The importance of sexual stereotypes in the construction of the modern and contemporary racial rhetoric is well known. 19th– and 20th -century European colonialism required a form of ideological justification, and the nascent biological theories of race provided much-needed support, granting (pseudo-)scientific merit to the colonial expansion program.[i]
The result was an affirmation of ideas regarding the necessary ‘civilizing’ function of Western powers, which, because of their moral and intellectual superiority, had the ‘obligation’ to educate populations that were believed to sit lower on the evolutionary scale. Scientific observation of the sexual behaviour of colonized populations further contributed to the justification of Western domination. The field of anthropology benefitted greatly from the new horizons opened up by the conquests. Non-European peoples became a subject of study, and their religions, customs, traditions, physical forms and mental habits were all observed and documented in light of the classificatory impulse that remained one of the most decisive features of 19th-century scientific discourses.[ii]
The construction of racial theories in the 19th century was located within a specific social and cultural context. For a long time, historians have denied that “race” can be used as a descriptive category for phenomena that took place before the crystallization of this modern biological explanatory model. However, recent historiography has challenged these assumptions. Race is not a stable, rigid category that has materialized in “singular, static forms”.[iii] Ideas of fluidity and instability have now been largely accepted and are understood to be one of the main reasons for the adaptability and periodic emergence of racial discourses in different historical and social contexts.[iv] In medieval and early modern Europe, religious labels often assumed a more or less explicit racialized undertone”.[v]
In late medieval and early modern Spain, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric gave birth to racialized religious stereotypes that exercised an enduring influence in shaping the terms by which Christians in Europe referred to non-Christians.The word “raça” in some of its medieval and early modern applications seemed to allude to a form of biological inheritance.[vi]
As we have seen in the previous blogs, sexual themes have been intertwined with anti-Muslim rhetoric since the late Middle Ages. This combination had large consequences in driving the inquisitorial persecution of Muslims, both converts and non-converts, across the Iberian Peninsula. This model of prosecution was exported overseas. The anti-Muslim rhetoric was one of the lenses through which Iberian observers scrutinised and interpreted the customs and habits of the populations they encountered along the paths of their foreign expansion. During their “conquests”, xenophobia and marginalisation, which had previously been configured upon a primarily religious basis, were selectively re-purposed to confront new political and cultural contexts. In this context, classic models exerted an equally decisive influence. In ancient times, Greeks and Romans had identified “barbarians” with a monstrous and unregulated sexuality. [vii] One of the models that contributed most to the ongoing “sexualisation” of the fear aroused by the foreigner in Western culture was the repertoire of monstruous races contained in Pliny’s Natural History.[viii]
As already argued by Rudi C. Bleys[ix] and, more recently, by Carmen Nocentelli,[x] Christians’ relationships first with Jews and Muslims and then with non-European populations profoundly changed the perception of sexuality in the Western world: it prepared the ground for an understanding of sexual behavior that moved beyond theologically-based moral categories. The belief that some ethnic groups were more prone to vice than others gradually shifted the axis of reflection on sexuality from moral reflection to naturalistic investigation. Greek and Roman medicine had already assumed a similar perspective in its considerations of the organic causes of homosexual desire, and a continuity was maintained in European medieval commentaries on classical texts.[xi] However, when this theoretical debate came to be conflated with proto-anthropological reflections on non-European peoples, the process accelerated and helped to formulate the image of the sexual deviant, even within European societies, as belonging to a “species” to himself. Notions derived from Galenic humoral theories reinforced naturalized interpretations of cultural differences. It was commonly believed that temperate climates favored a balance between moods and, consequently, the development of balanced complexions. On the other hand, those who lived in equatorial or torrid areas were believed to be characterized by more unstable complexions and to be more inclined to abandon themselves to the passions. “Within this framework”, Valerie Traub wrote, “inhabitants of southern climes were considered more prone to sexual ‘excess’ of various sort”.[xii] Burton’s theories on the “Sotadic zone”, with which we opened this introduction, thus had their roots in a very distant time.
From: Umberto Grassi, “Sexual Nonconformity: A Mediterranean Perspective,” in Mediterranean Corssings: Sexual Transgressions in Islam and Christianity, edited by Umberto Grassi, Rome: Viella, 2020, pp. 9-24.
“In September 2019, the Folger Institute and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies co-sponsored an extraordinary gathering at the Folger Shakespeare Library to explore the history of the ways we understand race—in all of its meanings. The focus of the Race and Periodization symposium was the relationship between race and historical periods; it was part of the #RaceB4Race initiative, which launched in January 2019 at Arizona State University” (https://www.folger.edu/institute/scholarly-programs/race-periodization). Participating in this event has been a turning point in my understanding of the issue.
Margo Hendricks was a pioneer in promoting the use of the category of “race” in premodern literary studies: Margo Hendricks, “Race: A Renaissance Category?”, in Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, ed. by Michael Hattaway, Oxford and Malden (MA), Blackwell, 2001, pp. 690-698.
Valerie Traub, “Sexuality”, in A Cultural History of Western Empires, vol. 3, A Cultural History of Western Empires in the Renaissance, pp. 147-180
David Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Geraldine Heng, Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Carmen Nocentelli, Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Rudi Bleys, Geography of Perversion: Male-to-Male Sexual Behaviour outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918, New York: New York University Press, 1995.
[i] Ann L. Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” and the Colonial Order of Things, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1995. On colonialism and sexuality, see also Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1990. On Orientalism and homosexuality, see Joseph A. Boone, Orientalism and Homosexuality, New York, Columbia University Press, 2015.
[ii] Jean-Raphaël Bourge, “Colonialismo, omosessualità e mondo islamico nell’immaginario erotico europeo tra Otto e Novecento”, in Le trasgressioni della carne. Il desiderio omosessuale nel mondo islamico e cristiano, secc. XII-XX, ed. by Umberto Grassi and Giuseppe Marcocci, Rome, Viella, 2015, pp. 187-203.
[iii] Jonathan Burton, “Race”, in A Cultural History of Western Empires, gen. ed. Antoinette Burton, vol. 3, A Cultural History of Western Empires in the Renaissance, ed. by Ania Loomba, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 203-228: 215.
[v] Traub, “Sexuality”, in A Cultural History of Western Empires, vol. 3, A Cultural History of Western Empires in the Renaissance, pp. 147-180: 152. See also: Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages”, Literature Compass, 8/5 (2011), pp. 258-274; and Ania Loomba, “Race and the Possibilities of Comparative Critique”, New Literary History, 40/3 (2009), pp. 501-522.
[vi] David Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 169-190.
[vii] Joseph Roisman, “Greek and Roman Ethnosexuality”, in A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, ed. by Thomas K. Hubbard, Chichester, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 405-423.
[viii] Traub, “Sexuality”, p. 152.
[ix] Bleys, Geography of Perversion.
[x] Carmen Nocentelli, Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
[xi] Joan Cadden, Nothing Natural is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
[xii] Traub, “Sexuality”, p. 154.