The Modern Legacy of Premodern Racial and Ethnic Concepts, Part 3: Racial Sciences, Old and New

AHA Session 111
Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
David Atwill, Penn State University
Daniel Smail, Harvard University

Session Abstract

We conclude this workshop with a session devoted to racial sciences and their (mis)uses. Felipe Fernández-Armesto interrogates an influential text by the medieval theologian Albertus Magnus, whose treatise on "pygmies" was an attempt to establish the parameters of race and humanity at a time of increasing global integration. Bonnie Effros examines the politics of archeology, national identity, and religion in nineteenth-century France -- and the invention of the Middle Ages as the cradle of modernity. Finally, Patrick Geary looks at the new science of genomic biology and the renewal of interest in essentialist, ethnic understandings of identity.

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.