Monday, June 29, 2009

A Letter on Ethnogenesis to Patrick W. Geary

Dear Professor Geary,

I am an amateur historian whose interests include the myths peoples invent in order to justify various courses of action, and I have just read your splendid book, The Myth of Nations, which addressed (and often exploded) several questions and answers I had had about the era around the so-called Fall of Western Rome - such as why the Arian heresy lingered so long, and only among certain ("Germanic") populations, and then vanished so entirely, and how the Germanic tribes maintained a separate existence among the groups they ruled when they cannot have been very numerous. Your suggestion that this was done on purpose to keep an elite under the king's particular command from being subsumed in the great mass makes new sense of the confusion, as does your theory of the actual origin of the manpower involved.

(Aside: I noticed recently some spokesman for the Italian government comparing foreign immigrants to the invasions of the Goths, the Huns and the Normans - specifically NOT mentioning the Lombards among the foreign invaders of the peninsula. On the other hand, in a recent article in the NYTimes on the Elgin Marbles controversy, a Greek minister cheerfully admitted, "We were all speaking Albanian and calling ourselves Romans until Winckelmann and Goethe and Ingres and Byron told us we were the heirs of Socrates and Plato and ought to be Greeks." Let's hope he keeps his job - indeed, his life.)

Ethnogenesis is not a word I had been aware of, but it is such an obvious and intriguing concept, the invention of a nationality and the myths to support it, the common ancestry and the divinely favored dynasty, etc. One can see it at work from the very beginnings of Rome, in the legend of a city formed by free men, refugees, bandits seeking out an altar that liberated them and allowed them to join the new state, and on a recent visit to Turkey, I began to study Ataturk's far-ranging experiment to "invent" a Turkish citizenry - was he a Clovis or a Theodoric? It seems the former.

The one footstep in your overall analysis that puzzled me was in understanding how the proto-Slavic nations could have become so very widespread (Novgorod to Macedon) while still speaking so comparatively similar a range of tongues (compared to, say, the dispersal of Germanic or Romance languages, which are far more distinct from each other) without some coherent invasion from a coherent entity. The separation of the Slavs by the Avar entity is perfectly clear, but this part puzzles me. That is one question I wished to ask you.

Another question, which you may not have given much thought to (it being a mere thousand years out of your period, and a thousand miles from Europe), but which intrigues me (as a Jew), is how the process of ethnogenesis that you outline might account for the "state history" and racial legends recorded in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Samuel and Kings - a tale that, in its first chapters, has no contemporary written and very little archaeological backing, and in its later (post-Davidic) chronicle shows clear signs of creative tampering and ethnic myth-making of just the sort you record for the Franks, the Goths, and so on.

A minor but semi-professional point, if the book is reprinted (I hope it will become very well known, and taught, and taken into consideration by students of the period), is that whoever copy edited/proofread the hardcover edition I have read (2002, Princeton) was careless to the point of annoyance about the spelling of unfamiliar names, Slovene becoming Slovine, for example, and Breton indistinguishable from Briton. I'd be delighted to send you my list of errata!

With great admiration and pleasure,

John Yohalem

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