Tim Reuter

title.none: McGuire, ed., The Birth of Identities (Reuter)

identifier.other: baj9928.9705.004 97.05.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Tim Reuter, University of Southampton,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: McGuire, Brian Patrick, ed. The Birth of Identities: Denmark and Europe in the Middle Ages. Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel Publishers, 1996. Pp. 363. $28.00. ISBN: ISBN 8-778-76012-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.05.04

McGuire, Brian Patrick, ed. The Birth of Identities: Denmark and Europe in the Middle Ages. Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel Publishers, 1996. Pp. 363. $28.00. ISBN: ISBN 8-778-76012-7.

Reviewed by:

Tim Reuter
University of Southampton

This volume is the proceedings of a conference held in the summer of 1995 and published with commendable promptness. There is a significant difference between the title of the conference--The Birth of Europe: Danish and European Identity in the Middle Ages--and that of the volume, the result, according to the editor, of "a process of rethinking and revision brought about by the conference" (p. 7). The editor later names one particular paper--that on Ingeborg of Denmark--as having opened up the abyss of doubt and uncertainty into which the original project fell; but the collective self-questioning in fact becomes evident at a much earlier point, as we shall see.

The collection is framed by essays which address--or try to address--larger issues. Norman Cantor's opening piece is a quick trot through the subject of medievalists and Europe. There is nothing new here to trouble the reader, except for some inaccuracies not previously offered by the author: it is simply not the case, for example, that medievalists have been more concerned with European unity than with European identity, or that the Annalistes of the 1940s and 1950s sought to "receive American largesse for propounding a kind of trans-European medieval identity". Even the desire to offer some gentle flattery to one's hosts does not make the notion that "the Germans, the English, the Norman French and Norman Sicilians, the Icelanders, and perhaps the Russians, all have [an] ethnic Scandinavian background" plausible or illuminating (except as a demonstration of how little Cantor is aware of any recent work on what ethnicity actually is and how it comes about).

Cantor offers a characteristically vulgarised version of the "Moore thesis" (that the great eleventh- and twelfth-century tournant in European development was marked by self- definition in relation to an increasingly hostile perception of Others--Jews, lepers, heretics). This is taken up by Robert Bartlett, who offers a much more sophisticated analysis of what Europe was: socio-politically precisely not unified, but polycentric in its militarily competing legitimacies; possessing a high (and exclusionary) church culture mirrored more weakly in the later middle ages by a European aristocratic culture, both of them coexisting (not always easily) with tenaciously rooted local cultures. Bartlett's two high pan-European cultures are the subject of papers by Christopher Holdsworth, on St Bernard and Europe (excellent on the ambivalence of Bernard's role in the Formation of the Persecuting Society), and by Kim Esmark on knightly identity in the Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal. Yet it is at this point, one senses, that the conference's original theme began to melt like wax in the sun; the ethno-political identities originally targetted start to yield to two other kinds of identity: those not so much held by a group of people at a point or in a period in the past as ascribed to it or constructed for it at some later time; and those held by (or capable of being constructed in respect of) groups or individuals not defined or definable in ethno-political terms.

It is the first kind, the retrospectively imputed or constructed, which occupies the central block of contributions. Following pieces by Edward Skibinski on twelth- and thirteenth-century Polish historians and the construction of Poland, and by Gilbert Ouy on humanism and late medieval French nationalism, we get to the core of the collection, a group of essays dealing, appropriately enough for a conference held in Copenhagen, with Danish identities. This is opened by a brief but thoughtful contribution from the early modern historian Ole Feldbaek who contrasts a kind of national identity visible in the writings and thoughts of a few medieval clerics with the more broadly-based sense of identification with the Fatherland propagated by the literati and intellectuals of Holberg's circle in the eighteenth century. It continues with a set of three essays on Saxo Grammaticus, by Inge Skovgaard-Petersen, Anders Leegaard Knudsen and Miels Henrik Holmqvist-Larsen. Here we can see identities dissolving; not only was the construction of a Danish identity part of Saxo's original project, it was also reshaped over the following centuries by a set of highly influential "readings" or "reconstructions" of Saxo's work. Even the positivist destruction of Saxo's account of early Danish history by the Weibull school has not ended the desire and the need felt by both professional historians and the educated Danish public to appropriate "a" Saxo for the formation of their own identities.

After this there is a certain anticlimax. The editor's own exegesis of Archbishop Eskil's letter from his temporary captivity of 1157 to the king and magnates of Denmark (Danie) adds little to the letter itself, helpfully provided in translation; Sten Ebbesen concludes, unsurprisingly, that the philosophy of medieval Danish philosophers was not noticeably Danish; Nanna Damsholt sees Ingeborg of Denmark as being more woman than Dane (while showing herself much more theoretically aware than many of the contributors of the problematic nature of such retrospective ascriptions of identity and consciousness). Finally we return to large-scale generalisation: Leif S√łndergaard on Diversity and Cultures in the Later Middle Ages (almost the only contribution to ask what if any identities are discernible below the visible uppermost stratum of the elite), Stephen Turk Christensen on Eurocentrism in the Fifteenth Century, and most striking of all, Uffe Ostergaard on The Meaning of Europe: Empire, Nation-States, Civilization, filled with wideranging if not always unfamiliar global comparisons.

The editor's postscript on An Embarrassment of Identities evidently reflects the opening of consciousness brought about by the conference; and yet the collection remains curiously incomplete. Only in occasional asides and paragraphs are attempts made to theorise the central problems associated with "identity" itself, problems most clearly visible in the way the word has become (at least in the reviewer's country) a significant element in a certain kind of right-wing ultra- nationalistic discourse: identity here appears as given, immutable, non-pluralistic, and constantly under threat from the Other, whether this be Brussels, the armies of the starving waiting to invade our shores or the cancerously deviant Other Within. None of the authors in this collection show any sign of sharing such attitudes; and yet most of them use the word without any sense that the overtones are there. Few appear to have any problem either with a highly questionable piece of standard methodology, the (re)construction of past collective identities on the basis of a few phrases in the works of medieval historians and other intellectuals, as if such things could be taken to be the fossilised dorsal fin and great toe which would be in themselves enough to reconstruct a complete anatomy of the extinct dinosaur of past collective identity. It's perhaps time for a historiographical conference on identity: what have historians (not only medievalists) meant by it, and why have they come to use the word and the concept (if that's what it is) so much more in the last twenty-five years than they ever needed to before?