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2______Historically Speaking » June 2002 European Nationalism and the Medieval Past* Patrick Geary Little more than a decade ago, Europe seemed to have finally escaped the early Middle Ages. The brave new world ofthe European Union was supposed to free the continent at last from the shadows ofancient antagonisms supposedly rooted in the age ofmigration, when Europe's peoples with their distinctive ethnicities and rivalries first appeared. Ofcourse, over the last decade exactlytheopposite happened. The creation of new states in East and Central Europe and die reemergence of xenophobia in Western Europe have returned to prominence old myths ofmédiéval national origins and ethnic enmity. The earlyMiddleAges are back—widi avengeance. Some ofthis seems atfirstglance harmless or simply amusing. Consider the "history" ofSlovenia, the newestand perhaps die mostharmlessofdie states toemerge from the corpse ofYugoslavia. With a litde help from medieval history, it turns out diat Slovenia is actuallyone ofthe most ancientnations in Europe. Accordingto oneversion, Slovenian political historydates backto die 6th century , when the first free principality of the ancient Slovenians was established, "famous for its democratic institutions, legal system, popular elections of dukes and progressive legal rights for women." One could not ask for a more progressive past on which to build a better future! However, other medieval myths are more ominous: Jean-Marie Le Pen, who recendy won 17% of the votes cast for president of France, proclaimed that the French people were born with the baptism ofClovis in 496. Implicit in such a historyofcourse is thatJews and Muslims cannot be "real" French. One may detect the same sort ofethnic nationalism across the Rhine when the Leitkultur of Germany is proclaimed as the standard for judgingwho is reallyGerman. Across Europe, history is being mobilized to legitimize national politics, and medieval history has a prominent place in this mobilization. Ifall diis playingwidi historyseems familiar , it should: "Scientific medieval history," the marriage ofphilology and source-critical historical investigation, first arose as part of dienationalistenterprise inGermanyas scholarsjoined politicians to find anhistorical basis forGerman national identity. Beginningwith the Gesellschaft für älterer deutsche Geschichtskunde, founded in 1819, and the publication ofits Monumenta GermaniaeHist órica, historians, philologists, and archaeologists collaborated to identifylanguage groups and to project these back into history, where theycould be identified with the peoples historical sources described asmigratingintodie Roman empire at die end ofAntiquity. Later in the 19th century archaeologists such as GustafKossinna identified patterns ofmaterial culture with diese linguistic and political groups, making it possible to map Europe's peoples before, during, and after their definitive settlement within their historic homelands . These took ofGermannationalism, philological analysis and archaeology, notonlycreated German history but also by implication created all history. They were a readily exportable package, easilyapplied to anycorpus of texts in any language that could be mapped onto archaeological material ofan "ethnic" nature. Moreover, since German standards ofscientific historical scholarship increasinglydominated the 19th-centuryuniversities ofEurope and evenAmerica, foreign historians trained in the German seminar method and critical scholarship served as ambassadors ofnationalistic analysis when they returned to their own countries. The historical methodwas equallyseductive to peoples in search ofstates and to states in search ofpeoples. Germans sought a state to embody and extend the unique identity of the German people. France, with a long tradition ofstate continuity, looked to historyto find a people whom the restored French state could embody. In between were the numerous interest groups, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Czechs, Basques, Britons, and others, who wanted proofthat they, too, had die right to sovereignty, a right based in no small part on A version ofdiis essay appears in die FrankfurterRundschau, July 16, 2002. June 2002 · Historically Speaking the historical claims ofthe distant past. The philologically-based scientifichistory drafted into die service ofnationalism led back ultimately to the period between the 3rd and 1 lth centuries. The period between the disappearance ofthe Roman Empire and the formation of recognizable polities became the crucial terrain for the establishment ofnationalist claims. Here was to be found the moment of "primary acquisition" when the ancestors ofmodern nations—speaking their national languages which carried and expressed specific cultural and intellectual modes — first appeared in Europe, conqueringforonce and for all their sacredand immutable territories and often, in so doing, establishing for once and for all...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 2-4
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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