21 October, 2011

Between Empire and Anarchy, part I: the birth of the Nation-state in France and England

In America, we tend to be rightly suspicious of both emperors and anarchists. Empires make us, consciously or not, remember Great Britain and our struggle for independence. Anarchy was the bogeyman of the Founding Fathers; fear of chaos and the Hobbsean state of nature motivated the writing of the Federalist Papers; it encouraged the North go to war in the 1860s. Honestly, whatever end of the political spectrum you come from, it's pretty easy to agree that both these alternatives are undesirable. I mean, sure, there are extremists on both sides, but your average person won't be in agreement with them.

What's fairly interesting, then, particularly in the context of the History of Eastern Europe class I'm taking currently, is to watch the rather delicate play between the two extremes as the concept of nationhood enters the cultural consciousness of Europe during the mid-nineteenth century. To be more accurate, I should note that the concept of Nationhood was already strong in England and France. But by the 1800s, that had been developing for almost 400 years in those two countries.

Actually, I'm going to allow myself to be sidetracked from the topic of Eastern Europe for a while to give a brief overview of that development, since it's interesting, and what's more, it helps to clarify what precisely is so different about conceiving of oneself as belonging to a nation--despite the fact that these two developed into nations by uniting somewhat disparate social/cultural entities whereas the nascent nationalism of Eastern European cultures tended to be a movement of separation from a larger, monolithic empire. From my perspective, which I believe is a fairly orthodox one in this regard, the concept of nationalism in both Britain and France has its roots in the Hundred Years War of 1337-1453, but more specifically in the Lancastrian (for Britain) and post-Jeanne d'Arc (for France) phases which occurred around 1415-1429 and 1429-1453 respectively.

Since Americans (if they are lucky) generally only know Shakespeare's version of the war, which pretty much involves Merry Old England as the Hummer rolling over the French barricade of sticks, let me point out that the war was A.) essentially a stalemate for about 85 years, and B.) it was more of a feudal quarrel for most of this time than anything: many whom we would today consider "ethnic" Englishmen had holdings in France and were fighting on the side of the French, and "ethnic" Frenchmen with lands in certain places were fighting on the "side" of the English--if you can even call them "sides" per se, given how fluid the divide was. In other words, France, insofar as it existed, was evenly matched with England, insofar as that existed. Things began to change when Henry V came to the throne (and of course, if you were to talk to the English, Henry V was the Hundred Years War). Not satisfied, like his predecessors, with conducting an interminable struggle for a bit of feudal land, Henry was determined to Be King. Of everything. Even if it meant breaking French inheritance laws--because of course, the fellow had no legal  right whatsoever to the French throne; just a lot of hubris and a talent for military things. He went ahead and defied the Pope's ban on longbows (oh wait, that's right, that's why the French weren't using longbows...not because they were stupid, because you could be excommunicated for it [note: most people will claim that this was only the case for crossbows, but if you read an actual history book, rather than just the internet, that misperception is corrected. Cf. for instance Joseph Priestly's General History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2]; also note that the charge up the hill at Agincourt was not as stupid as it sounds, because the plate armour of the French knights really couldn't be penetrated by longbow arrows. Which claim is borne out by the fact that the best-armoured knights in the front lines actually had a high survival rate; the problem came when the unforeseen rainstorm caused their horses to get bogged down and they couldn't advance and take care of the archers--essentially unopposed, the English archers were then able to slaughter the less-well-defended French common soldiers.). He had the strength of personality to unify the rather fractious, individualistic English nobles, and the intelligence (as Bismarck and other nation-creators after him would) to realize that finding a common enemy is the best way to preserve unity under a single ruling authority. The next step was to assert his legitimacy by allying himself with various European powers, the most important of whom was the Duke of Burgundy, who, being a fractious noble himself, was quite happy help prevent the French king from gaining the same kind of power over his vassals. After winning several dramatic victories, Henry went ahead and tried (again) to legitimize his claim to the throne by marrying the king's daughter and forcing the king (who was insane, incidentally) to disinherit the Dauphin. The idea being that Henry's heirs would inherit France, which is still illegal, because French law did not allow inheritance through the female line...one of those things having its roots in too many early medieval civil wars. The illegality was compounded by the fact that the Dauphin (eventually Charles VII) wasn't really illegitimate.

So on the English side we see the emergence of a single strong leader, the unification of often-divided vassals in a newly-mythologized struggle against a common enemy, and corresponding phenomenal success. What was going on in France? Well, after Charles V, who was actually quite successful during the earlier stages of the war, even if he was still conducting it like a feudal conflict, died, his son Charles VI inherited. Which makes the latter's reign about concurrent with that of Henry. In sharp contrast to Henry, however, Charles VI was anything but a strong leader capable of unifying feudal France and presenting a serious threat to Henry's endeavors...I mean, really, the fellow was legitimately insane. So insane that from he would spend days believing he was made of glass and taking precautions to prevent himself from breaking. The strongest of the nobles were in either partial or all-out rebellion throughout much of his reign, among them the Duke of Burgundy, (of course), the Duke of Berry, and the Duke of Orléans. As we've already seen, the lack of unity among the nobles made it easy for Henry V to court the alliance of the Duke of Burgundy. And the rest of this stage of the struggle was carried on essentially without any single authority directing the French armies, and in the face of an enemy that was very much on the same page and who had their hearts (thanks to Henry's inspiration) set on a concrete, undisputed goal.

Charles the Mad died in 1422 and there was chaos in France for seven years as the very young Dauphin tentatively claimed the throne, not even sure himself any more whether he was his father's son.

And lo God hath sent His messengers to a thirteen-year-old girl, saying: "These English are getting too big for their britches, and their habit of using longbows just isn't fair. Plus they're all gonna go Protestant in a generation or two and if French universities become English universities, where are the English going to get their Jesuit martyrs from? And I don't think the world wants to have to put up with the Royaume-Uni of Angleterre. There are some things I just can't let happen." So, when she was seventeen (seventeen!), she sneaked away from home, picked the Dauphin out of a crowd despite his being in disguise, assured him that he was legitimate, and inspired an exhausted army to an enthusiastic defense of France. And against all odds, they won. Drove the nasty English right out.

Of course, a lot more was involved with bringing both countries to the point of being modern nation-states. Each one would experience a Golden Age during which its wealth would increase enormously and its influence spread throughout the known world, and for both this age would be centered on the reign of a particularly strong, charismatic, intelligent monarch whose foremost political concern was to make England more English and France more French--think Elizabeth I and Louis XIV.

But the background of the Hundred Years War is crucial. Its historical events show how the nation is born: it requires a leadership strong enough to transcend internal divisions and to turn individuals loosely connected by geography and (perhaps) by language into a people. Moreover, the war was for both nations a defining moment of that "common past which was to reflect the common destiny " (as Miroslav Hroch puts it) of the people. Strong leadership can only get a country so far; it's dependent upon the availability of leaders, who are usually only around for a relatively brief time. It's what the leaders lead the people to do that makes the average person identify himself as French or English or any other nationality: it's the common history that is developed and that pours over into arts and folklore and culture. So you have Shakespeare and his "histories" telling the English what makes them English; you have the memory of Jeanne d'Arc, her rehabilitation, her beatification, her canonization reminding Frenchmen right up through the 20th century of what it "means"  to be French. And once it starts this cultural self-identification is addictive. You have the English looking back to find out more about who they are and what unites them into a single people: they rediscover (and exaggerate) the Saxons' struggle with the Normans, the Britons' struggle with the Romans, and so on. The French do the same and find Charlemagne, The Song of Roland, the crusaders, Louis IX, the old title of "Defender of the Church".

One can find countless more examples of this national self-discovery, and much could be said about the way that the "Glorious" monarchs Elizabeth and Louis would manipulate this national image in order to drive the people to a new ideal of "greatness". But that would take ages. And this serves well enough as a model and point of comparison for the next part of my discussion, which will look at how the nations of Eastern Europe would follow (or depart from) the British and French models during the 1800s.

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