Race and the Medieval Language of Class

Cross posted to In the Middle. If you want to comment, do so over there, or comment at fb if you want more instant gratification.

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.

Eric Berkowitz, Sex and Punishment

sexandpunishment-e1336492562879For obvious reasons, Eric Berkowitz’s Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire has been getting a lot of attention on the Internets. For example, see, if you haven’t already, a very popular post called “When a Medieval Knight Could Marry Another Medieval Knight”, which starts like this:

“Eric Berkowitz’s new book Sex And Punishment, out today from Counterpoint, is a fascinating survey of how legal systems over the millenia have attempted to regulate and police sex. In this excerpt, a discussion of the once-wide acceptance of same-sex unions between men in Europe of the Middle Ages.

Despite the risks, devotional relationships between men were common in Europe at the time, at least among the literate, and many of these affairs must have included sex at some point. Knights, aristocrats, and especially clerics left expansive evidence of their intense passions for male lovers, relationships that often ended in side-by-side burials.”

My sense is that we have to file this in our too-good-to-be-true box. Using Amazon’s Look Inside, I checked Berkowitz’s bibliography, and it’s mostly stuff from the mid 90s and earlier (Bullough, Boswell) and anglophone scholarship or translations (a problem if a book covers 4,000 years of human history!). Most seriously, it omits Alan Bray’s The Friend, which I wouldn’t have thought to check without a heads up from Katrina Gulliver during a fun twitter conversation (which included an important reminder from the omnipresent Tim Carmody).

Not like I need to tell you this, but I’ve no claims to be an expert in the history of sexuality and marriage. I don’t feel as if someone’s stolen fire from my hearth. I might direct readers who find Berkowitz’s book intriguing to read (instead, or additionally) work by Karma Lochrie and Anna Klosowska. Others, I expect, will be recommended in the comments below. Nor do I mind that Berkowitz is an amateur. I’ve heard Dinshaw’s work on amateurs, and love it. My problem’s not even with the arrogance of his not engaging with the recent scholarship. If I have a problem, it’s that a book like Berkowitz’s kind of embarrasses my political side. I want strong, good arguments in favor of understanding human sexuality and marriage as historical practices, always subject to change. Berkowitz–again, from what I’ve seen so far–doesn’t do this well enough.
Even so, Berkowitz’s book has a positive value, in that it’s another reminder that sex, emotion, and marriage have a history, and that it’s not a binary history (regardless of Romney’s great-grandfather-ignoring claims about the history of marriage ending 3000 years ago). The history’s not supersessionary, not a before-and-after binary, but rather multiple and always changing. Like anything we can call historical, it’s a contestatory process. Like anything we can call historical, marriage, emotion, and sex are always being invented, in our times as in others.* To claim otherwise is to be ahistorical, to be an idealist. And, as readers of J. Gil Harris (and many others) know, to claim that our “now” is singular is to be just as much of an idealist.

My call, then, is that we should go out and legislate, and practice, and think together, and see what we can come up with. Just don’t try to look outside of your practices–to History with a capital G for God–to guarantee that you’re doing the right thing. What I’m calling for is humility, whether your name is Berkowitz, or Romney, or Steel. Let’s have fun together and see what happens.

* Case in point: I recently learned that ancient Mesopotamian law codes don’t worry much, if at all, about samesex sexuality (p. 71), perhaps because they belonged
to a polytheistic cosmology, unanxious about mixtures.

And your little dog horse, too

427171493_1ccc6ee514Having astonished myself by completing my to-do list before 10pm on two successive days, I’ve been going through the stacks on Specula by my bed. First impression: I’ve been pleased to have read several articles on cultural contact zones (Leor Halevi, Oct 2008, “Christian Impurity versus Economic Necessity: A Fifteenth-Century Fatwa on European Paper” and Karrin Kogman-Appel, January 2009, “Christianity, Idolatry, and the Question of Jewish Figural Painting in the Middle Ages”). But that’s not why I’m writing today.

In the July 2008 issue, Katherine Allen Smith published “Saints in Shining Armor: Martial Asceticism and Masculine Models of Sanctity, ca. 1050-1250,” which concerns a couple dozen male saints who, imitating or appropriating chivalric identities, afflicted their bodies by constantly wearing armor, which was often ill-fitting or excessively heavy to boot. The frequent references to their doing battle with the spirits of the air of course (anachronistically) reminds me of Guthlac, and the self-inflicted ordeals of Lawrence of Subiaco (described on 586) certainly calls for a more affective, poetic engagement than Smith would have been able to give it in the course of the article.

It’s a footnote, however, that really struck me. She quotes (582 n40) from a cursing from the 1031 Council of Limoges, the record of which is often cited in discussions of the development of the Peace Movement (and thus a key place in the debate over the emergence of chivalry and of the milites as a class: this article strikes me as a good take on the subject; the PL ascribes the record of the council to Jordan of Limoges, but it’s actually by Adamar of Chabannes: see, among other places, Little’s Benedictine Maledictions 214).

The relevant words of the curse:

let them [the excommunicated knights] be cursed and their accomplices in evil [adjutores eorum in malum]: let their arms be cursed, and their horses [et caballi illorum]: they will be with the fratricide Cain, and with Judas the traitor, and with Dathan and Abiron, who entered hell while still living.

I love all of this, but I highlighted what especially concerns me. We are likely all familiar with the chivalric circuit, and, thinking about medieval and modern armored cavalry, and about lobster knights, I wrote in comments here about how the “elite status of this military profession derives precisely from its inhuman interpenetration of armored cavalry with warrior,” so it makes sense to me that cursing a knight would mean also cursing his arms and horse. Simply cursing the man would be incomplete.

With my apologies for the minimal payoff: although the word “adjutores” frustrates deleuzoguattarian readings of the curse–the deleuzoguattarian circuit isn’t one of dominant center AND accomplice–it still fascinates me. It’s odd to me that the horse and armor should be in the same semantic and taxonomic register; and it’s odd to me that they should be accomplices. With “adjutores,” the curse seems to grant too much agency to armor and horse, while at the same time muddling the distinction between nonlife and life. A horse is like armor in that it’s a necessity for a knight, but otherwise it’s very much not like armor. What conception of the animal, I wonder, allows for the horse to be cursed in the same breath as armor? What conception of the animal allows the horse to be cursed, like armor, as an accomplice?

(image from here by twoblueday under a Creative Commons license)

Knights on, against, and as Lobsters: a brief note before dinner

imageDB“Lobsters,” said Arthur.
“What?” said Sir Kay.
“Lobsters are the only thing most people kill with their own hands,” said Arthur. “In the modern world.”
“Not we,” said Sir Kay. “We smite the enemy.”
“We are different,” said Arthur. “We are professional soldiers. Most people don’t even kill chickens. They buy them at the market, neatly wrapped. The encounter between man and lobster remains, in this civilization, the last direct experience of killing something. Write that down.” (Donald Barthelme, The King, 72)

Kay might have looked to the Chevalier de Papegau (Knight of the Parrot), a romance in which Arthur encounters and kills an enormous knight riding an enormous horse. Usual stuff, you say; so what? Well: examining the corpse after the fight, Arthur discovers that “the knight, destrier, hauberk, helm, shield, sword, and lance were all one and the same thing” (17). The romance’s author, invoking the mappamundi for support, declares that Arthur had fought one of the “Fish Knights,” which are knights all of one piece. Kay might also have–and this is Barthelme, so why not?–cited Anne Berthelet, who observes that armor, on the one hand, substitutes for clothing, but it perhaps joins knights with their clothing to make them “like some kind of lobster, indistinguishable from its carapace” (18). And if Kay was feeling really frisky, he might have turned to our illustrious JJC, who once wrote,

The horse, its rider, the bridle and saddle and armor together form the Deleuzian circuit or assemblage, a network of meaning that decomposes human bodies and intercuts them with the inanimate, the inhuman. No single object or body has meaning within this assemblage without reference to the other forces, intensities, affects, and directions to which it is conjoined and within which it is always in the process of becoming something other, something new. (76)

Ideally it’s in the process of becoming. The knight who never gets out of his armor has ceased to be in motion. As so often, in encountering the monster, Arthur encounters a hypotrophic version of himself, or at least, of a self frozen into its role as a master of violence.

How today’s meandering gets us back to Barthelme’s lobsters I don’t know: but now I’m going to smite me some tofu.

Berthelet, Anne. “Merlin, ou l’homme sauvage chez les chevaliers,” in Le Nu et la Vêtu au Moyen Age (XIIe – XIII siècles) Senefiance No. 47 (2001): 17-28.
The Knight of the Parrot (Le Chevalier du Papegau). Trans. Thomas E. Vesce. Garland Library of Medieval Literature. Garland: New York, 1986.
JJC. Medieval Identity Machines.