By Peter Biller (University of York)
Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University, Collective Degradation: Slavery and the Construction of Race, November 7-8, 2003
Introduction: My theme is the black in medieval science. “Science” here refers to texts, and specifically those which came under the headings of “natural philosophy” or “medicine”, dealing with the world and bodies in it according to the order of nature as this was understood in universities. The question is first a descriptive one – what was the image of the black in these texts? – and then secondly it is interpretation – what was the significance of this image?
In gatherings of non-medieval historians there is usually some pessimism in a question about the significance of any medieval topic – entertaining? Yes. Significant? No. We know that the middle ages are picturesque, as we hold in our minds colourful pictures of castles and jousting knights, but are the middle ages relevant? On our particular theme, the question is sharpened by the great historiographical monument which looms over any approach to it, the two medieval volumes of The Image of the Black in Western Art, published in 1979. Enormous scholarly labour went into the research into images in manuscript illustration, church sculpture and painting, heraldry and coins. The large books which emerged had beautiful illustrations and provided the reader with many interesting puzzles – how, for example, did an artist produce the staggeringly realistic portrait of a negro warrior in the mid 13th century on the cathedral at Magdeburg, and what ideas lay behind this? At the same time the attempts to interprete and contextualise the images were simultaneously clever and limited. More narrowly they were limited by the necessarily vague and conjectural nature of much medieval iconography. More broadly they were limited by the lack of contemporary “social” reality behind them. They were not based on a large black presence within western Europe, nor on extensive direct knowledge of the countries and peoples of central and southern Africa. And slavery wielded no influence over the image, since the fundamental equation in the high middle ages was between Slavs and slaves, not blacks and slaves, as the linguistic fact Slav:slave witnessed. If we view the high middle ages over the long duration of centuries, perhaps we should see it as an irrelevance, occurring before the real stuff begins – where by “real stuff” we mean the charting of Africa and the proper emergence of the black slavery in the early modern period.
The Image of the Black in Western Art – information and images about the four volume series, published by Harvard University Press