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Francesca Zantedeschi joins the Vossius Center for three months in March 2021 as a Research Fellow with the project 'The race(s) of the nation: Culturalist notions of race and ethnicity and Romance Philology'.

About the project

The idea that a language community is equivalent to an ancestrally-derived community (‘race’) is one of the thorniest problems in thinking about human communities, as its historical roots are deeply embedded in a complex entanglement of biological and culturalist definitions of race. The problem of how the idea of a correlation between supposed physical and linguistic “races” was articulated in the 19th century has tended to foreground the perspective of its ‘biological’ meaning, especially in relation to its uses and applications in colonialist contexts.

This leaves some desiderata in the study of how racialism developed within the 19th-century humanities. Most studies on philological racialism deal with language groups that evinced a strongly ethnic self-awareness (German, Slavic, Hungarian/Finnish). However, also in a language family that has a very slight tribalethnographic entanglement, that of the Romance languages, the notion of a “Latin race” arises. This phenomenon offers us a salient example of the development of culturalist racialism.

In 19th-century France, the term ‘race’ was often intended as a synonym for ‘civilisation’ – at least until the end of WWI. As the French and Romance philologist and medievalist Gaston Paris (1839-1903), explained in the foreword to the first issue of the journal Romania (1872), ‘Romania’, or the union of Roman nations, ‘is not based on a community of race’ (as among the Germans and the Slavs), but rather on a community of civilisation. ‘Romania’, in other words, is a product of history. By rejecting the ethnic-linguistic definition of the national community - and by linking French nationality to a community of civilisation - from the outset, Gaston Paris wanted to avoid any possibility of racial and linguistic assumptions hindering the process of building French national unity. Romance scholars like Arsène Darmesteter, Professor of Old French language and literature at the Sorbonne, embraced Darwinism while rejecting ‘racial’ views of Western civilisation; yet French and Italian Romanists felt a deep ethno-cultural solidarity with Romania, its language and its intellectuals.

This research will use Romance-philological ethno-phylogenetic thinking as a litmus test to analyse the coexistence of two parallel, interacting concepts of race: a biological one (supported by historical-comparative linguistics, and later by naturalistic linguistics, closely linked to physical anthropology), and a ‘culturalist’ one (outlined in particular by Romance philologists).

About the researcher

Francesca Zantedeschi completed a PhD in History at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Spain) with the project 'The Antiquarians of the Nation: Archaeologists and Philologists in Nineteenth-century Roussillon'. She has been a post-doctoral research scholar at the Gerda Henkel Stiftung (Germany) and is now research affiliate to the research group SPIN (Study Platform for Interlocking Nationalisms), Universiteit van Amsterdam, a project led by Joep Leerssen.