Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Medieval Race

by J J Cohen

I've been spending the last week or so at work on an essay on medieval race for the forthcoming Blackwell's Critical Theory Handbook to Middle English. Much of the essay pulls together work that exists in scattered places, since race has been an abiding concern of mine: each of my previous books treats the subject, the last two in substantial chapters. Though I doubt I have anything original to say after blathering on about the topic for, um, twelve years, I am trying to come up with something. Below is my draft introduction to the essay. Specifics of what race means take up the remainder.

My chapter itself is supposed to be an research-guide type overview, and accessible to undergraduates. Let me know what you think.


The popular Middle English romance Guy of Warwick contains what should be, within the long history of the genre, an almost unremarkable incident: a heroic knight defeats a brutal giant. Such episodes are ubiquitous, and can be found in numerous Middle English texts: Sir Bevis of Hampton, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Degaré, Sir Eglamour of Artois, and The Sowdone of Babylone, among others. Yet something about this particular encounter proved so fascinating that the battle took on a life of its own. Sir Guy has just returned to England from the Holy Land, where he proved himself well suited to crusading-inspired violence against Saracens (a common medieval designation for Muslims). The bellicose Anlaf of Denmark invades the island with his army. His deadliest weapon is an African giant named Colbrond. On behalf of England’s king Guy agrees to meet this monster in single combat, the victor determining the nation’s fate. A long and brutal clash ensues. Guy eventually prevails against his foe, cuts off the giant’s head, and scatters the Danish enemy. The narrative of this well precedented duel -- a small episode within the expansive narrative of Guy of Warwick -- proved so captivating that it circulated as a song, a Latin prose rendition, a painting in Winchester cathedral, and a fast paced poem (Guy and Colbrand, in the Percy Folio). The story was absorbed quickly into the English historical tradition and appears in numerous chronicles, from Robert Mannyng of Brunne to Holinshed.

Enthusiasm for the battle of Guy against Colbrond owes much to its energetic reduction of the world’s messiness into clean binaries. The romance takes an almost clichéd encounter of knight and giant and hones it to a stark meeting of opposed identities, propelled by nationalism and crusading vigor. A Christian warrior transformed on domestic shores into a hero for the kingdom, Guy triumphs against an enemy whose only thought is “þe Inglisse for to quelle” (“to kill the English,” 255.10). His victory purges English history of its inconvenient Danish and Norman content; both these groups had conquered the kingdom in the past, and both had been absorbed into its population. Guy aligns proper Christianity with his assertive Englishness by accomplishing a second crusade at home. Just as he defeated a “blake sarzine” giant named Amourant in the Holy Land, so he vanquishes the African Colbrand. The skin color of these monsters is not accidental. Their darkness is aligned with demonic as well as geographic origin, theology along with place-determined race. The Colbrond episode depends heavily upon a series of identities that suture together history, nation, religion, and collective identity: African, Saracen, Christian, English, Danish.

Like all supposedly clean divisions, however, those in Guy of Warwick hide complexly entangled realities. The mercenary giant Colbrond likely derives from the African king Gormundus in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136). With its charismatic depiction of the Arthurian court, this wildly popular Latin text bequeathed to the Middle Ages its most vibrant mythology, the seeds of the stories that would become narratives like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. Gormundus and his army of thousands ravage Britain, whose aboriginal population (the Britons, destined to become the Welsh) Geoffrey celebrates. The merciless African bestows portions of the conquered island to the Saxons, the people who will in time become the English … and who will also assimilate Geoffrey’s British version of King Arthur into a resolutely Anglophone and Anglophile monarch. Behind the giant Colbrond therefore lurk issues of Welsh versus English identity, and a postcolonial struggle for insular dominance. Geoffrey of Monmouth in turn took this African king from a French text, Gormont et Isembart, in which Gormant is a Saracen devastating Angleterre who allies himself with the son of the king of France (Isembart, who renounces his Christianity to assist the Saracen). The chanson de geste may derive from a historical episode having nothing to do with England: the defeat of belligerent Norsemen by Louis III in France in 881. Adding to these cultural peregrinations of Colbrond, in a text written shortly after Geoffrey of Monmouth (De Ortu Waluuanii), Gormundus becomes a large Persian king.

With his dark skin, his African origin, his connection to Islam, and his exaggerated physicality, Colbrond possesses what most modern interpreters would recognize as a racialized body. Like the swarming Saracens of the romance The Sultan of Babylon (“soom bloo, soom yolowe, some blake as More,” 1005), otherness is written on the dermis. Yet the English, Norse, French, Danes, and Britons are not neutral or unmarked national groups. The moment they find themselves in proximity to such an exorbitantly visual display of otherness as that incarnated in Colbrond, their own difference is likewise established, performed, and interrogated. What the shifting versions of Colbrond suggest is that all identities are racialized, even as a dominating group deploys some monstrous Other to cloak themselves in a “default” or “normate” body (a body never given in advance, but produced through contact with and concomitant production of deviant bodies). In a recent essay on late medieval race Geraldine Heng observes:
Race makes an appearance in the late Middle Ages not only through fantasmatic blacks, historical Jews and the collections of hybrid humans pressing on the edges of civilization, but can also be found at the centre of things, in the creation of that strange creature who is nowhere, yet everywhere, in cultural discourse: the white Christian European in medieval time (“Jews, Saracens, ‘Black Men,’ Tartars: England in a World of Racial Difference” 265).
Europeans blanche as the Saracens darken. Medieval race may certainly involve skin color, as it does with Colbrond, yet race cannot be reduced to any of its multiple signs. Religion, descent, custom, law, language, monstrosity, geographical origin, and even species are essential to the construction of medieval race. Race is a phenomenon of the body in motion. Such restless bodies are therefore always also becoming something else, something unexpected: from pillaging Normans to England-invading Saracens to exotic Africans to Danes with giants, all the while troubling what it means to possess and to retain an identity that prefers to remain unremarked.


Janice said...

Thanks for this post - it's wonderfully illuminating as you lead us through the story to illustrate the point (it will make a wonderful essay for the introductory treatment). As an early modern historian, medieval race is something I've read on only lightly, but it's become of interest with a pop culture and history project I'm tackling at the moment. (Plus, this is the kind of background I can send my senior students to as they read in medieval chronicles for our seminar course.)

Your point about the body in motion is also key but I wondered if the literature has anything more to say about the racialized mind and soul? You touch on the issue of religion and race, but I wondered if there was a sense of this as mental and spiritual difference stemming from race.

Anonymous said...

I like and erspect your work so much that i feel bad about having tos ay that I don't think blackness can easily be read as racial material in the MA -- there is so much evidence about blackness as an indicator of strong and good qualities. I wrote about this in a two-part Kalamazoo paper in sessions run by Laura Hodges, but family matters have kept me out of the publishing scenefor several yars now. (from Norman Hinton)

i said...

A worthwhile point from Prof. Hinton. I spent the morning reading Brian Stock on Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs. Bernard's distinction between colour and form made me think about another black/dark-skinned lady I'm fascinated with, namely Mary of Egypt, whose dark skin (in the OE version) is perhaps not very attractive, but also a sign of ascetic rigour, not of race.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Janice, Norman, and Irina: thank you for your comments, which in fact intersect with each other in the relation between body and spirit.

Blackness is not race: not in the Middle Ages, not now. It may be a racial signifier, but of itself it can't stand in for race tout court.

It has often been argued that black skin is a neutral fact in the classical period, as well as in patristic writings, and maybe the later Middle Ages. Sometimes it does seem that way, especially when we encounter "good" black skinned peoples: the Ethiopians could be noble, for example. Dark skinned Balthazar, Maurice, the Queen of Sheba, the bride in the Song of Songs, Prester John, Moses's Ethiopian wife: no "racism" here, right? Maybe. But these favorable representations are, in the main, exceptions, and possibly ones that prove a different rule.

Black skin should be a neutral fact, I suppose (the heat of the sun causes an excess of fiery blood and the skin darkens), but of course body is not separable from mind, and difference is seldom left unmoralized. So Isidore: “People’s faces and coloring, the size of their bodies, and their various temperaments correspond to various climates.” An overheated temperament was invariably a very bad thing, attached (for example) to the dark-skinned Saracen.

Another way of putting this is to say that dark skin and deficient spirit are racialized manifestations (effects not causes). They both are (or at least can be) signs of a geohumoral determination of race.

I am going to post more of the essay once it becomes less draft-y!

Eileen Joy said...

Irina: as to Mary of Egypt, I might disagree on this, or at least say that there is not just one way to read the descriptions of Mary's appearance, at least within the Old English text I am most familiar with, and that, in fact, the "signs" of her embodiment [her nudity at one point, her dessication, her "swarthy" appearance, etc.] all have multiple registers vis-a-vis her sexuality, her gender, her asceticism, etc. We have to read the descriptions of her body within the context of her broader "frame-story" of her former life as a nymphomaniac [for lack of a better term], and while she is a "saint" who in a sense "blesses" her interlocutor-monk, Zozimus, who first meets her in the desert and later performs communion and last rites for her, her body is problematic, at best, within the hagiographic genre she is (em)placed within, and we should recall, especially in relation to this point, that AElfric did not originally include her narrative in his compendium of saints' lives/homilies. She is, in some senses within the Anglo-Saxon context/canon, a "fringe" saint whose "holiness" has some ambiguity built into it, and I think her skin color plays a part in that, for sure.

While I realize that many scholars who work with the texts of the classical period, late antiquity, and the Middle Ages are concerned with the possibly anachronistic imposition of modern "race" terminology/ideology upon premodern contexts, there is just SO much evidence that those in the premodern world were already associating certain proto-ideas of "race," ethnicity, morality, virtue, and the like with color [especially red and black as linked to demons, Jews, Africans, etc.] and other aspects of physiology, that I don't see how we can ignore that evidence. Although the BOGUS "science" of race may be modern, culturally constructed links between "peoples"/nations/groups and skin color and other physiological markers [figured in negative ways] has a long history.

klavezzo said...

to Janice and Jeffrey: Thomas of Monmouth's persistent production of Jews as enemies of Christendom suggests a racialization according to mental disposition. Following Gerry Heng, I'm suggesting an understanding of race as not limited to body but also encompassing the projection of traits that are purportedly "inborn" or essential to a group of people. Great work Jeffrey--you're farther along with your essay than I am on mine!

klavezzo said...

Jeffrey, you are further along on your essay than I am on mine. Looking good! To Janice, following Gerry Heng, I think medieval racialist thinking can encompass traits/behaviors/dispositions produced as essential/inborn to a people. For example, Thomas of Monmouth repeatedly produces the Jews as enemies of Christendom.

i said...

Jeffrey, to: "But these favorable representations are, in the main, exceptions, and possibly ones that prove a different rule."

Yes, and to be fair, when I gave a quick glance to Bernard's sermons on the blackness of the bride, they implied that "black but beautiful" was an outstanding combination of qualities.

Eileen: I agree completely with you that Mary is a fringe saint. I think it was Andrew Scheil who suggested she resembles a demon running through the desert, and I tend to agree with him on that.

And yet, to both: I thought Norman Hinton's remarks were useful not because I wished to imply that there was no racialized thinking in the MA (I haven't done the hard research, but the representations of Jews I've seen in MSS would give the lie to such a claim in a moment), but because Jeffrey's draft gave a reading of blackness that would be easily accepted by modern students without making them think about how blackness might be different about the MA. In my (admittedly brief) experience, undergraduates have no trouble grasping and remembering any argument in which the MA is, as a whole, prejudiced and violent. But why not make them face a few of the complications that arise when dealing with an issue, like blackness, that simply cannot have the same set of associations for a premodern western European as they do for a 21st century North American?

But I suppose the question I'm really asking is what the pedagogical goal of the Blackwell Handbook is. Is it primarily to demonstrate that critical theory can be applied to the MA and will yield rich results, or is it also to outline how concepts are adapted, changed, by their encounter with medieval texts?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

One thing that really appeals to me about the Blackwell's Handbooks is that they don't pretend to teach anything new or to, say, envitalize the past as it meets the present. The objective is simply to reconfirm contemporary students in the prejudices they already hold. There's something refreshing in that mission.

I realize that this brief intro doesn't give enough information about the actual objectives of the essay. More soon, I promise -- and thank you, everyone, for your comments so far.

i said...

Jeffrey, you are hilarious.

Anonymous said...

I may be missing something, but in the terms of this essay at least, why is race a phenomenon of the body in motion? If I've got it right you're saying that race as a concept is emergent mainly in contact with an Other, by which both parties are defined, then what sense are you imputing to the term `motion' that isn't in `contact' or `observation'? If the story, for example, was of a night raid on Anlaf's camp, in which Colbrond was found sleeping among the Danes, the only motion would be the observer's, yet the contrast between Colbrond and the others would still be being perceived even if not currently performed.

It may be that this is not clear, but it is much more likely that I haven't had anywhere near enough sleep to read stuff this clever. If that is the case, I apologise for unwittingly besmirching etc.