Living through ethnogenesis?

I was reading Eileen Joy’s post over at In the Middle yesterday morning and she got me thinking about Nicholas Howe (pictured). His book Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England was one of the most important and formative books I have ever read on early medieval studies, particularly on the concept of ethnogensis. In fact it was so formative for me that I have a hard time thinking of my concept maps before I read it. Perhaps it was so important for me because I am a self-taught independent scholar; I’ve never had the opportunity to sit at the knee of the wise ones. (So I will be in mourning next week at my inability to go to Kzoo this year…sigh) It also reminded me its long past time I picked up Howe’s latest two books, Across an Inland Sea and Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England. I can recall only seeing Howe speak at Kzoo once, the topic was ‘From Bede’s World to “Bede’s World”‘, a chapter in Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England and I remember how much he reminded me of Stephan Jay Gould (and that is quite a complement from a biologist!). I went to one of Gould’s traveling lectures when I was in graduate school; he was talking about the Burgess Shale and randomness in evolution in ways that were revolutionary at the time. Alas, they have both left us too soon, but good writers never really leave us; they echo through time even if their thoughts are frozen in time and place. It is up to us to make sure the next generation hears that echo…

This wasn’t supposed to be an elegy for either Nicholas Howe or Stephan Jay Gould. Eileen’s post and Howe’s work made me think a little more about ethnogensis this morning. It occurred to me that in the constructs I’ve discussed in the past (here and here) religious conversion is a pivot point in the development of the ethnogenic process. It occurred to me that if another religious conversion or sea change in religious life occurs, then ethanogensis must become active again. You can’t have one without the other.

Between us and the Anglo-Saxons, at least two such sea changes have occurred. The Reformation was such a change for most of Europe, whether their country remained Roman Catholic or not. There were new definitions of nationhood, first as a protestant country (or a loyal Catholic country), and then as say an Anglican country vs Presbyterian Scotland or Lutheran Germany. Part of this process is developing a caricature of what it was like under the old regime. Many of these caricatures are still with us: completely ignorant lay people in church who couldn’t understand anything said, leaders afraid of allowing laity to read the bible themselves, people guilty of idolatry of church statuary and relics etc. The most effective caricatures have an element of truth, as these do, but are also more wrong than right. First of all, Latin literacy was far greater than most laity today will allow. Access to religious books had more to do with the wealth necessary to obtain the books than control by the church. Recent reading on late medieval Books of Hours has been very interesting on both these points.

Are we living through a period of ethnogensis today? You bet we are. Let’s reexamine the usual parameters of ethnogensis:

  1. Common ancestral past: most people in Western countries have a common history with their countrymen and for that matter a belief in the past ethnogenic construct.
  2. Religious conversion (or a sea change): Yup… secularlism is on the rise, if not the majority; Catholicism and mainline denominations are declining, and independent churches are on the rise. So people are fleeing from Catholicism and mainline denominations in both directions, to no religion and independent churches. Most Western countries also are experiencing for the first time in the last generation significant immigration of non-Christian people (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists etc). Some countries such as the United States are founded on a belief that no one religion can be given advantages over another (even if the founders didn’t anticipate the ‘others’ to be Muslims or Hindus).
  3. Victory over a traditional enemy: Not there yet, but we have an enemy that is both new and traditional. Terrorism is a newish method of war for most Western countries but it is coming from a traditional enemy of Europe, Islam. Granted there has been a long hiatus, but it is an old rivalry between Christians and Muslims with new methods

So all three of these criteria are in process right now. From our vantage point, we could also observe significant changes in technology, economics and communications as being major factors in how our new ethnogenesis will turn out. No doubt, the Anglo-Saxons would have pointed to new (or newly learned) technologies (such as literacy), trade and communications with new peoples as being big factors in their development as well. Like the Anglo-Saxons of Bede’s time, we really aren’t very sure how to characterize our times or predict what our future will be. Like them we are fascinated with the past, the ruins of giants, and incorporate our constructs of the past into our future story. We think that our constructs make so much more sense than theirs (such as the Pictish origin story) but it remains to be seen how our efforts will be evaluated by future generations. I suppose it remains to be seen if a new round of ethnogenesis will help us understand their times better or just put up more barriers.


7 thoughts on “Living through ethnogenesis?

  1. Michelle: very interesting post, and I liked your description of Nick Howe as Steven Jay Gould [!]. But I am wondering, too, how are defining ethnogenesis here? In late antiquity studies, especially of the period of the so-called “great migrations,” the term has become contentious, and a really interesting collection of essays on this point is Andrew Gillet et alia’s “On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages” [Brepols, 2002]. There is also a really cool podcast available at History Compass’s website that features a talk between Andrew Gillett and Felice Lifhsitz over Gillett’s recent History Compass article, “Ethnogenesis: A Contested Model of Early Medieval Europe.” Go here for more on that:

  2. Thanks for your comment and the link. It was an interesting podcast. I do think the context of the information is important. I remember I had a paper rejected by a reviewer once for daring to suggest that Bede would craft his message in the History, that he may have had an agenda that wasn’t purely historical. Sigh…sorry Bede’s wasn’t our idea of a historian. I’ll have to check out Gillet’s book.

    How do I define ethnogenesis? The process that produces the concept of “us” vs “them”. The development of the gens Anglorum, to use Bede’s phrase. Ethnogenesis can mean “English” as in gens Anglorum or Northumbrian. As Bede tells us, the English came from many tribes (Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes plus of course native Britons) but were becoming one people by Bede’s time (at least in his estimation). We all have a variety of identities; they aren’t mutually exclusive.

    I do think we are moving into a period of new ethnogenesis. Europe is certainly moving through this type of period with the evolution of the European Union. Religion is an important part of social change, but not the only part — economics, technology, communications, politics/military –were all important in the early medieval times and are today too.

    Btw, its good to see someone from my alma mater involved in early medieval studies. πŸ™‚

  3. And I wonder, too, if ethnogenesis isn’t a pretty much continual process, on smaller and larger scales, that is always in flux while also creating categories of “ethnic” identity that can have powerful (for better *and* worse) material effects? A really important book that attempts to delineate this process, while also arguing for forms of identity that always have multiple frames of reference (ethnic, political, religious, cultural, etc.) is Amartaya Sen’s “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.” You would likely very much enjoy this book.

  4. On the question of ethnogenesis, behold the humble Canadian! A Canadianist colleague who teaches a variety of early and more modern CanHist said to me last month that our 18 yo students don’t recognize Canada before 1980 (!!!) as their own country — they have to learn about it like any other. Nor do we draw our students from recent immigrant stock. They are small town kids, not big city ones.

  5. 1980? Today’s 18 year olds were born in 1990! πŸ™‚ I suppose their parents talk about the ten years before they were born enough to make those reconizable.

    In the US they can’t remember a President that wasn’t a Clinton or Bush! Lets see today’s 25 year old, were 5 years old when the first Bush was elected. What effect do you think that is having on our election? For them as long as they can remember is Bush-Clinton-Bush. No wonder they favor Obama over another Clinton.

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