White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages: Decoding the Canvas of Premodern Whiteness

Posted by rhiandavies - Wednesday, 31 Jan 2024


In the intricate tapestry of historical narratives, the study of premodern whiteness emerges as a captivating thread, weaving through bodily and nonsomatic representations. In the late medieval West, critical race studies and critical whiteness studies unveil a complex history where notions of race were nascent but undeniably present. This exploration delves into the nuances of premodern whiteness, unraveling its operations of fragility, precarity, and racialicity across various figurations.

Premodern Whiteness in the Late Medieval West:

As we embark on this journey through time, it is crucial to understand that racialization, even in the absence of modern constructs, existed in the late medieval West. Whiteness participated in the historical process of racialization, influencing societal structures, power dynamics, and perceptions of the “other.” The concept of premodern whiteness, although different from its contemporary counterpart, laid the groundwork for subsequent ideologies and hierarchies based on race.

Critical Race Studies and Critical Whiteness Studies:

Critical race studies offer us a lens to dissect the complexities of premodern whiteness, recognizing that race is a social construct embedded in historical and cultural contexts. Similarly, critical whiteness studies encourage us to scrutinize how whiteness operates as a normative force, shaping perceptions, policies, and societal structures. Together, these frameworks empower us to deconstruct the layers of racialization, even in historical periods where the language of race may not have been explicitly articulated.

Bodily and Nonsomatic Representations:

Premodern whiteness transcends the confines of the physical body, seeping into nonsomatic representations – those aspects of identity beyond the corporeal. Art, literature, and cultural symbols become powerful mediums through which premodern whiteness is conveyed. In medieval art, for instance, the depictions of ethereal, porcelain-like skin conveyed not just aesthetic ideals but also encoded racialized notions.

Operationalizing Fragility, Precarity, and Racialicity:

The fragility of premodern whiteness surfaces in the anxieties and insecurities stemming from the fear of losing perceived privileges. The precarious nature of racial identities during this era highlights the fluidity of racial categories and the socio-political implications of straying from established norms. Racialicity in premodern whiteness, then, becomes a lens through which we can understand the performative aspects of identity, both in bodily and nonsomatic realms.


In unraveling the enigma of premodern whiteness across bodily and nonsomatic representations, critical race studies and critical whiteness studies provide indispensable tools. The late medieval West, often seen as a distant past, comes alive with the realization that racialization existed in nuanced forms, shaping the trajectory of societies. Premodern whiteness, with its operations of fragility, precarity, and racialicity, forces us to confront the intricate interplay of historical constructs that echo into the present.

As we peer into the canvas of history, we must engage with premodern whiteness not as a static concept but as a dynamic force that laid the groundwork for contemporary dialogues on race. This exploration prompts us to reevaluate our understanding of the past, fostering a more nuanced and inclusive comprehension of the complex tapestry of human identity.

White before whiteness in the late middle ages
by Wan-Chuan Kao

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