By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The mid-15th century saw new ideas about what supposedly made Europeans racially distinct and superior. What, some intellectuals asked, had made European men capable of the prodigious technological and cultural feats that had enabled the domination of these colonies?
In Italy, an artistic and educational movement known as humanism was predicated on the idea that enlightened men could revive the glories of antiquity by sloughing off servile obedience to tradition and embracing their divine destiny as the makers of a new era.
These humanists’ 18th century successors, looking back from their own self-styled “Age of Enlightenment”, would call their Italian forbears “Renaissance” men. Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, active in the middle of the 14th century, had planted the seeds of this idea by insisting that he and his contemporaries were living in a “dark age” of ignorance.
In contrast to most intellectuals of his time, Petrarch transferred the idea of a dark age from pagan antiquity to the present era that separated him from communion with his ancient heroes.
“What is history,” he opined, “if not the praise of Rome?” Unable to travel back in time, Petrarch comforted himself by publishing long letters addressed to long-dead interlocutors. “I would have written to you a while ago,” he told the poet Homer, “but for the fact that we lack a common language.”
Petrarch’s ideas were very influential, as was the notion that Italians could finally reclaim their ancient heritage if they could break with an unsatisfactory present in which they were at the mercy of the predatory monarchies surrounding them.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Dream of a Reunited Empire
This was the conviction that inspired the Florentine civil servant, Niccolò Machiavelli, to apply his deep study of Roman history to his more famous treatise addressed to Italy’s princes. The end to be justified by the ruthless means, Machiavelli described in The Prince, would be the unification of Italy under a single ruler and the restoration of Rome’s status as imperial capital.
Meanwhile, humanist philosophers and artists were pursuing projects that glorified the qualities needed to bring about this bright future. Reviving the dictum of the Athenian sophist Protagoras, they declared new men like themselves to be “the measure of all things”.
One only has to think about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” or Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam’s animation by his Creator, on the Sistine ceiling, to get the point. Indeed, the papacy’s decision, around 1500, to tear down the early medieval basilica of Saint Peter and build a vast new church modeled on Vitruvian proportions was a concrete and institutional statement of the Church’s own break with the past.
The labeling of contemporary architectural styles elsewhere in Europe as Gothic was a way of ridiculing them as hideous throwbacks to a barbarian past. The brewing of the Protestant Reformation and its aftermath, in which the Church of Rome reemerged as the Roman Catholic Church, would widen even further the chasm between the world as it had been and the new modern world that was replacing it.
The Discovery of a New Land
Thus, Europeans in the late 15th century were defining their identity in new ways—particularly, as a people emerging from a period of intellectual, cultural, and political stagnation.
And all of this was happening as Europeans, many of them familiar with these ideas, were infiltrating the coast of West Africa and sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to reach India, which Muslim and Jewish mariners had been accessing, via the Red Sea, for centuries, but never in significant numbers.
Then, in 1492, a Genoese mariner, bankrolled by the “Most Catholic Monarchs” of Spain, sailed westward in the hopes of reaching China. He and his men encountered, instead, peoples whose existence had been hitherto unknown. The shock of this discovery, for many Europeans, eroded their faith in conventional wisdom still more.
How could these lands have been overlooked in the Bible and unanticipated by the Fathers of the Church? These peoples, many reasoned, must be the “monstrous races” that ancient geographers had long foretold.
That would help to explain their dark skin, primitive lifestyles, and bestial habits. As Columbus reported in a public letter describing his first voyage, they were also remarkably timid and backward, possessing no iron weapons or other recognizable technologies.
Unlike the Eurasian barbarians described by ancient Greek and Roman ethnographers—the Thracians, the Germanic tribes—these races were neither fierce nor warlike; they were also easily duped and would readily trade valuable property—from real estate and precious metals to each other—for mere shreds of cloth.
So the elements were starting to come together, in these first decades of the 16th century: the idea of European male supremacy—aligned with but not dependent on Christianity, and so more modern and enlightened; the idea that certain physical characteristics, especially brown or black skin, were markers of biological backwardness.
Added to these elements were older ideas about the duty of those in power to identify and police potentially dangerous others. Although I have argued that medieval ideas of race did not depend on skin color, there were, in Cord Whitaker’s phrase, medieval “metaphors of Blackness” derived from the Bible and earlier encounters with ethnic others—the swarthy Arab, the Black Irish, for instance—that could be repurposed and applied to newly racialized groups of enslaved or conquered peoples.
There was also the centuries-long Christian justification for the persecution of Jews, a group that was also being associated with racialized stereotypes. These ideas could now be blended and used to justify the treatment of a newly constructed race of “natural” slaves.
Common Questions about What Made the Medieval Europeans Racially Superior
It was an artistic and educational movement, predicated on the idea that enlightened men could revive the glories of antiquity by sloughing off servile obedience to tradition and embracing their divine destiny as the makers of a new era so that they could revive the reach of Roman power.
The Europeans thought that there was no way these lands had been overlooked in the Bible and unanticipated by the Fathers of the Church, and that their inhabitants must be the monstrous races that ancient geographers had long foretold.
Ideas like European male supremacy aligned with Christianity and certain physical characteristics like brown or black skin being markers of biological backwardness blended together with older ideas such as the duty of those in power to identify and police potentially dangerous others as well as Christian justification for the persecution of Jews. These all were used to justify the treatment of a newly constructed race of slaves.