- Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages by Lynn T. Ramey
The question of whether scholars can profitably study race in the Middle Ages has become increasingly pressing in recent years. Race and medieval studies have not traditionally mixed, and Geraldine Heng has written that race studies suffers from a “blind spot . . . a cognitive lag that makes theory unable to step back any further than the Renaissance” (2011, 262). Heng and other scholars, such as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, have argued that “medieval texts reflect and participate in the creation of human hierarchies with lived effects” (Cohen 2013, 111). Thomas Hahn has claimed that examining medieval descriptors of identities “affirm(s) the cross-cultural usefulness and stability” of the notion of race (2001, 26). In my forthcoming (March 2015) special issue of Postmedieval, I point out that, while “to be black is, in the European Middle Ages, to be other . . . to be black is also to be other to the European Middle Ages.” The notion of a homogenously white space has for far too long dominated popular and scholarly notions of the European Middle Ages. In Black Legacies, Lynn T. Ramey adds her voice to the cadre of scholars who have registered the importance of studying medieval race when she succinctly states, “It is not necessary to have the word ‘race’ to have the concept of race” (26). The answer that Black Legacies gives to the question of race’s relevance to the Middle Ages is resoundingly affirmative.
In fact, Black Legacies registers the magnitude of race’s impact on the Middle Ages by painting with broad brushstrokes. The approach is fitting; medieval race boasts a vast body of evidence that points to large-scale cultural effects. After dealing in her first two chapters with the foundational entanglement of race in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century origins of medieval studies and rehearsing major points of inquiry into medieval race (convivencia in medieval Spain, the unstable meanings of blackness, rationalist philosophical investigations as to what constitutes humanity), Ramey moves on in chapter 3 to the role of the Christian biblical tradition in the development of racial ideology. The chapter, titled “Biblical Race?,” achieves its goal not so much through comprehensiveness—the topic could easily take up a book longer than Black Legacies; Willie James Jennings’s The Christian Imagination (2010) and J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A [End Page 355] Theological Account (2008) come to mind—as through nuanced treatments of several exemplary narratives and figures. The chapter effectively asserts that a racializing spirit is shared among the tradition of Moses’s “Cushite” wife, the genealogical and geographical division of the world according to Noah’s three sons, the story of the Queen of Sheba and her encounter with Solomon, and the figure of the black bride in the Song of Songs. Ramey’s fourth chapter explores the medieval understanding of heredity, focusing on the implications and results of reproductive pairs mismatched by religion, culture, and phenotype. Ramey rightly notes that this study requires turning to late medieval popular literature. While the Bible, Greek and Roman philosophies, and medical writings rarely address “miscegenation,” “the vernacular literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries seems particularly preoccupied with intermarriage” (68). Black Legacies paints its picture of medieval race vividly and dynamically with late medieval popular literature as its brush.
Fluid interplay between past, present, and future is an important thread in Black Legacies. The book’s fifth chapter lays out in some detail how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century New World exploration relied on racializing paradigms developed in the Middle Ages: the notion of “monstrous races” and late medieval debates about whether these “races” could be categorized as human. Ramey claims that early modern culture developed a hierarchy of humanness that transcends medieval conclusions that a group was either human or not. While I grant that this scale of humanness becomes all the more nefarious in the New World, the “Mapping the Monstrous” chapter misses the medieval analogues of this scale in texts that treat differences between...