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MARK: Welcome to the Endless Knot podcast.

AVEN: Where the more we know.

MARK: The more we want to find out.

AVEN: Chasing serendipitous connections through our lives.

MARK: And across disciplines.


AVEN: Hi, I’m Aven.

MARK: And I’m Mark.

AVEN: And tonight we’re going to talk about the concept of race in particular in reference to the ancient world and medieval England. A light-hearted topic.


AVEN: So we’ll come back to why we’ve chosen to talk about that tonight but I’ve a couple of things to cover first. We had a fair amount of discussion after our last episode about favourite Hercules movies; fair number of tweets and other responses. Unsurprisingly, the consensus appears to be whatever one you saw first.


AVEN: Whether that was the Reeves movies and some people who’d seen that when they were kids thought that was the best movie and really set the template, which of course it did. Many people who love the Hercules cartoon and not, sorry, not the horrible cartoon but the Disney film.

MARK: But surely we love the horrible cartoon.

AVEN: I have a…

MARK: That’s our first, no?

AVEN: I have a very fond spot for it. I mean, that’s the only reason we keep bringing it up.

MARK: Yes.

AVEN: It’s an awful, awful creation. People definitely seem to gravitate towards the one they’d seen first but no one claims the Schwarzenegger version as their favourite.

MARK: Maybe not very many people saw it.

AVEN: I think that’s probably a part of it anyway, so anyway, just thank you for everybody who chimed in about that that was interesting to hear some feedback on that. Also I wanted to remind everyone about two pods a day, which is an event that is taking place in October and it’s something we’re taking part in. it’s a campaign that aims to introduce podcast listeners to two independent podcasts every day and it hopes to give visibility to some of the great indie podcast in particular that you probably haven’t heard of so if you want to listen more and listen indie as their catchphrase goes when you check out the hash tag two pods a day that’s the letter two pods a day (#2PodsADay) on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook and find some new and amazing work being done by independent podcasters. All right and then cocktails.

MARK: Yeah.

AVEN: So we did consider very briefly trying to find a race themed cocktail.

MARK: And decided that was not a good idea.

AVEN: No. Hopefully there aren’t any and if there are any we certainly don’t want to drink them. So in the end I went with making up something on a blood theme, specifically with blood orange bitters which we have a container of and so I just made a essentially a blood orange martini sweet martini vodka blood orange bitters and triple sec and my thinking was simply that we are going to be talking about blood if only metaphorically or kinship in this discussion and so a cocktail that was centred on blood, but metaphorically, was as close as I was going to get.

MARK: So let’s try it all right it’s.

AVEN: All right.

MARK: Orang-y.

AVEN: Bitter enough for you? Maybe something that leaves a bitter taste in our mouth is also appropriate to a discussion of race. It’s perfectly nice

MARK: Yeah, yeah.

AVEN: Very orang-y. But kind of refreshing too. Okay so let’s explain why we’re going to talk about this tonight. There’s a larger conversation to be had and that needs to be had in both of our disciplines.

MARK: And that is being had.

AVEN: That is absolutely being had at least by some people about a set of linked issues. The concept of race in our disciplines that is in the periods that our disciplines cover. Race within our disciplines themselves, that is in academia and the universities and departments that study these areas. That is how those departments think about race but also the race of the people in those departments and how race is treated, and how open, inclusive, exclusive, et cetera, those departments are. And then the thing that has really brought this to the fore is a more recent highlighting of the ways that modern discussions about race have a tendency to… at least some people involved in those discussions have a tendency to reach back to the ancient world or to the medieval world in particular to medieval England

AVEN: To justify or prove or in some other way speak to points that are being made, I would argue tendentiously most of the time but anyway, points that are being made about race in the modern world.

AVEN: Those three issues are very closely connected but they are also distinct. We’re not going to try to cover all of that tonight.

MARK: Yeah it’s an enormous discussion, an enormous issue. Each one of those three is, is.

AVEN: Enormous in itself. Not to mention that we’re talking about two linked but different disciplines and periods: the ancient world and the medieval world. However, recent events – reasonably recent events – both politically in the wider world, in the US, and around the world. Not just in the US but certainly highlighted by things like in Charlotte Bell and other explosions in the US, have brought some of these issues really far to the fore in a way that they have not necessarily been dealt with recently. So that’s one reason we want to talk about it now. There’s also been some events in both of our disciplines and to do with individual people that have really brought to the fore the problems within the Academy. So what we want to do tonight is actually not address any of those, but to lay the groundwork for doing so. In the long run, in a few episodes from now, we are hoping to, and we are in the course of preparing to, produce an episode that will be a little different than our regular type. Rather than being an interview with one person or just the two of us talking, it will be a… we’re going to do a number of interviews with a number of people who have been working on and involved in and affected by these issues in both of our disciplines and we’ll try to put those together into a way of talking about and thinking about what’s going on and what might be done about it. In order to get there, though, we think we need to do some background.

MARK: Yeah, so we’ll talk about some basic terminology and some basic concepts of race in the medieval and ancient world.

AVEN: So yeah, so tonight what we’re going to do is to, to some extent anyway, avoid the modern issues except so far as we talk about how modern scholarship has dealt with these issues. We’re not going to… Even so we’re not going to be comprehensive. The question of race and ethnicity and attitudes towards those things in Greece, Rome, and medieval England that’s a huge topic. Absolutely massive. So we’re not going to be able to cover everything. But what we thought we’d do is go over some basic vocabulary, talk about the categories as they existed as best as we can have an understanding of them, and kind of lay the groundwork so that when we give our interviews later on with people and they can discuss the problems that are current in the fields, you’ll understand what the terminology is, what the issues are. We won’t have to sort of stop and explain everything along the way.

MARK: And to clarify, I’ll be specifically addressing Anglo-Saxon England.

AVEN: Yes, when I say mainly Medieval England.

MARK: Not later medieval England.

AVEN: Which has its own set of its own set of issues.

MARK: Yes, its own set of issues, its own set of terminology. I’m going to leave that aside and just focus on the Anglo-Saxon.

AVEN: Yes, and as is our way we’re going at it through language and etymology and terminology, so that’s what we’re going to focus on because the other thing is these issues, yes, have been raised recently and there’s some really troubling issues about them, but it’s actually quite a fascinating topic

AVEN: In and of itself the question of how did the ancient and Anglo-Saxon worlds think about how humans are categorized is an interesting question that is completely on a par with the kinds of kinds of questions we ask on this podcast. So, enough preamble. I realized that was quite a lot of introduction, but let us turn then to this and with the caveat that we will be coming back to the topic, not immediately, not in the next couple of episodes but hopefully before Christmas I think we will get to it I hope and we will have lots of other people who’ve thought very deeply about this – much more so than either of us has – to tell you about their experiences with it. Okay so let’s start with the most basic of basics. What does the word race mean, Mark?

MARK: Well this is… so this is a late word. It should be pointed out. It comes to English well after the Anglo-Saxon period, and it’s a puzzle word as well because we don’t really know where it’s from. There are theories, none of which are universally accepted

AVEN: Right. That describes an awful lot of scholarship but anyway.

MARK: So it comes through French, that’s the sort of direct line of entry into English.

MARK: Unsurprisingly, and before that, Italian, so Italian razza. R-A-Z-Z-A. That is all we know for sure.


AVEN: Quick, play the theme music. We’re done.

MARK: Now, in terms of the sense that it had. So it comes into the language.

AVEN: Into English?

MARK: Into English in the Sixteenth Century. Originally referring to nonhumans. So things like wines with a characteristic flavour, groups of people with common occupation. Things like that. You don’t get the sense of people regard as a common stock in that sense until later in the Sixteenth Century.

AVEN: Okay. So originally it means a group with a commonality?

MARK: Yes, a group of anything. Not necessarily people. And the sort of modern sense of the sort of divisions of humankind based on physical peculiarities doesn’t come about until the Eighteenth Century, so that’s quite late.

AVEN: And it’s a very obvious triggering event for that, right? It’s this African slave trade.

MARK: The slave trade, yes, that’s what’s going on in the Eighteenth Century that makes this a term.

AVEN: That suddenly everybody wants to have. They want to spend their time categorizing people by physical characteristics so that they can rank them and consider some people more human than others, and all sorts of things like that. Right.

MARK: Now as to the general guesses as to where it might come from, one suggestion is that it comes from Latin ratio.

AVEN: Meaning reason or measurement.

MARK: Yes. Or that it is a shortening of generatio.

AVEN: So then it would have to do with birth?

MARK: Birth, yes. It’s probably not from radix root but it may have been influenced by that word.

AVEN: Yeah, so that sort of convergent evolution that would sometimes have

MARK: And again those are guesses and that’s as far as we can go

AVEN: Right. So it’s a word that kind of comes out of nowhere and dances around for a while before it settles on its current, or something close to its current meaning. So as a word meaning what it means now, it doesn’t occur until there is a need to differentiate humans. In a way that is helpful to one group of them. Okay. All right, so that’s race. Now, what does race mean now? It means a group of people characterized by certain physical characteristics who also have a geographic origin in common. Would you say that’s a geographic origin at some point in their past in common?

MARK: I think one of the problems with defining this word is, in any kind of technical sense, is that there simply is no agreement amongst, say, anthropologists as to what the term means.

AVEN: Oh yeah, so maybe we should just say that’s right off the top the word race in any scientific sense is essentially completely debunked at this point. It was created in the Eighteenth Century as a scientific term, right? Like, as a way of trying to do something that was objective and scientific in terms of making measurements and distinctions between humans, and has been since, pretty much the 20th century in terms of science, certainly since the mid-Twentieth Century, anthropologists, scientists, biologists – anyone who has anything to do with objective measurements of humans – has said no racial categories make any sense. They’re simply constructed. Yeah, you can divide up the world of humans and lots of ways and if you decide that there’s a set of criteria you’re going to use you can do it but the variations within any given race are greater than the variation between races.

MARK: And in fact there has never been an accepted definition of race. So it’s not even that it was a formulated idea that was then debunked. It was an idea that had been argued about left and right

AVEN: Since its inception.

MARK: Since its inception, with no clear sense of what it means and has been largely abandoned.

AVEN: Right, so it exists in social setting and in political settings to some degree, and over the last 50 to 100 years, you know, skin colour is what most people tend to think of when they mean race but religion has become a big determiner of what race somebody counts as in the last 20 years, at least, if not long before

MARK: As we’ll get to. That’s certainly the determining factor in the middle ages.

AVEN: It goes back in and out… it goes in and out depending on what… We don’t need to get into all the details of, you know, when whiteness as a race or blackness as a race were categorized, though, spoiler alert, it was the Eighteenth Century as well essentially and later. But the important point is to say there’s no objective definition of race and why that’s important without getting into all of the many complicated discussions about the modern conception, is that there are many words in Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon that have been defined in dictionaries with, among other words, the word race. And that’s why it was, I think, necessary to talk about the English word race because if you take to unthinking a way of thinking about dictionaries we’re like ‘oh well, this word means race because that’s how its defined in a dictionary’, but what’s important to realize is when the dictionary uses the word race to define a Latin word, given that we don’t have a good definition of the English word race, you should immediately pause and think ‘wait, what element of this really murky English word does the Latin word have to do with?’ So we’re going to talk about a number of words, all of which have been defined in dictionaries with the word race, as well as other words or many of which have been, but that you know that’s just not a satisfactory definition because it sort of becomes circular. Okay so then let’s start with Greek. The two main words that are often defined in the dictionary with the word race are genos and ethnos. So, do you want to tell us the derivation of those words?

MARK: Sure. So, genos. This is one of these roots that actually gives us a number of the words we’re going to be talking about today. Genos goes back to a proto-Indo-European root. gene or gena. That is a very productive root. An extremely productive root. And it has a lot of different words that aren’t necessarily relevant to our discussion today. But there are a handful of words that are very relevant to our discussion today, so there’s obviously a Latin reflex of this. Gens.

AVEN: Which we’ll talk about.

MARK: And genus.

AVEN: Two versions of the same.

MARK: Version of the same basic root. Also, natio, which we’ll be talking about comes from this same root.

AVEN: The gena, basically.

MARK: Yeah, so natio used to be genatio in old Latin, I guess.

AVEN: Yeah, you can still see that in various. Or nascor actually is the verb that means to be born. And cognatus is people who are born along with you. And then the ‘g’ is still there in cognatus.

MARK: It also appears in the Germanic line as kin, as in your kith and kin. A bit of an old-fashioned word now, I guess.

AVEN: Yeah but I think most people know it.

MARK: Probably most people know it.

AVEN: You know the word kinship.

MARK: Yeah and so that word kin though was a really important one in Old English.

AVEN: Right, yeah, so this comes from a… so the basic sense of it is birth.

MARK: Yeah. So that gena root, proto-Indo-European root means to give birth, to beget.

AVEN: Right, and then ethnos or uethnos as it was probably before it had a Gamma at the beginning which dropped out in classical Greek.

MARK: Which, obviously we get ethnic from.

AVEN: Yes, oh yeah ethnography.

MARK: And so this is this is kind of an interesting one. It comes from basically a pronoun. se or sue or sua. Sui.

AVEN: The reflexive pronoun.

MARK: Yes. Su in French, and so it has a whole bunch of derivatives that have to do with the self. Including the word self. The basic idea is a group referring to itself as an entity, we ourselves.

AVEN: The us and the us and them.

MARK: In addition to, I mean, I can list off, you know, many derivatives from this but in particular it might be worth noting words like select, separate, segregate; that sort of batch of words from Latin.

AVEN: All of which have to do with choosing and making distinctions.

MARK: Ethnic, ethos from the Greek side. Well self is the particular Germanic, I guess, derivative of that.

AVEN: Right, okay. So those are your Greek terms. So genos means people who have a birth in common in a really broad way, some kind of ancestral link. Ethnos is translated in the dictionary as ‘number of people living together, a company, a body of men, a body of people’. It’s an old dictionary when they say body of man. And genos is translated as ‘race, stock or kin’. Okay? Now that makes it sound – now of course those are only the primary definitions and then there’s a number of multiple secondary and extended definitions – that makes it sound like they’re similar but fairly easily distinguishable. A group of men versus a race or a kinship group but, as I said, whenever you see race as a definition you should perk your ears up and say okay what does this actually mean because that’s a problematic term. So ethnos, it could mean any group, going back to what you were talking about the original meaning of race. Any group distinguished by a commonality. So it was used, for instance, in Homeric poems, and in early classical poetry ethnos was used as a collective noun and ethne was a group or crowd or herd, so it could mean a swarm of bees or a flock of birds or an ethane laōn was a group of men, but clearly ethne in that sense just meant a group who was in some way connected. Now as we move forward into the Classical period, ethne or ethnos in prose, so in poetry, in early poetry, means a sort of community of identifiable elements; something that can be identified as a group. In the Classical period you have it starting to mean racially unitary human groups, says my article that I’m looking at, but we should already be worrying about what does racially unitary human group mean when we know that there’s no easy way of defining what is a racially unitary group. But nonetheless perception is what we’re talking about here rather than scientific truth, so ethnos does come to mean sort of a group of humans who have some racial or ethnic group together, but you also have this pairing. So you get an ethnos and the polis as, on the one hand. Polis of course is the city, city state, and then on the other hand ethnos and genos paired. So the former refers to, like, within a polis, within a city, what is your ethnos? What is the group within the city that you are a part of? So there’s a whole bunch of divisions within the citizen body, right, that you’re going to be part of or not part of? Ethnos and genos on the other hand, outside of the city, refers more to sort of regional and racial associations so you could have an ethnos and a genos talking about different groups regionally around the Mediterranean, different people who live in different places. And ethnos becomes more and more used of regional distinctions, so when my article talks about racially distinctive groups, what they really mean is regionally distinctive groups. So you talk about the Persians or the Egyptians or the Phoenicians or the Carthaginians or the Spanish or the Gauls as being ethne.

MARK: Okay.

AVEN: Right? And yes, one could probably try to draw up a line of physical characteristics that determine them but really, they’re being referred to by their regional groups, and of course, while movement is certainly a feature of the ancient world, to some extent, you know, ethnic and regional and racial characteristics line up more easily in the ancient world than they do in the modern world. So, you get this use of it to mean regional distinctions, so ethnos is not impossible to equate to sort of modern definitions of race but it doesn’t at all need to mean that, and when you talk about the ethnos within a polis you’re definitely not talking about racial distinctions. If you’re talking about different ethne within Athens, you’re talking about different family groups. That’s not at all the same thing. Genos on the other hand, within the polis and outside of it, is often used to mean a family unit. People who share a birth ancestor. Sometimes stretching back to a specific ancestor or founder, often in a mythological sense, so people who sort of share a genos. But that also can overlap with regional things because any city that claims a mythical founder will claim, therefore, that they are all of the genos of Cadmus of Thebes, for instance, or the genos of Erechtheion and Athens who is a founder but born from the soil, but anyway you know that the people who founded their cities. So genos was sort of a family unit and the ethnic label, the ethnos as we move forward past classical Greek into Hellenistic Greek also can end up meaning, like, political units. So you have regional units and that can extend to political units, so that ethnic label, the label that says what ethnos you’re part of, so this sort of adjectival form that refers to your ethnos can be a city or a region or a river or an island or even a political grouping like the Aetolian League in the Hellenistic period, a political group of cities that just exist as a political group and only a political group. It doesn’t have any particular ties of kinship. So those are the two sort of central terms in Greek and I’m going to get back to– I’ll talk more after we talked about words about sort of conceptions of what we might think of as race in the ancient world, but we can already see they don’t have a good word for mapping onto the Venn diagram of what race covers. There’s no one word that easily and clearly means a set of distinguishable physical characteristics that are relevant to the place that you came from and also affect your moral and intellectual capacity. All right on to Latin. In Latin we have natio, gens, and I suppose populus as well. We’ve already covered gens. It comes more directly in Latin from gigno which means to be born, and the translation in the Oxford Latin Dictionary is ‘a race, nation, people’ but probably the term, the sense in which it comes up the most often is actually sense six in OLD so maybe it’s not the most often. It’s the one I think of the most, though, which is ‘a Roman clan or a group of families sharing the same nomen and the same supposed to ancestor. First only patrician but later spreading to the plebeians. So your gens is what sort of clan or family group, large family group, you belong to in the Roman world and it’s an important sort of identifier and way of its political groupings often happen especially in the Republic and early empire when people still have strong family groupings like that. So it really is about birth, so when it’s used like that it’s about, again, nothing that could be in any way considered racial because we’re talking about different family groups within the very small group of native Romans. Then you have natio, connected to nascor ‘to give birth to’, again defined as ‘a people, race, nation’, so gens was ‘a race, nation, people’, natio is ‘a people, race, nation’, so nation can also be a sense for they give as race as a characteristic of their nationality. So we’ll come back to that. And then populous, which apparently is Etruscan potentially in origin.

MARK: Well, this is another unknown. It might be Etruscan or non-Indo-European. But one suggestion for an Indo-European root is that it might come from pella, which means ‘to fill, to pile up’. We get the word fill from that, as well as the word folk. Folk, Folk.

AVEN: Folk. You were trying to be really etymological about this folk, but people don’t pronounce the ‘L’.

MARK: Folk, yeah, so fulfil. It might be from that and it might also be related, therefore, to pleb, plebeian.

AVEN: Right, okay, which might be the people– which certainly are the people. A populus of course just means, well the definition here is ‘a human community, people or nation’. You know most famously in the populus senatus quo romani, people, and so it means in common Roman parlance it means the bulk of the population and of course it gives us all those words. It gives us population and people and popular and all of those kinds of words but it also is certainly used by Romans when they’re talking about groups of people outside of the Roman world. A populus, you know, the various populi outside of the Roman world. So it certainly can be used that way, but again I would say populus has a very strong overlap with political union units. Not necessarily political units in the sense of like an actual ruled group but in the sense of a civic identity or what we might now call a nation-state identity that’s anachronistic for the Roman period, but nonetheless a group that sort of has a commonality of laws and views about how the world should work. So, when the world is divided into populi it tends to go along with sort of kings of different regions and so it, yes, lines up with ethnicities and what we might call race to some degree but you might break many people who we would think of as the same race into many populi because of their political divisions or military divisions and whatever you want to call it. So those are your words they can all be used and they are all used to refer to groups outside of the Roman world as well as groups within the Roman world. We have a lot of ethnographers from both Greek and Roman sources who like to talk about non-Romans or non-Greeks and discuss their salient characteristics, the things that set them apart from the Romans or from the Greeks, things that set them apart from each other, the weirdnesses of them. And those include physical characteristics as well as what we would might call cultural characteristics: what they do, how they have sex, what they eat, where they sleep, elements of their laws, elements of their wars – whatever. We have all that. We have lots of it, you know, that was a fascinating topic to the ancient world. They loved to write about that so if we want to turn to the sort of concepts of race in the ancient world we have, on the one hand, lots of sources, lots of evidence for it but, as soon as you start looking closely at those sources trying to make them line up with what we consider to be pertinent divisions becomes really complicated. Herodotus spends a lot of… technically he’s writing a history of the Persian Wars. You’d think he’d spend a lot of time writing about the Persian Wars but he spends a lot of time not writing about the Persian Wars at all, and particularly spent a lot of time talking about Egypt, but also about Persia and also about all sorts of other non-Greek parts of the world and he’s just interested in what we would call ethnography. But in doing so, he focuses mostly on how they act. He does talk about what they look like to some degree but mostly he focuses on like how many people do they marry? What are their marriage customs? How do they have sex and where? In the case of the Egyptians, where do they urinate? What do they eat? What are their salient political character tics? What kinds of leaders do they have and how do they elect them? How do they fight? What weapons do they use? Among all of those things he’ll often mention things like what their hair colour or eye colour or skin colour or shape of their heads, or particular physical peculiarities are. But they’re very much all of a piece with all the other things that distinguish them in their language sometimes. And some of them are extremely extravagant, some of them seem to be possibly true. Many of them seem to be quite likely to be completely bizarre if not made-up by Herodotus, made up by the people who told Herodotus about the stories. So we don’t see him categorizing the world according, in particular, to get right down to it, he does not categorize the world by skin colour. He remarks upon the skin colour of some people but not everyone. Many of the groups he talks about he doesn’t say anything about the skin colour and he doesn’t seem to think that that is the preeminent division among them, so while you can look at it and say he’s talking about racial categories, in order to do so you have to count language, tribal relations, marriage customs, and food as racial characteristics. And while some people may do so, that is not usually what the sort of standard conception of race is, and he also, like many Greeks did, viewed the physical characteristics of people as being a result of the geography, so where they lived affected what they looked like. So he, like many Greeks, believed that what he called Ethiopians, who were dark-skinned, were dark-skinned because they lived in these very far south sunny regions, where they were burned; their skin was burned. But there’s a very clear confusion in his mind and this is actually addressed by later medical texts that when people who have the skin colour move out of those regions, they do not lose the skin colour. So, if it’s caused by environmental conditions, why does it not change when they go to other places? And why, when Greeks go there, do they not become that colour? And this is an unresolved question, you know, there’s a sort of clash of what the ideology about how these things work is with observed reality, and that comes up in some of our later texts. But the basic sort of principle is that where you live affects what you look like, which means, in theory, it’s not a fixed racial characteristic. It’s a reaction to your environment and if you were to move to another environment you would have a different racial characteristic. So it can’t really be considered race in that sense because it’s simply a reaction to environment. And they don’t have a fully developed genetic understanding, of course. Understandably. Okay, so that’s sort of Herodotus. You’ve got very similar kinds of things going on with the Romans. I could talk – I mean this is an almost inexhaustible question – one thing I can say is the Greek certainly did have strong xenophobia. That has, you know, to them what mattered was what you were Greek or you were not Greek, and everyone who was not Greek was, by definition lesser, so they were very Helleno-supremist, but it didn’t. It’s hard to say that that was in any way a skin colour issue because they were definitely better than all those Ethiopians, but they were definitely better than all the Gauls who had this really weird white skin and pale hair. They were better than Persian who were light skinned, they were better than everybody who wasn’t Greek. And many of the people who they were better than we’re not notably distinct from them in colour or other physical characteristics. What was important to them was whether you spoke Greek, worshipped Greek gods, and had general Greek customs. So we have the basic distinction between Hellens, Helleens, and barbarians. The the other thing that really mattered was what city were from, so an Athenian hated a Spartan or at least considered themselves different from a Spartan, but again we can’t call that race in any modern conception of race because what distinguishes an Athenian from a Spartan physically? What distinguishes a Theban from a Corinthian? Nothing. I mean I’m sure each of those cities came up with things that were particularly their cities and their groups, and there was enough inbreeding that there may have been distinctive, you know, nose shapes or something, but basically they’re all very very similar and there was in fact lots of intermarriage and things like that. So if they were racial purists, which in some ways they were, they were so on grounds that had nothing to do with the sort of physical characteristics that we often think of races meaning, okay? When you turn to the Romans very briefly, the Romans were filled with prejudice against people within the Roman Empire, outside of the Roman Empire. They loved to make categorizations about the world and to distinguish people as being better and worse but the grounds on which they did so were again, like the Greeks, just not skin colour specifically. They were to do with where you were from, so Spaniards or people from Gaul or people from outside of Rome or people from North Africa or people from Britain or people from Greece. The Romans thought the Greeks were horrible. I mean, they were intensely prejudiced against Greeks for instance but not specifically about colour and again, it has to do more with how well they spoke Latin, what their customs were, whether they wore pants or togas, whether they had long been citizens of Rome, what their fighting styles were, you know, how well they were educated. All those thing were grounds for intense prejudice, bigotry, and all the rest of it – not in any way trying to suggest the Romans and the Greeks were not intensely bigoted, they certainly could be. But the grounds on which they determined who was in and who were out just were different. And the last thing I want to say on that topic before I turn us over to the Anglo-Saxon period, which I know you’re going to talk about Latin words too. There’s one specific issue which is the question of white and black skin that comes up when we talk about the ancient world in particular because of course both Greeks and Romans and encountered large numbers of people who had different variations of colour to their skin. Different skin pigmentations. There’s been a lot of discussion about this, and I don’t want to be recapitulate it all. There is to some degree a kind of tripartite division for both Greeks and Romans about the world that is based really on Aristotelian notions of the mean, the perfect medium. That there are extremes and then there’s the place in between that is ideal, and by that kind of reasoning you have very dark people and very light people, and a perfect medium in between. And it will not surprise you that the Greeks believed themselves to be the perfect medium in between, and that the Romans believed themselves to be the perfect medium in between. And both groups looked to black peoples that they encountered in Africa as being one end of the spectrum and white peoples they considered to be the Germanic and Celtic peoples who had very very pale skins as being the other end of the spectrum, both of whom were clearly, because of their geography, changed in their physical characteristics to be extreme – burned or frozen – but only those who lived in the perfect zone of the world, the Mediterranean zone, had the perfect complexion and that was Roman and Greek. And we can see that hinted at but in fact it’s not really theorized extensively in very many of our source texts. We can see that there is certainly a… we talked about this when we talked about colour. White was certainly a good colour in most contexts. Black was often a negative connotations, so those connotations certainly did exist in the ancient world. They could be applied to people. We do have cases when they are applied to people but it wasn’t universal or obvious or commonplace. It was a thing that could happen but was not automatic. So lots of groups of people who, when you look at the context, must have been dark-skinned are referenced with no reference to their skin colour. It just isn’t mentioned so it’s clearly not a salient point and in fact what we see is that white or white armed is used to refer in Homer to women and goddesses and black or black skin refers to Odysseus and Heracles as being active male figures who are sort of sunburned, you know. The idea here is that there’s a distinction between how what you do and it’s a gender distinction more than it is anything else. So, we just don’t see that development of a concept of a people as white or black, as a group, and that being a defining characteristic is not a major feature let us say. I’m not saying it’s unknown or impossible to conceptualize for the Greeks or the Romans and probably the Romans more than the Greeks, but it’s one of many possible sets of characterisations. And of course, important to all of this is that the distinction between free and slave or citizen and non-citizen, Greek, barbarian, Roman and non-Roman all was the most important distinction and, just in case it’s not clear, slaves in the ancient world were, as one person puts it, open to all comers. Anyone could be a slave. So while there was a bit of a prejudice in the Greeks against having Greeks as slaves, anyone could be a slave and anyone could, especially in the Roman world, then become a non-slave. So there simply was no ethnic category that went along with being slaves. There were prejudices against slaves and ex-slaves, for sure, but they could not be lumped into one geographical group because they simply came from too many places. Even though I talked for a long time there it was still simplifying a lot of things but I think that gives a sort of background. Why don’t we move on to then Anglo-Saxon words?

MARK: Okay, well, I mean in fact the most important words to understanding what’s going on in Anglo-Saxon England aren’t Latin words.

AVEN: Because of the sources.

MARK: Because of the sources, so really the most important source for understanding the Anglo-Saxon conception of race and ethnicity is Bede’s ecclesiastical history, the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis and Lorem.

AVEN: Of the peoples of the English.

MARK: Yes, and.

A: Those plurals are important.

MARK: Plurals are important, and that’s written in Latin. It gets translated into Old English but much later, so it gets translated into English during King Alfred’s reign, which is like, you know, a couple hundred years later. So the really important Latin terms then are gens and natio, which we’ve already discussed, and Bede seems to use them in very careful ways, which I’ll get into in a minute but of course there are a number of Old English words that get used in translation of those terms and in other contexts to refer to race or a people or a nation and these include folk. Folk.

AVEN: You can’t say that word anymore.

MARK: it’s probably pronounced folk in Old English. F-O-L-C, which means ‘people, nation, race’, but also has a secondary sense of meaning ‘army’ and that may be an earlier sort of…

AVEN: That’s like laos in Greek, which means ‘people’, but also means sort of the host of the army, the infantry.

MARK: And then, of course, there’s kin, which I already mentioned is related to gens, which in addition to meaning kin, kind, tribe, people, can in a technical grammatical sense refer to the gender of nouns.

AVEN: which I suppose is surprising when gender comes from the same roots as well, meaning simply ‘type’, not originally.

MARK: Another possible word to use in this sense is leoda, which is the plural of leod. Leod means sort of person, man, so in the plural leoda can mean not just people but sort of group of people.

AVEN: Right, peoples.

MARK: A people. It makes it into Middle English and, you know, barely modern English I suppose. Leed. I guess that’s how it must be pronounced. Leed or lead. Yeah, it must be pronounced leed, L-E-E-D.

AVEN: Note to listeners, Mark’s conception of modern English is anything post Chaucer, so take that with a grain of salt.


MARK: This word leoda goes back to a root, leod, which means ‘to mount up, to grow,’ so again it’s this kind of similar sense, a similar idea that also gives us the word– it comes into Latin and gives us liber, liber meaning ‘free’, though the sense development as to how that happened is somewhat unclear but it seems to be on phonological grounds pretty solid that that is where it comes from, so how you get from ‘to grow’ to ‘free’ is somewhat obscure but giving us words like liberal and libertine, liberty, whatever. Also there is the word strind the modern word strind or the Anglo-Saxon word strind.

AVEN: The modern word strind? There’s no such thing as a modern word strind, mister.

MARK: I guess it just barely makes it into, again, modern English. Though a related word from the same root does make it into modern English: strain. So strain as in a lineage.

AVEN: A particular strain of fruit flies is used in this experiment or.

MARK: And so this Old English word strind or modern English word strain can be traced back to a proto-Indo-European root stair, which means to spread and again has lots of other not terribly relevant derivatives but strained certainly is to our understanding of what, you know, the idea of lineage.

AVEN: Yeah, that makes sense.

MARK: Heritage and so forth. And a final word, theod, from which Tolkein fans among you may know of Theoden. A theoden is the leader of a theod, so theod is ‘a people, a nation’, however you want to understand that and theoden is…

AVEN: So basically he was king king?

MARK: He was king king, yes. His name was king, basically. So theod, again, has the basic sense of ‘people, tribe, nation, race’, but it can also refer specifically to homeland, place.

AVEN: Patria.

MARK: And it seems to be used to also translate, and this this comes back to ethne, ethnos, the Greek, to translate the Hebrew goy or goyim, gentiles.

AVEN: Oh! Right. Well, yeah, ethnos is definitely used to mean that in the New Testament.

MARK: The New Testament Greek, yes.

AVEN: I imagine gentiles is the word we’re talking about here because ‘ge’ from gens, because your nomen gentilicum is the name that proves what gens you’re from.

MARK: Yes, so that root gives us that gens root, gives us not only gentile but gentle as a gentlemen of a gentle birth or a gentleman or whatever. Genteel, so all of those, all that group of words.

AVEN: To do with your birth, your birth, your status. And that, I mean, that’s really what the gens, clan is so important. It’s about your status, how you fit into your community, where you are, what your place in that community is, what your class is, what your roots are.

MARK: Yeah, and I think that’s an important point to keep in mind in terms of understanding what this term means. Like a term like gentle in the later Middle Ages – we don’t find this particularly in Old English – but in Middle English, gentle in Chaucer refers to division in terms of birth but is not a racial one, right.

AVEN: It’s sort of what your socio-economic class is.

MARK: Class is, yes, so it’s more of a class term.

AVEN: Yeah, I mean, it’s birth and you can’t just move, you can’t just make a bunch of money and then move up but you could make a bunch of money and then in a couple of generations your kids could have moved up because it’s about being ennobled and given land and moving into a land owning class and then there’s suddenly a gentile birth.

MARK: Yeah, yeah. This was being challenged at the time, in Chaucer’s time, with the peasants revolt and so forth – similar movements – you know the slogan that went around at the time was ‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’

AVEN: Right, right. Delved meaning dig and span in the past tense of spinning there’s a lot of unpacking there to go on but, yeah, who could possibly be of a gentle class when everybody was a worker.

MARK: Yeah, and everyone came from the same two people.

AVEN: Right, so how could you divide on the basis of birth?

MARK: One last word that is not a general word for race or ethnicity but is worth bringing up at this point is that the Anglo-Saxons referred to the Britons, the Celtic people who lived in Britain, not by their own ethnonym – is that the right word I’m looking for?

AVEN: Sure, let’s call it the right word.

MARK: But by an Anglo-Saxon word, an Old English word, ‘welch’ from which we get Welsh, which, to this day the Welsh do not call themselves Welsh.

AVEN: Because it means?

MARK: It means ‘foreigner’, and with undertones of servile or slavery.

AVEN: Right, so the distinction between a foreigner and a slave was simply that a foreigner was someone who hadn’t been enslaved yet but who is liable to that. You couldn’t enslave one another. Most groups had rules either actual or understood against enslaving members of their own group and it’s so the people who were liable to slavery were those who were foreign to the group.

MARK: Right, so yeah, so I mean, properly the Welsh should be known as Cymry, assuming I’m pronouncing that anywhere near correct. Coomedi? Coomdi? Coomri?

AVEN: I’m not going to try. The point being if we’re going by their own name for themselves.

MARK: We’re going by their own name for themselves, which is their name for Welsh in the Welsh language. So, as I was saying the main reference here that casts a shadow over all of Anglo-Saxon conception of race and ethnicity is the ethnogenesis: how the the Anglo-Saxon people come to become a people living in the place that they’re living because they have a historical migration story. The interesting thing about the origin story for the Anglo-Saxons is of course, that it occurs in a historical period with historical records not only internally but actually mostly externally.

AVEN: Yeah, so unlike the Romans and Greeks who we only have mythical stories, maybe or maybe not bolstered by archaeology, here we have written histories yeah from surrounding areas yeah and yet we also have the sort of mythical history within it.

MARK: Yes, and so this is the really defining kind of story for understanding race and ethnicity and nationhood in Anglo-Saxon England and I should point out that I did a video, a collaborative video, with Jabzy, and we’ll put a link to that in the show notes, on the Anglo-Saxon foundation and, in spite of what you may have heard of or maybe proving what you may have heard of, YouTube comments – if are brave enough to look through those comments – you will see there it has been kind of co-opted in terms of a discussion of racial categories and…

AVEN: All about racial purity and whether people who are English are really Germanic or really Norman or what that means or whether they’re... yeah, it’s really a toxic soup of horror yeah and I speak to only the ones that we sort of tagged topics we were interested in and I’ve ignored most of them, but yeah.

MARK: But it is a good video. I’m proud of it and you should have a look at it. It gives a lot of the background for what I’m kind of going to go into now. So this is the argument in particular from one scholar that I’ve been reading on this issue who’s kind of expert in this area, Steven J Harris, and he’s written a book and some articles on these subjects.

AVEN: Right, and let me just pause to say I’m going to put a bunch of links in our show notes and go to the website to see them because I also relied on a number of articles and a couple of larger works and a bunch of blog posts as well, which I will post so there’s a lot of resources here.

MARK: Well he argues that the Anglo-Saxon sense of nationhood comes from both religious and ethnic identity, and that the two are crucially intermixed; that you can’t really understand. It’s not just a purely ethnic conception but a very careful blending of religious affiliation and ethnic affiliation, and this was important because the Germanic peoples, for instance, sacked Rome. The Germanic peoples, the Vikings, were attacking the Anglo-Saxons right and so if it’s sort of problematic to create a category just purely on the basis of ethnic descent.

AVEN: Because they are not a monolithic group.


AVEN: And they fight within one another, they fight each other, they have different– some of them are Christian, some of them are not. Some of them are moving around, they have different relations to other groups.

MARK: So for Bede, in order to be a gens or whatever word you want to use, in order to be that group you have to have both the shared ethnic background – I’ll sort of fine-tune that in a minute – and the religious, you have to be Christian. And he points out that the use of the term Christendom to refer to a group of people, and that for Harris was the key term, Christendom, a group of people with a shared heritage and a shared religion. Now of course, as I say, the Anglo-Saxon period is, you know, several hundred years. There’s change over that time and so we can see what Bede understands by these terms is maybe slightly different from what a later writer or translator during King Alfred’s reign – King Alfred himself translated some works but he also had works translated for him by his group, his little clique of scholars.

AVEN: His tame scholars, yes.

MARK: And so for Alfred a Christian Anglo and a Christian Saxon share an ethnic identity in spite of the fact that they would be talked about as different tribes early on.

AVEN: and maybe of different – what we might call dialects, what he might have called languages.

MARK: But they become a unified group because of the religion. There’s also a complicated – and I’m not going to get into this – but there’s a complicated issue of who the third group is; the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jews in some– in English contexts are usually referred to as Jutes, I think, but in other context the word could refer to Jutes – I think it’s geta – does it refer to Jutes or Goths, and so there’s this complicated argument about the Goths being this sort of basic stock from which all Germanic groups came from, but that’s kind of too complicated I think for us to understand now. But the interesting thing is not only do we see this this kind of blending of ethnic and religious going on in Bede’s sort of more learned composition, but we also have the evidence of the genealogies, so there’s a whole bunch of genealogies that are preserved that trace ancestry back, and they will, I mean, since they largely come from literate times, they not only trace their ancestry back to Woeden or Odin who they take not as a God I guess but as a sort of tribal founder or something like that.

AVEN: Yeah, it’s kind of a euhemeristic approach.

MARK: But we’ll also work it into Christian genealogy, trying to get themselves all the way back to Adam.

AVEN: Got to get yourself into the Bible.

MARK: Yeah and so, again, it’s that blending of religious and this sort of tribal or whatever.

AVEN: Blood.

MARK: Blood.

AVEN: To get back to our cocktails.

MARK: And so speaking of the sort of tricky business about having Germanic you know heathens attacking Rome and so forth. So there’s a work by Aroseus, which is seven books of history against the pagans or something, but basically it’s a history of the biblical peoples including, you know, the pre-Christian Romans and so forth, right? And when it tells the story of Alaric the Goth sacking Rome, it paints him in a very positive light. He’s sort of the scourge of God.

AVEN: Because of the degenerate Romans.

MARK: And that’s rather the Anglo-Saxon version of the original Roseus. So the original Roseus, he’s a barbarian, he’s sacking Rome, but when the Anglo-Saxons translate it, he is… the text is Germanised and he has turned into a hero figure who invades and sacks Rome but does so without really killing anyone, and doing nice deeds along the way, and going about.

AVEN: Really saving Roma from itself.

MARK: Yes. Punishing it by light punishment, some kind of soft punishment.

AVEN: Tapping it on the head, saying ‘now now, don’t do it this way’.

MARK: Exactly. So that’s one story to think about in terms of how we understand this.

AVEN: It’s a conception of, again.

MARK: What race means because if Harris is right the Goths were seen as Alaric’s group was seen as the sort of source from which all Germanic peoples came.

AVEN: And we’re not again talking about actual genetics or anything, which is a whole other topic that I’m not going to get into, but perceptions.

MARK: the other story that I want to raise is the story of Pope Gregory coming across, in the slave market, and you can ask why he was wandering around the slave market

AVEN: Buying slaves?

MARK: Buying slaves, I guess.

AVEN: Slavery has not been outlawed by that point, what are you talk in Fourth Century, right? Fifth Century? Sixth Century, say? But the point is slavery has not been outlawed in the Christian world.

MARK: In any case, he sees in the market two boys that are described as being very beautiful and he’s very taken by them, and he says ‘where do these boys come from? Who are they?’ And he is told they are from the Anglie, the Angles. They are the Angles as in the Anglo-Saxons.

AVEN: But not the Saxons bit, just the Angle bit.

MARK: Just the Angle bit so they come from the north of England and specifically the Kingdom of Deira.

AVEN: That comes up and they later, horrible punny makes.

MARK: Horrible punny makes.

AVEN: The story is basically a story of a bunch of puns.

MARK: Yes.

AVEN: That’s all it is.

MARK: And so basically Gregory says ‘well they must be saved’ or first of all he asks ‘are they Christian?’ And he’s told no, they’re not Christian, and he says ‘you know, that’s too bad, they should be saved. Such beautiful people. The inner beauty should accord, should be in balance with the outer beauty’.

AVEN: If they are so outwardly beautiful they should be saved so they are also inwardly beautiful.

MARK: And so it’s on that moment that he decides to send a missionary into Anglo-Saxon England to convert them to the true faith. And yes he does make a bunch of puns.

AVEN: That had they angly-ing

MARK: No, they’re angels, because they’re as beautiful as angels and they come from Deira. From Dei ira, “from wrath”, so they should be saved from wrath and he’s told that the king of this land is called Alla and he says ‘Hallelujah!’

AVEN: Which video was it you told these stories?

MARK: That was in what is the earliest English word?

AVEN: Such bad jokes. Such bad jokes.

MARK: So it’s interesting that in the Old English version of this story the translator completely avoids any racial designation of the slavers.

AVEN: The people who are selling the kids, selling the boys.

MARK: It’s sort of in the Latin, it’s sort of vaguely they’re from Britain. How do you translate that? You may have to make a specific decision about their ethnicity.

AVEN: Their tribe.

MARK: Are they from Britain? Does that mean they’re…

AVEN: Britanni? But that would mean that they were Celtic and they surely aren’t.

MARK: Or are they Anglo-Saxon? Who knows? So it very carefully just leaves that out. So they’re very clearly thinking about these issues of, you know, what it means to be of one group or another.

AVEN: And how you distinguish those groups, especially when then you’re putting them in conjunction with other groups like Romans or Christians or you know, how those shift depending on what the context is.

MARK: Yeah, now in case anyone, you know, decides that this idea that he’s taken by the beauty of them because they are fair-haired.

AVEN: Little white boys.

MARK: Little white boys.

AVEN: Let’s be straightforward.

MARK: The term that is used in the Latin is venustus, which is just a term that means beautiful.

AVEN: Charming. With the qualities of Venus. Normally in the terms in the Latin I know it means sexually attractive.

MARK: Right, which later, during the Reformation, Protestants made use of this example to say all popes are just a bunch of lecherous sodomites, but it’s translated as fair.

AVEN: Meaning beautiful.

MARK: The word fair didn’t have the sense of pale until after the Anglo-Saxon period so it really just meant beautiful and they’re described as candidatus, ‘shining white’ in the Latin. This is translated as white but again it seems to be symbolic. Whenever those words are used, either the Latin candidatus or the Old English white in this kind of a context it usually means spiritual beauty.

AVEN: Purity.

MARK: Purity, yes, so I don’t think we should read too much into racial characteristics or skin colour specifically.

AVEN: candidatus is a word that means – yes it can mean white – but it also means beautiful, it’s a valorise term. In Roman, shall we say again erotic Terminology, you know. Saying it’s erotic does not mean that I, like the Protestants, think the Pope is just being lech. A lot of erotic terminology is repurposed as spiritual terminology. That’s actually a standard practice of the Gospels. We have that in the Psalms, we have that in the Song of Solomon. Repurposing erotic terminology as faith-based or spiritual terminology is, it’s a common move so there is a larger pattern going on there.

MARK: Right, now so getting back to Harris’s argument. Basically what he’s saying is that to make a gens you have to have three things. You’ve got to have a myth of common descent.

AVEN: Right, yes. So an ancestor. Going back to a mythical ancestor or a claim.

MARK: In a foundation story or whatever you’ve got to have a collective name.

AVEN: That you all claim.

MARK: And you have to have a specific territory. So place is vitally important for the concept of gens.

AVEN: So there has to be a geography associated with you.

MARK: And he points out that the way that gens and natio are used carefully distinguished that place issue, so you can have a gens who moves to another area and they become a natio if they’re living amongst other people.

AVEN: Okay, because they no longer have their space that was theirs.

MARK: That was their patria or whatever. And they can only become a gens again if they get that sense of a homeland.

AVEN: They now take over this place as a new homeland.

MARK: Yeah and, furthermore, he makes the point that the Angles, the continental Angles, before they go to England, when they go to England they remain a gens because the entire people left Angle. The story supposedly is that their region was completely flooded and it was a complete migration of the people. It was left empty whereas the other groups, the Saxons and the Jutes.

AVEN: Only parts of them.

MARK: Just parts of the community left and settled, made a new settlement in Britain and so they then lose their genship but presumably regain it at some point when we talk about the gens and glorum. When they become a unified people after conversion.

AVEN: Right because then somehow that new religious identity allows them a larger identity.

MARK: And by then they also of course have the place.

AVEN: They’ve now taken over a new place.

MARK: England is a, you know, is a place. There’s also an importance of language.

AVEN: Language all the way through is always important. You can’t be a group if you don’t have a common language but common language is not enough to make you a group.

MARK: Yeah. So I mean there’s lots more I could touch on but, I mean, we’ve got I could talk more about how these terms evolve in King Alfred’s period and then later towards, you know, after Viking settlement.

AVEN: We’ve already talked well more than enough.

MARK: Yes.

AVEN: And I too. I mean these are highly complicated topics and they differ between texts and they differ between periods and they differ between places and they differ between genres and these are not simple questions. I think what I wanted to do – the most important thing I wanted to do – was simply to say these categories are not obvious. There is nothing obvious about how we break people up into groups. There just isn’t, whether it’s religion, whether is varieties of religion, whether it’s language, whether it’s location, whether its mythical heritage, whether it’s physical characteristics, whether it’s ways you pronounce the language not just the language itself. These things are all important and also all unimportant depending on who you are, when you are, these things shift, they change. There’s nothing objective or natural, essentially, about any of them. They have all been constructed because of contingent circumstances, because of the things that matter at any given place, at any given time, to any given group. And the ways you divide up those outside of you from those inside of you, the ways you divide up those who are inside, they’re all a continually shifting set of criteria. That’s really the thing that I think is most important to take away from all of this and nothing of what we’ve talked about maps perfectly onto modern conceptions of race; that’s the other thing. They’re also not totally different. We’re not trying to say the modern conception just came ex nihilo, like came out of nowhere. Of course, it’s influenced by all of these thoughts but it’s not the same as the Roman conception of race or the Greek conception of race or the Anglo-Saxon conception of race, and I think that’s the key and it’s that background that we want to have in mind when we turn to how have people used these periods when we’re constructing our modern conceptions. And in the ongoing argument right now about what race means or doesn’t mean we can say as much as we want that race is a cultural construction – to say there’s no biological basis for race is not to say race is unimportant – as long as people think in terms of race, race is massively important because everybody’s experience of the world is filtered through that. But that was true when you were Roman about gens or natio, or whether you were Roman citizen or not. Your entire life was filtered through which group you were part of. All right, enough.

MARK: Enough.

AVEN: More than enough. If you’ve stuck with us all this way thank you and we will be back. I think the next episode is going to be much more light-hearted.

MARK: Yes, definitely.

AVEN: Some Halloween stuff may be discussed.

MARK: Yes.

AVEN: So we’ll be back with Halloween conversations but we will return to this topic in another few episodes.

MARK: And specifically then we’ll be talking about, as we said, how this is co-opted or referenced.

AVEN: Warped.

MARK: In the modern world with issues like white supremacy.

AVEN: And how Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century concepts of race have been projected into the past in ways that are problematic. To put it mildly. So I’m sure that will be fun too. All right, well on that note: goodnight.

MARK: Goodnight.


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MARK: Bye.