Featured Ideas Reviews

Were Medieval Europeans Racist?

Jeff Fynn-Paul
Written by Jeff Fynn-Paul

A Review of Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2018), and Cord J. Whitaker, Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

A new form of Donatism has settled across the western academy.  Donatism was a heresy of the medieval church, which held that a priest’s identity determined the validity of his actions.  The medieval church was smart enough to realize that this slippery slope made it possible to question the legitimacy of any priest or priestly action, on the grounds that this or that priest came from the wrong country, or associated with bad people, or thought bad thoughts.  In the end, the church settled on the notion that as long as a priest performed proper rituals, that the validity of those rituals could not be questioned on the basis of a priest’s identity or personal beliefs.  This was the only way, it was realized, to keep the church from splitting into a thousand mutually suspicious factions.

In its modern form, Donatism holds that certain scientists’ and academics’ arguments are invalid, because they are either the wrong sort of person, or else they harbour impure thoughts.  Thus the arguments of “white male” historians, or even black historians who think the wrong things, are a priori invalid in the minds of many readers, no matter how consonant with the facts their arguments may be.

Modern Donatism will only be banished when the academy wakes up once again to the fact that our purpose is the pursuit of science.  And therefore, that it is not the identity of the scientist, but the quality of the science which matters.  In any other direction lies a breakdown of the scientific method itself.

This by way of a preamble for my choice of authority with whom to begin my review of the two books at hand.  Two decades ago, the eminent Princeton medievalist William Chester Jordan, who happens to be of African-American descent, was asked by a group of young scholars to write on the question of whether medieval Europeans were “racist.”

Jordan’s response, entitled “Why ‘Race’?” was a tour-de-force, bristling with barely concealed contempt for that species of academic who opportunistically latches on to trendy topics for the purpose of self-promotion, often because they are A) too weak-minded to think of original and compelling topics of research on their own, and B) aware that their strengths as scientists are insufficient for them to make it without using a popular fad as a crutch for their careers.[1]

Jordan then goes on to outline a number of cogent criticisms of the notion that medieval Europeans were racists.  The term has dubious value as a scientific concept because it is presentist—it is a term which means an entirely different thing to modern Americans and modern Westerners—than it meant to anyone living prior to the nineteenth century.  In this, Jordan anticipates the words of American Historical Association president James Sweet, who in the summer of 2022 bravely questioned the takeover of the American academy by presentists—nominal “historians” who had lost the ability to see the past in terms of the past.  (Sweet duly issued a grovelling apology for his heretical outburst, but his academic career has been irreparably damaged—unless he joins us over here at History Reclaimed.)

William C. Jordan cautions that while medieval people sometimes thought in terms of gentes or “peoples”, specialists ought to know that this and similar terms map very poorly onto our modern English word “race.”  Worse, Jordan knew that scholars who utilized the term “race” in the medieval European context would only confuse the public:

“If [historians] say medieval people were racists, then ordinary readers and people they talk to will conclude that the pedigree leads right to apartheid or antebellum slavery, and some of them will even find comfort in their own prejudices about…white Euro-Americans in general, saying ‘They’ve always been racists.’” 

Though undoubtedly one of the most eloquent defenders of the notion that “racism” is nearly meaningless in the medieval European context, William Chester Jordan was hardly the only one to make this case.  For example another eminent medievalist, Robert Bartlett, patiently spells out the many ways in which the term “racism” does not jibe with how medieval people conceptualized the world, in the same collection that Jordan published “Why ‘Race’?”.[2]  It is fair to say that until the early 2000s, almost no historian took the notion of medieval European racism seriously:  the answer to “Were medieval Europeans racist in any meaningful sense of the term?” was an unequivocal “No.”

Geraldine Heng is precisely the sort of academic that William Chester Jordan warned us about.  She now holds a chair, the Percival Professorship of English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, which was created for her by a group of wealthy donors who approve of her agenda.  Namely, an attempt to beguile the public, by arguing in however tenuous a way, into believing that medieval Europeans were peculiarly disposed towards racist thinking, and thus particularly bad in comparison with other global peoples.

The facts of medieval history have not changed in the 20-odd years since Jordan wrote.  All that has changed, is that the voices clamouring for a long-term pedigree of European racism have become louder, and more influential in the academy.  So loud and influential, that they have overturned many traditional scholarly cautions, including a concern for the truth, in the face of a thirst for social-media driven fame.

It is notable that two of the major voices now calling medieval Europeans “racist” are not those of trained historians, but literary scholars.  The two books under review, Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages, and Cord Whitaker’s How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking, are not academic history so much as exercises in literary criticism.  There is much to lament in the fact that Heng’s book garnered several awards for historical scholarship, and that it has been taken by countless readers as a foundational work of European intellectual history.  Both authors were trained in English departments rather than history departments; and works of history, by historians, are almost entirely absent from the footnotes in both Heng and Whitaker’s work, while references to literary scholarship and literary texts predominate.

The “top critical review” of Heng’s book on Amazon.com at the time of writing is entitled “Much theory, very little history,” and this description hits the nail on the head.  The chapters are saddled with baffling literary-style titles such as “Inventions/Reinventions” “State/Nation,” “War/Empire,” and “Color,” followed by the even less instructive “World I,” “World II,” and “World III.”  These titles mask case studies including the English Jews (Chapter 2), “Saracens” (Chapter 3), Africans (Chapter 4), Native Americans (Chapter 5), Mongols (Chapter 6), and Gypsies (Chapter 7).  Now, these case studies might be highly instructive if they were handled in a chronological fashion, where instances of racist behaviour or the evolution of racial attitudes by Europeans against a given group were clearly laid out.  As for what we get instead, I will quote Heng’s own outline, found in her Table of Contents, for Chapter 4 on black Africans:

Epidermal Race, Fantasmatic Race: Blackness and Africa in the Racial Sensorium 

Out of Africa: The Good, the Bad, and the Piebald, or, Politics of the Epidermis 

Black Knight/White Knight: Trajectories of Fear and Desire, or How Romance Figures Histories of the Outside/Inside 

Black Queen/White Queen: The Geo-Erotics of Virtue, Flesh, and Epidermal Race

 Mixed Babes and Haunting Presences: A Lump of Flesh, Piebald Offspring, the Giants’ Infants, and the Return of the Black Knight

The Racial Saint: Transporting Africa to Europe, or, Blackness and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity


It’s enough to make one’s head spin, and I speak as someone who trained in literary theory as an undergraduate.  As any historian will realize, phrases such as “the racial sensorium,” “geo-erotics,” “the politics of the epidermis” “trajectories of fear and desire,” “figuring the outside/inside” and the rest, are concepts which are very much at home in literary studies, and which have disappointingly little to do with an actual chronology—an actual intellectual history—of the way in which one group of people treated another, or indeed, a coherent picture of how Europeans actually conceptualized “the other” over the course of the later medieval centuries.  Heng’s methodology is generally to move from one literary trope to the next, with often only the most tenuous tie-ins with the rest of the material in the chapter.  Readers who wish to find an historically literate genealogy of the evolution of European attitudes towards others could do much worse than begin with David Abulafia’s book The Discovery of Mankind.

From a practical perspective, Heng’s work almost entirely lacks coherent chronologies, or a sense of demographics.  Reading her book we get no sense of how many households were here or there at a given time; merely occasional references to numbers killed or tortured which are meant to sound sensational.  Even Heng’s most historically-grounded work on English prejudice against Jews in thirteenth-century England omits such fundamental factors as the role of Henry III’s weakness in the face of his barons; the fact that the barons saw the Jewish community as a valuable source of royal revenue; the fact that the barons resented the royally-protected Jewish community as potential competitors, the fact that Jewish bankers’ skills were less valuable as more Italians arrived in London; of the fact that Edward I began to persecute Jewish coin-clippers during the 1270s because he was under extreme economic pressure (inflation was crippling his war efforts in Wales, and coin-clipping was held to be a major source of this inflation), and a host of similar facts.  Instead, what we get is Heng’s assertion that English Jews of the medieval period were labelled with what certain writers have called the “ritual murder libel.”  While this is true to some extent, such a trope-based understanding of reality is highly distorting of what was actually happening on the ground, or indeed in the minds of individual Christians and Jews at various times and places.  Far more substantial work on medieval Jews has been published by the likes of David Nirenberg and Mark Meyerson, and in classic works such as R. I. Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society.  Readers who wish to get a sense of what life was actually like for medieval European Jews—and to what extent the use of the term “racism” is justified—would be well advised to read serious histories such as these before forming an opinion.

Cord Whitaker’s book Black Metaphors suffers from a similar overreach.  Whitaker’s analysis is undoubtedly what W. C. Jordan would call “with it,” but the problem is that it pretends to be a serious intellectual history of how European racism emerged over the longue dureé, when what it really is, is a series of idiosyncratic readings of late medieval literary texts such as Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale (Chapter 3), Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love (Chapter 5), and Mandeville’s Travels (Chapter 6).  The literary nature of the book is revealed in the fact that it takes one of its key intellectual frameworks about medieval race from the American novelist Toni Morrison, whose theories on the literary nature of race are referenced both in the introduction and in Chapter 1.

In his conclusion, Whitaker summarizes his argument by saying:  “In this book, I have argued that racial ideology and its hierarchies are based… in the dynamics of rhetorical mirage.”  He then goes on to highlight “the polysemy facilitated by rhetorical mirage,” in several medieval literary works, and concludes that Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale demonstrates how “even when black skin does not feature in a medieval narrative, the dynamics of rhetorical mirage are so very foundational to the making of meaning in medieval literature that race is always present, even if spectrally.”

This is rich indeed.  Whitaker is here making the argument, with a straight face, that Chaucer was a racist because he employed the “dynamics of rhetorical mirage”—i.e., he wrote fiction.  These dynamics apparently ensured that “race was present” in Chaucer’s narrative, “even if spectrally.”

Given attitudes like these—where they are guilty of “spectral racism” because they employ the “dynamics of rhetorical mirage,” even when by Whitaker’s own admission they do not mention blackness or Africanness in any way—what chance do medieval Europeans have of not being painted as racist?  One suspects that the shell game of Heng and Whitaker’s rhetoric is the real con here.

A final irony in reviewing these two works is the fact that Cord Whitaker is on the record as being suspicious of Geraldine Heng’s methodology of treating a medieval religious group (i.e. Jews and Saracens), as a “race.”  For Whitaker, black/white racial dynamics have a sacrosanctness which does not easily admit of cross-pollination.  Likely, in Whitaker’s mind, Heng does not have a grievance as substantial as that nursed by his African-American brothers and sisters.  And so the Donatist race to self-destruction propagates itself.  One wonders what Whitaker would do with the fact, mentioned by Jordan, that medieval Islamic literature contains more, and more virulent, anti-African passages than its Christian counterpart?  One can only hope that these openly racist Islamic writers, who employ many of the same stereotypes as bona fide nineteenth-century American racists, were at least decent enough to avoid “the dynamics of rhetorical mirage.”

Academic literary criticism has an undoubted contribution to make to the sum of human knowledge, and it can function as an essential component of intellectual history.  But literary scholars can be prone to what Jordan called the “performance of unintelligibility,” a method of writing which degenerates into “a game of name dropping, convoluted sentences, cute turns of phrase, [and] meditations on words used in deliberately queer ways.”  Jordan lamented that many of the scholars calling medieval Europeans “racist” up to the year 2000 were precisely this sort of literary scholar, rather than people who can be taken seriously as intellectual historians.

So it is with the two books under review.  They are quite frankly unable to bear the burden that their authors—and much of the academic establishment—hope that they can support.  Instead of giving the likes of Heng and Whitaker credence as historians of European racism, what the academy should do is recognize the obvious:  that their Black Metaphors are so tenuous as to dissolve into meaninglessness under the lightest historical scrutiny.  This is precisely what the majority of the Medieval Academy used to believe, before the rot of modern Donatism set in.


[1] Jordan, William C. “Why” Race”?.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001): 165-173.

[2] Bartlett, Robert. “Medieval and modern concepts of race and ethnicity.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001): 39-56.


Dr Jeff Fynn-Paul is an associate professor at Leiden University, and Series Editor of Brill Studies in Global Slavery http://www.brill.com/sgs

About the author

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul is Senior Lecturer in Economic History and International Studies at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He has published widely on Iberian, Mediterranean, and Global History, is a founding editor of the Journal of Global Slavery, and a co-editor of the Studies in Global Slavery book series for Brill. Fynn-Paul won the European History Quarterly Prize in 2016. In 2020, his Spectator article “Myth of the Stolen Country” went viral, enraging large swathes of academic twitter. His book on the history of European-New World encounters will be published by Post Hill Press in 2022.