Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Cord Whitaker reviews The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages

Geraldine Heng. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 510 pp. 

Review by Cord J. Whitaker

1 July 2020

When I was first working on the Middle Ages and race, a close interlocutor asked me, “You don’t seriously believe in religious race, do you?” I had often sparred with this interrogator over matters of theology and politics. I thought that maybe I shouldn’t admit to it—I felt a flash of shame as I questioned the appearance of my commitments. Was my position scholarly enough? Objective enough? As an African American scholar, I knew it was a moment that smacked of double consciousness’s worst effects. But I also knew that yes, I did believe in religious race. The evidence I had garnered for my dissertation, then only halfway done, was increasingly convincing me.

That was twenty years ago. Not until now, with Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, has any serious scholarly text so stridently and successfully treated “religious race”: its introduction defines “race-making” as the process by which “strategic essentialisms are posited and assigned through a variety of practices and pressures, so as to construct a hierarchy of peoples for differential treatment” (p. 3), and cites together Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as “the triangulated grid of religious race” (p. 8). The book identifies an “intricate dance between religious race and genetic race as partners in human negotiations of difference” (p. 149). Indeed, this book’s success trades on the clarity of its definitions, which are often italicized for easy identification. In addition, the confidence with which the book rehearses the history of critical perspectives in a stunningly broad range of disciplines and topics—from critical race theory à la scientific racism in the first chapter, to art historians’ theories for the rise of the black magus (the African among the three ‘wise men’ who visited the newborn Christ) in the fourth, to the book’s closing chapter in which it traces the various scholarly conclusions as to how the situation of the Romani, or Roma, an itinerant people still found in Europe and the Americas, devolved into slavery in medieval southern Europe. The Invention plumbs the depths of race-making in the European Middle Ages from the thoroughly interdisciplinary vantage required of a concept as ideologically powerful and multifaceted as race, one whose study defies disciplinary divisions between literature, history, biology, sociology, and anthropology, among other fields. The book’s remarkable breadth of evidence makes it eminently usable for scholars working in critical medieval race studies and related fields, including early modern race studies, the study of medieval Jewish-Christian relations, and the history of race more broadly.

The depth of the author’s archival research is apparent. It has long been a commonplace of critical medieval race studies that Jews in Christian Europe represent an early racialized group who offers insight into key components of race-making. The nuance with which Invention considers medieval Jewish-Christian relations evidences Heng’s deft handling of her archive. In treating Jews’ special status as English “Crown property,” the book treats the system of chirograph chests that “registered the assets of individual Jews, and all [their] transactions of loans and credit” (p. 67). In order to study this “economic panopticon,” Heng relies on primary legislative sources such as Henry III’s ordinance to the heads of the Jewish Exchequer as well as extensive historiography. She concludes that the late Middle Ages saw the rise of Jewishness as an ethnoracial identity whose members were subject to state control. Elements of Jewish-Christian relations important to the development of race include Christians’ wet-nursing of Jewish children, Christian servitude to Jews, and the transfer of wealth from Jews to Christians, among other dynamics. Invention treats these and other elements of interreligious interaction with aplomb and early in the book.

The usability of Invention inheres also in its reframing of the scholarly questions that have shaped critical treatments. It has long been a touchstone in my own work and that of Paul Kaplan, Madeline Caviness, and others—in fields ranging from literature to art history to bioarchaeology—that medieval Europeans were aware of African Christianity; lived side by side with African Christians in Europe, Asia, and Africa; and entertained a sophisticated discourse of blackness in which it could signal sinfulness and damnation or redemption unto supreme holiness. Without belaboring what has already been established elsewhere, Invention proceeds from these points in its thoughtful discussion of St. Maurice’s representation as a black African. His African phenotypic depiction became commonplace in the mid-thirteenth century especially in and around the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, and Heng’s book treats the much studied question of who started the tradition. Jean Devisse and Paul Kaplan separately conclude that the answer is Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Barbarossa while Gude Suckale-Redlefsen, who has catalogued nearly three hundred objects depicting an African Maurice, proposes one of two archbishops of Magdeburg (p. 231). Invention’s brilliance is on display when it complicates the discussion by opening the space for a more nuanced cultural interpretation; it shifts the focus “from who originated an African Maurice to what the statue’s African-ness tells us by calling attention to itself” (p. 233, emphasis original). Invention marries the insightful cultural studies approach Heng has long been known for with a historical breadth that is encyclopedic unto compendial.

Some readers will find Invention’s style surprising; it is more accommodating to the historiography with which the book is so deeply engaged than to the literary theoretical approach we have come to expect from the author. Literary scholars, however, need not be alarmed. Invention features revealing treatments of literary texts often discussed in critical medieval race studies, such as Parzival, with much lesser known but no less fascinating texts such as the Middle Dutch romance Moriaen, in which a perfectly Christian black knight from “Moorland” comes to Europe to find his white father and restore the status of his virtuous black mother. Invigorating literary treatments jostle for position alongside illuminating historical examinations such as the third chapter’s on interreligious marriage, Christian slavery in the Muslim world, and their centrality to the Mamluk Sultanate’s crusader-defeating rise in the Holy Land.

If anyone still doubts the conceptual validity of religious race, this is the book to convince them. At every turn, readers will be confronted with fascinating evidence—some of it familiar, some startlingly new, illumining surveys of scholarly debates, and rich interpretive work. Had The Invention of Race been in my arsenal when my interlocutor challenged me, there would have been no shame, no crisis of confidence. Only strident affirmation, backed with Heng’s meticulous research and innovative research program that rethinks the questions we ask and the conclusions we draw. Invention will have a significant impact on scholarly paradigms in medieval studies and critical race studies alike for a long time to come.