I'm interested in the european high middle ages, about the 12th-13th century. I'm trying to understand how people sorted each other. Nowadays, some overlapping categories people use would be:

  • citizenship
  • language
  • territory, from where someone is
  • ethnicity/race
  • nationality, which could be seen as the four above combined, depending on the nation in question
  • religion
  • social class
  • sexual identity

In feudal systems you might have "whose your liege" as an additional category. The thing is, I think most of these would have worked very differently or no at all in medievial times: Citizenship makes no sense without a state, so is at most a city-thing. Language, territroy, I don't know, the big importance they get today is I think also because both are tied to nationality, which does not make sense in a medievial context. Ethnicity/race in the modern sense are, well, modern concepts, I don't know how they worked back then. Sexual identity also seems to be a recent invention (Focault: the sodomite was a sinner, the gay is a species).
Leaves Religion (but almost everyone is catholic!), social class and 'whose your liege' as possible categories.

So how did common people (not clergy, not nobles) sort each other, which of the areas I listed (or others I forgot) where most important? How did people react to travellers, merchants etc from afar?

  • 3
    This is very broad. Possibly subject matter for a book. I'm not sure this can be answered in the scope of H:SE. If you narrow down your question to one focus area, such as say language, OR religion, it might be easier to handle.
    – Rajib
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 7:41
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    I see your point, but I want to know how important these areas where in relation to each other. Would "which categorizations where most important when strangers met" be better answerable?
    – mart
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 7:50
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    My impression is that it would be religion followed by language.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 8:05
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    It will depend on where you are, but the first problem is that in the Middle Ages people weren't citizens, they were (usually) serfs. The second problem is that most people probably never met anyone who spoke a language other than their own or who were part of a political entity other than their own. So most people's categorization of others was 1) Us vs the Nobles, and or 2) Us vs everyone else (serving different nobles). Other categories weren't really relevant. I think it was social class, followed by "outside my village".
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 8:26
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    The biggest issue I see here is the general term people in the second sentence. Depending on who you were, you saw things very differently. If you were of the ruling class or upper clergy you understood the world very differently to the way a common person did.
    – andy256
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 8:50

2 Answers 2


I will address race in the west European middle ages, since identity is just too broad to be answered.

First of all it is very important to put yourself in the position of a medieval villein, which is what most people were. They usually did not leave the village where they were born. They would know their immediate family, some of the seigneur's officials, and the local priest, whose economic situation was likely to be similar to their own. They would not meet any foreigners, unless their overlords happened to be foreigners (such as the Normans in England, for example.)

The educated classes of people were a little different. Their main preocuppation would be alliegance to a dynasty as identity. This overlapped with national identity, but was far from contiguous with it. The other Europeans they compared themselves with were, of course, also light-skinned, light-haired, light-eyed.

As far as darker-skinned people were concerned, they did not constantly intrude on European thoughts. Educated Europeans were influenced by the old Roman conception of race, which was that Romans were civilised, mediterranean people were civilised, and people from central Asia, sub-saharan Africa, or northern Europe were barbarians. Note that 'barbarians' weren't defined by skin colour.

Medieval scholars and governments viewed themselves as to some extent the heirs to Roman civilisation. The idea of Roman civilisation became fused somewhat with christianity, since the end of the Roman empire was christian, and the papacy in Rome was (and is still) a holdover from the Roman empire. Before they were brutally subjected to Christian rule, light-skinned people in scandinavia, the Baltics and northern Russia were considered barbarians. They became 'civilized' races after that. Note also that 'Christian' meant a Roman Catholic. Eastern Orthodox Christians were often treated just as badly by Catholic conquerers as Muslim or Jewish subjects had been.

The ancestor of modern racism is the European global empires of a much later date. Black people were slaves, Indians etc were virtual slaves, Chinese people were under the thumb of colonial powers, etc. These ideas wouldn't make any sense to the medieval European.

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    nice rightup, it also shows how racism by color could have stemmed from these ideas, as you stated at first it was more "culturism" barbarians where from the north, south, and far east. however as the north became civilized that essentially meant all white people were civilized, leading only the asians and africans as barbarian groups, and eventually only the africans where truly still seen as barbarians, eventually barbarians/african/black would become synonymous and so bias based on color became a thing.
    – Himarm
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 15:59
  • What about members of autonomous collectives? youtube.com/watch?v=-8bqQ-C1PSE
    – James
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 18:51
  • Re India & China, from what I've read (and I don't claim specific expertise), it appears that the British simply inserted themselves at the top of an existing social pyramid. So for the low-caste Indians, who go from being ruled by the local raja to being ruled by a British bureaucrat, what exactly is the difference? Likewise for the Chinese peasants.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 5:01

"Race" and "racism" are modern inventions. I have never seen any ancient or medieval writer identifying anybody by race. Actually we can only conjecture to which race some of their personages belonged.

The common identifications were by place of birth, religion, social class. And gender, of course (I am not sure what you mean by "sexual identity").

Nationality (and nation-states) is also a later invention. People were either subjects of some sovereign (and could change the sovereign during their life, voluntary or involuntary) or citizens of a republic. Republics were rare.

  • With "sexual identity" he might mean "straight/gay/whatever".
    – o0'.
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 10:01
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    This notion was invented/discovered in 20s century. It is an anachronism to use it when talking on Middle age attitudes.
    – Alex
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 11:23
  • I'm not saying whether it was correct or not, I'm just saying he likely meant that.
    – o0'.
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 13:50

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