Ethnicity in Medieval Europe, 950-1250

Claire Weeda is a cultural historian at Leiden University. In her new book, Dr Weeda investigates how racial stereotypes were created and used in the European Middle Ages.

On 26 March 1215, the brash Bolognese rhetorician Boncompagno da Signa read aloud his manual of rhetoric, Rhetorica antiqua,in front of the college of professors of civil and canon law. If some of his students had nodded off by the time he reached book VI, about the art of writing letters of consolation, they might have jolted awake when laughter arose in the classroom. For at that point, Boncompagno injected some comic material into his lesson, ridiculing several ethnic groups in Europe. In the section on how to address peoples in mourning, he mocks the northerners and their typical drinking habits, claiming that ‘the English, Bohemians, Poles, Ruthenians and Slavs mix their tears with drink until they reach a state of drunkenness, and thus consoled, they retain their usual merriment’. On the other hand, he continues, the Germans lament in soft voices – which is a playful inversion of their stereotypically harsh voices, that were sometimes likened to barking dogs or rattling carts. The more southern people of Romagna and Lombardy typically use artifice, however, whereby ‘in order to simulate lamentation there are many who wet their eyes with saliva or prick their eyelids’. Thus, Boncompagno actively put into practice his own lessons on the art of rhetoric. The textbooks of rhetoric and poetry indeed advised writers to capture their audience’s attention, and to be convincing, by incorporating common stereotypes, alluding to the typological traits of women, peasants and noble men, old-aged persons or ethnic groups.

Following on from literary composition, I wanted to understand the functioning of those ethnic and racial stereotypes in social contexts and power relations, their construction and the meaning attributed to them outside of the nation-state. My research suggests that the stereotypes employed by monks, schoolmen, poets and historians in western Europe in the period 950-1250 certainly were not random. English drunkenness, for instance, was a widespread image attached to northern peoples that was used in multiple contexts. Thus, in 1213, Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that English drinking was passed down from father to son and was hereditary. He did so in the context of the interdict pronounced by Pope Innocent III over England in 1207, thus attributing England’s woes to the collective guilt of gluttony and drunkenness. The Benedictine monk William of Malmesbury, writing a century earlier, claimed the English on the eve of the Battle of Hastings acted as drunkards, ‘eating till they were sick and drinking till they spewed’. Their drinking ushered in their defeat at the hands of the Normans. In fact, English drinking was such a ubiquitous trope that Walter Daniel (fl. 1150–67), a Cistercian monk at the abbey of Rievaulx who referred to himself as a medicus, in the Centum Sententiae portrayed the English drinker sitting, holding in one hand a siphon to his mouth to drink, and in his other hand his own pipe – his penis – to eject urine.

Ethnic stereotypes abound in all kinds of texts produced between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in Latinate Europe: poems, histories, lists, encyclopaedias, medical tracts, proverbs and letters. My research shows that besides in the classroom and in social relations, the rhetorical use of ethnic and racial stereotypes occurred foremost in the military sphere and in ethnographic description in the context of colonization, advanced by men in the rising schools and courts. The ethnic tropes were used to categorize the traits of fighters and labourers within and outside the Christian imperium, holding them up to norms of strength, manliness, courage, industry and rational thought – to levels of discipline. In doing so, schoolmen and courtiers were making arguments about who qualified to lead the defence of the sweet patria in conflicts within Europe’s Christian imperium, as well as justifying the expropriation of land outside it.

The production of such images was aided by already circulating texts, such as Vegetius’s military manual De re militari, biblical commentaries, and Latinate ideas about governance, embedded in Graeco-Arabic environmental deterministic theories about how climate determines physiology and character. The monks, schoolmen and courtiers thereby integrated various traditions of thought: religious ideas about sin and the fall of mankind, genealogy and prophesies of the translation of power and knowledge; medical environmental theory about bodies, minds and places; and rhetorical-legal discussions about ownership of land and the fruits of labour, governance and the organization of society. The ethnic self-representations that the schoolmen forged and appropriated reflect an idealized image of the social elite, emphasizing discipline, but also urbanity and eloquence. These were prerequisites for administering governance well, as laid out in the ubiquitous regimens produced at this time.

The stereotypes, crucially, give weight to legal arguments pertaining to property and dominium, set in an environmentally deterministic narrative of progress, offering a justification of the colonization of ‘squandered lands’. In ethnographic description, those fertile lands are populated by allegedly semi-pagan, irrational, lawless beings, on a sliding scale of human-animalistic traits. Images of the self and the other thereby work in dialogue, within the same framework, drawing from Graeco-Arabic, Roman and religious ideas. Negative tropes place others in a different space and timeframe, in a backward past, as a form of temporal and spatial othering.  

In my view we can only begin to understand ethnic or racial stereotypes of others, if we understand how ideas of the self are constructed. The imagined nation, or ethnotype, stands in a long and fluid textual and oral tradition, whereby the relevance and power of those stereotypes depends on the context in which they are employed, the discourses on which their validity is based and the authoritative voices that wield them. This underscores ethnotypes’ status not as outcomes of political and cultural processes but, rather, as verbal ammunition to be used in negotiations over social status, property and power, along with intergroup bonding. My book thus presents a snapshot of how monks and schoolmen, in the period 950-1250, talked about ethnicity. I would like to add that it does not work with beginnings and outcomes of the development of nationhood, but instead looks at processes in which constellations of marks of distinction are negotiated. Hopefully, my book will contribute to understanding how such configurations influenced the colonization discourses in other regions as well, in yet other contexts and places.  


This guest post was written by Claire Weeda, cultural historian at Leiden University.

Ethnicity in Medieval Europe, 950-1250
by Claire Weeda
9781914049019, Hardcover, £39 or $64.35