Race, Renaissance Concept of
The classification of humans into distinct races is first recorded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thus it may be doubted whether “race” is a helpful tool for the study of early modern thought. Nonetheless, embryonic concepts of race have been traced to the Renaissance. The period inherited a rich body of ideas of human types, drawing on classical and medieval authors. This material prompted speculation over human nature: Are qualities fixed or malleable? Are all peoples capable of reason and open to conversion to Christianity? Does humanity embrace all types or do some fall outside it? Throughout the period anti-Semitism provided a grim template for defining identity through the “othering” of a particular group of people.
Encounters outside the Mediterranean accelerated from the fifteenth century: the “discovery” of the New World, the enlargement of the slave trade, and expanding commercial networks all shaped perceptions of humans as belonging to groups with distinctive traits. Such mental taxonomies hardened into stereotypes which were disseminated through cultural artifacts and enshrined in ideology. Caricatures of the Jews emphasized their ineradicable internal difference from Christians: in the idea of the “blood purity” of the Jews propagated by the Spanish Inquisition can be seen the origins of a notion of biological race. Around the prevailing types and concepts, heterogeneous discourses can be discerned at a local and individual level. Racial theories generated debates in the fields of law and rights and were integrated into political relations and cultural practices over many fields (Erickson and Hulse 2000).
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