Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Book Review: The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages by Geraldine Heng

Pros: good exploration of a challenging topic, lots of examples, thoroughly examines sources

Cons: sometimes uses fictional narratives as if they were accurate historical works, didn’t properly clarify that Ethiopia does not mean the current country, repeats information

The book consists of 8 chapters: Beginnings, Inventions/Reinventions (race studies), State/Nation (Jews), War/Empire (Islamic “Saracens”), Color (Africans), World I (Native Americans as mentioned in the Vinland sagas), World II (Mongol Empire), World III (Romani). There is no conclusion but there are a lot of notes after each chapter.

The ‘Beginnings’ introductory chapter gives a brief overview of what each chapter covers. Chapter one deals with the idea that race is a modern construct and that racism as understood today didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The author pulls that argument apart with a few quick examples of how Jews were treated in England (wearing a symbol on their clothes, accusations of blood/murder libel, the Jewish exchequer). She also quickly goes over the mappamundi that gained popularity in the 13th century, with their ‘monstrous races’ around the edges of the known European world and how the English wrote about the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish closer to home. She concludes this chapter with a quick example of race as it pertains to colour, specifically black Africans.

With the foundation set, the author moves to the heart of the matter starting with how the Jews were perceived in Medieval England specifically. The first two chapters were a struggle for me as the language was hard to parse, being very academic and dense. As the book progressed the language became more accessible and I found the rest of it easier going. The author repeated some information within chapters, which is great if you’re only reading one section but could get annoying at times when reading the whole thing.

I was impressed with the extent to which the author dissected her sources.

The author had the habit of giving very brief mention to things that should have been emphasized more. For example, in the chapter on black Africans there’s little reinforcing of the fact that “Ethiopia” referred to anywhere in Africa south of Egypt, and often included India (as goods from India traveled to Europe via ports in Africa). It would be easy to assume the term deals with the modern country. Similarly, while the same chapter uses fictional works to show the European attitudes towards black characters the author later uses other fictional narratives as if they were pure historic documents (while the Norse sagas might have a high level of accuracy, taking minutae written 200 years after the fact at face value is unwise).

There was a lot of great information imparted, and some interesting works broken down. I learned a lot from this book, especially on topics I have less background in. For example it was great that the author brought in archaeological information about Native American tribes that supported information from the Norse sagas. But there were times when had I not had the grounding on a certain topic (having read several books on ancient/medieval Ethiopia, taken a course in university on the challenges of using fictional primary sources for accurate historical information) I might have come away with the wrong conclusions.

This is a good book that discusses an important topic, but it’s not for beginners and should be read with care.

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