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Is racism Christian?

Blumenbach’s five races (Wikimedia image)

I was taught that racism developed out of Johannes Blumenbach’s Anthropological Treatises in the late eighteenth century, specifically his doctoral thesis On the Natural Variety of Mankind, University of Göttingen, which was first published in 1775. In this work he outlined five races of humanity: Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopean, American. These later became Caucasian, East Asiatic, Southeast Asiatic, Negro and American Indian.

Recently, however, an edition of Zygon has discussed the notion that the origins of racialism are not to be found in scientific anthropology, but in the general ideas that preceded it. To wit, in Christian thought. The symposium, entitled “Terence Keel’s Divine Variations: A Symposium”, includes pro- and con- views of Keel’s thesis that “the formation of the race concept in the minds of Western European and American scientists grew out of and remained indebted to Christian intellectual history”.

I haven’t seen Keel’s book yet, and the articles are critical of his use of Blumenbach (particularly Hamm, whose comments strike me as germane and measured). But I do think there is something in it. Racism did not develop out of the classical era. The dividing characters there were more to do with language, cultural practices and morés, and religion than anything close to what we would call race. And the influence of the Genesis narrative on racial typification (sons of Cain, sons of Noah, etc.), particularly in the period from the reformation on, cannot be underestimated.

But the primary source, as argued by Geraldine Heng, first in a couple of papers, and more recently in a book, The invention of race in the middle ages, was the racialisation of Jews, Romani and Muslims. By “othering” (an annoying but useful neologism) these ethnicities in an essentialist fashion, by stereotyping the group. It allows us to do something that is fundamental to prejudicial treatment of out-groups: to dismiss others as less worthy than ourselves.

Of course, not only Christian cultures do this, but the choice of biosocial “properties” as the discriminata is uniquely medieval western Christian. Greeks denigrated “barbarians” but because they didn’t speak the right way (“bar bar bar”) or eat the right way, not because they had the wrong skin colour or physiognomy.

Tie this in with the Aristotelian logic that was the later medieval heritage that Aquinas eventually folded into the foundations of western Christianity, which is based upon dividing general concepts (genera) into specific concepts (species) and you have a taxonomic approach to people and practices that almost inevitably will result in dividing humans into distinct and ranked groups.

So racism is Christian in the following sense: as Keel says, Christians saw themselves as the successors to the Jews as God’s chosen people (supersessionism), and were heir to the Tanakh talk of “peoples” or “nations”, especially in the Torah. Of course at first this had a very different meaning; and it applied to cultures and political entities rather than anything biosocial. As Heng notes, race was invented (not under that name) to deal with out-groups within Europe, and in particular the Jews and Romani. And as the story I was taught goes, a Christian, Johannes Blumenbach, divided humanity up into races for the purposes of scientific anthropology, although he did not rank them according to intelligence or capabilities. That came later, and it was tied up with the behaviours of Christians: slave traders to the Americas.


Fehige, Yiftach. “In What Sense Exactly Did Christianity Give Us Racial Science?” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 230–36.

Hamm, Ernie. “Christian Thought, Race, Blumenbach, and Historicizing.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 237–45.

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

———. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages1.” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (2011): 315–31.

———. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages II: Locations of Medieval Race1.” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 332–50.

Keel, Terence. Divine Variations: How Christian Thought Became Racial Science. Stanford University Press, 2018.

———. “Response to My Critics: The Life of Christian Racial Forms in Modern Science.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 261–79.

———. “The Religious Preconditions for the Race Concept in Modern Science.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 225–29.

Marks, Jonathan. “The Coevolution of Human Origins, Human Variation, and Their Meaning in the Nineteenth Century.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 246–51.

Neswald, Elizabeth. “Racial Science and ‘Absolute Questions’: Reoccupations and Repositions.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 252–60.


  1. davidlduffy davidlduffy

    Heng (2011)

    gives the example

    “The 13th century encyclopedia of Bartholomeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, offers a theory of climate in which cold lands produce white folk, and hot lands produce black: white being, we are told, a visual marker of inner courage, while the men of Africa, possessing black faces, short bodies, and crisp hair are ‘cowards of heart’ and ‘guileful’.”

    But this comes straight from Aristotle on natural slavery

    “Aristotle observes that Greeks are mid-way geographically between Europeans, who live in a cold climate, and Asiatics; and they are mid-way between them in terms of character and intelligence as well (Pol. 7.7, 1327b18-31). The clear implication is that the differences are caused by the climatic variations. Environmental explanations were certainly current in Aristotle’s day. Greeks are spirited and intelligent; Europeans are full of spirit, but lacking in intelligence and art; Asiatics are intelligent and technically-minded, but lacking in spirit. Thus the European climate produces over-stimulated spirit (thumos) while impairing intelligence; the Asiatic climate leaves intelligence unimpaired while producing under-stimulated spirit.”

    19th century European racial thought had a very similar division, but moved the “just right” zone.

    Pliny mentions the contemporary Roman knowledge of African races (Egypt was part of Asia): “The Atlantes, if we believe what is said, [who] have lost all characteristics of humanity…the Ægipani, half men, half beasts, the Blemmyæ, the Gamphasantes, the Satyri, and the Himantopodes…a race of people with feet resembling thongs [perhaps Australians?].”

  2. Yes, Heng is I think better on this than Keel. However, the critical point is the invention of “race” as both a taxonomic category and an evaluative notion. Pliny’s monsters don’t count.

  3. Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

    Doesn’t Islam think it superseded Christianity? Islam seemed to be more tolerant for instance when it ruled Spain.

  4. davidlduffy davidlduffy

    Benjamin Isaac (2004), The invention of racism in classical antiquity, goes over this same material. Monsters are especially relevant to Buffon’s theory of degeneration.

  5. Islam, like all global movements, has a mixed history on inclusiveness. Non-believers were required to pay a special tax, but they weren’t usually discriminated against otherwise during the Caliphates. And yes, Islam is supersupersessionist…

  6. Reading the Bryn Mawr review ( it seems this is a work I ought to read. Thank you. I still think, though, that this need not be about “race”, however Isaac defines it, as there is a sense that is quite novel post-Blumenbach. And Buffon’s degeneration theory is neither novel, nor really based on “unalterable traits” as Isaac defines it. It is also post-Blumenbach.

    The fascination with monsters as deviations from the (created) norm is ubiquitous throughout the late classical and medieval periods in the west. And yet, race as such is a much later development.

  7. Jeb Jeb

    I think this is a nice intro to some of the issues with medieval concepts of race ethnicity.

    It covers a lot of ground and places things like descent terms in a wider and fuller context.

    i.e. “gente et animo barbarus” (a barbarian in blood and behavior)

    Robert Bartlett, Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity.

    Link to an open access copy from St. Andrews

    • That is a lovely piece.

      Medieval conceptions of race and nation are so tightly linked that it is virtually impossible to draw up a bibliography of medieval nationalism that is not also a bibliography of medieval ethnicity. On the other hand, perhaps, for the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the two strands can be distinguished. The medieval situation was one where “race” almost always means the same thing as “ethnic group.” Outside the slave markets of Genoa and such places, visible somatic features were relatively unimportant markers.

  8. Jeb Jeb

    He has a habit of producing seriously high quality work here.

  9. Jeb Jeb

    Working out the relationship between a kingdom and its ethnic make up is vexing.

    Kingdom can decline and the terminology may alter conceptually to reflect that altering political landscape.

    It can get rather complicated rather fast.

  10. davidlduffy davidlduffy

    Hi John.

    I think degeneration does have a very similar flavour to Aristotle and following him Pliny, who wrote “Ethiopians are scorched by their vicinity to the sun’s heat, and they are born, like persons who have been burned, with the beard and hair frizzled; while, in the opposite and frozen parts of the earth, there are nations with white skins and long light hair. The latter are savage from the inclemency of the climate, while the former are dull from its variableness…In the middle of the earth there is a salutary mixture of the two, a tract fruitful in all things, the habits of the body holding a mean between the two, with a proper tempering of colours; the manners of the people are gentle, the intellect clear, the genius fertile and capable of comprehending every part of nature. They have formed empires, which has never been done by the remote nations”.

    So, Sloan [The Idea of Racial Degeneracy in Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, 1973] has it that:

    “Buffon develops the empirical evidence for a geographical degeneration of man as has moved from his place of origin […the temperate climes of Northern Europe and to some extent those of Asia…] …in any direction away from Europe… particularly in the degenerate nature of the American Aborigine…[This is] cumulative, historically progressive, and irremedial in any short duration of time…the oran-utang might be simply the most degenerate of men, one step beyond the Hottentot…[and] fertile crosses of Negroes and apes have taken place and entered both lineages [Histoire Naturelle XIV, p31, 1766]. ” The latter is suggested even though Buffon is a monogenicist, and surely represents an interest in monsters and echoes Pliny’s mythical races.

    If we are are talking natural philosophising about differences between the peoples of Africa, Europe and Asia, then I don’t see much difference between the theories of Aristotle and Buffon, although the latter could present many more empirical data and more extensive (scientific!) speculation about mechanism.

    As for the subtleties of differentiating between chauvinism, xenophobia and racism in societies that lacked that particular vocabulary, one test might be attitudes on regarding offspring from intermarriage – it seems fairly free and easy in the Greek colonies and many areas in the Roman empire, and yet there are some restrictive laws at different times.

  11. Jeb Jeb

    “though the latter could present many more empirical data and more extensive (scientific!) speculation”

    That’s amusing.

    The second edition of Histoire Naturelle, which was held in the advocates library in Scotland (it appears to have been purchased by David Hume) it has a series of faded ink marks in volume three. In most cases the mark appears beside a racial characteristic ‘Indian race with one monstrous leg’, ‘men with tails in the Philippines, etc.

    Prime suspect is James Burnett as he uses all the markeed examples: add Buffon’s take on plenitude and it helps to explain some of Burnett’s more excessive use of travelers tales, notable his early insistence that a race of tailed men doth exist.

  12. davidlduffy davidlduffy

    I was previously led to Bomare’s [1769] Universal Dictionary of Natural History, who use Buffon’s ideas on species to discuss horse breeding: “absolument nécessitire dans les Haras [stud], c’est le soin de croiser [intercross] les races, pour les empêcher [prevent] de dégénérer”. Each separate “race” of animals, in this context, is an imperfect image of the first progenitor, but to get back to the original you have to triangulate across the races to get closer to the Edenic original, who presumably is the best runner. Dunno what his thoughts on human crosses were. Anyway, I have yet to read JW’s book on this stuff.

  13. Jeb Jeb

    Burnett is an obsessive and highly conservative user of Aristotle. Buffon stimulated his major volumes of work on the history of mind and his investigation of the orangutan/ feral children.

    You may find the research useful here if you want to explore the relationship of Aristotle/ Buffon further.

    Iain Maxwell Hammett’s thesis, Lord Monboddo’s Of The Origin and Progress of Language: Its Sources, Gensis and Background.

    Best introduction and easily accessible in digital form.

  14. davidlduffy davidlduffy

    An interesting post by Eric Schliesser

    led me to Sweet (1997, who argues Christian attitudes to black Africans were transmitted from the Moors:

    By the ninth century, Muslims were making distinctions between black and white slaves..The white mamnuk commanded a higher price than the black ‘abd because he could bring a substantial Christian ransom or be exchanged for a Muslim captive. The differing treatment of white and black slaves reflected their relative worth. The mamnuk was viewed as an investment to protect,.. [w]herever there was back-breaking work to be done in the Arab world, black slaves were made to do it. From ninth-century Iraqi land reclamation projects to fourteenth-century Saharan salt and copper mines…White slaves were…usually household servants.

    …In the eleventh century,Toledo historian Sd’id al-Andalusi wrote..
    For those peoples . . . who live near and beyond the equinoctal line to the limit of the inhabited world in the south, the long presence of the sun at the zenith makes the air hot and the atmosphere thin. Because of this their temperaments become hot and their humors fiery, their color black and their hair woolly. Thus, they lack self-control and steadiness of mind and are overcome by fickleness, foolishness, and ignorance. Such are the blacks, who live at the extremity of the land of Ethiopia, the Nubians, the Zanj and the like.

    From an initial differentiation on ransom price, Sweet argues Iberian Muslims moved rapidly to an Aristotelian climate justification as well as the religious “Race of Ham” argument about why slavery was acceptable, even for some black fellow Muslims:

    Islamic interpretations of Noah’s curse varied, but a tenth-century Persian historian, Tabari, presented a typically racial response…”Ham begot all blacks and people with crinkly hair…Noah put a curse on Ham, according to which the hair of his descendants would not extend over their ears and they would be enslaved wherever they were encountered.

  15. davidlduffy davidlduffy

    Yeah, but Canaan is (merely) the first of the Race of Ham, who actually committed the putative offence.

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