Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?

Abstract

This essay considers the use of the modern term ‘monstrous races’ to describe the wondrous beings found in Herodotus, Pliny, The Wonders of the East, world maps and elsewhere. Considering the etymology and history of the word ‘race,’ a series of modern definitions are tested out on figures found in the images and texts of the British Library MS Harley 3954 Book of John Mandeville, the BL MS Tiberius B.v Marvels of the East, The King of Tars, Cursor Mundi and other medieval sources. The essay questions whether the term, often rooted in modern notions about the fixity of divisions of peoples, is helpful for describing medieval concepts. The essay further explores how the term ‘monstrous races’ reifies the culture of the medieval authors and illuminators – often in practice ‘white’ European Christians – as a ‘race,’ and implicitly, if unintentionally, elevates this group as normative.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    On the right edge of the lintel of the central portal of the Benedictine abbey church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine at Vézelay, we find what seems to be a family of Panotii, a ‘monstrous race’ characterized by very large ears. The image shows a male and a female Panotii, with a smaller Panotii between them, possibly representing a child. (See Andrew Tallon’s gigapixel image here: faculty.vassar.edu/antallon/zoomify/Vezelay_ Main_Portal.html.)

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Debra Strickland, Susan Kim, Cord Whitaker and MEARCSTAPA (www.mearcstapa.org/).

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Mittman, A. Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?. Postmedieval 6, 36–51 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/pmed.2014.43

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