Nation – Power – Subjectivity

The Making of National Subjects in Late Medieval Bohemia and Brabant (1300-1450)

I invite you to discover a more detailed description of my Marie Curie Fellowship research project …

The City Hall of Leuven, the historical capital of Brabant

This research project aims to challenge classical assumptions about nation formation, by showing how concrete power issues lead, at a time neglected by theoretical work on the nation, to the crystallization of a more or less intense medieval ‘national fact’. Combining an empirical and comparative approach with theoretical reflection, I will set out to understand what made the creation of a nation necessary at a particular moment in European history and society. To that end, I want to address the issue in an original way on two levels – collective and individual –, the responses and actions of individuals being in my opinion essential to understand how the nation has come to be a ‘fundamental political factor’. I argue that, in the context of profound transformations in both religious and political spheres, which increasingly involved the participation and the consent of the individuals from the 13th century onwards, the nation was also being built by engaging and, simultaneously, shaping its own members as ‘national subjects’ sensitive to the idea of the nation and willing to be a part of it. My research will compare the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Duchy of Brabant between 1300 and 1450, two areas that at a time shared the same ruling family, belonged to the Holy Roman Empire and both developed a significant sense of the nation, albeit with different intensity due to the different socio-political context, what will allow me to put my original case study into perspective and to propose conclusions with a relevance for Late Medieval Europe as a whole.

Contexts: The Kingdom of Bohemia and the Duchy of Brabant (1300-1450)

• The Czech nation is the product of many transformations. In 1306, the dying-out of the Přemyslide dynasty, which had ruled the country from the 9th century, reminded to its subjects that the Bohemian kingdom was a stronghold of the Holy Roman Empire. As the King of the Romans, Albert I installed his son Rudolf of Habsburg on the Bohemian throne, concretising the danger of the integration of the Kingdom into the Habsburg possessions. Rudolf died in 1307. His successor Henry of Carinthia was unable to rule the country. The Czech abbots and barons then decided to elect John, the son of the new king of the Romans, Henry of Luxembourg (1308-1313). But the new elected king of Bohemia had to marry the heiress Elizabeth Přemyslide to mark continuity and to accept many demands from the barons (to name only Czechs to the important offices and in his council, to seek the authorisation from barons to levy the taxes except for royal marriages and coronations among others, Inaugural Diplomas, 1310–1311)[21]. The Czech nobility took advantage of the situation to impose itself as the embodiment of the nation, especially through the creation of a new Czech-language literature (Alexandreida, cc. 1300; Dalimil’s Chronicle, 1309–1314). The nation was instrumentalised by the nobility, which intended to present itself as the king’s legitimate partner and to demonise the local bourgeoisie[22], the members of which were of German origin[23]. Not thematised in the 13th century, the nation had become a ‘fundamental political factor’ at the beginning of the 14th century. King Charles IV (1346-1378) developed a comprehensive historiographical programme in order to integrate the Czech people into his own national project[24]. The Hussite movement presented itself as strongly national in order to rally the Czech population to its cause against the Catholic ‘German’ side designated as the common enemy. At the same time, the 15th century also marked the entry into urban politics with the emergence of the estate system[25], the bourgeoisie becoming a strong agent in the construction of national identity till 1620.

• By the 13th century, Brabant had become a powerful duchy[26]. In 1312, John II issued the Charter of Kortenberg[27], which is one of the first acts of the constitution of a modern constitutional state, ultimately leading to the creation of the Estates of Brabant, an assembly composed of members from the clergy, nobility and the cities, that limited the powers of the duke. As in Bohemia, this institutional development was accompanied by the development of a historiographical production, here to the glory of the dukes and the Duchy[28]. John II is at the origin of the writing of the Chronica de origine ducum Brabantiae (1294)[29]. Brabantian identity-building accelerated precisely when Wenceslas of Bohemia, the husband of the Brabant heiress Joan[30], became the new duke (1356). As in Bohemia, the weakening of the authority because of the advent of a foreign sovereign was the pretext for the estates to demand more power. The Joyous Entry of 1356 extended the rights and privileges of the Charter of Kortenberg[31]. Unlike Bohemia, Brabant was dominated by cities, although the importance of the nobility has recently been reassessed[32]. But cities were precisely the breeding ground of national identity[33] as shown by Jan van Boendale (1279-1351) and his Brabantsche Yeesten dedicated to the glory of the dukes of Brabant.

• Subsequently, the fortunes of the Bohemian and Brabant nations differed: while the Bohemian kingdom managed to maintain its national integrity despite its subjection to the Habsburg dynasty in the second half of the 15th century (the political change that marks the end of my study), Brabant was absorbed into the Burgundian-Habsburg Low Countries and ceased to be an independent nation, although Brabantian nationality continues to condition access to the governing functions of the duchy until 1795[34]. This comparison will lead to a series of questions: Can the nation attain political importance only when mature state institutions exist, requiring participation, as against mere acquiescence by the members of the putative national community? Is the status of a simple principality a barrier to nation-building? Did the different linguistic arrangement of the two areas (articulation between dominating/dominated languages and socio-political context) play a role? To what extent does the local-global relationship, i.e. regional identity/submission to the empire, interfere? What are the factors that have led individuals to want to participate in the national project, contributing to its construction and consolidation? This is precisely what we will try to determine by carefully examining the different (changing) contexts, actors, and authorities producing discourses, representations and practices.


A problematic medieval nation

The nation is traditionally seen as inseparable from industrialisation and the development of the liberal economy and capitalism in the 18th century: as the tool of the modern state in Gellner’s and Tilly’s top-down conception, the result of the juncture between capitalism and vernacularisation according to Anderson, or the necessity to constitute economic units large enough to be valid according to Hobsbawm[1]. When medievalists do not categorically reject its existence in their period of interest, they mainly deny any political significance to the medieval nation. Instead they insist that it is essentially cultural[2] and incomparable with the ‘modern’ nation born with the United States of America and the French Revolution, i.e. defined as an organised, sovereign and legitimate political society[3]. Accepting the idea of a strong nationalism in Bohemia, Šmahel limited it to a consequence of Hussitism, speaking of an ‘anomaly’ and losing its deeper (social and political) understanding[4]. In a more interesting way, Reynolds insisted on the political character of the nation as a ‘shared allegiance’, while Geary insisted that, although it is an ‘imagined community’, the nation could not be limited to a discourse but must have been rooted in concrete political realities[5]. Hirschi, Zimmer and Scales linked the emergence of medieval nations with the conflict that they identified between the imperialist/universalist political culture (inherited from Ancient Rome) and the fragmentation of European Christianity into many political entities mired in battles to keep each other at bay, focusing on the international stage (inter-state competition) to explain the birth of the nation[6]. I also insist on the political character of the medieval nation but view it as a phenomenon that is not limited to the state and deeply involves the individuals who compose it.

  • The individual scale and subjectivity

The individual aspect has never been considered in the analysis of the nation and even less so has the philosophical issue of subjectivity. That is why my main sources of inspiration are found largely outside the discipline of history. The Frankfurt School was the first to try providing the missing (and crucial) link between the ideal/ideological superstructure and socio-economic base, through its critical theory and a synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis[7]. In the same vein, Althusser’s writings on the Ideological State Apparatuses (the organisation of the social life so that the dominant ideology can create subjects who reproduce the social order) and Foucault’s conception of biopower (as the power based on scientific and expert knowledge about individuals as both social and biological beings) identify the workings of the subject formation as the central elements of modern power[8]. Until the 1970s, medievalists have shown little interest in the individual. Some of them consider the time they are working on to be too exotic and irrelevant to our own world, and refuse to import modern notions of individuals, identity, and subject in it[9]. Despite these reservations, several scholars (De Libera, Imbach) have focused on the question of the individual in the field of medieval philosophy, to shed light on the strictly medieval prehistory of the passage between heteronomy and autonomy[10], classically situated during the Renaissance (Burckhardt)[11]. Historical anthropology has also broken away from this framework and focused on the individual as an agent by identifying several representative figures of medieval society[12]. Bedos-Rezak and Iogna-Prat argue that the medieval period played a crucial role in the long genesis of the individual who already expressed himself in the first person without distinguishing himself from the group that defined him (family, lineage, parish, manor)[13]. At the intersection between cultural anthropology and historical anthropology, the ‘history of emotions’ insists on the historicity of emotions in order to stop projecting our contemporary conceptions and rediscover their medieval nature[14]. Invaluable to an understanding of the medieval subject and subjectivity, all these works concentrate rather on the history of ideas or emotions and on the understanding of the ‘medieval’ person for itself. These authors do not directly address the link between the individual perspective and the structure and political issues which is at the heart of my research question.


An archaeology and an operative concept of the nation

The nation did not appear ex nihilo at the end of the 18th century. While it was not the dominant referent and the main object of political discourses in the ‘premodern period’, the nation had already become one of the effective sources of legitimacy in the late medieval struggles for more power between the sovereign and political society, as well as between the different social groups in that society. Many sources clearly show that the ability of the representatives (the king, the states) to embody the interests of all had become a major argument in these struggles from the 13th century. At the same time, the idea of the nation began to be increasingly used to symbolise this political community subject to a common authority. Step by step, the nation became an important referent of identification and the support of an ideology in the context of the emergence of modern states[15]. In this research, instead of starting from a preconceived and fixed definition of the nation (which carries the risk of a teleological interpretation of its history), I would like to stress its contingent nature. Defined appropriately by Anderson as an ‘imagined community’, the nation is inseparable from the discourse that produces, delimits and actualises it and from the socio-political context in which these discourses emerge. My objective is therefore to propose, for the contexts of Bohemia and Brabant, an archaeology of the nation through a deep analysis of the different discourses on the nation and to reconstruct the different contexts and networks of power relations, competition or conflict, in order to retrace the mechanisms of the use of the nation (and thus its function) in political argumentation. In this research, I want to break with what I call the ‘logic of replacement’. So far, the nation is conceived of as a new system of representation and identification that radically replaced what preceded it. For example, according to Benedict Anderson, the nationalist imagination replaced the religious imagination at a time when rationalist secularism was emerging in the wake of the Enlightenment. However, I think that the interaction is more complex, since the two phenomena – religion and nation – are not independent. On the contrary, it is the transformation of religion, in response to very clear spiritual and psychological factors, and perceptible through the many movements of reform (and heresy), that prepared the ground for secularisation and nationalism. More than a fixed and value-judgmental definition, I intend to elaborate an operative concept of the nation. By operative concept, I mean a conceptual medium, a theoretical concept that is not essentially characterised by its objective or thematic definition, but by the intellectual operation, the multifaceted application, that it allows for[16].

  • Theorising the national subject(ivity)

To understand the nation and the ideology that results from it (nationalism), it is essential to take into account the individual perspective. I intend therefore to theorise the making of national subject(ivity) in the late Middle Ages. To exist, the nation needs individuals to identify themselves with it. I argue that the emergence of national discourse was due to two factors. First, it was an accurate response to new needs of individuals as a consequence of religious[17] and political[18] transformations requiring participation, involvement and consent. Second, it was a tool for the authorities and their competitors in the struggle for more power. The main aim of this project is to connect the collective and individual aspects of the nation by taking into account the process of individuation. At the same time, the nation became a major object of identification (individual level) and a source of legitimacy (collective level). There are two main stages in the process of creating individuals as subjects with particular consciousness: first, the life-long socialisation (religious and educational institutions, the family, the village and the city, legal system, political organisations); second, an ideologically organised way in which power addresses individuals as free and autonomous subjects (which echoes the rise of the ideology of free will ever since the Gregorian reform in the 11th century). Individuals are treated as subjects with a unique sense of personhood and identity, which results in individuals accepting themselves as subjects of power entitled with ideas of free choice, attitudes, and beliefs. They are integrated in the political system which at the same time satisfies and nourishes their beliefs, self-perception and aspiration, and transforms them into national subjects identifying themselves with the national project based on the ideology on the ‘common good’ and of the sense of community. The ideology provides an ‘imaginary form of existence’, which functions as a means of interpretation of both collective and subjective lived experiences. My objective is therefore to reconstruct this normative apparatus as well as this ‘imaginary form of existence’ and the system of values and beliefs which produced not only norms but also new desires linking the individuals, transformed in national subjects, to the collective national project.

  • Thematise medieval nationalism

Historians are reluctant to recognise the existence of the political nation (for some of them that of the politics, like Guerreau) in the Middle Ages, the issue of nationalism is even more problematic for this period. Historians commonly argue that the idea of nationalism does not fit in the medieval period since the motif of nation is always used to serve another cause. Scücz uses the term of ‘Adelsnation’ to refer in this context to the Hungarian noblemen, while Uhlíř talks of ‘protonationalism’ about the same phenomenon in Bohemia[19]. Their judgment stems from the commonly accepted definition that nationalism is a purely nation-centred ideology. Anderson correctly noticed the conceptual poverty of nationalism and its usual combination with other political ideologies, what Freeden conceptualised as a ‘morphological analysis of ideological configurations’. According to him, nationalism is a ‘thin-centred ideology’, i.e. an ideology unable to offer complex ranges of arguments and therefore forced to integrate with other ideologies (liberalism, conservatism, etc.) in configurations that modulate its content and meaning in accordance with the type of community that supports it[20]. I argue that the question of nationalism is inseparable from that of the nation. Nationalism must already exist as soon as the nation becomes a ‘fundamental political factor’, i.e. is an argument for legitimacy within a society. In the context of this research, the Czech nobility associated the nation with feudalism and conservatism and used it to invalidate and inhibit social transformations, while in the Brabant urban milieu the nation was linked with the ideas of political representation and liberty in the sources produced. My objective will therefore be to reconstruct the different discourses formulated about and for the nation and to retrace the ideologies they entail. Then, I want to propose a typology of the configurations in which they are embedded in order to better understand the worldview and value grid of the ‘communities’ that formulate them.

[1] Anderson B., Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1983; Gellner E., Nations and Nationalism, 1983; Hobsbawm E., Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 1991; Tilly C., States and Nationalism in Europe 1492-1992, Theory and Society, 23/1, 1994, p. 131-146.

[2] Pleszczynski A. et. al., Imagined Communities: Constructing Collective Identities in Medieval Europe, 2018

[3] Beaune C., Naissance de la nation France, 1985; Nation et nations au Moyen Âge. XLIVe congrès de la SHMESP (2013), 2014.

[4] Šmahel F., Idea národa v husitských Čechách, 1971.

[5] Reynolds S., Kingdoms and Communities, 1984; Geary P.J., The Myth of Nations. The Medieval Origins of Europe, 2003.

[6] Scales L. & Zimmer O. (eds.), Power and the Nation in European History, 2005; Hirschi C., The Origins of Nationalism. An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany, 2012; Scales, The Shaping of German Identity. Authority and Crisis, 1245-1414, 2012.

[7] Fromm E., Escape from Freedom, 1941; Horkheimer M., Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft, 1949; Lorenzer A., Die Wahrheit der psychoanalytischen Erkenntnis. Ein historisch-materialistischer Entwurf, 1974.

[8] Althusser L., Lenin and Philosophy, 1971; Foucault M., Histoire de la sexualité, t.1 : La volonté de savoir, 1976.

[9] Guerreau A., L’Avenir d’un passé incertain. Quelle histoire du Moyen Âge au 21e siècle ?, 2001; Schmitt J.-Cl., Le Corps, les Rites, les Rêves, le Temps. Essais d’anthropologie médiévale, 2001.

[10] De Libera A., L’archéologie du sujet I. Naissance du sujet, 2007; Imbach R., Dante, la philosophie et les laïcs. Initiations à la philosophie médiévale I, 1996.

[11] Burckhardt J., Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, 1860.

[12] Le Goff J. (ed.), L’homme médiéval, 1989; Gourévitch A., La naissance de l’individu dans l’Europe médiévale, 1997.

[13] Bedos-Rezak M. & Iogna-Prat D. (eds.), L’individu au Moyen Âge. Individuation et individualisation avant la modernité, 2005.

[14] Boquet D. & Nagy P., Le Sujet des émotions au Moyen Âge, Paris, 2009.

[15] Strayer J.R., On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, 1970; Genet J.-Ph., La genèse de l’État moderne. Les enjeux d’un programme de recherche, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 118, 1997, p. 3-18.

[16] Fink E., Operative Begriff in Husserls Phänomenologie, in: ID., Nähe und Distanz, 1976.

[17] Genet J.-Ph. (ed.), Vérité et crédibilité : construire la vérité dans le système de communication de l’Occident (XIIIe-XVIIe siècle), 2015.

[18] Coleman J., The Individual in Political Theory and Practice, 1996; Schneidmüller B., Konsensuale Herrschaft. Ein Essay über Formen und Konzepte politischer Ordnung im Mittelalter, in: Heinig P.J. (ed.), Reich, Regionen und Europa im Mittelalter un Neuzeit. Festschrifft für Peter Moraw, 2000, p. 53-87; Genet J.-Ph. (ed.), Consensus et représentation, 2017.

[19] Szücz J., Nation und Geschichte, 1981Uhlíř Z., Národnostní proměny 13. století a český nacionalismus, Folia Historica Bohemica, 12, 1988, p. 143-170; Mezník J., Němci a Češi v Kronice tak řečeného Dalimila, Časopis matice Moravské, 112/1, 1993, p. 3-10.

[20] Anderson, op. cit.; Adams I., Political Ideology Today, 1993; Freeden M., Is Nationalism a Distinct Ideology?, Political Studies, 56, 1998, p. 748-765.

[21] Šusta J., Dvě knihy českých dějin. Kus středověké historie našeho kraje. Kniha druhá. Počátky lucemburské 1308-1320, 1935;Chaloupecký V., Inaugurační diplomy krále Jana z roku 1310 a 1311, Český časopis historický, 50, 1949, p. 69-102; Bobková L., Jan Lucemburský. Otec slavného syna, 2018.

[22] Čornej Petr, Cizí, cizozemec a Němec, in: Chocholáč B. et al. (eds.), Nový Mars Moravicus, aneb Sborník příspěvků, jež věnovali prof. Dr. Josefu Válkovi jeho žáci a přátelé k sedmdesátinám, 1999, p. 97-109; Adde É., Les étrangers dans la Chronique de Dalimil, une place de choix faite aux Allemands, Cahiers du CEFRES, 31, 2011, p. 11-52 ; EAD. La Chronique de Dalimil. Les débuts de l’historiographie nationale tchèque en langue vulgaire, 2016.

[23] Tomek V.V., Dějepis města Prahy, 1892, t. 1-2; Hoffmann F., České město ve středověku v Čechách a na Moravě, 1992; Uhlíř, op. cit.; Mezník, op. cit.

[24] Spěváček J., Karel IV. Život a dílo (1316–1378), 1979; Bláhová M., Kroniky doby Karla IV., 1987; Kersken N., Geschichtsschreibung im Europa der ‘nationes’. Nationalgeschichtliche Gesamtdarstellungen im Mittelalter, 1995; Žůrek V., Karel IV. Portrét středověkého vládce, 2018.

[25] Šmahel F., Obrysy českého stavovství od konce 14. do počátku 16. Století, Český časopis historický, 90, 1992, p. 161-187; Kejř J., Aus Böhmen verfassungsgeschichte. Stadt – Städtwesen – Hussitentum, 2006.

[26] Uyttebrouck A., Le gouvernement du duché de Brabant au bas moyen âge (1355-1430), 1975; Van Uytven R. (ed.), Histoire du Brabant du duché à nos jours, 2004; Boffa S., Warfare in medieval Brabant, 1356-1406, 2004.

[27] Bijsterveld A.-J. et al. (ed.), Het Charter van Kortenberg (1312) als inspiratiebron voor stedelijke identiteit en herinneringscultuur in het oude hertogdom Brabant (veertiende-twintigste eeuw), Noordbrabants historisch jaarboek, 29, 2012, p. 29-45.

[28] Stein R., Politiek en historiografie. Het ontstaansmilieu van Brabantse kronieken in de eerste helft van de vijftiende eeuw, 1994.

[29] Sleiderink R., De stem van de meester. De hertogen van Brabant en hun rol in het literaire leven (1106-1430), 2003; Cauchies J.-M. & Stein R. (eds.), Culture historique: la cour, les pays, les villes dans les anciens Pays-Bas (XIVe-XVIe siècles), 2014.

[30] Bousmar É. et al. (ed.), Femmes de pouvoir, femmes politiques durant les derniers siècles du Moyen Âge et au cours de la première Renaissance, 2012.

[31] Vrancken V., De blijde inkomsten van de Brabantse hertogen: macht, opstand en privileges in de vijftiende eeuw, 2018.

[32] Damen M., Convocatie en representatie. De Staten van Brabant in de late middeleeuwen, Noordbrabants Historisch Jaarboek, 29, 2012, p. 28-45, 247.

[33] Stein R. et al., Whose community? The Origin and Development of the Concept of Bonum Commune in Flanders, Brabant and Holland (Twelfth-Fifteenth century), in: Lecuppre É. (ed.), De Bono Communi. The Discourse and Practice of the Common Good in the European City (13th-16th c.), p. 149-169.

[34] Dubois S., L’invention de la Belgique. Genèse d’un État-nation, 1648-1839, 2005.

[35] Van Uytven, op. cit. ; Bousmar Éric, La crosse et la cité. Nivelles, ville de résidence abbatiale du XIIIe au XVIIIe siècle, Dixième Congrès de l’Association des Cercles Francophones d’Histoire et d’Archéologie de Belgique, vol. II, 2018, p. 188-199.

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