Geraldine Heng ⁠— Defining Race, Periodizing Race

Race and Periodization | Learn more about the event and hear introductory remarks by Michael Witmore and Ayanna Thompson

Race and Periodization

Listen to a recording of the opening lecture given by Geraldine Heng at the September 2019 "Race and Periodization" symposium, co-sponsored by the Folger Institute and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The focus of the "Race and Periodization" symposium was the relationship between race and historical periods; it is part of the #RaceB4Race initiative, which launched in January 2019 at Arizona State University. 

Geraldine Heng is Perceval Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is professor of English and comparative literature, with a joint appointment in Middle Eastern studies and women's studies. She is also the founder and director of the Global Middle Ages Projects. Her books include England and the Jews: How Religion and Violence Created the First Racial State in the West (Cambridge University Press, 2018), The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (Columbia University Press, 2003).


GERALDINE HENG: Soon after a pilgrim militia from the Latin West captured Jerusalem in 1099—in what we now call the First Crusade—Guibert Nogent, the learned abbot of Nogent sous Coucy, wrote a chronicle of the Latin occupation from his perch in 12th-century France. Jubilantly, he calls the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem a new colony (novae coloniae) of Christendom, invoking the Roman Empire as predecessor in whose footsteps the Latin West would now follow in its own military adventures.

However, Guibert’s evocation of Roman colonization as the template for Christian colonization marks not just historical continuity, as he supposes, but also a historical break. His chronicle—the Gesta Dei per Francos (the deeds of God through (the medium of) the Franks)—registers that break: God, now, is the author of the colonial enterprise, and Christianity is the authorizing discourse for invasion and occupation.

Medieval colonialism, we see, is thus neocolonialism: religion in the form of Christianity has inserted a difference between two eras of colonization, creolizing the old template of the Roman Empire so that a new colonial vernacular, a medieval vernacular, is produced. This creolized medieval vernacular will prove indispensable to all the later European colonizers: Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, Spanish that would arrive around the world, not like Rome, but like Christendom, wielding the sword and the book to found their own Christian-colored empires in the modern era.

We see from this simple example the importance of defining the meaning of historical phenomena accurately, as instantiations from one era are ported over to another era and repeated, but never repeated identically as before, and always with difference. The allegory of naming and difference here helps us to think about race in transhistorical terms.

So, what is "race," and how do we define "race" as a transhistorical category? Scholars of literature, history, and art struggled for a long time with the concept of race. Like other concepts, theorized by those who study modern eras, such as Orientalism, race has seemed to some like a theoretical imposition ported backward from the present into deep historical time. So, premodernists grappling with phenomena that looked distinctly racist or Orientalist have, in the past, resorted to a vocabulary of deference to modernity, naming their phenomena "proto-racial" or "proto-Orientalist" instead and favoring a vocabulary of greater generality and greater amiability. Instead of "race," we’ve had "ethnicity," "alterity," or "otherness." Instead of "racism," we’ve had "ethnocentrism," "discrimination," "prejudice," or just dislike of "otherness and difference."

The absence of trenchant tools, analytic resources, and a vocabulary adequate to the task at hand thus made it impossible to acknowledge the magnitude of the racial phenomena, racial institutions, and racial practices that occurred in the European Middle Ages long before terminology stamped with the word “race” had formally coalesced in the Latin West.

When the Jewish minority in England were tagged with badges, herded into towns with a surveillance system to monitor their livelihoods, imprisoned for coinage offenses, judicially murdered by the state for the trumped-up lie that they mutilated and crucified Christian children, slaughtered by Christian mobs, targeted for conversion by the state, taxed to the point of penury, subjected to a branch of government specially created for their surveillance, and then finally deported from England in the last exploitation of their usefulness—when so totalizing a racial apparatus is marshalled against a minority group, a label of "premodern prejudice" hardly suffices as a descriptor of the dimensions of horror endured. I’ve argued that, in fact, England’s Jews lived under the conditions of a racial state, the first racial state in the history of the West.

Racial biomarkers were attributed to Jewish bodies: a special stench, a facial physiognomy, even horns and a tail. Jewish men were said to bleed congenitally like menstruating women, stigmatized as conspiring with the Antichrist. Charges of bestiality, blasphemy, diabolism, deicide, vampirism, and cannibalism were laid at the door of Jews in the countries of Europe. Many of the biopolitics of how this minority group was characterized, as just anxiety over "alterity," hardly begins to address the abjection stigmatizing of the bodies of this medieval race in the Latin West.

Studying the archives of premodern and early modern Europe with the tools of critical race theory surfaces recognition of other atrocities. The people we call the Romani, who emerged from northwestern Europe in the 11th century and migrated westward, were enslaved by the monasteries and boyars of southeastern Europe from the late Middle Ages well into the high modern era. Until these diasporic peoples were finally manumitted in the 19th century, "gypsy" was the name of a despised slave race.

Trans-Saharan Africans were depicted in visual art as merciless torturers of Christ and killers of John the Baptist. A tympanum on the north portal of the west façade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen depicts the malevolent execution of John, with his arm menacingly raised and brandishing a sword, as a phenotypic Black African. The 13th century abounds with images like this in architecture, sculpture, and illuminations.

The encyclopedia by Bartholomeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, offers a conventional theory of climate inherited from antiquity in which cold lands produce White folk and hot lands produce Black. White being, we are told, a marker of inner courage, while the men of Africa, possessing Black faces, short bodies, and crisp hair, are "cowards of heart" and "guileful."

Cantiga 186 of Las Cantigas de Santa Maria, commissioned by Alfonso X of Spain, has an illustration in six scenes in which a blackface Moor is found in bed with his fair mistress. Both are condemned to the flames, but the fair lady is saved by the Virgin Mary herself. Black is damned, White is saved. Black is also the color of demons and devils and the color of sin, allowing Saint Jerome, the patriarch, to doom Ethiopia as the land of sinners. Is cultural production of this kind just "proto-racial"?

The killing fields of international war furnish another crucible of racial formation. Bernard de Clairvaux, the theologian who cowrote the Latin Rule of Templars, pronounces in his treatise De laude novae militiae that the slaughter of Muslims didn’t constitute homicide, the killing of humans, but merely malicide, the extermination of incarnated evil. Muslims were not just vile, abominable, and a curse, as Pope Urban II, instigator of the First Crusade, had said; they were not to be seen as human beings at all, but as evil personified. St. Bernard thus saw no difficulty in calling for calculated genocide to extirpate from the face of the Earth these enemies of the Christian name: Extirpandos de terra christiani nominis inimicos.

In 2011, I thus proposed a stripped-down, basic, minimum working hypothesis of race that goes like this: Race is one of the primary names we have—a name we retain for the epistemological, ethical, and political commitments it recognizes—for a repeating tendency, of the greatest import, to demarcate human beings through differences that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, so as to distribute positions and powers differentially to the human groups.

It’s kind of a long mouthful, isn’t it? Yeah, okay. Okay.

Race-making operates as historical occasions in which strategic essentialisms are posited and assigned through a variety of practices and pressures to constitute a hierarchy of peoples for differential treatment. Race is thus a structural relationship for the management of human differences—a mechanism of sorting—rather than a substantive content.

The differences selected for essentialism will vary in the longue durée of human history, perhaps fastening on bodies, physiognomy, and somatic differences in one instance; perhaps on social practices, religion, or culture in another instance; and perhaps a multiplicity of interlocking discourses elsewhere. Biology and the sociocultural are thus not bifurcated spheres in race formation: they crisscross in the practices, institutions, and laws, operationalized on the bodies and lives of individuals and groups.

So, my book, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, discusses racial thinking, racial acts, racial laws, racial institutions, and racist phenomena across a range of registers and crucibles, invasion and occupation, nation formation and state formation, political theology, mercantile capitalism, holy war, settler colonization, economic adventurism, empire formation, contact and encounter, slavery, consolidation of universal Christendom, and epistemic change. I said all of that just for Jerry Singerman, who is in the audience, so that he knows that the kinds of projects we do are interdisciplinary projects. The book treats Jews and Muslims, Africans, Native Americans, Mongols, the Romani, and also White Christian Europeans as ethnoracial constituencies of the medieval era. You hear that, Jerry?

Today, I focus on examples of racial dialect, racial logic, and racial strategies that repeat the difference across periodization, using examples largely not treated in the book to suggest the persistence of a transformational grammar of race from premodernity into the modern period. I also stress the importance of registering differences between periods and eras. For example, while Roman colonization, medieval colonialism, and the European maritime empires of the modern eras deploy ethnoracial strategies, as their forces march across their known worlds, their differences also require recognition. Slavery, an institution closely associated with racial formation, has also had varied configurations and meanings across macro history, hence this conference. Periodization matters. Racial logic, racial form, racial dialect, the transformational grammar of race across time.

Theories of climate, Denise McCoskey attests, constitute a repeating arsenal in the amassing of racial dialect. As early as the fifth century BCE, the infamous essay, "Airs, Waters, and Places," attributed to Hippocrates, already offers a fully fledged racial logic of climate, environment, and geography as grounds that predispose fundamental differences among humans from which group character can be assigned to differentiate between the inhabitants of continents.

In the Middle Ages, encyclopedias like De proprietatibus rerum visually incorporated theories of racial character and behavior based on climate, geography, and physiognomies of bodily humors and temperaments thought to devolve from climate and geography.

In modernity, environmental and geographic determinism prove indispensable for colonialism. India was subjugated because its climate made the natives "fatalistic" and "supine," thus easy to colonize, whereas "the bracing weather of northern Europe . . . produced a dynamic race, fit for conquest and exploration." You can tell that’s a quote, yeah? Plantation slavery, too, benefited from climate theory:

In the . . . American South. . . [the fact] that Africans could . . . endure [slave] labor . . . was proof positive . . . that different climates had moulded the races differently . . . Africans were . . . better acclimated to hot climates. [These are quotations from Denise McCoskey.]

Theories of religion, in the long history of Christianity, with its schisms, heresies, reform movements, and breakaway formations—and the insistence that there can be only one Christianity in the singular, not diverse Christianities—also created a slippery, tenacious logic that has configured religio-racial formation across medieval and modern time.

Heretics—defined as anyone whose faith deviated from dogma—were persecuted in Europe in inquisitions, tortured, branded, tagged with badges, and hundreds, if not thousands, executed. Did "heretics" harden into a virtual race at specific historical junctures in the Latin West? The apparatus of heresy is deployed in signal instances of persecution and abjection: from the trials of the Order of the Temple in France, to the execution of Joan of Arc, heresy is operationalized as a preferred mechanism of sorting by which the Latin West cast out, condemned, and put to death.

Popular movements of "heretical" Albigenses and Cathars evolved into the targets of holy war, as if they had been Muslims. At Béziers, where they were massacred in droves during the Albigensian crusade—by one account, 20,000 were slaughtered—the papal legate is said to have called for all to be killed, leaving to God the business of sorting out the victims. Putative heretics were hounded and persecuted in inquisitions from the 13th century until long past the end of the medieval period, with torture, exile, and execution being some of the favored outcomes.

The history of the febrile internal divisions that conduced to the demonization of an otherwise non-physiologically differentiable population for the production of absolute intrareligious differences does not end. In the early modern era, the internecine war between Protestants and Catholics within a single nation, England, suggests an intractable historical continuity in the instrumentality of religion for the discovery of intractable differences.

But periodization in race matters. Reading race transhistorically, however, requires acknowledging differences in the character of racial institutions in different eras. Periodization matters, and slavery is a key example. In the medieval period, slavery was an equal opportunity condition for all races and assumed a variety of forms. The slavery endured by the Romani in Wallachia and Moldavia spanned centuries, but Romani, domestic, and field slavery differed greatly from Egypt’s Mamluk military slavery, which also spanned centuries.

For the Mamluks—a military elite comprising primarily Turkic and Circassian slave boys, who were plucked from continental Eurasia and raised as professional soldiers—the sultan of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria could only be drawn from the ranks of former slaves. For this most powerful Islamic polity of the southern Mediterranean and Levant over three centuries, until the ascendency of the Ottomans, the requirement of having once been a slave was an indispensable condition of eligibility for the highest office in the land.

Prized female Caucasian slaves in Islamic Spain, al-Andalus, or in the Levant could rise to become the revered mothers of caliphs, sultans, and emirs—or, in the case of the remarkable Shajar ad-Durr (Tree of Pearls), to become the only Mamluka in the three-century history of the Mamluk dynasties. In Dar al-Islam, extraordinary social mobility meant that being a slave could be an important first step to power, wealth, and status, an avenue of upward mobility, importantly open to women. This is not the case for plantation slaves in the later American South.

Premodern slavery is thus distinct from early modern and modern slavery, and distinct also from the mutating forms of slavery (including child and sex trafficking) that dog the 21st century. Caucasians—eastern and western Europeans—were sold at slave markets alongside other races throughout the Middle Ages. Household slaves were common and typical in premodernity. Plantation and field slaves, less attested. In the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trade, slaves could become trusted commercial agents acting on behalf of absentee merchants, and, outside the lands of Christendom, manumitted slaves might become generals, admirals, diplomats, governors, and rulers.

The sheer variety of medieval slavery's conditions and opportunities thus attest to very specific differences within the medieval period, as well as between the medieval and later periods in the phenomena characterizing the institution of slavery. In discussions of race, distinctions of this kind must be honored with acknowledgement that periods can be marked by institutions and phenomena that reoccur, but reoccur with varied expressions over the longue durée, because periodization matters.

This is not to say, of course, that racialized groups in populations cannot be studied for their historical continuities within a transformational grammar of race across macrohistorical time. Africans, the Romani, Jews, and Muslims all constitute racialized populations whose treatment variegates over time with racial instrumentalities being renewed, adjusted, adapted, or transformed. Religious dogma, over the centuries, also conduced to the devolution of absolute differences so that co-religionists can be cast out and treated like a virtual race across the centuries.

In demonstrating the persistence of racialization across historical periods, my last example are the Cagots: abject communities of people living on the outskirts of towns and villages on both sides of the western Pyrenees throughout Béarn, Aquitaine, Navar, and the Toulousain. These impoverished, subaltern Christians were not physically or linguistically differentiable from the townspeople on whose margins they lived. Yet their stigmatization extends over deep historical time, from the 10th century through the 18th century, and accrued a variety of racial forms.

Daniel Hawkins's 2014 master’s thesis, Chimeras That Degrade Humanity: The Cagots and Discrimination, traces how Cagots—who were called by a variety of names—were shunned, despised, and abhorred from medieval into modern time. Legislation from the 13th to 17th century segregates them into residential quarters and occupations and constricted their day-to-day behavior and movements. Hawkins shows how they were banned from taverns and denied the use of public fountains, forbidden to sell food or wine or touch food in the marketplace, forbidden to work with livestock or carry arms or walk barefoot, and, though they were Christian, also forbidden the sacraments.

Cagots could not marry outside their kind, and they had to keep to designated places in church, while they were alive. As late as 1721, a carpenter and his son were roughed up in a church in Beirut by three municipal counselors who refused to allow them their choice of seats. Segregation continued even after their death. Their bodies were confined to designated places in cemeteries. They had to wear a badge of red cloth on their chest, sometimes in the shape of a duck or goose foot, and were subject to endless punitive laws.

Their racialization also took biopolitical form; they were said to lack earlobes, to possess an infectious smell, and to give off great heat. "When the salt wind blew, their lips, jugular glands, and the duck foot . . . under their left armpit all swelled, and their stench was well-known." (This is a quotation from Hawkins.) The early modern period did not see a change in their subaltern status. In 1629, André du Chesne wrote of

a people commonly called capots and gahets that everyone detests like lepers, with stinking breath. All are carpenters or coopers, the remains of the race of Giezi, or some say the Albigeois heretics, separated from the community by their homes in life and in the cemetery after death. [Another quote from Hawkins.]

Many of the rules setting the Cagots apart from everyone else seem obsessed with them as sources of pollution and contamination, a phenomenon that scholars who study the Dalit or untouchables of India and those who study leprosy would find familiar.

Explanations abound for why the Cagots were reviled and cast out from society. Perhaps they once formed groups shunned for leprosy—Hansen’s disease—and it was fear of infection or the moralizing of lepers as sinners damned by God that caused their original segregation, and the stigma then just continued to be attached to their descendants over many generations. Symbolizing depravity, lepers were also associated with heresy, R. I. Moore tells us. Lepers were expelled from cities like Paris—in 1321, 1371, 1388, 1394, 1402, and 1403—and were also massacred. Following rumors of a poisoning plot in 1321, one chronicler says "they were burned in almost all of France."

Or, another explanation goes, Cagots may have been the descendants of Muslims, and the memory of their origins as infidels persisted across time. Or they had been the poor of Christ, pauperes Christi, the wretched who had to scratch out an impoverished living. Hawkins finds that 15th-century records even insinuated Cagots were somehow related to Jews, another community of racial subalterns who had to wear a badge and were stigmatized by punitive laws.

The association of Cagots with leprosy alerts us to how disease and disability produced bodily configurations that were moralized, judged, and abhorred. Even the monstrous races of Plinian tradition—another inheritance from antiquity, one that created a conceptual grid through which the Middle Ages understood other types of monsters like Jews, Muslims, and Ethiopians—even the monstrous races seemed uncannily to resemble deformed or disabled humans. Their bodies are too large, too stunted, too sexually overdetermined by their genitals, or missing a leg or an eye, or had corporeal features located in the wrong places.

Disabled and non-normative bodies do seem to form the basis of the caricatures that constitute the monstrous races of tradition, among whom the Cagots—who might once have been lepers, or disabled, or diseased, or the abject poor, or Muslims, or Romani, or Jews—are a historical example of a population deemed monstrous and abhorrent for reasons not of their own making.

The example of the Cagots, along with that of Africans, Muslims, the Romani, Jews, deviant Christians, and even imagined human monsters, shows us that the infrastructure of racial formation in deep historical time repeatedly intersected with, and was dependent on, infrastructures of class, disease, disability, gender, sexuality, and religion. These were the conditions through which race was articulated, and they furnished the particular forms of racial expression in a variety of contexts.

Is it any wonder that race and racisms have been so long-lived?

Thank you.



Race and Periodization | Learn more about the event and hear introductory remarks by Michael Witmore and Ayanna Thompson