Florin Curta

title.none: Smyth, Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity (Curta)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.006 99.03.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Florin Curta, Cornell University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Smyth, Alfred, ed. Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Perspectives in Medieval Europe. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. xxi, 284. $59.95. ISBN: 0-312-21301-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.06

Smyth, Alfred, ed. Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Perspectives in Medieval Europe. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. xxi, 284. $59.95. ISBN: 0-312-21301-8.

Reviewed by:

Florin Curta
Cornell University

It has been almost forty years since the publication of Reinhard Wenskus' seminal work Stammesbildung und Verfassung, the first study to use anthropological theories of ethnicity and a transactional model to analyze ethnic phenomena in the Middle Ages. Since that time, the field of ethnic history has changed dramatically, as ethnicity itself has become a mode of political action and of representation. In the meantime, we have learned from anthropological studies that ethnicity is not innate, but individuals are born with it; that it is not biologically reproduced, but individuals are linked to it through cultural constructions of biology; and that it is not simply a matter of cultural differences, though ethnicity cannot be sustained without reference to an inventory of 'cultural traits.' There is an increasing interest among historians of the Middle Ages for this anthropological model of analysis. This is illustrated by two recent collections of essays: Concepts of National Identity in the Middle Ages, edited by Simon Forde, Lesley Johnson, and Alan Murray (1995); and Strategies of Distinction. The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800, edited by Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz (1998).

In sharp contrast to these collections, the editor of Medieval Europeans followed a different direction, not without running the risk of projecting into the past the current problems and aspirations of the European Union. Introduced by an appropriately chosen quote from John Donne's Meditations ("...if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were"), this book is not the only scholarly attempt to identify a common European identity in the past. Similar endeavors have been signalized in the historiography of the Middle Ages [see Bernard Bachrach's review of volume 2 of the The New Cambridge Medieval History, in Speculum 74 (1999), 217-220] and in other disciplines [see the collection of essays Cultural Identity and Archaeology. The Construction of European Communities, edited by Paul Graves-Brown, Sian Jones, and Clive Gamble (1996)]. According to the editor of Medieval Europeans it is the "past aped (!) and invented by countless medieval rulers" that impressed itself upon the "European psyche and continues to inspire the inhabitants of this Continent to regard themselves--in spite of all their differences--as being, in some real sense, Europeans." 'Europeanness', we are told, was born "partly of a shared Indo- European barbarian cultural heritage for Celt, German and Slav alike, and partly of the legacy of empire passed on from ancient Rome, the Carolingians, and Byzantium." (p. xvii) Leaving aside the dubious concept of European history underpinning these assertions, according to the editor's views, ethnicity is rooted in the ineffable coerciveness of primordial attachments, as a 'primitive' or burgeoning form of national identity. In his own contribution to this volume, "The emergence of English identity, 700-1000," Smyth treats ethnicity as a form of group identity waiting from the outset to unfold. Despite the recommendation that we replace "the inappropriate word 'race'" by the presumably "more neutral notions of ethnicity and 'common culture'" (p. 44), Smyth's idea of ethnicity is inspired by the nineteenth-century concept of 'Volksgeist' and would have been easily recognizable to Johann Gottfried Herder. Like Herder, Smyth views (English) identity as unalterably set in language during its early period. The "recognition of a common Germanic culture--above all enshrined in similarities in language and oral literature-- which existed between English and Danes" would explain the rapid assimilation of Danish settlers in the "newly forged Anglo-Danish society of the tenth and eleventh centuries." (p. 31) That the newcomers were Danes, not Germans, and that, to this day, a "common Germanic culture" still remains to be discovered, barely needs emphasis. Using a citation from Hobsbawm at a juncture, where one from Benedict Anderson would have been more appropriate (p. 41), Smyth rejects Patrick Wormald's recent and influential thesis [Journal of Historical Sociology 7 (1994), 1-24]. Wormald suggested that Bede's Ecclesiastical History, with its Anglo- centric approach, may have served as an 'ideological blueprint' to the dynasty of Alfred in search of new propagandistic molds in which to cast its wars with the Vikings. Smyth admits that an ever-growing sense of English political identity culminated in the reign of Athelstan, King Alfred's grandson. But political identity, according to Smyth, was built upon a pre- existing cultural identity. 'Englishness' was not invented, but conjured out of the "tribal past." To Wormald's persuasive theory that new ethnicities were developed by manufacturing common history, Smyth opposes Aefwine's speech in the Maldon poem, an illustration of "the primitive patriotism that drove warriors of the Angelcynn to defend hearth and home against Northman and Dane." (p. 48) In fact, Aefwine's declaration of noble descent only refers to Mercia, while 'Angelcynn' first appears in mid-ninth century sources in contexts that have no direct relation to Viking raids. Moreover, in the eyes of Gregory the Great, 'Angles' were all those in Britain who received his mission of evangelization, and not necessarily those speaking what Alfred would later call 'englisc.'

Fortunately, very little from the editor's pan- or Indo- European agenda was truly realized in practice by the contributing authors. There is also evidence of undermining skepticism, as in the case of Roger Collins's remark that no ethnic continuity could be assumed between Tacitus' Germanic societies and those that entered the Roman empire in the fourth and fifth century (p. 2). Many of the twelve chapters are analytic rather than synthetic and, except in the preface, the idea of 'European identity' is nowhere mentioned. The book opens with Roger Collins' excellent chapter on law and ethnic identity in the fifth and sixth centuries. Wenskus claimed that 'kernels of tradition' were important factors in making early medieval ethnic groups, for tradition played an important political role, as suggested by the conceptual pair 'lex' and 'origo gentis,' so dear to medieval chroniclers. Legal codification was taken as reflecting the norms of early Germanic societies, part of the 'kernel of tradition' that differentiated them from other groups (a view shared by Alfred Smyth himself, p. 46). Collins demonstrates that Visigothic, Burgundian, and Frankish laws show many direct traces of Roman laws and jurisprudence. Moreover, there is no evidence for the relatively common idea that within the Visigothic and Burgundian kingdoms, kings issued separate law codes for their Roman and German subjects. All codes were 'territorial' and none applied to only one or the other of the constituent ethnic groups in the kingdom. Visigothic or Burgundian kings, who had taken over the function of the imperial army in the West, provided rules to govern disputes between Romans and Visigoths. This, however, was just a result of their efforts to reconcile civilian and military jurisdiction, not Roman law and tribal custom. As genuine codification of existing or new royal laws, these collections of edicts were promulgated and codified for practical purposes, not for the reinforcement of ethnic boundaries. It is only the Carolingian practice of encouraging the 'personality' of law that transformed law codes "into totems of ethnic distinctiveness." (p. 18 with n. 84)

Timothy Reuter's essay, "The making of England and Germany, 850-1050: points of comparison and difference," also deviates from Smyth's editorial program. Reuter, who endorses Wormald's influential suggestion, contends that "the Germans had no way of defining a common identity and inheritance except in terms of the kings who ruled them." (pp. 66-7) No regnal ethnicity was assumed, however, because of the ambiguous position of German kings, both as Saxons and as rulers of Italy or Burgundy. Nor was language a unifying force, since Saxons and Bavarians spoke different, though mutually understandable, languages. Moreover, the invention of a 'regnum Teutonicorum' by Pope Gregory VII in the political circumstances analyzed by Eckhard Muller-Mertens did not have the consequences described by Wormald for Anglo-Saxon England.

Three chapters focus on the role of medieval historians in the 'invention' of ethnic communities. Michael Richter's essay, "National identity in medieval Wales," examines the evidence of Brut y Tywysogyon, Gerald of Wales, and John Peckham. He suggests that the basic elements of Welsh identity emerged in times of military conflict. Richter's conclusion that war, particularly that of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd against Edward I (1277-1282), "sharpened the sense of national identity" (p. 80), admirably illustrates the relationship between ethnicity and war highlighted in the early 1980s by the British sociologist Anthony D. Smith. Bruce Webster's essay, "John of Fordun and the independent identity of the Scots," focuses on a fourteenth-century author and his major contribution to the creation of the Scottish 'origo gentis.' Living through the later parts of the Wars of Independence and using the figure of Robert Bruce as a national symbol, Fordun used origin legends to give historical legitimacy to Scottish national identity. Webster insists that Fordun was not alone in his efforts to carve a place for the Scottish nation in the respectable history of the world. Such theories had a great political impact, as shown by the arguments presented in 1299 and 1301 before Pope Boniface VIII by Scottish delegates and Edward I's embassy, respectively. Peter Brown's essay, "Higden's Britain," deals with an equally interesting episode of Edward III's reign. Brown analyzes the fourteenth-century chronicle of the Benedictine monk Ranulph Higden against the background of the king's program of appropriating images of national identity (particularly of the Arthurian mythology) for political and propaganda purposes. Higden's Polychronicon minimized the Arthurian legend and "emphasised the value of region, locality and diversity." (p. 114) Elizabeth A. R. Brown's essay, "The Trojan origin of the French: the commencement of a myth's demise, 1450-1520," describes a similar development. The earliest rejections of the famous legend about the origin of the Franks (first attested in the seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar) came from humanist writers like Pierre Desgros and Johannes Angelus Terzona de Legonissa. They were interested in establishing more suitable origins for the most Christian kingdom and its rulers. However, Brown shows that the eventual demise of the legend was brought not by Italian and French writers of the fifteenth century, but by German humanists of the early sixteenth.

Two other chapters explore regional identities in medieval Italy. In his essay, "The notion of 'Lombard' and 'Lombardy' in the Middle Ages," Diego Zancani demonstrates that though the word 'Lombardia' was often used to refer to the whole of Northern Italy, the political entity in that region was always referred to in terms of the Carolingian Mark of Milan. By 1400, there was still no sense of cross-regional identity. "Individual states [in Italy] were still defined by their main city, and the patriotism of the popolo was still focused on their individual area of provenance." (p. 227) Teresa Hankey reaches a similar conclusion in her essay, "Civic pride versus feelings in the age of Dante." The idea that "city-life was natural in Italy" was very strong, even in the works of Florentine authors writing during the Italian wars, and "the principles of civic independence... remained largely intact," even when "Italy stood on the brink of a long period of foreign domination." (p. 208)

Less convincing is Simon Franklin's study of modern Russian perceptions of medieval Russian identities. While it is easy to ridicule contemporary attempts to construct a Russian identity (pp. 193-4), it is much more difficult to explain why such views remain popular. The argument that medieval authors viewed the Rus as an entirely new people because of the lack of any historical link with the Antiquity seems far-fetched when compared to the much more complex analysis of this problem in A. S. Myl'nikov's recent book Kartina slavianskogo mira: vzgliad iz Vostochnoi Evropy (The map of the Slavic world: a view from Eastern Europe) (1996). Some of Franklin's statements are highly questionable: Riurik was invited by the "fractious citizens of Novgorod" (p. 183) at a time the city had not yet come into existence; late Byzantium is described as "a little island of Hellenism hemmed in by Turks and Slavs, quite capable of pragmatic 'Realpolitik' yet still churning out the same rhetoric of universal empire as in the age of Justinian" (p. 185); and the Rus chroniclers are referred to as "the earliest East Slav bookmen," as if 'East Slav' were an identity preceding a fully fledged Rus(sian) ethnicity (p. 186). More to the point, it is misleading to maintain that "the most durable and effective identities can be those which are the least dependent on political contingency." (p. 185) In the particular case of Kievan Rus, Janet Martin's research (which Franklin apparently ignores, along with that of Igor Froianov and Elena Mel'nikova) points to a different conclusion.

By contrast, chapter 7, entitled "'National' requisitioning for 'public' use of 'private' castles in pre-nation state France" is of particular interest. In this chapter, Charles Coulson analyzes the concept of rendability of fortresses in late medieval France. He shows that the image of the king as "champion of national unity and architect of the nation-state in desperate combat with an aggressive caste of exploitative castle-lords operating from unassailable strongholds" (p. 121) needs serious revision. In fact, a strong ethic of fortress- tenure long antedated centralized monarchy in France.

In chapter 12 ("European nationality, race, and Commonwealth in the writings of Sir Francis Palgrave, 1788-1861"), Roger Smith focuses on the work of an early nineteenth-century writer in which the concepts of 'race' and 'nationality' appear in a "mixture of Biblical, ethnological, and linguistic usage." (p. 235) Though producing history with 'race' and 'nation' as major elements, Palgrave "held back from fully fledged nationalism and made his history compatible with traditional religion." (p. 249) The title of the essay is, however, misleading, for instead of 'European nationality,' Palgrave followed the Gothic school from the late seventeenth century in claiming that the representative institutions in Western Europe were the bequest of "the great Teutonic family to which we also belong." (cited on p. 235)

Although this book's approach makes it rich in perspectives and ideas, it also accentuates the centrifugal quality inherent in many edited collections of essays. Given the diversity of the contributors' expertise, it might have been desirable to address each other's ideas in their essays or to be guided by a common set of questions. Despite brief allusions to the work of Clifford Geertz (p. 62) or Anthony D. Smith (p. 249), it is disappointing to find that the central question of ethnicity is dealt without any reference to anthropological studies of ethnicity (Fredrik Barth, Abner Cohen, Thomas Eriksen, or Markus Banks). Most of the essays do not break new conceptual ground, as some authors rely implicitly on the idea of 'subjective ethnicity' as a cultural construction, but avoid assessing the larger significance of their data for the general understanding of ethnic phenomena. The collection does, however, bring together a wealth of material and interpretive frameworks. Although it does not keep its promise to provide "national perspectives in medieval Europe," readers will be driven to individual essays by their own particular interests. On the whole, this book is a significant addition to studies of medieval and early modern ethnicity.