Archive for October, 2010

This is a essay I wrote in my 3rd year of university. It is three years old now but still remains a favourite. I really enjoyed researching and writing it.

It answered the question as to whether nations in a modern sense existed before the nineteenth century.

The modernity of nations is an issue that has had a long and varied debate. The term ‘nation’ has been given many different definitions to show whether it is a recent construct or whether it has a long history of use. Some historians, like the modernists (such as Hobsbawm and Gellner) believe that recent nationalism created nations whereas others (like Hastings) believe that the opposite is true. The modernity of nations has sometimes been used as an attack on nationalism, particularly after the World Wars, when active nationalism was seen as problematic and led to conflict. Denying that nations existed before the nineteenth century meant that nationalism was something that was new and a threat, using recent events such as the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany as evidence.

This essay will look at whether nations in the modern sense existed before the nineteenth century; that is whether nations are rooted in history or are a new concept. It shall begin by establishing what the ‘modern sense’ of nation is by looking at a dictionary definition. Then, pieces by Ernest Renan and Joseph Stalin will be looked at to see what two late nineteenth and early twentieth century definitions of ‘nation’ were, followed by a discussion of the ‘new’ versus ‘old’ debate, focusing on E.J. Hobsbawm (a modernist) and A. Hastings (an anti-modernist). The essay will then finish with a variety of case studies – England, France, America, Germany, Japan, Ethiopia and Ancient Greece – with the intention of reaching a conclusion as to whether nations existed in the modern sense before the nineteenth century.

First, a definition of what ‘nation’ means in the present time is needed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a nation as ‘an extensive aggregate of persons, so closely associated with each other by common descent, language or history, [forming] a distinct race or people, usually organised as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory’[1]. From this it can be said that a nation has elements in common, namely that the people should have a shared history, language and descent. To this can be added religion and culture, also important in forming most modern nation, for example Scotland has taken pride in its Calvinist Presbyterian identity and Italy is proud of its cultural achievements of the Renaissance period. Lastly, as sense of there being an ‘Other’ has contributed to forming nations and national identities. Much emphasis has been placed on what a group of people is not, such as Scottish rather than English or Christian instead of Jewish, and it has been present in some form throughout history. These factors, then, are what make up the modern sense of what a ‘nation’ is.

Next is Ernest Renan’s definition of ‘nation’ from 1882. He was a French historian and gave a lecture that was entitled ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une Nation?’ (‘What is a Nation?’), partly in response to the unification of Germany in 1871. The fact that he was French adds another angle to the piece, the French Revolution, along with the American War of Independence, has long been given as the starting point of the modern nation so this may have influenced his writings. He believed that nations have existed in Europe since the break up of the Roman and Carolingian Empires in the early medieval period and will continue to exist. His argument rejects the idea that race, language, territory and religion are necessities for a nation; his example is that Switzerland was, and is, made up of different races, languages and religions but still considers itself a nation. His definition of what constitutes a nation is the possession of shared memories and history and the desire of the people to remain together, to him ‘nation’ is a spiritual principle[2]. In its context, it is an attack on the process of German unification, as that state came together because its people had a shared language, race and origins, so is not as relevant today. It is, however, a useful example of European nineteenth century thinking on what a nation was.

Stalin, leader of Soviet Russia from 1924 to 1953, had a different definition of ‘nation’. He said that it was ‘a historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture’[3] and says that all of these factors should be present in a nation. The piece does not mention religion, perhaps because the Communists did not believe in organised religion. His perspective in an interesting one, he was the dictator of an amalgamation of countries, the USSR, where the only desirable national identity was that of a Soviet worker, regardless of the ethnic minorities present there. This could be why he says Russia is not a nation because it does not share all his listed elements. He does not mention politics either, which is surprising as the USSR, if it was ever to be called a nation, had a definite, and uniting, political structure.

Hobsbawm, who says that nations did not exist in the modern sense before the nineteenth century, writes that the definition of ‘nation’ has changed and the original meaning is different to the modern meaning. He gives the modern sense of nation as being mainly political and economic and says that these factors did not apply to nations before the nineteenth century, as many were too small and not economically viable. According to him nationalism created nations and, because it was a recent phenomenon, nations could not have existed before. However, this view can be critiqued many countries had political features and strong economies before modern times. The most obvious example, to be discussed in more depth below, was England, who possessed both of these features long before the nineteenth century.

Hastings, who uses England as his main example, argues that nations did exist before the nineteenth century. He says that the modern definition of ‘nation’, such as that in the Oxford English Dictionary, is applicable to a number of countries throughout history and gives the example of Israel from the Bible, which has long been used as the model for Christians and Jews. He mentions that the ‘modern’ interpretation of nations being primarily political is present in texts from the sixteenth century onwards. His argument is more rounded than Hobsbawm and other modernists’ as it considers a range of examples and is not so rigid in its distinction between the modern and pre-modern eras. However, his argument that the English nation is traceable back to Saxon times can be taken as extreme, at that time England was still made up of warring tribes that attempted to resist unification but there is truth in the claim that an English nation existed in the late middle ages.

Taking the lead from Hastings, the first of the case studies to be looked at is England. It is a good example of a nation existing before the French and American Revolutions and meets the requirements from the definition of ‘nation’. It had a common religion; after Edward III expelled the Jews in the late thirteenth century, it was a solely Christian country until they returned in the mid seventeenth. Although the Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century meant that it became a Protestant and Catholic country, there was still a state Church of England with the English monarch at its head. It had a common language; even the Norman French nobles also spoke English. Throughout the medieval period, literature was increasingly written in the vernacular rather than Latin or French, as examples Chaucer, Shakespeare and Marlowe all wrote in English.

Territorially it was united, though being an island meant it was easier than in other places. The boundary with the other kingdom in the island, Scotland, was stabilised in 1603, when James VI, the king of Scotland, also became king of England (as James I) so the England of then is easily recognised as the England of today. Racially, despite having Saxon, Danish, Jutish, Anglian and French blood, a feeling of there being an English people had developed by the early modern period, shown by the wave of English patriotism created by the threat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Culturally, England developed its own style, for example, architecturally, buildings can be described as ‘English Gothic’ and look different to the Gothic on the Continent (this can been seen by comparing York Minster with Reims in France).

There have also been histories of England and the English people produced before the nineteenth century, David Hume wrote his History of England in the mid-eighteenth century and, to back up Hastings’ Saxon argument, Bede produced his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the eighth century. There must have been an idea of England having a separate history from other places and a shared one among its people for writers to think that it warranted its own history writing. Tied in with the idea of having a distinct history apart from other countries, is the idea of having an ‘Other’, and England has had many ‘Others’ over the centuries – the Scots, the French and Spanish were all seen as the enemy at various times and used as rallying cries for England to unite against the threat they posed.

Lastly, is the question as to whether England had the political element? This would make it a nation in the modern sense according to Hobsbawm. It definitely did, there have been various instances that can be classed as political throughout the centuries. The Magna Carta in 1215 is seen as being the beginnings of the English constitution, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 sealed the importance of parliament alongside the monarch and Robert Walpole is seen as being the first ‘Prime Minister’ (though not with that title) between 1721 and 1742. These factors demonstrate that there was the political elements needed and, combined with the other factors, show that England met both the old and modern requirements to be a nation well before 1800.

Like England, France was a dominant country from the medieval period and on the surface appears to be a united medieval nation along the same lines as the former. It had a thriving culture that dominated the rest of Europe, the French tongue became one of the international languages and it had its ‘Other’ in England. Religiously, it had a shared faith; Clovis’ baptism in 494 is seen as the reason why France became Catholic and it remained this way. Catholicism survived the Reformation as France’s main religion and provided a means of unification against the Protestants and the Jews; an example would be the persecution of the Huguenots, the French Protestants in the late seventeenth century. France was also seemingly united under a strong monarch; the king of France was one of the most powerful in Europe.

However France was much more complex underneath and was heavily regionalised. Each region had its own dialect of French, or even its own language, which were often difficult to understand by other French people. Separate cultures also developed and race often differed, for example, the Bretons of Brittany were related more to the Celts of Britain than the Franks (from whom France took its name) and Normandy had its distinctive Normans, a blend of Frankish and Scandinavian (Viking) blood. Politics and administration were localised and this would remain so until the French Revolution, the Middle Ages had been a process of acquisition by the French crown and this contributed to the regionalisation. It remained this way until the centralisation process of the French Revolution and it was only after this time and Napoleon’s regime following it that France became more of a nation, therefore, France as a modern nation does date from the nineteenth century and is often seen as one of the founders of the modern nation.

Along with France, America is seen as one of the founders as well. It had been a colony of Britain until the American War of Independence, 1775 to 1783. The drive for independence had been by the settlers of English descent who wished to create a ‘New England’. They felt that England was in danger and wanted to preserve its way of life and values. They decided that the way to do this was to become independent from England and make their own nation. This idea of creating a ‘New England’ was an important part of the growing American national identity, they wanted to keep the Protestant religion safe, as they saw it as being under threat from Catholicism back in England. They also wanted to preserve the English language and because of the measures taken, American English became distinct in from British English. The ‘New English’ nation, therefore, became the American nation during the course of the nineteenth century, developed its own way of life and political structure, and is a modern nation that was not in existence before that period.

Germany is another country that developed into a nation in the nineteenth century. Before unification in 1871, there had been a loose connection between the states that became the new Germany but not in a political sense. Hastings says that there was a sense of German nationhood present but it was not developed[4] and this is true. There was pride in the German culture and intellectual achievement and they had a Germanic racial identity and a common language. The German states had been part of the Holy Roman Empire until Napoleon disbanded it and created the Confederation of the Rhine. After the fall of Napoleon, it became the German Confederation, which covered a similar territory as the German of today and semi-united by a customs union, the Zollverein, founded in 1818, which gave it an economic bond. However, these separate states had their own systems of government and administration and remained so until 1871. Therefore, Germany is a nation that was created politically in the nineteenth century but had its roots of national identity from an earlier time.

Now the two non-Western countries, Japan and Ethiopia, will be looked at to see if there was an idea of nation and national identity outside of the Western world. The first will be Japan in the medieval period. Japan had the beginnings of an administrative structure from the fourth century AD and the religion, Shinto, was used as a form of political control. There were officials in some areas and a system of governors, the kuni-no-miyakko, was present. A clan system based on corporations of occupations developed and the leading clans often had power in Japan. The administrative and legal systems were further changed in the Taika reforms of the early ninth century when a Bureau of Archivists (the kurōdo-dokoro) and system of police commissioners (kebüski) were set up. These undeniably political measures would not be out of place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries yet this is some thousand years before similar institutions appeared in most ‘modern’ nations. Here is evidence of Hobsbawm’s political element taken place many centuries before his date of 1780.

In addition to the political side, Japan also meets the dictionary definition of ‘nation’. It had a shared culture, around the same time as the Taika reforms Japan was beginning to form its own culture, distinct from the Chinese that had influenced it before. It placed emphasis on literature and theatre, such as poetry and the Noh, or drama. Linguistically it was unified and it had a state religion, Shinto, with Buddhism having its followers. Like England, its territorial unity was helped by it being a series of islands with the power focused on the main one, Honshu. Racially, the Japanese dominated but it did have its minorities, such as the Chinese craftsmen. This is so in most modern nations. Japan is, therefore, a good example of a nation existing before the nineteenth century.

The next country, Ethiopia, also has its national roots in the medieval period. It is one of the oldest independent countries in the world and retained this even though the countries around it fell victim to the empire building of the European powers. It has a shared history and religion and these were often interlinked, the fourteenth century work, the Kebra Negast, was a history of the ruling family at the time and was used to legitimise it with the claim that it was descended from the Biblical King Solomon. The book was important in creating Ethiopian national identity, as Christianity was the dominant religion there. Christianity acted as a unifier against medieval Ethiopia’s ‘Other’, the threat of Islam from neighbouring countries. It was not as united racially and linguistically but sometimes this is not present in modern nations, the multicultural USA is an example. Territorially it has long covered a similar area in Africa and was a dominant force in the Middle Ages. However, the main argument for Ethiopia being a pre-modern nation was its ability to resist losing its independence and becoming part of a European empire when the rest of Africa was being colonised. This suggests that sense of identity and unity and ties in with Renan’s theory that it was the desire of the people to remain as a nation, and the Ethiopian people knew what it meant to be Ethiopian and had the political means to stay that way, something that must have developed before the nineteenth century.

The last example, Ancient Greece, is one that shows just how far back the idea of nations and national identity can be traced back. The Greek historian, Herodotus, in the fifth century BC, defined to hellēnikon as ‘shared blood, shared language, shared religion and shared customs’[5], a definition that is very close to that of a modern dictionary. This shows that a selection of the Ancient Greeks had an idea of what constituted a national identity and nation and were able to relate it to their present situation. Greece at the time was made up of city-states, such as Athens, Sparta and Thessaly, which were independent but sometimes did unite in war, usually against the common enemy, Persia. However, the states valued their independence and did not wish to permanently unite and become, as they believed, subordinate to another; they knew the theory but did not like the reality. Nonetheless, they did have an idea of what a nation was and, as the states often had a complex political and administrative structure, they would not have lacked the political element had they united. After all, democracy was a classical creation.

As seen by the examples of England, Japan and Ethiopia, nations in the modern sense did exist before the nineteenth century, as these places shared, or came to share, a common descent, culture, religion, an ‘Other’, language and history. Most importantly, though, they also had a political element to them, the main point in Hobsbawm’s argument that nations in the modern sense did not exist before the nineteenth century. Even the Ancient Greeks had an idea of what a nation was, and would have been able to provide a political slant, had they had the inclination to unite.

However, it must not be ignored that most modern nations were created because of events close to, or during, the nineteenth century and that before they were not a nation. They might have been a colony (America), or political unity may have been only achieved in that century (France and Germany) so before that they lacked Hobsbawm’s most important component of nationhood, even though other elements were present. Some nations are still being created today, which suggests that the ‘nation’ is something that will always open to change and interpretation, depending on circumstance. It is certain, though, that nations in the modern sense did exist before the nineteenth century and that they are not a modern occurrence.

[1] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Volume X, p.231


[2] E. Renan, ‘What is a Nation?’ in S, Woolf (ed.), Nationalism in Europe, 1815 to the Present: A Reader, p.48-59

[3] J. Stalin, ‘The Nation,’ in J. Hutchinson and A.D. Smith (eds.), Nationalism, p.20

[4] A. Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, p.106

[5] J. Boardman, J Griffin and O. Murray, The Oxford History of the Classical World, p.127

Primary Sources:

  • F. Chabod, ‘The Idea of Nation’, in S, Woolf (ed.) Nationalism in Europe, 1815 to the Present: A Reader (London, 1995).
  • E. Renan, ‘What is a Nation?’ in S, Woolf (ed.) Nationalism in Europe, 1815 to the Present: A Reader (London, 1995).
  • J. Stalin, ‘The Nation,’ in J. Hutchinson and A.D. Smith (eds.) Nationalism (Oxford, 1995).

Secondary Sources:

  • P. Alter, Nationalism (London, 1994).
  • B. Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, 1991).
  • D.A. Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Investing Nationalism, 1680 – 1800 (Cambridge, MA, 2003).
  • J. Boardman, J Griffin and O. Murray, The Oxford History of the Classical World (Oxford, 1986).
  • N. Davies, Europe: A History (London, 1997).
  • E. Gellner, Nation and Nationalism (Oxford, 1999).
  • M. Hane, Pre-modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Oxford, 1991).
  • A. Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge, 1997).
  • E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1789: Programme, Myth and Reality (Cambridge, 1995).
  • H.G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia (London, 1994).
  • A.D. Smith, National Identity (London, 1991).
  • B. Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia (London, 1991).
  • The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Volume X (Oxford, 1989)
  • The Chambers Dictionary (Edinburgh, 1993)

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This is going to be a blog of my writings – any writings. It’s purpose in life is to encourage me to write more. It will (hopefully) be about anything that takes my fancy – factual, fictional or otherwise.

So, here goes! 🙂

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