"Race is a dangerous word."
Thus Rees Davies initiated his Cecil-Williams lecture of 1973, and his declaration holds even more true three decades later. Despite its inherent perils Davies did not back down from employing the word, arguing that race is the only descriptive noun able to capture the profundity of the differences imagined to distinguish the medieval Welsh from the English, differences held to be "elemental" ("Race Relations in Post-Conquest Wales" 32). With Davies I will argue that the word race is appropriate to a medieval context, especially in eleventh- and twelfth-century Britain, but not only because distinctions among the island's peoples were believed congenital. Race is the only contemporary term which foregrounds the inextricability of bodily and group identity. It is the term that best conveys the uneven structures of power within which identities are formed, represented, made solid. Race is a word often rejected by contemporary scholars because of its association with the body and with injustice. Although it has no natural or inherent connection to either, I employ it because it is always haunted by both, making it the only noun adequate to convey the way in which group identity was imagined and experienced in twelfth-century Britain.
Race does not, scientifically speaking, exist. It belongs to the realm of fantasy, where it demonstrates a powerful ability to give substance to what is ultimately insubstantial. Despite its seemingly chimerical nature, however, race is as bluntly corporeal as it is emotionally wounding (or satisfying, depending on one's perspective). Race is an identity system that anchors difference to the flesh, and not simply through inert signs like the shape of one's nose or variations in skin color. We often associate race with charts of bodily difference or (in the Middle Ages) manuscript illustrations that call attention to somatic otherness. Yet race is not some lifeless residuum, some essence discernable through the observation of faces and skin. Writing about race -- medieval and modern -- tends to be obsessed with race in action, race as performance. Medieval ethnographers "discovered" race most frequently in the vivacious realm of corporeal praxis, where it exerts a constant power to differentiate and reveal. Race is therefore evinced in such highly visible actions as the choice, preparation and consumption of food; patterns of speech and use of language; customs and ritual; the practice of sexuality.
Race is paradoxical. Although it may seem an impermeable boundary, solid and constraining, over time it tends to be elastic, altering its contours as it is adopted and adapted to specific uses. This performability of race can allow a previously divided or heterogeneous group to cohere. It can also enable the foisting of such union upon peoples who do not necessarily desire such delineation. Should this people then find themselves subordinated politically, the construction of race that has been bestowed upon them tends to harden into an imprisoning category, locking them in alien terms and subaltern status. Embrace of a racial designator by a dominating group, on the other hand, frequently relies upon the potential plasticity of the category, enabling a series of strategic inclusions and exclusions according to political expedience. In the twelfth-century, the Welsh, Irish, and to a lesser degree the Scots found themselves trapped in the suffocating embrace of an English circumscription of their racial identity. The Normans, meanwhile, insinuated themselves into the Englishness of the nation they had conquered, eventually disappearing into that identity and strengthening its dominance.
Race is a sorting mechanism. Its power to differentiate and hierarchize can be glimpsed in some of the earliest writing about cultural clash in Britain, the Commentaries on the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar. It can also be seen a century or so thereafter, when Britain had become a distant province of the Roman empire. A man named Julius Agricola served as the commander of this hinterland's legion, returning later in life as the island's governor, and subduing with vigor the native peoples. Agricola's son-in-law, Cornelius Tacitus, wrote an admiring account of the governor's life, a narrative in which Britain is a land clearly divided between conquering Romans and British tribes who either wisely submit or foolishly rebel. The reality, of course, was rather different. As in all frontier societies, it must have been difficult to maintain cultural separation. Many Britons were being slowly Romanized, while those citizens of the empire who had settled into newly built villas must have felt the pull of indigenous ways. Yet the Agricola confidently divides the world, envisioning an island where the distinctions among peoples are clean and self-evident. Tacitus famously praised the solitude of the races when, in the Germania, he composed a sympathetic account of a barbarian people who limned the edges of the Roman empire:
For myself, I accept the view that the peoples of Germany have never contaminated themselves by intermarriage with foreigners but remain of pure blood, distinct and unlike any other nation. One result of this is that their physical characteristics, in so far as one can generalize about such a large population, are always the same: fierce-looking blue eyes, reddish hair, and big frames. (4)
Even if they preferred to imagine that their forebears were blonds rather than redheads, the racialists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw themselves in Tacitus's description of these primal Germans, just as separate, just as pure. No matter that Tacitus was describing a people who could not have bestowed some unalloyed cultural or genetic heritage to modern Germany. Like all ancient and medieval peoples, the Germans Tacitus describes were undoubtedly a mongrel solidarity that would in time promiscuously intermingle with other peoples. What mattered was that Tacitus made the Germans, like the Britons and the Romans, seem a race set neatly apart from all others. That he allied race to purity and condemned intermingling as the loss of identity probably says less about the ancient Germans (whoever they actually were) than about Tacitus's nostalgia for a thing that never existed, a Roman culture that could be as pristine as it was unchanging. As numerous scholars have pointed out, the Germania is not an unbiased ethnographic text but a work composed to reform the lax morals of the contemporary Roman empire. Little did Tacitus know that he was introducing a fantasy of race in which the Nationalist Socialists would one day espy a Blut und Boden to anchor their present to an uncontaminated past, an "eternal stream of blood" that "binds across the ages" [see John Moreland in "Ethncity, Power and the English" 23]
The connection between Tacitus's dream of racial purity and the myths embraced by the Nazis underscores the perils race poses. Living in the wake of the Holocaust, living with the effects of chattel slavery still daily visible in places like the United States, it is difficult to use the term and not participate uncritically in some of the most damaging discourses humans have ever elaborated. Not only does the word seem innately pernicious, moreover, its potential applicability to the analysis of the Middle Ages is suspect. The genocide conceived by the Nazis may have had a parallel in medieval pogroms, but it may also be the case (as David Nirenberg has argued) that yoking such events to each other inhibits our ability to understand the specific historical conditions under which such violence arises [see Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages , a book which advances a strong argument for local rather than transhistorical contexts for the deployment of intergroup violence]. It could also be argued that a period that did not inherit the legacy of institutionalized slavery based upon skin color could not possibly have conceptualized race in our contemporary sense of the word. Perhaps, then, scholars ought to employ some other, less tainted term to describe medieval collectivities. Perhaps the conceptualization of race that the western Middle Ages inherited from the classical past is closer to what is today meant by the term ethnicity. Robert Bartlett argues that since race is not a biological category during the time period, and since "ethnicity and race both refer to the identifications made by individuals about the groups they belong to" ("Concepts of Race and Ethnicity" 41), the words ought to be treated as synonyms. William Chester Jordan, on the other hand, has rejected Bartlett's argument for this equivalence:
Bartlett suggests that we cannot leave the word race to the racists … However, Bartlett's pleas notwithstanding, on the matter of race, the racists have won. Let them keep the word … I actually prefer 'ethnic identity'; it has a softer, less threatening ring in my ears, since identity can be (not always is, but can be) understood as a process. ("Why 'Race'?" 168)
Race is contaminated by the histories that lay behind its use. Employing it in medieval contexts, Jordan argues, will inevitably attract the modern associations that render it repugnant. Ethnicity, he implies, does not carry this taint, and perhaps better conveys the fact that identity formation is open ended, perpetually in process.
Ethnicity certainly seems the preferred term at the moment, especially among the medievalists who investigate what has conventionally been called the Age of Migrations. It used to be assumed, as the medieval sources themselves insist, that as Rome dissolved Europe was invaded by new, culturally homogenous groups of people like the Goths. The large scale movements of these barbarians, it was thought, wholly displaced aboriginal populations. Recently, however, medievalists like Walter Pohl have emphasized the process of ethnogenesis, stressing the adoptability of collective identities over time. Ethnogenesis typically works when a minority warrior elite imposes its culture upon a subjugated native population. Invaded peoples are not eradicated but absorbed into this newly dominating identity. Much contemporary work on the movements of the peoples who eventually became known as the Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Danes of the Danelaw stresses that the number of immigrants to the British Islands was likely to have been small. Freshly arriving warriors would have intermarried into the indigenous populations, impressing upon them their art, religion, values, culture, making it appear that what was in biological fact a mixed community constituted a fairly unified group of "Britons" or "Anglo-Saxons." The idea that a native population can be transformed at the hands of parvenu conquerors has gained wide acceptance. To underscore the malleability of these group identities and their origins in adoptable culture, the plastic term ethnicity is used rather than the more intractable, physical, historically dubious term race.
So why adopt a word as troubled and as dangerous in its contemporary meanings as race to examine the Britain of the Middle Ages? Following Jordan and Pohl, dissimilarities between the Welsh and the English, the Irish and the Vikings, the Germans and the Slavs, it could be argued, are exclusively ethnic differences, if ethnicity is the proper term to describe the nonbiological variations which distinguish population groups, and if race refers to the distribution (real or imagined) of corporeal markers throughout human populations. Thus in his recent work on Norman and English identities, Hugh M. Thomas writes
The construct of race, which still has great cultural impact despite discrediting of its supposed scientific basis, generally involves differences in physical characteristics, at least in an American setting, and thus it is very odd to an American ear to hear the English and the Normans described as races. Therefore, I will stick to 'peoples' and 'ethnic groups.' (The English and the Normans 9)
Ethnicity, it seems, is identity as expressed in culture. Race, on the other hand, is identity lodged in the body, no matter how speciously. Ethnicity is adoptable, malleable, and ethically neutral. Race is enfleshed, immutable, and haunted by history.
Yet to differentiate between ethnicity and race by asserting that one is free-floating, socially constructed, while the other is corporeal engenders immense difficulties. First and foremost, even if ethnicity has replaced race in much scholarly discourse because it seems disembodied, in actual practice ethnicity becomes just as attached to corporeality as does race. When the Greeks and Romans described the Ethiopians, Indians, Germans and Celts, they were in general not only conveying that these peoples varied from them in language, customs, and geographic origin, but asserting their own cultural, intellectual, and physical superiority. They believed, in the words of one recent critic, that there was "a direct link between physical and nonphysical characteristics (which were explicitly or implicitly considered as inferior or superior)." This link, David M. Goldenberg continues, is "a crucial component – in fact, the lifeblood – of racist thinking" ("The Development of the Idea of Race" 562). The humoral and environmental model of biological determinism was inherited by the Middle Ages, taking on a renewed vitality as classical texts were translated from Arabic into Latin in the twelfth century. Even today, ethnicity is still popularly tied to "phenotypic traits," to readable bodily designators, and seldom in practice retains its supposedly judgment-free status. [Andrew Tyrrell makes this point well in "Early Medieval Bodies and Corporeal Identity" 140]. We could not have the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing if ethnicity were merely a neutral word for cultural variation. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine any term that hopes to delineate group differences (real or imagined) that could be disinterested or apolitical.
As Florin Curta stresses in his summary of recent anthropological work on ethnicity, group identity may be culturally constructed, but it is not thereby insubstantial: "ethnicity is not innate, but individuals are born with it ... it is not biologically reproduced, but individuals are linked to it through cultural constructions of biology" [Curta, review of Medieval Europeans]. No matter how cultural in their origin, differences among medieval peoples were inevitably imagined in corporeal terms, employing language that attached difference in customs, laws, and language to the body. I therefore choose to use the word race rather than ethnicity to emphasize the sheer embodiedness of group differentiation. By this I mean to include differences imagined as innate (such as national character), differences in biology (such as humoral imbalance), differences in bodily features (such as dark skin or a hooked nose), differences in descent or origin still evident in contemporary identity; and especially differences that are visible only as they are performed by bodies in motion (ritual, custom, legal or hospitality codes not in their abstract existence but in their concrete expression).
Despite an enduring interest in how communities form and sustain themselves, medievalists are only now turning to an investigation of what race might mean for the Middle Ages.* In part, of course, this interest marks a kind of return, necessarily haunted by the specters of histories that once sought untainted Germanic purities in works like the Nibelungenlied and Tacitus's Germania. Recent work in medieval studies rejects such fantasies and explores how race (in the words of Thomas Hahn) as a "category comes into being, and how the difference it signifies varies according to cultural circumstances" ("The Difference the Middle Ages Makes"). Medievalists like Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Robert Bartlett, Geraldine Heng, Sharon Kinoshita, Stephen Kruger and Claire Sponsler grant race its instability, its contextual determination, its power of mutability.
It is my hope that my use of race will not be seen as a throwback to the racist ethnographies and philological nationalisms of the not too distant past. I employ the word in the same cautious way as do my colleagues in anthropology and critical race studies, for whom race is a shifting, ultimately unreifable category that nonetheless passes itself off as possessing an essence and a historical durability. Race is a construct, but
this is not the same as saying race doesn't exist or has no meaning, which one commonly hears. It has plenty of meaning and existence to the extent that it widely confers identity. What has no existence is a natural subspecies of humans. [Jonathan Marks, "Replaying the Race Card," American Anthropological Association Newsletter 39 (1998) 4; cited by Andrew Tyrrell, 141
As Faye V. Harrison has pointed out, even after "race's conceptual validity" has been dismantled, what remains to be done is "a sustained examination and theorizing of the ideological and material processes that engender the social construction of race under ... historically specific circumstances and cultural logic" ["Expanding the Discourse on 'Race'" 611]. A cultural product that seems in some ways artificial and abstract, race is nonetheless bound to the flesh -- not because the body will (as racialists believe) always betray the congenital signs that allow natural categorizations, but because the body is the battleground where identities are perpetually sought, forced, expressed. Race has no pre-existent truth that awaits recognition. Race is instead the product of a discriminatory system of power that intertwines identity and embodiment.
In the introduction to study of racial passing in American culture, Gayle Wald usefully summarizes much recent work in what is commonly known as critical race studies: a rejection of biological and physiological models of racial sorting; an insistence upon race's historical mutability (the Irish in America, for example, were initially classified as Negroid but eventually came to be as white as anyone who had sailed aboard the Mayflower); and an interest in the social mechanisms through which race becomes real and takes on a life of its own [Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U. S. Literature and Culture 6-7. Though such observations seem most frequently applied to constructions of subaltern race, they apply no less truly to those for whom race is empowering; see, e.g., Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness]. The novelist Charles W. Chesnutt wrote trenchantly in 1900 that "We make our customs lightly; once made, like our sins, they grip us in bands of steel; we become the creatures of our creation" (The House Behind the Cedars). As Wald points out, race works in exactly the same way, never existing as some intellectual abstraction but always taking restrictive physical form. A bluntly physical system with grave human consequences, race is as solid as Chesnutt's chain of custom, an effective and enduring means to privilege some groups, denigrate and disempower others.
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. The same argument holds for the supposedly neutral term that many historians - including R. R. Davies and Hugh M. Thomas - use instead of ethnicity, "people." Other words could be adopted (communities, solidarities, collectivities), but neutrality of designation does not seem to me to be the point here. 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. Walter Pohl has written that early medieval ethnicity had two functions, integration and distinction. Ethnicity made a collective of people who differed among themselves and who may not have differed much from those it excluded; it proliferated in a nonsystematic and often confusing way a multitude of criteria for distinguishing self from other; and it seldom waivered in its underlying conviction that lines of demarcation among the world's peoples were clean and self-evident ("Introduction: Strategies of Distinction" 4-5). As a force of both cohesion and exclusion, race in twelfth-century Britain clearly performed the same functions, but its use in what follows will stress the embodiedness of medieval collective identities in a way that ethnicity may not. Race is difference in its inequality, its violence, and its sheer corporeality.
* It is admittedly somewhat disingenuous to make such a bald statement. Medievalists have long been examining many of the issues clustered around race, especially as they apply to the formation of ethnic identities in the waning of the Roman empire. For an indication of the vigor of this analysis as well as the copious bibliography it has generated, see the essays collected by Richard Corradini et al., The Construction of Communities in the Early Middle Ages and by Andrew Gillett, On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages. By using the word race, however, it is my intention to call attention to the embodied aspects of medieval community, especially in their relation to blood.
Bartlett, Robert. "Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity." JMEMS 31.1 (2001): 39-56.
Curta, Florin. Review of Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Perspectives, ed. Alfred Smyth. The Medieval Review 99.03.06
Davies, Rees R. "Race Relations in Post-Conquest Wales: Confrontation and Compromise." Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1974-75) 32-56.
Frankenberg, Ruth. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
Jordan, William Chester. "Why 'Race'?" JMEMS 31.1 (2001) 165-73.
Goldenberg, David M. "The Development of the Idea of Race: Classical Paradigms and Medieval Elaborations" [review of Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West]. International Journal of the Classical Tradition 5 (1999) 561-70.
Hahn, Thomas. "The Difference the Middle Ages Makes: Color and Race Before the Modern World." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (2001) 1-37.
Harrison, Faye V. "Expanding the Discourse on 'Race.'" American Anthropologist 100 (1998) 609-31.
Lampert, Lisa. "Race, Periodicity, and the (Neo-) Middle Ages." Modern Language Quarterly 65 (2004) 391-421.
Moreland, John. "Ethnicity, Power and the English," Social Identity in Early Medieval England, ed. William O. Frazer and Andrew Tyrrell (London: Leicester University Press, 2000) 23-51.
Nirenberg, David. Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
Pohl, Walter. "Introduction: Strategies of Distinction." Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800, ed. Walter Pohl (Leiden: Brill, 1998) 1-15.
Reynolds, Susan. "What Do We Mean by 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'Anglo-Saxons'?" Journal of British Studies 24 (1985) 395-414.
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Agricola and the Germania, trans. H. Mattingly, rev. S. A. Handford (London: Penguin, 1970).
Thomas, Hugh M. The English and the Normans: Ethnic Hostility, Assimilation, and Identity, 1066-c.1220 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Tyrrell, Andrew. "Corpus Saxonum: Early Medieval Bodies and Identity." Social Identity in Early Medieval England, ed. William O. Frazer and Andrew Tyrrell (London: Leicester University Press, 2000) 137-55.
Wald, Gayle. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U. S. Literature and Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).