Renaissance and Reformation Racialization in the Early Modern Period
Carol Mejia-LaPerle, Kirsten Mendoza, Mira 'Assaf Kafantaris, Miles Grier, Emily Weissbourd, Ambereen Dadabhoy, Brandi Adams, Debapriya Sarkar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0533


Race is an ideological fiction embedded in material realities. It is a collective operation and an individual experience. Race is a factor in the formation of gender, class, sexuality, religion, politics, economics, philosophy, and subjectivity because of its capacious involvement in all facets of social life. And yet race is also, in this article, uniquely important to understanding the people, events, and artifacts of the Renaissance and Reformation. Mired in these paradoxes, the study of race in early modernity requires multidisciplinary approaches, transhistorical awareness, and a protean vocabulary to analyze the discourses of race, the means of racialization, and the consequences of racism. Because scholarship on race should also strive to be anti-racist, this article is an inclusive, diverse, justice-oriented, collective effort. Entries reflect the innovations in methodologies and the range of materials that have established the importance of the topic despite the absence and alterity plaguing the archived histories of racial construction. It is worth noting that the decades-long race scholarship featured in this article reckoned with not only the challenges of archival silences but also the obstacles set by academic institutions that suppressed, undermined, and denied the significance of racial thinking to early moderns. Showing the ways that racialized groups were cultural influences and active participants in the Renaissance and Reformation, multi-authored sections prove the widespread social impact of English engagements with, and representations of, racial subjects in theaters, in classrooms, in royal courts, and in everyday life. The article also tackles racial operations beyond England in discussions of, for instance, religion in the Islamic world, theatrical practices on the Continent, and cross-cultural engagements in a global economy. Future considerations in disciplines such as book history, education, science, and ecocriticism expand the implications of this scholarship in recovering the past and showing the relevance of the recovery. Underwriting all aspects of race in the period are the dehumanizing agendas of the slave trade, the violences of forced diaspora, and the theft of Indigenous peoples’ lands and resources. Race is not a coherent system or a stable epistemology; rather, its operations and expressions are repeated, reiterated, and reinvented in the context of social and cultural histories. The entries convey these social and cultural histories by providing an overview of the theoretical scaffolds for and significant findings on racialization in the Early Modern period. This section is contributed by Carol Mejia LaPerle.

General Overview

Scholarship on race in the Renaissance and Reformation illuminates the ways in which race influences and is influenced by language, rhetoric, economics, religion, ethnicity, clothing, skin color, and comportment. The entries provide an overview of the range of materials and the methodological innovations essential to studying racial formation in the period. Habib 2008, as a model for painstaking recovery and insightful analysis of early modern archives, is a foundational source for historicizing and examining the lives of Black people in England. It also offers theoretical scaffolding for the treatment of materials curtailed and undermined—when they are not erased—by white supremacist systems of knowledge accumulation. Bringing these documents to students and scholars with little access to the archives was the goal of Burton and Loomba 2007 (cited under Race and Transnational Contexts) in a curation and contextualization of primary documents related to race. Since then, the field has offered a plethora of materials, such as the comprehensive transnational and translingual investigation of the racializing scripts that Europeans performed to cultivate and spread anti-Blackness in Ndiaye 2022, as well as a revolutionary means of reading those documents as Smith 2022 elaborates in the author’s application of racial literacy. Hendricks and Parker 1994, MacDonald 2002, and Grier, et al. 2018 tackle various iterations of racializing mechanisms that intersect with religious beliefs, social class, imperial politics, gendered sexuality, the transatlantic slave trade, and the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness in the performance and publication histories of English culture. The global politics in Singh 2021 and the transnational orientation of Grier, et al. 2018 offer intercultural, multi-ethnic, and anti-racist methods to destabilize the Eurocentric interpretive frames that have dominated the reading of race in the period. The emphasis on conduct literature in Akhimie 2018 provides an overview of race beyond somatic markers, as does Smith 2009. The affective communities that emerge in the formation of whiteness in Mejia LaPerle 2022, the use of Shakespeare’s work as a vehicle through which to engage and critique the histories of race and racism in Thompson 2021, and the examination of the cultural history of white identity in Little 2022, convey recent overviews of and approaches to race in the Renaissance and Reformation. This section is contributed by Carol Mejia LaPerle.

  • Akhimie, Patricia. Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781351125048

    Demonstrates the modes of inculcation that mobilize racism through widespread conduct literature. Showing how conduct literature, and the mechanisms of surveillance and discipline it codifies, inflict the painful physical marks and ascribe the intellectual defects that racial subjects are accused of being born with.

  • Grier, Miles Parks, Nicholas Jones, and Cassander L. Smith, eds. Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    Interdisciplinary collection seeks to center Black agency, rebellion, and creativity despite the history of enslavement and the trauma of the African diaspora. Focusing on a range of texts and contexts such as records of rebellions in the colonies, African influences on European art, and literary representations of Black resistance, it provides an alternate overview of historical artifacts recording oppression from the point of view of the abject while employing methodologies and analyses that decenter conventional, Eurocentric epistemologies.

  • Habib, Imtiaz. Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500–1677: Imprints of the Invisible. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.

    Providing an unprecedented account of Black people in early modern England, the study establishes the importance of grounding scholarship in factual data. An astounding analysis of the recovery of an actively suppressed past. Cautiously outlines the historical trajectory of what he calls the “predictive effects” of the historical record: that the treatment of Blacks in England before slavery connects and influences the horrors of white Europeans’ attitudes and behaviors toward Africans in the centuries of human trafficking that follow.

  • Hendricks, Margo, and Patricia Parker, eds. Women, ‘Race’ and Writing in the Early Modern Period. New York: Routledge, 1994.

    This foundational collection and model of interdisciplinary research deploys intersectional approaches to race, gender, sexuality, and class to illuminate the widespread impact of English engagements with, and representations of, racial difference. Puts pressure on the racial category of whiteness as it is deployed in the service of imperial ambitions and xenophobic nationalism. The “scare quotes” of race in the title underlines the volume’s publication despite what was at the time institutionally sanctioned suppression of research on race in early modernity.

  • Little, Arthur L., Jr. White People in Shakespeare: Essays on Race, Culture, and the Elite. New York: Bloomsbury, 2022.

    Essays demonstrate how white epistemology underwrites the cultural history of Shakespeare in performance practices, in political arenas, and in educational institutions. Organized in two parts, “Shakespeare’s White People” and “White People’s Shakespeare,” interdisciplinary essays provide insights on a range of topics from the construction of whiteness in the sonnets to the deployment of white cultural capital during the civil rights era.

  • Loomba, Ania, and Jonathan Burton, eds. Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    Ably curates, compiles, andtranslatesarchival materials to enable a broader comprehension of racial difference in the classical, medieval, and early modern periods. The primary texts are introduced for a broad audience to understand the contexts of historical conflicts, national boundaries, ethnic differences, religious affiliations, and many other factors in the formation of racial identity.

  • MacDonald, Joyce Green. Women and Race in Early Modern Texts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511483721

    Investigates the racialization of African women in early modern English literature. Demonstrates the compulsion of Renaissance authors to appropriate non-white identity, particularly in representations of Black femininity, in ways that reinforce the hegemony of white, European power. Reading a range of plays and poetry, the work proves the centrality of racial thinking by contextualizing the sources and critiquing the elisions of racial difference.

  • Mejia LaPerle, Carol, ed. Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Press, 2022.

    Investigates the ways in which affects depicted in early modern English literature are not only available to racializing regimes, they mobilize the experience and the attribution of race and racism. In its analysis of plays, poetry, letters, travel accounts, medical treatises, social documents, and performances, the essays consider the feelings, dispositions, and senses that accompany the representation of racialized subjectivities and the operations that mobilize white supremacy in the formation of an English commonwealth.

  • Ndiaye, Noémie. Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv2gz3zr2

    Demonstrates how racial categories in the English, French, and Spanish contexts were intricately imagined and regularly performed. Uncovers how colonial and capitalist agendas were processed in the metropolises of Europe through theatrical black-up, black speak, and black dance, thus activating severe prejudices against and lethal abuse of Afro-diasporic people. The comparative study offers interventions in reading race and gender while collecting and investigating an underexplored archive of transnational performances.

  • Singh, Jyotsna, ed. A Companion to the Global Renaissance: Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, 1500–1700. 2d ed. Hoboken, NJ, and West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2021.

    Focusing on cross-cultural interactions across geographical regions, the essays analyze the historical, economic, artistic, and political contexts that inform racial encounters. Offering a broad scope of study that includes 16th-century Japanese culture, early modern English theatrical performances, Portuguese slaving practices, Mughal art, and many other historical artifacts, the collection attempts to capture the complexity of early modern globalization.

  • Smith, Ian. Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230102064

    Provides an unprecedented investigation of the curricula of race scaffolding English white nationalism and sharpening anti-Black racial awareness as these were inducted into the service of imperial dominance. Recognizing the important work of premodern critical race scholarship, Smith nonetheless departs in his emphasis on linguistic rather than physical or cultural differences.

  • Smith, Ian. Black Shakespeare: Reading and Misreading Race. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781009224116

    A critique of the systemic whiteness in Shakespearean performance and interpretation, as well as an important intervention in anti-racist methodology, the monograph outlines the importance of racial literacy in reading practiceand academic research. Wrestling the concept of readership from a long-standing and misleading orthodoxy of neutrality and transhistoricity, Smith reveals the systemic whiteness and perennial anti-Blackness of scholarly practice.

  • Thompson, Ayanna, ed. Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race. New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

    An intersectional and transdisciplinary approach to the inextricable role of race in the history, reception, publication, production, and performance of Shakespeare’s canon, the collection offers early modern scholars and non-specialists analyses of racialized discourses that inform interpretation then and now.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.