A Sense of Humour in Daddy’s Presence

J.L. Nelson

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

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.

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