Featured Lesson: Race, Racism and the Middle Ages

Updated: September 26, 2020

This page has been built  to fuel constructive approaches  for teaching about and fighting racism in medieval studies. Inspiration for the development of this lesson page comes from recent events in the academic world.  There is a rift growing among medieval scholars and scholars of medievalism, as the below materials demonstrate.  While this rift has been developing for quite some time, with periodic rumblings of small-scale quakes, in recent years, these rumblings have grown louder, and this year the quakes have shaken the very foundation of the academy, as the below letters and petitions attest.  Scholars who have questioned and fought against racist views and racist portrayals of medieval history and literature have risked and received both public and private attacks.  Such attacks have often been malicious and have ranged from being highly unprofessional to extremely personal (including doxxing and trolling), and these attacks have come from non-academic individuals, as well as fellow scholars who have reacted strongly against attempts at fighting racist thinking within the medieval academy.

INVITATION: If you would like to add to this page, or if anyone or anything is missing from this page, please contact me (clrobins@kent.edu).

Contributors & Consultants (people who have made suggestions or shared information to the building of this page, in alphabetical order): Pamela Clements, Jeffery J. Cohen, Jonathan Hsy, Eileen A. Fradenburg Joy, Dorothy Kim, Sierra Lomuto, Martha Oberle, Julie Orlemanski, Martin B. Shichtman, Gale Sigal, Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi, Richard Utz, and Helen Young.  Please let me know if I’ve left anyone out of the list and accept my apologies!


Peripheral Information

Information that might fuel deeper discussion.

(January 22, 2017)

Some Letters, Declarations and Petitions

There has been (and continues to be) a rift in medieval scholarship over what defines “racism” and who is being racists, as the below materials demonstrate.  Additionally, the below letters, declarations, and petitions demonstrate how this racism has fueled actions of hatred, as well as responses to those actions.  These have been organized in publication order.  For now, links to actually racist letters, articles and other posts have not been included, although several of the works listed below do provide direct links to these hateful writings.  “Recent” has been limited to this year (2017).


Articles on Lessons and Other Teaching Approaches, Published in  The Once and Future Classroom: Resources for Teaching the Middle Ages — and stay tuned for the forthcoming Special Issue on Teaching Medieval Arabic Studies!

Selected List of Texts to Teach — TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies

  • Croxton Play of the Sacrament.  Ed. John Sebastian  — Surviving in a single sixteenth-century copy, this text dramatizes the physical abuse by five Muhammad-worshipping Syrian Jews of a Host, the bread consecrated by a priest during the Christian Mass. The text is the work of a playwright possessed of a tremendous theatrical imagination, notwithstanding his choice of subject matter.
  • The King of Tars.  Ed. John H. Chandler  — An early Middle English romance (ca. 1330 or earlier), this text emphasizes ideas about race, gender, and religion. A short poem, its purpose is to celebrate the power of Christianity, and yet it defies classification.
  • Richard Coer de Lion. Ed. Peter Larkin. Trans. Katherine Terrell — One of the most engaging Middle English crusading poems, Richard Coer de Lyon recounts in verse the exploits, both historical and fanciful, of Richard I, king of England. While Richard’s participation in the Third Crusade serves as its main subject, the poem disrupts its historical narrative with a number of fabulous interpolations, two of which are particularly notorious: the depiction of Richard’s mother as a demon, and the portrayal of the king himself as a voracious cannibal.
  • Siege of Jerusalem.  Ed. Michael Livingston.  Trans. Adrienne Williams Boyarin — The fourteenth-century Siege of Jerusalem has been called by Ralph Hanna “the chocolate-covered tarantula of the alliterative movement” for its apparent anti-Semitism and is, as Livingston notes in his introduction, “simply difficult for twenty-first-century readers to like.” The poem, which describes the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman forces in AD 70, is graphic in detail and unpleasant in its relish of the suffering of the Jews. But as Livingston points out, “Like the gritty violence of Alliterative Morte Arthure, the gore in Siege is perhaps best read as a grim awareness of the terrible realities of war, not as a bloodthirsty and berserk cry for further bloodshed. . . . That the poem is a call to action and to crusade, then, seems to be a claim that is far less sustainable than its opposite: a call to peace and to remembrance.”
  • Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances.  Ed. Alan Lupack — This volume serves as an excellent introduction to the tradition of romances dealing with the matter of France—that is, Charlemagne and his Twelve Peers. Of the three groups of English Charlemagne romances, the Ferumbras group, the Otuel group, and “detached romances,” the editor has selected one of each: The Sultan of Babylon, The Siege of Milan, and The Tale of Ralph the Collier. This is a valuable introduction to Charlemagne romances and is accessible to beginners in Middle English because of contextualizing introductions and glosses for each text, as well as a helpful glossary.


Continually Updated Resources

  • Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography  — This is an absolutely wonderful Google document started by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski.  It is becoming fairly comprehensive, and is still developing; click on the link to both read and contribute! NOTE: Some of the bibliographic information on these sites is inaccurate; please do not expect this document to either be a final product or a fully edited/corrected work.
  • People of Color in European Art History
    Because you wouldn’t want to be historically inaccurate.  — This is a Tumblr site that is constantly updated with images, such as the one to the right of this text.
  • Black Central Europe: 1100-1500  — “What were Black experiences in Europe like before the arrival of the transatlantic slave trade? How did medieval Europeans view the continent of Africa? Where did the black St. Maurice and the Black Magus come from, and why have they persisted into the present? Discover the travels and lives of Africans in German-speaking Europe as they interacted with painters, writers, emperors, and priests. Often labeled as “Moors,” many Black figures stood at the intersection between religion (Islam and Christianity) and culture. Coming from “exotic” lands full of riches and the promises of new alliances, the Moor in the European imagination symbolized the ambitions of Christian universalism and the expansion of European empires.

Other Resources

  • Medieval Pedagogical Writings: An Epitome. Sarah B. Lynch. Kismet Press, 2018.
  • “Race.” Jeffrey J. Cohen. A Handbook of Middle English Studies.  Ed. Marion Turner.  Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013: 109-122.
  • England’s Immigrants, 1330-1550: Resident Aliens in the Middle Ages — “England’s Immigrants 1330-1550 is a major research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which has run between February 2012 and February 2015.   We are exploring the extensive archival evidence about the names, origins, occupations and households of a significant number of foreigners who chose to make their lives and livelihoods in England in the era of the Hundred Years War, the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses. The project contributes creatively to the longer-term history of immigration to England, and helps to provide a deep historical and cultural context to contemporary debates over ethnicity, multiculturalism and national identity.”
  • Internet Medieval Sourcebook (Paul Halsal, Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies) — This was last edited in 2011.

Recent Peer Reviewed Articles and Books

This is a developing list of works not featured in one of the journal or blog publications listed further below, organized in publication order.  “Recent” has been limited to five years ago or sooner (2013-2017), including recent reprints. For a significantly more comprehensive list, see Julie Orlemanski and Jonthan Hsy’s Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography.







Other Recent Blog Entries and Articles

This is a developing list of works not featured in one of the journal or blog publications listed further below, organized in publication order.  “Recent” has been limited to six years ago or sooner (2012-2017). For a significantly more comprehensive list, see Julie Orlemanski and Jonthan Hsy’s Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography.

Special Issues & Running Features

In the Middle
peace love & the middle Ages

The Public Medievalist Special Focus: Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages (Ed. Paul B. Sturtevant)

Postmedieval 6.1: Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages  (Ed. Cord J. Whitaker) Spring 2015

Postmedieval 5.3: The Holocaust and the Middle Ages (Eds. Hannah Johnson and Nina Caputo) September, 2014