In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Otherness, Race, and Identity in European Medieval Art

  • Introduction
  • Postcolonial Theory
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Monsters and Imaginary Others

Art History Otherness, Race, and Identity in European Medieval Art
Pamela A. Patton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0134


The utility of visual images in articulating social, cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial difference strongly interested both makers and viewers of Western medieval art; visual imagery that portrayed certain individuals or groups as racial, social, or cultural outsiders to a perceived dominant (generally Latin or Orthodox Christian) community, often in a negative but occasionally in a positive light, is abundant from the central Middle Ages onward. Terms applied to this phenomenon have evolved with shifts in the scholarship. The once-common theoretical term “Others,” which adapted an originally psychoanalytic term to define a group and its members in opposition to a collective, perceived cultural norm, and the related term “alterity” have been applied frequently and effectively in work published in the 1990s and early 2000s; while since the 2010s, “race” has increasingly been used to frame the ways in which difference was perceived and represented by medieval people. Although the diversity of medieval Europe was in reality quite textured, including cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and racial differences both within and across regions, the most vivid visual images produced by medieval Europeans relate to those they perceived as most distinctive or socially threatening, such as Jews, Muslims, Mongols, lepers, and people from the African continent. Modern scholarly study of such imagery has evolved fairly slowly, and much of it is recent. Whereas early-20th-century scholarship tended to focus more on the recognition and cataloguing of iconographic signs than on their analysis, beginning in the 1940s, and increasingly from the 1970s onward, scholars began to direct critical attention to the ways in which medieval artists chose to represent human difference visually, as well as to the reception of such images by medieval viewers. The earliest scholarship to undertake such analysis initially aimed for broad, thematic coverage and the aggregation of visual examples, resulting in print volumes that in the predigital era offered valuable access to a wide range of medieval images. In the 1990s, art historians began to capitalize on increasing online access to works of art, as well as the advent of relevant new approaches such as semiotics and postcolonial theory, to produce more specialized and critically oriented studies. Many such works emphasized how the visual articulation of difference intersected with the power relationships and hierarchies that structured medieval communities, drawing from scholarship in related disciplines such as anthropology, comparative literature, and history. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, a disciplinary shift toward microhistories, global perspectives, and still newer theoretical approaches has encouraged additional trends in scholarship on medieval alterity. These include a preference for contextualized case studies; the reevaluation of traditional geographical and cultural parameters; and increased openness to such new fields as queer theory, monster theory, global studies, and premodern critical race studies. The dominance of theoretical approaches in the scholarship, perhaps not surprising in a field that is relatively new and itself theoretically defined, is reflected in the sections of this article. Like earlier literature, current scholarship is strongly interdisciplinary, benefitting from complementary work in comparative literature and history and engaging a wide range of primary texts; it has also expanded to venues outside traditional publishing, such as museum exhibitions and online public scholarship.

Foundations and Extra-Disciplinary Models

The study of medieval alterity in art history builds substantially on scholarship produced in other disciplines, and in particular on postcolonial theory and critical race studies, which emerged first in comparative literature and were subsequently taken up and tested in other historical disciplines. It draws also on ancient and medieval texts that laid the foundation for later European attitudes toward human difference, including those that would preoccupy medieval artists. The secondary scholarship manifests strong interest in the effect of power relationships on how social, cultural, and racial differences were recognized and represented in a given medieval culture, as well as in understanding how and why such differences were manipulated to negotiate group and individual relationships.

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.