The Modern Legacy of Premodern Racial and Ethnic Concepts, Part 1: Ethnicity in Imperial and Nationalist Discourses, Then and Now

AHA Session 57
Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Empire and Ethnicity in the Early Medieval West
Helmut Reimitz Sr., Princeton University
Genetics, Politics, and Dangerous Essentialism
Susanne Hakenbeck, University of Cambridge
Michael E. Kulikowski, Penn State University

Session Abstract

The participants in this session all work on the interactions among Romans and their Others at the edge of empire, in the centuries when that empire was fragmenting, collapsing, and reforming (c. 250-800 CE). Through a study of early medieval law codes, Stefan Esders contrasts the Romans’ own technologies of ethnic categorization with those of the various “barbarian” peoples who were simultaneously assimilated and differentiated by colonial processes. Helmut Reimitz traces the emergence of a new multiethnic empire under Charlemagne, explaining how a post-Roman concept of ethnicity legitimated a new kind of Christian imperialism and a new vision of the world as divided between (Roman) Christians and their Others. The long reach of this ideology, and some of its dangerous consequences, is then explored by Susanne Hakenbeck, a pioneer in new bioarcheological techniques who is also concerned about the ways that current genetic and genomic sciences are misconstrued in the popular media. Recent findings have the potential to revive grand narratives that place ethnic cohesion and ethnic agency at the center of history, and she helps us to understand the potential implications of this phenomenon.

As in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, current nationalist discourses and racial categories are frequently reliant on the misuse of medieval precedents and the invocation of popular medievalist mythologies. For example, claims to ethnic self-determination in Europe after World War I were all staked in the Middle Ages -- and were, indeed, arbitrated at the Versailles Conference based on guidelines established by Woodrow Wilson's special academic advisor, the American medievalist Charles Homer Haskins. Today in Europe, the claims that "essential" national characteristics are being threatened by immigration -- or, especially in the case of Britain, that national sovereignty is being yielded to Continental imperialism -- are also indebted to narratives of some preternatural ethnic purity rooted in medieval soil. Even the rise of the white supremacist movement in the United States relies on such narratives, as well as on the false claim that "the West" has always been homogeneously white and Judeo-Christian. This workshop features three interlocking sessions devoted to exploring and exposing the roots of these dangerous ideologies, while at the same time presenting new work on indigenous (premodern) racial and ethnic categories. It also reflects on some of the new scientific techniques being used to identify and differentiate among peoples of the past, and on the potential dangers of their misuse in new pseudo-scientific discourses. Participants represent diverse fields and historical perspectives, regions of the world, and degrees of seniority. By sharing and discussing our research with the wider AHA community, we aspire to make an important contribution to our understanding of racial, ethnic, and nationalist constructs. Perhaps as vitally, we wish to ensure that current and future uses of these constructs do not rest on false or simplistic assumptions about the premodern past.