Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 298-299
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Venetian Crete and the Myth of Ethnic Purity
Uncommon Dominion: Venetian Crete and the Myth of Ethnic Purity. By Sally McKee (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) 272pp. $37.50
McKee's book examines the fourteenth-century nexus of ethnicity, identity, and political action in the Venetian colony of Crete. She uses the island society, "the premier example of pre-modern colonization," as her laboratory for a comprehensive analysis of the creation and experience of ethnic categories in a colonial society (5). Beginning with the idea that ethnic identity exists "independently of and [is] shaped and fueled by forces other than people's daily, material lives," McKee argues that the experience of ethnicity in Crete was informed both by the assimilation of the island's two primary ethnic groups, the Latins and the Greeks, and by the Venetian regime's politically motivated desire to keep these categories separated (3). Through careful reconstruction of family lineages and by detailing interactions between the two populations, McKee demonstrates that despite Venetian laws forbidding the practice, there was a significant degree of intermarriage between the two groups--primarily between Latin men and Greek women but also, less frequently, between Latin women and Greek men. She also finds that religious affiliation functioned as an ethnic marker in Candiote society, as did language, although to a lesser extent.
Her analysis is based on her deep familiarity with archival material, particularly with such notarial acts as marriage contracts, dowry agreements, and wills from all strata of Cretan society. Relying on these notarial sources in combination with legislative and judicial records, McKee is able to discuss not only the government's rulings about identity and ethnicity on the island but also to examine how these categories were experienced by the island's population. Concluding that the definitions in the two spheres often diverged, she comments that "[e]thnic categories in Crete operated on two levels: the official and the popular" (168).
McKee's reading of her sources is influenced by an awareness of the roles that both class and gender played in determining ethnicity. She finds that "the ethnicity of women was in general less an issue than it was for men," most likely because the right to participate in local councils and to trade under the Venetian flag--privileges reserved to those defined as Latin by the Venetian regime--were overwhelmingly male pursuits. She also concludes that "class often overrode ethnicity," especially at the extreme end of the social spectrum among the landowning class (127). Latin nobles frequently intermarried with the island's Greek nobility, creating Latin-Greek alliances among members of the same class.
Ethnicity was also a critical marker for the peasantry because many of the Greek peasants were legally defined as non-free. McKee writes, "In other words, men of Latin descent were by definition free in the colony, whereas men and women of Greek descent were vulnerable to [End Page 298] enslavement" (124). McKee also points to this transitional convergence of ethnicity and legal definitions of free versus non-free as "one of the very first occasions in the pre-modern era when legal enslavement was ethnically and not religiously determined" (124).
McKee's book is an important contribution to the study of medieval colonial societies. Though based on a careful and precise reconstruction of society and politics on Crete, the book goes beyond local history to offer insights into the dynamic interactions of colonial political systems with ethnic identities and into the way these regimes manipulated ethnic categories for their own purposes, offering a widely applicable lesson in a post-Kosovon world.