Constructing Racial Differences

There is a common misconception that medieval and early modern Europe was exclusively “white.” This is demonstrably untrue. Both visual and textual evidence documents the presence of people of color in medieval and early modern Europe. I’ll give you just a few pieces of this evidence to start with, but I emphasize it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

First, let’s look at some art historical evidence. European artists frequently depicted people of color. Although it is not necessarily the case that an artist who depicted a person of color worked from life, there are many cases where it is clear that they did.  Here’s a portrait of an unusually highly educated and influential 17th-century British noblewoman, Elizabeth Maitland, Duchess of Lauderdale (1626 – 1698). Note the subservient young black man by her side holding a basket of flowers for her. Servants and slaves of African descent were not uncommon in the households of the wealthy in early modern Europe. Indeed, such “human accessories” served to show off the wealth and taste of aristocrats.

ELIZABETH MURRAY, LADY TOLLEMACHE, LATER COUNTESS OF DYSART AND DUCHESS OF LAUDERDALE WITH A BLACK SERVANT by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), c1651, painting in the Long Gallery at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames

Here is another example, this time from Italy. This is a portrait of Laura Dianti (1480 – 1573), mistress of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, by the Italian painter Titian (ca. 1488/1490 – 1576). The boy is simply identified as her “page.”

Titian, Portrait of Laura de Danti (ca. 1523). Wikimedia Commons.

In the late sixteenth century, the Nuremberg goldsmith, Christoph Jamnitzer (1563 – 1618) made this elaborate drinking vessel in the shape of a “Moor’s” head.


Finally, in 1521, the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528,) sketched this portrait of a twenty-year old black slave or servant named Katharina.

Albrecht Dürer, “Portrait of Katherina” (1521). Wikimedia Commons.

For more art historical evidence, see People of Color in European Art History.

Antonio Muñoz Degraín, “Othello and Desdemona” (1880). Wikimedia Commons.

I’ll just offer one piece of textual evidence. In one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, the title character, Othello, is a “Moor” living in Venice. He is not a slave, but a general in the Venetian army.

So there certainly were people of color in medieval and early modern Europe. There were also Europeans who spent time in other parts of the world (China, the Middle East and Africa) and wrote about their experiences, including their encounters with “other” sorts of peoples.

I’ll focus on this page on just two categories of difference (as defined and understood by Europeans). The first is the differences between Christians and Jews, and the second is the differences between Europeans and Africans.

Illuminated manuscript of Jewish money lenders in France at the time of Louis XI (c. 1270). Wikimedia Commons.

There were Jews and Jewish communities throughout Europe in the medieval and early modern periods. Jews lived under considerable legal, economic and social strictures. They were generally forbidden to practice almost all trades, with the exceptions of money lending, pawn broking and medicine. Their activities as moneylenders and pawnbrokers made them feared and hated by many Christians, and they were routinely condemned as cruel and avaricious. (But note, they were denied almost every other way of making a living!)

Despite their relatively small numbers, Jews made up almost half of all medical practitioners in some parts of Europe. They were forbidden to study medicine at universities, but they translated a huge number of medical and natural philosophical texts into Hebrew, and composed their own medical books, making their level of learning as high as that of any Christian physicians. Unfortunately, their reputation for medical skill contributed to accusations that they deliberately spread plague by poisoning the air or water. Such accusations led to mob violence and massacres of Jews during plague epidemics.

2000 Jews burned to death in Strasbourg in 1349 during outbreak of plague. Wikimedia Commons.

By the early modern period, Jews had been expelled from some cities and countries (the Spanish crown ordered all Jews to convert of leave in 1492). In others, they were restricted to a small area, called the ghetto. The oldest ghetto in Europe is the Venetian ghetto, established in 1516. Jews were required to live there, although they had to rent living quarters because they were forbidden to own real estate in Venice, and they were locked into the ghetto at night.

By the twelfth century, Christian philosophers, physicians and theologians start to articulate the idea that Jews differ physically from Christians. This meant that even Jews who converted to Christianity were not truly Christian. Being “Jewish” became a racial category, not a religious category. For example, Spanish Jews who converted in 1492 to avoid being driven out of their homes were not called “Christians.” They were called conversos (converts) or “New Christians.” New Christian were not as good as “Old Christians.” The Spanish developed a set of laws on limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) that placed restrictions on people who had “Jewish blood.” That is, the descendants of conversos were not truly Christian because their blood was not pure enough. Even if they had been raised Christian and were devout believers, they were never as good as “Old Christians.” (Also, there were all sorts of concerns about the genuineness of these conversions and whether or not conversos were actually still secretly practicing Judaism. The Spanish Inquisition was originally established to root out these “crypto-Jews.”)

In the thirteenth century, some medical and religious writers start to argue that Jewish men are colder than Christian men, and that Jewish men, like women, menstruate. Recall that the standard explanation for why women menstruate and men don’t is that the female body is colder than the male body. Menstruation, for Christians, was also linked with sin. Many Christians believed that Eve did not menstruate until after the Fall. Menstruation was part of the curse God laid on Eve for being the first to bite into the forbidden fruit. Thus, they had no difficulty believing that Jews menstruated because God was punishing them for crucifying His son Jesus. Christian writers invoked the following passage from Matthew’s gospel to justify the belief that Jewish men menstruate:

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood [or, ‘this righteous blood’]; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Matthew 27:24-25

These medical and religious explanations of the physical differences between Jews and Christians became thickly intertwined.  In the thirteenth century, Henry the German (or Henry of Brussels) wrote on the subject of Jewish male menstruation:

It was asked whether Jews suffer a flux of blood…. Jews have a flux of blood of the haemorrhoids[sic], and the first cause of this, is that physicians say that a flux of blood is caused by gross indigested blood which nature purges. This abounds more in Jews because for the most part they are melancholics. [They are melancholics] because the melancholic shuns dwelling and assembling with others and likes cut off or solitary places. However, Jews naturally withdraw themselves from society and from being connected with others, as is patent, therefore they are melancholics. Item, they are pallid, therefore they are of melancholic complexion. Item, they are naturally timid, and these three are the contingent properties of melancholics, as Hippocrates says. But he who is melancholic has a lot of melancholic blood, and manifestly must have a flux of blood, but Jews are of this sort.

And in the early fourteenth century Bernard of Gordon, a professor of medicine at the University of Montpellier, wrote:

Jews suffer an immoderate flow of blood from hemorrhoids for three reasons: generally, because they are in idleness, and for that reason the melancholic superfluities are gathered. Second, they are generally in fear and anxiety, and for this reason melancholic blood is increased, according to this [saying] of Hippocrates:” Fear and timidity, if they have a lot of time [to work], generate the melancholic humor.” Third, this occurs as a divine punishment . . .

In the fifteenth century, these medico-religious explanations of the physical differences between Jew and Christians were integrated with another popular belief about Jews (one for which I emphasize there is ABSOLUTELY NO HISTORICAL EVIDENCE): the myth of Jewish ritual murder. As early as the twelfth century, there were accusations that Jews kidnapped and killed innocent Christian children (almost always boys) and used their blood in bizarre and unholy rituals. These accusations led to the arrests and executions of numerous Jews in the Middle Ages and on into the early modern period. In at least two ritual murder trials in the late fifteenth century, Jews were accused of seeking the blood of Christian boys specifically to replenish the blood they lost through menstruation.

Jewish ritual murder of Christian boy from Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik (1493), CCLIII. Wikimedia Commons.

These beliefs about Jews continued on into the early modern period. In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, for example, the character of Shylock is a greedy, melancholic Jew. Indeed, these anti-Semitic beliefs about the physical and moral nature of Jews were repeated by the Nazis in justification of the “Final Solution” and continue to be repeated by Holocaust deniers to this day.


The first Portuguese ships filled with captured and enslaved Africans arrived in Europe in the 1440s. African slaves were most common in Spain and Italy, but they made their way all over Europe. Not all people of African origin in Europe were slaves. There were freed slaves and freeborn blacks. A rare few African nobles or ambassadors visited European courts. And certainly within a few decades there were people of mixed race, some of whom were enslaved and some of whom were not.  European views of Africans, and of how Africans differed from them, were shaped by a variety of factors. To take the oldest first: Europeans inherited from Hippocrates a belief in the effect of climate on human character. Recall that in the humoral theory, one of the six non-naturals – the things that influence the humoral balance – is the environment. This included the climate, seasons and weather, as well as the general nature of the land. In the Hippocratic Treatise Airs, Waters, Places, the author explains how people vary based on the places they live in. For example, the author describes “Asiatics” as a cowardly and feeble race. This is a result both of the climate in which they live and their forms of government.

And with regard to the pusillanimity and cowardice of the inhabitants, the principal reason the Asiatics are more unwarlike and of gentler disposition than the Europeans is, the nature of the seasons, which do not undergo any great changes either to heat or cold, or the like; for there is neither excitement of the understanding nor any strong change of the body whereby the temper might be ruffled and they be roused to inconsiderate emotion and passion, rather than living as they do always in the state. It is changes of all kinds which arouse understanding of mankind, and do not allow them to get into a torpid condition. For these reasons, it appears to me, the Asiatic race is feeble, and further, owing to their laws; for monarchy prevails in the greater part of Asia, and where men are not their own masters nor independent, but are the slaves of others, it is not a matter of consideration with them how they may acquire military discipline, but how they may seem not to be warlike, for the dangers are not equally shared, since they must serve as soldiers, perhaps endure fatigue, and die for their masters, far from their children, their wives, and other friends; and whatever noble and manly actions they may perform lead only to the aggrandizement of their masters, whilst the fruits which they reap are dangers and death; and, in addition to all this, the lands of such persons must be laid waste by the enemy and want of culture. Thus, then, if any one be naturally warlike and courageous, his disposition will be changed by the institutions. As a strong proof of all this, such Greeks or barbarians in Asia as are not under a despotic form of government, but are independent, and enjoy the fruits of their own labors, are of all others the most warlike; for these encounter dangers on their own account, bear the prizes of their own valor, and in like manner endure the punishment of their own cowardice. And you will find the Asiatics differing from one another, for some are better and others more dastardly; of these differences, as I stated before, the changes of the seasons are the cause. Thus it is with Asia.

Europeans employed very similar logic to explain why people from Africa were more savage and less civilized than Europeans. For example, the sixteenth-century English writer, Thomas Hill asserted that Africans were, “monstrous of forme, and have rude wits, . . . like to wilde and furious beasts” because the climate they came from was so hot. People who lived near the equator, including “Ethiopians or Moores,” had small heads because their brains were “but litle and withered” by the extreme heat. They had short, crooked, black bodies, “wrinckled faces,” and “thicke crisped haire on their heades,” and they were “grosse and dull of senses.”   As for the frigid regions under the north and south poles (the arctic and antarctic circles), Hill reports that “it is well knowne that Gothland, Norway, Russia, Lapeland, Groneland, and divers other countries towarde the North pole, is inhabited and well peopled.”   The people of these cold regions were superior to the people of the hot regions. They were “white of body, having long heare on the head, tall and comely of stature and personage.”   However, the great cold of these regions made them “wilde and cruell.” The people of the temperate zones, which included most of Europe, were “gentler and civiler” and “temperate in nature and quality.”  Hill’s writing displays the way in which Europeans incorporated encounters with new places and peoples into already existing theoretical frameworks, such as humoral theory.

ELIZABETH MURRAY, LADY TOLLEMACHE, LATER COUNTESS OF DYSART AND DUCHESS OF LAUDERDALE WITH A BLACK SERVANT by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), c1651, painting in the Long Gallery at Ham House, Richmond-upon-ThamesEuropean views of Africans were also shaped by their observations of African (specifically West African) cultural practices. However, they were hardly neutral observers! Europeans judged African practices by their own particular understandings of what was “civilized.” For example, many Europeans commented on the African practice of wearing jewelry, especially earrings. Note that in the portraits of Elizabeth Maitland and Laura Dianti above, their slaves are wearing gold earrings. However, for Europeans, such jewelry had some quite negative connotations. In many cities, Italian cities, Jewish women were required by law to wear earrings so they could be identified as Jews. This custom thus connected Africans to another race deemed by Christian Europeans to be inferior.

Europeans perceived Africans to be more lustful and sexually promiscuous than Europeans. This belief stemmed from a number of sources. Europeans frequently described the people they encountered on the African continent as naked or near naked. For Europeans, clothing was closely tied to social status and respectability. In many parts of Europe, so-called “sumptuary” laws regulated what people of different social classes were allowed or required to wear. Europeans expected to be able to be able to read a person’s class and occupation by looking at the clothes they were wearing, and they couldn’t do that with the Africans they encountered.  Further, European Christians associated nakedness with the primitive state of innocence in the garden of Eden. After the Fall, Adam and Eve felt shame and covered themselves with leaves.  Shame was a mark of the fallen state of humanity, but it was also a marker of civilization. And within European society, the ability to feel shame marked certain people as superior to others. Children lacked a proper sense of shame, making them inferior to adults. Aristotle declared that women were “more void of shame or self-respect” than men, and this idea was widely disseminated in medieval and early modern Europe. Women were believed to be more lustful and less sexually restrained than men, and this made them inferior to men. Excessive lust was characteristic of “hotter” temperaments, and because Africans lived in a hotter climate, they must necessarily be more libidinous than people from cooler climates. Numerous reports of European travelers asserted that Africans were promiscuous and that they had a variety of “bizarre” sexual practices. They were so lustful that, like animals, they would have incestuous sex with parents, children and siblings. Given the language barriers and the intimate nature of these relationships, it’s not plausible that Europeans really “witnessed” the sexual activities that they took such obvious pleasure in describing. Under the conditions of slavery, African women had no choice about having sex with their owners, but the fiction was maintained that it was they, not their white masters, who were sexually insatiable.

In Europe, Africans were valued for their physical prowess. Of course, slaves were frequently expected to perform hard manual labor, for which physical strength was highly desirable. But in court settings, slaves often participated in sports like sword fighting, wrestling and even swimming and diving. They served as soldiers and elite bodyguards as well. It was relatively rare for slaves to become literate, and rarer for them to learn Latin, the language of learning, so Africans were unable to participate in intellectual life. This contributed to their being stereotyped as physical rather than intellectual, athletic rather than intelligent. Arte-de-Athletica-A-Duel-with-Two-Sickles

Master_of_Frankfurt,_Festival_of_the_Archers,_1493,_Royal_Museum_of_Fine_Arts,_Antwerp.In Renaissance Europe there was something of a fad for African dancing and music. There are numerous images of Africans in court settings playing music, singing or dancing.  Again, while musicality isn’t a negative trait per se, the typecasting of Africans as musical meant that they were not seen as intelligent or as possessing other occupational skills. As in the case of Jews, these negative stereotypes have had a long history that continues into the present day.


Let me end with an example that defies all the stereotypes of Africans: Jan Mostaert’s Portrait of a Moor (ca. 1525-30). This is an extraordinary – and rather mysterious – painting. The name of the subject is unknown. He is clearly NOT a slave, but a nobleman. His exceptionally rich clothes mark him out as a member of the nobility (whether he had a European title or was some kind of prince or ambassador for an African country is unknown). The deep rich red of his tunic would have come from very expensive dyes. His sword is tucked into an elaborate gold and jeweled belt. The gloves he is wearing are made of incredibly soft, supple kid leather (look how closely they fit his hands). Such items were custom made and a sign of great wealth. He does not have an earring (typical in pictures of slaves). His only piece of jewelry is the gold badge pinned to his hat. This was a pilgrimage badge, a souvenir from a visit to a major shrine to the Virgin Mary. It marks him as Christian. Although slaves who worked in court settings were often decked out in very fancy clothing (look at the little boy standing next to Laura Dianti above), this is clearly not the case here. The sitter carries a sword, which was something only members of the nobility were allowed to do. And as I noted, he does not wear earrings, which were signs of slavery. His facial hair and beard follow typical upper class European fashion. Everything about this man suggests wealth and power – except the color of his skin.



Irven M. Resnick, “Medieval Roots of the Myth of Jewish Male Menses” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp. 241-263.

T.F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe (eds.), Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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