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The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe [Paperback]

Patrick J. Geary
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 Feb 2003 Medieval Origins of Europe

Modern-day Europeans by the millions proudly trace back their national identities to the Celts, Franks, Gauls, Goths, Huns, or Serbs--or some combination of the various peoples who inhabited, traversed, or pillaged their continent more than a thousand years ago. According to Patrick Geary, this is historical nonsense. The idea that national character is fixed for all time in a simpler, distant past is groundless, he argues in this unflinching reconsideration of European nationhood. Few of the peoples that many Europeans honor as sharing their sense of ''nation'' had comparably homogeneous identities; even the Huns, he points out, were firmly united only under Attila's ten-year reign.

Geary dismantles the nationalist myths about how the nations of Europe were born. Through rigorous analysis set in lucid prose, he contrasts the myths with the actual history of Europe's transformation between the fourth and ninth centuries--the period of grand migrations that nationalists hold dear. The nationalist sentiments today increasingly taken for granted in Europe emerged, he argues, only in the nineteenth century. Ironically, this phenomenon was kept alive not just by responsive populations--but by complicit scholars.

Ultimately, Geary concludes, the actual formation of European peoples must be seen as an extended process that began in antiquity and continues in the present. The resulting image is a challenge to those who anchor contemporary antagonisms in ancient myths--to those who claim that immigration and tolerance toward minorities despoil ''nationhood.'' As Geary shows, such ideologues--whether Le Pens who champion ''the French people born with the baptism of Clovis in 496'' or Milosevics who cite early Serbian history to claim rebellious regions--know their myths but not their history.

The Myth of Nations will be intensely debated by all who understood that a history that does not change, that reduces the complexities of many centuries to a single, eternal moment, isn't history at all.

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The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe + Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New Edition) + Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Canto Classics)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (2 Feb 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691114811
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691114811
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 16.7 x 1.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 331,416 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"Geary's lucid and expert examination of the circumstances in which . . . stories and identities were created . . . offers a satisfying and . . . often a subtle approach to some of the most elusive aspects of a complicated period. Its methodology is brilliantly and persuasively vindicated."--R.I. Moore, Times Literary Supplement

"In this compelling historical treatise, Geary debunks the myth that modern European national and ethnic groups can be traced to distinct ancient or early medieval peoples. . . . [H]is arguments are important in light of the nationalistic excesses of the 20th century, and his conclusions are sure to provoke controversy among scholars."--Publishers Weekly

"An admirable survey of a complicated and important subject."--Kelly McFall, History: Review of Books

"Patrick Geary's The Myth of Nations is more timely than he could have anticipated. . . . Since 1989, this period--between the third and eighth centuries--has been persistently misrepresented by Europe's nationalist and racist populations, who claim to find in the Middle Ages some kind of justification for their policies. . . . Demythologizing the early Middle Ages entails first understanding how the myths were created in the 19th century. Geary is blunt ... it is impossible to map linguistic or ethnic identities onto national territories. . . . Ethnicity is 'impervious to mere rational disproof.' This is why Geary's message is so compelling, and why it matters to keep faith with reason: getting Europe's medieval past straight gives a bearing on its future."--J.L. Nelson, London Review of Books

From the Inside Flap

"A book of the best possible originality. It presents a theme that has been hotly debated in modern scholarly circles with a novel freshness, while drawing the attention of the reader to the urgent relevance of such debates to the history of modern Europe. This is a book of quite exemplary clarity. It deserves to be widely read and will doubtless spark off lively discussion among scholars."--Peter Brown, Princeton University

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Modern history was born in the nineteenth century, conceived and developed as an instrument of European nationalism. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Myth of Nations 25 Feb 2013
By Keen Reader TOP 100 REVIEWER
I am familiar with some of this author's works, notably Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World, so was happy to spot this book to read. First published in 2002, the book seeks to demolish myths largely generated since the nineteenth century on the `nationalism' of peoples and presents, briefly and succinctly, the actual story of the transformation of Europe between the fourth and ninth centuries. It is, as the author acknowledges, his "reflections on the relationship between the myths of European peoples and the realities of contemporary nationalism ...".

I've studied a few books on the whole theory of nationalism, and the migration of ethnic groups, etc. across Europe, and the only thing scholars seem to be able to agree on is that they all disagree. Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but getting consensus on movements of peoples from centuries ago, who left little or no written or other material sources of their own (rather than their victims or enemies), is a big ask. Geary's book reads like his own considered thinking on the matter, which he has captured on paper for our elucidation, and to leave us to think further about subjects on which there really is no broad agreement, at least not yet. Maybe one day there will be, but given the nature of the question and the artificiality of the whole concept of `ethnicity' and `nationalism', I'm inclined to doubt it.

The Suggestions for Further Reading offer further opportunities for study of the histories of Medieval Europe and its individual people. Well worth pursuing.

This is, overall, a highly readable book, which, although brief, leaves you with plenty of food for thought and interest in further reading. I would recommend it to anyone wondering about the birth of Europe and its myriad peoples - how they may have seen themselves, and how we have come to see them.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly and believable debunking 21 Oct 2006
By Graham R. Hill VINE VOICE
This book delivers much more than the title promises. While it does give a broad historical and geographical explanation of the five hundred years of invasions and migrations that created today's Europe, it also covers wider, and more interesting, territory in terms easily accesible to the general reader.

In particular it analyses 19th century creation of a nationalist 'history', that has, in his word, poisoned Europe ever since and describes the linguistic and economic drivers and constraints which have worked on the resulting population mixes ever since. As a further illustration it uses the same tools to revisit the Zulu 'nation' as seen through the eyes of Westerners straightjacketed by their own philosophical construct of national identity.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER
This review is from: The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Paperback)
This is a very fun essay, designed to make us examine the mythology behind the nationalism that arose at the end of the 19C, as supported by myths of ancient heroism or lineage. It is supposed to be for the general reader, not the specialist, but I think it is rather rarified in terms of the recondite details he gets into. To prove his point, he gets very deep into the way that Romans viewed barbarian incursions, how they absorbed the different peoples once order broke down, and then what came after in the Dark Ages. Now, this happens to fascinate me, i.e. who the Lombards or the Huns actually were, how they came to be, etc. I have read many books about it, such as the masterful Empires and Barbarians, by Peter Heather.

He begins with an examination of the origins of nationalism, in the 19C. Beyond the mobilization of resources that railways and an industrial economy made possible, it needed a founding ideology, some myth upon which to build the legitimacy of new modes of power. This was found in a nationalist narrative, supported by deep scholarly endeavor (as supported by the state) and disseminated in the standardized curricula as established in basic education.

The basis of this was found in claims of continuous legitimacy, as based in law, ancient tradition, ethnic-linguistic heritage, and conquest. The rest of the book is a painstaking examination of this notion from 200 to 1000 CE, to debunk the continuity part of it. In a word, he argues that ethnicity is a myth, that groups of people aggregated around charismatic leaders as they built empires or opposed oppressors. People joined, learned the languages of the powerful, and adopted identities.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I give this book 4 stars because it provides a fascinating, well written perspective on the processes involved in the decline of the Roman empire and the rise the successor barbarian states. The period covered, however, is rather earlier than what I would think of as the medieval period - it is a period perhaps better known as the Dark Ages.

The Myth of Nations is at its core a history book, not a book of political or social analysis as its title might suggest, although there are intersting considerations of what it meant to be Roman and what it meant to be a barbarian at various times during the period covered.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable history 1 Oct 2010
By O.A
I have found, in the years since I read this book, that I find myself discussing it more than perhaps any other history book I have read. Although it feels like a publication of an academic position rather than a popular history book, it remains extremely readable and easy to engage with.

The books is also relevant to the modern world, as it examines the sources that were drawn on in the nineteenth century to create nationalism. As a result, it works very well to read this with Peacemakers Six Months That Changed the World: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, which looks into the Treaty of Versailles and shows how the ideas Geary sets out were used post WW1 to carve up europe.
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