Sarah Guérin

Sarah Guérin

Marlène and Paolo Fresco Fellow in African Studies
In auro de Paleola: Aspirations for African Gold in the Trecento
2023-2024 (January - June)
Sarah Guerin


Sarah M. Guérin is Associate Professor of Medieval Art in the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research centres on the material conditions of art, with an emphasis on the socio-economic circumstances surrounding production and use. These interests have led her to engage seriously with the contemporary material culture of Africa, 1200–1400, and especially the role trans-Saharan trade played in global economic systems. This research lead her to contributing, as a member of the steering committee and a catalogue author, to the award-wining exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa, 2019-2022. In 2022, her monograph French Gothic Ivories: Material Theologies and the Sculptor’s Craft appeared with Cambridge University Press.

Project Summary

The day when we truly know the history of gold – or more exactly, the history of gold as an instrument of exchange… hidden currents and hidden connections that today escape us will appear in plain light. Marc Bloch, 1933.

The struggle to access West African gold bullion was a shared obsession of rulers across Western Europe, North Africa and the Sahara. From Paris and Florence to Tunis and Ni-Jimi, the decades around 1300 saw struggles to control of gold from the mines of modern Senegal and Mali, which impacted monetary markets and artistic production alike. The political jostling both before and after the Eighth Crusade included not only Louis IX, Charles of Anjou, and Hafsid emir al-Mustanstir, but also the head of an Ayyubid force roaming the Sahara in search of gold, Qarâqush, and the second-generation black king of the Empire of Kanem-Bornu, whose capital Ni-Jimi was situated on the shores of Lake Chad, named in the emic sources as Mai Dunama Dabbalemi. Hitherto unremarked, two documents drafted in the shadows of Carthage, days after Louis IX’s death, definitively prove that his two brothers, Charles of Anjou and Alphonse of Poitiers, as well as his son and heir Philippe le Hardi, knew that the gold obtained from the Hafsid emir al-Mustanstir was “auro de Paleola.” This term, of still uncertain etymology, used in Italian documents since at least 1181, refers explicitly to Ligurian and Tuscan knowledge that some gold came from West Africa. This project underscores the centrality of the socio-economic history of the Bilad al-Sudan, the Land of the Blacks, to Mediterranean power struggles in the trecento.