Pre-modern Nationalism: An Oxymoron? The Evidence from England

Philip S Gorski. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

Until fairly recently, the consensus view among scholars of nationalism was that nationalism was specific to the modern era. Following Anthony Smith, this is often referred to as the ‘modernist’ view. According to the modernists, nationalism was modern not just in the weaker, temporal sense that it happened to be invented after 1750 or so (like the zipper) but in the much stronger, developmental sense that it could not possibly have been invented before 1750 (like the railroad), insofar as it presumed a whole host of other prior developments, such as democratization, secularization, industrialization, the existence of strong, national states, and the emergence of mass, reading publics, to name just a few of the commonly cited prerequisites. The emergence of nationalism, in other words, was part and parcel of the transition from tradition to modernity. Hence, it was not incidentally modern, but inherently so. From this perspective, the phrase ‘pre-modern nationalism’ is an oxymoron.

Not everyone would agree. Since the early 1990s, the standard modernist refrains have met with a swelling chorus of criticism. Most of the voices in this chorus belong to European historians, who claim to find evidence of full-blown nationalism in the pre-modern era. Let us call this group of critics the ‘premodernists.’ The premodernists do not agree about when or where nationalism first arose. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they often argue that it initially arose in the countries and periods in which they themselves specialize. Candidates for the birthplace of nationalism include eighteenth-century England, the early modern Netherlands, medieval France and even the Dark Age kingdoms, to name some of the many contenders. In support of their views, the premodernists point, inter alia, to various source materials, including histories and chronicles of particular peoples or nations; popular pamphlets and other forms of political propaganda that speak of, or appeal to, a nation, or nations; and scholarly discussions of ‘national character’ and its relationship to language, customs and climate that long antedate the French Revolution or German Romanticism. The modernists have not fled the attack. Most (though not all) have stood their ground, arguing that pre-modern nationalism is not genuine nationalism, but something different or lesser: ‘national identity,’ ‘national consciousness,’ ‘national sentiment,’ or ‘nationalist discourse’ perhaps, but not nationalism in the strict sense. The premodernists counter that pre-modern nationalism is neither different nor lesser and that it meets the very definitional criteria laid out by the modernists themselves.

It is not possible to settle the modernist/premodernist debate in this chapter; that will take more time and more dialogue. Rather, the goal of this chapter is to introduce the reader to the issues raised by the modernists and the evidence advanced by the premodernists. I begin by way of background with a brief summary of the modernist position and its key variants. This will make it easier to understand and assess the premodernists’ evidence, samples of which will be presented in the sections that follow, and in reverse chronological order. Thus, I open the discussion with several recent works on the eighteenth century, then move on through the early modern and medieval periods and conclude with the Dark Ages. I have chosen this somewhat unorthodox format in the hope that it will make it easier for readers to judge for themselves just when it becomes reasonable to speak of nationalism. Another note on the presentation: throughout, the focus will be mainly, if not exclusively, on England. I have chosen this narrower focus for two reasons: first, because it makes for a shorter and more readable essay; and second, because the debate about English nationalism has been particularly pointed and extensive, and raises most of the key theoretical and interpretive issues. While I will suspend my judgement during this presentation, I will not expunge it from the chapter. I find the premodernist critiques fully convincing, and in the conclusion, I will argue for an approach to nationalism that is not so much premodernist as postmodernist, in the dual sense that it rejects the claim that nationalism is inherently modern, and that it is suspicious of all efforts to fix the origins of nationalism in a particular place or time. In my view, scholars of nationalism would be better served by a more genealogical and con-junctural approach that seeks to identify and account for changing types and degrees of nationalism.

The Modernist Position: Development and Divergences

What is nationalism? Why does it arise? And when does it first arise historically? These are three cardinal questions in the study of nationalism. There is some agreement about the ‘when’ question. All modernists agree that nationalism first arose during the modern era, even if they disagree about exactly when. There is far less agreement about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions. The modernists advance many different and competing definitions and explanations of nationalism. This can sometimes make it difficult to follow and evaluate premodernist critiques of the modernist position, which often focus on only one or two modernist authors. Before analysing the modernists’ arguments in greater detail, it may be useful to survey the historical development of the literature on nationalism, and the key variations of the modernist position.

Looking back, we can discern (at least) four successive and overlapping waves in twentieth-century scholarship on nationalism. The first wave began in the 1900s and crested in the 1960s (e.g. Meinecke 1970 [1907], Kohn 1967 [1944]; Kedourie 1994 [1960]; Minogue 1967; Berlin 1980). It was propelled by intellectual historians and political theorists and focused mainly on the works of French philosophes (e.g., J. J. Rousseau and the Abbé Sieyès) and German Romantics (e.g., Fichte and Herder). The second wave began in the 1950s and subsided in the early 1980s (e.g., Deutsch 1953; Gellner 1983; Anderson 1991 [1983]). It was propelled almost exclusively by social scientists and tended to focus on the impact of ‘modernization’ (that is, industrialization, democratization, secularization and kindred processes). The third wave began in the 1970s and has not yet fully subsided. Its driving force was supplied by social historians and historical sociologists (see e.g. Tilly 1975; Brass 1997, 1991; Breuilly 1982; Hroch 1985; Wallerstein 1991; Mann 1993). Its chief inspirations were Marx and Weber. Its focus was on capitalism and states, rather than on nationalism per se. In these accounts, nationalism was usually seen as the consequence of expanding markets and/or of centralizing states. The fourth wave began in the early 1990s and is still going strong (see e.g. Brubaker 1996; Laitin 1998; Porter 2000). Politically, it was inspired by the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which brought an unexpected resurgence of nationalism in Eastern Europe and throughout the world. Theoretically, it was informed by the ‘cultural turn’ in history and the social sciences. In contrast to first- and second-wavers, who typically portray culture as consensual (that is, as ‘social norms’ or ‘shared values’), the fourth-wavers usually tend to see it as conflictual (that is, as itself a site and source of struggle). The fourth-wavers’ great shibboleths are thus ‘contestation’ and ‘construction’—of nations, identities, traditions.

As should be clear even from this brief survey, the modernists are a heterogeneous lot. Consider their answers to the ‘what’ question. First-wavers typically defined it as an ‘ideology,’ but in the non-evaluative sense of ‘creed’ or ‘doctrine’ (e.g. Kedourie 1994 [1960]: 1). Second-wavers, on the other hand, are more apt to portray it as a form of political community (e.g., Anderson 1991 [1983]: 12). Third-wavers also speak of nationalism in terms of ideology and integration, but more in the sense of ‘ruling class ideology’ and ‘market integration’ (see e.g. Hroch 1985: 5-9). For them, nationalism usually connotes a social or political movement that seeks to build or capture a state (e.g. Breuilly 1982: 3). Most fourth-wavers would accept Breuilly’s definition, but they would emphasize that the nationalists not only argue for the nation, but about the nation—its history, its mission, its members, its borders—and that they not only seek to capture or create states, but to make and remake nations, that is, to actively transform existing identities and communities (e.g. Bell 2003: 3). In sum, modernist scholars generally define nationalism in terms of at least one of the following families of concepts: (1) ideology (alternatively: doctrine, creed or principle); (2) identity (alternatively: consciousness, community or integration); (3) movement (alternatively: party, state or fraction); (4) discourse (alternatively: categories, symbols, narratives, rituals).

Not surprisingly, the answers modernists give to the ‘why’ question are also quite diverse. However, they can be organized under two general headings: those that emphasize structure, and those that emphasize agency. In more structural accounts, nationalism is seen as a consequence, often unintended, of other processes of large-scale social change, such as secularization, industrialization or state-formation. Second-and third-wave accounts tend to emphasize structure much more than agency. First-wave accounts privilege agency, if only implicitly. They imply that nationalism is the creation of great minds. Fourth-wave accounts also give attention to agency, but in a more explicit and systematic way. They emphasize the role of intellectual strata—including lesser-known publicists and propagandists—as opposed to individual geniuses. This is not to say that fourth-wavers ignore structure. They are aware of how social context—geopolitics, electoral politics, class structure and so on—can constrain or enable would-be nationalists. Nationalist discourses and movements are not constructed ex nihilo.

Having briefly surveyed the scholarly literature on nationalism and catalogued the various definitions and explanations that are on offer, let us now turn to the premodern evidence.

Socio-Cultural Rivalry or Religio-Political Unity? Two Arguments about Eighteenth-Century England

Until quite recently, the standard view was that England had never experienced nationalism—patriotism perhaps, but not nationalism (Smith 1976; Seton-Watson 1977). The Irish had nationalism, as did the Scots or the Welsh, but not the English; they had imperialism instead (Kumar 2003). The origins of nationalism were to be found across the Channel, in France, or even further east, in Germany. In this section, I discuss two influential and widely read challenges to this view: Gerald Newman’s (1987) The Rise of English Nationalism and Linda Colley’s (1992) Britons. Both locate the birth of English nationalism in the eighteenth century.

In Newman’s account, the rise of English nationalism begins around 1740. Its roots, he says, are to be found in socio-cultural rivalry between the English aristocracy, which was cosmopolitan and Francophilic in outlook, and an emerging English intelligentsia, which felt marginalized and underappreciated. By the middle of the eighteenth century, argues Newman, the English aristocracy had achieved a position of complete dominance in English society. It not only owned the land, but effectively owned the state and the church as well. It also set the tone, the standards of what was admirable and coarse, sophisticated and ordinary, in short, high and low. This cultural dominance, Newman argues, was not secondary or epiphenomenal; it was primary and fundamental: ‘cosmopolitan taste was to aristocratic power what invisible guy wires are to a trapeze act. The ultimate source of the elite’s authority, protecting its property and privileges, was something immaterial, its “cultural hegemony”—its style’ (Newman 1987: 39). The extreme Francophilia of English ‘Society’ led it to denigrate and ignore its own artists and intellectuals. Hogarth, Fielding, Burke, Wollstonecraft—revered and canonized in our day, they were reviled or belittled in their own. They responded, in part, by constructing a counter-ideal, a vision of English national identity, whose central value was ‘sincerity.’ Unlike the French, and their English minions, who were portrayed as ‘dishonest,’ ‘debauched,’ ‘conformist’ and, in short, insincere, true Englishmen and—women—were ‘frank,’ ‘upright,’ ‘independent’ and, in sum, everything that the French were not. Artists and intellectuals may have sown the seeds of English nationalism, but it was the Seven Years War that ploughed and fertilized the soil, by stirring up popular ‘patriotism’ and ‘Gallophobia.’ The harvest was reaped by political leaders such as Pitt the Elder and John Wilkes, who used popular nationalism as a weapon against aristocratic dominance. By the 1780s, the nationalist genie was out of the historical bottle and there was no putting it back in. For Newman, then, England was not the exception to the nationalist rule; it was a textbook example which closely adhered to the Continental script: nationalism is first enunciated by artists and intellectuals and gradually gives rise to a mass movement against aristocratic oppression and foreign domination.

In Britons, Linda Colley tells quite a different story. First, the protagonist is different: as the title of her book suggests, she is interested in British nationalism rather than English nationalism. Also, the action begins a good deal earlier: Colley argues that British nationalism was ‘forged’ in 1707; this is the year of the Act of Union, that joined Scotland with England and Wales. For Colley, the genesis of British nationalism involves the emergence of a new political community. How, she asks, did the various peoples and classes who inhabited the British Isles come (with the exception of the Irish) to see themselves as (among other things) ‘British? Her answer essentially boils down to this: common subjective identities and common material interests. At the ‘core’ of their identity, she argues, we find religion and, more specifically, Protestantism. Given the fractured and fractious character of British Protestantism, one might fairly wonder why it acted as a form of ‘social cement,’ rather than a kind of social solvent (Black 1999: 59). One reason, certainly the most important in Colley’s telling, is war, specifically the wars against the Catholic French. These wars helped to unite the British, or many of them at least, around a common vision of themselves, as a New Israel, a chosen people, from whom God expected much, and to whom much was granted—liberty, prosperity and true religion. If the cement of religion took hold, this was partly because the clamps of interest were applied as well. It not only felt good to be a Briton, it also paid. Britain’s successes against the French brought new opportunities for its people—as soldiers, traders and administrators. Meanwhile, this very service to Britannia reinforced mass identification with Britain. In Colley’s account, British nationalism was primarily the product of Protestantism, Anglo-French rivalry and overseas empire.

What kinds of general, historiographical and theoretical conclusions might we draw from these two studies? On the historiographical side, both studies certainly raise doubts about the uniqueness of French revolutionary nationalism. Indeed, one cannot but be struck by the developmental parallels—and cultural connections—between French and English nationalism. These parallels and connections are particularly clear in David Bell’s (2001) book on French revolutionary nationalism, which departs from the received interpretations in two main ways: first, in its emphasis on the religious roots of French nationalism (particularly in Calvinism and Jansenism) and second, in its attention to Anglo-French rivalry, and the role of the English as France’s national other. This is not to deny that there were differences, of course. Certainly, the level of violence and conflict was much greater in France than in England; perhaps for that reason, it was France, rather than England, that became the exemplar and the touchstone for nationalist ideologues and activists. Still, Newman and Colley’s work makes it harder to defend the claim that nationalism was ‘born’ or ‘invented’ during the French Revolution. On the theoretical side, we see that there were multiple definitions and discourses of the nation in play. For some, ‘the nation’ was England (or Scotland or Wales or Ireland); for others it was Britain; and for most, suggests Colley, it was both Britain and England (or Scotland or Wales or even Ireland). After all, she notes: ‘Identities are not like hats. Human beings can and do put on several at a time’ (1992: 6). Similarly, representations of the English nation drew on several different sources: the Bible, the Classics and ambient notions of patriarchy. If these definitions and discourses had originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we could end our analysis here. But they did not, so we now turn back the clock another few centuries.

In Search of English Nationalism: From the Protestant Reformation to the Glorious Revolution

While Newman and Colley trace Anglo-British nationalism back to the eighteenth century, other scholars push its birthdate back even further. In this section, I will review several well-known works by scholars of England, who argue that ‘modern’ nationalism can be found in early modern Britain.

In an important essay, which previews his forthcoming book, Steven Pincus argues that the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9 was ‘England’s first nationalist revolution’ (Pincus 1998). This interpretation might seem an unlikely one. After all, the Glorious Revolution did not usher in a republican regime, nor did it bring about any fundamental change in class or property relations. Hence, it fails to meet one standard definition of revolution (Skocpol 1979). Nor is it immediately clear in what sense it was nationalist either. After all, the central event of the Glorious Revolution was an invasion by a foreign prince (William III of the Netherlands), and the deposition of the native monarch (James II). So why does Pincus label the Glorious Revolution a ‘nationalist revolution’ instead of, say, a ‘military coup’? The central exhibit in Pincus’s case is the pamphlet literature of the period. The arrival of William III, he shows, was preceded by a vigorous, public debate about the il/legitimacy of James II. James’s opponents portrayed him as a tool of Louis XIV, a man of Catholic sympathies and French connections, who was imposing a foreign brand of Christianity and a foreign style of governance on the people of England. Fears of a French invasion were widespread. Against this background, Pincus shows, many saw William III—a man of Protestant beliefs with an English wife—not as a foreign invader, but as a national saviour, who restored the autonomy and sovereignty of the English people. If we define nationalism as ‘an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population deemed by some of its members to constitute an actual or potential nation’ (Pincus 1998: 78 quoting from Smith 1991: 73), then the Glorious Revolution was indeed a nationalist revolution. Did it also mark the origin of English nationalism? Pincus does not squarely address this question. He does say that an English ‘national identity’ had certainly taken shape by the middle of the sixteenth century. But he does not say whether national identity and nationalism are equivalent. Thus, he rejects the modernist position, without entirely clarifying his own.

Others are not so hesitant about pushing back the beginnings of English nationhood even further. Some see strong connections between Protestantism, anti-Catholicism and nationalism in the Elizabethan era (e.g. Cressy 1989). Others emphasize the secular discourses of national identity. The best-known work in the latter genre is probably Richard Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (1992). As the title of his book suggests, Helgerson argues that the transition from a ‘dynastic identity,’ centred on the monarchy, to a ‘national identity,’ built on other foundations, occurred, or at least began, during the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). Helgerson identifies six men, whom he considers the chief architects of this new identity, some well-known, others less so, and subjects their lives and works to close social and literary readings. In the first chapter, he focuses on Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, and his quest to achieve ‘the kingdome of his own language’—to create an English-language verse in the Graeco-Roman style and to achieve a place for that literature in a society obsessed with classical and continental literatures. In the second chapter, he turns to Edward Coke, the famed English jurist, and his efforts to define and defend an English tradition of common law distinct from Roman law and its continental adaptations. The subject of the third chapter is a lesser-known figure named Christopher Saxton, the Elizabethan cartographer who prepared the first comprehensive collection of county maps for the English kingdom. Chapter 4 analyses Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations of the English Nation, an English contribution to the burgeoning literature of overseas exploration, conquest and colonization. Helgerson argues that Hakluyt’s work is distinctive in two ways: first, insofar as it makes the English nation into the agent of exploration, and second, insofar as it proposes a peaceful form of merchant empire, quite different from the ‘rapacious’ and ‘tyrannical’ empire of the Spanish.Chapter 5 returns the reader to more familiar territory: the history plays of William Shakespeare. While the texts of these plays might seem to fit squarely into the dynastic form of the chronicle, with its tales of great men and great deeds, the actual performances involved the middle and lower classes, both as actors and auditors, and the audiences were quite inclusive in their composition. A similar tension can be found at the heart of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs—the subject of Chapter 6—which chronicles the Christian martyrs from Roman through Tudor times. Insofar as it is written in chronicle form, and divides English history by reigns, it is a ‘dynastic’ work. But insofar as it inserts English dynastic history into apocalyptic history, recounts the heroism of ordinary believers, and gives England a special place in the story of salvation, it is also a ‘national’ work. In sum, Helgerson argues that some of the most prominent intellectuals and artists of Elizabethan England were inventing and deploying forms of representation that made it possible to think in national terms—to think of the language, the land, the people, the history and the church of England.

The work of Pincus, Helgerson and other like-minded scholars gives a good sense of the kind of evidence that premodernists can muster against the modernists. First, there were both discursive and non-discursive representations of ‘the nation.’ Second, there were both religious and secular ways of conceiving the nation. Third, while these conceptions were generated by intellectuals and artists, broadly understood, they were sometimes directed at, and no doubt consumed by, a broader audience. Fourth, nationalist discourse did contain implicit and explicit aspirations to national autonomy and sovereignty. Fifth, these aspirations did sometimes give rise to political movements and programmes. Thus, while early modern English nationalism was certainly not identical to modern nationalism, of either the civic or ethnic variety, it definitely did have many of the basic features of modern nationalism, including some that are widely believed to be ‘distinctly’ or ‘uniquely’ modern, such as a secular component, a mass following, political content and movement organization.

Modern Nationalism in Premodern England? from the Venerable Bede to the Hundred Years War

While early modernists have sought to push back the birthdate of English nationalism by a century or two—to 1688/9 or to the 1580s—some historians of medieval and Dark Age England wish to push it back yet further—to at least the fourteenth century. Perhaps the best-known interpreter of the medieval evidence is R. R. Davies (Davies 1995a, 1995b, 1996a, 1996b, 2000). Davies’s central thesis is that the cultural and territorial boundaries between the peoples and polities of the British Isles became more and more sharply drawn during the Middle Ages. By 1400 there were really only four recognized peoples (English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish) and two viable kingdoms (English and Scottish). Within this configuration it was the English people and the English king who were hegemonic. Though he does not use this language, Davies is essentially arguing that medieval England was a nation-state. Few would contest Davies’s claims about English stateness. England has long been seen as a particularly prodigious example of state formation. More controversial, of course, are his arguments about peoplehood and nationness. Davies begins by pointing out, quite correctly, that the term ‘people’ (gens or kind) was quite common in medieval discourse, and that it was used interchangeably with the term ‘nation’ (natio). As their etymology suggests, both terms denoted communities of descent or birth, understood in a biological as well as cultural sense. Medieval writers employed two rhetorical strategies to establish peoplehood, one historical, the other ethnographic. The historical strategy involved a collective genealogy based on biblical and classical sources. One variant was to trace the lineage back to Noah. Another was to link it to the Trojans. And still another to the writings of Roman authors. Often these three discourses of descent—the Noachic, the Trojan and the Roman—were combined in clever, if implausible, ways. All three discourses can be found throughout the British Isles (and, for that matter, throughout Continental Europe as well). The ethnographic strategy involved catalogues of cultural peculiarities. Relevant peculiarities included ‘language, law, lifestyle, dress, personal appearance …, agricultural practices, codes of social values and what can only be described as national character and national temperament’ (Davies 1995a: 11). The real question for Davies, then, is not how the various peoples of the British Isles came to conceive of themselves as peoples, bur rather how it is that they came to be divided into the four peoples we know today instead of some other number and/or nomenclature. Why, he asks, did the people of the British Isles come to think of themselves as English (or Welsh, Scottish, or Irish) rather than as, say, Saxons (or Britons, Picts, or Féni)? Davies’s writings suggest a number of possible answers. One is state formation. As the kings of England and Scotland expanded and consolidated their rule over the British Isles, they invented and propagated national categories and boundaries that coincided with the state. Another explanation is geopolitical competition. Rivalry and warfare within the British Isles and, even more, between the English and the French, brought a decline in the use of French and identification with the Normans at court and a heightened emphasis on, and identification with, English and Englishness. The third explanation is ideological rivalry among intellectuals. For this project of Anglicization was anticipated and abetted by men of letters. During the first half of the twelfth century, for example, a group of historians rewrote the history of the British Isles as a history of the English monarchy, insisting on the antiquity of the English nation and state, the distinctiveness of the English law and the barbarity of the non-English peoples. Their work can be seen as a riposte to contemporaries whose narratives were built around different categories like ‘British or ‘Saxon.’

The question remains, however, as to why the category ‘English won out over these and other alternatives. Here, Davies actually points back to the Dark Ages and cites the work of Patrick Wormald (Davies 1995b: 7 and n. 25). In essence, Wormald argues that an English national identity had already crystallized by the tenth century and in a form that would later find imitators throughout Europe, namely, as a claim to be a ‘chosen people’ or ‘elect nation,’ the true, historical successor to the Ancient Israelites (Wormald 1983, 1992, 1994). The causal mechanisms that drive Wormald’s account are the same ones that underlie Davies’s: intellectual rivalry, state-formation and warfare, in that order. The intellectual rivalry in question was between Christians and pagans. The Christianization of the British Isles had begun in the second century during Roman rule. Following the collapse of Roman Britain and the subsequent invasion of the Anglo-Saxons, the British peoples reverted to Germanic religion. The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons began in the late sixth century, during the papacy of St Gregory I (the Great). Gregory’s accounts referred to the Christianization of the ‘English people’ (gens anglorum)—not the ‘Saxon’ or ‘British’ people (though these would have been plausible alternatives). A century later, Gregory’s language was adopted and immortalized in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, published 731). Bede, himself, was an Angle. More importantly, he was a scholar of the Old Testament. His history begins with a geographical survey of the British Isles that likens them to a land of milk and honey. It then turns to the arrival of the Angles, whom he portrays as a ‘chosen people,’ whose Exodus leads them to Britannia, whose native people, the Britons, had turned their eyes from God, and fallen into idolatry. Hence, God took their lands away and gave them to the Angles. Some two centuries later, Bede’s text was translated, and his narrative reactivated, by King Alfred the Great, one of the line of Wessex rulers who repelled would-be invaders from Denmark during the late ninth and early tenth centuries and gradually and forcefully created the kingdom of England. Alfred was a pious man, something of an intellectual, originally destined for an ecclesiastical career. Though himself a Saxon, he sought to propagate an English identity and the English language, both within his court and, insofar as possible, beyond it as well. In this, he received considerable aid from the churchmen of Canterbury. The story which they jointly told of England picked up where Bede’s left off. It was the story of a chosen people whose sins had provoked divine vengeance in the form of invading armies and whose salvation lay in a renewed covenant with God. While Wormald himself does not address the question of whether this constituted nationalism in the modernists’ sense, Sarah Foote does—and answers in the affirmative. Citing Ernest Gellner, she further argues that Alfred’s wars were also nationalist wars, aimed at assembling the English people into an English state (1996: 33). Later, citing Benedict Anderson, she argues that Alfred’s translation of Bede, along with his other efforts to promote the English language and English self-understanding, were part of a concerted effort, not simply to Anglicize the court, but to invent an English political community, if not by means of ‘print-capitalism,’ then at least by means of the written word (1996: 36-7). By her lights, then, the phrase ‘Dark Age nationalism’ is not an oxymoron, at least not in England.

The work of Davies, Wormald and Foote demonstrates that the kinds of evidence uncovered by the early modernists can also be found before the early modern era, if not in printed form, or in the same abundance. There are discursive representations of ‘peoples’ and ‘nations.’ The examples we have are mainly religious, but not exclusively so. The terms themselves are used in ways that are quite recognizable to modern eyes. And they were occasioned by and deployed in cultural and political struggles of various kinds. What is less clear is the social scope of nationalist discourse and conflict. That it touched the elites, we can be certain. Whether it reached the common people is hard to say, because there are so few source materials that could shed light on this problem. There is some evidence of popular nationalism during the Hundred Years War and the Middle Ages more generally, though it is scarce indeed. It is even scarcer for the Dark Ages. But we must be careful about drawing bold conclusions from the mere absence of sources. There was an oral culture in Dark Age England, and oral cultures can be remarkably vibrant. It is hard to make a compelling case for Dark Age nationalism. But it is also hard to make a compelling case against it. In the end, we can only speculate.

How Special Was England?

Could it be that England was the exception that proves the rule, an isolated case of precocious nationalism that diverged from the normal trajectory of political modernization? Certainly, the English case has been exceptionally well researched. Whether it was otherwise exceptional may well be doubted. For example, my own research on Dutch nationalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Gorski 2000) reveals striking parallels with the English case. There, too, political pamphlets and other sources provide rich evidence of pre-modern nationalism, with repeated eruptions of debate and contention about membership and mission. The sources of collective representation are also remarkably similar. First, there is a Hebraic discourse, in which the Dutch are portrayed as a ‘chosen people’ or ‘New Israel’ bound to God by a sacred covenant. Then, there is a classical discourse, in which the people of Holland and Zeeland, and sometimes of the Netherlands as a whole, are treated as the lineal descendants of the ancient Batavians, a proud and warlike people who defended their liberty against the Romans. Third, there is a patriarchal discourse that likens the Dutch to a family, with the Princes of Orange cast in the role of benevolent fathers. Though separable in theory, these representations could be combined in practice. Thus, during the Dutch Revolt, it was not uncommon for the ‘father of the fatherland,’ William of Orange, to be likened to Moses, with the King of Spain cast in the role of Pharaoh. However, these representations could also be used against one another, and once the independence of the Republic appeared secure, they often were. The chief carriers of the Hebraic discourse were the orthodox Calvinists, who advocated a strong central government, reconquest of the Southern Netherlands (present-day Belgium), which remained under Spanish control, a strong and autonomous system of ecclesiastical discipline, and the imposition of a strict moral code within Dutch society. Their arch-enemies were the ‘libertine’ regents of Holland, who advocated a federal system of government (which Holland could dominate), continued separation from the South (which might have threatened Holland’s economic preeminence), an ‘erastian’ system of church governance, in which the state governed the church, and a laxer moral code, at least as regards their own conduct. The libertines were the main carriers of the classical discourse about the Ancient Batavians. By arguing that Batavia was more or less co-terminous with Holland, and that its chief heritage was liberty, they aimed to fend off the Calvinists’ programme of state-building, national re-unification and moral regeneration. The House of Orange tended to ally with the Calvinists, at least in times of political crisis, and its monarchical aspirations can be seen in a shift from Mosaic to Davidic and Solomonic forms of self-representation. This constellation of ideologies and alliances remained relatively stable until the late eighteenth century, when populist patriots laid claim to the Batavian mythology, and used it against its progenitors: the regents of Holland. The battle between these three discourses and their carriers was not a battle between nationalists and anti-nationalists, as has sometimes been supposed, but a battle to define the nation, whose victor would win both material and symbolic spoils.

Evidence of nationalism can also be found in other times and places. Consider medieval France. There, too, we find examples of the three discursive formations that I identified in the early modern Netherlands: Hebraic, classical and patriarchal. In the early fourteenth century, for example, Guillaume de Sauquerville argued that ‘God chose the kingdom of France before all people’ (cited in Beaune 1991: 176). As for the classical discourse, genealogies linking the French to the Franks, and the Franks to the Trojans were ‘everywhere in medieval French literature’ (Beaune 1991: 226). Nor was the patriarchal discourse absent. In France, and elsewhere, ‘kings were kings of peoples not of regions … [and] [k]ingship was like kinship, primarily personal …’ (Strayer 1970: 300). and what shall we make of the following extract from the Salic Law, written in the fifth century, which speaks of the Franks as ‘the nation that with strength and bravery has shaken off the hard yoke of the Romans, and after its acceptance of Christianity has enshrined in buildings decked with gold and precious stones the bodies of the holy martyrs burnt, beheaded and thrown to the wild beasts by the Romans’ (quoted from Huizinga 1972: 15-16)? Does this not anticipate both the classical and Hebraic discourses in important ways?

Modernist Defences and Premodernist Rejoinders

Having surveyed some of the evidence advanced by the premodernists, let us now review the counterarguments developed by the modernists. There are at least four, common lines of defence. The first and oldest focuses on sociological and/or geographical scope. While there was certainly a premodern discourse about the nation, so this argument goes, it was confined to certain elite strata, usually urban intellectuals, and never really touched the rural masses. And an elite, urban discourse does not a social and political movement make. Of course, this line of defence is of little use for modernists who define nationalism as an ideology. They usually emphasize discursive or ideological content. Eric Hobsbawm offers a good example. He proposes the following litmus test: the equation ‘nation = people = state.’ In other words, where claims to state sovereignty are made in the name of the nation, and the nation is defined as a territorially bounded community of descent, there you have nationalism (1992: 16-18, 46-7, 73). A third line of defence emphasizes the discursive purity of nationalist discourse and/or the categorical exclusivity of national identity. In Nationalism and the State, for example, John Breuilly argues that the Dutch Revolt against Spain and the English Civil War were ‘movements of national opposition,’ rather than nationalist movements, because ‘the idea of the nation … was subordinated to religious and monarchical principles’ (1982:45). Of course, this defence is tenable only for those who define nationalism as a discourse. Those who understand it as a form of identity or community usually insist that ‘true nationalism’ is exclusive nationalism. In genuine nationalism, in other words, national identity trumps all other identities.

By these standards, there was no such thing as pre-modern nationalism. But does modern nationalism actually fulfil these criteria? Let us examine the evidence, beginning with the scope criteria. Take the French Revolution, usually considered the fons et origo of modern nationalism. There is no denying that the French Revolution sparked a fierce debate about the French nation and about nations more generally, which extended well beyond the Parisian intelligentsia to the provinces and the popular classes (Hyslop 1934; Bell 2001: 12). Nonetheless, there was much ignorance and indifference, especially on the periphery and within the peasantry, who were often more interested in securing municipal autonomy or strengthening property rights than in defending the Republic or building the nation (Agulhon 1970; Karnoouh 1973; Jones 1985: 186-95; Sahlins 1989: 169-76). It must also be remembered that there was a great deal of resistance to the national project. In northwestern France, resistance escalated into rebellion in the events of the Vendée and the guerilla attacks of the Chouannerie. Not that there is anything surprising about this. Nationalist mobilization never lives up to the hopes of nationalist ideologues.

This brings us to the second test: the existence of a nationalist movement. Here, the modernists might appear to be on somewhat safer ground. For the modern era is replete with nationalist movements advancing a nationalist agenda and seeking nationalist goals. But there were certainly nationalistic movements in early modern England and Holland, and probably in other places and earlier times as well. This is why modernist scholars who are more knowledgeable about the early modern era, such as Breuilly, usually introduce other tests of ‘genuine’ nationalism.

Which brings us to the third and last test: discursive purity. Genuine nationalism, it is argued, must be wholly secular and/or democratic; it cannot be contaminated with religious or non-democratic elements. Once again, it is easy to show that pre-modern movements fall short of this criteria. Unfortunately, few, if any, examples of modern nationalism meet it either. Take Poland: during the nineteenth century, Polish intellectuals articulated a vision of Poland as ‘the Christ of nations’ and the ‘bulwark of Christendom’ (Porter 2000). One might imagine that this vision of the nation would have been erased by four decades of Communist rule and a decade and a half of liberal capitalism; not so. Even today, the ‘most common and pervasive’ understanding of Polish national identity is Poland as ‘the Christ of nations, martyred for the sins of the world, resurrected for the world’s salvation; a nation whose identity is conserved and guarded by its defender, the Catholic Church …; a nation which has given the world a Pope and rid the Western world of communism’ (Zubrzycki 2004: 43). Now consider the example of German nationalism (see e.g. Hermand and Holub 1999; Stambolis 2000). During the early nineteenth century, nationalist thinkers contrasted a Christian German nation with a godless French one. During the second half of the nineteenth century, and especially during the Kulturkampf, Prussian nationalists on both left and right advanced a Protestant vision of the German nation, designed to delegitimate their Austrian rivals and relegate their Catholic subjects to second-class status. Then, in the early twentieth century, some radical nationalists, the forebears of the Nazis, espoused a pre-Christian and pan-German Volksreligion. Thus, German nationalist discourse was ‘contaminated’ with religious discourse throughout the modern era. Even modern French nationalism, the very paradigm of secular nationalism, was contaminated to some degree (see e.g. Ozouf 1989).

During the early years of the Revolution, before the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, some argued that nationalism and Catholicism could go hand in hand, and many parish clergymen supported the Revolution. Later, after the Revolution had taken its anti-Catholic turn, the revolutionaries sought to install a civic religion of some sort, first the Cult of Reason and then the Cult of the Supreme Being, each replete with its own rituals, festivals and other observances.

Conclusion: Towards a Postmodernist Theory

Modernists argue that nationalism was born after 1750 and perhaps as late as the 1870s. Premodernists working on England argue that English nationalism was born before 1750 and perhaps as early as the 600s. Who is right? The modernists? Or the premodernists? Perhaps neither.

Modernists have tried to paint a clear and sharp line between modern nationalism and pre-modern national ‘sentiments,’ ‘identities’ and ‘discourses.’ In doing so, they have painted themselves into a corner. The nationalist tests that they have constructed are so stringent that even modern nationalisms do not pass them. In true nationalism, they imply, loyalty to the nation is universal and supreme, and the ideology of the nation is pure and unadulterated. This is probably a fair description of what radical nationalists aspire to, but it is not a fair test for the existence of nationalism. It makes the dreams of nationalist ideologues into the criteria for the reality of nationalist politics.

Given the strength of the evidence for pre-modern nationalism, much of it long known, one wonders why so many scholars of nationalism have clung so fiercely to the modernist thesis. One possible explanation is a desire (possibly conscious) to discredit nationalist ideology. If nations could be shown to be recent rather than ancient, constructed rather than primordial, cultural or political, instead of natural or biological, then perhaps nationalism would lose some of its legitimacy and appeal. The problem, of course, is that these are false dichotomies. For example, while the current self-understandings of a particular nation—France, for example—may be relatively modern, the general idea of the French nation may still be quite old, and the underlying category of the nation older still. A second and somewhat more subtle explanation might be a commitment to modernity as a distinct age and a political project. If the modern age really does involve a fundamental break with everything that went before it, then it must bring a fundamentally new kind of politics into being, a politics, it might be hoped, that is more rational and secular than whatever went before it. This would not only explain why scholars of nationalism have so stubbornly defended the modernist thesis, but why they have worked so hard to distinguish ‘good’ nationalism (secular and rational) from ‘bad’ nationalism (religious and traditionalist), often to the point of caricaturing reality, whether by insisting that some nations were never nationalist (e.g. England), or by arguing that some nationalisms were purely secular and rational and therefore wholly good (e.g. French nationalism). All of this is not to say that scholars of nationalism should not reflect on whether nationalism is a good or a bad thing, or whether some types of nationalism are more defensible than others, only that they should be clear and explicit about the boundaries between scholarly analysis and political intervention.

While I am generally more convinced by the premodernists’ arguments, this does not mean that I agree with them in toto. Too often, premodernists simply substitute an early point of origin for a later one. As we have seen for England, however, it is very difficult to fix such a point of origin, both because the evidence goes so far back in time and because it becomes thinner the farther back we go. Perhaps the debate could be resolved if there were a widely accepted definition of nationalism. But this seems unlikely, not only because scholars of nationalism are a contentious lot, but because nationalism is a multi-levelled and multidimensional phenomenon. In a sense, it all boils down to this: what do we mean by ‘-ism’? Does nationalism exist when people use the national category, when they feel part of some such category, when they make this category into a political programme, or when they organize a movement around this programme? All four views are reasonable, all four views have supporters, and there is no reason to expect that there will be convergence around one view.

So how shall we move forward? I would suggest that we spend less time fighting over definitions and searching for origins and more time constructing conceptual typologies which can be used to analyse historical dynamics. We might begin with a very general definition such as the following: ‘nationalism is any form of political practice that deploys “the nation” or equivalent categories.’ We might also add that Western nationalisms, and the non-Western nationalisms they inspire, generally involve one or more of the following ideas: (1) the world is divided up into nations or peoples; (2) each nation or people has a special mission and/or a territory or homeland; (3) each nation or people deserves respect and/or autonomy; (4) these aims are best achieved when a people has its own state and/or is ruled by its own people. (No doubt, others could be added.)

Having laid down these general parameters, which are broad enough to encompass all the rival definitions, we could turn to the task of describing and explaining the forms and degrees of nationalism. The forms can be understood in terms of discourses—the symbols and stories through which the nation is constructed and experienced. In this chapter, I have distinguished three such discourses: the Hebraic, the classical and the patriarchal. (No doubt, there are others as well.) While these various discourses can be distinguished in theory, they are often combined in practice. A particular nationalism can be described in terms of which discourses it draws on, and how it appropriates and combines them. A focus on discourses also gives us some leverage on transformations: transformations involve the emergence of new discourses and/or novel combinations of existing ones. For example, one could argue that the French Revolution helped transform Western nationalism by crystallizing a new, civic discourse or, more precisely, by disentangling it from the Hebraic and patriarchal discourses.

The degrees of nationalism can be understood in terms of mobilization. For example, we could distinguish the scope (geographic and social) and the degree of mobilization (weak or strong). In this framework, a very low degree of nationalism would involve, say, discourse about a nation’s history or culture within a loose and small network of people, while a very high degree of nationalism might entail an explicit programme for national renewal advanced by a large and well-organized political party.

From this perspective, the potential for nationalism is not unique to the modern era, but endemic throughout Western history. What has changed, I would submit, is the scope and perhaps also the probability of nationalism. This is not because we now live in an ‘age of nationalism’ in which the nation has supplanted or subordinated all other forms of identification or sources of mobilization. Rather, it is because we now live in an age of mass communications and mass organizations which allow information to travel further and mobilization to occur faster. Of course, these same factors affect the spread of other ‘isms’ as well, including religious and secular forms of universalism (for example, otherworldly salvation religions such as Islam and Christianity as well as this-worldly ones such as economic liberalism and Marxism-Leninism) but also sub-national forms of identity and community (such as religious sectarianism or amoral familism).