My presentation invites to consider the fourteenth/fifteenth-century Iberian societies as a laboratory of racial categories, and as a first case of “guerre des races” (“war of races”), in Michel Foucault’s terms. I suggest that racial discourses and practices are situated phenomena, which first developed in relation to a part of the inner population, before affecting peoples external to everyday experience. Thus, I do not only propose a spatial and chronological displacement of the question of race within Europe, but also a shift of emphasis from the colour issue to the question of genealogy. Far from denying the crucial role played by skin colour in feeding racism, we aim at outlining the plurality of matrices of racial notions and practices that, at different times, vary from invisible genealogies through visible treats and physicality.
The term “race”, in the meaning it had through to the eighteenth century, corresponded to the Latin gens, and was a synonym for “tribe” and “nation”. Despite its restricted semantic definition, the category of “race” emerges historically when the continuity between the physical and cultural traits of peoples is stressed in discourses or political institutions. The category of race entails that the moral characters and social behaviors of individuals (not in their individual capacity but as members of specific communities) are enrolled in their own physiological nature, and transmitted from generation to generation throughout the fluids – blood, semen, milk – or the body tissues. Behaviors and beliefs are also considered as embedded in the body, even when individuals choose to adopt different social or moral customs. The understanding of physiological transmission could oscillate from a literal meaning – when the blood is considered to be the direct vehicle of inherited qualities – to a more metaphorical sense, referring to a vague notion of inheritance, where corporal qualities merged with the social effects of belonging to a lineage. In such a vision, individuals are deprived of the possibility of breaking away from the “race” to which they belong, while their “race” is denied to undergo transformation. Racial thinking immobilizes peoples in a time without history, whereas it imprisons individuals in their own “race”.
Meanings, chronology and the purity of blood
From a historiographical perspective, the questions of race and racism, which have received much attention in the last years, are deeply entangled. This is primarily due to the legacy of the traumatic experience of the Holocaust. But it also depends on the difficulty of distinguishing the concept of race from the historiographical constructions that define it, as the historiographical discourse is also part of its own object of study. We have, however, to stress cautiously what separates them. First of all, the notion of “racism” does not exist in the early modern period, but is a neologism of 1920s, in contrast with “race”, which, despite its multiple and ambivalent meanings, belongs to the language of the actors. By consequence, whereas historians can investigate the actual uses of race in their own sources, racism always depends on a normative decision.
In recent years, historiographical debate has focused on the pertinent chronology of the emergence of race and racism. We can outline two extreme postures: the first identifies the origins of a racial discourse in the antiquity, either in the book of Genesis, so stressing the association between race and religion, or in Greek philosophy, identified as the locus and moment of a thinking capable of systematically rationalizing prejudice. This stance gives way to a very long story of racism, which becomes synonymous of xenophobia – a sentiment existing in any time and space, and for this reason very difficult to grasp. An opposite posture limits the study of race to the emergence of the concept of inheritance, without which racism, as we commonly understand it now, cannot be properly formulated. Consequently, phenomena such as the Iberian purity of blood or the slave trade in the Atlantic world, which took place between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries, are rejected in a prehistory of racism. In the first approach, the very longue durée of xenophobia makes it difficult to identify the singularity of the set of attitudes that Europeans expressed in their relationships with other peoples, both the external and the internal ones. In the second stance, the very short period of contemporary racism prevents historians from identifying socio-cultural, political, or religious ruptures, which occurred between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries.
The most dramatic racial tragedies of the 20th century (genocide of Armenians, Jews, Gypsies, or Cambodians, Rwandans) happened in conditions of low or no visibility in terms of color, or even of phenotype. From a more theoretical, or simply logical, perspective, we might argue that skin color could even escape to a racial reasoning. This is never the case when alterity is ascribed to peoples, whose differences are not visible: in this case, it becomes necessary a theory of transmission, capable of explaining the hidden differences among human groups, their specific and distinct nature.
Fortunately, some historians advocate a longue durée history for racial categories. They deliberately employ the modern term “racism” to account for phenomena that would have developed between the 12th and the 21st centuries. Some take the Medieval Crusades as his point of departure, with the Christians’ liberation of the Holy Land from the political domination of Muslim princes. Portuguese historian Bethencourt identifies the Crusades against Islam as the first fuel of Western racism. So doing, he roots the question of race in its dual political and religious dimension, thus proposing an approach that we fully share. By contrast, we are more puzzled by his choice of focusing on a phenomenon marked by the aggression of medieval Occident towards an external and immediately identifiable enemy, a trait that would have rather become distinctive of posterior colonial expansions. The geographical distance of the stigmatized populations – the Muslims of the Middle East – is thus doubled by the immediate visibility of their distinctive features: clothing, language, faith, manners, taste, architecture, etc. In other words, Bethencourt’s history of racism talks of peoples, whose alterity is “evident” and established a priori, before that any negotiation/confrontation takes place. We are, for this reason, tempted to address to Bethencourt one of the two objections already addressed to Du Bois: do Christians of Western Europe really need, in the 12th-century, a racial theory in order to build and diffuse the sentiment of alterity vis-à-vis Eastern Mediterranean Islam?
Indeed, between the second half of the fifteenth century through the eighteenth century, Spain and Portugal were obsessed by the risk of confusion between “Old Christians” and peoples descending from the converts, either from Judaism (conversos) or from Islam (moriscos). The case of the converts is particularly interesting in order to understand the processes of formation of racial categories, as their origin is not visible. In addition, the regulations excluding descendants of converts (New Christians) from numerous institutions are very precocious, as their adoption dates back to the mid-sixteenth century. What especially matters, however, is that the opposition, stressed by Foucault, between Normans and Anglo-Saxons and, even more, that between Franks and Gauls entirely lay on the fabrication of a mythical and unmemorable past. Such is not the case of the dichotomy between Old Christians and New Christians, which, in the Renaissance, is construed through family memory and a political experience that remains within the reach of people, within a time that is not lost in the mists of mythography. For these two reasons, we might regret that Foucault, led by his questionnaire on the birth of the Leviathan, has not tested the effectiveness of his investigation on the war of races with what appears to us as the most pertinent and precocious case.
Medieval Jews, not only in Spain, were marked and forced to live in specific quarters: this was instrumental to compensate for the incapability of recognizing them at first glance. Becoming doubly invisible, converted Jews were assigned to genealogies deemed infected, both in the Iberian Peninsula and in America, when it was no longer possible either to stigmatize them or to prevent them to live where they wished. This allows us to see what anti-Jewish racism and anti-Black racism have in common. In one case as in the other, racial thinking seeks less to emphasize an evident and given alterity than to create a new form of alterity, in response to the deletion of the differences of these minorities in the socio-political order.
The Medieval rouelle had the target of revealing what had become invisible, due to the effect of time or dissimulation, and that a new discriminatory policy intended to disclose to a community that had become blind to differences. This is why the relationship between racial thought and invisibility seems to us particularly tight. One could even argue that a racial reasoning responds primarily to the need of revealing distinctions that the eye is no longer capable to recognize. This is the proper political response to a social phenomenon considered as threatening. By borrowing the words of Maurice Olender, what distinguishes racial thinking is “the immediate correlation […] between the visible and the invisible”.
What is more, the generations of men and women who, in the Iberian countries, have experienced the feverish exaltation of the pure blood and the denunciation of inner alterity are the same who have experienced the effects of the discovery and conquest of America. Rivals and opponents of Spain and Portugal have used Iberian inquisitions as the paradigmatic expression of the backwardness nourishing the “black legend”. However, the regulation of the purity of blood, by denoting the existence of a menace lurking within the Christian community, shapes the model of the “war of races” for other European regions.
In the United States, an increasing number of scholars have started to regret, in the last years, the divorce between studies dealing with racism (that is to say, in great majority, with the Afro-American question) and those focusing on the history of anti-Semitism. This is the major contribution of George Fredrickson’s agile book on the history of racism, which operates a very fruitful connection with the processes of stigmatization and exclusion of Jews at the end of the Middle Age and in the Renaissance. In contrast with other works of synthesis, Fredrickson does not propose to inventory a series of processes of racialization, chronologically ordered. What he does is rather to entangle the Jewish question and the black question within the framework of an Atlantic history of the moyenne durée.
In the reader-book on the theories of race, Les Back and John Solomos have lucidly raised the same question:
One of the regrettable features of much contemporary theorising about race and racism has been the tendency to leave the question of anti-semitism to one side, treating it almost as a separate issue. This is in spite of the fact that one of the most consistent themes that runs through racist thinking and the values articulated by racist and fascist movements throughout this century has been anti-semitism.
The shortcomings of disentangling racism and anti-Semitism are particularly evident, if we consider – and this is the heart of our proposal – that the procedures of identification and segregation of the Jewish interior enemy have played an inaugural role for the history of Western racism. This position is not consensual. If we root racism in the Crusades, we choose to emphasize on an exterior, immediately identifiable, enemy, a given and steady Other, whereas we propose to focus on the dynamic process of construction of otherness as an inner phenomenon.
In front of so many “objective” signs of difference, was it really necessary to forge a theory of physiological transmission to account for such visible treats and distinguished characters? I am not convinced. It seems to me that, if we accept the model based on the clash between Western Christianity and Islam, then the concepts of race and racism have to be intended lato sensu, as dispositions of socio-political rejection and segregation, which are not rooted in a naturalistic theory. This way might be coherent in relation to a broad usage of the notion of race, as the one occurring in Anglophone social sciences. But my proposal is different. I emphasize the fabrication of diversity within a Christian community, between subjects of “good” origins and subjects of “bad” origins. Within this framework, the case of the persecution of the Christians, of Jewish origins, emerges as a, if not the, matrix of racist thought. It is precisely the absence of any phenotypic distinction, together with the communion in language, religion, and manners, that leads to look for a physiological foundation of differences, which have otherwise become imperceptible. This approach is coherent with a restricted conception of what we mean as racial categories and racism: in this definition, the reference to a “bad nature”, rooted in the body, can be never deleted, at least in its metaphorical sense.
Following in the footsteps of Fredrickson, we might identify two correlated sociopolitical and socio-economical phenomena at the basis of racial ideologies. The first is the persecution in name of religious, cultural and social factors, as a technique of government and as a mode of production of the social order. The second is the expulsion, from the common humankind, of populations, whose main economic system requires their reduction into slavery. In both the cases, racial categories operate at the creation of distinctions within the same territory, rather than at the stigmatization of societies stranger to everyday experience. The obsession for mixing and crossbreeding attests quite well the fact that racial thought primarily refers to the regard a society look on itself.
By focusing on the question of the racialization within imperial and colonial frameworks, current historiography invites to look at the sociopolitical and socioeconomic phenomena together. The prejudice of race, on the one hand, and slavery and colonial domination, on the other, are connected phenomena nourishing one another. The mobilization of racial arguments at the end of the early modern time and throughout the colonial period cannot be isolated from the historical analyses of social relationships. This is important in order to avoid to subsume that the race question, identified since the late Middle Age, absorbs all the processes of sociogenesis of otherness. It also helps to remind that, all along the early modern period, the production of racial categories is neither a fatality, nor the unique relationship that Europe has construed with inner or external Others.
A framework of tensions: visibility and invisibility, election and segregation
At the end of the Middle Age, the question of the transmission of diseases and the resemblance between children and their parents takes a relevant place in the works of physicians. The debates around these questions go well beyond the domain of the observation of pathologies: they feed the reflections about physiognomy, while shaping the framework for describing natural differences and their transmissions. Up to modern time, the movement of identification and discrimination is expressed by two antinomies. The first concerns the experience of the visibility of differences. The case of the Jews, and a fortiori of the descendants of converted Jews, is that of the construction of a natural alterity, which collides with the difficulty of identifying, at first glance, the object of the persecution. Within the visible experience, the lack of any exterior differentiation between the Jews and the rest of the population provokes the fabrication of signs which mark this group that has to be discriminated: here the rouelle, there the red hat. A contrario the massive enslavement of the deported Africans in America and of the “native” Indians affects populations whose physical specificities are immediately recognizable. The black skin of the Africans, and in a lesser way the red-copper color of the Amerindians – labelled as “red” by Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1735) –, and in large measure their common nakedness, or semi-nakedness, are sensitive markers. Therefore, the formation of racial categories takes place, at the same time, on the ground of the invisible and visible distinctions.
The second antinomy of racial thinking consists in the close correspondence between two apparently opposite discourses occurring within the same society: the one that rejects some peoples and groups as inferior, and the one that honorably distinguishes other peoples and groups. The logic of the natural transmission of aristocratic virtues and of the notion of blue blood does not differ substantially from the idea that infamy, attached to religious infidelity or to the practice of dishonorable professions, is inherited from generation to generation. The same reasoning is also functional, for instance, to the Anglo-Saxon myth in seventeenth-century England, and its claims to descend from ancient Germans: a fierce and independent people, who would have not intermingled with others, so preserving the purity of blood. In the period covered by this article, racial thinking moves within a framework of tensions between visibility and invisibility of differences, election of the aristocracy and segregation of the populace. This semantic field is dynamic as well as fragile. It never becomes autonomous from the techniques of persecution, distinction, exclusion, concurrence, organizing social and political life.
If one rejects the thesis of a guilt specific to the Enlightenment, which appears to be too ideological, two major arguments support the thesis delimiting the race question at the end of the eighteenth century, or later. The first is that only in the late Enlightenment environmental and relativistic conceptions, derived from Hippocrates’s commentaries on all sorts of climate variations, are replaced by the development of fixed classifications and racial typologies. In mid-seventeenth century, when England, in the aftermath of English civil war, openly engaged in the Atlantic commerce of slaves, the hypothesis of cosmetic, that is artificial, origins of physical distinctions among peoples living in the four parts of the world appeared still acceptable. Neither physicians nor philosophers and historians were capable to develop a solid theory about the nature and causes of negritude. In addition, the concept of heredity was not available for thinking societies before the 1830s.
However, two arguments support a longer history of racial conception of social relations. Both lead to the identification of socio-political and cultural forms, helping to understand the dynamics of evolution of medieval societies. The first of these forms is persecution, presented by Robert Moore as the specific mode of functioning of medieval political institutions since the end of the eleventh century, and especially since the thirteenth century. The second, strictly tied to the first, is the discrimination affecting a large range of human collectives, and first of all Jews, heretics, lepers, and descendants of Muslims. Some of these discriminations find their matrix in the aristocratic scorn vis-à-vis the peasants. The outcome of these two tendencies – persecution and discrimination – is disclosed, in a spectacular way, by the following sequence of events: the pogroms of Andalusia and of Levant in 1391-1392, followed by the conversion of numerous Jewish families; the formation of a first statute of purity of blood (1449); the foundation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Castile (1478); finally, the expulsion of the Jews from the crown of Castile and Aragon (1492). These events, encompassed in a century of persecutions and negotiations, explain the general enthusiasm for family genealogy, either authentic or fictional, in order to strengthen their own position within the social game.
If it might be dangerous to confuse sic et simpliciter the culture of genealogy and the ideology of race, we can at least suspect that the first stimulates the second. The statutes of purity of blood function as an instrument in the hands of the families that, while exerting the power and the authority within the social space, consider as a threat the entrance of new families, anciently Jewish, in the political arena. At the same time, these statutes institutionalize ideas, such as the indelible character of the fault, that is to say the Jewish obstinacy in refusing, for fifteen centuries, to acknowledge the truth of the Gospels. The indelibility of the stain is a physically embodied reality: it circulates, from generation to generation, through the bodies of the Jews, their blood, semen, breast milk. Francisco de Torrejoncillo made this clear in his Centinela contra judios, first published in 1674, when he recommended the use of Old Christian nurses for aristocratic children, “for it is not proper that the sons of princes should be suckled by Jewish vileness, because that milk, being of infected persons [personas infectas] can only engender perverse inclinations”.
These beliefs are far from being limited to the Iberian Peninsula in the early modern times. In England, for instance, the most common Jewish stigma remains that of male menstruation. Since the medical treatise of Thomas Cantimpré in the thirteenth century, such a belief is also present in the Germanic world, in Italy, and in Spain. The myth of the menstruation of Jewish men recalls immediately that of the ritual murder. As David Katz has noted, at the end of the sixteenth century there was a big gap between an English Catholic and a Jew: whereas the first can be considered as a gentleman who has chosen the wrong club, a Jew, even when converted, remains physiologically marked by circumcision and his peculiar body smell (foedor judaïcus).
The whole issue of the sacramental debate is clear: how is it possible to admit that baptism and communion in the faith of Christ do not obliterate the past? The presumption of infidelity, aroused by inquisitors for more than three centuries, is not sufficient for solving this problem. What is the nature of this residue that, even outside of the clandestine practice of Judaism, prevents the descendants of converts from having access to social and political authority? If there can be little doubt that the theological and moral ground of this indelibility is not the same as the biological racism following Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the fact remains that the macula of Judaism cannot be erased. In his celebrated article about the continuities and ruptures between the purity of Hispanic blood and Nazism, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi quotes the Portuguese publicist Vicente da Costa Mattos: “A little Jewish blood is enough to destroy the world!” As it is attested by its persistence, the negative active principle of the stain can work before any theory of heredity, and even without the presumption of a religious mistake reenacted in the secret practices of the household. Theorists of white supremacy and of the “drop of blood” show their obsession for interbreeding in very similar terms, well into the nineteenth century.
A body of evidence invites us not to separate anti-Judaism, in its anti-Semitic evolution, and the designation of blacks as natural inferiors in early modern times. Not only Jews and blacks are confused in the same hostile gaze, but their stigma are also naturalized. This means that the enquiry has to encompass the Atlantic space, and in no way can be limited to Western Europe only. At this planetary scale, the responses given to the question posed by Yerushalmi may substantially change: in such a proposal, in fact, the history of America, and especially of the United States, would be connected to the prehistory of the twentieth-century European catastrophes. In the ongoing debate with historians from across the Atlantic, however, this purpose of integrating the history of American blackness to a genealogy of European racism and anti-Semitism is far from being easily accepted.
The recourse to the image of Negro immediately refers to the black color, considered as satanic. However, by assimilating the case of the Jews to that of black Africans, it is possible to illustrate the indelible character of the Jewish fault, within the context of the proliferation of the statutes of the purity of blood. It was in relation to the pure-blood statute, first celebrated in the Cathedral of Toledo, that the chronicler of the reign of Charles V, Fray Prudencio de Sandoval, remarked, at the beginning of seventeenth century:
Who can deny that in the descendants of the Jews there persists and endures the evil inclination of their ancient ingratitude and lack of understanding, just as in Negros [there persists] the inseparability of their blackness [negrura]? For if the latter should unite themselves a thousand times with white women, the children are born with the dark color of the father. Similarly, it is not enough for the Jew to be three parts aristocrat [hidalgo] or Old Christian for one family-line alone [sola una raza] defiles and corrupts him.
The consequences of such a reasoning were made clear again by Francisco de Torrejoncillo at the end of the century, who explained that for being a Jew “it is not necessary to be of a Jewish father and mother. One alone suffices. […] Half is enough and even if not that much, a quarter is sufficient or even an eighth. And the Holy Inquisition has discovered in our times that up to a distance of twenty-one degrees they have been known to Judaize”. The image of the drop of blood is here inescapable, and so is the parallel between Jews and Blacks.
In seventeenth-century New Spain, the indelible “imperfection” of the conversos was compared to the indelible negritude of the black slaves. In Peru, the Inquisition directly associated the conversos to the Indians, who were supposed to resemble them physically, on the basis of the current theories that believed Indians to be one of the lost tribes of Israel. In Lima, Jews were regarded with the same suspicious gaze as the twenty thousand perturbing Blacks residing in the city.
The emergence of mestizo individuals, or even of mestizo populations, goes along with the formation of colonial societies, since the beginning of European overseas expansion. These social processes combine two kinds of transformations: first, the retroactive transformation of European subjects in the natural and cultural environment of non-European societies; secondly, the generation of children born of the intercourse between European men and African, American, and Asian women. The first phenomenon is related to the risk of returning into savagery, after the examples of the Portuguese lançados in the coast of Guinea, and the experiences of Hans Staden among the Tupinamba, or of Mary Rowlandson, captive in New England. However, the process of transformation of Europeans under the effects of new environments had occurred even before their expansion towards Africa and America. Spain had previously experienced the metamorphosis of Christians into Mozárabes in the Visigoth kingdoms, under the Caliphate of Córdoba, and this contributed to fuel its hostile attitude. Closer to early modern colonial dynamics, the transformation of Old English, the first Anglo-Norman occupants of the Pale in Dublin, into lords of Anglo-Irish culture haunts the plantation policies of the Elizabethan era.
The second phenomenon was called to play a much deeper role in the history of the formation of colonial societies. This has become the subject of a massive ideological and strategic investment, particularly in the sociogenesis of Latin American nations, since the time of the independence. This contemporary investment represents a challenge for the historical interpretation of the Métis phenomenon during the colonial period. The processes at work in the early modern period can be embedded into an epic of métissage, which would retroactively make of this reality the product of a project for the new society. However, we might doubt that the Iberians engaged in the colonizing action, trained in the school of the purity of blood, could consider that the engendering of a Mestizo population was a happy purpose of their presence overseas. In the Ancien Régime, were their dispositions more favorable to mixed alliances than those of English Puritans and Dutch? I don’t believe it.
This quick glance on the history of otherness and persecution in the longue durée of the history of Europe, confirms that Antisemitism has been a pillar, maybe a matrix, of the global racist policies implemented in the colonies and in the political nations born after the Revolutions. Conversely, it reveals to which extent the so-called contemporary racism proves to be archaic and certainly not modern.
Thank you very much.