- Spots, Stripes, Stipples, Freckles, Marks, and Stains:Variations in Skin Pigmentation and the Emergence of Race in the Early Modern Period
This co-edited special section of the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies investigates the representation of skin color, a phenomenon that traverses racial boundaries from the mid-seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, particularly in the context of the scientific revolution. The authors of the essays in this collection are intrigued by case histories and emergent scientific or pseudo-scientific understandings of stippled, spotted, striped, dappled, marbled, mottled, speckled, parti-colored or otherwise marked skin. Such variations in human pigmentation seem to confer a liminal racial status upon the human bodies that these texts describe, investigate, adore, or otherwise scrutinize.
Discussions of race and science during the early modern period and the eighteenth century usually focus on a large-scale transition from geo-humoral or climatological theories to pseudo-scientific racism (Hannaford, Kidd, Stepan, Wheeler). Discussions of scientific societies also tend to structure themselves around some version of this transition, a tendency that inevitably determines what material is considered in the first place (Curran, Malcolmson, Taylor). In other words, scholars often find their investigations subject to confirmation bias: looking for evidence of a movement from geohumoralism, heliotropy and loose mythologies of race and skin color towards a more unified myth of racialism, we perhaps overlook primary sources that challenge this assumed historical trajectory. This attempt to establish a history of race also influences those who participate in this debate in early modern studies, whether such scholars argue that race and racism have always existed, or began with colonization in the fifteenth century (Adelman, Burton, Hall, Loomba); [End Page 134] whether they contend that race was gradually produced during the seventeenth century (Amussen, Floyd-Wilson); or whether they keep both possibilities in mind (Iyengar, Hendricks).
Our cluster of essays focuses on the instabilities and contradictions that emerge in published medical and learned accounts of individuals with stippled, spotted, or parti-colored skin throughout this period. Each of the essays assesses unexpected disruptions of the line between white and non-white skin. This kind of case history opens up contemporary thought, regarding racial difference, to analysis in fascinating ways. As natural philosophers confront the mixing of what they usually find distinguished, or in fact would prefer to distinguish, they struggle to reestablish cherished categories or to protect their preconceptions by imposing new divisions. Their assumptions then become more visible, and, subsequently, they often strain to reaffirm their theories.
The liminality of these cases obstructs easy conclusions by natural philosophers as well as by scholars of race today. As Charles D. Martin suggests, "With whiteness invented and beatified, the albino body of the white African emerges as a possible challenge, an obstacle to this new binary of black and white" (5). These doubts and concerns had already circulated around the early modern Atlantic, as a new collection edited by Pamela Patton explores. An essay by Illona Katzew explicitly connects the growth of the slave trade (and doubt about its legitimacy) to the increasingly strident imputation of African origins to albino or "spotted" black bodies: "The need to underscore the black origin of the albino woman reflects European and creole anxieties over the instability of skin color, and the concomitant blurring of racial boundaries that could undermine their ability to rule—including implicit fears about the legitimacy of the slave trade" (163).
At times, then, natural philosophers seem motivated simultaneously by the desire to establish the unity of mankind through their use of climate theory and by the hope for some sign that their own whiteness indicates superiority. In other cases, the failure of natural philosophers to establish a trustworthy basis for difference by way of their experiments with skin color suggests a yearning for the definitive categories that race could provide. Whiteness can also be unstable in this literature, requiring less or more evidence of unmarked "fairness." Those scientists and medical men who cherished race as an established principle were less able to tolerate the contradictions of freckled or spotted skin, [End Page 135] and less likely to make great efforts to reject evidence...