Race and Racism in the Early Medieval World

invention of racism in classical antiquity

Many people have a love/hate relationship with their undergraduate or graduate introductory historiography class.  I have taken three versions of the class now and each has had amazingly insightful weeks combined with dreadfully unhelpful weeks.   In the most recent iteration, a week spent discussing race allowed me to read some classic works, but also involved sitting mutely while modernists debated the intricacies of theory, particularly as it applies to the United States.  As an early medievalist, I had little to say.  After sitting mutely for most of the session, the professor turned to the pre-modernists in the room and asked, “what about the middle ages?” I only managed to muster a short muttered response of “it doesn’t apply to us.”

The fundamental problem with using race in theoretical discussions of the early medieval world stems from a historiographical problem which was made worse when politicians utterly tainted and destroyed any explanatory powers it had.  In short, various nationalist historians (often but not exclusively Germans), during 19th century nationalist arguments over borders, nations, and peoples, envisioned a biologically distinct stronger, smarter, and superior Germanic race, in the form of early medieval tribes, migrating and destroying the Roman Empire.  These Germans remained supposedly biologically separate from the Romans they encountered and conquered so as not to weaken their strong Germanic bloodlines.  Perhaps you have glimpsed maps like this, which seem to show entire groups of Germans moving en masse to settle in the remains of the western provinces.  Using some written evidence, plus ubiquitous archaeological evidence, (in)famous scholars demonstrated their contemporary relevance by helping governments “prove” various national claims to land, resources, and power that these maps reveal.

Does Germany have a debate with France in the 19th century about national boundaries?  Easy enough.  Find some “Germanic” graves somewhere in the border lands so that lo and behold, Germans must have conquered and settled the disputed region and, therefore, Germany should control the land in perpetuity.  Find a few towns that have Latin based names?  Well those must have belonged to the Gauls, so the French should own that land forever.  Even those examples simplify the debate too much, since it continually shifted depending on local political circumstances.  Are the French actually Germans, since the word France comes from “Franks” who were a Germanic people?  Is Charles the Great French or is he Karl der Große (the French seem to have won that debate in English since we call him Charlemagne)?  These debates culminated with the Nazis using many of these racial theories to help propagate the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust.

In the last half century, race and racism in the early medieval world have therefore largely been avoided, since they are directly linked with both extreme nationalism and Nazi atrocities, and any work race did as a descriptive force to understand the movement of what were likely fluid heterogenous groups in the fifth century has been replaced instead by other tools.  Two relatively recent books have attempted to reuse race in ancient and late antique scholarship: Benjamin Isaac’s 2004 The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity and Denise Kimber Buell’s 2005 Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early ChristianityBoth are great books in their contemporary view of race as not biological, but instead constructed and adaptable in particular circumstances.  In that sense, there is no “problem” using race as long as it is properly situated in its modern framework.

But, why use race at all?  It’s accurate and provocative, but the same conclusions can be reached with far less loaded terms.  Just to define race and racism, Isaac has a 168 page introduction and historiographical discussion of race and racism.  It’s well done, but why?  Does he gain anything using the term, rather than something more banal, such as ethnicity?  Is it worth expending all the time and energy to reclaim a concept that most people agree can be expressed differently, but still in a similarly comprehensive manner?  Does it have much more explanatory power than anything else?  Will his book regain the moral high ground from racists who still perceive race as a biological entity in the early medieval world?  To my mind, the answer to these is somewhere between unlikely and no.  In the end, using race as a category in the early medieval world only creates a backlash and an endless quarrel about definitions.

This is essentially where race and racism in the early medieval world stand.  Except for some outliers, most early medieval historians are happy enough to use other categories, definitions, and processes to describe how individuals and societies perceive the Other.  I believe, although this view is not universal, that the early medieval field has done an admirable job not throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  We continue to use ethnic terms to describe and understand the groups of barbarians (who in many cases were not barbaric, but that’s for another discussion) who entered into the Western Roman Empire and founded new kingdoms starting in the fifth century.

Currently there exist a variety of ways to label the non-Roman groups that settled inside the empire, but researchers tend to examine these groups through an ethnicity lens.  Thus, individuals have a particular ethnic identity, which continually underwent a renegotiated identity – referred to in some literature as an ethnic process.  These identities were open ended situational constructs, which continued interaction with “civilized” Romans and other ethnic groups significantly transformed.  Ethnic identities never necessarily trumped other identities either, so someone might consider their class, religious or any other identity as far more important than their ethnic identity and choose to associate themselves with similarly identifiable individuals (if those groups would accept them of course).  Simple enough on paper.

But reality in early medieval history is far more difficult, since we have practically no documents written by these barbarian ethnic groups.  Instead all we have are Roman views of what these changes supposedly entailed.  Furthermore, we lack any sense of group size or coherence.  Even if the entire ethnic process is a discourse, many individuals in these groups surely believed that their ethnic group had sufficient umph (if I may borrow a useful term from my mother here) to want to continue as a member, but there are only estimates of what these groups consisted of.  Did Theodoric lead 20,000 people into Italy in the late 5th century, among whom 10,000 or 15,000 considered their ethnic identity as Gothic?  Or was it more like 5,000 Goths and 15,000 other people, so there were far fewer individuals with a Gothic ethnic identity?  Or perhaps was it only 5,000 soldiers with no ethnic identity at all, but simply later writers exaggerating their coherence for propaganda purposes?  A few nuggets of information exist, but nowhere sufficiently detailed to reconstruct the ethnic identities of these groups with precise detail that would settle this debate.

Furthermore, does ethnicity even get around the old problem of race and nationalism?  Some early medievalists argue that it does not, but simply covers up the uber-nationalist and racist paradigms with the thin guise of a different label.   But these constructed ethnic entities did act in concert to achieve particular ends, so there must have been something significant about them that people could join and chose to stay part of them.  I suppose instead we could say these people simply had a group identity, which experienced a group process of “groupization.” But does that help anyone or solve any problems whatsoever, except to add a new word to the English language?

But the large scale rejection of race and racism as a descriptive tool seems to be at odds with contemporary scholarship on American history.  Or maybe it’s not, since I am profoundly in the dark about similar discussions in American history.  Is there a sense that it no longer serves a useful function in American history?  Or is it continually updated and nuanced, so that its descriptive powers remain sufficiently useful?  Would it help to discard it entirely as a concept or modify it significantly?  Perhaps more useful here might be a comparative discussion of what both American and medieval scholarship can learn by examining their respective theories and terminology and if either or both groups might be aided with harmonizing their ideas or at least discussing them in concert with each other, rather than in isolation.

Merle Eisenberg is a doctoral student at Princeton University, where he is studying the Early Middle Ages and Late Antiquity, focusing on the emergence and disappearance of group identities, especially in the fourth through seventh centuries.  His current research examines groups that failed to create or created only short lived successor states – Alamanni, Burgundians, and Gepids among others – during the transformation of the late Roman world.  His broader interests include Roman and post-Roman legal codes, the use of material culture and archaeology, and rural society.