Conceptions of Ethnicity in Early Medieval Studies

Conceptions of Ethnicity in Early Medieval Studies

By Walter Pohl

Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings, eds. Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein (Blackwell Publishers, 1998)

Introduction: Recently, the problem of ethnicity has been one of the most widely discussed topics in early medieval studies. From the historian’s perspective, the discussion on ethnicity owes its decisive impulse to Reinhard Wenskus. Traditional research has taken the meaning of the terms “people” or “tribe” for granted. In this view, a “people” is a racially and culturally highly homogeneous group sharing a common descendance and destiny, speaking the same language and living within one state. Peoples (and not individuals or social groups) were often seen as factors of continuity in a changing world, as the real subjects of history — almost immutable in its course, indeed more a natural than a historical phenomenon. Their fate was described using biological metaphors: birth, growth, flowering, and decay. This historical conception was rooted in the national movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it had its share in encouraging all kinds of chauvinist ideologies. The idea that anything apart from one people living in one state was an anomaly (and should be corrected by all means) was, tacitly or explicitly, supported by many historians. Even today, after centuries of modern nationhood, the identity of people and state is the exception and not the rule, as the examples of Switzerland, Austria, the Germans, the Jews, the Arabs, the United States, or the Soviet Union show. Today’s nationalist movements in many eastern European countries have rediscovered the nineteenth-century ideal of the homogeneous nation-state; it is sad to see that after so many tragedies it has brought about, some more seem to follow, and often in the name of history.

This situation explains the crucial importance of early medieval studies for the conceptions and preconceptions of ethnicity. Nations that for some reasons felt that they fell short of the “one people, one state” doctrine looked to those sombre times for a justification of their claims. The existence of Romans, Germans or Slavs in the fifth or seventh centuries became important arguments in an endless series of national struggles, culminating in the bizarre revival of the fair and reckless Germanic hero that lured an entire people into the Nazi Holocaust.

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