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Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 509-512

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Book Review

British Identities before Nationalism:
Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800

British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800. By COLIN KIDD. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. $59.95 (cloth).

In British Identities before Nationalism, Colin Kidd thoughtfully examines the significance of ethnic identity in the early modern British world. The British world is a particularly intriguing place to consider nationalism, he argues, because it contained a variety of competing and coexisting nationalisms in England, Scotland, Ireland, and later America. Indeed, he depicts a rich and densely textured world of patriotisms, nationalisms, and identities.

The crucial starting point, Kidd asserts, is an appreciation of the connection between theology and ethnicity, which connection was central in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but since overlooked by historians. The logic behind the centrality of "ethnic theology" [End Page 509] is the Mosaic scheme of history, which maintained that all people all over the world were descended from Noah. Thus all questions of race or of ethnicity fell within the rubric of theology and all explanations for cultural difference were constrained by a 6,000-year time span. The scheme could be complicated—thus people of the same nation might be descended from different sons of Noah—but the larger interest among theologians lay in emphasizing consanguinity, not difference. Indeed, Kidd demonstrates the inclusivity of this scheme, which in the eighteenth century even found a way to accommodate Hinduism.

Having established the importance of this theological framework, which indeed offers a refreshingly new starting point for thinking about identity and nationalism in the early modern period, Kidd explores the complexity of identity among the constituent parts of Britain. The story is complicated and contradictory. Among the English, for example, who inhabited a mongrel nation with many ethnic identities to choose from—Britons, Goths, Saxons, Normans, and more—secular identity came by the eighteenth century to be increasingly associated with the Saxons, particularly because of the importance of English constitutionalism. At the same time, however, the Church of England drew on a myth of ancient British Christianity which retained its hold until the end of the eighteenth century. This world of competing secular and ecclesiastical identity with different ethnic origins held true in other parts of Britain. Thus Scottish political culture, in order to enhance its legitimacy, remained tied to a myth of the kingdom of Dalriada, and while the identity of the Kirk also drew on this Dalriadic past in order to legitimate its authority within Scotland, it simultaneously wanted to extirpate Gaelic elements in Scottish culture.

Finally, the case of Ireland is still richer and more nuanced. The three main groups in Ireland—the Old Irish, the Old English, and the New English—each had their own identity, but one which fluctuated and appropriated the past of others. Two main preoccupations guided all three groups in their search for a useful identity: first, what was Ireland's political status: and second, what was the nature of the Irish ecclesiastical tradition? Thus identities tended to be mustered at convenience in order to bolster political and ecclesiastical considerations. The Old English claimed alternately their Norman colonial heritage and an acquired and assimilated Gaelic heritage. And further complicating things, these different groups had intermarried, thus creating personal family genealogies which could be drawn on for different purposes. To illustrate the complexity, inconsistency, and oddity of these [End Page 510] appropriated identities one example suffices: The New English (the Protestant English who resettled Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) took their constitution identity from the Old English settlers who had conquered Ireland in the twelfth century, while their ecclesiastical identity came from the history of Ireland's old Celtic church, which they regarded as a pure form of Christianity before the "corruptions" of the twelfth century.

What these examples make abundantly clear is the incredibly rich tapestry of identities people drew on in early modern Britain. Moreover, Kidd's careful research demonstrates...


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