The Golden Rhinoceros:
Histories of the African Middle Ages

François-Xavier Fauvelle

translated from the French by Troy Tice
Princeton University Press 2018
A book review by Danny Yee © 2022
Covering African history from the 7th to 15th centuries, The Golden Rhinoceros offers thirty four vignettes of around six pages in length, each centering a particular location, event, trade network or polity, and exploring the objects, sites, and texts that are available for understanding that. Fauvelle foregrounds the limitations of these sources: complicated text histories, fragmentary inscriptions, rushed excavations, artefacts without contexts, and so forth.

There is no attempt to fit the individual pieces into an overarching narrative, but there is a consistent epistemological and historiographical approach. The chapters are largely independent, but are ordered roughly chronologically and reading them in order works well.

"If this book presents itself to the reader as an arrangement of fragments illuminated side by side in turn, it is because I have preferred the stained-glass window to the grand narrative fresco that would have produced only the illusion of an authoritative discourse."

As an example, "The Land Where Gold Grows Like Carrots: The Sahel from the Tenth to the Fourteenth Century" summarises the stories about where the gold of Sijilmasa came from and looks at what we can uncover about the trade networks behind those. Persian geographer al-Istakhri (around 950) was "ill informed, even for his own time. A half-century earlier, al-Yaqubi had already asserted that the mines were situated in the kingdom of Ghana, on the other side of the Sahara". Genoese merchant Antonio Malfante (around 1450) recounted second-hand evidence that "gold is not produced in the land of the black merchants that the caravans visit; it comes from still further away". Fauvelle suggests that the Wangara described by Arab authors were brokers rather than traders, bringing two commercial systems into contact and guaranteeing the security and integrity of their exchange.

Each piece is supplemented with a page or so of "Bibliographical Note", explaining how to access both the relevant primary sources and key secondary sources. A nice bonus is eight pages of colour plates, mostly depicting objects and sites, but also including two maps. (Though the latter could have been better: not all the places mentioned, even key ones, appear on them.)

November 2022

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%T The Golden Rhinoceros
%S Histories of the African Middle Ages
%A Fauvelle, François-Xavier
%M French
%F Tice, Troy
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2018
%O hardcover, illustrations, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780691181264
%P 264pp