- The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages by Geraldine Heng
Geraldine Heng's The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages offers an innovative contribution to the transhistorical field of race studies as well as to scholarship on the Middle Ages. Heng not only demonstrates that race narratives have a long history and existed before modernity but also argues that race is a necessary category of analysis in the study of the Middle Ages. Indeed, subsuming race to the more general concepts of otherness or difference makes medievalists complicit in the perpetuation of narratives that condone a racist past. Heng proposes to define race as a means to "demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental" and to "distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups" (27). She thus calls for a consideration of race beyond mere bodily differentiation; among her chief claims is that medieval race is deeply embedded in religious discourse.
The primary achievement of The Invention of Race is therefore to offer a definition of race that draws attention to its multifaceted persistence through time and to pave the way for scholarship attentive to the intermingling of difference and power in the constitution of human groups. The book's first chapter, written in admirably clear prose, provides valuable guidance to scholars across disciplines who are intent on casting a new light on the workings of race in the Middle Ages. Subsequent chapters each present a freestanding microhistory of a phenomenon and can be read in isolation without loss of a general rationale. This could make them valuable for those who are studying specific historical configurations, though it may leave others wondering if they should be read as proof that race did exist in the Middle Ages, as reiterated invitations to adopting new ways of looking at cultural artifacts and historical records, or as a rearticulation of scholarship on these cases. While numerous subtitles allow cross-entry into the text, the index, composed almost exclusively of proper nouns, is less easy to use. A substantial number of endnotes provides mostly discursive complements to chapters already rich in anecdotal detail, but they also contribute to the impression that Heng could have sometimes made her points clearer. [End Page 248]
Chapter 1 offers a theoretical introduction to the book. Heng explains that the Middle Ages have been excluded from the linear narratives that place modernity at their center. However, temporalities such as medieval and modern may coexist, with the past always reinscribed in the present and vice versa. Looking for traces of "race-ing" (Heng's shorthand for "constructing race," see below) thus becomes not only a valid move but also a necessary one to debunk historical narratives that play down the stakes of racial discrimination in the medieval field. In other words, Heng's aim is also to examine the long history of how "homo europaeus" developed through "racial grids" (24) by which people are classified. After reviewing premodernists' work on race, she proposes a definition of race that emphasizes its biopolitical and sociocultural underpinnings; as discourse and praxis, race is subject to historical variation. The chapter ends with four case studies meant to illustrate the specificities of medieval race.
Chapter 2 examines the role of Jews in the formation of the English nation. Heng's argument is that English Jews were racialized on the basis of their association with the new economic paradigm of capital, conceived as an "absolute other" to guarantee the integrity of a "Christian English" community alongside the presence of an "intimate alien" (55–58) until they were expelled from England in 1290. Heng concludes the chapter by offering fine close readings of four narrative texts—first, to develop her claim that race making relies primarily on sensory experience over thought and, second, to support the argument that the 1290 expulsion of Jews marked a turning point in the way Jews were represented and perceived in cultural artifacts.
Chapter 3 is a lengthy discussion of the Saracen as a race. First, Heng demonstrates...