Nations and National Identities in the Medieval
World: An Apologia
Journal of Belgium History, XXXIV, 2004 (4)
Medieval historians tend to find themselves in a tricky position when there is any discussion of nations and national identities. They are painfully aware that they may be regarded as unwelcome and even improper guests at such a discussion. If the topic can be extended to include the pre-history of nations and nationalism, then perhaps they – rather like young children at an adult evening party – can be allowed to introduce themselves briefly before the main business of the evening gets under way and they are asked to withdraw. After all, it is well known that a most impressive galaxy of historians, sociologists and social anthropologists – Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Elie Kedourie, Eric Hobsbawm among them – have affirmed categorically that nations and nationalism, as we know them – an important qualification – are essentially modern, indeed arguably post-1780, phenomena. Moreover critics point out that the essential localism of medieval society on the one hand and the strength of bonds between man and man in their various forms on the other militated against the development of ideas of national identity or at least against giving any substantial priority to them in the scale of human obligations. Faced with this barrage of sceptical criticism, one might expect medieval historians to beat a hasty and rather shamefaced retreat from colloquia such as the present one. Yet they have not done so. On the contrary, they publish books and articles on national identity in the middle ages; claim that nationalism was born at least in the thirteenth, not in the nineteenth century (as current modernist orthodoxy suggests); and seem to have few scruples about employing the word ‘nation’ to describe the communities of people and the polities of the middle ages. It is well worth exploring this act of historiographical and terminological defiance because it casts light not only on modern approaches to the medieval period but also on the very theoretical and methodological issues which are at the heart of this conference.