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Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity
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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001) 39-56



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Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity

Robert Bartlett
University of St. Andrews
St. Andrews, Scotland


Historians working in the present day, just like their medieval and early modern predecessors, are confronted with difficult choices when they write of human population groups. 1 When, if at all, is it reasonable to employ the word race, the word nation, the word tribe? What collective term best describes, say, the Goths, the English, the Jews? What meaning does the concept "ethnic identity" have? It is hard to do without some collective terms, but neither the medieval nor the modern terminology of race and ethnicity is simple or uncomplicated. Even the distinction between those two central terms, race and ethnicity, is drawn in different ways by different people. In the United States both popular and official usage tends to associate race with the troubled history of white and black, while the term ethnicity summons up Italians, Irish, or Greeks, for example. Hence the former term suggests a distinction based on an inherited biological feature, skin color, while the latter points to cultural differences between groups. Recent large-scale immigration into the United States from Asia and Latin America has complicated the issue by posing the question of whether the categories Oriental and Hispanic belong to the question of "race" or the question of "ethnicity." For the historian, such usage is to be regarded as an interesting fact about the intellectual and political history of our own times but cannot itself provide a tool of analysis. The expedients of the U.S. Census or Immigration administration are no starting point for scholarly inquiry.

Among social scientists of the present generation ethnicity has a different set of connotations. For them it serves as an acceptable alternative to race, a word that many consider permanently unusable because of its association with racism. In the discourse of the social sciences, the word ethnicity with this meaning is recent, the first occurrence recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary dating to 1953. (An earlier meaning was "paganism," but [End Page 39] this is not relevant here, although it is impossible not to cite this stunning instance from 1782: "From the curling spume of the celebrated Egean waves, fabulous ethnicity feigned Venus their idolatress conceived.")

The first United Kingdom census to ask questions about ethnicity was that of 1991, and much interesting empirical data was obtained as a result. An attempt was also made to address the theoretical or conceptual issues involved in using the term. In the report Ethnicity in the 1991 Census published by the Office of National Statistics, the question is asked, "Do we really 'know' what 'ethnic' actually means?" The scare quotes around "know" and "ethnic" warn that the author wishes simultaneously to assert something and to retract it, and such hesitancy characterizes the discussion in this report. The author outlines three possible approaches to ethnicity: it is primordial, it is a constantly changing sense of group identity, it is situational. In the last case, the author writes, "there may be no single, unambiguous 'true answer' to a question about one's ethnic identity." 2

It is hard to countenance the idea that there could be a "true answer" to a question about one's ethnic identity. Ethnic identity results from a process of labelling (identification). This may be self-labelling, but labelling by others is also involved, since ethnic identity may be contested. In the 1930s many people who considered themselves Germans were told they were not; they were Jews instead. It made a good deal of difference which label stuck. This labelling and self-labelling is also strategic and situational. To identify oneself or others in this way is almost invariably to claim something or deny something. To call oneself, or be called, "black" or "British" or "Irish" or "Jewish" is not a neutral statement of the obvious but a political and historical assertion, with implications for one's rights and relationships. Different identities can be asserted in...