Renaissance humanism and ethnicity before race

The Irish and the English in the seventeenth century

Author: Ian Campbell

Inspired both by debates about the origins of the modern ideology of race and also by controversy over the place of Ireland and the Irish in theories of empire in the early modern Atlantic world, Renaissance Humanism and Ethnicity before Race argues that ethnic discourse among the elite in early modern Ireland was grounded firmly in the Renaissance Humanism and Aristotelianism which dominated all the European universities before the Enlightenment. Irish and English, Catholic and Protestant, all employed theories of human society based on Aristotle’s Politics and the natural law of the medieval universities to construct or dismantle the categories of civility and barbarism. The elites operating in Ireland also shared common resources, taught in the universities, for arguing about the human body and its ability to transmit hereditary characteristics. Both in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, these theories of human society and the human body underwent violent changes in the late seventeenth century under the impact of the early Enlightenment. These changes were vital to the development of race as we know it.

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