Ethnicity in Medieval Europe, 950-1250

Medicine, Power and Religion


Dr Weeda, thank you so much for joining us. Would you please tell us something of your studies and what first drew you to the medieval period?

Thank you very much for this invitation! As a teenager, after moving from the UK to the Netherlands, I became really interested in twentieth-century history and the memory of the Second World War. So I decided to read history at the University of Amsterdam. But after attending a few lectures, I fell under the spell of medieval history and never recovered from it. I think it had to do with that medieval culture seemed so strangely familiar, and full of paradoxes. In hindsight, that was probably because I knew very little about the period. 

We began by reading various sources and perspectives on Henry of Lausanne, the twelfth-century heresiarch who was preaching in southern France and ended up in prison. I was fascinated by how doctrinal authority was being challenged in a period that is often represented as being dark and apathetic. Yet here was the Church organising disputes to discuss doctrinal matters! More in general, I find the period 1000-1600 exciting because you can track major developments, such as the rise of capitalist markets or universities. 

Afterwards, I became very interested in twelfth-century satire, through the work of Walter Map and his attacks on the Cistercians. And that’s how I ended up researching ethnic and racial stereotypes, encouraged by Peter Hoppenbrouwers, who at that time held the chair of medieval history in Amsterdam. It began with the question how to interpret satire and ethnic jokes in the twelfth century. 

Your new book tackles a terrific subject, the development and use of racial stereotypes. What led you to focus on this? 

Initially, I was focusing on the relational aspect of identity and how ethnic jokes reflected and amplified ethnic identification, in Latin poetry and satire. I spent a lot of time studying literary texts and rhetorical textbooks produced at the universities and schools in the twelfth century. Then I began to realize that the stereotypes appropriated by the schoolmen were partially informed by Graeco-Arabic medical ideas about the body’s humours and the impact of the environment on the body and mind. The physical and mental qualities attributed to various humoral types corresponded to comments about group traits in poetry, that were talked about in the context of the natural environment. The schoolmen were discussing the prevalent social norms, and social betterment, and relating it to the quality of the air or climate. It became evident that these men, joking among themselves about who they were, also engaged with ideas drawn from Graeco-Arabic science and medicine – long before eighteenth-century scientific racism emerged – as well as religion and social practices. 

And they were not just talking about themselves, expressing their ‘ethnic identity’. Often in the same breath they were categorising others, people living in different regions and adhering to different religions, using mirror images. It made me realize that you can’t research ethnic or national identities without simultaneously looking at racial stereotypes of others – they are constructed alongside one another and stand in a hierarchical relationship. One of the differences between ethnic and racial stereotypes is that racial stereotypes work with fixed traits, while ethnic stereotypes leave more room for social adaptation and mobility. Stereotypes, in that sense, can be a form of social and physical capital, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, and serve to mark the boundaries of communities and index their members. Of course, stereotypes can also help people to bond, they are relational.      

Tell us about some of the stereotypes. Did they tend to be uniformly held across nations, for example were the English viewed the same way by the French and Italians and Germans?

A wealth of sources was produced by men across western Europe – poetry, letters, historiography, sermons, proverbs – claiming that the English were drunks, the French arrogant and the Germans raging men, to mention a few stereotypes. The men reproducing these images often knew one another, perhaps studied together, at the same schools, attended the same Church meetings or courts. They drew from a common reservoir of authoritative, ancient and religious ideas about genealogy and the relationship between peoples and places, adapted to their own life worlds.  

To an extent, stereotypes are useful bargaining chips in social and political relations and help to position groups analogically. For instance, the Anglo-Normans’ self-representations – jolly, full of wit, intelligent, eloquent, handsome and generous – are juxtaposed with Saxon stupidity and an absence of culture, while both groups from the perspective of ancient environmental theory were considered to be quite uncultured, unruly types. Anglo-Norman comparisons with the French tended to focus more on shared cultural practices. 

Where do you think these stereotypes originated?

In part, they are drawn from ancient ideas from the Greek and Roman world about the workings of the body and mind, in relation to places and environment. For instance, the furor Teutonicus is a Roman stereotype embedded in ancient Greek climate theory. It can be quite hard to distinguish between environment and culture in the sources. In addition, biblical religious-genealogical constructions tied specific lineages to alleged traits – Jews, serfs and Africans were represented as descendants of Cain and Ham destined to serve others. In the twelfth century, constructions of ethnicity based on genealogy and environment are more explicitly discussed in the developing Latinate schools. 

What is the concept of ‘environmental medicine’? 

Ancient climate theory held that places shape physical and character traits, depending on the environment in which a person dwells. The north produced headstrong, less intelligent types, the south cunning but weak peoples. Aristotle used environment to argue that types of governance should correspond with the environment where people dwelled. It’s an argument that underpins his concept of natural slavery. These ideas run through biblical exegetical texts – theologians generally were well attuned to Greek and Roman science – but also for instance Vegetius’s fifth-century military manual De re militari. Then, with the translation of Graeco-Arabic science and growth of urban schools in the twelfth century, these ideas are more elaborately commented upon and integrated into poetry, histories, rhetoric. 

Significantly, the traits of groups are placed on a scale from human to animalistic, from rational to physical. Such comparisons served to negotiate claims to territory and the profits of labour, as animals lacked those rights in comparison to humans. The stereotypes often revolved around sketching alleged levels of discipline, strength and rationality. The kaleidoscopic array of ethnic and racial images, intersecting with class and gender, were embedded in ideas about the tasks people had in society and their rights. 

Schoolmen argued that after the fall of mankind – when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the environmentally perfect Paradise – lineages developed whose bodies were corrupted through sin and became melancholy. Here, religion and medicine became entangled and were used to justify how Jews, serfs, women, being less rational, weak and ‘cursed’, had unequal rights and positions in society.  

And, perhaps most importantly, to what ends were they used? I assume for more than just some sharp insults?

Three contexts stand out between 950 and 1250. First, they are used, from the tenth century, in an eschatological tradition in lists to represent group traits and their alleged role in the history of humanity. These lists run from east to west, and from past to present, in the translatio tradition: the idea that power and knowledge had travelled from the east to the west, past to present. 

Secondly, they are used to talk about the physical and mental traits of fighters – to weigh who qualified to defend or conquer the domesticated spaces, or patriae, where populations dwelled. 

And, thirdly, to talk about productivity and labour – the ways in which land is tilled and who had the rights to the fruits of labour – which was particularly relevant in colonization efforts and later on in trade and commerce. More broadly, the use of ethnic stereotypes fitted into a Ciceronian narrative of progress, moving from a nomadic, agricultural to an urban, well-governed society where eloquent and rational beings dwelled. 

And how did you find your examples and map the trends across regions? 

I spent hours and hours sifting through databases and sitting on the library floor going through indexes of books of rhetoric, medicine, and chronicles. 

What made you decide on the period you cover, from 950 to 1250?

My research focuses on analogical lists that reflect the comparative, relational aspect of representations of ethnicity. The first lists cataloguing ethnic characteristics appear around 950. I stopped around 1250, before Aristotle’s Politicsbecame available in Latin. That text had such a huge impact on political thought through political regimens produced from the late thirteenth century. How ideas about groups’ traits shaped by the natural environment fold into later political discussions of the body politic and sovereignty is a topic in itself. 

Are there any individuals that stood out in your research? Your article for our blog, Proofed, introduced us to Boncompagno da Signa, not someone we’d like to cross….

Boncompagno da Signa was a professor of rhetoric in Bologna in the early thirteenth century. He is a larger than life figure, embroiled in endless conflicts with his peers. He would probably make interesting material for a biographical sketch. The Franciscan friar Bartholomaeus the Englishman is another fascinating character who takes centre stage in my book. He produced such an influential encyclopaedia containing extensive ethnographic descriptions. Not uncoincidentally, he also was highly active in missionary efforts in north-eastern Europe and in teaching. In hindsight, I would have liked to have paid more attention to individuals who questioned the validity of the stereotypes or used them in self-mockery, however. Also, my book says very little about practices or how these images were rejected.

Which aspect of your book do you think will be most useful to your fellow medievalists?

I think that the impact of medicine on thinking about the body in social relations, structures of power and economic systems, is still relatively poorly understood, and not just in scholarship on the late medieval society. Joel Kaye wrote a fabulous book, A History of Balance, tying late thirteenth-century interpretations of Galenic and Aristotelian theory about the body politic to emerging economic and political ideas of equilibrium and hierarchy. I think there’s still a huge amount of work to be done on how the medical Galenic system and Aristotelian political thought fed into emerging capitalist systems and constructions of ablebodiedness in the organisation of labour. I’m exploring how to set up a dialogue with scholars working on racial capitalism, a term coined by Cedric Robinson in the 1980s in his book Black Marxism.   

What’s next for you? Will you continue studying ethnicity and rhetoric?

I have become incredibly interested in medicine and labour in this period. I think to understand racial capitalism – how social and economic value is extracted from a person’s race, class or gender – it is particularly relevant to look at how Galenic medicine worked both on a normative and functional level. What role does medicine play in shaping representations of the physical and mental features of workers – free, semi-free, enslaved persons, categorized according to gender, age, class, ethnicity – and in the organization of labour in practice? How were bodies of various workers cared for, valued, selected – and what kind of medical care did they receive, food, rest and shelter? What were the costs involved? How were representations and practices calibrated? How does medicine work as an intermediary between the interests of the state and commercial enterprises on the one hand, and individuals trying to sustain their families on the other? How does Galenic medicine compare to other non-western ideas of health, labour and property? 

I’m currently focusing on so-called ‘able-bodied workers’ in the Low Countries and Italy, who laboured in public works, in armies and on ships, a field rich in sources. After the Black Death, these men and women increasingly had less access to charitable support or means of subsistence. They were casual labourers who moved around a lot, from rural settlements to and between cities. How did their position compare to those subjected to coercive labour, enslaved persons, and from the fifteenth century increasingly also convicts? 

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?

I am known to be a source hoarder. So in that sense I was lucky to be less affected by the lockdowns than some of my colleagues. Especially young historians, PhD students and early career scholars with young families seemed to have had a hard time. Nonetheless, I also sorely missed visiting archives and libraries, which I think is one of most exciting and fulfilling aspects of the historical profession.

Ethnicity in Medieval Europe, 950-1250


5 colour illus.; 356pp
£60/$99, 9781914049019
August 2021
Hardback and ebook
York Medieval Press



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CLAIRE WEEDA is a cultural historian at Leiden University.

Cover image: The four elements and humours. Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Livre des propriétés des choses dating to c. 1480/1490, Tours, Bibliothèque Municipale MS 703 fol. 40v.