Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages

Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages

Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages

Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages


"A provocative study of western racial attitudes. Ramey adds an important, likely controversial, and well-written scholarly challenge to the argument that racism in the West was the product of nineteenth-century science."--Hamilton Cravens, coeditor of Race and Science

"The significance of this book extends beyond the medieval past. Black Legacies shows that behind myths of knights in shining armor and fair maidens lies a contested literary and cultural history of medievalism that troubles understandings of race from the nineteenth century to today."--Russ Castronovo, author of Beautiful Democracy

Bringing far-removed time periods into startling conversation, this book argues that certain attitudes and practices present in Europe's Middle Ages were foundational in the development of the western concept of race. As early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, society was already preoccupied with skin color. Using historical, literary, and artistic sources, Black Legacies explores the multitude of ways the coding of black as "evil" and white as "good" existed in medieval European societies.

Lynn Ramey demonstrates how mapmakers and travel writers of the colonial era used medieval lore of "monstrous peoples" to question the humanity of indigenous New World populations and how medieval arguments about humanness were employed to justify the slave trade. She also analyzes how race is portrayed in films set in medieval Europe, ultimately revealing an enduring fascination with the Middle Ages as a touchstone for processing and coping with racial conflict in the West today.


This book is primarily focused on the legacy of the Middle Ages to the development of racial prejudice and ultimately black-white problems in the West. From the outset, I wish to underscore that this book examines the question of color and (premodern) genetics as applied eventually to persons of color. I look at racism in its incarnation as a form of xenophobia, directed toward the unknown person or culture. This book does not have as a primary goal the treatment of racism directed against Jews for several reasons, the first being that there are several good studies on medieval anti-Semitism already in circulation and others under preparation. Secondly, European Jews, though certainly viewed as outside the Christian societal core, lived and worked within Western culture, with and beside dominant cultures. The interest in medieval anti-Semitism is well justified, but the color question is an equally intriguing one and deserves, I think, some discussion on its own. This is not to minimize the racism directed toward medieval Jews, but rather to explore a different type and manifestation of racism. While the role of other forms of prejudice—anti-Semitism, xenophobia, misogyny—will be discussed as they relate to the question of color, the main focus of the book will intentionally remain that of color. My attention is directed toward prejudice against darker-skinned persons from non-Western cultures precisely because of their skin color and their usually imagined, always unfamiliar, cultural practices.

My interest grew out of my earlier study of cultural interactions between Christians and Muslims in medieval French literature and history. The representations of “Saracen” characters in medieval French literature were . . .

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