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23.03.15 Weeda, Ethnicity in Medieval Europe, 950-1250

23.03.15 Weeda, Ethnicity in Medieval Europe, 950-1250

Claire Weeda’s excellent new book, Ethnicity in Medieval Europe, 950-1250: Medicine, Power and Religion, bridges a divide between how scholars of history and scholars of literature discuss premodern ethnicity and race. Weeda tackles a mammoth task--the analysis of ethnographic descriptions and stereotypes in western Europe over a three-hundred-year period--with finesse and a wealth of research.

Weeda sutures a split between premodern critical race studies (largely headed by literary scholars like Kim Hall, Margo Hendricks, and Geraldine Heng) and a historian-dominated approach that eschews the word “race” in favor of “ethnicity.” [1] Weeda’s work ties into both traditions and does not shy away from describing racial formations, although she prefers using “ethnicity” as her key term.

Weeda seeks, in her words, to extend the insights of scholars like Heng into the racial and ethnic thinking of medieval Europeans by considering how Europeans put such racial categories to work. In other words, why did medieval Europeans invent group stereotypes, what did they do with them, and what work did racial categories perform in the political sphere? In service of this, Weeda assembles a vast archive of medieval European sources that claimed to list the attributes and characteristics of various national, racial, and religious groups. She considers the insults slung back and forth between various loose national confederacies of students in Paris universities, the appearance of ethnic markers in rhetoric manuals, and the ethnic claims made by military commanders to rouse their troops to battle.

One useful archive Weeda provides are the lists of vices and virtues of national and racial groups found in post-950 manuscripts throughout Europe. These lists, as Weeda notes, generally started with claims about “the envy of the Jews” and then travelled through claims about Muslims, Africans, Ethiopians, Huns, the Franks, the Langobards, the Saxons, and more. The lists lacked literary flair, but they illustrate an enormous amount about how race and ethnicity worked in the early Middle Ages. Weeda edited and translated the lists themselves in an invaluable appendix in her book.

The lists demonstrate several basic arguments that Weeda makes about her materials: firstly, that classical environmental determinism was the basis of much medieval thought on difference. The theory of environmental determinism suggested that people took their character from the environment around them, with pleasant places producing soft people, harder places producing tough people, hot places producing cowards, and so on. Weeda corrects the lack of attention to the role of Greek environmental determinism in the European Middle Ages. She shows environmental determinism came filtered through Christian frameworks and interpreters in the first half of the Middle Ages. Weeda makes clear how influential the theories of the Greeks and Romans remained in medieval Europe, causing most authors to assume that the environment and place determined the character of the people living there. Europeans adapted these theories to suit themselves (the French claimed that France, not Italy, was the most temperate and ideal climate for producing people, for instance), but the conceptual power of the classical period remained strong. Secondly, medieval Europeans conceived of the center of progress steadily moving westward. Writers considered eastern civilizations to exist in the past, while only the west progressed.

The book’s first half catalogues how environmental determinism became widespread in academic, military, and political spaces, naturalizing the idea that “European ethnic groups [were] moral-natural communities dwelling in domesticated spaces” (5). Theories of environmental determinism moved from monastic environments (exemplified by these lists of vices and virtues) to scholastic environments to, finally, military textbooks. They formed the basis of ethnotypes. The ethnotypes described in texts like the lists of ethnic vices and virtues became powerful tools for military claims, for instance, that argued for the natural right of certain groups to inhabit certain lands and for their right to conquer peoples defined as weak and lesser.

Then the book’s second half turns to how various groups deployed these increasingly common ethnotypes for political ends. These stereotypes can be found in scholastic environments of the time, Weeda shows us, with “ethnic slanging matches” in universities that show how university students expressed difference with national pride. English students were slandered as drunks, as supposedly having tails, and compared to eels, while Flemish students were considered soft, rich gluttons, and the French were painted as effeminate. Scholastics produced debate verses between various ethnic groups. Such jokes, Weeda theorizes, released tension and solidified ethnic pride.

The next chapter considers how, beginning in the early twelfth century, European nations repurposed the Greek binary of barbaric/civilized with a Christian twist. Gerald of Wales, for instance, represented the Irish as lacking reason, violent, and only semi-Christian. The French positioned themselves as moderate, rational Crusaders and Christians, as opposed to the English (represented as drunk, violent, and out of control). So-called German fury was depicted as sometimes good (when aimed at the enemies of Christendom) and sometimes bad (when aimed at fellow Christians). The English were framed as ignorant rustics, “long-haired effeminates,” and weak fighters often defeated by nations like the Normans, but who had learned military skills from their Norman conquerors (208). Weeda argues that it “is not uncoincidental that after the Conquest English hostility towards the Celts increased...for as a form of othering it allowed the English and Normans to bond in the face of a fictitious common foe” (210). Writers tied the various national characteristics to the specific character of the lands that a nation owned, wedding people and the environment through theories of environmental determination.

In her final chapter, Weeda considers how these theories became increasingly prominent in claims justifying “the violent expropriation of territories that were colonized” (229). Weeda builds on Robert Bartlett’s classic The Making of Europe, but she “takes the perspective of the influence of theories of environmental determinism in colonizing rhetoric, which is less explored in Bartlett’s work” (231). Weeda considers texts like mid-thirteenth-century Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ On the Properties of Things, which drew on humoral theory and ideas of environmental determination to explain various racial groups in terms of the climate they live in. Anglicus stated that Ethiopia, for instance, was hot and filled with monsters, leaving its people fearful, with skins burned black by the sun and hair crisped until curly. Anglicus claims Europe and Europeans are superior to the peoples of Asia and Africa. Other texts suggested the inferiority of the margins of Europe, such as the Baltic, claims that sometimes even extended to the English, Irish, and Scottish. Claims like that by twelfth-century John of Salisbury that the Welsh “live like beasts” and are false Christians served to suggest that they had no right to their lands, being little better than animals (242). These fringe lands, particularly the Celtic ones, were depicted as “lands of milk and honey” whose inhabitants did not use their resources properly, thus potentially encouraging other nations to conquer (247).

If there is an issue with the book, it’s terminological. The book uses “ethnicity” and “race” somewhat interchangeably, and it’s a little unclear how Weeda defines them. Furthermore, the book is somewhat held back by its use of older terminology whose racial overtones have been amply illustrated, such as “Anglo-Saxon” and “Saracen.” [2]

All in all, Weeda’s book is a fresh and exciting account of how Europeans formed representations of nationhood through ethnic and racial stereotypes. It covers an enormous field of studies with ease, synthesizing less-known texts into a compelling narrative of how racial ideas served as tools for medieval European writers, teachers, students, military commanders, and states. In the last few months, I have consulted and cited this book innumerable times, suggesting that it will hold an important place on my shelf for years to come.



1. The term “premodern critical race studies” originates with Margo Hendricks (Margo Hendricks, “Coloring the Past, Considerations on Our Future: RaceB4Race,” New Literary History 52.3 (2021): 365-384). Weeda does not cite the premodern race work of Hendricks and Hall from the 1990s, but instead starts with Heng’s work from the 2000s. The continued erasure of this earlier, Black feminist work is endemic to most recent medievalist work on race, as Hendricks herself notes (“Coloring the Past”).

2. On the racist history of these terms, see Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, “The Depoliticized Saracen and Muslim Erasure,” Literature Compass 16, no. 9-10 (2019); Mary Rambaran-Olm and Erik Wade, “What’s in a Name?: The Past and Present Racism in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Studies,” Yearbook of English Studies 52 (2022): 135-153; David Wilton, “What Do We Mean by Anglo-Saxon? Pre-Conquest to the Present,” JEGP 119.4 (2020): 425-456.