A guest post by Mira Assaf Kafantaris
Meghan Markle’s incorporation into the British monarchy, and her subsequent departure from it, has thrown into high relief the ideologies of whiteness at the heart of royal European traditions. Even though the symbolism of her nuptials with Prince Harry was touted as the United Kingdom’s ultimate act of reconciliation with its brutal colonial past, Markle’s inclusion in the beau monde of white Britain remained conditional. The blatant anti-Blackness that vilified her embodiment, from her comportment, to her outfits, to her pregnancy, told one story: Markle’s Blackness threatened to unravel the fabric of European royalty that is sutured to essentialist constructs of race, gender, and class. These racial constructs are not new, however. My book project, Royal Marriage, Foreign Queens, and Constructions of Race in Early Modern Culture shows that the contemporary manifestations of gendered racism in the case of Meghan Markle are entangled in long histories that speak to early modernity’s institution of dynastic alliances and the reception of foreign queens. Building on a long genealogy of Black Feminist Studies, Postcolonial theory, and Indigenous traditions, my project recognizes the valence of racialized queenship in the story of white womanhood, territory, and power in early modern studies and beyond.
To illustrate my point, I will turn to the broadsheet, Epithalamium Gallo-Britannicum, held at the Folger (STC 17308 Engr.), to trace how dynastic alliances cohere a range of ideas of whiteness as a strategy of power. This printed ephemera, intended to be publicly circulated, was composed on the occasion of the Anglo-French royal marriage of 1625.
I wish to draw attention to three visual and rhetorical strands, where I see the racial construct of whiteness explicitly placed: Greco-Roman antiquity, harmony, and genealogy. My analysis is informed by Kim F. Hall’s call, in her foundational Things of Darkness (1995), to notice whiteness as a racial formation so ubiquitous that it masquerades as neutral and universal. As may be familiar to you, we are accustomed to reading premodern royal marriage as a facet of geopolitical diplomacy, the product of war and peace, conflict and conciliation; whereby the embodied foreign queen functions as an extractable resource made valuable through the purity of noble blood, circulation of material wealth, and the propagation of royal lines. However, the story of royal marriage’s connection to colonial plantation economies remains untold.
In 1625, the marriage treaty between England and France, negotiated hot on the heels of the failure of the Spanish match, expanded the overseas dominion of the two European states though access to global trade routes, extractable resources, and most brutally, the transatlantic slave trade. I find it quite telling that one of the foremost proponents of the match in France was its the foreign minister, Cardinal Richelieu, who established the Company of the American Islands (1627), in the Caribbean, and the Company of New France (1628) in North America. George Calvert (1579-1632), First Baron Baltimore, had similar colonist and dynastic aspirations in England. Remember the name Calvert, because he will come up again, along with his petition for a grant of land in the Chesapeake Bay.
The detailed broadsheet accompanying the text of George Marcelline’s Epithalamium Gallo-Britannicum (1625) situates royal marriage in a way that erases its complete imbrication in the land theft and the bio-racism of the colonial project. In the center is a full-length, double portrait of Prince Charles and Lady Henrietta Maria holding hands, surrounded by engravings of coats of arms and heraldic animals. They are enclosed in a Roman triumphal arch, which depicts the god Apollo and the goddess Minerva on either side, patrons of wisdom and courage, respectively.
The outer border frames the marriage through a long genealogy that chronicles past Anglo-French royal marriages. At the bottom, a nuptial poem praises the union, including the commonplace allusion to the English rose and the French fleur-de-lis: “To make our Albion’s odiferous Rose / With Fraunce’s Flow’r de Luce closely to close.”
Traditionally, royal panegyric has been studied either to illuminate its generic innovations, or to tease out what these nuptial texts tell us about patronage systems and circles of influence in intra-European politics. My interest, however, lies squarely in shedding light on the racial work that royal marriage literature performs; in this instance, the elaborately-engraved broadsheet ascribes emblems of whiteness to a union that will accelerate and magnify the dispossession of Black and Indigenous populations through land theft, resource extraction, and forced human labor. As I contemplate the visual summary of the match that this broadsheet offers, I sketch three emblems of whiteness that I will continue to unpack throughout my fellowship year:
On either side stand the figures of Apollo and Minerva, which evoke a symbolic power anchored in the myth of perfect mimetic imagination, representation, and art in Greco-Roman antiquity. They project the values of “War and wealth, peace and policie” unto Charles and Henrietta Maria—values that are echoed in the lines “By Mars his martial Might to make Foes perish, / By Ceres Serene Sight, true Frends to cherish.” In this way, the broadsheet establishes a mimetic relationship between these classical ideals and the royal couple that engender the production of whiteness. Here, I build on the work of Francesca T. Royster, Joyce G. MacDonald, Ian Smith, and Katherine Gillen, who have argued that the early modern period’s mimetic investment in the classical period, particularly in depictions of natural beauty, wisdom, and imperial wealth, is one tethered to the construction of racial hierarchies.1 These scholars of Premodern Critical Race Studies, to use Margo Hendricks’s nomenclature, tell us that the English’s appeal to the racial superiority of the classical period is not a coincidence; by linking their lineage to a classical genealogy, via Troynovant and Aeneas’s grandson, Brutus, the English positioned themselves in opposition to those who inhabit racial geographies and histories beyond these ideals.2 By signaling a mimetic affinity to this classical fantasy of racial superiority, the broadsheet thus presents the Anglo-French match as a historical event that reproduces Greco-Roman hierarchy. This provocation to unsettle how classical imagery affects the production of whiteness is helping me understand the function of these generic topoi in the development of a white supremacist ideology in early modern royal marriage discourse.
Why is harmony, emblematized by the conjoined hands of the royal couple, a constitutive feature in Anglo-French alliances? From “Heart and hand received”; to “Walke hand-in-hand, in blissefull Unitie”; to “In Charles & Heneretta’s Hand and Hart, / To See the Seate of Vitue, Armes and Art,” the concept of harmony saturates the propagandistic narrative of the match and is materialized via the imagery of white hands.
Here I lean on Farah Karim-Cooper’s work, The Hand on Shakespearean Stage (2016), that illuminates the importance of this body part in the construction of racialized subjects.3 In this tableau, the functionality of the conjoined white hands is two-fold: on one level, it assures the King’s subjects that a match with England’s historical and Catholic enemy would not destabilize the commonwealth. On another level, it positions the concept of harmony within a historical, racial logic that royal marriage perpetuates. In other words, harmony is a historically-contingent term that catalyzes the construction of whiteness and is inseparable from the production of racialized “otherness”—chaotic, deviant, unruly. As a rational concept founded on the faculty of reason, harmony is inherently exclusionary, as it is diagonally opposed to those who lack it à la Cartesian dualism of body and mind; thus, those who embody harmony are assigned racial supremacy in the hierarchical order of a Eurocentric, predatory world. Perhaps most famously, the ultimate antithesis to the ideal of white, European reason is articulated in Thomas Hobbes’s The Leviathan: “the savage people in many places of America . . . have no government at all; and live at this day in [a] brutish manner.”4
The enumeration of nineteen Anglo-French marriages congeals the production of whiteness through its investment in narrating the past as a sequence that sanctions dynastic continuity. In other words, whiteness as a racial construct is inscribed as a particular version of the past—namely, the linear past of dynastic alliances that points towards the promise of white futurity. It is a teleological promise—a progress narrative—that not only has white progeny as its object, but more emphatically is a promise yoked to racism, empire, and capitalism.
At this juncture, I wish to circle back to George Calvert, whose political agenda was entwined to his religious ideology: a royal marriage with a Catholic state that secures toleration for English Catholics. Even though the marriage treaty promised major concessions to English Catholics, toleration could not be easily achieved. For the first few years of the Caroline reign, Calvert petitioned the King for a piece of land north of Chesapeake “to further the best I may the enlarging your Majesties empire in this part of the world.”5 In 1632, Calvert acquired land belonging to Algonquin, Iroquois, and Siouan peoples and called it Terra Mariae after Queen Henrietta Maria. Calvert’s Maryland materialized a colonial fantasy where Catholics could live and trade without persecution. It is a fantasy that folds into its ecology, its empire, Indigenous peoples, like the twenty-three-year-old nameless subject in Wencelaus Hollar’s 1645 etching “Unus Americanus ex Virginia, aetat. 23” (Folger ART Box H737.5 no.29), and the land they inhabit together as one. It is a fantasy that obscures the material and physical violence embedded in the discourse of dynasty and dominion. It is a fantasy that obfuscates the transport of Africans in slave ships and their commodification in the service of racial capitalism.
I opened this piece with a reference to British ideals of white womanhood that Meghan Markle’s Blackness disrupted. I wish to end with another reference to our present moment and point to how these concepts are not reserved to elite women in the public spotlight only. More perniciously, they affect the lived lives of vulnerable, marginalized women. Take, for example, how in France, Muslim women have been criminalized for wearing hijabs under the guise of Republican universalism: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Deemed incompatible with the idea of laicité, veils have been viewed as a “threat to social order.”6 Therefore, to restore national harmony, all Muslim women must remove their public expressions of faith and adhere to French identity. The racial logic underlying this statement can be transcribed as follows: by erasing the signifiers of non-Christian religion, laicité becomes the tool to vilify non-white women as a threat to white womanhood, and by extension, Western ideals of civility. In the name of harmony, white cultural norms are re-inscribed time and again. Ultimately, my contention is that these modern phenomena of insidious racism share an affinity with early modern constructions of race: they bring into sharp focus a white European culture grappling with the embodiment of non-European women and using a homogenizing rhetoric of tradition, cultural heritage, and national history to paper over its deep-seated anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.
Edit, 8/20/2021: An earlier version of this post did not engage with the work of Critical Indigenous Scholars, who have illuminated our understanding of indigeneity in the early modern period. I thank Lehua Yim for her work of scholarly activism and care, and for bringing this act of erasure to my attention. See the encyclopedic work of Scott Manning Stevens, particularly in relation to my thinking about Native Americans in this piece, “The Historiography of New France and the Legacy of Iroquois Internationalism,” Comparative American Studies, Vol. 11 No. 2 (2013), 148-65; Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 8, No. 4 (2006), 387–409; Laura Lehua Yim, “Reading Hawaiian Shakespeare: Indigenous Residue Haunting Settler Colonial Racism.” Journal of American Studies 54, no. 1 (2020): 36–43; and “Shakespeare and Indigeneity: A Dialogue with Natalie Diaz, Scott M. Stevens, and Madeline Sayet,” October 2, 2020, YouTube, uploaded by Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Mira Assaf Kafantaris is an Assistant Professor of English at Butler University. She specializes in Premodern Critical Race Studies, Shakespeare, and Early Modern Culture. She is completing her first manuscript, titled Royal Marriage, Foreign Queens, and Racial Formations in the Early Modern Period. Her public-facing work has appeared in The Sundial, The Millions, Overland Journal, The Rambling, The Conversation, Medium-Equity, and The Platform. She is co-editing, with Sonja Drimmer and Treva B. Lindsey, a special issue of the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s journal, The Scholar and Feminist Online, titled “Race-ing Queens.”
She is the 2021-22 Folger Shakespeare Library and Society for the Study of Early Women and Gender Margaret Hannay Fellow.
- See Francesca T. Royster, “White-Limed Walls: Whiteness and Gothic Extremism in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare Quarterly 51.4 (2000), 432-455; Ian Smith, Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors (Palgrave, 2009); Joyce G. MacDonald, Women and Race in Early Modern Texts, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Katherine Gillen, “White Freedom, White Property, and White Tears: Classical Racial Paradigms and the Construction of Whiteness in Julius Caesar,” in White People in Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Little (forthcoming from Arden, in production).
- Margo Hendricks, “Coloring the Past, Rewriting our Future: RaceB4Race,” “Race and Periodization” Symposium, Washington D.C., September 5, 2019.
- Also, in a much-anticipated essay, David Sterling Brown examines the association of white hands with racial violence in “Shake thou to look on’t’: Shakespeare’s White Hands,” White People in Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Little (forthcoming from Arden, in production).
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Penguin, 1968), 187.
- Qtd. in John D Krugler, “Calvert, George, first Baron Baltimore (1579/80–1632), courtier and colonist in America.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 30 Jul. 2021.
- See, for example, the collection of essays in the Berkley Forum, “Islam, Secularism, and the Culture Wars in France.” May 13, 2021.