the first.[4] In presenting this reaction to the archaeological discovery of this site, Fauvelle demonstrates the power and importance of African history, and engages his readers through the human application of discovery and understanding.

Golden Rhino

Figure 3: The Golden Rhinoceros of Mapungubwe, University of Pretoria Museums, Wikimedia.

Writing for Indiana University’s Medieval Review, Myles Osborne describes The Golden Rhinoceros as “…a book that is deeply researched, and which will satisfy and invigorate even the specialist scholar. Yet it is beautifully written, and easily accessible…This is a masterful synthesis of knowledge about Africa that deserves to be read widely…”[5] The accessibility of this book plays a key role in its prevalence within its field. In a branch of history as overlooked as the African Middle Ages, a work like Fauvelle’s, packed with information but presented in such a way as to be a relatively easy read, is vital in generating new interest in African history. The chapter titles, each one a snapshot of the content, subtitled with the location and time period of the following narrative, remove any potential confusion on readers’ behalf and create a structured, if not entirely chronological, timeline of events throughout the continent’s long history. The maps and photographs that populate the centre of the book are another way for readers to contextualise the narratives and for Fauvelle to expand on his own descriptions of locations and artefacts. The author’s care to engage and educate readers is clear throughout The Golden Rhinoceros, and as Osborne attests, it does deserve to be read widely.

This is not to say that Fauvelle’s work is all-encompassing and without failing. In 250 pages, there is scarcely mention of women during the African Middle Ages, with most narratives focussing on trade, diplomacy, travel, and culture through a male lens. This lens is frequently further clouded by added layers of status and royalty, with many accounts hinging on events surrounding the kings and rulers of African nations. However, the depth of research exhibited throughout the book is admirable and apparent, and it is clear that the author did not shy away from drawing on a great expanse of sources, from other scholars to physical evidence. Therefore, the areas where The Golden Rhinoceros does fall short indicate a fault in the field of African history as a whole, rather than in Fauvelle’s work specifically. If anything, scholars may be inspired by the incompleteness of this history to take up the challenge of working to fill these gaps in knowledge of the African Middle Ages.

The Golden Rhinoceros, aptly named when one considers the narrative of an African ‘golden age’ that Fauvelle aims to bring to life, is an account of thriving cities, powerful rulers, political drama, trade routes, and a continent full of life and global activity long before European discovery. It is filled with archaeological evidence and stories of real people living lives vastly different to what was imagined for centuries. Yet for all the fascinating information packed into this short work, it only scratches the surface of the African Middle Ages, not through the fault of the author, but through generations of historians relegating Africa to the footnotes of history. Fauvelle’s anecdotes and evidence create a text that brings Africa into the foreground, and his work has taken its place as an accessible and intriguing introduction to medieval Africa. But the story cannot and should not end there. Many readers of The Golden Rhinoceros will be members of the new generation of historians, archaeologists, and academics, and Fauvelle’s evident thirst for knowledge of the African Middle Ages is a prime example of the direction in which research should be shifting.

Lisa Taberner is a second-year English and History undergraduate at the University of Warwick. Her primary focus is on medieval and early modern history.

[1] François-Xavier Fauvelle, The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, trans. by Troy Tice (Princeton University Press, 2018), p.8.

[2] Ibid, pp.77-78.

[3] Ibid, p.77.

[4] Ibid, p.136.

[5] Myles Osborne, ‘Fauvelle, The Golden Rhinoceros’, The Medieval Review (2019), <> [Accessed: 25 October 2022]