Notions of the foreign, of being inside or outside a group, are always shaped by the local and familiar, and by conventional ideas of what is ‘normal’ – for dress, manners, or behaviour – in a given time and place. This was especially true in medieval and Early Modern Europe, where legal codes had developed from Roman roots: because Roman law had recognized customary law, consuetudo, alongside written legislation, a foreigner could be defined as someone who dressed in different clothes from local norms, who spoke a different dialect or language, ate different things, or worshipped a different religion- whether or not that the person actually came from somewhere else.

This meant for instance that Jewish Europeans were treated as foreigners in most places and singled out visually, spatially, or both – confined to ghettoes, made to wear distinctive markers or clothing, and with limited legal protection. Being perceived as an outsider, then as now, meant little or no access to rights and privileges enjoyed by locals. Protectionist anxiety about marriage for immigration purposes is also not new. In 1557, the Strasbourg city council forbade citizens’ widows or daughters to marry foreigners without express permission; those who did so would be exiled, made foreign to the community themselves.

The local in medieval Europe was very local, with quite small towns having their own dialects, weights, measures, foods, currencies, and even calendar. Globalization in the sixteenth century would fundamentally challenge the idea of foreignness rooted in a particular space and place. The huge rise in travel for trade and colonization brought encounters with unknown empires, continents, customs, and peoples while in Europe the rise of Protestant and reformist religions meant that neighbours could suddenly become foreign to each other.

Several objects here both shaped and recorded the intense curiosity and corresponding market for all kinds of images and information about this expanded world, from early attempts to picture the South Pole to glass panes and maps ringed with images of local peoples, or personifications of the continents with exotic animals as local detail. Other objects attest to the circulation of peoples and materials, and the blurring of global and local that this new reality created: a piece of ivory from an elephant in Africa or India, worked by Chinese artists either in southern China or in the Spanish colony of the Philippines, and then sent by ship via the Spanish state in Mexico and the Americas to an eventual home in imperial Austria. Such curiosity and circulation was not only a European phenomenon, as the Mughal album leave here demonstrates: the north Indian artist and patron have collected and copied Christian religious images based on European prints, working through the foreign imagery and visual language for pleasure and information.

Against this background of contact and change, ideas of local custom – typically meaning the norms of the colonizing power – continued to be used by Europeans as markers of belonging: in his 1590 book Natural and Moral History of the Indies, the Jesuit missionary José de Acosta grouped the peoples of the Americas into a long-standing hierarchy with the civilized and city-dwelling Incas and Aztecs at the top, as closest to Spanish norms; at the bottom were those least like them, ‘who have neither laws nor king nor fixed dwellings, but go in herds like wild animals and savages.’ Increasing emphasis on shared allegiance to the ruler and state could also serve to extend the ‘local’ to a global scale. In 1595, Phillip II declared that the indigenous peoples of what is now Brazil were free citizens of Spain as his subjects – allegiance to the king rather than their language, customs, or origins defined them. But it also meant that if they refused to submit to the Spanish system where they owed work to the settlers or the Jesuit missions, they could be considered rebels – and captured and enslaved as enemies of the state.

There is a huge debate about when the idea of race became fundamental to the idea of foreignness in Europe, but most scholars link it to the global rise of colonization and slavery in the period covered by this exhibition. In medieval France, for instance, anyone who stepped onto French soil could make a legal claim to enfranchisement from slavery. The decision not to extend this right to the French colonies was justified on the basis of race. In 1685 Louis XIV issued the Code noir, setting out terms and conditions for colonial slavery – explicitly identified as enslavement of black persons. Such legislation relied on the contention that black Africans, as people from torrid climates, were inherently weak, less intelligent, and in need of masters to guide them – a concept that can be traced back to Aristotle, but that medieval and sixteenth-century jurists had largely rejected. By the end of the seventeenth century, significant numbers of enslaved people were brought into France by their colonial ‘masters’ and many tried to claim this right. Race was the crucial issue. In 1759, a young man from southern India brought a case against a Frenchman who had bought him as a child. His lawyers stressed his physical differences from black Africans, and his closer physical links to Europeans. The case was successful, but much legislation then followed, trying to stop non-whites from entering France at all. Even as legal ideas of foreignness shifted and expanded enormously, exclusion from local rights and communities remained at the heart of the matter.

Anne Dunlop, University of Melbourne

Albrecht Classen, ed., Meeting the Foreign in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2002).

Sue Peabody, ‘Race, Slavery, and the Law in Early Modern France,’ The Historian 56/3 (1994), 501-510.

Brian Tierney, ‘Vitoria and Suarez on ius gentium, natural law, and custom,’ in The Nature of Customary Law: Legal, historical, and philosophical perspectives, eds. Amanda Perreau-Saussine and James B. Murphy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 151-175.

D.B.J. Trim, ‘If a prince use tyrannie towards his people’: interventions on behalf of foreign populations in early modern Europe,’ in Humanitarian Interventions: A History, eds. Brendan Simms and D.B.J. Trim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 29-66.