Top 10 of 2018 – #4 – Did Race and Racism Exist in the Middle Ages?

Editor’s Note: In the weeks leading up to the new year, please help us remember 2018 at the Imperial & Global Forum by checking out the past year’s 10 most popular posts.

Geraldine Heng
University of Texas at Austin

Cross-posted from Not Even Past

For generations, race studies scholars—historians and literary critics alike—believed that race and its pernicious spawn racism were modern-day phenomena only. This is because race was originally defined in biological terms, and believed to be determined by skin color, physiognomy, and genetic inheritance. The more astute, however, came to realize race could also be a matter of cultural classification, as Ann Stoler’s study of the colonial Dutch East Indies makes plain:

Race could never be a matter of physiology alone. Cultural competency in Dutch customs, a sense of ‘belonging’ in a Dutch cultural milieu…disaffiliation with things Javanese…domestic arrangements, parenting styles, and moral environment…were crucial to defining…who was to be considered European.*

Yet even after we recognized that people could be racialized through cultural and social criteria—that race could be a social construction—the European Middle Ages was still seen as outside the history of race (I speak only of the European Middle Ages because I’m a euromedievalist—it’s up to others to discuss race in Islamic, Jewish, Asian, African, and American premodernities). [continue reading]

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