Saracens (Lat. Sarraceni, Fr. Sarrasins) was used in the period of the crusades as an indiscriminate term for Muslims. Originally designating one ethnic group in the Arabian Peninsula, by late antiquity it had become a synonym for Arabs, and it was employed by Latin chroniclers of the eighth and ninth centuries to describe the Muslim Arab invaders in the Mediterranean region. In the twelfth century, chroniclers of the First Crusade (1096-1099) and poets of the chansons de geste (Old French epic poems) applied the term to Turks, Arabs, and other Muslims, creating a colorful and wildly inaccurate portrait of Saracens who worshipped pantheon idols, the chief among them Mahomet. At the same time, theologians offered polemical refutations of the Lex Sarracenorum (Law of the Saracens), as they generally called Islam. The travel narratives and romances of the later Middle Ages often blend literary topoi of pagan Saracens with more realistic depictions of Islam. The term Saracen gradually fell into disuse by the seventeenth century, to be replaced by Turk, Mohammedan, and Moslem.
The origins of the Latin word Sarracenus are obscure; the hypothesis of its derivation from the Arabic sharqiyyin (the plural of sharql, “Easterner”) is not universally accepted. Roman writers used the term to designate one ethnic group in eastern Arabia. By the third century, the term designated all of the nomadic Arabs of the peninsula. Some authors affirmed that the Saracens worshiped idols of stone. The theologian Jerome asserted that the Saracens were the descendants of Abraham through his handmaid Hagar and their son, the “wild man” Ishmael (Genesis 16:12); they thus should be properly called Hagarenes or Ishmaelites, but they falsely called themselves Saracens, claiming to be the descendants of Abraham’s legitimate wife Sarah. This etymology was taken up by Isidore of Seville and many subsequent Latin authors. It no doubt seemed to fit the experience of those who chronicled the conquests and raids of the Sar- raceni in the seventh and eighth centuries. Very few chroniclers showed any interest in the religion of these invaders, and those who did showed little awareness of the rise of Islam; they contented themselves with repeating what they found in Jerome and Isidore.