Working Group Meetings


Race & Gender in the Global Middle Ages is a working group open to all medievalists, including graduate students.  The aim is to bring together scholars from various disciplines who work on Africa, the Mongols and Asia, the Islamic world, and Europe and the Mediterranean, to discuss works-in-progress that deal with race and gender from 500 CE to 1600 CE. 

Monthly Zoom meetings will discuss pre-circulated drafts of book chapters, articles, position pieces, or a reading that is of interest to the group. Presenters will give a brief 5-minute introduction to their work and a designated responder will begin the discussion with a few questions before opening it up to the rest of the group. 

This program is sponsored by Emory University’s Medieval Studies Program,   Emory University’s Hightower Fund, The Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, and the Medieval Academy of America.

Schedule of Meetings

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May 17, 2024 12pm-1:30pm EST

Kristina Richardson, University of Virginia

John L. Nau III Professor of the History and Principles of Democracy
Professor of History and Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures

“Abuse of Black Slaves: Reading Sufi Literature Against the Grain”

Both Sufism and Ibadism focus on the spiritual equality of all Muslims, and they also arose in Basra, Iraq, sometime between 650 and 680. Strikingly, from the mid-seventh century onward, Basra was also a primary disembarkation point for Indian Ocean slaves. Eighth- and ninth-century Sufi literature, especially in Basra, tended to equate the lowest social status (enslaved eastern African common laborers) with the highest spirituality. Reading the rise of Sufism in its historical context, I argue that extreme Sufi devotional behaviors, namely excessive weeping, fearfulness, fasting, and sleeplessness, were pious reenactments of, respectively, enslaved people’s grief, terror in hostile environments, undernourishment, and forced labor day and night.

This paper draws on early hadith, Ibadi legal opinions, poetry, literary prose, agricultural manuals, and chronicles in support of this allegorical reading. The argument also challenges the presumed benignity of Middle Eastern slavery and explores the consequences of disciplinary silences around non-elite agricultural enslavement.




April 5, 2024 12pm-1:30pm EST

Matthew Vernon, Associate Professor of English

UC Davis

“Slumbering Legacies”

I will be sharing what I hope to be a chapter of my latest work. It explores the understudied legacies of W. E. B. Du Bois as a writer of “silly romances.” While this term is capacious in the time Du Bois uses it, I am particularly interested how he mobilizes the term as it relates to medieval romance. Throughout his work he returns to medieval romance as a form and a rhetorical maneuver that is meant to evoke a sharp contrast between accepted notions of Black and white subjectivities as well as historical trajectories. I will be positing that Du Bois is strategic in this deployment of romance to break down such clear binaries; at the same time he offers a model for a type of Black fiction that escapes the representational trap of political writing that was expected of him. Read in this way, we can see Du Bois as an antecedent to a contemporary move in African American literature away from the formative Civil Rights-era politics into a more opaque version of constructing Blackness.

Respondent: Dr. Cord Whitaker, Wellesley College


March 8, 2024  12pm-1:30pm EST

Jonathan Correa-Reyes, Assistant Professor of English

Clemson University

“Towards a Christian Genre of Man: Revisiting The Siege of Jerusalem”

In this chapter, I look at the rhetorical strategies through which subjects are reduced to objects in the Middle English romance The Siege of Jerusalem. For a long time, scholars neglected the Siege because of the undeniably violent treatment exercised against Jewish bodies over the course of the narrative. Recent readings of the text, however, seek to rehabilitate the narrative, arguing that the poet is sympathetic towards the Jewish victims of Roman violence. My approach to the Siege revises some of these more recent interpretations, ultimately arguing that if the poem extends sympathy or pity to the Jewish victims, these emotions still contribute to the upholding of a power structure that benefits from the oppression and exploitation of non-Christian bodies. Through my discussion of the text, I evince how the language and narrative structure of the Siege discursively lengthen the distance of non-Christian bodies, especially Jewish ones (but also those of pre-Christian Romans), from a Human ideal imagined to be coterminous with Christian subjectivity. This ontological distance allows the Christian actors of the story to claim that they are God’s chosen, a position reserved for the people of Israel in the Old Testament. The chapter first accounts for how The Siege advances notions of a Roman race that remains flawed, but closer to the ideal than the Jewish race. Next, the mass criminalization of the Jewish people is addressed, showing how throughout the story, this discourse facilitates their progressive dehumanization. The romance ends in a stark insistence that Jewish bodies are proper objects of systemic violence, ultimately sanctioning their eradication and enslavement.

Respondent: Dr. Dorothy Kim, Brandeis University


Friday, February 9, 2024 at 12pm-1:30pm EST 

Dr. Holley Ledbetter,  Department of Art History

Oberlin College

“The Racialized Scentscape of Fatimid Automata”

This paper explores the eight life-size mechanical sculptures stationed in the majlis of the early twelfth-century Fatimid vizier al-Afḍal Shāhanshāh (r. 1094-1121) as technological embodiments of enslavement. Performing for viewers, the jewel-bedecked female figurines purportedly bowed their heads when al-Afḍal entered the hall and returned to their upright position when he found his seat. The detailed textual description of these female mannequins also notes that four were white and made of camphor and four were black and made of ambergris, indicating that these automata would have likely released an aroma into the spaces they shared. Through their mechanical performances and material properties, the robotic replicas performed the enslaved, racialized female body in order to undergird the supremacy of the Fatimid caliphate. Using al-Jāḥiẓ’s concept of synesthesia and the theoretical framework of mediality, I consider how olfaction might have been used to aesthetically define racialized subjects and their representations in the Fatimid world.

Respondent: Dr. Denva Gallant, Rice University


Friday, December 8, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST

Denva Gallant, Assistant Professor of Art History

Rice University

“The Black Body as Site of Conversion: Race and Ethnicity in Late Medieval Italy.”

How might we understand the racialization in medieval Italy or ethnicity as a meaningful and applicable categorization during the period and place? While scholars such as Nicole Lopez-Jantzen have applied racial concepts to the study of identity formation in the early Middle Ages, the Italian peninsula during the later Middle Ages still requires thorough treatment. In this essay, intended for an audience of scholars who are not already experts in this area but who want to address themes of medieval ethnicity and/or race in their research or teaching, I trace the evolution of the study difference and representation on the Italian peninsula. While this essay will serve more as a reference guide than scholarly critique, it will hopefully speak to new avenues of research.

Respondent: Dr. Pamela Patton, Director of the Index of Medieval Art,  Princeton University


Friday, November 17, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST

Stacey Murell, Ph.D. Candidate

Brown University

“Birthing Dynasties: Concubinage, Status, and Race in Medieval al-Andalus”

This chapter examines the racialization of enslaved women and its impact on mother-child relations in the medieval Islamicate Mediterranean in two distinct ways. First, I argue that the racialization of enslaved women turned on the axes of their status, gender, and somatic difference and stratified the numerous women responsible for social procreation but excluded from social membership into a hierarchy that was central to the consolidation of ‘Arab’ identity. I use the case study of al-Andalus between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries to highlight how this racialization was adapted and reinscribed according to local circumstances and dynastic needs for political legitimacy. Second, I call attention to the gendered relationships between enslaved mothers and free sons and between enslaved mothers and (free) daughters, particularly in terms of identity formation and expression. While sons regularly omitted or fabricated their maternal lineage to secure political positions, daughters were more closely bound to their mothers and better positioned to carry forth their legacy in ways tangible and intangible. Although my focus is largely on enslaved women who ended up in the harems of rulers, racialization applied just as much to the mothers of emirs as to the larger population of enslaved women whose lives were spent in domestic households. In order to grapple with the anonymity and violence of enslavement and its archive, at times I mark the absence of the numerous majority of enslaved women, while at others I imagine their figures onto the page.

Respondent: Dr. Rachel Schine, University of Maryland, College Park


Friday, October 20, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST

Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga, Assistant Professor of History

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

“A Roman in Islamic Egypt: Memory and Identity in the Chronicle of John of Nikiu”

The Chronicle of John of Nikiu, written in Coptic in the 7th century but surviving only in the form of a 17th-century Ge’ez translation of an Arabic intermediary, is often treated as an expression of an Egyptian identity rooted in miaphysite Christianity and some degree of antipathy towards and alienation from the Roman state. These readings are informed by a preconceived notion that there was a great degree of continuity between the Coptic church of the Early Islamic period and the Alexandrian church of the Roman empire, and a tacit belief that the Council of Chalcedon created an ideological rift between Alexandria and Constantinople. In this chapter, which will appear in my forthcoming book on the Chronicle, I argue that John of Nikiu’s text in fact reveals a historian who seemed to conceive of the historical Egypt as a core territory of the Roman empire by virtue of the province’s role in Christian history. Furthermore, he seems to view himself, and the Christians of Egypt, as in some way inextricably linked, even tacitly hinting that, should the government and church in Constantinople adopt an anti-Chalcedonian position, the Arab invasion of Egypt could be undone. The implication of this conclusion not only effects our understanding of the emergence of a distinct Coptic identity, but also challenges teleological notions of the inevitability of the long-term presence of Islamic hegemony over formerly Roman lands, which often pervade Islamic narrative sources, and which tend to inform modern scholarship on the subject.

Respondent: Dr. Arietta Papaconstantinou, Aix-Marseille University


Friday, September 22, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST

Craig Perry, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Jewish Studies

Emory University

“Everyday Human Trafficking: Hemispheric Reach, Local Intensity”

This chapter mines the geniza corpus to make two arguments about the medieval slave trade. First, the trade in slaves was decentralized: individual buyers organized the transregional trafficking of individuals as one part of a larger mixed cargo of commodities, and traded within their own personal mercantile and family networks. I contend that this decentralized trade was a primary method of human trafficking that historians have overlooked. A medieval Middle Passage never existed; rather, epochal warfare and famine caused temporary pulses in the supply of slaves. Second, the center of gravity of the slave trade in Egypt was local, not transregional. Geniza and other contemporaneous sources show that many enslaved people changed owners several times during their lives and that sale was only one method by which Jews transferred enslaved property. Wedding dowries, gifts, and bequests were primary methods that households used to transfer enslaved people as both laborers and inter-generational wealth. Two additional claims emerge from these arguments. Though the slave trade to Egypt was transregional and included enslaved people from as far afield as India and Byzantium, the most intensively exploited regions for slave imports were Nubia and greater northeast Africa. A close reading of geniza documents alongside rabbinic writings also demonstrates the contingencies and ambiguities of racialization in the Middle Ages. All non-Muslim people outside Islamic territories were legally enslaveable. But Jewish sources reveal how Egyptians began to code “Black”-skinned people as “slaves” in their epistolary exchanges even though “Black” was not yet used as one of the many long-standing ethnic categories that scribes were required to note in bills of sale, such as Nubian, Byzantine, Indian, and Abyssinian.

Respondent: Dr. Elizabeth Urban, West Chester University


Friday, August 18, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST

Mohamad Ballan, Assistant Professor of History

Stony Brook University

A Discussion of “Borderland Anxieties: Lisān al-Dīn ibn al-Khatị̄b (d. 1374) and the Politics of Genealogy in Late Medieval Granada,” Speculum 92, no. 2 (2023): 447-495.

Abstract: This article seeks to contribute to larger scholarly conversations about the construction and deployment of difference in medieval borderland societies. It examines the ways in which genealogical notions of “Arabness” [ʿurūbiyyah], which expressed Islamic identity in terms of Arab lineage, structured the process of identity formation in Nasrid Granada (1232–1492). Through a close reading of the works of the Nasrid scholar-statesman Lisān al-Dīn ibn al-Khatị̄b (d. 1374) and his intellectual-political network, the article explores how Nasrid elites incorporated “Arabness” into the articulation of a local identity rooted in ethnic cohesion, religious exclusivity, and genealogical continuity. It argues that this constituted a particular strategy of identification that sought to differentiate Nasrid Granada from its neighbors and demarcate the boundaries between al-Andalus, Christian Iberia, and the Maghrib, even as these regions came to be tied even more closely together through political, intellectual, social, and mercantile networks between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The article concludes with a consideration of the “racialization of religion” and the manner in which Ibn al-Khatị̄b integrated ideas about environmental determinism and physiognomy, alongside genealogy, to represent the religious and cultural traits of the inhabitants of Granada as fixed, immutable, and heritable characteristics, the product of both lineage and environment. Through an examination of the racialized production of difference within the dynamic borderland context of late medieval Iberia, this article seeks to invite broader comparative approaches that integrate the medieval Islamic world into discussions about race, racialization, and ethnicity in the Middle Ages.


June 9, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST

Alexa Herlands, Ph.D. Candidate

University of Chicago

“Juan Martínez Silíceo as Historian: Toledo’s 1547 Blood Purity Statute Revisited”

In 1547, archbishop of Toledo Juan Martínez Silíceo instituted a highly controversial blood purity statute, demanding that all admitted into the cathedral be “Old Christians.” In a letter requesting Charles V’s approval of his statute, Silíceo provided, among other documents, 22 reasons for his actions, the reasons of the opposing faction within his cathedral, refutations of those reasons, and a list of his enemies’ “demerits.” I use the resulting archive to argue that Silíceo relied on history to make his case for Old Christian privilege.


May 19, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST

Sierra Lomuto, Assistant Professor of English

Rowan University

“Mongols in Medieval Europe: Exoticism and the Legend of Prester John”

This paper argues that exoticism drives the racialization of the Mongols within the Latin Christian discourse that introduced them to Europe in the thirteenth century. Drawing from Anne Anlin Cheng’s theory of ornamentalism, I analyze the crusader legend of Prester John and letters from the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) in Egypt to demonstrate how Christians’ Islamophobic geopolitical aims fabricated Mongol alterity and shaped their racialization within Europe’s literary imaginary.

Respondent: Dr. Nahir Otaño Gracia, University of New Mexico


May 5, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST

Nicole Lopez-Jantzen, Associate Professor of History

CUNY: Borough of Manhattan Community College and Graduate Center

“Shifting Concepts of Race: Italy through the Earlier Middle Ages”

This chapter analyzes the shift from Roman ideas of race, based mainly on environmental theory and proximity to Romanness to medieval ideas of race, which mapped ideas of religious difference onto bodies as a justification for conquest and subjugation. It argues that beginning in the seventh century, along with changing conceptions of what it meant to be Roman in Italy, rulers began to use religious difference as a justification for conquest and control, drawing on early Christian texts that equated heretics, pagans, and Jews and leading to new formulations of difference based on religion. In the central and later Middle Ages, as ideas of Europe and Europeans developed, other groups were racialized based on religious justification. In addition to analyzing the specifics of racialization within the Mediterranean context of Italy, this chapter will also focus on the role of gender and social status in early medieval racialization.

Dr. Lopez-Jantzen’s book project is entitled Race and the Construction of Identity in Italy, Premodern and Modern

Respondent: Dr. Sarah Davis-Secord, University of New Mexico


March 24, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST

Roland Betancourt, Professor of Art History

University of California, Irvine

“The Case of Manuel I Komnenos: Articulating Identity through Gender, Sexuality, and Racialization”

Looking at the image of Manuel I Komnenos in a mid-twelfth-century manuscript, now at the Vatican Library (Vat. gr. 1176), one might be struck by the difference articulated between the complexion of the Byzantine emperor and that of his wife Maria of Antioch, the daughter of Constance of Antioch and Raymond of Poitiers. Had Manuel been depicted alone, his appearance would hardly incite interest, yet set beside his bride, this painting encourages us to think further about what is being communicated through the color of skin, urging us to think critically about gender, sexuality, and the processes of racialization at work in the Byzantine world of the twelfth century. Using the figure of Manuel as a case study, I wish to consider how an intersectional approach allows us to better comprehend the dynamics of racialization in the premodern world, using our contemporary categories and vocabularies around racial justice as a lens for parsing out the nuances of the past and its archives.

Respondent: Dr. Heather Badamo, University of California, Santa Barbara


February 17, 2023 at 12pm-1:30pm EST.

Dr. Angela Zhang, Postdoctoral Fellow

Harvard University

“Charity and Slavery: Childcare and Race in the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Premodern Florence”

This paper discusses the gendered notions of slavery in premodern Florence by exploring the abandonment of the children of enslaved women and enslaved women’s coerced labor at the Florentine foundling hospital. I argue that the Innocenti was founded as a strategy to manage and mitigate the social problems caused by the children of enslaved women and Florentine men and that its operation facilitated the mixture of racial language and slavery. 

Respondent: Dr. Hannah Barker, Arizona State University