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Race, Periodicity, and the (Neo-) Middle Ages

Lisa Lampert

Modern Language Quarterly: Volume 65, Number 3, September 2004, pp. 391-421 

In the last decade there has been a notable body of work on premodern racial and ethnic representation. In medieval studies, questions of race and racism, anti-Semitism, and premodern colonialisms have been explored in collections such as The Postcolonial Middle Ages, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen; in the special issue on race of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, edited by Thomas Hahn; and in the monograph Empire of Magic, by Geraldine Heng. Through such stud- ies we see not only how the concept of race has proved central to post-colonial inquiry but also how the investigation of the early history of such concepts as race, ethnicity, and nation opens new perspectives onto both the past and the present.

Western European Christian understandings of human difference in the Middle Ages must be viewed within broader frameworks of categorizing human groups, that is, within discourses that were, Robert Bartlett asserts, “no more straightforward than our own.” Medieval authors considered not only genealogy but also elements of “environmental influence,” ultimately placing the greatest importance on “the cultural and social component of ethnic identity” (45). For Bartlett, the idea of race in the medieval period would appear much closer to that of “ethnic group,” a categorization that emphasizes linguistic, legal, political, and cultural affinities more than somatic features as markers of racial difference. There are crucial distinctions between this type of notion of race and those that animate, for example, the racist systems of apartheid or anti-Semitism under national-socialism.

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