“According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘race’ was first used in English by the Scottish poet William Dunbar in a poem called ‘The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins’ (1508) where the followers of Envy included ‘bakbyttaris of sundry races.’ Here the word means ‘groups’ but does not tell us much about what kind of groups these might be.” (Loomba, 22)
As Prof. Rabin pointed out in class on Tuesday, each sentence in Ania Loomba’s Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism could easily be expanded into its own section. Indeed, each section of each chapter could very well be a monograph in its own right. While I heavily annotate most of the books I read (Bossy was mostly filled with the rantings of an unhappy grad student), the character count for my annotations in this week’s book narrowly falls short of the total character count of the monograph itself. I absolutely loved the book. Like I stated on Tuesday, I love works that challenge notions of periodization, and I especially admire scholars who engage in discourses that are thought to be excluded from the pre-modern world. For this post I would like to discuss the usage of race in medieval and early modern England with the question of translation in mind. This post is kind of a double-feature, because the question of translation came up while I was reading Sir John Davies ‘A Discovery of the True Causes…’ The passage that caught my eye was, “…such as are descended of English race would be found more in number than the ancient natives.” (Davies, 70: emphasis mine)
When I read Davies I wondered what the original language of the text was. Between now and then I discovered that Davies wrote in English, but originally I thought that he might have written in Latin and that the piece that we read was a translation. The thing that made me wonder was the usage of ‘race,’ as noted in the quote above. While we know that ‘race’ was first used in 1508 in English, for some reason the usage still struck me as kind of odd even for the late-sixteenth century. I’ve run across this in my own research: medieval scholars have commonly translated the Latin word ‘genus’ as ‘race,’ a choice I always found curious, even anachronistic, until the usage and meaning of ‘genus,’ along with a couple other Latin words, became part of my research on pre-modern nations.
The Latin word ‘genus’ was used in the Roman world to indicate birth, decent, origin, and race: the word was meant to denote some type of association between peoples in both familial and communal groups, as a way of proving a sense of linage. The word evolved in the Middle Ages to have a broad meaning of ‘a people,’ with a connotation of ‘race’ as in terms of ‘origins’ and ‘group,’ similar to the early modern usage. The medieval usage of the word also implied a connection to both language (vernacular language of the people/group) and geographical space (territory associated with the group/people). While Loomba indicated that ‘race’ was used to describe familial groups and linage, the older concept had deeper implications associating other characteristics such as language and territory. With this, there were equivalents in Old English and Middle English. The OE word ‘þeode’ which was used to describe ‘peoples, folks (groups of people/communities), and nation.’ In Middle English the most commonly used word with the same meaning was ‘folke’ which had the same meaning. Like ‘genus,’ both of these words maintained the same connection with language and space. As it turned out, the translation of the ‘genus’ as ‘race’ was not ahistorical, but rather associated with a meaning not readily familiar because of the modern usage.
So, while the word ‘race’ in English with an association with people, origin, group (along with language and space) was first introduced in the early sixteenth century, the concept is indeed much older. As we can see in the usage of the word by Davies, ‘English race,’ is rather loaded, with a deeper meaning than just a group with a common linage, but one which also occupy a specific place and use a particular language (although this gets complicated with English being the vernacular for those other than ‘the English race’).
Once again I have taken us back, although this time even further than the Middle Ages. I had thought about bringing this up in class last week, but I thought it would make for a more appropriate blog post.
****One note: ‘gens’ was also a term used to describe peoples, groups, and nations. I conflated ‘genus’ and ‘gens,’ forgetting to include the latter. As you can see, we are all subject to revision. ****