Thinking with Race in Medieval England

Spring 2018-2019


Julie Orlemanski

The medieval period is often thought of as the era just before the idea of race emerged – before the Atlantic slave trade, before European colonialism, before scientific racism. At the same time, the Middle Ages have been crucial to modern phenomena of racialized nationalism and ideologies of whiteness. In recent years, medievalists have studied and debated race’s significance. Acknowledging the complex and urgent status of medieval race today, this course examines some of the stories, images, ideas, and institutions of medieval England. We will test how race helps us think about the articulation and operationalization of human difference between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, especially with respect to Jews, Saracens (a term created by Christians to refer to Arabs and Muslims of varying ethnicities), and the so called “monstrous races” who were thought to populate the far reaches of the world. We’ll ask – How did geography, religion, and history come to be corporealized, or understood as legible on the body? How did the essentialization of differences between groups act to satisfy desires, or seemingly to solve intellectual and ideological difficulties? How does “thinking with race” in medieval England throw new light on race and racism today? Readings will be both in Middle English and modern English translation. No previous experience with medieval literature is expected. This is a 2018-19 College Signature Course. (Pre-1650)