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The Politics of Race in the European Middle Ages

Geraldine Heng, University of Texas at Austin

In The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (2018), Geraldine Heng questions the common assumption that the concepts of race and racisms only began in the modern era. Examining Europe's encounters with Jews, Muslims, Africans, Native Americans, Mongols, and the Romani ('Gypsies'), from the 12th through 15th centuries, she shows how racial thinking, racial law, racial practices, and racial phenomena existed in medieval Europe before a recognizable vocabulary of race emerged in the West. Analysing sources in a variety of media, including stories, maps, statuary, illustrations, architectural features, history, saints' lives, religious commentary, laws, political and social institutions, and literature, she argues that religion - so much in play again today - enabled the positing of fundamental differences among humans that created strategic essentialisms to mark off human groups and populations for racialized treatment. Her ground-breaking study also shows how race figured in the emergence of homo europaeus and the identity of Western Europe in this time.

Geraldine Heng is Perceval Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, England and the Jews: How Religion and Violence Created the First Racial State in the West and Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. Heng is Founder and Director of the Global Middle Ages Project (www.globalmiddleages.org), and editor, with Ayanna Thompson, of the University of Pennsylvania Press series, Race B4Race: Critical Studies of the Premodern, as well as editor, with Susan Noakes, of the Cambridge University Press 40-title Elements series on The Global Middle Ages. Her Cambridge Element, The Global Middle Ages: An Introduction, and an edited MLA Options for Teaching volume on the global Middle Ages will appear in 2021.

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