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.