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Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Book Reviews

What’s in a Name?

The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe by Patrick J. Geary. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2002, 199 pp, $24.95.




Here is some bad news for Bulgarian nationalists: Their putative ancestors were a very diverse group who were all killed by the Frankish King Dagobert back in the seventh century. It did not really matter, however, because the Bulgarian entity resurfaced, albeit made up of different people. The same story was repeated for all national groups, according to historian Patrick J. Geary, whose thesis is that the peoples we consider our national forefathers (and foremothers) actually took over the names of national groups that disappeared somewhere along the way. That goes for everyone, and especially the entities on which he focuses in this book, including the Celts, Franks, Gauls, Goths, Huns, Serbs and Bulgars.

It is mostly historians of the modern era or social scientists studying the same period that write books about nationalism, since nationalism is a nineteenth- and twentieth-century phenomenon. Whether or not the appearance of nationalism in the nineteenth century is a case of a phenomenon resurfacing or being constructed is a matter of academic debate. Advocates of national ideologies have no time to waste on academic debates, however – especially if these debates challenge their fundamental views. No self-respecting nationalist would entertain academic speculation questioning the historical origin of nations. Historicity, in the name of temporally distant creations of nations, is at the core of nationalist ideologies. The farther back in time one can place one’s ancestors, the more solid one’s nationalist beliefs. Just look at the modern Greeks.

Yet, in the rarified atmosphere of the college campus and its syllabi, there is a longstanding suspicion of the historical claims made by nationalists. Despite a recent spate of studies that point to forms of national identity well before the nineteenth century, conventional academic wisdom favors the view that nationalism is a modernist construct. Historian Eugen Weber referred to it as turning “peasants into Frenchmen” in the late nineteenth century. In the view of the late philosopher and social scientist Ernst Gellner, nationalism is a function of capitalism. Finally, political scientist Benedict Anderson coined the phrase that truly became the cliche of academic seminars on nationalism, namely, the idea of the nation as an “imagined community.” Now, Patrick J. Geary has come along to cast his vote with the majority.

Rather than focus on the nineteenth century as the terrain from which nationalism springs, however, he has turned instead to the distant past. Geary is eminently qualified to do so, for he teaches medieval history at UCLA and has published important studies on other aspects of the Middle Ages. According to Geary, it is wrong for nations to go back and claim their origins in the Middle Ages or earlier. This is not because entities such as the Bulgars or Serbs, for example, did not exist then but, rather, because they became radically transformed over time in terms of their constituents.

To be sure, Serb and Bulgarian entities – indeed kingdoms – existed during the Byzantine era, but these entities did not possess anything near the ethnic character of the original Serbs or Bulgars. Nonetheless, it was politically convenient for groups to use old ethnic labels even if there was little cultural correspondence between them and the original groups because of several, and severe, political and demographic upheavals in the fourth and fifth centuries.

During that time, Geary writes, the Romans were radically transformed, the Goths disappeared, the Vandals appeared but only temporarily, while the obscure Angles and Franks emerged and created enduring polities. Only the names remained, while victories and defeats, shifting allegiances and intermarriages, wreaked havoc with the cultural entities of Europe. “Names were renewable resources,” Geary observes, “they held the potential to convince people of continuity, even if radical discontinuity was the lived reality” (p. 118).

How much one is persuaded by Geary’s overall argument depends on whether one agrees with the importance he attaches to those upheavals and their consequences. Those of us who know little about the Middle Ages will have to wait for the reactions of the specialists. In any case, according to Geary, the name-borrowing went unnoticed by subsequent generations, because earlier historians of those kingdoms willfully ignored it. Instead, historians of late antiquity in the early Middle Ages cast peoples in the mold of prototypes they already had in mind: namely, “Romano-Christian” categories that relied on the idea of an ethnic genesis of a people. Among those historians was, appropriately, a descendant of the Romans, Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (905-959), whose writings are an important source on the history of the Slavs.

Geary suggests that the reason why Porphyrogenitus and others viewed the Romans as the national prototype was because they were the inventors of the “them and us” dichotomy that is so useful in setting one’s group apart. Borrowing from an earlier formulation by Herodotus, the Romans considered their barbarian neighbors as “peoples,” ascribing to them a panoply of immutable cultural characteristics. In a sense, this was the dawn of the division of the world into ethnic groups. But as Geary shows further on, the fourth- and fifth-century disruptions suffered by these groups make claims of ethnic origin by modern-day nationalists ineligible. Those and other upheavals, he suggests, mean that nations are not a fixed entity but an ongoing process. Contemporary ethnic claims to an ancient ethnic past are as pointless as trying to step into Heraclitus’ river twice.

It remains to be seen whether this book will be “intensely debated,” as the jacket blurb claims. Princeton University Press marketers do not hold back on hyperbole when it comes to trumpeting the virtues of their product. The Myth of Nations will certainly be read, however, both because of its interesting new argument and because of its lucid, jargon-free prose and minimal use of burdensome citations.

Nevertheless, Geary’s account is strong on the process of dissolution and re-appropriation of ethnicity only in general lines. Some readers will wish for a more thorough discussion of the function of historians such as Porphyrogenitus, not to mention a second opinion on the fourth- and fifth-century disruptions and their consequences. As a book addressed to a general audience that is aware of and interested in the ethnic claims of nationalists, Geary’s study has considerable appeal. But will medievalists go along with his overarching thesis? And what will specialists on nationalism think? Their perspective is inevitably grounded in the experiences of a particular region or national entity, and they may want a more thorough distillation of the story.

The reception of Geary’s thesis among scholars of nationalism will also depend on the response of the proponents of the ethnic origin of nations. As a historian of medieval culture and society, Geary does a good job in challenging the medieval ethnic origin of nations. That still leaves a great amount of time to be covered before we get to the nineteenth century, however. Truth be told, several of the books that have redefined the debate on the origin of nations and nationalism are relatively slim volumes of modest length but ambitious scope. These studies propose a working hypothesis that challenges conventional wisdom or opens new avenues of analysis and reflection on nationalism. This is exactly what Geary’s The Myth of Nations succeeds best in doing.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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