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22.04.01 Turner, Theorizing Medieval Race

22.04.01 Turner, Theorizing Medieval Race

What a pleasure to review the work of Professor Victoria Turner! In this recent publication, she presents us with medieval French texts that demonstrate the performance of race even as these narratives tend to illustrate an essentialist view of gender. Turner explains that medieval writers depicted race as something independent of skin color, and often as synonymous with religion and cultural/ethnic origins, just as modern discussions of race are founded on the understanding of race as a social construct. Beginning with the designation of “Sarrasin” or Saracen, Turner highlights the ambiguity of such a term which can designate people of white or black skin color, and people from a variety of geographical origins from Denmark to North Africa to Hungary. The term is typically used to designate non-Christians, though this work focuses on depictions of individuals from the East.

In contrast to race/identity scholarship that has focused on the body, Turner presents her work as “decentering the body: race is not simply a physical state of being or embodiment but a multifaceted process of becoming, of acting, and being acted upon” (9). In other words, race is not dependent upon an essential bodily feature, but rather is a performance of expectations and beliefs, a definition informed by such theorists as J. L. Austin on speech, Judith Butler on gender, Ann Pellegrini on race, and Derrida on specters, to name but a few.

Turner’s work studies Saracen literary characters in a wide range of medieval genres and less-read titles, rather than focusing exclusively on medieval masterworks such as the Chanson de Roland. The epic Aye d’Avignon (part of the Nanteuil cycle) allows for a heroic Saracen named Ganor to marry the Christian protagonist, after he defeats the Frankish traitor Berenger, and after the Frankish protagonist Garnier, first husband to Aye, is killed by more Frankish traitors. Ganor will eventually convert to the Christian faith, demonstrating one of the basic differences between medieval perceptions of Jews and Muslims: “Saracens are merely misguided Christians who could therefore achieve reintegration,” (7).

Then, in Tristan de Nanteuil, the end of the Nanteuil Cycle, the female Christian character Aye passes as a Saracen knight, though her racial camouflage is undone by the undisguisable features of her gender. Similarly, the Saracen princess in this work, Blanchandine, also performs a double passing, presenting herself as a Christian knight in order to follow Aye’s grandson Tristan. Like her husband’s grandmother, Blanchandine is betrayed by her femininity, though only momentarily; she will ultimately be divinely transformed into a man who will father Charlemagne’s confessor, Gilles. Turner notes that these two examples of gender- and race-crossing by women illustrate “that race is profoundly connected to genealogy and that genealogy in turn relies upon the gendered body” (41). Simple racial passing as practiced by male characters in the Nanteuil Cycle is more successful than the race and gender crossing practiced by female characters, because of the importance of lineage which can be endangered by gender crossing; but in the case of Blanchandine, divine intervention gives lie to her gender crossing and allows the now male Blanchandin to establish an unambiguous and prestigious lineage.

Chapter Two, “Race and Time,” focuses on the construction of genealogy and how it can apply to race, using the Estoire del Saint Graal. This thirteenth-century prose text establishes a Saracen ancestry for Arthurian characters, beginning with King Evalach, who upon conversion to Christianity becomes Mordrain, and Seraphe who becomes Nascien. Mordrain, as well as Nascien’s son, arrive in Britain and transform Saracens into Christians whose descendants will qualify for the Holy Grail quest. Additionally, Turner argues that because of its composition date near the end of the Vulgate Cycle, and its description of the genealogical origins of the Arthurian knights active the beginning of the Vulgate cycle, the Estoire del Saint Graal inverts time: it creates the kinds of ancestors needed to justify the heroism of their descendants, and it presents Saracens who rediscover their Christian roots and return to the fold through conversion. Turner proposes that “the lineage constructed in the Estoire can be regarded as a ‘Grail race,’, where genealogical ties are formed less by blood or geographical origin than by relationship to the Grail in a performative network of repetitions and recognitions” (65).

While some medieval narratives address the physical transformation into the opposite sex, rare is the text that describes a physical transformation of skin color such as the one occurring in The King of Tars, a Middle English narrative: here a Saracen nobleman’s conversion to Christianity is accompanied by a literal change of skin from dark to white. In fact, however, manuscript illuminations of Saracens often depict light-skinned individuals, as discussed by Turner in Chapter Three “Race and Religion: Spectrality and Conversion in Gautier de Coinci’s Miracles de Nostre Dame.” Here, Turner presents specific illuminations for I Miracle 32 “De l’ymage Nostre Dame,” from a collection of manuscripts which predominantly portray the Saracen protagonist with white skin, with the exception of an illumination from Paris, B. Ars. MS 5204, fol. 58v, where the Saracen is painted with very dark skin. This collection of images for a Saracen character suggests then that for medieval people, race was not necessarily depicted as an essential biological difference. And given the dark-skinned depiction of an immoral Christian sacristan in the previous Gautier miracle, Turner argues that skin color could illustrate the moral character of an actor rather than racial origins. She also suggests that the lack of racial markers in illustrations of this Saracen character addressing an image of the Virgin Mary, or in that of his baptismal conversion, would have invited readers to identify themselves with the Saracen, as Christians engaged in their own spiritual evolution.

Returning to Gautier’s narrative, in II Miracle 12, the Saracen King Muselinus attacks Constantinople, whose Christian citizens pray to the Virgin for protection. The Divine Mother repels enemy stone missiles, completely overwhelming Muselinus’s army. Muselinus is so astounded by this divine intervention that he converts to Christianity. This particular miracle also includes a reference to Bertrand de Rais, a rascally commoner who presented himself as the Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin of Flanders. Thus, this Christian poser is in direct contrast to the Saracen who can recognize the truth of divine intervention and convert to Christianity. Bertrand de Rais, who can never actualize his impersonation, is the complete opposite of Muselinus who can transform himself after witnessing the power of divine intervention, noting: “religious identity, at least, does not seem to be essentialized in Gautier’s tale” (108).

In Chapter Four, Turner reads Alexandre du Pont’s thirteenth-century Roman de Mahomet as a narrative about the difference between reason and faith. As such, Muhammad becomes the example of one who misreads or manipulates signs, and favors heresy over Christianity, reason or argumentation over faith. Turner sees Muhammad more as a trickster figure than merely as a heretical figure. She concludes that “the work speaks more generally to the dangers of using rationality to justify credulity,” (160). Turner suggests that the social/racial identity in this romance is created by “the spiritualization of genealogy,” (161) and that some medieval narratives depict Saracen society and identity as created simply by a common faith in deceitful signs.

In her concluding chapter, Turner uses the narrative of La Fille du Comte de Pontieu to summarize her basic theme of the performativity of race, illustrated by the Christian daughter’s integration into the Saracen circle by marriage to the Sultan of Almeria, and her subsequent return to the Christian community at the story’s end. Her racial identity and fluidity depend not on the color of her skin, but on the ways in which she presents herself to others and is perceived by others as she moves between cultures.

In short, this is an excellent work grounded in history and theory that astutely analyzes medieval narratives depicting race and origins. Prof. Turner ably synthesizes previous criticism to produce vibrant readings related to the social construct of race.