Medieval Race and the Modern Scholar: Fear, Theory, and the Way Forward (A Roundtable)
International Congress on Medieval Studies, 2017
Organized by: Cord Whitaker, Sierra Lomuto, Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh
Thomas Hahn’s 2001 JMEMS special edition, Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages, spearheaded a critical discussion on race in the medieval period; one that Cord Whitaker continues in the 2015 postmedieval edition,Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages. While the articles included in Hahn’s edition explore the question he poses in his introduction— “What, if anything, does medieval studies have to do with racial discourses?” — Whitaker’s edition takes as its starting point “not whether” the Middle Ages was raced, but “how” it is raced. Making Race Matter pushes the conversation on medieval race into a definitive space significantly evolved from its nascence in 2001. Yet there remains in the larger field of medieval studies a lingering hesitancy to employ the term race when discussing the categorization of difference or the management of alterity within medieval contexts. It often appears in quotations, or is preceded by “pseudo-” or “quasi-.”
This panel asks whether and to what extent the discomfort with the concept is a result of the stark binary that has been the cornerstone of race discourse in studies of the Middle Ages: On the one hand, there are scholars even among those who recognize race as a valuable theoretical lens in medieval studies, that still do not consider race integral to the social fabric of the Middle Ages. Rather, they take it as compartmentalized and sequestered, ancillary, a concept that medieval authors and artists could “choose” to “tap into.” Race, for these scholars, is only marginal to a medieval European world view. On the other hand, some scholars have read race as a crucial and rich concept whose categories include various forms of alterity. The notion of the “monstrous races,” for instance, includes Saracens, Muslims, Jews, monsters, and demons. These categories are often discussed together against a usually white, usually male racially homogenous social norm. In the past few years— in Whitaker’s edition and elsewhere— scholars have complicated this binary in formidable ways. They have identified the extremity of these two viewpoints and opened up a space between them rich for exploration. This panel aims to continue the work performed in Making Race Matter by rigorously theorizing race as a concept in the Middle Ages while at the same time querying the persistent resistance to the terminology and concept of medieval race in modern scholarship.
Key questions might include:
- How do works engage with and construct race conceptually?
- What are the traditions and previous scholarship that cause us to worry over the term race? How do these traditions and scholarship continue to inform our work, even in insidious ways, when we would otherwise take them to task?
- What do we, as scholars, bring to texts and works with respect to reading race?
- How do we, as scholars in a racially fraught period, negotiate our preconceived readings of race when theorizing race in the Middle Ages?