4 Early Modern Affect Theory, Racialized Aversion, and the Strange Case of Foetor Judaicus

Drew Daniel

What Does Affect Mean?

Upon mentioning to a colleague that I was contributing an essay to a volume on affect in early modernity, she didn’t mince words: “I’m sick of talking about affect. I mean, what does that word even mean anymore? Do you know what I mean?” This dispute along methodological battle lines is hardly surprising, given that modish objects of scholarly interest inevitably draw skeptical fire as excitement turns to doubt. One scholar’s keyword is another’s sacred cow, and a precarious job market mobilizes us to speed up the metabolism by which we surf and then denounce trends.[1] That said, the phrasing of my colleague’s question braids thinking and feeling together. The hostility of the assault on the utility of the word affect (“what does that word even mean?”) is modulated by the status-checking bid for empathy implicit in the closing gesture (“do you know what I mean?”), which we might parse as “do you feel the way that I do? Please don’t be offended. Please be on my side and in sync with me.” Venturing towards the psychoanalytic logic of the symptom, one could then note the revealing overdetermination of the word “mean,” which pops up three times but does double duty: it is at once the issue under dispute (affect does not mean anything, affect is an empty buzzword) and a signifier of emotion in play (in lashing out aggressively at her colleague’s field of study the speaker is, herself, being “mean” and then noticing and dialing back that exact performance). Such an analysis would lead in turn, to a new question: If “affects,” in the plural, surge across and are transmitted by the same statement that disavows “affect,” in the singular, as a poorly defined and therefore worthless object of study, does that vindicate the utility of the word? Or, does it exemplify the slipperiness of application that prompts such objections in the first place? What does that word “affect” even mean, anyway?

So far, so defensive: such a response is hardly neutral where affect is concerned, nor does it address the core objection: “affect” has no meaning because it has, or has had, too many meanings. Promiscuously various in its disciplinary reach across theology and philosophy and medicine and psychology and neuroscience, worryingly polysemous in its plural definitions that stretch from classical Greece to contemporary laboratories, the elastic disciplinary reach and long historical range of this keyword appeal to some and repel others. To risk a cruel parody of new historicist critical ambitions, at this late point in the game, “affect” names that which is held in common across a cumulative trans-historical conversation about emotional embodiment between a hodgepodge of dead people (including ancient Stoics, Thomas Rogers, René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Sigmund Freud, Gilles Deleuze, Silvan Tomkins, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Teresa Brennan, and Lauren Berlant) and a hodgepodge of living people (including Antonio Damasio, Jane Bennett, Heather Love, Ann Cvetcovitch, Rei Terada, Eugenie Brinkema, Sianne Ngai, and Brian Massumi).[2] The frame of what counts as “affect theory” or “affect studies” could be widened to swallow entire fields and periods, or shrunk to a tiny list of central canonical authors, texts, and tributary notions.[3]

Acknowledging the elasticity of a term that is asked to link somatic reflexes and complex ideological formations, here is my working definition of, if not “what affect means,” then what I think I mean by, affect. Affects are movements, arcs of force that ramp up or down in intensity within material bodies as those bodies change their states, sometimes putting those bodies into motion, sometimes bringing them to rest. Accumulating as potential energy and then discharging as kinetic acts of emotional expression, they unfold dynamically and processually. Affects flow across one body and, as they are encountered and taken up by other bodies, delivering their force beyond the frame of the body in which they originate, they communicate outward in a manner that is material, transpersonal, and observable, yet frequently open to interpretation and dispute. Affects are variable, pervasive, and creative. They are grounded in particular bodies, but take on the legibility of social signs. They travel across bodies and bond them into new assemblages in the process.[4]

Such a broad formulation of course prompts objections, the need for refinement, specificity, more methodology, the proffering of credentials, the carping of the critical, and the shrugging of the unconvinced. Are we really talking about bodies or just the parts of bodies called minds? Are we talking about actual liquid flows, solid motions, gaseous diffusions, or electrical discharges? Or is all this flowing and moving and diffusing and discharging a matter of metaphors that draw upon the thingly force of their vehicles on behalf of emotional tenors? Are rage, pleasure, fear, joy, and shame a matter of conscious experience or postures of muscular expression? What does it mean to observe an affect, and what would be its archive of evidence? Is it a matter of tracking changes in conductivity, measured on the surface of the skin or in terms of heart rate, like a lie detector? Would this archive of evidence include amounts of blood rushing to a blushing face or an erect nipple? Or is this archive of evidence less material and more ambient? Is it like the collectively shared feeling of tension in the air before an anti-police-brutality protest or a couple’s imminent public argument? Is it like the corkscrew to the heart that one recognizes as grief; or the neurons that happen to fire in brains, which produce that as conscious experience? These are questions about practices, competence, and disciplines, but they are also basic questions about human beings as such.

These questions are arguably anticipated in a familiar song from The Merchant of Venice that condenses them into a speculation about the nature of affect:

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourishèd?
. . . . . . Reply, reply. (3.2.63–66)[5]

There is a character-specific agenda here, but the song’s question lingers even for those who are not being cued by its end-rhymes to pick the lead casket. That question can be boiled down to a childlike paraphrase: where do our desires and aversions come from? Answering the doubled urgency of the imperative to “reply, reply,” one can imagine a (very) rough sketch of the intellectual history of affect theory’s archives as a cascade of possible responses:

  1. From our souls.
  2. From our humors.
  3. From our affects and passions.
  4. From the mental faculties of fancy and imagination.
  5. From the unconscious and the drives.
  6. From chemical and neuronal events in our brains.

Different thinkers in the history of what is now gathered together under the rubric of “affect theory” would select different options from this list, some making multiple selections, others angrily insisting upon the equivalence of some of these options at different ontological levels of description. Bodies are in history, and as species evolve, the natures and capacities of those bodies, and the brains and brainstates and minds and emotional expressions that go with them, have changed and will continue to undergo change. Correspondingly, the disciplines through which we produce truths about bodies and desires undergo change. But do our affects themselves change over time, or do we simply alter the cultural names and disciplinary homes from which we encounter and taxonomize their legible expressions as emotions? Part of doing work upon affect is recognizing that we are arresting a flow in the moment of its historical expression. The case is never closed.

What’s Race Got to Do With It?

In comparison with “affect,” “race” as a scholarly keyword also indexes an elastic interface between bodies and social forms, to which is added the ethical ballast of an inescapably substantial archive of lived experiences of harm and injury that follow from its ongoing theorization and relentless application. With reference to its circulation across diverse disciplines and contexts and historical periods, Justin E. H. Smith has described race as “an extremely tenacious illusion,” and not something that early modern scholars should reify in the present as if we already now know what race “really” is.[6] Geraldine Heng notes that “in principle, race theory … understands, of course, that race has no singular or stable referent,”[7] yet many within the humanities tend to regard modernity as the de facto location of “racial time,” as if “race” only begins with the dawning of scientific racism, despite the proliferation of evidence that race thinking pervades medieval texts, documents, laws, and practices. Contesting this historiographic mistake, Heng has argued persuasively that “race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.”[8] As a fine-grained meshwork of responses and cues that subtend the everyday and show up as tacit feelings of belonging and disconnection, affects play a significant role in the ongoing work of articulation and management through which race is constituted — precisely because affects are labile enough to accommodate and fill out the open cultural spaces provided by race’s cruel combination of incoherence and omnipresence.

To see the everyday meshwork of race and affect in action, consider another moment in The Merchant of Venice, when the Prince of Morocco spots a potential snag in the midst of courtship:

Mislike me not for my complexion
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun
To whom I am a neighbor and near bred. (2.1.1–3)

Race matters here, and it matters because it shows up as a cluster of affects: pride, fear, aversion. As Kim F. Hall points out, “The Prince, ‘a tawny Moor’, in making himself a Petrarchan suitor, shows an awareness of the cultural values surrounding skin color and also of the grounds for erotic competition.”[9] Portia is quick — a little too quick — to parry the Prince’s direct gesture towards the possibility that she “mislikes” him; she responds with the coolly witty double entendre that he is as attractive to her as any other of her potential suitors seen so far. Portia punts into a cruel sort of demi-politeness that anticipates the “colorblind” proceduralisms and rhetorical camouflages of the present. But as we learn from her parting aside to the audience, “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (2.7.78), Morocco’s concern is in fact well-founded, and all too apt. Premodern critical race studies has documented the richly various, but also inescapable and pervasive, intellectual genealogies by which race was mobilized within early modernity, and accordingly has taught our field — or those within our field willing to learn from it — much regarding how to understand the valence of “complexion” in scenes such as these.[10]

But, to ask a question in resonant sympathy with this edited collection, what is the relationship of “misliking” to “complexion”? That is, how might affects express, enact, and translate race into feelings, actions, and outcomes? Affects can help us think about the structures of feeling that surround race, the surges of attachment and detachment that script the experience of being racialized as an intersubjective encounter. It feels a certain way to encounter one’s own being as it undergoes racialization by others, and that very recognition implies a prior nexus of expectations and associations that cluster around the presentation of embodiment. Insofar as early modern texts show us raced bodies becoming objects of desire or aversion, they provide a significant archive through which to examine race as an affective forcefield.

The Smell of the Other

While the cultural primacy of the visual means that seeing constitutes the most intuitively apparent sensory pathway through which bodies are constituted as racially identifiable, the remit of this essay will consider a particularly painful example of the role that olfactory experiences of disgust performed for early modern people. One could call this a kind of race-smelling that was primed by, and served to reinforce, race-thinking. Smells are not affects, but they are the occasion for an affective response of pleasure or displeasure; as such, the cultural work of translation implicit in turning a smell into a speech act can capture affect in its sparking moment of articulation. Specifically, I am interested in how textual evocations of bodily odors, insofar as they are cut free from the material support of any corroborating bodily experience, solicited secondhand sympathetic disgust in readers that worked to consolidate, and perhaps also eventually to dissolve, racialized assemblages of belonging and exclusion.[11] As medical historian Jonathan Reinarz argues, “the cultural embeddedness of racial scents underscores the absoluteness of social boundaries,” a dynamic exemplified in the persistent pattern through which non-Western cultures in racist discourse are “denigrated as malodorous.”[12] While I also draw upon discussion of the “smelly other” by social anthropologists and sensory historians, my interest in this topic derives its impetus from the scholarly work of Carol Mejia LaPerle, who reads Caliban’s allegedly “fishy” odor and the expressions of racialized aversion it prompts in the Italian characters in The Tempest as an example of “the affective ecology of bodies.”[13] Pushing off from LaPerle’s provocative reading as one example of a broader possibility that premodern critical race studies might consider the function of smell in the making of race, I analyze a key example of premodern racialized affect: the foetor judaicus, the bizarre but persistent anti-Semitic fantasy that Jewish bodies generate a “distinctive and unpleasant” aroma.[14] Sensory historians have traced this allegation back to its classical sources in Ammianus Marcellinus’s reference to “foetentes Iudeos” and Martial’s objection to the smell of “the breath of the fasting Sabbatarian Jews.” These founding phrases were routinely cited by later medieval and early modern writers as supporting evidence for this supposed defect.[15]

Reduplicated by reverence for classical authority and reinforced by anti-Semitic prejudice and the love of natural-philosophical curiosa, the allegation of foetor judaicus circulates promiscuously across early modern texts.[16] In Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination, Eva Johanna Holmberg has collected a number of exemplary cases in Thomas Nashe’s “The Unfortunate Traveler,” Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta,” Thomas Dekker’s “The Whore of Babylon,” and others.[17] A particularly grotesque example of foetor judaicus appears in Gervase Markham’s translation of one of Ariosto’s Satyres (1608) on the material ingredients used to make cosmetics. Markham imagines that men kissing their mistresses do so in ignorance of the foul brew required:

He knowes not, did he know it he would spewe
That paintings made with spettle of a Iewe,
(For they best sell) nor that loathsome smell,
Though mixt with muske and amber nere so well,
Can they with all their cunning take away
The sleame and snot so rank in it doth stay.
Little thinks he that with the filthy doung
Of their small circumcised infants young,
The fat of hideous serpents, spaune of snakes,
Which slaues from out their poisonous bodies takes.[18]

As Holmberg indicates, Markham’s phantasmagoria collapses Jewish religious practices of circumcision with standing anti-Semitic slurs depicting Jews as poisoners.[19] The serpent imagery naturally suggests poison, but, to go beyond Holmberg’s analysis, it perhaps also draws upon the serpentine stories coiled around Moses in the Hebrew Bible: the transformation of Aaron’s rod into a serpent in Exodus 7:10; the fiery serpents sent against the nation of Israel by God in the Book of Numbers 21:4–9; the “brazen serpent” subsequently worshipped before its destruction in 2 Kings 18:4. But far from a scriptural exegesis, Markham’s poem hits below the belt, associating the bodies of Jews with both a scatological cornucopia of substances (spit, mucus, and feces) and a surreptitious agenda of concealment beneath apparent luxury commodities. Jews are imagined as both disgusting and insidious, capable of scattering and spreading their material markers and hidden traces across even the most intimate surfaces.

I have dilated upon this unsavory example because I think its notable qualities of virulence and vicariousness are related. In order to generate and hopefully relay its powerful affective charge of disgust, Markham attempts a synaesthetic sleight of hand: whether we read the poem as words upon a page or hear it as language within our ears, in either case we are encouraged to sensorially experience its juicy, noisome inventory of words and images in olfactory and haptic terms. Whether we actually vomit or not, we are encouraged by the text to imaginatively inhabit an affective reflex of disgust that is sourced in a virtual encounter with an imagined smell and its imagined sources; crucially, the text holds out to the reader the capacity to become forearmed through reading so that a new olfactory priming — essentially, knowing what to smell for — might produce some future confirmation of a deceitfully encrypted truth about both women’s apparent beauty and malevolent Jewish practices. Misogyny against women for resorting to “painting” sits cheek by jowl with hatred of and disgust at the Jews who are imagined to supply such poisonous wares.

The association of Jews with serpents that Markham’s text reinscribes rests upon a persistent link in anti-Semitic discourse between Jews and the ultimate serpent, Satan. As many scholars have suggested, this cluster of Christian associations overwrites the classical sources for the concept of foetor judaicus with a kind of super-cessionist force. In The Devil and the Jews, rabbi and independent scholar Joshua Trachtenberg argued that by the medieval period the meaning of the foetor judaicus had become fundamentally theological:

the notion of the foetor judaicus, so prevalent in the Middle Ages … carried a deeper meaning to the medieval Christian … its meaning is clearly indicated when we read that the Jew emits a foul odor as punishment for his crime against Jesus … according to common Christian belief during the Middle Ages good spirits emit a marked fragrance, while evil spirits, and in particular, of course, Satan, are distinguished by an offensive stench. Myrrh gushes forth like fountains from the grave of martyrs, we are told, and when the coffin of the martyred St. Stephen was opened his body filled the air with fragrance ….  The foetor judaicus, then, is another distinctive sign of the “demonic” Jew.[20]

Trachtenberg’s reading gets further support when we consider that the foetor judaicus was regarded, at least by some, as miraculously fungible in cases of conversion. Relaying the fanciful climate of hearsay in which such doctrines circulated, Reinarz notes that “if a Jew converted to Christianity, it was said, the Jewish stench transformed immediately into a fragrance sweeter than ambrosia.”[21]

What sort of early modern people believed in the foetor judaicus, and how widely accepted were such claims? Endorsement was surely subject to wide variation, as sheer individual caprices of prejudice no doubt inflected how it circulated and who chose to believe it. The shaky basis for such fanciful “beliefs” is apparent when, with reference to travel writings of the period, Holmberg notes that “the Jewish body seems to have been produced to fit the needs and narratives following from the writers’ various agendas; the truthfulness of these stories — of Jewish male menstruation, hemorrhoids, and smells — was often hazy, and was not spoken of in terms of medical or empirical concepts.”[22] That is, there is rarely a kind of firsthand affirmation of a material basis for the foetor judaicus; it arrives into discourse as an idée recue from elsewhere, a somatic innuendo that is sufficient to invoke as a prior allegation for its faint twinge of sour perfume to resurface. Foetor judaicus wafts across the intellectual landscape as a diffusely racialized attitude, a matter of ambience, common knowledge. The idea is not a “dead metaphor” so much as it is a culturally recirculated “dead affect,” a trace of someone else’s alleged or imagined sensory encounter that occasions a vivid recharge, or a skeptical ramping down, each time it gets repeated.

Holmberg confirms Trachtenberg’s earlier reading of the fundamentally religious symbolic importance of the foetor judaicus, but situates that reading in a consideration of the broader connotations of odors in the period:

Odours and bad smells were suspicious to early modern people for several reasons. Bad odours were often connected with putrefaction, disease and poverty. Miasmic vapours could be carried on the poison air and make people fall victim to various diseases; the most dangerous of these was the plague, which attacked London several times during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Early modern Englishmen identified two distinct causes for the Jewish smell: one divinely ordained and the other couched in terms of natural philosophy.[23]

Perhaps the generality implicit in Holmberg’s troika of “putrefaction, disease and poverty” tells us something important about the overspecificity of the foetor judaicus as a compensatory formation. Affixing the allegation of a particular and knowable aroma onto the Jew as scapegoat constitutes a means of disavowing uncomfortable scenarios in which Gentiles come to be odorous corpses, sick people, or paupers themselves. Marking the Jew as the bearer of the onus of stench, Christians pass a smell test of their own devising by default.

Having traversed Holmberg’s archive of foetor judaicus, I here step beyond it, to ask: Are affects voluntary, like beliefs, or involuntary, like reflexive responses? The conceptual elasticity of what “affect” names has consequences for how we think the circulation of foetor judaicus beyond its status as a curious and discredited delusion. If “affect” names both somatic responses that feel immediate, such as “disgust” and “startle” and more properly “emotional” scripts that require complex attitudes and rationales and epistemological situations (“pride” and “shame” require a significant circumstantial backdrop of beliefs to happen), then the olfactory jolt of recoiling from a bad smell would seem to be on the material, somatic, pre-voluntary end of the spectrum. Yet in the case of foetor judaicus, we are not dealing with an imminent sense of disgust at an actual smell, but an imagined right to be disgusted that rests upon a necessarily prior belief that Jews just do have a particular, identifiable and noxious odor. Thus, foetor judaicus reworks disgust itself, leveraging the pre-voluntary affective script on behalf of a heavily stage-managed ideology.

The affective phenomenology of the foetor judaicus might seem like an odd, even recalcitrant, object of analysis. The foetor judaicus is a prejudicial slur without any material basis that circulated primarily at the level of folk discourse, even as it was recirculated in the tributary discourses of theology, medicine, and literature. If, as Holly Dugan has pointed out, “smell bridges acute sensory perception and brute bodily materiality,” then the foetor judaicus amounts to a collective hearsay, an accusation in circulation that would precede any immanent material moment of encounter.[24] It is not so much a description of actual felt disgust as the implication that a virtual feeling of disgust at a virtual odor, were it to happen, would be justified.

It thus reveals the intersubjective system of race formation that the purely imagined or ascribed affect of disgust accomplishes. In imagining their own virtual capacity to smell the foetor judaicus, the Christians’ own identity shores itself up, and the fact of Jewish difference is reinforced and preserved, without any actual contact required. Above all, the foetor judaicus is imagined as already self-evident, as a given. In the process, the observer-dependent relationality of “offensiveness” is massaged away; “offensiveness” is projected outwards onto the imagined stench of a “smelly other,” whose mere existence is now rescripted as provocative, extravagant, and, above all, identifiable.[25] As Janet Adelman puts it, this scripting speaks to a fundamental problem in the representation of Jewishness:

Jews … are generally depicted as physically unmistakable, with red or black curly hair, large noses, dark skin, and the infamous foetor judaicus, the bad smell that identified them as Jews. But apparently Jews could not be counted on to be reliably different: although allegedly physically unmistakable, Jews throughout Europe were nonetheless required to wear particular styles of clothing or badges that graphically enforced their physical unmistakability — as though they were not quite different enough.[26]

This overdetermination of the Jewish body as simultaneously recognizable and at risk of becoming surreptitious reveals the Gentile need to make difference manifest, to produce race at the level of sensory input. In its very weakness and infra-thin evanescence, the foetor judaicus was culturally useful. Unlike, say, the fantasy that Jewish men have horns, the imagination of an olfactory experience requires the least possible perceptual support, falling beneath the threshold of immediately apparent evidence. Smells travel light.

Against the credulous backdrop of its broad cultural circulation, Sir Thomas Browne’s debunking of foetor judaicus in Pseudodoxia Epidemica marks a decisive shift. Browne’s text is compelling, both for the terms with which it recapitulates and then contests received opinions on the subject, and for its primarily empirical orientation.[27] In Chapter X of Book IV, titled “Of the Jews,” Browne maintains a genial attitude of cheery impartiality, even as the inclusion of this item within the overall catalogue of “vulgar errors” that make up the Pseudodoxia Epidemica implicitly suggests skepticism: “THAT the Jews stink naturally, that is, that in their race and nation there is an evil savour, is a received opinion we know not how to admit; although concede many questionable points, and dispute not the verity of sundry opinions which are of affinity hereto.”[28] Browne’s coy authorial mode is epitomized in his casual manner, protesting too much that he will “dispute not” the verity of opinions that he cannot resist quoting but which he also clearly intends to undermine. What goes unremarked is the metonymy whereby a chapter titled “Of the Jews” is only about foetor judaicus, as if the question of this slanderous allegation was, unto itself, sufficient to exhaust the topic of Jews as such. Numerous other books of the Pseudodoxia are taken up with discussion of events in the Hebrew Bible, so Browne can hardly have believed this, and yet at the level of the book’s own encyclopedic structure, it curiously mirrors Chapter X of Book VI, “Of the blackness of Negroes,” by creating a numerically paired set of chapters devoted to the somatic constitution of racialized bodies.

At the level of tone, Browne seems open to belief in the foetor judaicus if the facts will support it, and yet also altogether happy to point out that, judging from his consideration of the evidence, they do not. Here he is not the “bad physician” made familiar by Stanley Fish’s polemic, reaching for rhetorical effects at the expense of the truth; rather, Browne seems keen to boost his bona fides as a natural philosopher. The passage from textual allegations to “Experience” transmits an implicit shift from the pleasurable relay of literary arcana to the claims of empirical evidence, which is notably given the last word: “Lastly, Experience will convict it; for this offensive odor is no way discoverable in their Synagogues where many are, and by reason of their number could not be concealed: nor is the same discernible in commerce or conversation with such as are cleanly in Apparel, and decent in their Houses.”[29] The very fact that Browne should write these sentences in the first edition, published in 1646, three years before Johanna and Ebenezer Cartwright would author the first formal petition for the readmission of Jews to England, is both of a piece with shifting attitudes afoot in “admissionist” circles, and yet still startling in its willingness to reconsider centuries of demonizing prejudice.[30]

At the level of prose style, Browne’s casual implication of firsthand familiarity with the aroma of Synagogues could index his travels across Montpellier, Leiden, and especially, given its prominent Jewish community, Padua; but it also registers the free indirect discursive mode by which the textual authorities and secondhand information from various other authors that Browne collated here become transubstantiated into the authoritative voice of (textual, vicarious) “experience.”[31] Individual Jews may or may not be “cleanly” or “decent,” but that is only ever an individual matter and not a collective trait, and that is that. Summing up, Browne, at last, comes to rest in a qualified rejection of the premise that has occupied the entirety of the chapter’s meanderings across supporting and skeptical trajectories, deflating the foetor judaicus with a flourish of farewell:

Thus therefore, although we concede that many opinions are true which hold some conformity unto this, yet in assenting hereto, many difficulties must arise: it being a dangerous point to annex a constant property unto any Nation, and much more this unto the Jew; since this quality is not verifiable by observation; since the grounds are feeble that should establish it; and lastly: since if all were true, yet are the reasons alleadged for it, of no sufficiency to maintain it.[32]

It is tempting to see in Browne’s cheerful myth-busting an anticipatory dawn of liberalism, and to find in Browne’s skepticism about anti-Semitic disgust a proleptic indication of the Readmission to come under Oliver Cromwell in the following decade. We would do well to remember that many of the relatively philosemitic and tolerationist attitudes of the period have themselves been glossed by Alexandra Walsham as, in a piquant phrase, examples of “charitable hatred,” retractable largesse offered from within disapproval “to the adherents of an inherently false religion.”[33] In contrast to the sheer virulence of Markham’s slanderous insinuations about Jewish “doung” and “spewe,” the magnanimity of Browne’s genial manner can make him seem like an avatar of tolerance and truth.

But as we know, the abeyance of theological frames and the coming age of the sciences of man would witness a further articulation of racism rather than its decisive abolition, bringing about what Denise Ferreira da Silva terms “the production of the analytics of raciality,”[34] analytics that stem from a foundational reorientation of human projects around the Promethean tool of scientific reason. Pushing back against supernatural folk doctrines about inherently cursed bodies but casually open to being convinced that Jews really do smell after all on the empirical grounds of cultural and culinary difference, Browne’s position models both the fond hope that empirical evidence will demolish our attachment to “race,” and the curious elasticity of racialized aversion in its affective form along the long march towards secular modernity. As such, Browne’s mingling of stances offers us a revealing moment of transition in what Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia has termed “the Christian ethnography of Jews.”[35] Browne’s text anticipates later sublations of the somatic into the cultural, both in its redemptive philosemitic mode — rescuing the Jews from credulous fantasies of bodily difference — and in the culturalist preservation of difference all the same: the Jew stays “separate,” isolable, knowable in the wake of this corrective, an object of knowledge to be taxonomized alongside the “Negroes” and rabbits and comets of natural philosophy.

Browne’s closing rhetorical maneuvers, in which he grants that the allegation of the foetor could simply be a matter of Jewish dietary practices rather than inherent somatic difference, meshes uncomfortably with Trachtenberg’s description of the actual outcome of the foetor judaicus as it passed out of the supernatural realm and, as it were, went secular and mainstream. Trachtenberg states that the foetor judaicus “is still prominent in the folk literature in a ‘refined’ version, namely, that the Jews are guilty en masse of the egregious sin of ‘garlic eating.’ This is ‘modern’ antisemitism, as distinguished from the medieval variety.”[36] Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Shoah, Trachtenberg’s words powerfully demonstrate the capacity of stereotypes and fantasies to outlive the religious prejudices and bygone cultural contexts that birthed them, and to linger long after widespread belief in their ontological support systems has shriveled.

I began with a usefully difficult encounter in which the value and meaning of “affect” was called into a question: “What does that word even mean, anyway?” It is a question worth asking, and worth trying to answer. It has been the intuition of this essay that we can best know “what affect means” by tracing the particular histories of what particular affects have made possible, and at whose expense. I have argued that affects are variable, pervasive, and creative, and that they are grounded in particular bodies, and that they take on the legibility of social signs. The strange case of foetor judaicus shows us that this creative power and this legibility yield bitter harvests; across a spectrum from violent discourses of somatic difference to tacitly segregationist forms of culturalist tolerance, affect can become a medium through which racialized forms of knowledge find their seeming confirmation in the everyday givenness of sensory experience. Contributing to the “articulation and management of human difference,”[37] the first progenitors of the myth of foetor judaicus sought to fix peoples in persistent relations of antagonism founded upon an invisible and seemingly incorrigible difference, a difference they summoned through the evocation of a powerfully involuntary affect: disgust. The power of passing sensations of disgust and aversion to render race portable across time and territory shows us at least one form that the race-making force of affect has taken. I hope that it models why critical attention to affects might inform our capacity to recognize, in LaPerle’s words, “how race feels.”[38] For those hailed by the strange case of foetor judaicus, it feels like a painful flinch of misrecognition at a smell that never existed.

  1. The highwater mark of skeptical critique of affect’s intellectual currency is surely Ruth Leys, “How Did Fear Become a Scientific Object and What Kind of Object Is It?” Representations 110, no. 1 (2010): 66–104. Though she too is my colleague, I hasten to add that she is assuredly not the unnamed source of the anecdote with which this essay begins.
  2. Because I am discussing the wider uptake of “affect theory” as a movement in the humanities across many contemporary fields, I strategically omit the numerous scholars in early modern studies — including those editors and many of the other contributors to this volume — whose work on the passions and emotions has and continues to inform my own thinking: a list that includes but is not limited to Gail Kern Paster, Bruce Smith, Susan James, Mary Floyd-Wilson, Victoria Kahn, Douglas Trevor, Janet Adelman, Amanda Bailey, Mario DiGangi, and Michael Schoenfeldt constellates just part of how the field of early modern studies has worked through these topoi, with its own complex methodological disputes and points of contact. I regard their work as disciplinarily distinct from what has been generally recognized as “affect theory” because of its historically specific frame.
  3. For more on the current state of intersections between these theories and early modern studies specifically, see Amanda Bailey and Mario DiGangi, eds., Affect Theory and Early Modern Texts: Politics, Ecologies, and Form (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
  4. My definition more or less resembles commonly held positions across recent affect theory, but I demur from taxonomizing the affects or enumerating their primitives (as in Spinoza or Tomkins or, to an extent, Sedgwick). I do not refer to “affect” in the singular but “affects” as a plural array. I regard this plural array as causally prior to the various forms of emotional display through which said affects become expressive and thereby legible to others. In sympathy with Brennan and Terada and Berlant, I am hoping to de-subjectivize the interpretive scene in which affects unfold. In sympathy with Brinkema, I am interested in formal description. In sympathy with Katrin Pahl, I am interested in changes of state.
  5. William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice,” in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 7th ed., ed. David Bevington (Boston: Pearson, 2014), 202.
  6. Justin E. H. Smith, “Toward a Historical Ontology of Race,” in Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 69.
  7. Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages,” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (2011): 319.
  8. Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, I,” 319 original emphasis.
  9. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 94.
  10. See Patricia Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World (London: Routledge, 2018).
  11. For an account of olfactory symbolism and the problem of the “smelly others” that uses the El Carmel neighborhood in Barcelona as a site for thinking the politics of smell, see Diana Mata-Codesal, “El olor del cuerpo migrante en la cidudad desodorizada: simbolismo olfativo en los procesos de clasificacion social,” AIRB: Revista de Antropologia Iberoamericana 13, no. 1 (2018): 23–43.
  12. Jonathan Reinarz, “Odorous Others: Race and Smell,” in Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 86.
  13. Carol Mejia LaPerle, “Race, Affect and the Olfactory,” The Sundial, 16 August 2019, https://medium.com/the-sundial-acmrs/race-affect-and-the-olfactory-f69659deab04.
  14. Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 47.
  15. Reinarz, “Odorous Others,” 95.
  16. Scholars of religious thought tend to distinguish “anti-Judaism” as a theological and doctrinal discourse of refutation from “anti-Semitism” as a rhetoric of slander and targeting; sometimes this distinction is drawn on historiographic grounds, with “anti-Semitism” being regarded as a later phenomenon. I regard the foetor judaicus as anti-Semitic, and take its classical origin and tenacious transhistorical survival to complicate the claim that anti-Semitism is a relatively late phenomenon. See Robert Chazan, Anti-Judaism to Anti-Semitism: Ancient and Medieval Constructions of Jewish History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  17. Eva Johanna Holmberg, “Framing Jewish Bodies and Souls,” in Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination: A Scattered Nation (London: Ashgate, 2011), 105–51. I am indebted to Holmberg’s scholarship for my examples, but diverge in my methodological goals, insofar as smell is simply part of a catalogue of anti-Semitic fantasies examined in her book, and Holmberg is not chiefly interested in the affective dimension of racialization as such.
  18. Ariosto, Ariosto’s Satyres (1608),  qtd. in Holmberg, “Framing Jewish Bodies and Souls,” 132–33.
  19. Holmberg, “Framing Jewish Bodies and Souls,” 133.
  20. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, 47–48.
  21. Reinarz, “Odorous Others,” 95.
  22. Holmberg, “Framing Jewish Bodies and Souls,” 128.
  23. Holmberg, “Framing Jewish Bodies and Souls,” 131.
  24. Holly Dugan, “Strong, Invisible Perfumes,” in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 2.
  25. Mata-Codesal, “El olor del cuerpo migrante en la cidudad desodorizada: simbolismo olfativo en los procesos de clasificacion social.”
  26. Janet Adelman, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 79 original emphasis.
  27. Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudo-doxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths (London: Printed by T.H. for E. Dod, 1646). 
  28. Browne, Pseudo-doxia Epidemica, Book IV, Chapter X, 166.
  29. Browne, Pseudo-doxia Epidemica, Book IV, Chapter X, 168.
  30. See Todd M. Edelman, The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
  31. Reid Barbour, “Padua, 1632–1633,” in Sir Thomas Browne: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 145–83.
  32. Browne, Pseudo-doxia Epidemica, Book IV, Chapter X, 169–70.
  33. Alexandra Walsham, Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500–1700 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 4.
  34. Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward A Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 99.
  35. Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, “Religion and Race: Protestant and Catholic Discourses on Jewish Conversions in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in The Origins of Racism in the West, ed. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 268.
  36. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, 49.
  37. Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, I,” 319 original emphasis.
  38. LaPerle, “Race, Affect and the Olfactory.”


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