Age of intolerance?
Exploring the medieval origins of modern racism
Was the medieval period an age of intolerance? Or are scholars ascribing
modern conceptions of race to the peoples of the past?
By Catherine Zandonella
Walking through a marketplace in Rome in about 580 C.E., a priest named Gregory came upon a group of slaves whose skin was “shining white.” Upon learning that they came from the British Isles and were pagan Angles (today, English), Gregory is said to have remarked that the name fit because they looked like angels in heaven. Years later, when the priest became Pope Gregory the Great, he sent missionaries to the British Isles to convert the Angles to Christianity.
This tale, written down by a historian known as the Venerable Bede in 731, was widely recognized through the ages as the story of how Christianity came to England. More recently, however, the story has taken on additional significance as a window into how skin color and race were viewed during the Middle Ages, the formative years of modern European culture.
For decades, the accepted view among historians and scholars was that race during the medieval period — which ranged from about 400 to 1500 C.E. — was not a relevant concept. Religion, geography, ethnicity and class, far more than skin color, determined one’s status in society. Many scholars consider the concept of race to have been invented more recently — during the colonial period — to justify the exploitation of human labor.
Over the past few decades, however, across university departments of history, literature and art, through books, blogs and social media, discussions about the relevance of race in the medieval period have bubbled to the surface.
The display of medieval symbols by white supremacists, such as those who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, further galvanized scholars to examine connections between racialized attitudes and the Middle Ages.
Yet the connection between racism and the Middle Ages is not without controversy. While some scholars trace today’s racial attitudes to the medieval period or earlier, others caution against ascribing modern viewpoints to the peoples of the past. Scholars must rely on surviving records, literature, art and artifacts, which may have multiple interpretations.
To explore medieval perceptions of race and how these perceptions may have influenced the modern era, a group of scholars from universities on both sides of the Atlantic convened a series of online meetings at Princeton during 2020-21.
The group, supported by the Princeton Humanities Council, includes scholars from Princeton University, the nearby Institute for Advanced Study, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the academic professional association known as the Medievalists of Color.
“By exploring race in a comparative setting across the U.S. and Europe from different disciplines and different historical contexts, we hope to gain a greater understanding of how modern concepts of race came to be,” said Helmut Reimitz, professor of history and director of the Program in Medieval Studies at Princeton and convener of the series, Race, Race-Thinking and Identity in the Middle Ages and Medieval Studies. “And by doing so we also hope to learn more about how this history shapes the way that people think about race today.”
The medieval period was a time of trades and travel, with Muslims migrating west along the Mediterranean to occupy northern Africa and most of what is now Spain and Portugal by the 700s, Christian crusaders traveling east during the 1000s to 1300s and Jews circulating throughout the region.
Non-European people dot the literature and art of the period. For example, the fictional Sir Moriaen, a knight who fought alongside Lancelot in a King Arthur legend dated to the 13th century, was dark-skinned and of African descent.
Slavery was commonplace, but it didn’t consistently target a single racial or ethnic group, said Pamela Patton, director of the Index of Medieval Art in Princeton’s Department of Art and Archaeology. Being conquered, falling on hard times, or being of the wrong religion could also lead to enslavement. “The common denominator was ‘if you’re not like us, then we may enslave you,’” Patton said.
What was more, a slave often could be set free by converting to Christianity. The Church was dedicated to converting as many people as possible, regardless of their skin color or place of origin.
Despite the inclusivity of the Church, precursors of what might be deemed racism can be found in medieval art and literature.
For example, one tale from the 14th century recounts how the Sultan of Damascus, whose appearance was “black and loathsome,” fell in love with a princess whose skin was “as white as a swan’s feather.” When the sultan experienced God’s grace, he became “fair,” or “white,” depending on the translation.
In this and other tales from the period, the color of the sultan’s skin has a deeper meaning: His black skin is a metaphor for his non-Christian soul, according to Cord Whitaker, associate professor of English at Wellesley College, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, and one of the founding members of the Princeton collaboration.
Whitaker explored the range of meanings of blackness in his book, Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). Blackness could represent a sinful soul, but it could also represent holiness, as in the example of the black St. Maurice, patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire. Whitaker defines race-thinking as the ways in which medieval-era societies viewed differences between peoples. “In medieval race-thinking, identity categories and their consequences are sometimes quite similar to those in modern racial ideology,” Whitaker said. “Nevertheless, medieval race-thinking identities are also much more malleable.”
Another influential examination of medieval attitudes on race came from scholar Geraldine Heng, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Texas-Austin. In her book, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2018), Heng explored what she calls “race-making” as the very active process of developing techniques and strategies to exploit and discriminate against others.
Yet not all scholars agree that these examples indicate that racism as we define it today was present in the Middle Ages. William Chester Jordan, Princeton’s Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, author of numerous books on medieval history and former president of two of the field’s most prestigious academic societies, is skeptical. Jordan admits that there was a great deal of dislike, distrust and exploitation of others based on religion, ethnicity, class, geography, appearance, disability, gender and other factors, but he questions whether these attitudes should be described as racism, especially given that converting to the Christian faith trumped all. “I don’t think that race is powerful as an analytical tool to help us understand the world of the Middle Ages,” Jordan said.
Historical evidence suggests that the people of the Middle Ages were relatively intolerant of strangers, however. It was common to believe that environment determined one’s physical appearance and mental and physical abilities, said Suzanne Conklin Akbari, professor of medieval studies at the Institute for Advanced Study. Just as certain types of plants grow in specific geographic regions, the theory went, human attributes developed depending on one’s climate.
A person’s intelligence and trustworthiness could be determined not just by evaluating one’s geographical home, but also by scrutinizing one’s physical appearance, according to a widely embraced pseudoscience called physiognomy. Both climate theory and physiognomy influenced attitudes of medieval Christians toward Muslims and Jews, as Akbari chronicled in her book Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450 (Cornell University Press, 2009).
“These ideas were conducive to theories of racialization that would emerge at the end of the Middle Ages,” Akbari said. “Instead of trying to figure out when did people start to think about race, it makes more sense to examine the overall process, which we call racialization, race-thinking or race-making.”
The medieval-era tendency to suspect or ostracize a person for their appearance may have gradually metamorphosed into an outright classification of people into races that could then be marginalized. Most scholars agree that race became legitimized as a justification for enslavement around the time of the discovery of the Americas. “You start seeing a convergence of dynamics once the Roman Catholic Church ceases to be the hegemonic power it once was,” Whitaker said. “The pseudoscientific theories have left their mark, and the religious umbrella that held those justifications at bay becomes a lot less important.”
Co-opting medieval history
By the 1800s in England, the history of the Middle Ages — with its stories of fair-skinned angels — had been solidly co-opted to provide a rationale for supremacy over the Black and brown people in England’s colonies, said collaboration member Celia Chazelle, a professor of history at The College of New Jersey, and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study.
“By the 19th century, the country’s medieval past had become very directly tied to ideas about the British Empire being the engine of civilization for the rest of the developing world,” said Chazelle, who is researching the story of Gregory the Great and the conversion of the English to Christianity. An uptick in literacy rates during the industrial era led to a surge of interest in the Middle Ages among everyday people. The story of the fair-skinned slaves — and how they were singled out for salvation due to their skin color — became a staple of student textbooks.
Another example of how medieval history served race-motivated agendas involves the construction of the German identity, ideas that were later drawn upon by the Nazi party. In his book, History, Frankish Identity and the Framing of Western Ethnicity, 550–850 (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Princeton scholar Reimitz examines the formation of a cohesive identity among Germanic-speaking peoples, known as the Franks, after the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the late 400s.
“The assumption was that an inborn essence in all of these peoples was what made their success and persistence possible,” Reimitz wrote. “Because of their great political success, the Franks were even taken as evidence of the triumph of the nation over the supra-national civilization of the Roman Empire. As more recent works have shown, the ‘Fall of Rome’ was not a melodramatic ‘clash of cultures’ but rather a long-term process of transformation. The changing meaning of ethnic identity has to be understood as part of this process.”
The Nazi focus on racial purity led most post-war German-speaking scholars to eschew the term “race” in favor of the term “ethnicity,” Reimitz said. But with the trans-Atlantic dialogue fostered among the group, and the involvement of Walter Pohl, a leading scholar and professor of medieval history at the University of Vienna, researchers are beginning to find common ground.
“One of the main interventions of our collaboration is to try to create more crosstalk, more interaction and more explicit citation between North American scholars working on the pre-modern history of race and European scholars working on matters of ethnicity,” Whitaker said.
When neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville wearing medieval insignia, many scholars saw the event as evidence that scholars themselves need to ensure that studying medieval history — which until recently has been done primarily by people of European descent — is welcoming to people of all backgrounds.
One outgrowth was the student reader Whose Middle Ages? (Fordham University Press, 2019), to which Patton and Whitaker contributed. “We’re trying to develop scholarship that gives us a better sense of the diversity and complexity of the Middle Ages, and we’re also trying to change the makeup of the field by bringing in scholars who didn’t have a stake before or maybe didn’t have a seat at the table,” Patton said.
The Medievalists of Color formed in part as a response to a lack of representation in the field, said Whitaker, a founding member of the organization’s steering committee. Since its formation in 2017, the group has provided mentorship and professional support, and has worked to increase awareness of insensitivity to the experiences of non-white medievalist scholars.
Attracting scholars of color to medieval studies is worthwhile, Jordan said. He is less sure whether scholars have the ability to control interpretations of their work. He offers as an example his book, The Apple of His Eye: Converts from Islam in the Reign of Louis IX (Princeton University Press, 2019). In it, Jordan chronicles how the French King Louis IX brought Muslims who’d suffered losses in the Crusades to France, where he gave them stipends and helped them assimilate into French life. The reception of Jordan’s book has been overwhelmingly positive, including among French critics.
The book has also spurred a range of conclusions about its meaning for today’s European immigration situation, Jordan said. Some critics say the book proves that modern France should subsidize immigrants, while others argue that it justifies the view that immigrants should embrace Christianity and French culture.
From this, Jordan concludes that people will always find ways to justify their views. “White supremacists will find justification for their racism in medieval studies,” he said, “just as there are multiple ways that my book is being read in France right now.”
Given the ways that medieval history can be misapplied, Reimitz said, it is important that scholars take an active part in conversations about how the Middle Ages inform societal beliefs and actions today.
“Everything has a history, and so do our concepts of race,” he said. “These concepts did not happen by default but were the result of deliberate and conscious choices — in the Middle Ages as well as today.”
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