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In The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press 2018), Geraldine Heng collects a remarkable array of medieval approaches to...

In The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press 2018), Geraldine Heng collects a remarkable array of medieval approaches to race that show the breadth and depth of the kinds of racial thinking in medieval society. In creating a detailed impression of the medieval race-making that would be reconfigured into the biological racism of the modern era, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages reaches beyond medievalists and race-studies scholars to anyone interested in the long history of race.

Throughout the study, Heng treats race-making as a repeating tendency to demarcate human beings through differences that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental. Thus constituted, these categories are then used to guide the differential apportioning of power. Scholars working in critical race studies have clearly demonstrated that culture predisposes notions of race. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages reaffirms that insight by examining the era before the dominance of biological discourses. Race has always been about strategically creating a hierarchy of peoples for differential treatment. By exploring race in the European middle ages, Heng lays bare the skeleton of racial thinking as a sorting mechanism, a structural relationship for the management of human differences.

In Heng’s hands, the tools of critical race studies make it possible to name the systems and atrocities of the Middle Ages for what they were, revealing race-making before the modern vocabulary of race coalesced. Bringing together a group of specialized archives that aren’t usually in conversation, Heng in many cases allows the medieval past to powerfully testify to the pre-modern history of race-formation, racial administration, and racist exploitation and oppression.

Beginning with the violent and sweeping anti-Semitism of thirteenth century England, showing the ways that Jews became the template by which other races were measured, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages launches a careful exposure of the way that minority groups were (and are) manipulated to create the sense of a national majority. A short but potent comparison to the English treatment of Irish subjects drives the analysis home.

Heng moves on to discuss the formation of race in the crucible of war, from the lies used to create the idea of a “Saracen ” race and the history behind fear of “assassins,” to the racial ironies created by the pressures of mercantile capitalism during war. In discussing what she calls “epidermal race,” Heng examines the theological pressure on the imagining of whiteness and anti-blackness, following the question of when whiteness became central to European identity, and how ideas of epidermal surface became tied to notions of moral interiority. With these studies established, Heng closes the book with searching explorations of European consideration and treatment of Mongols, Native Americans, and Romani peoples, probing and expanding our own understanding of race by giving us a detailed and often horrifying picture of how racist thinking functioned to control populations during the middle ages.

Discussing religion as the magisterial discourse of the era, Heng shows the way that religious thinking predisposed the understanding of biology, politics, economics, and the rest. It was first and foremost in religious terms that we see medieval race-making, and the development of racializing techniques that would later be expressed through a biological framework as the dominant modes of thinking shifted away from the church, mapping the long history of the mechanisms of racism that were adapted into the “scientific” racism of the modern era. Over the course of our conversation we discuss the present resurgence in open anti-Semitism; naming American cities after white-supremacist crusader kings; the influence of climate change on medieval travel; and leveraging narratives around immigrants, Muslims, and Jews to authorize violent nationalism.


A researcher, writer, editor, and educator, Carl Nellis digs in archives and academic libraries for the critically-acclaimed Lore Podcast and as research lead for Unobscured Podcast. Studies on both sides of the Atlantic left him chasing the tangled colonial history that threads the culture of the Middle Ages into today’s United States.