Michael's Reviews > The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe

The Myth of Nations by Patrick J. Geary
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Nov 27, 2010

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Patrick Geary’s Myth of Nations endeavors to prove that the national definitions of European nations are inaccurate due to the fluid nature of early European people groups. Further he hopes to establish these definitions as political and racial in origin while shining a light on the role of historians in crafting this inaccurate narrative from the past. This misinterpretation of the past, Geary postulates, has been co-opted by nationalistic movements, which have “summoned millions of people into the streets and sent millions more to their graves.” (Geary, 13) In light of this, Geary intends to present an overview of a new understanding of European people while exposing the roots of modern ethnic nationalism.
To this end, Geary spends the first chapter of the book exploring ethnic nationalism in modern day Europe. He presents a Europe full of “imagined communities”; nations created by a psychological and mental phenomena, rather than an actual ethnic tie to the past. This first chapter sets the stage for chapters two through five. Geary sets out to explore the origins of the categories Europeans have defined themselves with, specifically by demonstrating the fluid people groups of Europe from the 5th century B.C.E up through Late Antiquity. He then moves on to examine the development of nations through the Middle Ages. Finally the sixth chapter plays clean up with a comparison of the development of the Zulu national history to the development of Europe’s. Geary lays out his book in this manner to explain how political nationalism is a recent phenomena; an idea that would have rung hollow for communities in the past.1 He pays special attention to the role of historians in the development of this.
Primarily, Geary concerns himself with the work of contemporary historians or older ancient and medieval texts such as Herodotus. Geary rarely cites the nineteenth century historians he is critiquing, instead touching on them broadly. This is fine since he is primarily concerned with the effects of these histories instead of their specific contents. His most extensive exploration of a specific history is A.T. Bryant’s Olden Times in Zululand and Natal in the concluding chapter.
With the exception of the ancient Greco-Roman texts, Geary looks to European texts, an implication of Geary’s interest in Eurocentrism in history. Geary looks at Europeanist historians as the primary causers of the nationalistic school of history stating that they have validated the attempts of military commanders “by constructing a continuous linear story of the peoples of Europe.” (Geary, 157) This touches on an important theme throughout Geary’s book; the duty of the historian. Geary implies the work of a historian should not be to develop a master narrative, but instead to understand the fluid nature of social units and the political nature of primary sources.
Geary handles sources well and his overall theme has interesting implications for historians. Unfortunately, Geary draws a lot of criticism from his obvious ideological bent. His blatant approach could alienate some historians who would certainly feel implicated by Geary’s thesis. However, Geary doesn’t intend his history to be popular and is well resigned to it being a bitter pill. “Historians have a duty to speak out, even if they are certain to be ignored.” (Geary, 14) Geary makes an excellent case for the fluidity of European people groups and provides a better approach to understanding primary sources. Problems arise in the book mostly when the breadth of Geary’s brush becomes obvious. As Geary admits, this book is intended for general audiences and thus lacks a degree of scholastic rigor. Hundreds of years fly by in the course of two sentences. Further, Geary’s targeting of historians as primary actors in ethnic nationalism is a little dubious. This idea could easily be reversed showing historians as individuals influenced by the zeitgeist of ethnic nationalism permeating their time. Still, that doesn’t excuse the role of historians in nation myth building and Geary provides the tool set he believes will steer historians away from this in a comprehensive and coherent fashion. There are certainly lessons students of history can take from Geary.
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