images (1)By Gianna Albaum

What is race? It’s all the rage in academia to talk about the ‘racial implications of this’ and ‘postcolonial that’ and ‘the social construction of race’. You can’t get a job these days, I’ve heard some academics complain, without promising to identify and analyze every last stray racial reference in the English canon. While I am perpetually skeptical of claims that the Academy is overzealous in its analyses of race and gender, I do think that ‘race’ has become a code word that conflates a plethora of loaded words and — to borrow a phrase from linguistics — essentially contested concepts.

Given that biologists have informed us that the extent to which ‘race’ exists as a meaningful biological marker is questionable at best, what exactly are we referring to when we talk about race? Skin color? Ethnicity? Culture? Family background? What do we mean when we talk about nations and tribes? What about blood?  Does a black African farmer in Ghana who subsists on the yield from his own crops have more in common with a black American Harvard Law School professor or with a small town farmer in Texas? What does that shared skin color signify — if anything? What the hell are we talking about here?

Even if the science on race has come a long way since Carolus Linnaeus divided humans into continental varieties — for the record: Europaeus albus, Asiaticus fuscus, Americanus rubescens, and Africanus niger — the confusion about these terms has been around since the medieval era. Etymonline — the guilty online pleasure of all Comp Lit majors — provides information but ultimately fails to clarify the matter: race is etymologically related to ‘breeding,’ ethnicity used to mean ‘paganism’ (what?!), and culture has roots in farming and – ah — cultivation.

If we accept that ‘race’ is a social construct rather than a biological reality, we merely beg the question: who are the constructors and how does this construction occur? What constitutes the building blocks of such a construction? 

If I thought I could even begin to answer that question in a blog post, I’d be a fool — but I can offer a brief summary of what ‘race’ meant in the medieval era. First, you have the pseudo-scientific explanations for variations of skin color in the Mediterranean. This from a 13th century encyclopedia:

“[C]old is the mother of whiteness and of paleness, as heat is the mother of blackness and of redness. So in hot lands come forth black men and brown, as among the Moors, in cold lands white men, as among the Slavs.” (qtd. in Bartlett 46)

This ‘scientific’ view of race was virtually unchallenged in the medieval period, and in itself attached no ‘value’ to one skin color or another: the shade of one’s skin was merely an effect of one environment or another. The consensus among historian is that race in the medieval era was determined by customs and culture as much as by skin color.

Where did the races come from? Christians in the medieval era pointed to Noah’s three sons — Shem, Ham, and Japheth — who were alleged to be the original forefathers of the Asiatic, African, and Indo-European races respectively. Ham was supposed to be cursed with black skin, which of course contradicted the theory that variations in skin color were a result of the environment.

Noah's sons Shem, Japheth, and Ham
Noah’s sons Shem, Japheth, and Ham

According to Dorothy Verkerk, racial prejudices were distinctly evident in religious paintings by the 6th century. In medieval art, Verkerk argues, you see blacks represented as either exotic servants or black demons. The conflation of dark skin with demonic tendencies derived from Christian ideology: St. Jerome, for example, in Corinthians, wrote that “we are all Ethiopians” before the cleansing of the baptism (Bindman 211). Christian ideology and artwork promoted a symbolic connection between light and morality and between dark and corruption.Verkerk draws on Pharaoh and his Egyptians as a specific example of this: she traces illustrations of Pharaoh back and notes that artists began to depict Pharaoh as black at the same time the Pharaoh began to be associated with Satan and his demons (Verkerk 64).

St. Jerome

To a large extent, these two racial theories (the religious and pseudo-scientific explanations) dominated medieval discourse on race for centuries before the Enlightenment offered its alternative explanations.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes that while we should acknowledge the limitations of race as a modern biological concept, it is important to remember that society has always imposed and inscribed race in the body, and the fact that that has happened — however wrong — has had important consequences.

“Thus even if the contemporary terms race and ethnicity can often be used interchangeably in the study of medieval groups, it could be reasonably asserted that when imbalances of power exist, and especially when physical, mental, and ethical differences are held to differentiate a powerful group from those over whom a superiority is being actually or imaginatively asserted, race must be the preferred term… Race is not rendered useless because it is so highly charged, so inevitably haunted by racism. Because race can never be morally neutral, because history has ensured that it is inextricable from hierarchy and injustice, because race is always connected to corporeality, and because it is at once mutable and permanent, race captures the differentiation of medieval peoples far better than more innocuous terms ever can.”

Works Cited:

Bartlett, Robert. “Medieval and modern concepts of race and ethnicity.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001): 39-56.

Bindman, David, Henry Louis Gates, and Karen CC Dalton. The Image of the Black in Western Art: pt. 1. From the” age of discovery” to the age of abolition: artists of the Renaissance and Baroque. Vol. 3. Belknap Press, 2010.

Verkerk, Dorothy Hoogland. “Black Servant, Black Demon: Color Ideology in the Ashburnham Pentateuch.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies31.1 (2001): 57-77.

For more posts on race and literature, click here.