Sixteenth century nationhood

Peter Burke’s Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe goes beyond the evidence

Posted by dianamuir on March 23, 2014
language policy, Pre-modern nationalism, Sixteenth century nationhood, When is a nation? / Comments Off on Peter Burke’s Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe goes beyond the evidence

Midway through Peter Burke’s  Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe  it is troubling to see him assert that “deliberate acts by governments” to promote, mandate, or downgrade particular languages or dialects in favor of others “were as rare before 1789 as they were common after that date.” (p. 72) Then, citing Henri Peyre, he argues that official actions of this kind were not only rare, they were “rarely consistent,” more in the nature of unplanned “reactions” to particular circumstances and, therefore, that it would be “wise to avoid the term (language policy) in the case of Europe before 1789”.(p. 73)

This is startling because  Burke’s own book is filled with what read like examples of official language policy in the centuries before 1789.  It is disquieting to have a scholar give a clear summary of his findings that does not appear to be supported by the evidence he himself is presenting at book-length.  And the unease that this generates is doubled in a case like Languages and Communities where the author overlooks or omits what is probably the largest body of evidence negating his conclusion.

Burke’s assertion that national language policies happen only post-1789, particularly the Epilogue, “Languages and Nations,” in which he asserts that, “rare instances of conscious language policy before 1789 – were not examples of nationalism in the modern sense,” is a carefully crafted intervention in the scholarly debate over the antiquity of nations, a broadside fired at the idea that nations or nationalism may predate Herder.

The evidence Burke himself presents in this book supports a far milder conclusion, that at particular times and places in pre-modern Europe (under Alphonso X of Castile or Alfred the Great of Wessex, or in the French administration of seventeenth century Alsace) there were official language policies, which become more common in the 18th century, and far more common in the 19th.

Of equal concern in a book with this sweep a scope is the absence of the phrase “prayer book”, a term that I began to look for with some care after Burke’s first, startling assertion that there was no such thing as a pre-1789 language policy.   What are we to make of a book about language and community in Europe that appears unaware that beginning on a particular Sunday morning in 1549 in every church in England, every pastor – all of them answerable to a new, national church  – was to take up the new Book of Common Prayer and henceforth conduct all public services in English.  It is hard to interpret the replacement of the Latin Mass by the Book of Common Prayer, mandated by Parliament as the Act of Uniformity of 1549 as anything other than part of an official language policy.  More especially as it was paralleled by similar policies in newly Protestant Sweden and Denmark.






Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states

Posted by dianamuir on October 31, 2013
Bible, Biblical nationalism, Sixteenth century nationhood / Comments Off on Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states

Sixteenth-century biblical nationalism was the unintended side effect of a Reformation intended to save souls.

Before Luther published almost no one in Europe actually read the Bible.  they read paraphrases, epitomes and commentaries, that offer an interpretation of the Bible that is often markedly different form the plain text.  Full-text Bibles were available in most European languages – except English.  Christians preferred paraphrases, abridgments and commentaries that presented the complex and often contradictory text in a useful way.  Until Luther gave them a reason to read the full text.

The full text presented a story previously unfamiliar to Latin Christians.  The story of a people liberated from servitude, assembled to enter a covenant with God in which they accepted a distinctive law code, organized a government, demanded a king (against God’s advice), and built a rather startlingly egalitarian political and economic system.  Part of the shock to the European political system in the 1500s came from the portrait of an ancient Hebrew society far more egalitarian than the ranked orders of villeins, freemen, and barons of medieval Europe. But the greatest immediate political impact that came out of the new Bibles was to introduce the idea of the nation to a mass public, and to instantiate the nation-state as a European political form.

The new, full-text Bibles offered a developed model of nationhood to readers primed to seek in the Bible models for the reform of their own societies.   It offers an expansive description of a world arranged into ‘kindreds, tongues, lands, and nations’.   This model had not been visible in the major paraphrases and abridgments.   It overturned the ideal of a Christian world united under a single Christian Emperor, replacing it with the Biblical ideal of a world of discrete nation states within mutually-respected, defined borders: the Westphalian system.

Engaging scholarship on nations and nationalism

Scholars who have considered the origins of nationalism generally concur that it is a product of modernity that cannot have arisen before a nationalist discourse was elaborated and made available to a mass public, or before such key enabling conditions as the modern state, secularization, industrialization (Gellner), and print capitalism (Anderson). In recent decades, however, a series of studies of particular peoples and territories have described the existence of biblical nationalism during the Reformation in the Netherlands, England, Scandinavia, and Hungary , and during the proto-Reformation in Hussite Bohemia (Šmahel).   The result is a literature largely divided between systemic explanations and theories of the rise of nationalism in the modern period, and a mounting body of evidence describing phenomena that appear similar to modern nationalism centuries before these theories allow for its existence. This paper offers a preliminary attempt to answer John Breuilly’s 2005 call for ‘a search for specific explanations for this cluster of cases,’ consolidating the growing body of work on sixteenth-century nationalism by proposing a causal mechanism (the rediscovery of the full text Bible) and offering a novel account of why this mechanism had a powerful and near simultaneous impact across such a large area.


The biblical model of nationhood, the Bible’s programmatic political discourse on the rights of nations and its presentation of an extended narrative history of the Israelite nation, enabled the rapid development of a cluster of sixteenth-century Protestant nations. This paper brings forward three very specific reasons for the sudden advent of this cluster of nations that have not previously been considered in the extensive literature discussing the political impact of the Bible on sixteenth-century nations and nationalism.
The Bible had a powerful and sudden impact on the Latin Christian world because: (1) before the 1520s full-text Bibles were rarely read, even in Latin; (2) vernacular Bibles were rare because paraphrases were preferred until Luther gave Christians a compelling reason to read the full text; and (3) much of the text of the Bible – particularly the biblical model of nationhood – was omitted or obscured in the Bible substitutes used before 1520 and, therefore, was so unfamiliar to that it had the impact of new revelation.
Given the overdetermined nature of all historical phenomena, it is rarely possible to offer dispositive proof of the causal influence of a single variable. Nevertheless, several pieces of evidence point to the Bible as a crucial motive force in the creation of sixteenth-century nation-states: (1) the close temporal correlation between the appearance of enormous print runs of vernacular Bibles and the development of several nation-states and nationalist movements; (2) the diverse geographical loci in which these nations arose – from Hungary to Scotland; and (3) the fact that each of these nations understood itself a ‘New Israel’ and identified itself as the chosen nation of the Bible.
I do not argue that this political impact was intentional on the part of those who promoted broad access to vernacular translations of the Bible. The sixteenth-century motivation for translating and reading the Bible was salvation of the soul. Biblical nationalism and the formation of new national identities were an unintended side effect of profound and lasting significance.

Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states, National Identities, 2013

Sweden, Israel, and why national history museums fear history

Posted by dianamuir on September 04, 2013
Museums of National History, Sixteenth century nationhood, Uncategorized / Comments Off on Sweden, Israel, and why national history museums fear history

The curators of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm are embarrassed.   So are the curators of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.   People visit these museums of history not merely because they want to see artifacts, but because they want to see the narrative that the artifacts illustrate.      But some topics are so fraught with meaning that curators in Sweden and in Israel are afraid to approach them.


To some extent, these curators may be responding to the contemporary preference for displaying objects unencumbered by context.   The core of Historiska (the Swedish History Museum) is an enormous basement vault filled with gold.   Case after case of gold baubles, bangles, and beads, mostly displayed in no particular order and with a label but not a context.  Looking at objects that total 114 lbs (52kg.) of gold and 200 kg. of silver turns out to be boring.   We humans need narrative to make sense of things.   If the curators told us where the various glittering objects came from,  how the various styles of objects evolved, or how they contributed to the evolution of Sweden we might care.

Upstairs, the stories are all too specific.   The museum begins with the oldest prehistoric objects – presented as dramatic stories about human sacrifice and the dire possibility that slashes in an ancient cloak indicate murder – while larger questions go unaddressed.

We want to know  how did the first people returning after the Ice Age make a living, what happened to them when peoples with a knowledge of farming moved in, and what made the people of this region go a-viking?

Visitors to this museum especially want to know what made them go a-vikig=ng.  After all,  the coasts of Europe were ringed with farmers and fisherfolk, but it didnot not occur to the Breton, Basque, or Briton farmers to get into open boats, sail to Gotland or Öland, and carry home gold.   the museum could present the leading  theories about what made the Vikings set sail as heavily armed traders capable of seizing an opportunity to raid and loot, or were they better described as armed raiders willing also to trade, whatever worked?  You wont find out in the Swedish History Museum.

In this museum the Vikings hardly go viking at all.

All that Viking Age gold, how did it get to  Sweden?    “During late Viking times we find a great deal of wealth entering the country in the form of Western European coins.”   As though the gold entered the north lands of its own free will.

It may seem puzzling that so much gold could make its way to a country that exported some fur and a bit of amber.  But, according to the Historika, so it was.  “The Vikings were mostly peaceful traders.

But if so, who trashed Lindesfarne Abbey in 793?

It was the biggest news story of its day.  Alcuin of York, whose account we have,  was not at Lindesfarne, he was comfortably seated at his writing desk in Charlemagne’s court  when he wrote that memorable bit about blood gushing as  Norsemen stepped on Christian monks as though they were pieces of shit lying in the street.   He may have exaggerated; the Vikings have come in for more than their share of exaggeration.    But the curators of the Historika  grossly exaggerate the peaceful nature of these armed boatloads of warrior/trader/conqueror/colonizers.

Also, they succeed brilliantly in making the Vikings boring.   On a Sunday  in a city packed with tourists and families, the museum was virtually empty.

Vikings are so central to the Swedish imagination that modern curators are apparently only capable of describing them with absurdity, exaggeration, and denial.  Swedish curators are capable of better, it is visible upstairs in the same museum where Swedish history from the middle ages  forward is presented as  a  fairly straightforward explication of how competing medieval fiefdoms were eventually joined under a monarchy that, by the reign of Gustav Vasa, is recognizably Swedish.

The other topic (in addition to the Vikings) that the curators cannot discuss rationally is the role of religion in shaping Sweden, a nation created less by Vasa’s sword than by his savvy decision to create a Swedish written language, have the Bible, catechism and prayers translated into it, and  break with Rome.   When a Swedish archbishop answerable to the king presides over a church where in each parish the world suddenly changes from a place where incomprehensible prayers are chanted in Latin to a place where the congregation hears the Bible, sings the psalms and prays for the King in their native tongue, a national identity is created.*

Curators at the recently renovated Israel Museum would probably be capable of describing Vikings objectively, what they fear is a straightforward presentation of the history of the  Israelite kingdoms  in the 10th to 7th centuries BCE.

The archaeology wing of the Israel Museum does not begin with  the earliest human artifacts.    Instead, the curator makes an arbitrary choice to start  with a dramatic set of large 13th 14th century humanoid sarcophagi showing clear Egyptian influence.   This, the curators are saying, may be called the Israel Museum, but we will not follow, or even endeavor to present, a narrative history of the Israelites.  Rather, we intend to depict this land as a space occupied by a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of   cultures.

The sarcophagi fill the first room of the archaeology wing.   Only a visitor who chances to turn around  will see a large, horned altar tucked behind the entrance panel.     Horned altars are a distinctive form described in the Biblical text.  Several have been found.    This one comes from a temple in Beersheva that was destroyed in the 8th century BCE, thereby corroborating the Biblical story of King Hezekiah’s suppression of altars in other towns as part of his campaign to centralize worship in Jerusalem.

The archaeology wing is filled with inscriptions and objects that could be used to trace the development and history of the Israelites.   The museum could have been arranged so that such a narrative could stand alongside narratives about the rise and fall of Canaanite culture, the arrival and history of the Philistines, the periods of Egyptian influence, conquest and rule, and so forth.

Separating these braided cultural threads into narratives of cultural development and interaction that the visitor could follow through time would help make sense of the complex history of this land.   Instead, there is an endless, confusing, and ultimately numbing procession of objects, here a figurine of a bull, there an inscription mentioning the royal “House of David”.    The museum rarely attempts to draw the visitor’s attention to objects that have excited major scholarly controversies, or overturned widely accepted understandings of the history of the region.

Instead of telling us what Persian, or Phoenician, or Israelite culture was, the curators focus on the way that artifacts produced by these cultures show that they influenced one another.     It is as though exhibit after exhibit in a  sports museum  showed us  the similarities between baseballs and soccer balls, without explaining  what makes soccer and baseball two different games.

The Israel Museum is large.  In another part of the campus there is a large-scale and very popular model of Jerusalem in the first century.   And, of course, the Shrine of the Book, housing the Dead Sea Scrolls.  But, like the history of the Vikings, and the history of Christianity in Sweden, the history of the Israelites is too hot for the curators of the Israel Museum to handle.

*Appelbaum, Diana Muir, “Biblical Nationalism and the Sixteenth-Century States”, National Identities, in press.





Timothy Rosendale on sixteenth century English nationalism

Posted by dianamuir on February 18, 2013
English nationhood, Sixteenth century nationhood / Comments Off on Timothy Rosendale on sixteenth century English nationalism
Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England (review)
Renaissance Quarterly
Volume 61, Number 4, Winter 2008
pp. 1398-1399 | 10.1353/ren.0.0287


Timothy Rosendale’s Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England is an ambitious, innovative, and rewarding study of the liturgical underpinnings of English literary and national culture in the early modern era. It convincingly demonstrates the centrality of the influential (and, among literary critics, understudied) Book of Common Prayer to an emerging national culture. If the English vernacular Bible, which first appeared in print in 1526, legitimized the individual’s encounter with the sacred text, the Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549, allowed the government to control individual participation within public worship. Rosendale’s book argues that this liturgical synthesis between state-sanctioned order and personal religious authority helps explain certain features of the literary flowering under Elizabeth and the Stuart kings. English worship as envisioned by Thomas Cranmer, the principal author of the prayer book liturgy, fundamentally prioritized the representation of divine things as representation, particularly in the crucial Eucharistic service. The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, as expressed in the Mass-rite, provoked hostile Protestant response, Rosendale argues, in part because it collapsed the distinction between sign and referent, host and the literal Body of Christ. The Book of Common Prayer, on the other hand, emphasized the Eucharist as a signifying system of signs and invited individual worshipers to obtain spiritual fulfillment through guided personal interpretation of those signs within a specifically Protestant community.

This approach to England’s religious culture during the reign of Edward VI (1547-53), when the nation was in its heyday of Protestant reform, produces a significant payoff. The first half of Rosendale’s book constitutes a detailed case study of the prayer book itself. It reveals how the liturgy emerged from the royal supremacy, by which Henry VIII and Edward VI governed the English church’s doctrinal and political affairs. Rosendale here provides a perceptive reading of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which defended the Elizabethan establishment during the 1590s against destabilizing Presbyterian attack. Hooker’s theories of order and conformity constitute perceptive analysis of similar principles within the prayer book itself. This portion also offers insightful discussion of successive changes to the Eucharistic service across a series of mid-Tudor revisions to the prayer book, including the more thoroughgoing Protestant service found in 1552 and the 1559 compromise that accompanied the Elizabethan settlement of religion. Rosendale shows how the liturgy increasingly defined public worship as a system of signs and involved worshipers in the interpretive process involved in their decoding.

The Book of Common Prayer attempts, then, to reconcile competing demands made by the government’s effort to preserve uniformity of worship and the Protestant tendency to proliferate competing versions of religious experience through individuals’ encounter with the vernacular Bible. The second half of the book explores this dialectic in writings by Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton, and Hobbes. In each case, Rosendale argues that these writers develop interpretative possibilities that are latent within the English liturgy. Sidney’s view of poetry’s capacity to provoke moral awareness in the Defence of Poetry, for example, is analogous to the prayer book’s emphasis on the process by which worshipers, who double as savvy readers, experience sanctification by properly internalizing Eucharistic representation. Rosendale also delivers a subtle and persuasive reading of the function of representation in Shakespeare’s history plays. In Henry V in particular, Shakespeare employs a discourse of monarchical representation to construct a productive, even if short-lived, national community.

Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England (review)