EDIT: several days on. It's come to my attention that perhaps some people have not quite understood what this post is doing. Let me make my claims as clear as possible.
1. the transhistorical existence of a category called "white people" is a fiction
2. the invention of that fiction - roughly speaking, over the course of the seventeenth century - with all the legal and ideological support that accompanied and enabled it, also accompanied - not incidentally - the massive, systematic exposure of millions of Africans and African-descended people to rape by these "white people."
3. Therefore, any claim that "white people" are, for example, the heroes in the history of anti-rape advocacy is an appalling error.
I'd call this post White Skin, White Mask if the title hadn't already been taken many times. Before you go any further, if you haven't already, read Jonathan Hsy's MLA roundup, and also Eileen Joy's breathtaking farewell to ITM post.
We've posted often on racial fantasies here (a lot! here's a sample: here, here, here [from 2006], here, here, here, and here). And in one of my favorite writing experiences, Jeffrey and I co-wrote a review essay on several medieval books on cultural encounters, medievalism, and race.
And here I go again, probably not for the last time.
A couple years ago, while teaching Gerald of Wales’ History and Topography of Ireland, one of my students asked, “Why’s he so nasty about the Irish? Aren’t they the same race?” My reply: “Not back then they weren’t.” What a perfect hook that was for class discussion!
The student meant “white.” Any reader of this blog knows how much work we have done to resist the mistaken idea of a “white” Middle Ages. To be sure, many medieval writers found it useful to believe that dark skin was ugly, even diabolical. Some found it melancholic (as the word literally means “black bile”), a point you might read alongside Drew Daniel's book.
But not infrequently, they believed similarly negative things about light skin. Certainly, “white as snow” was one standard description of beautiful women, whether Saracen or Christian. Countering that, we can add "pale as a Jew": the early fifteenth-century Canarian, an inadvertently mock epic about the attempted conquest of the Canary Islands, includes a catechism for the Canary Islanders, explaining that Jews were distinguished by being “descoulourez” by fear: they were pale, in other words, excessively light-skinned. M. Lindsey Kaplan’s “The Jewish Body in Black and White in Medieval and Early Modern England” (Philological Quarterly 2013) observes that late medieval antisemitism quite often described Jews as melancholic, as “naturally timid” (44, quoting from a 14th-century Parisian quodlibet), and therefore as naturally “livid,” an uncertain color, like lead, that could be black, blue, or pale.
|"first white woman": Icelandic theater photo.|
Thanks Dan Remein for sending it to me.
And although modern racists since the later nineteenth century have made much of the supposed whiteness of the Norse in Vinland some thousand years ago, the Vinland sagas themselves don’t think of this encounter between the Norse and the “Skraelings” as an encounter of white and, say, “red.” As my students and I regularly discover, whatever so-called "white" America's interest in these sagas, they actually and primarily concern the thirteenth-century Icelandic difficulty with their own religious heritage: how is it possible to praise one's pagan ancestors? As for the “Skraelings,” one of the sagas describes a their leader as “tall and handsome [vænn],” which is precisely the same language the sagas as a whole use to describe any martial hero, Icelandic or otherwise. The Vinland sagas say that the rest of the "Skraelings" have tangled hair and enormous eyes and are – presumably apart from the leader – “ugly” [illiligir], and either “dark” (svartir) or “pale” (folleit), without, that is, any obvious singularly distinctive hair or skin color, though they are still marked as somehow different.
Furthermore, neither of the Vinland sagas offers a homogeneous ‘Eurocentric’ identity reducible to whiteness. Eric the Red’s Saga has among its Norse a German explorer, and the Greenland Saga two Scots, differentiated from the text’s norm, as in common in medieval texts, through culinary and cultural differences: the German knows grapes and wine, while the Scots, wearing what the texts think of as strange Scottish clothing, are fast runners, swifter than deer.
The paragraph above, and the last sentences of the previous one, come from my article “Bad Heritage: The American Viking Fantasy, from the Nineteenth Century to Now,” intended for a non-medievalist audience, and, knock on wood, coming out later this year. I’ll quote one more paragraph as a teaser, and as a rebuke of this eminent University of Chicago medieval historian:
Modern fans of the Vikings speak of them as representing the “organic unity of a race” (Else Christiansen, qtd in Gardell, “Wolf Age Pagans” 386) and offer up “Scandinavians and the Scandinavian culture as ancient and therefore pure” (Blaagaard 11). But without a single pre-Christian Norse religion (indeed, without a pre-Christian Norse religion entirely free of Christian influences), there is no “pure” and ancient “folkway” that can be contrasted with Christianity, modernity, cosmopolitanism, and all the other presumptive faults of modernity. No single origin is available. While the medieval Norse were no less free of racist taxonomies and anxieties than any other medieval group, their chief concerns were not with the modern category of whiteness, not least of all because they did not think of skin color as the primary racial determiner (for example). Claims of “ancestral roots” purport to be historical claims, but they lack the appreciation for heterogeneity and constantly shifting, interacting cultures, riven by internal disputes and negotiations, necessary for any truly historical analysis. Fascination with the seafaring exploits of Vikings, when attached exclusively to the Vikings, remain provincial: from the North Sea to the Indian Ocean, Norse, Croat, Swahili, Persian, and Chinese sailors all found new success in the ninth century (Sindbaek). In short, the love of Vikings [or for that matter “white people”] is obviously a love of a fantasized past rather than a love of history. In its more and less benign forms, modern amateur Viking enthusiasm should collapse when it encounters these facts. Yet it persists, of course, which means, finally, we must examine what the Viking fantasy does for its adherents.
EDIT: a couple hours later, I need to address one more point. The post I linked to above makes claims about the centrality of medieval "white" people, and especially "white men," to anti-rape advocacy and anti-rape legislation, without discussing, say, the approval of the rape of peasant women in Andrew the Chaplain's De arte honeste amandi (often translated as The Art of Courtly Love):
And if you should, by some chance, fall in love with some of their women [i.e., peasant women], be careful to puff them up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and to embrace them by force (Perry trans., 150)The key term in the title is honeste, a word of perhaps uncertain meaning, but which might be read with reference to this; do not ignore the real limits of Andrew's arguments.
But we can also think of this argument in the context of America, one of whose founding crimes is its profiting from the systematic, massive rape of enslaved people from Africa or of African ancestry. Any account of anti-rape advocacy in America must have, for example, Ida B. Wells at its center; it should read Saidiya Hartman's "Venus in Two Acts," or the helpless horror about witnessing rape in Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative. It should understand that Virginia profited enormously from the sale of enslaved children down south, which meant, of course, that so-called white men were selling their own children. Any account of anti-slave advocacy that seeks to racialize that history should read as much, if not more of, Thomas Thistlewood's diary as can be stood.
So-called white people do have a central role in the history of anti-rape advocacy, and that role has been, since the invention of white people, by and large, the enemy.