6/13/2023 0 Comments
By Michael O'Donnell
The contention that nations and nationalism are a recent phenomenon has become cliché. Elie Kedourie defined nationalism by three propositions; humanity is naturally divided into nations, nations are known by certain characteristics, and the only legitimate government is national self-government. (1) For him, this idea was no older than the 19th century. Alongside Kedourie himself, the three most influential proponents of this view have been Ernst Geller, Eric Hobsbawm, and Benedict Anderson. Their theories vary in emphasis, yet they share a consensus that nationalism, imposed from above, created the nation and the emergence of nationalism was contingent on modernizing forces like centralized government, mass-media, standardized-education, and industrial-urbanism. Taking Ireland as its example, this essay contends that, nations and nationalism are pre-modern in origin, and many of the mechanisms for nationalist development which modernists associate strictly with modernization can be identified in premodernity.
Galli or “foreigners” is perhaps the single most used word in the medieval Irish Annals. The word appears as much as it does because from the 9th century onward, Norse Vikings persistently raided Ireland and established multiple ports. “Eodois, son of Donghal, suffered martyrdom from the foreigners at Disert-Diarmada… Maelciarain, son of Ronan, champion of the east of Ireland, a hero-plunderer of the foreigners, was slain,” are typical entries, each from 867. (2) As the Viking era passed, galli was seamlessly transferred to Ireland’s new Anglo-Norman invaders. While one word alone does not make a nation, it does evidence a certain consciousness. Social identity theory suggests that there is no way greater to sharpen an identity than to place it conflict. Minimal conditions, such as dividing people into groups A and B, are sufficient to produce in/out group behaviour. (3) This makes the constant use of ‘foreigner’ notable, as it presupposes an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. In order for it to make sense, the reader must have an idea of who ‘we’ are. Its use could not simply have meant strangers from distant lands, either, because chroniclers insisted on using for centuries. Upon the arrival of Ireland’s new Protestant invaders during the 16th-century Tudor conquests, the prevailing term for old Anglo-Norman invaders became Seanghaill (‘Old Foreigners’).
What shaped this shared consciousness before modernity? Beginning with beginnings themselves, nationalist discourse is often characterized as being preoccupied with origins. This was a well-developed discourse in Ireland, it having produced the largest body genealogical texts in medieval Europe. (4) The most influential of these is Lebor Gabála Érenn, meaning “The Book of the Taking of Ireland.” (5) Complied in the early 11th century, though based on older poems, LGE outlines successive conquests of Ireland by six races, the most recent of which were the Milesian Gaels. The book is an attempt to contextualize Ireland’s pre-Christian mythology within a grand narrative of Biblical history. In doing so, it imported an Israelite model of nationhood that tied together people, place, language, and religion. The Milesians are ultimately descended from Noah, through his son, Japheth, the forebear of all European nations. Coming to Ireland, the Milesians defeat the Tuatha Dé Danann, Ireland’s pre-Christian gods, and the Fír Bolg, a malevolent race, and become Christian. As part of its biblically inspired narrative, the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel is told, only with the addition that Fénius Farsaid, another descendent of Japhet who crafts Gaelic from the best fragments of the 72 languages that arose. Throughout the text, the forbearers of the other European nations appear, such as Alba (Scotland) and Espa (Spain). A world “naturally divided into nations” and “known by certain characteristics”, is so integral to the one described in LGE, that it would be an understatement to say it evidences a nationalist worldview. (6) As a tale of such ambition, it would be more appt to call it nationalist cosmology.
Lebor Gabála Érenn would serve as the conventional account of Irish history well into the modern period. It was so widely believed that during the sectarian conflicts of early modernity, Irish exiles who fled to Spain were automatically granted the rights of Spanish subjects, on account of LGE’s claim that the Milesian Gaels had dwelt there before coming to Ireland. (7) Its contextualization of Irish myth within Biblical history poses several questions for the modernist hypothesis. Hobsbawm’s tired cliché that premodern identity was either local or religious is undermined by the fact that it is the coming of Christianity which crystalizes the Gaelic nationhood in writing. (8)
For Gellner, the distinction between high and low culture is fundamental to his understanding of why nationalism cannot have been a pre-modern phenomenon. For him, nations are created by the “imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority." (9) This was only achieved in modern times because the elites of pre-modern, politically decentralized societies, of which medieval Ireland is a prime example, had little interest in imposing homogeneity. Far from taking no interest in low culture, LGE illustrates literate ecclesiasts, educated in Christian and classical literature, synthesizing Ireland’s oral memory with biblical history. LGE’s valorisation of the Irish language wouldn’t sound out of place among 19th-century Romantic nationalists, and certainly suggests its writer’s consciousness extended beyond a narrow preoccupation with particular aristocratic lineages. Its vernacular Gaelic was already standardized island wide by the 9th century, due to the diligent work those same ecclesiasts. (10) Thus the very process Gellner believes could only have occurred in 19th century can be observed.
Benedict Anderson’s argument is similar to Gellner’s, but focuses more on means. He argues that the infrastructure necessary for national identity was contingent on mass media, which allowed for discursive communities of scale. (11) However, LGE clearly attests to such an imagined community long before print. It is true that few could read it, but its main form of transmission would have been through Ireland’s robust bardic tradition. While discourse prior to mass communications would have been less intensive, it also would have been less competitive. Sure, there would have been no standardized curriculum, no man on a screen to constantly remind you who your ancestors were and where you came you from; but in the entire medieval and early modern Gaelic literary canon, no one ever contradicts it either. In the premodern cultural landscape, beliefs—particularly those relayed by authorities like bards, bishops, priests, and kings—would take hold among the non-literate and be reproduced indefinitely.
In making the case for medieval nations, we also need not limit ourselves to the airy matter of how pre-modern people understood themselves. Ireland’s Brehon Law provides clear evidence of pre-modern cultural institutions with national scope. Codified in the 9th century, Brehon law was effectively a Gaelic school of jurisprudence. Well suited to the complex needs of Ireland’s decentralized society, it was in use in Gaelic Ireland until the 17th century. Historian Neil McLeod notes that “Brehon law was ‘national’, in the sense that it was a cultural phenomenon of Ireland as a whole, with few (if indeed any) discernible regional variations.” (12) Michael Richter similarly writes “Irish law knew of no boundaries of the túatha.” (13) This lack of variation contradicts the notion that pre-modern culture was necessarily fragmentary, local, and unstandardized. In Brehon law we have a national institution, sustained over centuries, wholly apart from a centralized state, mass media, or any other such modernizing force. Modernization would of course bring immense changes, but in concluding that national customs simply couldn’t be sustained before modernity, it is the modernists who are engaging in ahistorical projection of their own prejudices.
A common objection to the argument thus far is that it merely evidences ethnicity but not nationhood. ‘Real’ nationalism mobilizes a public for political ends, modernists contend. Putting aside that the sharp distinction between nation and ethnicity is itself a product modernist prejudices, evidence of this can be gained by returning to the aforementioned trope of the foreigner in Irish literature. The subtly named Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib, meaning “The War of the Irish against the Foreigners” was produced by Brian Boru’s great-grandson Muirchertach in the early 12th century. It details Brian’s wars against the Norse Uí Ímair dynasty. (14) Intended to eulogise Brian and cement his dynasty, CGrG is highly propagandistic. The work was as effective as it was (Brian is still widely regarded as one of the greatest Irishmen to ever lived) because it was written in a tradition of valorising conflict between native and foreigner that by this point was centuries old. As such, the authors spare no opportunity to valorise the Irish and demonize their enemies, though in the spirit of the times, the Dane’s are complemented for their marital vigour:
“Now on the one side of that battle were the shouting, hateful, powerful, wrestling, valiant, active, fierce-moving, dangerous, nimble, violent, furious, unscrupulous, untamable, inexorable, unsteady, cruel, barbarous, frightful, sharp, ready, huge, prepared, cunning, warlike, poisonous, murderous, hostile Danars; bold, hard-hearted Danmarkians, surly, piratical foreigners, blue-green, pagan; without reverence, without veneration, without honour, without mercy, for God or for man. But on the other side of that battle were brave, valiant champions; soldierly, active, nimble, bold, full of courage, quick, doing great deeds, pompous, beautiful, aggressive, hot, strong, swelling, bright, fresh, never weary, terrible, valiant, victorious heroes and chieftains, and champions, and brave soldiers, the men of high deeds, and honour, and renown of Erinn…”
Brian’s Gaelic rival, Diarmaid mac Murchadha, the king of Leinster, is cast as “Demod of the Foreigners”, CGrG’swriters being aware that it would reflect poorly on Diarmaid to emphasize his failure to side with his co-nationals. CGrGmay not have had the sustained reach of modern nationalist propaganda, but it reflects similar underlying logic of national identity being mobilized in service of unity against a foreign threat.
Before his life was cut short at the Battle Clontarf (the battle described above) in 1014, Brian would proclaim himself Imperator Scotorum, Scoti being a synonym for Gael. His attempt to inaugurate a more centralized Gaelic national kingship would prove influential. Three centuries after Brian’s death, the exiled Scottish king Robert de Bruce would evoke this idea to gain support from Irish chieftains, for whom the concept sill had resonance. De Bruce offered the chieftains an alliance against the English “so that our nation (nostra natio) may recover her ancient freedom.” (15) He reminded the Irish that they and the Scots “stem from one seed of birth” and shared “a common language and common customs.” While the configurations are different; today we would regard Ireland and Scotland as separate nations; the discourse is unmistakably nationalistic. De Bruce has even done us the convenience of giving us a precise definition of what he means by nation: “one seed of birth… a common language and common customs”; or, to put it more plainly, ancestry, language, and culture, each evoked to justify his claims and delegitimize the English. Domhnall O’Neill, one such chieftain persuaded by de Bruce’s argument, wrote to the Pope in 1317 to elicit support for the effort. Referring to Scotland and Ireland as Scotia Minor and Scotia Major respectively, he charges that the English “have striven with all their might, and with every treacherous trick in their power, to wipe our nation out entirely.” (16) If we are to take seriously the characterization of nations an ‘imagined communities’, then what possible grounds could we give for ignoring such a clear evocation of it?
One such argument, à la Gellner, is that the evidence presented thus far reflects only a tiny elite whose views were not necessarily shared by the wider population, and thus cannot be taken to evidence national consciousness. This is the case with all historical sources. They reflect the views of a person or group, and it is up to us to make informed assessments about what they say about the wider society. While this absence of evidence does give us cause to ask questions like ‘what did the average medieval peasant actually know about Christianity?’ it does not justify questioning whether Christianity even existed outside of monasteries. In order to sustain Hobsbawm and Gellner’s sharp high/low distinction, we would have to believe that for centuries elites conducted nationalist discourses of the type evidenced in this essay—discourse used to rally armies, sing praises, and diminish rivals—but this discourse simply had no resonance beyond elites themselves. This is an unjustifiably solipsistic view of the pre-modern cultural landscape. Insofar as Brehon law "knew of no boundaries of the túatha," it already gives evidence that such boundaries were not as sharp as modernists like to think. (17)
Ireland ought to have presented a hard case for pre-modern nationalism, given how politically decentralised it was—yet two of Kedourie’s criteria, a world divided into nations, which are known by certain characteristics, are unambiguously met before modernity. These assumptions are not only present in the medieval Irish worldview, but they are so integral to it that to try and make sense of them without understanding this would be as though you tried to understand them without knowing anything about their Christianity. Kedourie’s third criterion, that the only legitimate government is national self-government, connotating as it does representative democracy in a centralized state, falls prey to the modernist prejudice of tautologically defining nations and nationalism by their 19th century instantiations. We don’t define war by how it was practiced on Napoleonic battlefields, so there is no reason to this for nations and nationalism. What we have seen that modernists are unjustified in trying to circumscribe mechanisms which act in service of national identities, such as language standardization, nationwide institutions, and the shaping of the low by the high, wholly to modernity. Within the means of medieval technique, nationalistic discourses of ancestry, language, and culture were evoked to political ends such as inaugurating national kingship and expelling foreign rulers. These are one of many more appropriate applications for dealing with medieval nationalism’s relation to governance and legitimacy. For these reasons, it is long overdue to admit that the modernist clichés that the people of the past had no powerful and enduring conceptions of themselves—every village its own nation—belongs as much to Tolkien as any of the romantic excesses of the 19th century.
This essay was included in Volume I of The Dissident Review, available in paperback on Amazon.
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