The Problem of French National Identity in the Late Middle Ages

The Problem of French National Identity in the Late Middle Ages

By Nathan A. Daniels

Ex Post Facto: Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University, Vol.19 (2010)

Introduction: And even though this nation is proud and cruel toward its enemies, as its name signifies, it is merciful toward its subjects and those it dominates . . . Thus, it is not without reason that this lady is renowned above all other nations . . .

So wrote Primat, a monk at the abbey of Saint-Denis, in his preface to the Grandes Chroniques de France, the official chronicle of the history of France and its kings. Compiled and edited from older histories in the 1270s, the Grandes Chroniques detailed the deeds and heroics of the French people and kings, beginning with their mythical Trojan ancestry, and extending through the present. While this was not the first vernacular historiography of France, it was by far the most popular, copied and illuminated in countless manuscripts during the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, of which over one hundred and thirty survive today. Of particular importance, is Primat’s use of the word nation in describing France—a term that has caused problems of definition for scholars over the past century. Craig Calhoun argues that in the premodern era, the term ‘nation’ was apolitical, referring solely to a people linked by birth and culture. However, such a definition cannot suffice to describe what Primat meant by this term. France, while by no means a modern nation-state, nevertheless underwent a period of significant change during these centuries, during which history, race, culture, tradition, ritual, and monarchy became intertwined to form a new definition of what it meant to be French. The presence of this emerging national identity challenges traditional notions of what nationalism means outside of modernity.

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