The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe 
by Patrick Geary.
Princeton, £11.95, March 2003, 0 691 09054 8
Show More
Europe in the High Middle Ages 
by William Chester Jordan.
Penguin, 383 pp., £9.99, August 2002, 0 14 016664 5
Show More
Show More

Patrick Geary’s The Myth of Nations is more timely than he could have anticipated. ‘Historians have a duty to speak out,’ he writes, ‘even if they are certain to be ignored.’ Why such passion, such a sense of contemporary engagement, in a book about the very early Middle Ages? Since 1989, this period – between the third and eighth centuries – has been persistently misrepresented by Europe’s nationalist and racist politicians, who claim to find in the Middle Ages some kind of justification for their policies. Some historians coyly refute these ‘lessons of Europe’s past’ by saying that no firm conclusions can be drawn from evidence so hard to interpret, or – the ultimate professional abdication – that the past offers nothing from which we can draw lessons for the present and the future. This won’t do. Presented with simplistic assertions about ‘unambiguous and immutable social and cultural units’ differentiated by language, religion, custom and national character, and with determined translations of those assertions into territorial claims, the historian has to be adamant that there is no early medieval evidence for such units, such identities, such exclusive territories.

Demythologising the early Middle Ages entails first understanding how the myths were created in the 19th century. Geary is blunt: ‘Modern history was born in the 19th century, conceived and developed as an instrument of European nationalism.’ He locates the origins of ethnic and cultural nationalism in German reactions to the universalism of the French Revolution and, specifically, to the alliance of scholars and politicians in post-Napoleonic Germany. The Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde (Society for Older German Historical Knowledge), founded in 1819 in Prussia, with contributions from many German states and the intellectual support of Goethe and the Brothers Grimm, undertook to edit and publish the record of Germany’s medieval life in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, every volume of which is inscribed with the motto Sanctus amor patriae dat animum (‘It is the holy love of the fatherland which moves us’). Half a century ago, Dom David Knowles, doyen of humane medievalism, hailed the MGH among the ‘great historical enterprises’, which it certainly was (and is) despite its original nationalist agenda. Medievalist Wissenschaft (the term has scientific connotations largely absent from the English word ‘scholarship’) was grounded in philology. Ethnic identity was defined by linguistic identity: a German was the speaker of a Germanic language and German identity thus extended to Spain, North Africa, the Netherlands and Italy – areas that had been settled, in the early Middle Ages, by Germanic-speaking Goths, Vandals, Frisians and Lombards. Academic history was planted under philology’s scientific aegis and grew in what Geary calls a ‘poisoned landscape’, nourished by state-funded education in national languages and literatures and confirmed by archaeological identification of ethnic material culture. Yet, as Geary makes plain, it is impossible to map linguistic or ethnic identities onto national territories. In the earlier Middle Ages, urban populations included, and were sometimes dominated by, recent immigrants whose languages and cultures were quite distinct from those of the indigenes; cities were culturally as well as politically distinct from their surrounding countrysides, and stratified internally with elites speaking a ‘foreign’ language. This is an ‘ancient pattern’.

Equally ancient are the conceptions of ethnicity discussed in the rest of Geary’s book. Herodotus, ‘the father of History’ (a.k.a. ‘the father of lies’) who was actually the first ethnographer, had a quite exceptionally ‘broad and non-judgmental’ view of ethnic identity, based on culture rather than biology. His perspective, Geary writes, was ‘pre-Orientalist’: he refused ‘to denigrate the customs of others’. His successors, on the other hand, especially in the Roman period, devoted themselves to establishing a system that distinguished ‘them’ from ‘us’. Barbarians came under the heading of gentes and, differentiated by ‘customs, geographical location and permanence’, were ‘in a sense more part of the natural world than the historical world’, whereas Romans were a populus uniquely defined by their written history and political, law-based arrangements into which many gentes could be incorporated. As Geary puts it, these were ‘two models of peoplehood’: one ‘ethnic’, the other ‘constitutional’. Christianity easily adopted the second, though it could be adapted to the first.

Educated in this intellectual tradition, the writers of Late Antiquity encountered a dizzyingly ‘gentile’ world, while new gentes encountered Rome, first beyond the frontiers of the Empire, then, as larger, better organised barbarian groups gained entry, more often on imperial territory itself. Transformation was mutual: at the same time as barbarian elites ‘were internalising Roman traditions about barbarians, they were erasing the . . . distinction between Roman and barbarian . . . The Romans were becoming more of a gens, the barbarians were becoming more of a populus.’ In this way the barbarian state acquired its fundamentally political identity: ‘the traditions of a people were incarnated in its political leadership, that is, royal or aristocratic families,’ and confirmed by ‘its ability to contribute to that tradition, essentially through military service’. Further processes of accommodation and adaptation followed in the fourth and fifth centuries: ‘One might be both a Roman and a barbarian.’ Yet possession of multiple identities was nothing new. Since the Empire’s creation, ‘local men’ had found their place in that wider world while preserving their distinct local loyalties and status: local Roman boys made good through imperial service, barbarian boys did the same through military service – this was how the barbarian became a Roman.

In the fifth-century ‘barbarian kingdoms’, new and still more heterogeneous identities were formed. One moment the pattern looks beautifully coherent, the next startlingly diverse. Geary stresses the distinctive significance of the Huns, nomads who spoke a Turkic language. When ‘good warriors . . . could rise rapidly within the Hunnic hierarchy,’ whatever their origin, the result was a polyethnic elite and careers open to military talent. ‘Attila’ means ‘Daddy’ in Gothic, but those who gave him this name included speakers of Latin, Greek and Hunnic alongside Gothic. A sense of humour in Daddy’s presence must have eased relations between different groups and fostered a common loyalty.

Exposed to the research of historians of the Vienna School, the Goths have turned out to be heterogeneous, polyethnic or not ethnic at all. (Geary studied at Vienna as a young man and maintains strong links with colleagues there. His work prompts reflection on why this major effort to rethink identity should have gone on in Austria, ‘which had long basked in the myth of “the first victim of Nazi aggression” while enjoying the status of neutral ground for the conduct of Cold War interaction’ – and where ‘a party with strong chauvinist and xenophobic elements’ has recently emerged as a political third force.) When Geary says that a man might adopt a Gothic identity as ‘a strategy of distinction’, Bourdieu’s influence is plain, too. Leaders of amalgamated war-bands affixed the Gothic label to the kingdoms they founded. By 500, Theodoric titled himself King of the Goths: that is, the eastern Goths (Ostrogoths) in Italy – Spain was in the hands of kings of the western Goths (Visigoths). The peoples these kings ruled were quite disparate, Gothic identity being something chosen and assumed rather than inherited. Yet the identities stuck, and both kingdoms lasted – in Italy for three generations, in Spain until 711.

There was no ethnic core, however, no persisting kernel of tradition, that kept elites together: ‘It appears that all that remained constant were names, and these were vessels that could hold different contents at different times. Names were renewable resources; they held the potential to convince people of continuity, even if radical discontinuity was the lived reality.’ Not all specialists would go quite that far, and one vexing thing about Geary’s book is the brevity of its notes and references: a pity, for though this is a book aimed at a wide public, specialists, too, need to absorb it. But on the key point of the ad hoc nature of ‘ethnic’ identity there does seem to be a scholarly consensus, and since most of the historiography is still in German, Geary has done an invaluable service in conveying its results to the anglolexic. It should be said that this book is very much more than a translation and commentary: Geary’s own contribution to the Viennese enterprise has been significant. He fruitfully applies to his early medieval material the sociological concept of ethnic identity as a situational construct: that is, as something adopted by individuals and groups in specific social contexts in response to particular pressures, and therefore liable to change.

Given our dependence for so much of our evidence on highly constructed early medieval narratives of ‘barbarian history’, we need to be reminded of the importance of finding out more about the narrators themselves. This is part of ‘Europeans as Zulu’, the final section of the book. Geary shows how Zulu history has had to be rewritten in the later 20th century to get behind the oral traditions collected many decades earlier by a British missionary, A.T. Bryant (1865-1953), and the story this ‘Christian with a classical education’ created ‘from external schemas of how a people’s history ought to read’. It would be hard to imagine a more powerful demonstration of the way early medieval historical narratives worked on European imaginations. My only demur would be over the labelling of Bryant as ‘naive’: surely he was no more so than the sixth-century bishop Gregory of Tours? Indeed he may well still be being widely read as authoritative in some quarters, just as the Le Pens of this world will go on reading Gregory and his modern retailers because it suits their purposes. Ethnicity is ‘impervious to mere rational disproof’. This is why Geary’s message is so compelling, and why it matters to keep faith with reason: getting Europe’s medieval past straight gives a bearing on its future.

Here are two pleas, not just to Geary but to the whole group of historians for which he’s such an eloquent spokesman. One is to remember class, and specifically the ways in which pre-existing social stratifications affected the encounters between ‘Roman’ and ‘barbarian’. Geary doesn’t quote the remark attributed to Theodoric the Goth by a well-informed contemporary in Ravenna: ‘The rich Goth imitates the Roman, the poor Roman the Goth.’ The other plea is to remember gender. Where, after all these men and boys, all these upwardly mobile warriors, are the women? Whether the story is about transmitted kernels of tradition, or feuds, or naming, it does seem fairly clear that women were crucially involved. Yet in the historiography of ethnogenesis there is virtually no systematic discussion of the part women played in these cultural processes (the narratives of queens in converting their barbarian husbands to Christianity are yet more situational constructs to be unpacked).

William Chester Jordan has written a general survey of Europe in the ‘high’ or ‘central’ Middle Ages, often taken to constitute the Middle Ages. If this period is likely to seem less dark, more familiar to general readers than Geary’s centuries, that’s partly because it can be presented as one in which improvised short-term identities and communities were replaced by the firmly shaped kingdoms or countries still recognisable today, and partly because it’s been notably well covered in recent and not so recent historiography. The late Richard Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages presented an integrated vision of the 11th and 12th centuries that has worn remarkably well. Given Jordan’s own research into the reign of Louis IX and the 13th-century Crusades, it comes as no surprise to find him sharing Southern’s France-centred approach, his lively sympathy for Christianity’s civilising and peace-bringing mission, and his soft spot for Christian high culture – ‘the thoughts of the few’ known to the few. But Southern’s book was written fifty years ago, and medieval European history has different contours now. Jordan addresses the concerns of the early 21st century in several different ways.

First, he’s attentive to material culture and the environment: he tells us, for example, that in 11th-century Mediterranean Europe ‘aristocratic falconers loved to hunt the heronries, and rustics took hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of the estimated fifty billion migratory birds that annually leave their winter shelters in Africa to summer in Europe.’ And this, on forests in the early 13th century: ‘They were still extensive and home to wolves, wild boars and, outside of England, bears, but they were also dotted with little endogamous woodland communities whose smoky fires were kept going in the process of making the charcoal necessary for smelting ores.’ Among Jordan’s special research fields is economic history; he is sensitive to the way men and women earned their daily bread, and to what happened to those lives when famine struck, as it did in the seven years from 1315 to 1322, and when plague struck and recurred in the 1340s and 1360s, which is where Jordan’s High Middle Ages definitively end.

Second, Jordan covers Latin Europe in the large sense, embracing Scandinavia, Poland and Hungary, and the Mediterranean lands in which Papal authority was recognised and in which Christianity’s common scriptural and liturgical language, as well as the language of learned culture, was Latin. The western and central Mediterranean states saw themselves in relation to their opposite numbers across the sea to the south and east, including Byzantium. In combining a concise textbook narrative of the kingdoms, principalities and, in Italy, city-states traditionally regarded as forming the West, with accounts of the newly formed Scandinavian and Slav kingdoms, Jordan shows how Latin Europe took shape in this period: a Europe, that is, which inherited, directly or at second hand, the economic and cultural institutions, including the use of Latin-inscribed coins and Latin legal documents (charters), of the Carolingian world. In political terms, the emergence of kingdoms and dynasties throughout this Europe brought new potential for ‘strong government’ in such diverse places as Portugal, Sicily, Sweden and Hungary. Yet dynasties tended to produce the routine dynastic hazards of minorities (‘Woe to the land whose king is a child!’), succession disputes, and recurrent internecine conflict, all of which hampered state formation.

Jordan sees the Latin Church, for which he often uses ‘the Papacy’ as a synonym, as setting Europe on a new trajectory. His chapters on the 11th-century Investiture Controversy – when the rules governing the distribution of ecclesiastical power were redesigned to accommodate lay as much as clerical interests – and on the First Crusade establish this trajectory, which is followed through in his discussion of Pope Innocent III and 13th-century Crusading. A Papally directed militant Christendom and a Papally ordered Christianity define the high-medieval moment. Christian-Muslim conflict is the crucial element in this framework, and Jordan insists, perhaps too much, on its peculiar brutality. He pays a good deal of attention to Jews as well, highlighting the role of Jewish intellectuals in high culture and of Jewish men of business in oiling the wheels of commerce and the fiscal activities of new states. He doesn’t ignore the massacres and expulsions which marked their ever increasing humiliation and scapegoating by Christian regimes, yet his overall picture of the 13th century is strongly positive.

Contrast Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change, published in 1993. Bartlett’s focus is on the hard edge and sometimes brutal racism of the processes indicated in his subtitle – racism which in the case of Ireland, for instance, had nothing to do with hostility between Christians and non-Christians. Concentrating on the frontier rather than the centre, Bartlett sees violence as driving the expansion of Europe and giving it its particular character. Warrior aristocracies set the pace, with secondary opportunities offered to peasants’ and traders’ enterprises. It’s a world in which, despite the impression given by ecclesiastical documents, the bannermen of Faith follow the sword, consecrating it consequentially and sharing the profits, rather than giving the lead. Bartlett’s muscular laymen can be all too plausibly depicted as the direct antecedents of modern Europe’s colonial conquerors.

Jordan doesn’t directly discuss Bartlett’s book, but his position is made explicit in a riposte to another leading British historian, R.I. Moore: ‘It is a caricature to say’ – of the 11th century – ‘that Papal reform was merely a mode of aggrandisement of Pontifical authority’, or to present the clergy as exploiting reform rhetoric to impose ‘rights over rustics’. But Jordan doesn’t extend his critique into a wholesale attack on Moore’s The Foundations of a Persecuting Society (1987), with its darkly revisionist view of the violent and repressive impact of the institutional growth of both Church and states in the central Middle Ages climaxing in the 13th century. As far as Jordan is concerned, even if ‘barons’, especially German ones, are to be rapped over the knuckles as ‘fractious’ or ‘over-mighty’, what was best for everyone was ‘strong secular government sanctioned by the Church’, as exemplified in French ‘authoritarianism’, particularly in the reign of Louis IX, whose own subjects ‘came to regard him as a saint’. He makes no reference to Louis’s run-in with the Papacy over taxation of the Church in his domains. The 13th century is, for him, a tale of ‘achievements’ by ‘exemplary figures’: Louis IX, of course, but also Innocent III, who ‘left a Papacy at the pinnacle of its authority and power’, and theologians such as Aquinas and Bonaventure. Jordan seems in the end to feel closest to the schoolmen, representatives of the academy who were active, too, in the ‘real world’, a world that included charcoal-burners along with princes and philosophers. He finds the ‘promise’ of the 14th century in Christianity’s enabling of shared awareness of God’s love. Yet he leaves a yawning gap between the rough, coal-blackened forest-dweller and the smooth-faced urban scholar.

In every other respect Part IV’s rather brief discussion of the 14th century is as gloomy as the previous section is rosy: ‘The plague cycle was the death knell of medieval European civilisation.’ Jordan’s accounts of flagellants’ processions and the dance of death evoke Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal rather than the economic and cultural dynamism stressed by some recent studies, including work on women. He is surprisingly downbeat, too, on the 14th-century Papacy, seeing Papal government as increasingly oppressive as it became more centralised. It could be argued, however, that the centralisation of jurisdiction and the distribution of clerical and educational jobs enabled the Papacy to maximise the number of stakeholders in a system involving diverse interest groups and elites all over Latin Christendom. Papal government somehow devolved as it centralised, and this two-way operation was a key factor in ensuring that the later 14th and 15th centuries remained ‘medieval’. If 13th-century Portugal, ‘like the other European monarchies’, was ‘governed by consensus when it was governed well’, that was also true of the 14th-century Church, and had been so since the Investiture Controversy.

It goes without saying that when Jordan is traditional he is not necessarily wrong. His story includes much that deserves to be retold and reconsidered. Yet he evidently hasn’t seen his own book as a suitable medium for clear, critical discussion of current historical debates, and this is a disappointment. Interpretative differences need to be addressed directly rather than obliquely, not least because they reflect, and in turn help reproduce, different political environments, different ideological stances and different and often nationally defined agendas, in which historians themselves are implicated. Since, as Geary makes clear, the modern academic discipline of history was created in the lee of the nation-state and of confessional and political loyalties, involvement in the ‘real world’ has been desired, and even required, of historians no less than it was of schoolmen in the 13th century. Today, in Central and Eastern Europe, medievalists talk, like everyone else, of the ‘political changes’ of the late 20th century. It is too soon to say how these affect the histories they write – and the answers are sure to vary. But there, and elsewhere in Continental Europe, the question is at least being asked. In Britain, historians of the Middle Ages can still, sometimes, be too England-centred, even a shade complacent, as if invoking immunity in both its medieval meaning of a privileged area into which the agents of no external authority should intrude, and its modern one of imperviousness to contagion. To the post-1989 condition, there is no immunity in either sense.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences