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Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity, by M. Lindsay Kaplan

19 July 2019

Gillian Evans looks at medieval racism seen in contemporary terms

THIS is a challenging read for a number of reasons, not least because it begins from certain modern rather than medieval assumptions. The author associates “race” with “physical traits”, and finds that the identification of “racial characteristics” lead to racial minorities’ being treated in the medieval world as automatically “inferior”, especially the Jews, those of colour (described as “the colours of subjection”), and those with of African heritage.

This approach is founded on a scholarly analysis of the medieval sources, but the interpretation owes as much to contemporary sociological controversy about the way in which medieval thinkers saw things. This is deliberate. The author says at the beginning that she wants to “help us better grapple with contemporary manifestations of the problem”.

The first chapter explores the position of the Jews in the Bible and medieval canon law, and the continuing uncertainty whether the Jews were ever actually enslaved in their medieval European diaspora. The author’s declared methodology is to “argue that the servitus Judaeorum cannot be determined by focusing on the letter of the law, but rather by understanding its figures”. The second chapter looks at the “mark of Cain” and the myth that, after the death of Christ, Jewish men bled like menstruating women. Chapter 3, beautifully illustrated in colour with illuminations from medieval English Psalters, shows how commonly the “tormentors” in the pictures had black or brown faces, whether they were accompanying Judas to the arrest of Jesus, scourging Jesus, or carrying out punishments in hell.

In chapter 4, the book moves to the implications of Noah’s curse of the offspring of Ham after he had been found lying drunk and naked in his tent. Shem and Japheth tactfully covered him without looking, but Ham had seen him naked. St Augustine suggested that Ham, the middle son, was the father of the Jewish people, and that anti-Semitism proceeded from his disrespectful act.

In the fifth chapter, Cain, Ham, and Ishmael come together in a consideration of the medieval difficulty in knowing where to place the Muslims in the hierarchy of races. Both Jews and Muslims rejected Christianity and were, for that reason, to be regarded as enemies of Christ. The Muslims, early present in the Saharan and coastal strip of Africa known to the medieval West, formed a route to the condemnation of Africans in general.

This study is at its strongest where it relies on the author’s medieval expertise. Inevitably, it can cover in its 168 pages of text only a proportion of the relevant medieval texts, and it makes excellent use of quotations, with helpful footnote Latin. The reader is taken deeply into the complications of the way in which medieval authors saw Jews, Muslims, and non-white people. The explanations offered have helped to give the book its shape and organisation, though perhaps too tidily. It should prompt much thought in the modern climate of concerns about the need to avoid discrimination against “minorities”.

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity
M. Lindsay Kaplan
OUP £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70

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