‘Racism’ Before the Modern World?

Tutor: Pete Biller

Module type: Comparative Histories

Module Code: HIS00051H

The starting-point is the modernity of the idea of ‘race’. The narrative runs thus: that systematic thought about peoples only begins in early modern Europe, followed by the rise of biological classification, and then at last the real thing, the ‘racialisation’ of the world in the 19th century. Despite this, is there a case to be made for ‘racial’ thought in pre-modern societies, as argued by Benjamin Isaac in his The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity? Even if this does not hold, what is the pre-history of the idea of ‘race’?

This course looks at this pre-history, examining views of peoples in pre-modern societies. It looks at the ancient Greek invention of environmental determination of the characteristics of different peoples, asking whether ancient Greeks and Romans Romans were ethnically colour-blind. It turns to the middle ages, its ethnographies, its fantasies about Jews, Mongols and monstrous peoples, and its development of the image of black people – at a time when few people saw any of them and when slavery was not yet specially associated with Africa. It concludes with views of Jews and black people in early modern Europe and debates about peoples in the New World. Throughout the course considerable use is made of pictorial images, as well as texts that range from geography to the plays of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

Seminar topics are likely to include the following:

  • Thinking about race, and the narrative of its modernity
  • Greek invention of environmental determinism; Aristotle
  • Benjamin Isaac and the invention of racism in classical antiquity
  • The Middle Ages (i): Celts and Mongols
  • Art and the other: images of black people, classical and medieval 
  • The Middle Ages (ii): Jews; black people
  • Art and the other (ii):  monstrous races
  • Jews and black people in early modern Europe; race in the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe
  • Debates about peoples in the new world; course round-up


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.