Patrick Geary’s book, “The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe”, starts with exploring the current use of traditional ethnicity by European nationalists to further their political ambitions. It gives an expert and thought-through analysis of the circumstances under which myths on European identities were created and it takes a subtle approach in demystifying some of the most controversial aspects of the complicated middle ages. The book tries to set Europe’s medieval history straight from the deviations created by nationalists since its key in getting a bearing on its future. Geary argues that historians with a nationalistic agenda deliberately misread the period between the fourth and ninth centuries to further their nationalist ideologies and modern political purposes. In his view of how people should conceptualize the historical events that occurred during this period, he explains that nationalists exploit the fact that modern Europeans can trace their national identities back to the Huns, Serbs, Gauls, Basques, Goths, Celts and Franks as far back as the 4th century or what is commonly referred to as the middle ages1. This is based on special identities like religion, culture, national character and language.
Geary recognizes this as historical nonsense as these nationalists who are mainly politicians, historians, the general public and propagandists interpreted these historical backgrounds and the myths that come with them in their own way so as to try to influence the present. For example, to establish new national boundaries and to discourage migration, as is the case with the current debate about immigration. Therefore, it is a truism that history is always interpreted in light of the present by certain individuals, who want to either directly or indirectly shape and determine the course of future events, according to what they perceive to be right or for their own personal gain, for instance in their gaining political superiority or claiming disputed territories. These individuals have since the turn of the 19th century managed to discreetly distort the true nature of historical events especially those of the early middle ages to further their underlying motives. Of importance though, is how shockingly, the European people have.
In his book, Patrick Geary argues that the notion that nationality is definitively fixed all the time in a distant, but simple historical background is unfounded in the quest to re-evaluate European nationhood. He identified that considering only a given time frame in trying to reconstitute European nationalities is insufficient because few of these people, which these nationalists identify as sharing a sense of nationhood, had comparably related identities. He gives an example of the Huns who were only united during Attila’s ten-year reign. These nationalists have identified the need among the European societies to gain a more specific recognition other than their generalized nationality 2. The nationalists know that these people already have the knowledge of their underlying differences and through their campaign for these historical myths; they are able to capitalize on their ignorance to further their own selfish ideologies. History in its nature is always changing and it is up to individuals to either choose to fragment it and base their historical background on a specific fragment of time and the events that happened in that specific period, or as Gearysuggests, base nationalism on their whole historical background.He recognizes that it would be hard to lay claim on to any political or geographical territory since history is not definite on the original backgrounds of the European people.
Geary disputes the myths peddled by these nationalists by comparing them with the actual European history and its transformation in the period when there were massive migrations, from the fourth to the ninth centuries, which these nationalists like to quote. This mixed up all these nationalities and started the struggle for political and geographical superiority as certain communities were replaced or governed by others through force, hence triggering the minority versus majority struggle. However, he identifies that ironically even though these nationalists may seem not to be aware of the original European history to the audience of their propaganda, most of them are not only from the general population but are actually complicit scholars with the knowledge of the underlying truth, who choose to express their biases in the pursuit of their nationalist ideologies. The 18th and 19th-century scholars such as Hegel, Herder, and Fiche are some of the proponents of these nationalist ideologies that exploit Europeans who are unified by certain political goals, culture and language. Their knowledge of this history serves them positively in identifying the particular events to use in their exploits. Some of them not only target particular populations but nations as a whole since they are aware that historical events among these communities must have overlapped each other at one time in history especially since this particular period was characterized by major migrations.
Geary writes that even in recent times especially since 1989, European racist and nationalist people have always justified their policies by referring to specific events of the Middle Ages. These nationalists anchor their contemporary antagonisms in these myths in their claim that allowing migration and being tolerant to minority groups breaks down the fundamentals of their ‘nationhood’. Gary expresses biases since he concentrates on the evident negative consequences of the use of historical backgrounds. He seems to be of the view that though it is advantageous for Europeans to learn more about their history, it would be better if they use it to further their own cohesion and boost European unity. This might not be the reality on the ground as these people and especially the minorities are still aware of their history and will still one day rise to claim their historical entitlements. If there is one thing that we learn from history is that, these differences in nationality, religion, culture, and language are always simmering, waiting for particular nationalists who, with the use of exaggerated myths will exploit and explode them. There has been the uprising of numerous ethnic groups all over the former Soviet Union, all claiming political recognition 3.
Europeans are experiencing the eruption of ancient blood feuds as nationalists encourage ethnic communities that had previously been forced to live under the standard of internationalism, to fight for their recognition and political superiority. In recent times the financial and economic reforms of 1992 and their implementation were in every European’s mind as they anticipated a borderless Europe, though they had a narrow approach to the problems facing the continent since they had ignored their historical differences at the expense of economic reforms, which would later come to bite them. This was evident as there was an emergence of religious chauvinism, anti-Semitism and atavistic racism. The Croats and the Serbs started killing the Bosnians and also each other, claiming their national rights, and the Kosovars brutally eliminated the Serbian minority claiming revenge for their previous brutal subordination.
The book expresses the fact that reducing the complexities of history over many centuries to a single eternal time frame is an abuse of history, as these nationalists propose. The Serbs for instance propose such defining moments as the battle of Kosovo or in the case of the Scots the Bannockburn war in the fourteenth century. In demythologizing this period between the 4th century and the 9th century, one must first understand how the 19th-century philosophers created these myths and the reason behind their creation. Geary claims that there has never been such a quality as ‘the essential soul of a people or a nation’, in Europe till the 18th and 19th-century philosophers came up with it. The formation of European nationalities is not based on these myths and it should be considered a long process characterized by different events from antiquity to the present 4. This is, however, not to say that the present national and ethnic organization of people does not correspond to these historical territories and forebears.
The present geographical territories in Europe are a result of historical organizations of human populations and their quest to define themselves among others. It is, therefore, a possibility that the current minorities may one day rise to claim their recognition. What is of interest, however, are the events that will trigger the uprising and the severity of the consequences thereafter. Therefore, it is feared that if the current debate on immigration courses towards the discrimination of any of these politically weak people, they might rise in the leadership of particular nationalists. History has demonstrated that more often than not, these upcoming nationalists use a common unifying factor as a tool for furthering their ideologies and political superiority.
Geary argues that ancient cultures and languages were too fluid due to their frequent migrations, to be identified as the specific inhabitants of a specific geographical region. He mentions that most of these traditional nationalities were unified under a certain leader for a given period of time and then were divided by conflict under other subsequent leaders, hence making it hard for one to explain the formation of one nationality on a specific time frame. These traditional geographical states had diversified populations who had different cultures and ethnic languages for instance in antiquity they were only united temporarily under one specific leader. He gives an example of Transylvania which had been ruled by the Hungarians, the Habsburgs and the Turks though they had been inhabited by the Hungarians in the 11th century who were later replaced by the Saxons in the 12th century5. The current debate on immigration is prone to manipulation by persons who seek to gain political millage through advancing populist ideologies that may lead to the discrimination of the people they perceive as their obstacle to political superiority.
Geary, Patrick J.The myth of nations: the medieval origins of Europe. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003
- Patrick J. Geary, The myth of nations: the medieval origins of Europe. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003), 3
- Geary, The myth of nations, 168.
- Geary, The myth of nations, 159.
- Geary, The myth of nations, 153.
- Geary, The myth of nations, 46.