Geary, Patrick. The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2002). 199 pp, $19.95.
Debates over ethnogenesis (the origins of peoples) have long consumed historians
of late antiquity and early medieval Europe. Because the issues involved are
very technical, however, they've failed to have much of an impact beyond specialists.
Patrick Geary, a highly regarded medievalist at UCLA, seeks to change that
in this short study that he hopes will be "accessible to the audience for
which it was intended — nonacademics." (x) In that vein, he sets up the book
by overviewing a number of present-day crises associated with nationalism:
racist hatred in the new Germany; the political meltdown in the Balkans, fueled
by fierce nationalist propaganda; and the violent Chechen struggles to break
free from Russian control, to cite just a few. In such cases, politicians
and opportunists have created fantastical ethnic histories for their "people,"
then point to an illustrious, remote "founder" and a "moment of primary acquisition"
when political geography was — or presumably should have been — frozen in time forever. (12)
The problem with these claims is that they're predicated on myths, all of
which are easily foisted upon a public whose knowledge of late antique and
early medieval ethnogenesis is practically nil. Geary pulls no punches in
this regard, saying that unsubstantiated claims to ethnic identity are so
often successfully made because "few people know any better" — and Geary rightfully
includes "most scholars" in this bunch. (9) The "poisoned landscape" (chapter
1) we now face is largely the product of nineteenth-century nationalist politicians,
historians, and philologists, who bent or even invented facts to serve their
presentist agenda, turning populations against themselves in the process.
Shifting views on the origins of the nation franaise serve as a case in point. Pre-Revolutionary arguments separated out a population
of Gauls, who had been subjugated by the Romans and eventually served as the
peasantry under serfdom. French aristocrats, by contrast, traced their origins
to the free Franks who ultimately conquered Rome, and who therefore claimed
a "truer" French identity. This model was turned on its head, of course, with
the French Revolution, after which those of Gallic descent reasserted their
superior national identity over the aristocratic Frankish interlopers, the
heads of many of whom promptly rolled in the gutters. As for Germany, despite
its notoriously long history of fragmentation, Geary walks the reader through
early nineteenth-century attempts to "find" a German nation in the past, just
as Germans were reacting to the threat of the French state under Napoleon.
It is perhaps unfortunate that Geary didn't continue this approach throughout
the book, i.e., identifying recent or even present-day European nationalist
myths and then tracing their faulty origins back in time to expose their feet
of clay. Instead, the following four chapters are essentially a narrative
of identity dynamics between the Roman world and its hinterlands: the ostensibly
"us" population of civilized (and eventually orthodox Christian) Romans, and
the "them" population of barbarian (and either pagan or Arian Christian) peoples
living beyond the Roman frontier. It wasn't always this way, as the keen observations
of Herodotus—who described peoples in much more fluid terms—makes clear. Unfortunately,
Herodotus' sensitivity didn't continue with his successors, and thus was ushered
in a long period of oversimplifications and outright fabrications about peoples
and their pasts. The fascinating feature here, as Geary continually reminds
the reader, is that this positioning of "us" versus "them" continued over
time and across space, even though those doing the "othering" continually
changed. For example, peoples who the Romans had considered "barbarian"—the
"them" to the Romans—eventually carved out kingdoms for themselves in the
former Empire. Upon doing so, their leaders created their own myths about
the past that were predicated on "othering" new groups of people.
In his final chapter, wherein Geary sets his sights on Zulu ethnogenesis
in Africa, I feared the author might lapse into dubious comparisons between
pre-modern Germanic and sub-Saharan peoples. Fortunately, Geary does nothing
of the sort. Rather, he traces how the European historical framework for ethnogenesis
was exported to southern African peoples in the nineteenth century by A.T.
Bryant, and how the latter forced his evidence to comply with the Roman Christian
model for ethnic identity, despite the model's inappropriateness (viewing
Zulu migrations through the lens of Hebrew wanderings is but one example).
Even though many of the raw facts that Bryant recorded were genuine, more
recent historians of African history, like their European brethren, have needed
to consciously deconstruct this flawed Eurocentric model. By looking outside
of Europe, then, Geary indicates just how long a shadow the European nationalist
approach to history has cast, and how such a manic need to place other peoples'
histories within the context of European nationalism distorts our understanding
of those groups. Since the origins of European peoples themselves are so often
distorted, the imposition of this faulty model on such groups as the Zulu
is both irresponsible and damaging.
Geary's intent to make this fascinating material accessible to the general
reader is laudable, but I'm not optimistic about its prospects for success
in that regard. As he so aptly illustrates, "barbarian" history and historiography
is very complex stuff, making it both difficult for a lay audience to appreciate,
and ripe for modern political exploitation for nationalist ends. A working
knowledge of late antiquity seems a prerequisite to follow Geary's arguments,
and this isn't helped by an overabundance of Latin technical terminology throughout
the text. Necessarily, there's a dizzying array of "barbarian" groups referred
to throughout the book, which will send lower-division students and non-specialist
instructors scrambling for reference works that probably reify the very myths
with which Geary takes issue. However, for more advanced courses or for scholars
delving into problems of nationalism, this is rewarding reading.
Fairleigh Dickinson University