Patrick Geary's The Myth of Nations is more timely than he could have anticipated. 'Historians have a duty to speak out,' he writes, 'even if they are certain to be ignored.' Why such passion, such a sense of contemporary engagement, in a book about the very early Middle Ages? Since 1989, this period - between the third and eighth centuries - has been persistently misrepresented by Europe's nationalist and racist politicians, who claim to find in the Middle Ages some kind of justification for their policies. Some historians coyly refute these 'lessons of Europe's past' by saying that no firm conclusions can be drawn from evidence so hard to interpret, or - the ultimate professional abdication - that the past offers nothing from which we can draw lessons for the present and the future. This won't do. Presented with simplistic assertions about 'unambiguous and immutable social and cultural units' differentiated by language, religion, custom and national character, and with determined translations of those assertions into territorial claims, the historian has to be adamant that there is no early medieval evidence for such units, such identities, such exclusive territories.
LRB 5 June 2003 | PDF Download