by Geraldine Heng
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being…. There will always be one more thing [to explain].An extraordinary thing happened in the field of critical race studies this fall. A 46-page book review of my 2018 Cambridge University Press book, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, appeared in the journal Medieval Encounters. The journal called the 46-page opus a “review essay,” though the review did not treat any other books or any larger subjects, as review essays do: it was just a sustained condemnation of a single book, mine.
As I sought to understand the 46-page hatchet job, it slowly became clear that there were key issues at stake: issues involving what colleagues of color called “white privilege,” which facilitates attacks on scholars of color; the status and legitimacy of critical race analysis in premodern studies today; the vulnerability of junior scholars who want to undertake new work on race; and what race scholarship and pedagogy might look like in the foreseeable future. This essay is an attempt to address as many of these issues as possible.
First, the book review: written by an S. J. Pearce, the 46-page opus condemns Invention of Race on the basis of one chapter (my book has seven chapters and an introduction, and is 504 pages long), plus some sporadic sniping about features in another chapter. But that one chapter is so bad, the reviewer concluded, the entire book has to go. It can’t be improved, revised, or have a second edition: no, Invention of Race needs to be erased.
What was so terrible about this one chapter that the whole book must be canceled? For those who haven’t read it, Invention of Race makes a case for how critical race analysis is pertinent to the study of the premodern past, and sustains its argument through studies on Jews, Muslims, Africans, Native Americans, Mongols, and the Romani as key examples.
The reviewer zeroed in on Chapter 2, which describes how the intensity, persistence, and comprehensiveness of state, church, and popular apparatuses marshaled against Jews in England produced England as the first de facto racial state in the history of the West.
Astonishingly, the reviewer damned the chapter through an extraordinary misrepresentation of Chapter 2’s archive and methods.
She claimed that, by using the archives of state, church, and popular opinion in medieval England to critiquestate, church, and popular actions against Jews—and not, say, Jewish archives—I was performing an inquisitorial, anti-Semitic, colonizing act. My chapter’s “over-reliance on the language of the Church and the English state” means that I “ally [my]self with the medieval Christian perspective of [my] sources” (p. 163).
Actually, the chapter critiquing the atrocities of English antisemitism uses the same archive used by decades of scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, working on Anglo-Jewry—whether they are historians like Robert Stacey, Patricia Skinner, Joe Hillaby, and scores of others; or literary scholars like Anthony Bale, Kathy Lavezzo, Lindsay Kaplan, and a dozen others; or art historians like Asa Mittman, Deborah Strickland, and more. It’s a well-established scholarly tradition to critique England’s antisemitism through England’s state, church, and cultural archives on Jews.
Why doesn’t Pearce damn the many scholars who’ve worked in that tradition also as inquisitors, anti- Semites, and colonialists? How come their work isn’t “borderline unusable,” and “cannot be trusted” (p.160 n.37)? What’s the difference between them and me? This was perplexing.
But one clue is that the other scholars who have shared the same archive are white. I am not. My trifecta in scholarly vulnerability is plain to see: Not white, not male, not native-born. Just a formerly- colonized subject from the old British Empire, now accused of colonialism herself. The perfect outsider and scapegoat for everything you hate.
So, here’s one of many reasons for writing this essay: to tell young medievalists of color, who have watched with pain and horror as a senior woman of color is publicly savaged in print and on social media, not to be intimidated into fearing to attempt new work on race just because they, too, might be savaged. This essay is dedicated to them.
Outsiders and Insiders: The Politics of Race in Scholarship on England’s Jews
More, later, about the hate. Next: why do scholars of England’s Jews—historians, literary scholars, and art historians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike—all use state and church archives? Is this a plot to replace Jewish historiography with English historiography, as Pearce claims?
Everyone who studies Anglo-Jewry knows the answer, but Suzanne Bartlet and Patricia Skinner say it best: “Almost all that we know derives from sources produced by non-Jews, and much of what we know comes specifically from the judicial and fiscal records generated by England’s precociously bureaucratized government” (Licoricia of Winchester, p.5). This is a finely exact description of the available archive.
Medieval England simply doesn’t have a rich plethora of Jewish-authored archives. Again, Bartlet and Skinner put it succinctly: “Ultimately, the voices we hear of Jews in medieval England are filtered through non-Jewish, and sometimes overtly hostile, sources” (Licoricia of Winchester, p.10). In fact, England’s governmentality, surveillance, and control of its Jewish population, as demonstrated in those sources, are so intensive and totalizing, it’s not difficult to argue for England’s characterization as a racial state.
Does Pearce know any of this? Apparently not. She’s not a scholar of Anglo-Jewry. Her specialization, and area of interest, is “the Hebrew and Arabic literature of Iberia.”
Invention of Race has won four book prizes, sold thousands of copies, and has been reviewed a dozen times, with virtually every reviewer possessing clear reviewing credentials for addressing the book—by virtue of their familiarity with critical theories of race, or previous scholarship on medieval race, or specialization in the countries, histories, and literatures treated in the book.
By contrast, Pearce, lacking credentials in critical theory, or scholarship on race, or knowledge of the histories, literatures, and cultures of medieval England (cf. Iberia), substitutes a long teaching vignette (six printed pages) to fill the lacuna, as her credential for reviewing a chapter on critical race in England.
Pearce’s vignette claims she teaches students about compassion. Yet, despite the vaunt about teaching compassion, the review is devoid of any of the usual professional respect common among academic colleagues, let alone compassion.
Instead, the tone of Pearce’s review is riddled with condescension, ridicule, and name-calling. My chapter is “a master class in how not to write” (p.154)—an insult most of us would not inflict on an 18-year-old attempting her first freshman composition, let alone address to a colleague. I am jeered at as an inquisitor (p.145, ff.) and likened to a magpie (p.177)—a thieving bird, we note, that steals shiny junk, a mean bird notorious for its loud, idle chatter.
Loftily, she stands as accuser, testifier, and judge: to bear “witness,” she says, to my magpie behavior with her “academic mesirah” (p.181) that will “short-stop” the “neo-colonial, neo-Orientalist discourse” (p.182) that is my book.
So, Why the Hate? Critical Race Theory Today, and the European Middle Ages
Why would anyone produce a 46-page screed of such vitriol?
In addition to my not-whiteness, another difference separates me from the white scholars who have used the same medieval archive. The conceptual scaffold of my book, and its interpretive practices, are informed by a background in critical race theory (CRT)—or more accurately, critical race theories, since there is a spectrum of theories, and more than a single genealogy of critical scholarship on race.
In the past, critical race theories have maintained that race and racisms began only in the modern era—in tandem with, or resulting from, the rise of capitalism, or chattel slavery, or imperialism and colonialism, or class struggle and social war; or bourgeois hegemony, the rise of nations and nationalisms, modern state apparatuses, globalization and transnationalism, or any number of other constitutive factors.
By contrast, Invention of Race (and my earlier publications) make/s a sustained argument for the existence of race and racisms in the deep European past, before the modern eras, and before there was a vocabulary of race to name racial phenomena, institutions, laws, and practices for what they were.
The book is thus not only an intervention in scholarship on the European Middle Ages; it is also an intervention in critical race scholarship. This is why Invention of Race is used today not only by medievalists, but also by modernists teaching critical theories of race.
For medievalists today, the subject of premodern race is sometimes confusing. Some are eager to enter the new conversations on medieval race. Others are genuinely puzzled about how the scholarship today differs from earlier scholarship. I list below some useful books to consult, but there is one simple, primary thing to remember.
The word critical, here, in the study of premodern race marks an important watershed—it marks the difference between the premodern race studies of the past, and the premodern critical race studies undertaken today. Critique is involved in the latter, but was often missing from the former.
Premodern critical race studies doesn’t just concern itself with marshaling descriptions of race, or compiling taxonomies of race, or producing summations of race (of the kind Pearce might approve, for instance), but sustains the critical analysis of race in the European Middle Ages.
Critical race scholarship on premodernity analyzes the sources, institutions, infrastructures, practices, technologies, and dynamics of race and racialization, in order critically to assess their ethical, political, and epistemological consequences and impacts.
My old friend Margo Hendricks puts it her way, when she distinguishes premodern race studies (PRS) from premodern critical race studies (PCRS), in her keynote for the RaceB4Race conference at the Folger Institute last year, and a forthcoming article in New Literary History:
Premodern race studies, in my opinion, is fundamentally written by and for white academics….scholars whose publication history shows no attention to “race” have suddenly become experts….PRS assumes no foundational work to the study of race exists….If these scholars recognize the pre-existence of a cohort of Black, Brown, and Indigenous scholars working on the subject, this pre-existence is most often relegated to a footnote entry surrounded by whiteness. Or worse, this body of scholarship is ignored.
Or they might call for a scholar-of-color’s book to be canceled, as Pearce the new “expert” does. Thanks to Margo, and other colleagues of color, I’ve come to understand that this is what white privilege means—the right to bury, ignore, or cancel the work of scholars of color with impunity.
No scholar of color, however senior, is immune from such treatment—especially if they perform “foundational work” in the critical study of race, as Margo Hendricks notes.
After all, we’ve seen critical race theory that is trained on our own time attacked by those occupying the highest rungs of political power: President Donald Trump in the US, and Ministers in the House of Commons in the UK. Given such attacks, why wouldn’t intellectual conservatives in the academy also seize the opportunity to attack the critical analysis of race in premodernity?
Of course they would, and they have. For instance: the people who run the Mediterranean Seminar made Pearce’s book review their October 2020 article of the month, claiming that the race analysis in my book is a “flattening” of religion and ethnicity; praised her review; offered Pearce more space for further words of attack; and distributed it to their membership list.
Early-career medievalists of color have also seen their work censored. An anonymous reviewer for a university press told an untenured medievalist of color—an assistant professor—that if she wants her book for tenure to be published, she must take out every mention of race. Another junior medievalist of color had her article on race rejected out of hand at a journal by yet another anonymous reviewer.
Such hostility to critical race analysis in premodern studies is vicious, but not surprising. Vicious, because nobody is demanding that every medievalist must work on critical race. The right to perform critical race scholarship doesn’t force every medievalist to undertake critical race analysis. All that’s asked for is the freedom to choose one’s own scholarship.
For medievalists who believe that to avoid critical race analysis is to sanitize what they see in their archive, surely the right to perform scholarship of their choice should not, ethically and politically, be denied them?
Must new forms of scholarship that many consider valuable and want to undertake be prevented, attacked, or censored, just to appease those who want to conserve some old ways—their old ways—of doing things? What gives them the right to place a stranglehold on the future?
What the Past Teaches Us about the Future: Feminism, Queer Theory, Critical Sexuality Studies
For those who want to undertake the new work on premodern race, here’s a reminder: feminism, queer theory, and critical sexuality studies also met with resistance in their early days. The hostility of those who want to conserve is thus not surprising: some may remember the harsh critiques levelled at John Boswell, when his Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century first appeared in 1980, four decades ago. Four decades from now, critical race scholarship on medieval Europe may be as commonplace as queer theory, critical sexuality studies, and feminisms are today.
Because it really isn’t possible to turn the clock back. There are now six full-length monographs on race in the European Middle Ages, not to mention PhD dissertations.
In addition to my book, there’s Lynn Ramey’s Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages, Cord Whitaker’s Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking, Matthew Vernon’s The Black Middle Ages: Race and the Construction of the Middle Ages, Lindsay Kaplan’s Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity, and Roland Betancourt’s Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages.
More than enough in number for someone to write a real review essay on the landscape of critical medieval race studies today.
Not to mention anthologies, articles, and essays, special issues of journals, and books in the pipeline at the new University of Pennsylvania Press series, RaceB4Race: Critical Studies of the Premodern. Conference panels, workshops, symposia, and whole conferences on medieval and premodern race are increasing, not decreasing.
For those who consider studying religion as a matrix of race-making to be a “flattening” of religion, there are excellent studies by scholars of color who serve up trenchant responses, such as Terence Keel’s Divine Variations: How Christian Thought Became Racial Science, and Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.
Nor is Christianity the only matrix for race-making. Michael Gomez offered richly layered arguments in his lecture on how Islamic sources on the Hamitic Curse, along with climate and zonal theories, enabled Arab and Persian authors of the 10th to the 17th centuries to racialize Black Saharan Africans and slavery in West Africa, in the Race in the Archives series organized for the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Stanford by CMEMS director Ali Yaycioglu.
Critical work on medieval race is moving beyond Europe and Christendom, as more and more scholars, from distinguished senior academics of color like Mike Gomez to graduate students and early career researchers excited about new work, choose to be part of the collaborative process of co-building, and co-creating, new knowledges, new methods, and new ways of looking and thinking.
It often takes a couple of decades in medieval studies to entrench paradigm-shifting work, but perhaps the paradigms will make way more quickly this time.
Therefore, to the early-career scholars—and others not-so-early in their careers—who are anxiously wondering if they, too, will be savaged if they undertake critical work on race; if they will be prohibited from publishing in journals and by university presses; and who fear a cancel culture initiated by hostile and powerful gate-keepers who are tenured, senior faculty, I say to you: there are some of us working hard to bend the arc of the intellectual universe slowly, but incrementally, toward greater freedom in academic publishing and academic intellectual life, so that you will have shelter and support.
The journey may be long—though I predict, this time, it won’t take a generation to entrench the new work—but you’ll see that the company is good.
Geraldine Heng is Perceval Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and founder and director of the Global Middle Ages Project. In addition to her books and articles, she coedits the University of Pennsylvania Press series, RaceB4Race: Critical Studies of the Premodern, and the 40-title Cambridge University Press Elements series on The Global Middle Ages. Her MLA Options for Teaching anthology, The Global Middle Ages, and coauthored Cambridge Element, The Global Middle Ages: An Introduction, appear in 2021-2. She has begun a fifth book, Early Globalisms: The Interconnected World, 500-1500 CE. She deeply thanks those who helped to shape this essay—for their perspectives, wisdom, and words.
 In fact, my book explicitly declares it stands on the shoulders of giants: the generations of scholars of Anglo-Jewry, Jewish and non-Jewish, who have shown us, over decades, how to think about this archive, and how to analyze it. One of the scholarly giants—the eminent historian of Anglo-Jewry, Bob Stacey—recently revealed that he’d been an enthusiastic anonymous reviewer of the manuscript for Cambridge.
 Michael Gomez’s advice to all junior scholars who want to undertake critical race analysis, during his recent lecture on race in premodern Africa, bears repeating: you should power through, and do the work you want, and not let others intimidate you. In recent years, job ads for academic positions in medieval studies have increasingly listed race and early global studies as desiderata in applicants’ scholarship and teaching.
 Jonathan Boyarin reminds me that Anglo-Jewry used to be excluded from English historiography altogether, through sanitized narratives about England’s formation. See, e.g., Colin Richmond’s “Englishness and Medieval Anglo-Jewry,” in Sheila Delany’s Chaucer and the Jews: Sources, Contexts, Meanings. More scholarship on the miniscule number of Jewish-authored documents in medieval England would be wonderful to have, even if it doesn’t pertain to race or racisms.
 My book doesn’t call this the “origin” of race. An origin is the coming-into-being of what has never, ever, existed before. By contrast, my work—whether on race, or something else—focuses on the convergence of forces, and fields of force, that coalesce into new patterns at a particular historical moment. Inventions can thus be re-inventions-with-difference across macrohistorical time. Classicists like Denise McCoskey (Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy) show that medieval race and racisms are preceded by race and racisms in antiquity, while early modernists like Kim Hall (Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England) show how medieval race and racisms are succeeded by early modern race and racisms. Cedric Robinson (Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition) stitches together both medieval race and early modern race by theorizing racial capitalism as continuity-with-difference.
 Cord Whitaker views the implications this way, in an email exchange: “summations of race leave intact the white supremacy that has pervaded the modern academy and its practices at least since the Enlightenment.”
 Like Pearce, they too sloppily treat my work on race in Europe as identical to my work on early globalism, so as to indict me of the eurocentrism I devote energy to contesting in my work in critical global studies. This, despite the fact that the title of my book is The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, and not The Invention of Race in the Global Middle Ages. You’d think signaling that Europe is the focus of the book, with a title like that, would be enough.
 This list doesn’t even include premodernists who study antiquity, or Judaism, or Islam: from Denise McCoskey’s Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, to Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, to Denise Kimber Buell’s Why This New Race, to David M. Goldenberg’s The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler’s The Origins of Racism in the West, among others.
 Bloomsbury Press will publish two large anthologies on medieval race, one edited by Tom Hahn and introduced by Cord Whitaker, and the other by Dorothy Kim and Kim Coles. Dorothy Kim has also edited a special issue on medieval race for Literature Compass, and Cord Whitaker a special issue for postmedieval, both of which join Hahn’s 2001 issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies on medieval race. Kim and Michelle Sauer, members of the Medievalists of Color, are also editing the Cambridge Companion on Christianity and Race. RaceB4Race, the Penn series Ayanna Thompson and I coedit, publishes work extending from antiquity to the 18th century: monographs, anthologies, sourcebooks, and translations.
 The RaceB4Race conferences take place twice a year for five years, thematizing premodern race and contemporary racism in the academy, and creating a community of support for scholars of color and our allies and collaborators working in early critical race studies. The recent international conference, Centring Race in History: Antiquity to the Present, organized by the International Centre on Racism, also shows how conferences are now featuring premodern race alongside modern race.
 Bruce S. Hall’s earlier A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960 importantly discussed the racializing of Black Saharan Africans in 13th century West Africa by Arabic- and Amazigh-speaking groups who used Islamic sources and histories. Gomez’s important new work theorizes the racialization of Black Saharan slavery, and how climate and zonal theories became part of the racializing matrix of religion.