www.chronicle.com /article/when-did-racism-begin

When Did Racism Begin?

Vanita Seth 34-44 minutes 8/19/2022

Does racism have its roots in the ancient and premodern past, or is it a product of Western modernity? That question has animated a significant body of recent scholarship on ancient, medieval, and early-modern texts and cultural practices. In his 2015 editorial introduction to a journal issue on race and the Middle Ages, the medievalist Cord Whitaker wrote that the “question of race’s relevance is solved: yes, the Middle Ages have been thoroughly raced.” But has it?

The recent scholarship on medieval “racism” resolutely rejects, and seeks to overturn, a prior consensus, broadly dating from the 1990s, that the concept of race is both modern and Western. What constituted “modernity” was up for grabs — depending on the scholar, it could be as early as the 1700s or as late as the 19th century — but there was general agreement that what we witness in ancient and premodern history is xenophobia, prejudice, and ethnocentrism, but not racism. The origins of racism, these scholars argued, were tethered to the rise of centralized states or nationalism or anthropology or biological science — in other words, the appendages of modernity.

But by 2019, the Trump presidency, the specter of white supremacy, and increasingly tense and ugly exchanges on social media among medieval scholars (as well as between scholars and alt-right pundits), ensured that the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, in Kalamazoo, Mich., was so politically charged and fractious that it made the front page of The New York Times. At the core of these divisions — both at the conference and, more broadly, in the published scholarship — is the fraught question of whether race and racism are viable categories in the study of the European premodern.

For the scholars who answer that question in the affirmative, the old consensus — that race is a uniquely modern construct — is a political, historical, and scholarly provocation. From this perspective, the language of racism (as opposed to ethnocentrism, for example) is necessary to make legible the prejudices of the ancient and premodern past — and the atrocities committed in their name. It was historically legitimate to speak of ancient, medieval, or early-modern racism because discrimination was directed at “racialized” groups, for instance, Jews and Moors.

The scholarship thus produced mobilizes contemporary politics — insisting on the relevance of the medieval past to the racial configurations of our current moment — but it does so through an appeal to a mid-20th-century historical methodology: the history of ideas.

For the 20th-century historian Arthur Lovejoy, one of the great architects of the history of ideas, “to trace an idea” through history involves identifying “behind the surface-dissimilarities” a recognizable coherence, that is, the continuity of “old elements,” “which holds the mass together,” thus permitting us to “see the real units, the effective working ideas, which, in any given case, are present.” Ideas, to be sure, will be shaped, reconfigured, modified, and altered through the course of history, and discerning such shifts is a crucial component of the historian’s task. It involves knowing “as far as may be known, the thoughts that have been widely held among men on matters of common human concernment, to determine how these thoughts have arisen, combined, interacted with, or counteracted, one another.” But this task is enabled only by the prior recognition of an essential form, a “unit-idea” sufficiently intact and retaining enough cohesion and familial features that its constancy over time (“through all the provinces of history in which it figures”) can be the object of historical narration. Tossed and battered by the waves of time, unit-ideas always rise to the surface revealing an essential constancy of form, a resilient continuity, and a conceptual durability that the particularity of history fails to erode.

The influence of this historical methodology can be gauged not only by the journal founded in its name and the innumerable authors who broadly followed its precepts, but also by the lengthy critique that it inspired: Quentin Skinner’s influential 1969 essay “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas.” While Skinner was not alone in his criticism of the history of ideas, the systematicity and breadth of his engagement have made his essay a classic touchstone in debates about the origins and persistence of concepts of time.

Skinner’s overarching criticism of the history of ideas consists of a general accusation of anachronism. The “perpetual danger” manifest in seeking to “conceptualize an argument in such a way that its alien elements are dissolved into an apparent but misleading familiarity” resides not only in masking “some essential inapplicability of the historical material,” but also in imposing thoughts, concerns, and practices upon a past that may not in fact have shared or even conceived of such thoughts, concerns, or practices.

While Skinner’s caution reiterates the mantra of historians everywhere, namely, Thou Shalt Not Commit Anachronisms, what interests me here are the specific weaknesses Skinner identifies that make the history of ideas particularly susceptible to charges of “parochialism.”

The first of these criticisms is of the practice of identifying and tracing a given doctrine (e.g., equality, progress, Machiavellism, the social contract) through history even when historical actors “signally failed” to recognize or name the doctrine with which they are being credited. Thus begins the search for a prehistory, a nascent whisper, a promising prototype hiding in the wings preparing for its moment in the teleological drama. “As the historian duly sets out in quest of the idea he has characterized,” Skinner writes, “he is very readily led to speak as if the fully developed form of the doctrine was always in some sense immanent in history, even if various thinkers failed to ‘hit upon’ it, even if it ‘dropped from sight’ at various times.” Such a quest for origins occasions “endless debate — almost wholly semantic, though posing as empirical — about whether a given idea may be said to have ‘really emerged’ at a given time, and whether it is ‘really there’ in the work of some given writer.”

Where the necessary words that correspond to a given doctrine do not conveniently avail themselves, historians of ideas — and this is Skinner’s second criticism — have resorted to a “misleading fetishism of words” (“progress, equality, sovereignty, justice … ”) wherein the repetition of a given word or words across numerous texts over a historical period is privileged as evidence for the continuity of an idea. The word and idea morph into one, such that an essential coherence can then be detected and mapped.

This approach not only “mistake[s] … the word for the thing” but also belies the “changed connotations,” the historical particularity, within which words are embedded. Moreover, the very proposition that ideas retain within them an essential meaning, an immutable core that transcends the specificity of culture and time, is dubious not least because it accords ideas an ethereal and transcendental quality. Even in those instances where “we perhaps learn that the expression was used at different times to answer a variety of problems,” this in itself does not reveal “what questions the use of the expression was thought to answer” in any given historical period. Furthermore, “we can never grasp from such a history what status the given idea may have had at various times.”

Cognizant of the perils of such an approach, historians of ideas increasingly appealed to historical context. Herein lies Skinner’s third criticism: While drawing attention to the historical context within which a text is produced is no doubt of some value, it can also have the effect of “simply beg[ging] all the questions: the social context, it is said, helps to cause the formation and change of ideas; but the ideas in turn help to cause the formation and change of the social context.” The primary problem, Skinner argues, is that while contextualization might aid in locating a text in a given historical moment, it does not ipso facto allow us to understand the work itself. “The ‘context’ mistakenly gets treated as the determinant of what is said. It needs rather to be treated as an ultimate framework for helping to decide what conventionally recognizable meanings, in a society of that kind, it might in principle have been possible for someone to have intended to communicate.”

The final and related weakness endemic to some of the literature within the history of ideas is what Skinner identifies as the “mythology of prolepsis,” that is, the effort to credit a historical actor with views that are in fact outside of her historical time. Thus, to follow Skinner’s example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings may have appealed to 20th-century totalitarian politics, but to interpret his writings as a deliberate, conscious defense of totalitarianism is to read back in time a political significance that had yet to materialize.

What is common to the scholarship on both the ancient and premodern origins of racism is the implicit presumption that racism is an empty vessel residing outside of the history it is said to contain. Racism is thought to retain enough conceptual cohesion that it precedes the history that it then particularizes. In short, racism resembles Lovejoy’s unit-idea — in the constancy of its recognizable, essential form the historical intransigence of racism is the presumptive condition for the histories of which it is then the object, histories that cross centuries if not millennia.

The study of the historical lineage of race involves the question of origins — wherein, as Skinner said, we enter “the endless debate” as to when “a given idea may be said to have ‘really emerged.’” Is it possible, Benjamin Isaac asks, “that some of the essential elements of later” (modern) “racism have their roots in Greek and Roman thinking”? Nicole Lopez-Jantzen suggests that the early Middle Ages may hold the key to providing “a bridge between classical and medieval forms of racial categorization.” Alternatively, according to Geraldine Heng, one of the most prominent scholars in this subfield, “race-making” can be gleaned in the texts and practices of the later Middle Ages evident through the treatment and representation of Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, and Saracens. Then again, perhaps it is in the early-modern period that we first encounter racist thought following the conquests in the New World and the beginnings of modern chattel slavery — so argues George M. Fredrickson. The 18th century has also been a strong contender for racism’s origins — the zenith of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the fetishism for taxonomies systematizing (and hierarchizing) human difference. Or is race the child of 19th-century modernity (here I must confess my own allegiance), nursed by empire, nationalism, ethnography, and the biological sciences?

Such efforts to secure race/racism’s conceptual and material origins render this debate susceptible to the criticisms Skinner identified. We begin with an idea without a name. As Peter Erickson observed, before defending scholarship that locates the origins of racism in Renaissance texts, “I know of no other area of scholarly investigation in which the overall interpretative stance and conceptual framework so directly and completely hinge on the status and legitimacy of a single word.” Erickson is alluding to the unhappy fact that “race” cannot boast a classical lineage. In an otherwise contentious debate, there is consensus that “race” enters European languages sometime between the 12th and 15th centuries, and even then, it more often refers to horse and dog breeding, lineage (usually in reference to the nobility), and blood.

Thus, it is not possible, à la Lovejoy, to trace the “idea” of race through appeal to the continuity and repetition of the word. This inconvenient truth has not stopped historians from recognizing, through “unfamiliar vocabularies and language,” the presence of “race” in the ancient, medieval, and early-modern periods. Scholars documenting premodern “racism” have sought to identify “like-words” that are called upon to stand in for “race” — “gens,”natio,” “stock,” “tribe,” “ethno,” “blood,” “lineage,” and “family.” Functioning as precursors to a future yet to materialize, the historian “is very readily led to speak as if the fully developed form of the doctrine was always in some sense immanent in history.” We encounter in the literature such phrasing as “protoracism,” “nascent racial characteristics,” and “incipient racial ideology.” Premodern racism then comes to constitute the origin point from which modern racism is, as Lynne Tarte Ramey puts it, “the inevitable outcome of centuries of thought that preceded it.” It is, in Charles de Miramon’s words, “the forge where race was minted,” the “intellectual scaffolding” where what Diego von Vacano calls “the seeds of what would later be called racism” could be planted on, as H.M Bracken says, “ground well prepared” for social Darwinism.

Scholars who defend the presence of premodern racism are right to point to the intense forms of discriminations and violence against, as well as the xenophobic representations of, Jews, Roma, Saracens, and Moors in European texts of the medieval and early-modern period. But are they right to feel aggrieved by the failure of theorists of modernity to recognize such practices and textual representations as forms of “racism”? Their contention is that even if the word “race” did not exist, racist practices did. That the historical actors themselves may not have recognized their actions as “racist” (or consciously rejected such categorization as today’s racists often do) need not prevent us, armed with the benefits of hindsight (and equipped with a concept) to see what is “really” going on.

The problem is that in seeking “family resemblances,” we potentially obstruct our understanding of the historical context. This is evident in the oft-repeated appeal to premodern literatures on monsters and wild men as evidence of ancient, medieval, and early-modern racism. Here, representations of the monstrous — populations inhabiting distant climes whose bodies are human/animal hybrids — are translated into racialized figures wherein highly selective readings extract references to “blackness” as signifying innate theories of biologism in what are otherworldly accounts of difference.

It should not surprise us that a quest for references to skin color dominates much of the scholarship on ancient, medieval, and early-modern racism. If “race” is absent in premodern vocabularies, no such claim can be made for colors — or at least, black, white, green, purple, red, which all figured in the medieval lexicon. What our premodern brethren saw, when they saw color, is impossible to know with any certainty — the confused description (at least for moderns) of what the classical and medieval world identified as “purple” is well documented. What is clear, however, is that in the European Middle Ages, black and white were charged descriptors that often conveyed moral meaning.

Thus, the most suggestive evidence for ancient and medieval racism resides in the normative evaluation accorded to “black” and “white.” It is an argument made famous in Winthrop Jordan’s influential work White Over Black (1968) where he argued that a long cultural history of pejorative associations with the concept of “blackness” congealed, “if incalculably” in the body of the African slave. Jordan’s thesis has been embraced by more recent scholars. By the time of Shakespeare, Ania Loomba argues, “there had been a long tradition,” dating back to the Romans, “that equated blackness with lechery.” Similarly, Thomas Hahn insists that “throughout the ancient world and the Middle Ages, the black-white binary persistently conveys deep-seated symbolic meaning in both written and visual contexts,” and thus, “it seems hard to accept that the ancient cultural registers … — habitual associations of blackness with evil and death, for example — did not leak through and suffuse the cultural identities of black peoples.”

The argument is an appealing one, for unlike the “unfamiliar vocabulary” of gens, tracing the negative correlation between blackness and black skin in ancient and premodern times resonates with more-modern conceptions of race as biological and innate. Thus, numerous scholars have sought to defend the presence of race/racism in antiquity, the European Middle Ages, and the early-modern era by offering evidence of the ubiquitous (and negative) references to blackness within the cultural imaginations of these periods.

There is a danger in projecting contemporary racial associations with black and white upon a distant past.

It is in the Middle Ages, Steven Epstein tells us, that blackness and whiteness come to acquire their normative valence and “color prejudice” becomes a “sustaining ideology.” The evidence draws from theological interpretations of the Song of Songs “with respect to themes of color, ethnic prejudice, and racism”; in the identification of whiteness with Christianity and “blackness linked with hell as well as with heathen culture” that Lisa Lampert observes in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic 13th-century poem Parzival; and in the 14th-century chivalric romance King of Tars, wherein the Saracen king metamorphizes from black to white upon conversion to Christianity, thereby demonstrating what Heng calls “the normativity of whiteness, and of the white racial body, as the guarantor of normalcy, aesthetic, and moral virtue.” “In all cases,” Whitaker writes of the English and European Middle Ages, “whether attributed to excessive heat, burnt blood or associated with unrestrained sexual passion — blackness denotes abnormality.” Similar arguments have been made for the early-modern period, with Shakespeare’s Othello bearing witness to the color coding of Renaissance racism. To these examples can be added the blackness of Ham, his banishment to Africa, and identification with slavery.

Some scholars, inclined to see race/racism as a feature of the modern era, have offered counterarguments: Benjamin Braude points out that Ham’s association with Africa, let alone with blackness, is an invention of the 19th century; while G.K. Hunter says that those who often bore the brunt of medieval discrimination (the Jews, for example) were not always physiologically distinct, and that, while the “Moor” was often disparaged, it is unclear what this designation actually entailed beyond its generic conflation with “heathen.” Moreover, between the 13th and 16th centuries, Europeans did not identify themselves as “white” but rather referred to what Valentin Groebner calls “an astonishing range of skin colors” including “ulivigna (olive colored), ‘deep red,’ vermeille (crimson), and even verdâtre or verdastro (greenish)” — the vagaries of “an ever-changing, fluid combination of one’s bodily liquids.” Whiteness itself was not always an enviable color. Patrizia Magli quotes the 16th-century physiognomist Giovanni Battista della Porta to that effect: “The moon is of a white color” and thus it follows that “white is the color of lunatics, phlegmatics and shy individuals.”

Yet others have argued that colors, including white and black, were fluid categories with unstable and changing meanings. For Jane Schneider, we need only think of the Black Magi, the Black Madonna, Christ as black, and the “close association … between black robes and the ascetic ideas of the good Christian.” Indeed, if at times blackness stood in opposition to Christianity, on other occasions it was an integral medium for symbolizing the values of the religion: It could connote modesty, austerity, and a pointed rejection of the temptations and sensual indulgences of the East.

In short, there is a danger in projecting contemporary racial associations with black and white upon a distant past. Indeed, it is often more revealing of our own cultural embeddedness within the racialized present than evidence of racism in premodern times. The conceptual slippage is not uncommon. James Dee, for example, asks why Bernard Knox, in a 1992 Jefferson lecture, should insist that the Greeks were “undoubtedly white” only to then say, “or to be exact, a sort of Mediterranean olive color.” What modern preoccupations are entangled in such insistence?

How do we begin to interpret the normative associations that circulate in and through medieval appeals to blackness and whiteness within a context where God is not an object of the mind but a condition of being? When white and black are sometimes better understood as luminosity and darkness — the quest for salvation through knowledge of God’s magnificence or for redemption in the knowledge of man’s fall? In what register do we contemplate “the racial body” when the impassive immutability that such singularity and coherence denotes was foreign to premodern styles of reasoning? Instead, what we witness are bodies tethered to the movement of planets and stars, transformed through baptism and conversion, afflicted by the imbalance of the four humors that are themselves inflected through color, altered by climatic conditions, and at times, even liminal in their form — part human, part animal, wild, monstrous.

Extracting, abstracting, and translating medieval vocabularies of color into the conceptual familiarity of race presumes a continuity that is difficult to sustain when confronted with two incommensurable structures of thought: one, the premodern, where colors acquire meaning through a constellation of statements that are tethered to cosmic sympathies and antipathies, God’s benevolence and divine judgment; the other, the modern, where red, brown, black, and white bodies signified the normal and pathological, the primitive and the civilized, missing links and evolutionary stages.

To try to bridge the gap between such foreign conceptual schema and modern notions of race, some scholars seeking to trace the premodern origins of race/racism have complemented textual exegesis with a wealth of historical detail. Thus we learn from Heng of the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council’s Canon 68, which mandated distinct dress codes for Jews and Muslims and of the series of English rulings requiring that the Jewish minority be compelled to wear badges; from David Nirenberg of the expulsion or forced conversion of Jews from Spain between 1341 and 1492 and the expulsion of all Moors from Spain in 1492; from Emily C. Bartels of the 1596 and 1601 “open warrants” by Queen Elizabeth I to deport “Negars and Blackamoors”; from Arthur Little of the 1554, 1562, and 1612 decrees to “banish or police Gypsies” within England, and the 1594 decree to “banish the Irish.”

And yet, even when we move from texts to practices, we still confront the problematic Skinner identified, namely that appeals to historical context can sometimes “beg the question.” Racism is the interpretive lens through which texts and practices are recognized as “racist” even as these same texts and practices are evidence of racism. The circularity of the argument is further accentuated when scholars seek recourse in definitions to ground the periodization they then wish to defend. Definitional fiat ensures that the determinative characteristics of race/racism identified by the scholar obligingly correspond with the historical period within which he or she locates its origin.

Scholars challenging the modernity of the concept of race protest against Kwame Anthony Appiah’s tripartite model of history, which distinguishes between the “ethnographic” representations of antiquity, the theologically inspired prejudices of the early modern, and a 19-century racism born of nationalism and biologism. They do so by insisting on changing the definition of race itself. As Erickson asserts, “race is relevant for the Renaissance, but the concept has to be redefined.”

Whether an author begins with a definition or not, the very logic of origins presumes demarcations that include, among other things, a judgmental cataloging of thinkers: to put it crudely, who is and who is not a “racist.” A given historical thinker is thus denounced or praised, chided for omissions or credited for foresight. Plato, for instance, is emblematic of the “proto” in Benjamin Isaac’s formulation of “protoracism,” since long before Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics,” we recognize an earlier articulation and defense of this doctrine in the writings of a fourth-century philosopher.

To define race requires that distinctions be made: conceptual delineations between xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and racism; between theological, civic, and biological renderings of difference, and so on. The underlying presumption is that to locate racism in a given period is also an exercise in delineating what is not racism. For this reason, Geraldine Heng’s efforts to assign racism’s origins to the European Middle Ages is striking for the sheer breadth of her definition: “Race is one of the primary names we have … attached to a repeating tendency … to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups. … Race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.”

We are left wondering, along with William Jordan: “Is every hatred a form or variant of racism?”

What is behind the impulse to trace the origins of racism back to an ancient and premodern past and to seek that past in the present? Efforts to accord ancient or medieval origins to what have more commonly been identified with modern history are not, of course, limited to scholars of race/racism, but what is striking about the scholarship on premodern racism is not only the sheer volume of literature that has been produced over the past 20 years, but the tone of aggrievement that much of this literature conveys. The scholarship that I have cited here offers detailed histories and close textual readings, but they also articulate, to varying degrees, a sense of outrage, deep frustration, aggravation, indignation, and anger. What concerns me is not the passion itself (a much-needed corrective to the dull soberness of academic prose) but the reasons provoking the often-polemical style that informs much of this scholarship. This rhetoric is less focused on the injustices of the past than the perceived injustices of the present: the willful failure of contemporary scholarship to recognize that ancient and premodern racial history continues to inform the politics of today.

Some scholars regard this refusal as tantamount to a pervasive racism within the academy, what Arthur Little calls a “white melancholia” that “posit[s] and valorize[s] an imaginary historical moment when ‘humanity’ was both white and unraced.” Or, according to Whitaker, it represents an “erasure of a black presence from the European medieval past,” thereby consigning modern blacks to a history “without the authorizing length and depth available to whites.” As Peter Erickson and Kim F. Hall put it, “We can only conclude that these acts of refusal [to recognize premodern racism] are … due to a pathological averseness to thinking about race under the guise of protecting historical difference.” It is perhaps the correlation being drawn between the whiteness of the Anglo-American academy (particularly in classical, medieval, and Renaissance studies) and the “refusal” to acknowledge racism in the premodern past that accounts for why Dorothy Kim appeals to the quantifiable weight of difference as the opening gambit in her introductory essay in Literature Compass: “This is the first special issue on race or volume on race in the premodern past that also includes a 60 percent (including myself as the writer of this introduction) demographic of scholars who identify as medievalists of color.”

It is apparent that the driving force behind recent efforts to establish a premodern origin for racism stems from the desire for, and an insistence upon, political relevancy — the insistence that ancient, medieval, and early-modern history continues to have a bearing on and was foundational to the making of our contemporary moment. Thus, arguments proffered by some historians that premodern prejudice be identified in terms of xenophobia or ethnocentrism rather than “racism” have been roundly rejected. The reasons offered are explicitly polemical — racism, it is argued, carries a resonance, a legibility, a political, contemporary currency that other terms do not.

The driving force behind recent efforts to establish a premodern origin for racism stems from the desire for, and an insistence upon, political relevancy.

Similarly, it is against this backdrop of demands for the topicality of the premodern to the immediacy of present-day politics that has enabled an imaginative crisscrossing of cultures and temporalities. “Key elements that form the foundations of both colonial expansion and nineteenth century scientific racism can already be located in certain strands of medieval discourse” evident, Lynn Ramey continues, in “early scientific treatises on conception and on what would come to be called genetics” (my emphasis). Heng moves from recounting the persecution of Jews in the 13th century — manifest in various royal and church edicts — to 20th-century apartheid in South Africa and 21st-century targeting of Kurds in Turkey. Peter Abelard’s 12th-century erotic imaginings of black women is a premonition of what is to come: “the modern-day saga of Strom Thurmond or the historical saga of Thomas Jefferson.” The assignment of badges or stars that Jews were compelled to wear in the 12th, 13th, and 20th centuries are, for Hahn, all “modes of legally mandated racial profiling.” The figure of Othello and the “racialism” that informs Shakespeare’s play are paralleled, in Kyle Gordy’s work, with the former U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell. Modern Islamophobia is just the most recent iteration of premodern religious racism perpetuated against Moor, Saracens, and Turks. The modern conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis and Bosnians and Serbs are all evidence of a “return” to the cultural racisms that are said to define the Middle Ages and the early modern.

For scholars who locate “racism” in the medieval period, there is a historical continuity, an essential sameness, that tethers the European Middle Ages to modernity. The frequent charge of anachronism meted out against this scholarship has been met with scorn and derision, dismissed by Erickson and Hall as a “a scare tactic and conversation stopper” intent on what Ian Smith derides as “fetishizing historical accuracy.” Charges of anachronism have provoked the counteraccusation of ahistoricism that purportedly lies at the heart of histories centered on races’ recent origin. Implicit in modernist histories, the thinking goes, is the suggestion that racism, like modernity itself, emerges out of a temporal vacuum, what Heng calls “a big bang” wherein all history before the modern is essentially relegated to a space “outside of real time.”

But surely it is possible to speak of conversations across time without presuming a continuity of meaning over time. No one would dispute the centrality of pagan writings, such as those attributed to Plato and Aristotle, to the theological meditations of Augustine and Aquinas, respectively. Machiavelli’s sardonic introduction to The Prince is directed against the “advice manuals to rulers” popularized by ancient and medieval writers; his Discourses on Livy is inspired by Roman Republicanism. Sigmund Freud reads Sophocles, Hannah Arendt disputes Hegel, Jacques Derrida returns to Rousseau, Jean Rhys gives literary voice to Brontë’s mad woman in the attic, Adrian Piper performs Kant, John Rawls revives Locke, Judith Butler rereads Antigone, the 18th century turns to antiquity, the 19th century packages the Middle Ages.

All such engagements, disputations, anachronisms, nostalgia, and interpretations are part of what has been collectively identified as the hermeneutics of Western traditions of thought, and insofar as such texts, practices, and thinkers are continually interpellated into the “present” of the author who engages them, they are securing the continuity of that interpretive history. As Sanjay Seth has recently argued, “The text is not just an object of the past belonging purely to the present; it comes to us already interpreted, not as a mere object but as a tissue of interpretation.” And collectively, such historical interpretations and textual exegesis constitute “the traditions out of which we reason.” But we need not presume that such reason must be singular and constant throughout time. While the contemporaries of any given period have taken up the texts and practices of their historical predecessors and revived, engaged, contested, and reimagined them, they have done so within the possibilities and constraints of radically distinct epistemic frameworks. In other words, one can acknowledge rupture and historical discontinuity without disavowing the continuity that underwrites Western hermeneutics.

One can recognize, for example, the long history of Christian vilification of Jews and Muslims without thereby presuming that medieval renderings of heathens and infidels share the same conceptual meaning as contemporary anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. Building on the work of a number of scholars, Jonathan Judaken argues that we “cannot simply postulate causal links across time between anti-Jewish animus and persecution” nor, as with “the overexpansive use of the term ‘racism,’” appeal to “a notion of anti-Semitism as eternal or as teleologically culminating in the Nazi genocide.”

Thus, in the Latin Christian Medieval context, where God was the precondition for and locus of knowledge, ritualistic practices defined social existence at all levels. Those who engaged in forms of worship that failed to adhere were rendered legible (and in their legibility derided, ostracized, persecuted, violently expelled, and at times, killed) within and through this epistemic framework. Therefore, as Judaken argues, “the ostensibly malformed foot of the Jew was a sign of his affiliation with the devil in the Middle Ages,” whereas in a modern context, it was appealed to as “an indicator of his ineligibility for military service and consequently citizenship in newly forming nation-states.”

Scholars of medieval racism, however, will sometimes argue that approaches like Judaken’s have the effect of not only marginalizing the significance of these historical periods (a significance that continues to haunt the present) but also conferring upon the premodern past a diminutive status (the precursor to the real time of modernity) — or worse still, untethering it from the modern altogether. The implication seems to be that to recognize other ages or cultures as imagining and inhabiting worlds incommensurable to that of the modern West renders them somehow impoverished and deficient.

Efforts by scholars of medieval racism to counter such narratives of lack by insisting that what defined European modernity always already existed, does not dethrone the privileging of the modern. On the contrary, it reaffirms it. Absence is conflated with abjection. In this vein, the “relevancy” of the Middle Ages is presumed to reside in its familial resemblance to the modern; being essentially the same, it must have historical value. Inadvertently, modernity constitutes the yardstick against which the medieval arrives at self-definition.

While medievalists are absolutely right in their criticism of a long lineage of scholarship that has identified the modern West as the instigator of history, thus marking the medieval (and non-West) as “prehistorical” and implicitly (if not explicitly) inferior, the answer is not to then insist that the conditions and practices of the modern West (be it nationalism, individuality, or racism) must therefore be extended to all societies in order to counter the “linear temporality” they rightly deride.

The oft-repeated complaint by scholars of medieval racism that the failure to recognize the ubiquity of racial prejudice in the historical period they study is somehow derisive, dismissive, nostalgic, or romanticizing need not logically follow. We can be cognizant of the myriad ways in which specific populations within medieval and early-modern Europe were represented, victimized, exiled, and discriminated against without insisting that sympathetic histories can be pursued only if they are accorded the status of modern categories — “biological thinking,” “miscegenation,” “religion,” “eugenics,” “premodern genetics,” “evolutionary progress,” and yes, “racism.” Some 50 years ago, Skinner’s critique of the history of ideas revealed with historical and theoretical precision the inevitable limitations that arrest any historical endeavor that posits concepts as empty vessels immune to the ravages of time. And yet, it is this particular mode of historical inquiry that has re-emerged with a vengeance in the field of race studies.

This essay is adapted from “The Origins of Racism: A Critique of the History of Ideas,” which appeared in History & Theory.