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 in part by the Medieval Academy of America.

Schedule of Meetings

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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.

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


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

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


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.

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


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.



FALL 2023 Schedule

September 22, 2023

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.


October 2023

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.


November 2023

Stacey Murell, Ph.D. Candidate

Brown University

“Birthing Dynasties: Concubinage, Status, and Race in the Western Islamicate World, c.700-1000 CE.”


December 2023

Xiaofei Tian, Professor of Chinese Literature

Harvard University



Past Meetings

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. 

Responder: Dr. Hannah Barker, Arizona State University