15.05.22, Ramey, Black Legacies

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William Chester Jordan

The Medieval Review 15.05.22

Ramey, Lynn T. Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014. pp. xii, 179. ISBN: 9780813060071 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Wiliam Chester Jordan
Princeton University

This is a troubling book, troubling in the best sense of the word. Hitherto I have been strongly opposed to importing 'race' into the terminology by which historians should try to understand attitudes toward the color of skin and other somatic features in the European Middle Ages. I believe that the term brings with it too many assumptions associated with its use by historians of modern (American) group relations. After reading Lynn Ramey's Black Legacies, I do not think I have changed my mind, but I have been disturbed--troubled--in my certainty.

The book covers many subjects in a very few pages: it deals with the historiography and terminological controversies surrounding medievalists' use of the word race. It glances back at ancient, especially scriptural ideas of somatic differentiation. When it deals with literary texts, it more or less limits itself to questions of miscegenation (Saracen princess/Christian prince) and the representation of offspring, visually and in word pictures. It includes a discussion of the monstrous races and the representational map which New World explorers took with them in their heads to the lands they thought were the farthest reaches of the East. By covering so many topics over such a chronological span and territorial space, many of the discussions are too short to make a convincing case one way or another. But the heart of the book is clearly medieval miscegenation--not in reality but in the literary and visual imagination. And on these matters Ramey's is a fascinating study. In a brilliantly written passage on pages 86-87, the author makes a major intervention. She shows how the texts--and images--draw on competing medieval theories of procreation to represent the offspring of mixed marriages. Will children be white, black, parti-colored? Will baptism whiten skin? Will the whitening fully displace the 'taint' of a converted Saracen parent? Will love overcome somatic difference, that is, will mixed marriage produce offspring, or will the fear of some kind of moral or physical monstrosity be too great? "These moments," she writes, "in which shared religion is insufficient and the narrative is unable to overcome the difference between the characters, point to something insurmountable and inerasable: a largely unspoken sense of racial consciousness" (87).

Ramey paints a literature of very pessimistic attitudes; yet, in the next paragraph she notes with candor that "not all texts and authors shared this pessimistic view" (87). The implied question is what is the preponderant, what is the dominant sensibility? Ramey clearly leans toward privileging the pessimistic texts. I am not sure the case has been proved. But she has certainly demonstrated that many texts betray "an anxiety...about social and sexual intercourse between Christians and [converted] Muslims enacted in the safe space of a court performance or a manuscript page" (88).

It is rare one wishes a book were longer; yet, Ramey's observations deserve a lengthier treatment. And I would love to see her develop them further.

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