Race and the Medieval Language of Class

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Among the topics of David Nirenberg‘s Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today (U of Chicago, 2014) is the development of ideas–or, perhaps better, practices–of race and racism in 14th and especially 15th-century Iberia. He writes:

The period after 1449 saw an explosion of treatises that drew upon sciences as diverse as medicine, metallurgy, animal breeding, etcetera, in order to provide Israel with a natural history capable of explaining why the attributes of its children were unchangeable by God (via baptism) or king (through ennoblement). Within a generation or two, the Iberian body politic had produced a thick hedge of inquisition and genealogy in order to protect itself from penetration by the “Jewish race” and its cultural attributes. (139)

Nirenberg argues that the forced mass conversion of Jews in the late fourteenth century lead to this explosion of racism, as this influx of Jewish converts “raised, for the first time, systemic doubt about who was a Christian and who was a Jew” (149). Iberian Christians, who had defined themselves for centuries as “not Jewish,” suddenly lost a key support to their identities; but not only Christians (182, for example). During this panicked period, Nirenberg finds a host of writers in this period, both Christian and Jewish, worrying over this issue, writing passages like the following:

if a person is of pure blood and has a noble lineage, he will give birth to a son like himself, and he who is ugly and stained [of blood?] will give birth to a son who is similar to him, for gold will give birth to gold and silver will give birth to silver and copper to copper, and if you find some rare instances that from lesser people sprang out greater ones, nevertheless in most cases what I have said is correct, and as you know, a science is not built on exceptions. (280 n56)

That’s Rabbi Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Shem Tov in the 1480s, here sounding identical to the Christian Alfonso Martínez de Toledo in 1438, certain that “the son of an ass must bray” (Nirenberg’s paraphrase, 138). In this period, Christians and Jews both wrote in defense of a fundamental belief in natural hierarchies. They both worried about the flux of Christian and Jewish identities. And they both sought to find some new way to assure themselves of some fundamental difference in identity. That said, whatever these similarities, the most weaponized use of these beliefs, of course, was by self-identified Christians against Jews and those they identified as Jews.

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Now, Nirenberg sees this naturalized language of hierarchy as a key moment in the emergence of modern racism. I’m convinced by his data, but, having often taught chivalric literature and, for that matter, Chaucer, I hear in this naturalization not so much race as class.

So far as I can determine, that word, in its meaning as “social class,” appears not once in Neighboring Faiths. Neither do the medieval variants I might expect, for example, “order” or “ordo.” I’m not saying this to wish Nirenberg had written another book, nor to grouse at the one he did write: his book is enormously important and will deserve every accolade it receives. Still I’ll suggest here a point Nirenberg either ignored or, more likely, chose not to discuss: that in Iberia in the 1430s, the old language of medieval class was ported over to describe or even establish a fundamental and ineradicable Christian/Jewish difference. That is, the long history of medieval naturalized class provides one–not all, but one–of the foundations of modern racism.

The key point: some of the key ideas of race and racism–that social difference is bodily, fixed, hierarchical, and heritable–appear in this old language of class.

This idea, what my tweet cheekily dubs “brilliant,” may have already appeared in print elsewhere. It may even have appeared brilliantly in print already. I can’t know for sure, as I’m only now getting up to speed on the medieval history of race, racism, and ethnicity, or whatever you think it should be called; but I don’t think this point shows up in the now classic Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies special issue on “Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages.” It might show up in Cord Whitaker’s upcoming special issue of postmedieval, “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages.” I haven’t yet looked at The Origins of Racism in the West (Cambridge UP, 2009; paperback (!) 2013), on its way to me right now. It might well have appeared in some form in Jeffrey Cohen’s many pieces about race (for example, here, here, and here). It’s probably appeared in some form in some of the vast number of works on the history of race and racism that I haven’t read it. I’m sure of it. All this is to say that I don’t expect I’m being original here, but I do believe–I hope more modestly–that I’m offering Nirenberg or his readers a helpful supplement.

Some examples follow:

  • Yvain‘s Wild Herdsman, this big forest peasant, who “resambloit mor” (286; resembled a Moor), so evoking the animalistic Moors of chivalric narrative, such as those of the Chanson de Roland: those of Ociant, who “braient e henissent” (bray and whinny; 3526); those of Arguille, who “si cume chen i glatissent” (yelp like dogs; 3527); and those of Micenes, who are “seient ensement cume porc” (hairy just like pigs; 3523).
  • The political prophecy of John Ergome or Erghome, which records a belief that Edward II’s inept reign can be blamed on his true peasant background, for, as the story goes, when a pig mauled Edward in his cradle, his nurse swapped out the royal infant for the unmauled son of an auriga (a groom or swineherd), who, as a “false prince,” naturally governed the realm poorly (in fact, in the 1360s, Peter the Cruel‘s rivals spread the rumor that he was also such a “cuckoo” (Nirenberg 101), albeit with a Jewish rather than peasant substitution).
  • The chivalric romance Octavian, whose “recurring fascination with capital, class mutability, and the possibility of absolute value” (63) Jeffrey writes about in Medieval Identity Machines. In Octavian, a lost, chivalric child, raised by merchants and rechristened Florent (like a modern kid aspirationally named ‘Dollar’), recurrently frustrates his parents by showing his true, chivalric value, for example, by trading a couple oxen for a falcon, and by haggling a horse trader up to ensure he pays full price for a glorious, white steed.
  • And, finally, of course, there’s Chaucer’s Arcite (like Boccaccio’s Arcita), who, in the Knight’s Tale, returns from his Theban exile to Athens and rises “naturally” from his disguise as a lowly manual laborer to end up as Theseus’s squire.
  • Further afield, there’s the Old Norse Rígsthula, whose account of the origins of slaves, farmers (Carls!), and warrior earls, may be one of the earlier versions of these ideas of naturalized class (written down c. 1350, it shows Irish influence, as ríg comes from the Old Irish word for “king”; Andy Orchard 337).

By looking at this language of naturalized class as a root of modern racism we help free our investigations from duplicating, more or less accidentally, modern racism’s tendency to naturalize race. To be sure, skin color and “national” origin–the twin pillars of modern racial thinking–were often marked and linked by medieval thinkers; for example, they took from the ancients the notion that the sun in the warmer regions “burnt” the skin, making it darker. They sometimes even hierarchized this belief, by arguing that this same heat enervated those unfortunate enough to live in whatever part of the globe the medievals thought especially warm (for changing climatic notions, see Suzanne Conklin’s Akbari’s Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450, praised by Jeffrey here).

But if we want to get get a sense of why racial thinking is so often hierarchized, we might look at the old medieval language of naturalized class. By no means am I arguing that class trumps race. Rather, I’m attempting to find a medieval language of difference that is far more resistant to flux and conversion than what may be the usual culprits in attempts to find the roots of racism, namely, medieval climatic theory or conceptions of religious difference. Medieval climatic theory sometimes admitted that people who lived in one climate would change if they moved to another; medieval Christian belief in conversion generally (but not always) thought that converts to Christianity became true Christians.

Medieval defenses of social class, by contrast, argued that class was fixed, lodged in the body, and heritable. We might have the roots of racism right here. And if we look here, we’ll find why racism is so often powered by anti-animal humanist beliefs. We’ll find too that racial thinking is culture all the way down, regardless of its “biological,” genealogical pretensions, because none of us now, I hope, believe that class is anything but a social position. And, especially, by looking at this language of naturalized class, we’ll mark how racial thinking is used to naturalize nasty hierarchical differences within already existing human groups, a point I’m cribbing from one of Barbara Jeanne Fields’ classic articles.  If we start with this medieval language of naturalized class, we might better realize how the language of race is overwhelmingly not about the people over there, but about the people right here and social injustices right here rather than some wholly mythological history of significant difference.