In the late Middle Ages, Christian conversion could wash a black person's skin white—or at least that is what happens when a black sultan converts to Christianity in the English romance King of Tars. In Black Metaphors, Cord J. Whitaker examines the rhetorical and theological moves through which blackness and whiteness became metaphors for sin and purity in the English and European Middle Ages—metaphors that guided the development of notions of race in the centuries that followed. From a modern perspective, moments like the sultan's transformation present blackness and whiteness as opposites in which each condition is forever marked as a negative or positive attribute; medieval readers were instead encouraged to remember that things that are ostensibly and strikingly different are not so separate after all, but mutually construct one another. Indeed, Whitaker observes, for medieval scholars and writers, blackness and whiteness, and the sin and salvation they represent, were held in tension, forming a unified whole.
Whitaker asks not so much whether race mattered to the Middle Ages as how the Middle Ages matters to the study of race in our fraught times. Looking to the treatment of color and difference in works of rhetoric such as John of Garland's Synonyma, as well as in a range of vernacular theological and imaginative texts, including Robert Manning's Handlyng Synne, and such lesser known romances as The Turke and Sir Gawain, he illuminates the process by which one interpretation among many became established as the truth, and demonstrates how modern movements—from Black Lives Matter to the alt-right—are animated by the medieval origins of the black-white divide.
Cord J. Whitaker is Associate Professor of English at Wellesley College.
"Cord J. Whitaker's fascinating new study, Black Metaphors, connects the field of medieval rhetoric to the history of racial thinking even as it probes fundamental questions such as the meaning of blackness in the Middle Ages. As such, it acts as an important contribution not only to the intellectual history of race, but also to the emerging field of premodern race studies . . . [T]his highly learned and innovative study constitutes an essential contribution to the growing body of scholarship examining the relation of the premodern era to the histories of race and colonialism."
~Studies in the Age of Chaucer
"Amid the growing studies of medieval race thinking, Black Metaphors explores the complicated discursive functioning of blackness in the Middle Ages. It's a timely study of metaphors of blackness (and whiteness) that evolved from classical into medieval, then modern valences of black and white . . . The strength of the study comes from mapping the emergence of modern racism onto medieval discursive culture while stressing an alterity of the Middle Ages that prohibits it from being co-opted by the present."
With his thoughtful, learned, subtle, and lucidly written study, Black Metaphors, Cord Whitaker brings a rhetorical bent to recent conversations on race and race thinking in the English Middle Ages. He tracks the polysemous
black metaphor, linking blackness with sin and whiteness with innocence, across a range of premodern
texts...Whitaker is a powerful and often surprising reader of texts, using moments of ambivalence to unlock a usefully unfamiliar and unparadigmatic Middle Ages.
~Journal of British Studies
"Black Metaphors places itself not only firmly in the context of current debates around questions of race in the field of medieval studies, but it shows why those debates are so profoundly important to those conversations in society writ large . . . Whitaker aptly places this book in the context of 'Black Lives Matters' and the global rise of far right, showing how questions around the Middle Ages are urgent ones that must be addressed if we are to understand the prejudices of today's world . . . This book is essential reading for scholars of Europe of any period and those seeking to understand racism in the world more broadly today because of the legacy of European colonialism."
""[A] timely and engaging study . . . Whitaker's book succeeds admirably well in demonstrating the frequent shimmer of black metaphor in medieval literature."
"Cord Whitaker's timely study pinpointing the roots of modern Western racial thinking in medieval rhetorical practice is a deeply important book not just for medieval studies but for a general audience in these times of increased racial violence . . . The study's concluding pages offer a grim summary of the past twenty years both within and around medieval studies, illustrating the stratification and codification of the black metaphors Whitaker has been exploring through the preceding chapters. By making the connections explicit in these final pages, he crafts a subtle but nonetheless fierce call to action for medievalists, academics, and general readers alike. We would do well to heed it."
"Writing from the intersections of English literary studies and premodern race scholars, this is a foundational text in an emerging field that presents novel ways of reading medieval texts for complexities surrounding race."
~Renaissance and Reformation
"Cord J. Whitaker performs an archaeology of how blackness came to be embedded as a fixture of persuasion, religious thought, and poetic imagery. Exploring the logic of 'contrariety' through medieval poetics and argumentation, he reveals the long intimacy of rhetoric and racial discourse from the Middle Ages to the present."
~Rita Copeland, author of Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages
"Black Metaphors is a bold, disruptive, penetrating study of the foundational grammars of modern racial thinking in late medieval literature. With provocative new readings of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century works, Cord J. Whitaker dials back the beginnings of modern racism from our commonplace understanding of its original flourishing in the widespread scientific racism of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the rhetorical and religious obsessions with metaphors of blackness and whiteness in the Middle Ages. An important intervention in medieval studies and black studies alike, Black Metaphors sparkles as it fills a longstanding gap in between."
~Maurice Wallace, author of Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men's Literature and Culture, 1775-1995
"Cord J. Whitaker's captivatingly well-written book takes on the centrality of blackness as a metaphor used in medieval romance, spiritual writings, rhetorical treatises, and travel writing. Weaving modern racialized news accounts of biker rallies together with contemporary folk music and popular medieval texts, Whitaker shows the lasting importance of the European Middle Ages on Western, particularly American, interpretations of white and black skin. An extremely important work in the field of race studies."
~Lynn Ramey, author of Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages
"Cord J. Whitaker's rich and textured readings of both lesser-known and well-known texts render them wholly new, fresh, and exciting. Black Metaphors demonstrates an incredibly learned mind at work; Whitaker deftly maneuvers between religious philosophy, philology, classical rhetorical tropes, and contemporary critical race studies."
~Ayanna Thompson, author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America
"Black Metaphors states plainly that its investigation into matters of race in the European Middle Ages is urgently informed by the agonizingly critical events of today, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the commonplace, quotidian racisms visited on black citizens of the United States. This book imparts stunning insights and will grace many a bookshelf for a long time to come."
~Geraldine Heng, author of The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages
Winner of the John Nicholas Brown Prize, granted by the Medieval Academy of America