Friday, June 27, 2014

Race and the Medieval Language of Class

David Nirenberg.

First, a couple of posts below, Mary Kate Hurley's "Creating Alternative Communities: The Survey!", and Jonathan Hsy's "SNEAK PEEK: Preview of Materiality Sessions at #Kzoo2015," both of which you should click through to first.
Among the topics of David Nirenberg's Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today (U of Chicago, 2014) is the development of ideas--or, perhaps better, practices--of race and racism in 14th and especially 15th-century Iberia. He writes:
The period after 1449 saw an explosion of treatises that drew upon sciences as diverse as medicine, metallurgy, animal breeding, etcetera, in order to provide Israel with a natural history capable of explaining why the attributes of its children were unchangeable by God (via baptism) or king (through ennoblement). Within a generation or two, the Iberian body politic had produced a thick hedge of inquisition and genealogy in order to protect itself from penetration by the “Jewish race” and its cultural attributes. (139)
Nirenberg argues that the forced mass conversion of Jews in the late fourteenth century lead to this explosion of racism, as this influx of Jewish converts "raised, for the first time, systemic doubt about who was a Christian and who was a Jew" (149). Iberian Christians, who had defined themselves for centuries as "not Jewish," suddenly lost a key support to their identities; but not only Christians (182, for example). During this panicked period, Nirenberg finds a host of writers in this period, both Christian and Jewish, worrying over this issue, writing passages like the following:
if a person is of pure blood and has a noble lineage, he will give birth to a son like himself, and he who is ugly and stained [of blood?] will give birth to a son who is similar to him, for gold will give birth to gold and silver will give birth to silver and copper to copper, and if you find some rare instances that from lesser people sprang out greater ones, nevertheless in most cases what I have said is correct, and as you know, a science is not built on exceptions. (280 n56).
That's Rabbi Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Shem Tov in the 1480s, here sounding identical to the Christian Alfonso Martínez de Toledo in 1438, certain that "the son of an ass must bray" (Nirenberg's paraphrase, 138). In this period, Christians and Jews both wrote in defense of a fundamental belief in natural hierarchies. They both worried about the flux of Christian and Jewish identities. And they both sought to find some new way to assure themselves of some fundamental difference in identity. That said, whatever these similarities, the most weaponized use of these beliefs, of course, was by self-identified Christians against Jews and those they identified as Jews.

Now, Nirenberg sees this naturalized language of hierarchy as a key moment in the emergence of modern racism. I'm convinced by his data, but, having often taught chivalric literature and, for that matter, Chaucer, I hear in this naturalization not so much race as class.

 So far as I can determine, that word, in its meaning as "social class," appears not once in Neighboring Faiths. Neither do the medieval variants I might expect, for example, "order" or "ordo." I'm not saying this to wish Nirenberg had written another book, nor to grouse at the one he did write: his book is enormously important and will deserve every accolade it receives. Still I'll suggest here a point Nirenberg either ignored or, more likely, chose not to discuss: that in Iberia in the 1430s, the old language of medieval class was ported over to describe or even establish a fundamental and ineradicable Christian/Jewish difference. That is, the long history of medieval naturalized class provides one--not all, but one--of the foundations of modern racism.

The key point: some of the key ideas of race and racism--that social difference is bodily, fixed, hierarchical, and heritable--appear in this old language of class.

This idea, what my tweet cheekily dubs "brilliant," may have already appeared in print elsewhere. It may even have appeared brilliantly in print already. I can't know for sure, as I'm only now getting up to speed on the medieval history of race, racism, and ethnicity, or whatever you think it should be called; but I don't think this point shows up in the now classic Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies special issue on "Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages." It might show up in Cord Whitaker's upcoming special issue of postmedieval, "Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages." I haven't yet looked at The Origins of Racism in the West (Cambridge UP, 2009; paperback (!) 2013), on its way to me right now. It might well have appeared in some form in Jeffrey Cohen's many pieces about race (for example, here, here, and here). It's probably appeared in some form in some of the vast number of works on the history of race and racism that I haven't read it. I'm sure of it. All this is to say that I don't expect I'm being original here, but I do believe--I hope more modestly--that I'm offering Nirenberg or his readers a helpful supplement.

Some examples follow:
  • Yvain's Wild Herdsman, this big forest peasant, who “resambloit mor” (286; resembled a Moorso evoking the animalistic Moors of chivalric narrative, such as those of the Chanson de Roland: those of Ociant, who “braient e henissent” (bray and whinny; 3526); those of Arguille, who “si cume chen i glatissent” (yelp like dogs; 3527); and those of Micenes, who are “seient ensement cume porc” (hairy just like pigs; 3523). See also this old post on the Reeve's Tale and Symkyn's Nose.
  • The political prophecy of John Ergome or Erghome, which records a belief that Edward II’s inept reign can be blamed on his true peasant background, for, as the story goes, when a pig mauled Edward in his cradle, his nurse swapped out the royal infant for the unmauled son of an auriga (a groom or swineherd), who, as a "false prince," naturally governed the realm poorly (in fact, in the 1360s, Peter the Cruel's rivals spread the rumor that he was also such a "cuckoo" (Nirenberg 101), albeit with a Jewish rather than peasant substitution).
  • The chivalric romance Octavian, whose "recurring fascination with capital, class mutability, and the possibility of absolute value" (63) Jeffrey writes about in Medieval Identity Machines. In Octavian, a lost, chivalric child, raised by merchants and rechristened Florent (like a modern kid aspirationally named 'Dollar'), recurrently frustrates his parents by showing his true, chivalric value, for example, by trading a couple oxen for a falcon, and by haggling a horse trader up to ensure he pays full price for a glorious, white steed.
  • And, finally, of course, there's Chaucer's Arcite (like Boccaccio's Arcita), who, in the Knight's Tale, returns from his Theban exile to Athens and rises "naturally" from his disguise as a lowly manual laborer to end up as Theseus's squire.
  • Further afield, there's the Old Norse Rígsthula, whose account of the origins of slaves, farmers (Carls!), and warrior earls, may be one of the earlier versions of these ideas of naturalized class (written down c. 1350, it shows Irish influence, as ríg comes from the Old Irish word for "king"; Andy Orchard 337).
By looking at this language of naturalized class as a root of modern racism we help free our investigations from duplicating, more or less accidentally, modern racism's tendency to naturalize race. To be sure, skin color and "national" origin--the twin pillars of modern racial thinking--were often marked and linked by medieval thinkers; for example, they took from the ancients the notion that the sun in the warmer regions "burnt" the skin, making it darker. They sometimes even hierarchized this belief, by arguing that this same heat enervated those unfortunate enough to live in whatever part of the globe the medievals thought especially warm (for changing climatic notions, see Suzanne Conklin's Akbari's Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450, praised by Jeffrey here).

But if we want to get get a sense of why racial thinking is so often hierarchized, we might look at the old medieval language of naturalized class. By no means am I arguing that class trumps race. Rather, I'm attempting to find a medieval language of difference that is far more resistant to flux and conversion than what may be the usual culprits in attempts to find the roots of racism, namely, medieval climatic theory or conceptions of religious difference. Medieval climatic theory sometimes admitted that people who lived in one climate would change if they moved to another; medieval Christian belief in conversion generally (but not always) thought that converts to Christianity became true Christians.

Medieval defenses of social class, by contrast, argued that class was fixed, lodged in the body, and heritable. We might have the roots of racism right here. And if we look here, we'll find why racism is so often powered by anti-animal humanist beliefs. We'll find too that racial thinking is culture all the way down, regardless of its "biological," genealogical pretensions, because none of us now, I hope, believe that class is anything but a social position. And, especially, by looking at this language of naturalized class, we'll mark how racial thinking is used to naturalize nasty hierarchical differences within already existing human groups, a point I'm cribbing from one of Barbara Jeanne Fields' classic articles.  If we start with this medieval language of naturalized class, we might better realize how the language of race is overwhelmingly not about the people over there, but about the people right here and social injustices right here rather than some wholly mythological history of significant difference.


Steffen said...

This is a very interesting, and important, key point, so it does deserve much - and positive, constructive - attention, and for the same reason the point needs to be sharpened a bit. So my response is basically a few suggestions on how to make your key point a bit more poignant.

First of all: There's little doubt that classism and racism are related entities, but a big question is when modern racism started, and what can be construed as its roots. To answer that question, we have to agree on the nexus of modern racism's emergence, or rather at what point in time we can see a racism that is most similar to that of our own times. I'm not sufficiently well-read on the subject to talk in certainties here, but I would presume that late-medieval Iberia is where we most likely find this emergence.

Next question is then when we start to see a confluence of racist and classist imagery in medieval texts, i.e. when the medieval ideas of social hierarchy bled into a negative portrayal of a different people. This is a difficult task when you consider the medieval cosmology, peopled as it was with hybrids and monsters, which the medieval world inherited from classical literature. However, by mapping the portrayals of peasants, Muslims and Jews, for instance, we should be able to see whether at any point these occurrences increase.

This brings us to a third point, and that has to do with your selection of sources. With one late-twelfth-century exception, all these texts are from the 14th century, and most of them English (although I will always give Boccaccio seniority over Chaucer). This is an interesting starting point, but for such a big issue as your key point, a more diverse range of sources are needed, or you could specify that you locate this emergence of the twinning of classism and racism to the 14th century. (I'm not saying that you do, nor that you should, just that the selection of material lends itself to this idea.)

Fourthly: your selection of sources are all secular, and most of them are chivalric. To get at the big picture in this matter, it would also be necessary to look at saints' lives and historiographies, plus even liturgies. (Look at the beata stirps motif of hagiographical texts.) As it stands now, it's difficult to say whether medieval classism was widespread or a staple of the romance genre. (I don't believe this to be the case, but again: that's how the material can be read.)

So in sum: very important question, but also demanding a lot detailed mapping, and my goal has been merely to draw attention to some of the issues that need to be tackled in this case. Keep it up!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for posting this, Karl. You'll find there are scattered accounts that link race to class going way back in medieval literary and historical studies: Paul Freedman, for example, in his classic Images of the Medieval Peasant looks at how dark skin gets aligned with serfdom, Ruth Mellinkoff in Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages and The Mark of Cain brings together "natural" social abasement and race; Benjamin Braude, among the MANY people who have looked at the Cham legends (his descendants cursed into slavery for Cham's mockery of his dad) has two relevant pieces, "The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods," William and Mary Quarterly (1997) and "Cham et Noé. Race, esclavage et exégèse entre Islam, Judaïsme, et Christianisme, Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales (2002). It's hard, though, because "ordo" is not exactly class, and peasants or serfs are not an adequate category for the poor; and not all assimilated Jews can be a class; and so on. But what you're getting at are the entangled relations among body, descent, social power, economic power, and privilege. Race is always circulating within that nexus, especially as embodiment and the innate are tacitly or loudly invoked.