Medieval Europe: Race Thinking and Christianity


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

What role did Christianity play in race thinking in the Middle Ages? We know about the Roman Church’s role in disseminating and promoting narratives, doctrines, and policies that sustained and enflamed anti-Semitic prejudices and violence, leading, at least in some regions, like England, to the racialization of Jewish minorities. The rhetoric of crusading, too, relied on the vilification of Muslims and the interchangeable use of ethnographic or racialized terms such Saracen (usually applied to Arabs) and Moors (Muslims of African descent).

A medieval painting of Saracen
Saracen was a medieval term applied to the Arabs. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

The Vulgate Bible

More fundamental and banal—but powerful when taken out of context—was the pervasive discourse of blackness and whiteness in the Vulgate Bible, the most important text in Latin Christendom. 

An 8th-century Vulgate Bible
The Vulgate Bible includes the discourse of blackness. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

For example, the penitential Psalm 51 has the singer pleading to be cleansed from sin: “Wash me and I will be made whiter even than snow”. (Lavabis me, et super nivem de-albabor.) The Book of Revelation represents the multitude of resurrected saints wearing white as a sign of their triumphs over sin: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Laverunt stolas suas et de-albaverunt eas in sanguine agni.)

These biblical allusions lack an inherent or clear racial meaning. Instead, racial connotations would have had to be read into the text by someone with a particular agenda.

The “Song of Songs”

So this biblical discourse would have to be taken out of context in order to convey racial race meanings. For example, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s very positive portrayal of Queen Belacane as both black and beautiful is clearly informed by the language of the “Song of Songs”, whose female protagonist proclaims, “I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem.” (Nigra sum sed formosa.) 

The most famous and influential analysis of this erotic marriage poem, interpreted by Christian theologians as a dialogue between Christ (the Bridegroom) and his Church (the Bride), is the series of no less sensual sermons preached on its verses by the Cistercian zealot (and later saint) Bernard of Clairvaux, active in the first half of the 12th century.

The Beauty in Blackness

In a sermon entitled “On the Blackness and Beauty of the Bride, that is the Church,” Bernard unpacks the meaning of this phrase in great detail.

She said, “I am black but beautiful, daughters of Jerusalem.” It would appear that they disparage her, these slanderers of blackness—and that she is defying them proudly. But what was meant by saying, “I am black but beautiful”? Is this a contradiction in terms? 

Far from it! Blackness in the pupil of the eye is not unbecoming, black gems look glamorous in ornamental settings, and black locks above a pale face enhance its beauty and charm. And so much so the bride, in addition to the gracefulness of her person, is not without the birthmark of blackness.

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Race Thinking

Bernard goes on to explain that blackness, in this context, means the human condition: the condition of Original Sin, in which even Jesus Christ shared. So on the one hand, he is associating blackness with something that can be purified through Christ; on the other, he is saying that we are all black and beautiful, we humans, and moreover this is not a permanent but an intermediate state.

It therefore seems that Bernard’s understanding of blackness is not an example of “race thinking”. It could, as in the story of the fictional African king, be perverted to mean that, by equating blackness with wrong belief. But that is not how it is used in Wolfram’s portrayal of Belacane.

So, the tendency to emphasize racial differences and to equate them with inferior religious beliefs seems to be a literary move which starts to be made in northern Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, perhaps aligned with the increased presence of enslaved West Africans, or at least anxiety about them.

Racial Differences Were Not Always the Case

But in other parts of the medieval world, this was not the case. Historian Hannah Barker writes that “religious difference was the legal and ideological basis of slavery”, and that those differences did not align with perceptions of bodily differences, including skin color or phenotype. 

Indeed, she proves that the notaries whose record-keeping tracked the movement and sale of these slaves (many of them from Slavic lands or from the Eurasian steppes) often described their identifying characteristics, such as scars and tattoos, but very rarely mentioned skin color. When they do, the black-white binary of literary and theological texts was not invoked.

Indeed, when these notaries do talk about color, they are talking not about pigmentation or phenotype but about the medieval theory of bodily humors. This theory used a basic vocabulary of colors—white, red, yellow, and black—whose admixture in a given individual indicated their overall bodily health, defined, ideally, “as a mixture of red and white”. 

It was Just about Healthy Skin?

Thus enslaved individuals from a single region could be “white and red”, “reddish brown”, “blackish olive”, “olive-brown”, or “medium color”. But again, this was not necessarily, or even probably, a reference to skin’s color but to judgments about the health of the complexion. For instance, the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca described himself as “between white and dark brown”, referring to his apparent humoral balance rather than the color of his skin.

Furthermore, although Professor Barker finds that “religious categories were often perceived as permanent, fixed, and inherent”, religion, too, could be massaged and negotiated to circumvent Christian, Jewish, and Muslim prohibitions against owning slaves of the same religion. We, therefore, need to temper the evidence of literary or legal discourses with the evidence of what real people were doing and experiencing, evidence which shows that racial and religious categories were not immutable or even applicable.

Common Questions about Race Thinking and Christianity

Q: Did Christianity have a role in promoting race thinking in the Middle Ages?

Yes. Roman Church promoted narratives, doctrines, and policies that sustained and enflamed anti-Semitic prejudices and violence, which led to race thinking and the racialization of Jewish minorities, at least in some regions such as England.

Q: What does the penitential Psalm 51 in the Vulgate Bible contain?

It has the singer pleading to be cleansed from sin, to be washed and become whiter than snow. Furthermore, the Book of Revelation represents resurrected saints wearing white as a sign of their triumphs over sin.

Q: What was the legal and ideological basis of Medieval slavery according to Hannah Barker?

She remarks that religious difference was the legal and ideological basis of slavery. According to her, those differences did not align with perceptions of bodily differences such as skin color. So, it was not always about race thinking.

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