Tuesday, January 31, 2006

More on PoCo Medievalism: RSL

Between the cannibal pigs and the panicked dominatrix who suddenly popped up in the comments to that last entry, it's been easy to lose the PoCo thread. Then again (to return to the porcine disposal devices of that clever serial killer) there must be something potentially glimpsable via a postcolonial lens whenever it comes to the regulation of eating practices. Karl the Grouchy Medievalist observed that Irish penitentials mandated pigs consuming human flesh had to be starved and refattened before they could become holiday hams. Am I correct in remembering that those same Irish penitentials likewise imposed rather severe penalties for eating horse meat? A fair amount of energy in the early Middle Ages went into keeping the horse off the Christian dinner table, helping to draw a line of distinction between the converted and those who remained pagans. Dining on horse was also one of the practices Anglo-Saxons gave up as they became Christians.

To return to the theme of postcolonial medievalisms more broadly, it does seem to me that Roger Sherman Loomis was in many ways the pioneer of the field. An American (and descendant of THE Roger Sherman), Loomis wrote a book (Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, 1927) that argued for the centrality of Wales, Scotland and Ireland in considering medieval high culture. No big deal these days, perhaps, when we would never think of Arthur as anything but a British/Welsh hero, but Loomis's theory of Celtic origins was denounced by many, and with passion. After all, weren't the Celts little more than barbarians? Hadn't the elegant French -- true fathers of the West -- really been the inventors of Arthur, courtliness, forks, and everything else that is good in the world? Loomis's edited volume Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History (1959) -- along with his many other works -- were for their time the equivalent of today's postcolonial readings. True, there was a way in which such work -- especially as carried out by the numerous graduate students he trained at Columbia -- was too gentle, speaking mildly of "Irish influences on the Wife of Bath's Tale" and remaining blind to the violence, blood, and political maneuvering that enabled such "influence" to occur. Yet his vision of a wider, more polyglot Middle Ages and his focus on cultural mingling opened ways of viewing the period that are still being realized.

Monday, January 30, 2006

PoCo Approaches to the European Middle Ages

Here's a review of a book I very much enjoyed reading. The review will be published in the not-too-distant future in Notes and Queries .

Are postcolonial medievalisms still big news?

Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams (eds), Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures . Pp. xii + 298 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 54). Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh: Cambridge University Press, 2005. £50.00 (ISBN 0 521 82731 0).

Reviewed by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington University

Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages offers a substantial contribution to the project of rethinking the medieval period from a multicultural but non-synthetic point of view. The idea of a postcolonial Middle Ages is no longer a new one. The past few years has seen an energetic outpouring of such scholarship by medievalists like Kathleen Biddick, Kathleen Davis, Geraldine Heng, Bruce Holsinger, Patricia Ingham, Sylvia Tomasch and Michelle Warren. They are joined by scholars like Robert Bartlett, R. R. Davies, and John Gillingham – historians who do not (so far as I know) describe themselves as sharing philosophical concerns with Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Antonio Benitez-Rojo, but whose recent books have been engaged in a similar project of reconfiguring the narratives we tell about the past, stressing contingency and multiple possibilities, rejecting unselfconscious Eurocentrism and teleogy-inducing Anglophilia. For historians as well as literary and art critics, the contours of medieval studies are very different now from their more settled shape of a decade ago.

Kabir and Williams' book arrives at a good time to assess the changes that postcolonial medieval studies have already engendered, to speculate on limitations and blind spots, and to open up possible futures. The editors accomplish this task by gathering some of the usual suspects (Suzanne Conklin Akbari, long known for superlative work combining the best of traditional approaches with newer theoretical concerns; Roland Greene, who helped bring a postcolonial and transnational emphasis to early modern studies), some new voices (James G. Harper, an art historian), and luminaries whose previous work was not explicitly postcolonial but whose essays in Postcolonial Approaches make it clear that they have long been engaged in sympathetic research (Nicholas Howe, Seth Lerer). Even if the pieces gathered in the volume end up being too diverse to be housed comfortably beneath the volume's sub-rubric of "Translating Cultures" -- capacious as that phrase may be -- nonetheless this collection distinguishes itself for the high quality of its writing, the creativity of its critical approaches, and the insight exhibited within each individual piece.

Perhaps a single line from the introduction by Kabir and Williams will yield an adequate hint of what its contributors share in their methods and aims. Examining the Christmas star as it glimmers above the Magi in an illustration from Les très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry, the editors write that this celestial marvel "radiates alternative interpretive strategies" (5). By focusing upon the crowded, diverse field of signs that composes the illustration, Kabir and Williams demonstrate that despite its pious Christianity the Magi scene cannot be reduced (or translated) into some uncomplex or unambivalent narrative. The sumptuous image radiates wonder, an exhilarating mixture of beauty and dissonance. And it is this noise -- heard when the critic is attentive to alternatives, exclusions -- that the contributors to Postcolonial Approaches seek. Limitations of space preclude my giving a full account of each contribution. To my mind, however, the strongest of the three parts of the book is the opening section, christened "The Afterlife of Rome." As Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing pointed out in their introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies on "Gender and Empire" (34.1 2004), the early Middle Ages have been inadequately examined from a postcolonial viewpoint (3). The three essays clustered here help remedy that defect, and collectively argue for the importance of Romano-British history in thinking about the anxious belatedness of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I should also add that the pieces by Nicholas Howe (on the haunting, material as well as figurative, of Anglo-Saxon England by Rome) and Seth Lerer (an awesome meditation on the patterned floor of Heorot and the work of Seamus Heaney) are especially eloquent, even moving: they both seem to hover in a rich space between criticism and poetry. Alfred Hiatt's essay on maps, while solid, seems a bit pale in comparison. The second section, "Orientalism before 1600," gathers an intriguing essay by Suzanne Conklin Akbari on Alexander and the construction of Western imperial identity; an innovative reading of Gower and monstrosity by Deanne Williams; and an examination of changes in the representation of Turks in fifteenth-century art by James G. Harper. "Memory and Nostalgia," the omnibus closing section, includes a smart linking of British India to fantasies of Rome and medieval England (Ananya Jahanara Kabir); an extraordinary reading of medievalist Joseph Bédier as Creole by Michelle Warren; and an essay by Roland Greene on La Celistina as "protocolonial baroque." The volume concludes with an epilogue by Ato Quayson, an Africanist whose serious reflections on what a postcolonial Middle Ages prevents his piece from seeming like mere window dressing or a nervous nod to "real" authority. Indeed, his "Translations and transnationals: pre- and postcolonial" is a strong finish for a consistently strong, thoroughly engaging volume.

New, improved blog name

Less onanistic, just as pretentious.

Seriously, though, it reflects my hope that anyone who would like to post something in this space -- work in progress for feedback, musings on the state of the field, informal book reviews, reports on conferences or details of other medieval blogs -- will feel free to do so. I'm happy to put up anything anyone would like to email me: jeffreyjeromecohen [at] gmail [dot] com (and I am sure [that] writing my [e]mail address like [th]at will prevent it from being harvested for all that "stock up on cialis and watch pandas in heat" spam)

(And if you got to this page searching for cialis and/or pandas in heat you will likely be disappointed -- but check out the post on Erotic Animals anyway. You will learn that if you lived during the Middle Ages you'd pop some mandrake root and watch weasels.)

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Quest for Dragons

If you are as big a fan of PBS high culture television as I am, and if you live in the DC viewing area, you may enjoy the following (right after Bleak House, in fact):

Quest for Dragons

Sunday, January 29, 10:00pm

Dragon lore throughout history and across cultural divides is explored through expert commentary, prehistoric art and computer imagery. Included: the link between dinosaur fossils and dragon legends.

CC, Stereo

Some of the "expert commentary" is given by me. In one scene I am even holding an authentic replica of a page from the Beowulf manuscript. Some of the other expert commentators include a frightening man with many dragon tattoos, and an anthropologist with a long pony tail.

The documentary is also in frequent repeats on the History Channel.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Erotic Animals

The following is a draft for an entry I'm composing for the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender , to be published by Macmillan next year. Comments welcomed -- it's still pretty rough.

If you found this page via Google, I have the feeling you will be very disappointed.

Animals, sexual symbolism of

Humans have always shared their worlds with other animals, feral and domesticated. As predator, prey, and companion, animals have been made to serve a variety of human purposes: source of food, provider of clothing, assistant in hunting or herding, spectacle and amusement, docile laborer. Some of the earliest human attempts at representational art center around beasts, portrayed in cave paintings as part of vigorous hunt scenes. Every culture has its favored animals, fauna that seem suspended between the human and the diabolical or divine: Egyptians cats, jackals, and beetles; the biblical Leviathan; Cretan bulls; Hindu cows, monkeys, elephants; early Christian fish and lambs; American Indian buffalo or deer; Inuit whales and seals.

The animals that most haunt the imagination are what might be called "intimate aliens": familiar, but at the same time intransigently strange. Even if they seem vaguely anthropomorphic, such beasts remain in the end inhuman, residents of a liminal state that seems only to increase their allure. This intimacy coupled to otherness is typically found in those animals that have within specific cultures been given a sexual charge. Though certain creatures like snakes possess a seemingly universal ability to attract a sexual aura to themselves, whether or not any given animal will be employed as an erotic sign is culturally specific, and depends greatly upon what animals populate a given geography. This expanse is as imaginative as it is physical: dragons and unicorns can co-exist inside such spaces with dogs, horses, serpents, and hares.

As erotic figures animals boast an ancient and enduring history, from stone-age artworks to contemporary internet sites devoted to zoophilia and zoomorphism. During the Bronze Age (1800-500 BCE), for example, some unknown residents of what is now the northern Bohuslän district of Sweden carved illustrations of men, women and fauna into the local rocks. Many of these figures seem to be engaged in fertility rites. One scene depicts a man with an enormous phallus copulating with a cow, a union of human and animal that was likely motivated by a desire to ensure a productive year. Roughly contemporary carvings in Italy depict one man engaged in coitus with a donkey, and another attempting to mate with an elk (Aubrey Burl, Prehistoric Avebury 243). Representations of humans sexually conjoined with beasts make cultural sense in some pastoral societies, where survival depended upon the increase and multiplication of flocks. The mutual dependence of human and herd is underscored by mutual ardor and life-giving union. Depictions of bestiality can also be found among peoples whose way of living was mainly agrarian, since the sexuality of plowing oxen was intimately related at a symbolic level with the sexuality of the farmer guiding them, and to the fecundity of the fields. In both cases the erotic charge of the animal is in some ways utilitarian, motivated by the very human desire to exert control over an unpredictable world.

Yet cultural use-value or attempts at asserting human dominion over indifferent nature cannot be the whole of the story. Because they combine haunting similarity with perturbing difference, proximity with otherness, animals have long been the vehicles through which humans explore their own identities. Through the beast humans fantasize new possibilities, and enact forbidden desires. No wonder, then, that one of the most ancient functions of the animal is as an erotic symbol. In ways both positive and negative, humans have always realized that amatory desire is -- like other bodily drives -- a passion homo sapiens share with other animals. The rooster was a familiar Greek erotic symbol, forming the animal counterpart to the god Priapus. A bronze Corinthian mirror illustrates Eros grasping a cock in front of his crotch, while numerous vase paintings survive on which the active lover in a homosexual tryst holds a rooster, symbol of his victory in love over his partner (Jean-Pierre Darmon, "The Classical Greek Bestiary"131). Classical myth depicts many unions of mortals with animals, though in most cases the beast turns out to be a god in disguise. Zeus impersonates a swan fleeing an eagle to be admitted into Leda's protective embrace. He has his way with her, and their union produces twin progeny. The maiden Europa Zeus seduces while shaped like a bull. In punishment for her husband's offense of admiring a beautiful white bull too much to sacrifice it to Poseidon, queen Pasiphae of Crete is made to fall in love with the animal. Their amorous conjoining is enabled by a special device fashioned by the inventor Daedalus, and the son thereby conceived is the Minotaur. This creature forever suspended between the human and the bestial well embodies the animal as erotic symbol, for no beast can symbolize human sexuality or activate human desire until it has been partially (but only partially) anthropomorphized.

Writers in ancient Greece and Rome exhibited what seems to be a timeless male penchant to speak of the penis as if it were possessed of an existence and personality distinct from the body to which it was attached. The male member was described variously as a snake, lizard, or bird that follows its own inclinations. (J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary 29-30). Of these three animals the snake has the most cross-cultural currency as a phallic symbol, probably for reasons of analogy. Animal doppelgängers for the vagina in classical sources are less frequently attested, though porcus [piglet] is one, apparently used in the Roman nursery (Adams 82). The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud described the snake-headed Medusa as figure for the female genitals, but it is unclear if Greek and Roman mythographers saw the same fearful image there. Though Medusa heads are familiar icons on Greek vases and in Roman mosaics, and though the writhing serpents that form her tresses often have an undeniable sexual charge to their undulations, what is significant about the Medusa in both classical literature and art is her stunning beauty, her animal-enabled allure. This attractiveness does not seem all that different from what remains in the mortal love-objects of the gods once the goddesses have transfigured them out of human shape. Io, formerly a priestess of Hera adored by Zeus and later a snow-white heifer, remains radiant in either form.

The playful connections between genitals and animals found in classical sources have a medieval analogue in the fabliaux, short stories that often revolve around sexual or scatological themes. Sex organs could there be described by such animal epithets as "ferret" and "horsy" for the penis, "little hare" for the vagina. Fabliaux are unusual among extant medieval texts for their frank celebration of the erotic. Building on a vocabulary developed by the Church fathers, authors in the Middle Ages more typically employed animals to abject bodiliness. Thus as early as the Life of St Anthony, a desert-dwelling hermit who has renounced sexual relations is haunted in his loneliness by his own lust. This return of sexual desire takes the form in his visions sometimes of women, sometimes of beasts. In Jerome's Life of Saint Hilarion (late fourth century), when the aspiring ascetic is tormented by the onset of puberty, he beats his body back into submission. Hilarion describes his flesh as an ass in need of brutal domestication, articulating a logic that will hold true in much medieval thinking about beasts: animals are carnal, lascivious, and do not hesitate to act upon their lusts; humans are affected by the same desires, but what sets humans – and especially the holiest of humans – apart is their ability to triumph over their own animal-like flesh. Medieval rhetoric connected sexuality with bestiality so often that the connection between lust and animals was a commonplace.

A compendium of allegory and lore called the Physiologus was among the most influential texts on animals to have been bequeathed to the Middle Ages. Composed originally in Greek, perhaps at Alexandria, this widely extant text circulated by the close of the fourth century. Its entries combine science and folklore that derive from Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Jewish, and Indian sources. Early translations of the book into Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian, and Latin survive; later versions include Old English, Old High German, Icelandic, Flemish, Russian, and Provençal (Curley, Physiologus xvi-xxix). The work remained popular in Europe through the early modern period. The appeal of the Physiologus was in part its transformation of animals and natural phenomena into biblical truths. The owl, for example, figured the Jews, who had refusal to see the light of Christ's truth had doomed them to perpetual night. The Phoenix, reborn from his own ashes, was a type for Jesus, similarly returned from the dead. Several of the animals described are noted for their sexual habits. The female viper, for example, is said to possess a human form from the face to the navel, and a crocodile's body thereafter. Because she does not possess genitals, the viper must have oral sex with her partner (who, we are told, possesses a male's face as well as – we are led to assume – a penis). After drinking the semen of her lover, she castrates and kills him. Because she has no vagina, however, the young vipers engendered through this bizarre mating must rip their way through her belly, ending her life. The entry concludes by describing the viper as – what else? – a figure for the Jews, who cannot think symbolically, but only in literal terms. They practice circumcision on their flesh, for example, rather than seeing this ritual of covenant with God as an act to be undertaken only spiritually (that is, metaphorically). The viper thereby assists in the work of articulating Christian identity by distinguishing it from the Judaism from which it emerged.

The weasel is similarly said to copulate orally, though she gives birth through her ears (right for the boys, left for girls). Weasels, we are told, are a figure for those who allow wicked sayings to enter their minds and engender sin. The beautiful unicorn cannot be captured by hunters, but should a chaste maiden offer her lap he is happy to lay his head there; lest the image become suggestive, however, we are immediately told that the unicorn is Christ, the virgin is Mary, and there is (by implication) nothing sexual about this strange equine's ardor for placing his long horn in maidenly laps. The Physiologus, like much early Christian writing, stresses the value of chastity and the dangers of desire. One of its animals is even most notable for its complete absence of amorous feeling. The elephant and his wife symbolize Adam and Eve, who before the snake led them into temptation never desired each other and possessed no knowledge of coitus. Elephants, Physiologus asserts, mate only out of necessity, and even then would not be able to copulate without the use of an aphrodisiac, mandrake root. Elephants are in this way the purest of animals and an inspiration to abstinence.

Yet it is hard not to wonder if the eroticism of animals like the viper, weasel, and unicorn can be displaced so easily through allegorization. Surely one of the appeals of the Physiologus is its narration of fellatio, hermaphroditism, and homosexuality among beasts -- even as it transforms these stories into tidy Christian morals. Thus the fascinating story of the hyena, repeated almost obsessively in most medieval bestiaries. A creature of two natures, this desert-dwelling animal sometimes acts the part of a male and sometimes that of a female. According to Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215) and many later writers, the lewd hyena possesses the sexual organs of both genders and employs them promiscuously (Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality 356). The hyena may simply, as the Latin Physiologus asserts, be a figure for the inconstant Jews, who once worshiped the true God but have now turned away. Perhaps the double-gendered beast is likewise simply a representation of the synagogue, metaphorically an unclean animal. But perhaps also the hyena as erotic animal grants something not otherwise available within circumscriptive systems of allegory and abnegation: a figure through which can be dreamt potentialities and desires not otherwise easy to express. Sexuality is what brings humans outside of themselves; it is the surrender to a loss of individuality. Animals as erotic symbols in the Middle Ages often represent the anxieties that accompany such potential loss, but they also convey a certain inventiveness, a certain promise of possibilities beyond the small limits of the merely human.

The twelfth-century writer Marie de France knew this libratory potential of the animal well. In a narrative poem she called Yonec, the heroine is imprisoned for seven lonely years by an elderly husband whom she cannot love. After wistfully declaring that she wishes the world as depicted in romances were true, a regal hawk flutters into her room, and transforms itself into a knight. The hawk was an aristocratic bird, as revered as the warhorse and the greyhound; it makes a perfect animal counterpart to the lady's new love, mixing as it does hints of danger (the hawk is, after all, a raptor) and desire (the bird is meant to be adored; the use of spikes by the lady's husband to kill the hawk is the ultimate proof of his exclusion from the story's erotic world). The ethnographer and apologist for the English invasion of Ireland Gerald of Wales, another twelfth-century author, employed animals as sexual symbols in a way that bears little resemblance to the sheer aesthetic pleasure attached to the hawk in Yonec. Eager to depict the Irish as a degenerate people in need of the English imprint of civilization, Gerald wrote that bestiality was their favorite vice. The sin was practiced most often, he asserted in the History and Topography of Ireland, against cattle – a particularly low blow for Gerald to have launched, considering that the Irish were at this time a society that reckoned wealth and status not according to a monetary economy as in England but rather according to the number of cows possessed. Gerald sexualizes this bond between the Irish and their culturally revered beasts, insisting that through coitus with their livestock Irishmen had engendered numerous man-animal hybrids, Hibernian minotaurs. A cleric who had much at stake in maintaining the supremacy of a celibate identity, Gerald also wrote of a woman who had sex with a lion and another who lay with a goat. So great was his distaste for the subject that he even illustrated the bestial encounters in prurient detail. The goat and the lion serve as sexual symbols for Gerald, but rejected ones; then again in both cases so do the women. All four are part of a world denied to him, and therefore to be denounced as not desirable anyway.

Rock carvings of couplings with oxen, Greek roosters, Pasiphae's ardor for the white bull, Gerald's fantasies about indigenous Irish sexual practice all have this in common: when the animal serves as an erotic symbol, it erodes the boundary between species, sometimes through joyful commingling, sometimes accompanied by horror mixed with fascination. As intimate aliens, animals embody a very human ambivalence. Because the encounter with the erotic is the encounter with the other, they remind us of the inhuman within and of the human without. They suggest the insufficiency of using other animals as creatures to define humanity against and of the insufficiency of humans to control completely the meanings of the animal world. By bringing us out of our own proper, individualized identities, by bringing embodiment to its limit, they open a glimpse of a less anthroprocentric and thereby more unpredictable world.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Draft of Introduction, Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain

(The book is currently in production. For the time being, here is the draft of the introduction, sans footnotes. The volume will appear in May. Follow the link at right [under "Books"] for more information).

Introduction: In medias res

When contemplating the many peoples who had inhabited their island's expanses, writers in twelfth-century Britain found themselves pulled in two divergent directions. Living in the difficult aftermath of conquest, they were powerfully attracted to a stark vision of past and present in which collective identities remained constant, retaining their elemental differences. The triumphant arrival of a new people (the Romans in the days of Caesar, the English in the fifth century, the Normans at Hastings) had led, they supposed, to a transfer of dominion, a change in power that strengthened the boundaries between communities rather than eroded them. This idea of a keenly distinct past for each insular people had been bequeathed to the twelfth century by predecessors like Gildas and Bede. One a polemicist for the native Britons and the other a partisan of the parvenu Angles, these writers arrived from opposite sides of a bitter struggle for British hegemony. Both composed narratives stressing the separateness of the peoples with whom they identified. Neither allowed some middle space to exist where the two might ally, mingle, even combine. Like the classical and patristic authors in whom they had been trained, Gildas and Bede assumed the enduring distinctiveness of the earth's populations.

Yet there also lurked the haunting knowledge that the world is combinative and complicated. Bede's immigrant ancestors may have eradicated or marginalized many of Britain's indigenes, but they are just as likely to have merged with these populations, spurring mutual assimilations and profound collective transformations. The Normans may have conquered England and annexed Wales, but they also vanished in the process, assimilating to -- as well as altering -- native ways. Between imagined or desired absolutes like "Angle" and "Briton," "English" and "Norman," "Christian" and "Jew" flourished recalcitrant impurities. In the wake of conquest as well as less martial types of cultural encounter, fusions of difference inevitably arise. Postcolonial theorists label such conflictual convergence hybridity. As Robert J. C. Young has observed, hybridity is a concept that can carry two antithetical meanings, "contrafusion and disjunction … as well as fusion and assimilation." Like its contemporary manifestations examined by Young, hybridity in medieval Britain tended to mix both these senses. Never synthetic in the sense of homogenizing, hybridity is a fusion and a disjunction, a conjoining of differences that cannot harmonize them.

Because, for the most part, medieval historiography stressed the timeless separation of peoples, generic and linguistic constraints ensured that hybridity was not easy to express. Coincidence of the divergent was especially disquieting to writers who carried admixture in their very body, writers who had to labor to invent some lexicon for representing their own compoundedness. The historian William of Malmesbury and the ethnographer Gerald of Wales were the biological products of conquest. Their mixed descent triggered self-conflict , fostering an uncertainty and hesitation evident in the texts they composed. Yet even authors who appeared to lack such postcolonial ambivalence were ultimately unable to efface completely the hybridity that permeated their worlds. Bede (who bequeathed to the twelfth century its dominating picture of the English past), Geoffrey of Monmouth (who authored a counter-history in which the Britons replaced Bede's glorious Angles) and Thomas of Monmouth (who wrote a saint's life that attempted to revitalize a city sundered by conquest) composed texts in which the island's peoples seem, at first glance, to form well bounded communities. These authors limned the borders of collective identities by demonizing Britons, Saxons, Jews. On deeper examination, however, all three of their texts yield glimpses of a deep interpenetration of peoples and cultures, of tempestuous intermediacies that undermine such clean separations.

Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity maps the perturbed expanses between collective identities in twelfth-century Britain. Such middle spaces were "difficult" in a double sense: difficult to articulate, and difficult to inhabit. And yet they were everywhere. Hybrid geographies burgeoned in the wake of migration, conquest, colonization. They proliferated at interstices, beside borders, along margins. They could also thrive within seemingly homogenous centers. The ambit of this book therefore wanders Ireland, the Welsh march, provincial as well as cosmopolitan England. Difficult middles, I do not doubt, erupted within many genres of writing in twelfth-century Britain. I limit myself here, however, to provocative examples from three Latin discourses: historiography, ethnography, and hagiography. William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the Kings of the English, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, Gerald of Wales various Welsh and Irish texts, and Thomas of Monmouth's Life of Saint William of Norwich betray a recurring fascination with abstruse but spectacular phenomena -- prodigies, transformed persons, sorcerers, bestiality, tempests formed of blood, monsters, reveries of dismemberment, cadavers possessed of abiding life. These arresting figures embody the medialities precise language could not well express. Refusing the chaste solitude of singular categories, they intermixed and confounded all that was supposed to be held apart.

By the time the twelfth century drew to a close, the vigorous English community disrupted by the Norman conquest had reformed, in part by dehumanizing people who differed in religion, language, custom, descent, history. The pages of this book follow the struggles that occurred in Wales, in Ireland, and within England itself as some of their residents strained against debasing representation. The Welsh, the Irish and the Scots found themselves depicted as barbarians or beasts, dwelling at a savage periphery. Likewise demonized were the Jews, imagined to imperil the lives of Christians in the English cities where they cohabitated. Narratives of separation in the guise of ethnography, history and hagiography helped to bring exclusive political and cultural solidities into being. Yet difficult middles proliferated at the heart or along the margins of these circumscriptive works, promising alternative histories, visions of the past and present in which difference never proves absolute, and English triumphalism becomes only one possibility among many others.

Of the peoples populating twelfth-century Britain's imagined past, some possessed a lengthy history, real or assumed (English, Irish, Scots, Welsh); some had vanished through emigration, acculturation or eradication (Romans, Picts, Danes); one was a minority whose cultural importance far overshadowed its meager physical presence (the Jews); one was paradoxically both separate and rapidly assimilating (the Normans); and one was not a group who had ever inhabited Britain, but who were present all the same through historiography, crusade polemic, and the visual arts (Saracens). Yet these collective identities do not, at some profound level, exist. In reviewing Marjorie Chibnall's important book The Normans, Leah Shopkow notes that the founding fathers of Normandy were not French-speakers but a diverse array of Scandinavians; that Normans never constituted a majority population of any geography they made their own; that Norman invaders tended to adopt quickly local languages and customs; that their invasion forces were ethnically diverse; and that a century and a half after their unprecedented expansion the only Normans who had not vanished into other populations were those who had remained in Normandy, where they were destined to be absorbed into France. We may therefore wonder with Shopkow what exactly made all these people Normans to begin with. Yet, despite the difficulties we contemporaries might have with the collective noun, the Normans themselves were confident that they possessed what G.A. Loud labels a "racial distinctiveness." Even while their official histories acknowledged their mixed origins, they seldom wavered in their conviction that they were a singular and united people, set apart from all others.

As part of our medieval inheritance we often speak as if groups such as the Normans, Britons and English persisted from time immemorial, continuous and unchanged. Typically, however, the peoples in question were heterogeneous solidarities that changed radically over time, both in composition and self-definition. Such mutable groups possess no stable or core essence. They are not reducible to genetic inheritance or biological descent. Their enduring status as a collective belongs to the realm of fantasy, where it nonetheless demonstrates a powerful ability to give substance and historical stability to what is ultimately impalpable. Community has to be imagined, to use Benedict Anderson's useful phrase, because it never arrives preformed. Such communalization is typically a process of sorting difference, establishing boundaries, and separating the world's disorder into peoples held to be patently discrete.

It used to be assumed, as the medieval sources themselves assume, that Rome dissolved when Europe was invaded by culturally homogenous groups like the Goths. The large-scale movements of these barbarians, it was thought, displaced aboriginal populations, either through genocide or forced relocation. Recently, however, scholars such as Walter Pohl have argued that via a process dubbed ethnogenesis collective identities can quickly metamorphosize. Ethnogenesis typically works when a minority elite imposes its culture upon a subjugated population. Invaded peoples are not eradicated but absorbed into a newly dominating identity. Much contemporary work on 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 with indigenous peoples, 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" or "Danes." In this way a native population could be transformed at the hands of a band of conquerors. As Florin Curta points out in his summary of recent anthropological work on ethnicity, moreover, group identity may be culturally constructed through such impositions, but it is not thereby rendered 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."

Collective identity is paradoxical. Although it may seem to offer at any given moment an impermeable boundary, firmly separating one people from another, over time its contours tend to be elastic, altering to adapt to changing political and cultural contexts. This dynamism can be productive, allowing a previously divided or heterogeneous group to cohere. Strategic adoption of communal nomination, the embrace of a mythic history, and the monsterization of those exterior to community can give even a newly amalgamated identity a seemingly ancient solidity. Yet enforcement of a circumscriptive boundary to demarcate the members of this ascendant identity often foists restrictive union upon those who have been excluded. Should this latter people also be politically subordinate, the reconfigured identity bestowed upon them will tend to congeal into a carceral category, locking them in alien terms. It will often seem that between those who have been "othered" (represented as inferior, bestial, monstrous) and those who belong to some dominating collective (in this book typically the English, but sometimes the Normans) stretches only a line of segregation. Yet this geography always turns out to be far vaster than most sorting of the world allows. Between these belongings stretch endless medial spaces, precarious expanses inhabited by hybridities irreducible to one side or another of a bifurcated world.

In the Middle
Much of my previous scholarship has been dedicated to exploring the middle spaces of the Middle Ages: the regions between the human and the monster, the normal and the queer, woman and man, Christian and Jew and Saracen, human and animal. Much of this work has made use of psychoanalytic theory and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity continues this ongoing investigation into identity at its limits, making quiet use of contemporary critical race, feminist and postcolonial theory. This project is intended to contribute to what a collective of fourteen medievalists have nominated the Postcolonial Middle Ages, where "postcolonial" stands for a diverse alliance of work that stresses the uneven structures of power that come into being when cultures meet. Conquest, domination, and injustice are predictable outcomes of such clash. Innovation, hybridity, and resistance are, however, never far behind. Postcolonial theory has explored at great lengths and within a multitude of traditions the discordant commingling of differences that produces hybridity. The utility of such work as a spur to reconceptualizing cultural admixture in the medieval period is immense. Hybridity does not indicate some peaceful melding of colonizer and colonized. It does not imply the purity or homogeneity of categories like "subaltern" prior to the advent of conquest, and it neither obliterates nor supersedes the histories it intermingles. Hybridity is so useful because it can never be an absolute category. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin aptly call it a productive "interleaving" that engenders the new without superseding anterior cultures. Homi Bhabha describes hybridity as provisional, unstable, even ludic. Incapable of calling into being some "totalizing, transcendent identity," hybridity is a space where "cultural differences 'contingently' and conflictually touch," inducing panic, resisting binarism. Bhabha's work has rightfully been instrumental for medievalists engaged in postcolonial-inflected projects. Yet I have also made ample use of critical models amplified outside of English India. Analysis of Caribbean creolization by Antonio Benitez-Rojo and Edward Kamau Brathwaite are especially provocative for their emphasis on how hybridity proliferates novel forms without obliterating their incongruous histories. Gloria Anzaldúa's poetic framing of mestizaje at the US-Mexican borderlands conjoins a somber contemplation of past violence to an exuberant exploration of future becomings. Her reverie on border identities seems at times positively medieval with its inventive deployment of marvels and monsters. Although I will not explicitly engage much of this work until midway through this book, the influence of these writers should be evident throughout.

Hybridity, Indentity and Monstrosity focuses mainly upon the southeast portion of the island of Britain, an area that consolidated itself into a unified kingdom and baptized itself England. I stress, however, the dependence of that nation's self-definition upon those with whom it shared geographic and imaginative space. The book is divided into five chapters that tell a cumulative though not quite chronological story about the intertwining of collective identity, history, hybridity, and monstrosity in twelfth-century Britain. Some of the common threads binding the analysis are an interest in the dynamics of community formation, especially in the wake of conquest; an emphasis upon exclusion and demonization as catalysts to self-delimitation; and an inquiry into what function narratives play in precipitating or revitalizing such unions. Every chapter centers upon or comes back to the impurity and heterogeneity that impossibly neat categories like "English" and "Christian" conceal. The tumultuous admixture of what was supposed to be held separate is frequently the work of the medieval monster, a defiantly intermixed figure who is in the end simply the most startling incarnation of hybridity made flesh. The monster can embody the abject, such as when the Welsh or the Jews are transfigured into bloodthirsty foes, bereft of humanity. Yet the monster can also offer a body through which can be dreamed the dangerous contours of an identity that refuses assimilation and purity.

"Acts of Separation," the first chapter, provides a succinct overview of the components from which collective identity was held to be formed in twelfth-century Britain. Many of the elements integral to status as a separate people seem at first glance to be disembodied or abstract: customs, ritual, law, language, religion .Yet each of these was understood to be a nearly congenital inheritance, the corporeal performance and fleshly expression of a shared and pre-existent selfhood. The sheer embodiedness and therefore the intractability of collective identity was reinforced by theories that tied national character to ancient climatological and environmental influence. Of course, history proves that a people's laws can be changed, languages can be learned or extinguished, and a heterogeneous assortment of peoples can become a single race that believes firmly in its own individuality. Difference can be abjected onto foreigners or subalterns, people who might be represented as not in possession of full humanity; yet group status and relative prestige tend to fluctuate over time. Because of the human tendency towards mutability and admixture, collective identity was always troubled by its own fragility.

Chapter Two, "Between Belongings," examines texts by Bede, William of Malmesbury, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, three historians who turned to the past to imagine collective identities essential to a troubled present. When Bede composed his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, no England yet existed. The southeast of the island was a battleground of small kingdoms in martial competition. These petty realms were amalgams of peoples whose ancestors had arrived from various parts of northern Europe, displacing and absorbing native Britons. By imaging that a multicultural and conflictual expanse was the natural dominion of a single race, the gens Anglorum, Bede bequeathed to history a powerful formulation of English singularity. When a country called England did arrive two centuries later, it was happy to embrace Bede's myth of origin. The events of 1066, however, struck a severe blow against this unity. Writing early in the twelfth century, the monk William of Malmesbury attempted to restore continuity to what seemed a disjunct past. Of dual Norman and English descent, William thought that he was well positioned to accomplish this task. Yet reconciling the two pieces of his identity proved no easier than accommodating the Normans into native history. A fascination with the monstrous, with bodies that cannot reconcile their constitutive differences, pervades William's narration of postcolonial England. As anxious as William may have been about English identity, however, he probably never felt the same defensiveness as the Welsh, a people dismissed by the English and Normans alike as barbarians. The last section of the chapter examines how Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote an alternative account of Britain that could challenge the anglocentric version originated by Bede and reinvigorated by William. A mischievous and confounding text, Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain renarrated the British past, founding the island upon blood that at first glance seems remarkably pure but on closer examination turns out to be far more hybrid than even that which coursed through William of Malmesbury's veins.

A compound heritage haunted another famous writer of the twelfth-century, a man who was at once celibate cleric, Paris-educated intellectual, court chaplain, preacher of crusade, and descendant of a Norman conquistador and a Welsh princess. Gerald of Wales spent his long life discovering that his multiplicitous identity could be severely circumscribed by the definitional power of others. The English elite could dismiss him as Welsh, while the Welsh could reject him as French. Gerald was never able to reconcile the multiple histories that he incarnated, the doubled blood that he bore. Early in his career he alleviated some of his uncertainty by energetically participating in the conquest of Ireland, an island distant enough for him to imagine that its population was a subhuman race, barely distinguishable from livestock. As Gerald began to sympathize and in part identify with another barbarian people, the Welsh, he became obsessed by monstrous bodies. Strangely admixed forms became his dominant mode not only for representation of hybridity but for launching an exploration of his own conflicted flesh.

The analysis moves in the fourth chapter, "City of Catastrophes," from the vastness of national and international space to the confines of a provincial city. The dominant urban center in East Anglia, Norwich became an economic force during the period of the Viking settlement and was, at the eve of the Norman conquest, among the most populous communities of England. Perhaps because of its associations with the family of the last English king, Norwich was profoundly reconfigured by these new wielders of insular dominion. The implantation of a massive castle, towering cathedral, and French borough radically altered urban topography. Native architectural and social structures were demolished, replaced by imported ones different from anything Norwich had previously known. "City of Catastrophes" reads these challenges to identity and community not only from surviving texts but from the architecture itself, arguing that in the transformation of Norwich can be glimpsed the material consequences of the conquest, and especially its shattering effect upon indigenous ways of life. To restore harmony to this fractured, violently commingled community was going to take not only time but a miracle.

Or a whole series of miracles. The last chapter, "The Flow of Blood in Norwich," investigates the attempts by the masters of the Norman cathedral to foster a new saint's cult. In 1144 a twelve-year-old boy named William was found murdered in the woods just outside the city. His corpse bore the marks of torture. An accusation was made by his family that William had been martyred by Norwich's most recent immigrants, the Jews. The boy's bereaved family found surprising allies in the monks who staffed the city's cathedral, and William's cult enabled a city sundered by history to begin to imagine itself as a unity. This chapter explores how the Life of St William, composed by Thomas of Monmouth, attempts to imagine this new community, but at the same time betrays the lingering differences that prevent an ultimate harmony. Thomas's text sloughs onto the Jews the alterity that once characterized the Normans arriving in Norwich, and makes the argument that should the city rid itself of these monsters dwelling amongst them, the traumatic history still evident in the city's topography will finally be surmounted. The text attempts to perform a purification, purging the city of hybridity and lasting difference by embodying all that is intolerable in the homicidal Jews.

My evidence throughout this book is gathered mainly from narratives composed by a changed island's clerical elite. These energetic and literate men, introspective and unfailingly ambitious, turned to the writing of history, hagiography and ethnography in order to make sense of a difficult present. They lived during a time of extraordinary cultural clash and social change. Many were, as a result, of mixed heritage. William of Malmesbury was Norman on his fathers' side and English on his mother's. In the body of Gerald of Wales the blood of Norman Marchers alloyed with that of Welsh royalty. Geoffrey and Thomas, both of whom styled themselves "of Monmouth," were of unknown descent, but traced their origin from a border town known for its commingling of Welsh, Bretons, Normans and English. Not all of the texts examined in this book are linguistic, however, nor is the focus simply upon communal identifications as grand as the nation. My discussion of Gerald of Wales focuses upon an identity agonizingly personal. The book's fourth and fifth chapters are forays into local and urban history, reading upheavals in communal belonging through the drastically altered contours of a city. Although this book focuses upon England, my approach is oblique: England by way of the archipelago into which it was rapidly expanding, England without anglophilia. By stressing the internal heterogeneity of the inhabitants of the British Isles, my aim is to foreground the differences that had to be surmounted in order to imagine that England constituted a homogeneous unity. By stressing the importance of minority populations in general and one in particular, I also intend to counteract somewhat a limitation that Sheila Delany aptly labels inherent in "our normative training" as medievalists, a training that tends to be "profoundly eurocentric and, within that, christiancentric." This book is therefore populated by the Jews, barbarians, and other human monsters who found themselves ineligible for inclusion in the burgeoning England of the twelfth century. Throughout my analysis, whether of histories that link present perturbations to a more settled past in the hopes of a stable future, or of hatred unleashed against outsiders in order to bring internal cohesion to collectives, or of the irreconcilable differences that a postcolonial society plants deep in the flesh of its members, I find in every case that medieval narratives of collective identity are bordered by and frequently enclose at their heart confounding hybridities.

It is to an examination of the construction of corporate identity that I now turn, with an eye to explaining why it that a people can seem at once eternally stable and perpetually in flux, and what middle spaces expand between even the most solid of boundaries.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Postcolonial Theory

from Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, ed. Margaret Schaus (Routledge, forthcoming 2006).

Postcolonial Theory

Jeffrey J. Cohen

Postcolonial theory typically analyzes the conflict and accommodation that unfold in the wake of conquest and other kinds of cultural admixture. It stresses the enduring economic and social disparity that is likely to result when a powerful nation annexes land belonging to others, transforming that territory into a colony or frontier and rendering its inhabitants a subaltern people. Often inspired by a strong sense of social justice, postcolonial critics explore the violence inherent in the colonial encounter, but do not argue that some "pure" state of aboriginality might be recovered in the wake of profound cultural clash. Postcolonial criticism has therefore developed a sophisticated vocabulary for describing hybridity, the conflictual interpenetration of cultures that results from colonial contact and that transforms both colonizer and indigene. Though it never uncritically celebrates this turbulent fusion of differences, it does find in hybridity the potential for subversion of the unjust systems that are likely to be imposed in the wake of conquest. Postcolonial criticism stresses the impurity of both present and past. It critiques the mechanisms (social, legal, literary) through which dominated groups are unequal or disparaged and dispossessed. Postcolonial theory has always been sensitive to the ways in which power is distributed unevenly across gender lines. Some of the most important work undertaken within the field studies the effects of the postcolonial upon subaltern women.

Postcolonial cultural studies is useful to the study of the western Middle Ages. As the historian Robert Bartlett has argued, Europe did not appear from some void but emerged slowly, via conquest that extended borders and assimilations that attempted to render emergent nations internally homogeneous. Europe, in a word, had to Europeanize itself in custom, language, law, religion -- an inherently colonial project with profound repercussions on gender. In the course of the Middle Ages some peoples were absorbed and vanished as part of this process, while others were dehumanized and abjected. Thus the English could assume their natural superiority over the "bestial" Welsh, allowing them (to their minds) an evident right to the dominion of the whole of Britain. Medievalists working in a postcolonial vein have dedicated themselves to studying how such enduringly uneven access to power and privilege came about; how myths of origin and manifest destiny buttressed emergent communities; and what price was paid by people who (like the Irish, Welsh, and Jews in Britain) found themselves resident in some denigrated category or who were, because of their mixed descent, suspended between mutually exclusive communities.

Medievalists have made extensive use of the work of Edward Said, whose Orientalism developed a sophisticated model for exploring how the west fantasizes its own version of the East (an exotic geography that is typically gendered feminine); Homi Bhabha, who offers a postmodern approach to hybridity; Gayatri Spivak and Dipesh Chakrabarty, who have persuasively argued against assuming eurocentric models of history. More recently, postcolonial theories derived from the analysis of the Caribbean and U.S.-Mexico border have also appeared. Some medievalists like Geraldine Heng are also well-known postcolonial critics.


Biddick, Kathleen. The Shock of Medievalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. The Postcolonial Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

Ganim, John M. Medievalism and Orientalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Holsinger, Bruce W. "Medieval Studies, Postcolonial Studies, and the Genealogies of Critique," Speculum 77 (2002):1195-1227.

Ingham, Patricia Clare and Michelle R. Warren, eds. Postcolonial Moves: Medieval Through Modern. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Kabir, Ananya and Deanne Williams, ed. Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Entry for RACE (Dictionary of the Middle Ages)

An entry for the supplement to the Dictionary of the Middle Ages (Vol. 14: First Supplement, ed. William Chester Jordan (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004) 515-18

Medieval notions of race are no more easily explicated than contemporary ones. In both cases we are faced with a composite category of identity which gathers together ambivalent, often contradictory elements. Because it has been so often invoked to disparage some groups while ennobling others, race can be best understood as emerging within a struggle for power both tangible (control of government, land, literacy) and intangible (prestige, social influence, the ability to narrate history effectively). Race, in other words, cannot be a neutral term.

The Composition of Medieval Race

In a widely influential formulation, the historian Robert Bartlett has drawn upon the writings of the canonist Regino of Prüm (c. 900) to argue that medieval races (diversae nationes) typically thought of themselves as distinct in descent, customs, language, and law. Arguing that biological forms of racism were rare during much of the Middle Ages, Bartlett downplays the importance of descent as a racial determinant. Because the remaining three categories are neither innate nor inalterable, the race of an individual or group could change over time. Customs like hairstyle, dress, and the rituals surrounding the consumption of food and drink might be adopted. The English colonizers of Ireland were often accused of "going native" in their coiffure, costume, and even manner of horseback riding. So much power did Isidore of Seville ascribe to words that he argued that the dispersal of peoples at the destruction of the Tower of Babel had created not only the world's linguistic groups but also its distinct races.

Yet a new tongue could be mastered in order to gain social advantage. The languages spoken by subordinate or conquered peoples might recede due to loss of prestige. Sometimes, like Arabic in Spain, Wendish in areas occupied by German speakers, or Pictish in Britain, a language would vanish entirely as its native speakers died out, were forced to leave, or were absorbed into other linguistic populations. Law was no less protean. As a living, human institution, juridical power could be manipulated to constitute new communities, enfranchising some groups while excluding others. After William the Conqueror was crowned king of England, he instituted what became known as the murdrum fine, the sum of money to be paid by the English of any area in which a Frenchman was found dead by unknown hands. Such a penalty was necessary to ensure the safety of an alien minority among their new subjects, and its application was a potent reminder of how dramatically control of the land's governance had shifted. A century later, however, Richard fitzNigel could argue that the murdrum fine now applied to any unsolved homicide since intermarriage had, he claimed, rendered the English and French indistinguishable, at least at social levels higher than the peasantry. William's desire to protect his imported cohort reinforced their separateness from the country over which they now had dominion, while Richard's generalization of the law's purview envisioned a newly unified community, capable of transcending the differences engendered by the Norman conquest.

To Bartlett's list of the cultural components of medieval race could be added some additional constituents. Because race is intimately related to social status, economic class was demarcated along racial lines. Rural dwellers and the poor might be imagined as having descended exclusively from a subordinated group, and might even be represented with darkened skin and other features that visually set them apart from élites. Race frequently had theological undertones. Although medieval Jews, Muslims, and Christians each experienced a great deal of internal heterogeneity in the practice of their faiths, all three groups were as a whole confident that they possessed the only true knowledge of the divine, and this difference, they held, set them apart. The imagined unity of each religion also offered a potent ideological tool. That all Christians could be supposed to constitute a single race was a sentiment which proved useful in promulgating support for the crusades. According to this logic Jews and Saracens were different not because they had darker skin or distinguishing facial features, but because they practiced inferior ritual and held to an alien creed. In theory baptism could completely transform an unbeliever. In the romance The King of Tars, a Saracen's dark flesh is said to be whitened through the sacrament's transformative power. The connection between race and religion, moreover, inevitably erased internal nuance from those imagined as inhabiting supposedly inferior categories. Latin Christians classified as Saracens a diverse array of Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Kurds, and non-Western Christians such as the Nestorians, Jacobites, and Maronites. The Arab chroniclers who recorded the invasion of their lands during the crusades in turn typically referred to the polyglot and multiethnic invaders from Europe as the Franj, mainly because a majority of their leaders could converse in French. Medieval imaginings of race often invoked the species line. Disparaged races were either compared to animals or held to be bestial themselves, as in the unflattering portraits that Gerald of Wales painted of the Irish in his History and Topography of Ireland. Finally, and more abstractly, race was also a matter of allegiance. Early in his life Gerald identified with the Anglo-Norman side of his family, but later became (in recognition of his mixed blood) more sympathetic to the Welsh; William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, both of mixed Norman and English descent, became in the course of their lives progressively more English-identified.

Race or Ethnicity?

Given that a collective religious designation such as Christian could function like a racial category, it could be objected that the conceptualization of "race" which the western Middle Ages inherited from the classical past is closer to what is today meant by the term "ethnicity." When the Romans described the Greeks, Germans and Celts as races, for example, they were usually implying only that these peoples varied from them in language, customs, and geographic origin. Similarly, dissimilarities between the Welsh and the English, the Irish and the Vikings, the Germans and the Slavs, and so on would appear to be exclusively ethnic differences, if ethnicity is the proper contemporary term to describe the cultural variations which distinguish peoples, and if race refers to the distribution of physical or biological differences throughout human populations. Yet to differentiate between the two terms by asserting that one has mainly to do with culture and is therefore changeable while the other involves bodies and is essentially immutable generates immense difficulties. Contemporary science has made it clear that there is no genetic basis for racial classification (that is, race is not ultimately a matter of discernable variation in human biology), while classical and medieval theories of astrological influence, climatology, and physiology ensured that the differences which set one people apart from another were understood to be as corporeal as they were cultural.

Galenic humoralism was especially influential in this respect. According to humoral theory, the temperateness or inclemency of a given geography and the position of the astral bodies in its skies profoundly influenced both the character and physiology of that land's inhabitants. Climate and celestial influence determined the distribution of the four bodily humors, the vital fluids which were thought to regulate health and hold sway over personality and emotion. Encyclopedists like Isidore of Seville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus therefore stated that the men of Africa suffered from an overheating of their blood, darkening their skin and rendering them spiritless cowards. In contrast, frigidity for Bartholomaeus engendered whiteness; the pale skin of northerners was for him the outward sign of their innate valiance. Gerald of Wales wrote in his Description of Wales that the English were cold in nature because they originated in polar regions, while the Welsh were fiery because they were descended from desert-dwelling Trojans. Christian polemicists declared that intense sun and the ascendancy of the planet Venus ensured that Saracens were forever bellicose and sensual. Like geographical location and climate, moreover, religion and law were thought to have immediate, bodily effects. When Englishmen like John of Salisbury stated that the Welsh were "rude and untamed," they based their assertions mainly on the fact the Welsh people so vigorously resisted assimilation into England. Inferior customs and religious ritual rendered the Welsh, it was thought, inferior beings. This supposed deficiency had intellectual, emotional, ethical, and physical components.

Differences between medieval races were clearly imagined in corporeal as well as cultural terms. Nonetheless, it has been argued by some medievalists that a period which did not live with the legacy of chattel slavery based upon skin color could not possibly have conceptualized race in the modern sense of the word. While there is undoubtedly truth to this observation, the issue becomes more complicated when investigating geographies in which slavery based upon dermal pigmentation did exist (such as late medieval Italy), or when the uneven relations among Latin Christians, Jews, and Muslims are examined. Even if these groups did not necessarily enslave each other or make judgments about identity based solely upon general differences in skin color, all became entangled in a circulation of mythologies which entwined cultural and bodily differences to deadly effect. That is, even if the contemporary terms race and ethnicity can often be used interchangeably in the study of medieval cultures, it could be reasonably asserted that when imbalances of power exist between groups, 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 will be the preferred term.

Race and Blood

That race is a controversial term among medievalists owes much to the fact that, although it is etymologically related to Latin and romance terms describing descent, the word has no exact medieval equivalent. Natio, gens, genus, stirps (and to a lesser extent populus, nomen, sanguis, and lingua) are the most frequently encountered Latin nouns today translated as "race," but in many instances these terms could more accurately (or at least more neutrally) be rendered nation, people, ethnic identity, linguistic community, family or kin group. Yet even a word as seemingly familiar as natio, destined to become the modern English word nation, implies in a medieval context not an ideological entity like the United States, with its idea of a shared geography whose diverse population nonetheless constitutes a single community. A medieval natio need be nothing more than a group of people linked by their common descent: natio and its vernacular equivalents (e.g. ME nacioun) derive ultimately from the verb nasci, 'to be born,' and the word therefore carries with it implications which we would today describe as biological. Race, in other words, may be inseparable from culture, but it is almost always also involved in questions of blood.
Twelfth-century England provides a useful example of these complexities of medieval race. Before the advent of the Germanic tribes in the fifth century, much of Britain had been a composite of Celtic and Roman elements. The new immigrants from Scandinavia forcibly took much of the southeast of the island for themselves, absorbing some of the native population (Cerdic, a sixth century ancestor of the West Saxon royal line, is a Celtic name) and pushing the remainder farther to the west. These peoples they christened the Welsh, "foreigners." The sixth century warrior-saint Guthlac is said to have been captured in a battle against them, and to have learned their "sibilant speech." Ethnically diverse and unlikely to have thought of themselves as constituting a single race, these colonizers of the island eventually formed many small kingdoms which, over time, forcibly annexed each other to become ever larger ones. As these structures of power grew, their multiplicitous beginnings were forgotten and myths began to circulate that allowed them to imagine a greater unity than they in fact historically possessed. The historian Bede conveniently reduced the many tribes to Angles, Saxons and Jutes; King Alfred declared himself the ruler of the Angles and Saxons; by the time Edward the Confessor ascended to the throne, he was monarch of a united Anglia, or England. When William the Conqueror invaded, the Duke of Normandy ruptured the unity of a nation which had long possessed a shared language, sense of history, governmental coherence, and a powerful belief in its own community. In the years after the victory at Hastings, the French-speaking followers of William replaced the English at the highest levels of power. The court, the provincial aristocracy, governmental administrators, bishops, abbots, and even the wealthiest citizens of the towns were now immigrants. Racial tensions were endemic; even the monasteries witnessed deadly violence.

Despite the fact that cities had been forcibly reconfigured, property seized, lives lost, and despite the fact that English had suffered a complete loss of its prestige as a written language, in time the French began to feel at home enough in their country to begin calling themselves English. Within two or three generations they had almost completely assimilated, illustrating how malleable medieval race could be. Yet a group of French-speakers whom the Normans had brought with them across the channel did not find it so easy to become part of this reconfigured nation. Ashkenazic Jews had emigrated from Normandy shortly after the conquest, and by the middle of the twelfth century could be found inhabiting many English cities. Beginning in Norwich (1144), accusations circulated that Jews were ritually murdering Christians. These stories, obsessed with the flow of blood and depicting Jews as innately hostile to Christians, raised as much skepticism as belief, but their effect could be powerful: in 1190 Jews were murdered on the streets of Lynn and incinerated in the wooden tower in which they had taken refuge in York. The Jews were permanently excluded from England's newly shared sense of community on account of their supposedly absolute otherness. To emphasize this racial separateness, Jews were eventually enjoined to wear distinguishing garb and forced to pay punishing taxes. In 1290 they were expelled completely from the island.
The assimilation of the Normans and English into a unified realm and the fate of the Jews suggests that medieval race is ultimately a process rather than a stable state of being. Just as the Frenchness of the Norman rulers would eventually vanish, allowing them to become as English as a family who traced their origin to the Germanic migrations, likewise the Jews -- who initially were not met with any discernible hostility as they settled into English towns -- were over time transformed into a bloody people whose persecution and exclusion would (it was imagined) allow England a triumphant sense of community. Meanwhile, of course, the colonization of Wales and Ireland was rapidly proceeding, allowing race to take another embodied form at the so-called Celtic Fringe. Perhaps the truest statement to make about medieval race is that it is always possessed most vividly by the excluded and the ostracized.


Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. "From Due East to True North: Orientalism and Orientation." In The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. New York: St Martin's Press, 2000, pp. 19-34. Explores the relations among climate, skin color and medieval race.

Bartlett, Robert. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. A seminaldiscussion of the components of medieval race.

Foot, Sarah. "The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series VI (1996):25-49. Details how Anglo-Saxon ethnic variation was overcome by a powerful myth of shared race.

Gillingham, John. The English in the Twelfth-Century: Imperialism, National Identity and Political Values. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2000. Argues in several essays that twelfth-century England saw a renewed sense of unity at the expense of the Welsh and Irish.

Heng, Geraldine. "The Romance of England: Richard Coer de Lyon, Saracens, Jews, and the Politics of Race and Nation." In The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, pp. 135-71. Examines the mutual dependency of racial categories of difference and their utility in creating national unity.

Kruger, Steven F. "The Bodies of Jews in the Late Middle Ages." In The Idea of Medieval Literature: New Essays Presented in Honor of Donald R. Howard, ed. James M. Dean and Christian K. Zacher. Newark, D.E.: University of Delaware Press, 1992, 301-13. Delineates the ways in Jewish bodies were thought to differ from Christian bodies.

----------. "Conversion and Medieval Sexual, Religious, and Racial Categories." In Constructing Medieval Sexuality , ed. Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, 158-79. Emphasizes the ambivalence of conversion in affecting medieval conceptions of race.
"Race and Ethnicity." A special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001). Contains many articles debating the usefulness of "race" to the study of the Middle Ages.

Uebel, Michael. "Unthinking the Monster: Twelfth-Century Responses to Saracen Alterity." In Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 264-91. Surveys medieval depictions of the Saracen as a monstrous figure.

Wormald, Patrick. "Engla Land: The Making of an Allegiance," Journal of Historical Sociology 7 (1994):1-24. Describes the process of identification which enabled the unity of "Anglo-Saxon" England.