The world is full of diverse people, cultures, and wonder. For centuries, travellers have tried to uncover the marvels of the world and learn more about societies and peoples that do not look or act like themselves. The same can be said for those who take literary voyages and find themselves lost in the pages of manuscripts and books. The Book of John Mandeville is one such literary voyage, framed as an ethnographical travel guide, and has shaped the mindsets of renowned explorers such as Christopher Columbus. Written during the mid-14th century, The Book of John Mandeville first appeared in ‘Old French; almost immediately, however, translations into other European vernaculars and Latin began to appear, along with a variety of redactions and adaptations’.
Understanding the concept and perception of race in the medieval mind is fundamental to this study. There are numerous theories surrounding what race meant in the late Middle Ages, and how it differs from our own modern understanding of the term. While our understanding is often based upon on the colour of one’s skin, this does not always apply to the racial profiles of the Middle Ages. Instead, Robert Bartlett suggests race was more akin to the modern notion of ethnicity, where race ‘almost always means the same thing as “ethnic group”’ and there was a greater focus on the ‘environmental influence [on race] and, more generally, [there was] consistent emphasis on the cultural and social component of ethnic identity. What Bartlett proposes here is that the cultural and social elements of a person or group are more significant to racial and ethnic identity to the medieval mind. While biological aspects, such as skin colour, were acknowledged, it is the physical and social environment that primarily contributed to the categorisation of race and identity. What Bartlett proposes here is that the cultural and social elements of a person or group are more significant to racial and ethnic identity to the medieval mind. While biological aspects, such as skin colour, were acknowledged, it is the physical and social environment that primarily contributed to the categorisation of race and identity. However, Geraldine Heng suggests that race is better described as ‘how human groups are identified through biological or somatic features deemed to be their durable or intrinsic characteristics, features which are then selectively moralized and interpreted to extrapolate continuities between the bodies, behaviours, and mentalities of the collective members of the group thus identified’. Thus, the concept of race is a body-centered phenomenon, where morality and biology are intrinsically linked. Like Bartlett, Heng identifies environment as being fundamental to racial identity in the medieval period, but she also further suggests that religion plays a part in shaping the medieval understanding of race, as it ‘can function both socioculturally and biopolitically’.4 Therefore, religion is believed to play an intricate part in the biology of a person and their racial identity, as well as acting as a distinguishing social and political attribute to identify a person as other. Ideas about the link between race and religion are especially fundamental in medieval perceptions towards Jews. Nicole Lopez-Jantzen shows how ideas about religion in the early Middle Ages influenced the perception of race in the later Middle Ages, as ‘later medieval racialized ideas about Jews … built upon the early Middle Ages’ shift towards religion as a fundamental marker of difference.’ The notion of difference inherently marks race to the medieval mind, whether it be a difference in cultural practices, physiology, geographical or social environments, or religious beliefs.
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