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Martin Kevorkian, Chair CAL 226, Mailcode B5000, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-4991

Spring 2007

E 392M • The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
34981 MW
5:00 PM-6:30 PM

Course Description

It's an old theoretical canard that race and discourses on race exist in the West only from the Enlightenment on: that premodern European culture is pre-racial, because its operative prioritizing discourse is founded on religion, not biological-scientific taxonomic systems of prioritizing and classification. Medievalists, like classicists, accordingly have, till now, preferred 'ethnicity' as the descriptive category apposite to their period: despite the evidence, in medieval culture and history, of phenomena that we would today identify as race-related, were they to recur.

This seminar will ask itself what is lost or gained by tracing discourses on race backward in time. Beginning with a selection of texts from antiquity, the 'Black Athena' controversy, and recent volumes by David Goldenberg (Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and Benjamin Isaac (Invention of Race in Classical Antiquity) we will move to a broad range of texts in the Middle Ages, to ask ourselves what 'racial thinking' is, and consider its historically-contextualized relations to the following (not listed in any order of priority or procedure): (1) war, conquest, and empire-formation; (2) language communities, citizenship, and "civilization"; (3) religion, sacred mythology, and ecclesiastical apparatuses; (4) blood, reproduction, and genealogy; (5) the body and physiognomy (color, biology, etc); (6) sex and gender; (7) slavery, labor, and economic systems; (8) nation-formation, state-formation; (9) disciplinary systems of knowledge-power (climatology, geography, medicine, ethnography, etc).

Medieval materials will include literary romances, epics, historical documents, manuscript illuminations, saints' legends, maps, and whatever else may be useful. We will also read a selection of theoretical writing on race by scholars working in later periods, including Foucault, Balibar, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Amitav Ghosh, Ann Stoler, to see how canonical race theory stands up when read alongside medieval texts and documents. Concomitantly, we'll ask ourselves: Why find race in the distant past? Why privilege 'race' even today when 'gender' and 'class' have also been extensively theorized as discourses of difference? How does one avoid the fall into essentialism and reification in theorizing any transhistorical phenomenon?


Primary texts (subject to change, & open to negotiation if you contact me early): "Airs, Waters, Places," Herodotus, Histories (selections), Song of Roland, Parzival, Moriaen, King of Tars, Richard Coer de Lyon, Prioress's Tale, Miracles of the Virgin, Mandeville's Travels, Marco Polo, Travels, William of Rubruck, Journey, packet of readings.


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