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Before the Scientific Revolution

Though the term race as we define it now was not in use during the medieval period, there was still acknowledgement of physical differences. Whether or not something like a modern conception of racial difference existed during the medieval period in the West is a matter of much scholarly debate. Before the advent of the Scientific Revolution, Western understanding of science and medicine was derived largely from writers of Classical antiquity or from interpretations of the Bible. These philosophical and theological templates explained race as a function of geographical, religious, linguistic, or cultural differences as much as skin color or any other physical trait. 

Liber chronicarum

Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514) 

Liber chronicarum 

Augsburg: Johann Schönsperger, 1500 

Among the most important chronicles, or accounts of humanity’s origin and history, Hartmann Schedel’s Liber chronicarum used the Bible as its source for the origins of man. In this woodcut map, the world is shown as divided between the progeny of Noah’s three sons. Monstrous humans, supposedly from the fringes of the world, are depicted on the opposite page.  

Hanes Foundation for the Study of the Origin and Development of the Book 

Rare Book Collection Folio Incunabula 114.2

De animalibus

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) 

De animalibus 

Venice: Bartolomeo Zanis, 1498 

Aristotle’s influence on the development of Western natural philosophy, history, and science was wide-ranging, underpinning many of the basic building blocks of Western thought. In his political writing, Aristotle subscribed to a climate-based theory of human variation similar to Hippocrates. Here, in his treatise on animal generation, Aristotle hypothesizes a theory of how specific physical traits are inherited through the strength or weakness of sperm.  

Hanes Foundation for the Study of the Origin and Development of the Book 

Rare Book Collection Folio Incunabula 376 

Opera omnia

Plato (circa 427–347 BCE)

Opera omnia

Venice: Lorenzo di Alopa, 1484–1485

The only one of Plato’s dialogues available in Latin translation during the early medieval period was Timaeus, shown here. Timaeus outlines a theory of the origin of the cosmos and of humanity, making it a major influence on the development of natural philosophy in the West. Although Plato forwards no explicit theory of race, his interpretation of the physical body as a signifier of the moral virtue of the soul is echoed in many later racial theories. In Timaeus, morally corrupt souls are reborn in the bodies of beasts or women, with different animals representing different categories of moral corruption.

Hanes Foundation for the Study of the Origin and Development of the Book 

Rare Book Collection Incunabula 438 

Aristotle's Master-Piece, or, The Secrets of Generation Displayed


Aristotle’s Master-Piece, or, The Secrets of Generation Displayed 

London: J. How, 1684 

This popular sex and midwifery manual spuriously claims authorship by Aristotle to lend the text authority. It was among the most reprinted medical texts from its first appearance in 1684 until well into the nineteenth century. Like Aristotle, the book treats the subject of heritability of physical characteristics. Here, additional classical authorities such as Hippocrates are quoted to show that traits such as skin color can be inherited through the imagination of the pregnant mother.  

The Childers Collection for the Study of English Literature  

Rare Book Collection QH471 .A7 1684 superv'd 

Aristotelis Politicorum

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) 

Aristotelis Politicorum 

Leiden: Elzevir, 1621 

In his treatise on Politics, Aristotle builds on Plato’s description of humanity as having essential natures by positing that some individuals are born as “natural slaves.” Though scholars debate whether Aristotle intended to link the concept of slavery to particular racial and ethnic groups, his writings were widely read by Western scholars throughout the early modern period as a justification for the transatlantic slave trade.

William A. Whitaker (Ph.B. 1904, L.L.D. 1956) Fund 

Rare Book Collection PA3893 .P8 1621 


Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1490–1573) 


Madrid: Regia de la Gazeta, 1780 

Distributed in 1550, but not published in his lifetime, Sepulveda’s Democrates alter argued that Aristotle’s concept of the natural slave justified the Spanish conquest and enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Americas. His Apologia, published posthumously in 1780, further defended his position, characterizing Native Americans as “barbarians” likely because they were non-Christian peoples. He wrote that “such men must obey those who are more civilized and prudent in order that they may be governed by better mores and institutions.”  

Bernard J. Flatow Collection of Latin American Cronistas 

Rare Book Collection Flatow DP63.7 S4 A2 1780 

Aqui se contiene una disputa

Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566) 

Aqui se contiene una disputa 

Seville: Sebastian Trugillo, 1552 

Although he argued against Sepulveda’s assertion that indigenous peoples of the Americas were inherently servile, Dominican friar and Bishop in Chiapas, Mexico Bartolomé de las Casas advocated for the continued use of Africans as slaves. Las Casas’s seemingly contradictory position on people from Africa and people from the Americas highlights how the transatlantic slave trade profoundly affected the concept of racial difference. 

Bernard J. Flatow Collection of Latin American Cronistas 

Rare Book Collection Flatow F1411.C52 no.3 superv’d 

The Negro: What is His Ethnological Status?

Buckner H. Payne (1799–1889) 

The Negro: What is His Ethnological Status? 

Cincinnati, 1867 

Interpretations of the Biblical curse of Noah’s son Ham took on a decidedly anti-black turn during the centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. They became a common justification for the enslavement of Africans, who were said to be descendants of Ham. In his widely distributed white supremacist pamphlet, Buckner Payne argued against the curse of Ham theory, instead insisting that dark-skinned Africans were an entirely different species from whites.

North Carolina Collection 

North Carolina Collection Vault VCp097 J72p 

The Adamic Race: A Reply to "Ariel"


The Adamic Race: A Reply to “Ariel” 

New York: Russell Brothers, 1868 

Payne’s “Ariel’ pamphlet sparked a heated debate about the nature and classification of the races of man that blended pseudo-science and Biblical interpretation. In this reply, though the author disagrees with Payne’s assertation that people of African descent were inhuman, he still insists that races constitute separate species, advancing a white supremacist notion of whites as the race of Adam.

Southern Pamphlet Collection 

Rare Book Collection Southern Pamplet So. Pam 4730