Let me start with a story. We are standing outside the walls of many towered Illium, the most magnificent city in the ancient world – otherwise known as Troy. But after 10 years of ceaseless warfare and siege, fair Illium is fair no longer – Illium is burning, and the red flames rage around her towers and white walls, and an odd, enormous wooden horse. Everywhere is screaming and blood and flames reflected in shining bronze armour as the Acheans, thirsty for honour, supremacy, trade and a little matter of Helen put Troy to the sword after 10 years of struggle. If you could see into the mighty palace of Priam, the aged king of Troy, you would see more horrors. The son of Achilles, Neoptolemos, is burning to revenge his father’s death from Paris’s treacherous poison. He sees Priam’s young son, Polites and shoots an arrow, catching him in the leg. Polites manages to escape, and makes it to his father’s palace, where he desperately seeks the protection of Zeus at this altar. But the powerful Neoptolemos bursts in, and in front of the eyes of his horrified father, the young warrior butchers Polites, ignoring his pleas for mercy. Furiously, the old man heaves a spear, but Neoptolemos who brushes it aside, seizes the king, drags him to the altar and butchers him in his turn.
As atrocities rage, a small group escapes from the city, seemingly unnoticed – they are led by a man called Aneas, and the Danaians fail to notice him because the protection of the gods Aphrodite and Apollo are around them – Aneas’s family is destined to found a new Troy; a golden city whose name would be known to millions through the ages as the Immortal city. I speak of course, of Loughborough. Ha, Jokes, Loughborough is a small town in the East Midlands, I speak of course of Rome.
I imagine you are wondering why I am telling you all of this. Well obviously, it’s because I want an excuse to warble on about the Illiad and the Aenead. But listen on, and I promise I will make it relevant. Not sure how, right now, but I’ll come good. Aneas has a son called Silvius, as you do, and Silvuis then has a son called Brutus. Brutus came with a number of unfortunate prophecies attached to his name, and duly fulfils them, including shooting his father with an arrow. oops. And he is therefore cast out from Italy and with his followers makes his way to a place called Totnes. Totnes is a jolly nice place, and if Brutus had landed there today he’d have booked himself into a nice B&B I’m sure, so I mean no disrespect to Totnes, but it’s a slightly incongruous place for the father of the entirety of British history to start. But anyway, gentle listeners, that is in fact where it all started. Or at least it was to a man called Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of one of the most influential books in British history and literature – The History of the Kings of Britain.
At this time the island of Britain was called Albion. It was most attractive…and it filled Brutus and his comrades with a great desire to live there…they began to cultivate the fields and to build houses, so that in a short time you would have thought the land had always been inhabited.
Brutus then called the island Britain after his own name, and his companions he called Britons…
Corineus called the region of the kingdom which had fallen to his share Cornwall…and the people who lived there he called Cornishmen. Corineus experienced great pleasure from Wrestling with the giants
In the meantime Brutus had consummated his marriage with his wife Ignoge.
By her he had three sons called Locrinus, Kamber and Albanactus…when their father finally died….they divided the kingdom of Britain between them in such a way that each succeeded to Britain in one particular district. Locrinus, who was first born, inherited the part of the island which was afterwards called Logria after him. Kamber received the region which is on the further bank of the River Severn…now known as Wales. Albanactus too the region now known as Scotland…he called it Albany after his own name.
Just to clarify, here then is what medieval Englishmen thought of as their creation story; the creation of England, originally called Logria, Wales originally called Kambria, and Scotland, originally called Albany – the only one of the three names that has survived with any modern memory. There is a deep irony in the tale. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a Welshman. “Let Welshmen remember their glorious past” the narrative cries at one point – because although Geoffrey sucked at the teet of English success and wealth in Oxford, he of course hankered after his homeland and despised the Saxon invader. But despite this, the English did what they are so perfidiously good at – they nicked it. Henry II started it all, claiming to discover the burial place of the legendary Arthur, but it was Edward I who really did the deed, during the Scottish wars of Independence. Both sides at one point put their case to the Pope. Edward breezily based his claim on Geoffrey’s history; claiming that Britain had originally been one place, English kings had always been the heir of Brutus and therefore QED the King of England was overlord of the Scots, or Albanians if you like. The Scots did point out that there was a bit of a leap there – at what point had it been demonstrated that the Kings of England had always been overlords exactly?
But hate it or loathe it – and the Welsh and the Scots chose both options of course – the light-fingered English had done exactly what they do with international cricket players; they’d half inched it, and made it their own.
Hopefully you are enjoying England’s creation story, but you are still probably wondering why on earth I am telling you this, and it’s a rather weak answer; but it is that in returning to our question for the day, could medieval England in 1500 be described as a nation, there is little doubt that by 1500, if you stopped most English men and women in the streets, once they wiped the poo of their feet, they would be able to tell you this creation story, with a shared sense of pride and ownership. The English knew where they came from. The fact that it was all hogwash of course is irrelevant; they weren’t to know that.
And yet, describe Medieval England as a nation to any modern historian and you are likely to get one of three responses; a patronising, pittying smile that will make you feel like pulling your nails down the blackboard, a guffaw of laughter and disdain, or a boot in your backside as you are propelled out of the door. None of these responses, you might notice are very positive. And as I related at the start of the last episode, I despair, and have despaired for years. To my simple mind of course English is a nation, certainly by 1500, probably a lot earlier. After all, let me remind you of the 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury, who wrote of the Norman Conquest:
We have experienced the truth of this prophecy, for England has become the habitation of outsiders and the dominion of foreigners. Today, no Englishman is earl, bishop, or abbott, and newcomers gnaw away at the riches and very innards of England; nor is there any hope for an end of this misery.
Now that sounds like a patriotic Englishman to me, quod erat demonstrate, sic biscuitus disintegrat and all that.
If I’d drawn the short straw and got the pittying smile historian, I would now be given a lesson about what it means to claim to be a nation, and why Medieval England does not qualify. So hopefully you can imagine my most condescending of smiles as we go through them. If you are so imagining, I’m not sure you are going to make it to the end. I’m pretty good at the condescending thing, truthfully.
Really you have to start with the definition of what Nationalism is – or at least how it has been defined by the modernist; and because it’s enormously fun, when we’ve done that and looked at why the medieval world doesn’t hack it, we’ll have bit of a wander through the historiography of it all, because that’s also a hoot.
So what we are going to do for the rest of this episode is to talk about the original theory of what Nationalism meant; then look at how modern historians began to re-interpret them in the light of the disasters of the 20th century, and as a reaction to Whig, English Victorian historians. And we’ll end up with some of the views of English historians recently, about where English Historians have identified the start of an England that could declare itself a nation. OK? Then Next Episode, we’ll actually look at the evidence for national consciousness in England. Okally Dokally? Onward!!
So, there are more descriptions of the qualifications needed by the Nation state by more historians than flies on the oft mentioned pile of proverbial. But we are going to go to one John Breuilly. Terribly French name, not actually sure he’s French, but here’s what he says is required for a state to be described as a nation:
There exists an explicit and peculiar character. The Interests and values of the nation take priority over other interests and values. The nation must always be as independent as possible. This usually requires the attainment of political sovereignty.
Let’s have that again, and in fact you might want to write it on the back of your hand or something, or back of the dog you are walking, or bum you are following if you are cycling, whatever. Because we’ll need to keep referring back. So, that’s 3 things
- The nation has an explicit and peculiar character
- The interests and values of the nation take priority. That’s an interesting one – sort of Horace type thing, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori
And 3, an independent nation.
Now against that definition, my friendly modernist historian would make a few pithy comments. Medieval Europe, she might say, defined itself as Christendom, a supranational organisation which by definition prevents any Medieval state from being fully independent and therefore from being called a nation. Not until the reformation can we begin to really think about that. But that’s not all, oh dearie me no, that’s not all at all. There’s then the political community; modernists would laugh in the face of the coherence of the medieval political community. Look they’d say, there are really no proper representative organisations, the only engagement you’ve got is the top 5% of the population – actually you’ve not got a barney about what the mass of people are thinking; all they probably care about is where the next pint of ale’s coming from. And while they are on that, it’d lead them to the regional thing. They’d point to France and talk about the strength of regionalism – the South of France for example, is almost a completely different country to the north; the Lange d’oc, and the Langue d’ouil. Interesting fact – remind me to come back to that when I’ve finished this thought. And of course, they’d go potty when it came to the patchwork of German principalities. Where’s Germany they’d say? There are over 300 Germanies as far as I can see – they are like rabbits. No, no, medieval societies for the main part are regional not national; the local lord; the parish, king. Relationships are personal, not formal, national and political.
So, the battle lines are drawn; the objections are – the Supranational loyalties to Christendom; the regionalism of medieval society; the lack of wider political engagement; and personal, dynastic power structures. One more time – the Supranational loyalties to Christendom; the regionalism of medieval society; the lack of wider political engagement; and personal, dynastic power structures.
Let us now look at the historiography, because that in itself is quite a story I think, the story of a great idea that was supposed to liberate the world and turned out very differently. Before I do, that interesting fact. Did you know the Langue D’Oc Langue D’ouil thing? So you might know that the south of France is often called the Languedoc, and the word literally means the place with the language of Oc; Oc being the away, once upon a time, the people there pronounced the word Oui. Meanwhile the north of France used to be called the Langue d’Ouil – because up there that’s how they pronounced the French word for yes. The thing is spookily similar to England, with Bede’s Northumbrians and Southumbrians, and to the standardisation of language; in England from the 15th century language gets more and more standardised around what is called Chancery English – from the central documents produced by government; just as the Langue D’oiul becomes the French standard. Anyway, I digress.
So, one of the fundamental problems which has probably led to my years of frustration and lack of understanding is quite simply a problem of definition; nationalism with a little ‘n’ and Nationalism with a big ‘N’ sort of thing. Nationalism has become so engrained in our language that we take it for granted, and use it to describe anything from pride and patriotism to rabid, tub thumping, aggressive imperialistic war hungry desires for global domination, rather like Plankton in the Spongebob Squarepants movie. To use a totally safe, if slightly odd example. Maybe Hitler would be better, if more dangerous.
But in fact of course, as I am sure you are all well aware, nationalism was originally a specific political philosophy and the reason why I mentioned the likes of Emmanuel Kant, who was one of the first folks to argue that universal peace would be achieved through universal democracy and international cooperation. Because the really rather heartbreaking thing is that Nationalism was supposed to solve all our problems – not including those personal things I’m not allowed to talk about, but all our problems of international violence; once all the peoples of the world were aligned and given proper expression in open societies organised into coherent nations that reflected their shared racial, linguistic and cultural characteristics, with open political expression, there would be no reason to fight for territory and supremacy. Because we’d all have what we’d been fighting about all this time. Ring the bells of truth light and justice. When Woodrow Wilson came to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 he came with that hope and indeed expectation in his pocket; that once all those peoples were set free, there would be perfect peace. Instead, as we know, the Treaty of Versailles was one of the most disastrous treaties ever – though not purely because of the nationalism thing, but that was an element, hate it or loathe it. How sad is that. As Bernard of Clairvaux had it, “The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. Well, I think he actually said “hell is full of good wishes” but it’s been improved.
Very broadly, there seem to have been two roads to this particular hell – being specifically the view that nations are the most natural and effective form of human association and political organisation; the bringing together of people into each nation who share political, territorial, cultural, ethnic characteristics to form an independent, self-conscious nation state.
The first road to this nirvana, was that people would actively make a decision to get together into these nation states. It’s a French thing, a strong coffee and Gauloise thing, developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the other figures of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. And they’d form this nation state because there these citizens would find freedom and security, and autonomy. I weep for the rationalism and optimism of it all.
The second road was a much more emotional one, the heart rather than head. It came out of German Romanticism, and a chap called Johann Gottfried Herder, another 18th century philosophical type, more fresh faced than those Gauloise puffing French guys. Herder was a fiercely patriotic German, who was gutted at the disunity of the German people, and advanced the importance of language in a nation. The view that developed was that becoming a nation state would be a much more involuntary process, like iron filings to the magnet, nations would form based on culture, race and language. Sadly, this became more biological as time went on, and it’s from this root that the more rabid forms of racialism and racial characteristics forms which leads to the triumph of National Socialism in Germany in 1933, and so on and so forth.
Of course all the pain and agony that flowed, and indeed still flows from that acid has affected historians, and their view of nationalism. Suddenly, no one is quite so keen or certainly amongst the tea drinking, floral dress and open toed-sandal community. And so we have other interpretations of Nationalism and its origins. In 1960 Kedourie wrote about Arab Nationalism, and wrote, baldly, that quote, nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century’. So; no global flowering of natural forces there then!
Others were re-interpreting the old theories differently as well. Marxists and political scientists took a combative view, hardly surprising for Marxists to take a combative view after all, that really all this fresh-faced stuff about the pursuit of truth light and justice was clearly not something the old world was capable of; no, no no, nationalism was invented, for nefarious reasons by the forces of industrialisation and capitalism. At which point at least one of my very own will pump the aid and declare the need and immediate intention to seize the means of production. The theory goes that governments and captitalists used mass communication and education to promote the idea of a corporate, national identity in the 18th and nineteenth centuries. This theory of course is completely inconsistent with any idea of medieval nation states, given the state of industry and bureaucracy. It’s an interesting perspective, and the Marxist view is always fun; it reduces those things like language, culture, race into handy tools for the manipulator, rather than natural factors around which a people gathers.
Another, more recent bloke to mention is Benedict Anderson, who uses a rather handy description for a nation as a, quote, ‘Imagined Political community’. I did see someone on Facebook saying they had read this particular thesis, and found it to be an example of why say something in a 100 words when you can say it in 1 million. But. Hmm. Interesting – essentially, if you all convince yourself that you are a nation, then a nation you shall be, on the proviso that you inhabit a defined territory and political system. In this idiom, our shared cultural heritage is essential. The English had their creation story, as long as this was widely accepted and understood, Brutus and Arthur were powerful ways of giving people a shared sense of community. Based on something which, as we know, was very much imagined rather than real. But it doesn’t have to be real as long as people believe it. Anderson saw the genesis of nationalism in the 16th century, particularly because of the arrival of Protestantism and the end of one holy aspotolic and catholic church, the end of this supranational organisation of Christendom. Others liked to point the finger at the French Revolution in 1789 as where it all started. At a history conference, no historians of modern history would put their hands up and mention Alfred the Great and the idea of the Angelcynn. If any did, there would have been the most horrendous shuffling of feet, coughing, eye rolling, tittering and embarrassed glances.
So where have we got to? We are discussing the way in which nationalism as a concept has been interpreted. How those original French and German movements have been re-interpreted by later historians, and therefore how modern historians define nationalism with a big N. And that the big impetus to change definitions came about because of the disasters of the 20th centuries and its 2 world wars which rather knackered the original idea.
BUT these new interpretations, though, were not just reactions to the nationalist nightmares of the 20th century. They were also, in England at least, a reaction to the Victorian historian, and the whig approach to history. By now the thing about whiggish history is a well trodden path I think for the History of Englanders, but let us look at the whigs in this particular context, and their interpretation of the growth of the English nation.
Because with the growth of English national consciousness we are at the absolute sweet spot of the what those Victorians were all about. Here was their chance to celebrate the glory of English society and England. This was where they could explain why this small damp muddy island had created an empire that covered a fair proportion of the known world. By the way, I am super conscious of just how irritating that is, the small damp …blah blah empire thing. I saw a lovely review I think from an Irish person on a different podcast, essentially saying if we have to hear this story again I’m going to eat my liver sort of thing made me laugh. But sorry no way around it here! So we are talking about some grand old names of British History here. William Stubbs has been mentioned many times before. But then there’s Thomas Babbington Macauley, politician and historian, who I now find out was born at Rothley Temple in Leicestershire. Which is where I used to wash dishes and squish mole hills for £1 an hour. How did I not know this? And then there’s G M Trevelyan, a historian who I once made the mistake of quoting in an A Level history essay. Ouch, I was burnt, I can tell you. These are the grand old men of whig history. And it’s all there. Parliament, Common Law, the English constitution which according to Macauley was, quote ‘the best under which any great society has ever yet existed’ – so he likes it then – raised England into a different sphere of development from continental Europe.
The whigs emphasised continuity, a sort of almost seamless, linear march through history with the banners of excellence and empire held high, from the Anglo Saxons to the modern day. They argued about stuff; so for example, was parliament a descendant of the Witan? Was the impact of the Norman Conquest a temporary aberration, or actually did it bring sterling values of Norman efficiency and discipline to the touchy feely and emotional Anglo Saxons? They decided that the march of history hadn’t been entirely straight – the 14th and 15th centuries in particular got a bad press, as you might remember from the rather harsh treatment of Edward III at the hands of Stubbsy, but then the march resumed with the break from Rome, Elizbabethan government and the parliaments of the 17th century finished the job. National characteristics get all mixed into it, until you get perilously close to the White man’s burden thing and the supremacy of the Anglo Saxon.
Obviously many of these guys were stunning historians who are too accomplished to suffer at my hands, but all historians, medieval or otherwise have run away as hard as they can from this deeply unfashionable approach to history. Amongst other reasons, because often there is too obvious an attempt to squeeze the facts to fit the favoured theory. But also because the national characteristics type of thing was completely discredited by the horrors of 20th century nationalism and 2 world wars. And in fact therefore English historians have over reacted. Here’s a nice quote from a historian I love to read, G W S Barrow in 1980
“The last two generations of medieval scholars…have been so anxious to correct the false romanticism of the 19th century that the very idea of nationalism in the Middle Ages has become one of our most rigidly observed taboos”
Essentially, if you believed in medieval nationalism, you were now ideologically suspect.
Of course the most dangerous element in all of this was race; and the idea that a racial group was necessarily a nation or candidate for nationhood hit the back of a bin with a resounding clang, and medievalists would still these days refuse to necessarily draw straight lines from medieval kingdoms to modern nations and nationalism, which seems reasonable in many cases such as German, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and so on, but seems a little doctrinaire when applied to France and Spain and England, but I am most definitely not an expert.
Now the aforementioned Benedict Anderson, with his definition of nations as imagined communities, was not a fan of the idea of medieval nationalism. But his definitions has freed things up a bit, because it allowed the discussion of groups and communities based on things other than race; and now that people use the word ethnicity people feel a bit happier talking about all that as well. Plus, medievalists decided that it was time to stop trying to make historians of modern history happy, because that wasn’t happen. Instead of trying to make medieval kingdoms meet the criteria for modern nationalism, which don’t we instead step past the whole arid debate; and simply ask the question, how far did national sentiment and feeling impact on the lives of medieval folk? It doesn’t need to be a binary thing; we can just accept that Nationalism with a big N is a modern thing; nationalism with a little n is what we’ll look at for the middle ages. And so the constipation mentioned by GWS Barrow has finally been cured. Sorry about the constipation thing, my mother could not get through a whole day without mention of milk of magnesia or constipation, so it’s difficult to avoid.
Which brings us to the historiography of the debate about the appearance of English Nationalism specifically. When exactly? Obviously, if you are a modernist you are probably sticking firmly to your guns that Nationalism is a modern invention, and an anachronism until 18th century. But alternative views are available. And in this argument of course it is the 1226th century that is pivotal. Here is the century that saw the brake with Rome; the growth of Protestantism as a definer of Englishness. The loss of the last lands in France as Calais finally falls and Edward III and Philippa thrash in their tombs in fury; the Spanish Armada – survival in the face of overwhelming force. And the exploration overseas – if that’s the right word. Piracy, as it’s known by others. The spread of the printing press, and the growth of the political classes – though maybe that really gets exciting with the mad political debate of the Civil war. It’s much easier to construct a powerful argument for the Early Modern period.
BUT ladies and gentlemen, there are historians braver than this. There are some that will argue that by the late 9th and 10th centuries many of the elements are in place. After all, this is when Alfred started talking consciously of the English as one entity; here is a man who sought specifically to promote the use of English, who led a nation confronted with an existential threat – always a good thing as far as promoting unity is concerned; the promotes the church in England as a national concern; he reforms law codes to try to create one central collection. His successors, particularly Edgar the Peaceable for example can probably make stronger claims as England’s government becomes yet more clearly centralised, well in advance of most other European kingdoms. It’s a fair argument. Counter arguments might be the strength of the international, church and the obedience of the English church to it at this time; and the shallowness of both the political community and those that could read; it is quite impossible at this time to have any confidence in the involvement of anything other than the nobility. It might be that the average coerl on the Cloppaham omnibus did indeed feel English to the core, but it is impossible to know. Like it or lump it, most conclude that the regional loyalties and identities of the old kingdoms remain too strong to convincingly claim a true sense of national identity.
Then of course the Norman conquest throws all the cards up into the air; how quickly do those invaders consider themselves to be English? Can there really be a strong English identity in a period of cross channel empires, and a strong, pan-European elite that shared the same chivalric code, fought and jousted together and slaughtered peasants in the same, casual manner. There is then the question of the English language; a language that had British words in it, then we’d had Old English, then the Danes came along and messed that up, now we have more than one language in the same kingdom – surely that has to mess things up for the Nationalist argument? Against that, there are the chronicles by the likes of William Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon; they display bags of recognition of English identity, as I have already quoted. And actually, the general agreement now is that within a couple of generations those Norman invaders are assimilated– that is to say, they feel distinctively English. I am struck by William the Marshal. So yes, he was clearly part of a coherent international elite as he travelled round the tournament circuit knocking 7 bells out of people; but he also complained of being mocked as being English and therefore a little weird by the French.
The next event that claims everyone’s attention is then the loss of Normandy in 1204 when some of those divisions are of course brutally removed. But although cross channel landownership is removed, the English don’t stop hankering officially after Normandy until the disastrously incompetent Treaty of Paris in 1259, and there’s still Gascony. Henry III and his Savoyard aliens is an interesting piece of the puzzle; you might or might not remember that Henry II brings in many friends of his wife. All that talk of aliens suggests a sense of self; but it’s equally easy to interpret in terms simply of court factions.
And then of course there’s the 100 Years War. This has become seen as a turning point; a time when England’s opposition to France forced her to define herself more clearly; when English became officially promoted as the language of law and government. A time also when the demands of war created centralised institutions, and the end to the purely feudal army towards national recruitment and management. And of course there’s the growth in vernacular literature in Chaucer and a slightly rabidly English poet called Lawrence Minot. Though it seems slightly counter intuitive to hold up the 100 years Ware as the key moment of English nationalism, when the whole point was to win the throne of France. It’s also interesting that of course Henry V to accepted as king by a reasonable part of France; which seems to suggest the supremacy of the old dynastic principle rather than national loyalties.
So there we are, some key milestones; Alfred and his English Cakes; the Conquest and the post-colonial society; the loss of Normandy, the 100 year’s war. In the next episode we are going to discuss where that left us in 1500. Does this all amount to a recognisably English nation with a shared sense of what that means?