30 January 2021

National Identity and Pre-Capitalist Europe

Mike Haynes and Ilya Afanaysev discuss the problems of understanding ‘national’ identity in pre-capitalist Europe

This discussion that follows began as a response to a challenge posted on Facebook which then developed into a set of private exchanges that seem worth making more widely available. The issue is how to understand the idea of national identity in the period before the rise of capitalism.

Mike Haynes is an historian who was a written widely on the modern history of capitalism and especially Russia.1He is currently trying to draw his ideas together for a book on the history of capitalism built around the role of states. Ilya Afanasyev is a medievalist historian, researching the concepts of nationhood and their discontents; more recently, he has been working on ‘dynasty’ as a ‘modern’ historical and political concept arising in the context of capitalist and colonialist hegemony.2

The exchange began with Haynes summarising some ideas and posing them as challenge for comment. Afanasyev was the only person to focus on the question of identity in pre-capitalist Europe. The exchanges developed from there.

Mike Haynes:  I began by wanting to write 2-3 pages on the history of the idea of the nation and its link to the idea of the ‘state’ for a chapter of a book I have been working on. I have now got 30-40,000 words! I am an economic and social historian – essentially of the period after 1750.  I am familiar with outlines of earlier history but I have never given it enough attention.

My argument, at the moment, (broadly following the ‘modernist approach) is that the idea of nation and national identity begins to emerge in Netherlands, British Isles, France from sixteenth century. It turns into nationalism in the late eighteenth century and the national model is then generalised. In Russia (as elsewhere), at least at the top, the modern idea of a Russian nation develops very quickly from say 1800 to 1830s but it takes much longer to sink roots and never does so as consistently as some western ideas of nation. 

This is not at all new but I am trying to work through it so I can see the mechanisms more clearly.3 I have yet to achieve originality and probably never well but clarity would be a good gain. Below is a crude diagram that I am working with at the moment.

Structural Elements Explaining Development of National Identities and lack of them in Medieval Times


If this is correct, then much of the earlier history that is built around the idea of the ‘nation-state’ or even the ‘proto-nation-state’ is wrong. The trick of national history writing for the most advanced ‘nation-states’ is to give the impression that these ‘countries’ have always existed rather than being modern creations. Something as simple as pushing back the naming areas of land and the peoples on them further than is really justified creates a false sense of continuity.

Any comments on the following would be helpful.

1. Often (always?) it seems names start as geographical expressions loosely linked to peoples and given to them by more powerful outsiders. They are then later appropriated internally and imposed back.

2. Britain derives from the Roman name for the province it ruled as part of the Roman Empire. We have no idea what the peoples of the islands called themselves or the lands they were on.  Similarly, during the Roman era, we do not know what concepts survived in non-Latin vernaculars.

3. The name England refers to name later Latin writers gave to the land of the AnglesIn the mid fifth century AD a series of population movements began of peoples from areas of modern-day Denmark and Germany to the land of modern-day England. We call these peoples the Angles, Jutes and Saxons etc. We do not know

(a) What these people called themselves?

(b) What varieties of languages they spoke?

(c) The degree of mutual intelligibility?

It is said that 85% of the words they spoke do not appear in modern English and the remaining 15% will form a much smaller part of the huge vocabulary of English today so any continuity is very limited.

4. In the 6th century, when Latin speaking missionaries arrived their concepts and naming became the high-status ones. By the 7th century some Latin speakers in ‘Europe’ were naming a still vague geo-political space – ‘Anglia’. The name England therefore derives from Latin and it may have been a Latinised version of one of the several names used by these peoples.

5. People in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England spoke a variety of vernacular languages – we tend to know the higher status ones because these were embodied in writing.  England is therefore an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ appropriation and domestication from Latin. Things became more complex from 789AD with the beginnings of Viking invasions. They controlled large parts of ‘England’ (Danelaw) this led to new shifts via ‘Old Norse’ (words like ado, anger, berserk, billow, blunder, cake, fog).

6. ‘Anglia/ England’ ceased to be a geographical expression when some degree of feudal unity was imposed from the late 10th century. But this was a loose top down unity.

7. It was disrupted by the Norman Conquest which created another top down ‘Anglo-Norman’ polity for several centuries so that the concept of England still remains a problem because of internal disunity and unifying elements across the channel.

Ilya Afanasyev:  I think, your number 7 is a good example of the potential pitfalls in this kind of argumentation. ‘Anglo-Norman’ is much more of a retrospective historiographical projection for post-1066 England than ‘English’. There is, I believe, one twelfth-century text that does use ‘Anglo-Norman’ as a term, but it is an idiosyncratic exception, while the post-Conquest kings did rule as ‘the king of the English’, and ‘England’ (in Latin, French, or English) was the most common term to describe the land they claim in the British Isles. In terms of ‘unity’ of this polity (whatever that means), the Norman conquest didn’t disrupt it, but, instead, intensified it (while of course creating the situation of overlapping power structures with the continent).

My point – and I can’t emphasise this more – is not to argue for some real continuity of ‘England’ or essential ‘Englishness’ or any such methodologically and politically nationalist nonsense. It’s really about the fact that this kind of modernist critique of national narratives doesn’t go far enough. Even if there is one ‘name’, what does it prove really? Nothing but the fact that subsequent state systems successfully reproduced a certain hegemonic nomenclature. The continuity of a name should not be taken as a proof of the country’s continuous existence in the first place – this leads straight into methodological nationalism, just with a shorter projected history of a given nation (but why should that matter?).

As a side note, in my experience, more and more nationalists (at least, nationalist intellectuals) are very comfortable with modernist view of ‘the nation’, so disproving some simplified version of the nineteenth-century mythologies of national continuity seems to miss the point in any case.

Mike Haynes: On the issue of Anglo-Norman – yes. I think the problem is that people talk as if there was a self-evident English nation-state after 1066. If they recognise the cross-channel nature of the polity (I prefer that word at the moment) then they treat the ‘Norman’/‘French’ bits as an appendage. But we lack a language to capture what existed.

For example, John Gillingham is a historian who stresses the cross channel Anglo-Norman/ Angevin polity but he cannot escape using national terms. Thus, he writes that after 1066 ‘the English resented becoming an oppressed minority in their own country … England received not just a new royal family but also a new ruling class, a new culture and language. Probably no other conquest in European history has had such disastrous consequences for the defeated’.4 Here, England appears as the Cheshire cat – almost but not quite there. It is this problem that I am trying to work through.  

Ilya Afanasyev: As for that nationhood theme, well, a problem with Gillingham (and many other historians who started writing about ‘ethnicity’ and ‘national identity’ in the middle ages from 1980s, and especially in the 1990s and 2000s) is that they want to have it both ways (at times, I think, without even seeing a contradiction).

On the one hand, they want to distinguish themselves from earlier scholarship – traditional nationalist historiography that allegedly took ‘nations’ for granted (typical nineteenth-century national meta-narratives, origins & continuity stories and all of that). To do that, they use some rhetoric along broadly constructivist lines: more empirical types (like Gillingham) would simply say that ‘nationality’ is ‘subjective’, ‘a matter of identification, etc’, not a given, more theory-oriented types would talk about ‘social constructs’ etc.

On the other hand, they still write about ‘peoples’ and ‘countries’ as if they are bounded entities that do exist out-there-in-the-world in some kind of objectively measurable way and can even be presented as agents of continuous historical process: ‘the English’ did this and that, etc. The passage from Gillingham you quoted is very typical of this tendency.

My impression is that this, in general, corresponds to the centrist confusion around ‘the nation’, this kind of centrist attempt to square the circle of treating nationalism as bad but still accepting the nation-state as legit. Now, of course this still leaves us with the question of what to do with all the references to ‘peoples’, ‘nations’, ‘the English’, ‘the French’ etc, etc. in medieval texts and documents (in that sense, I would disagree with the thesis that the idea of the nation develops in the sixteenth century). I don’t think that the modernist response to this – either these words meant something totally different or even if they meant the same or something similar, they didn’t matter – is satisfactory.

It’s not even a question of empirical evidence (albeit one can go on and on about all sorts of evidence, including non-literary evidence for the social and political uses of ‘national’, ‘ethnic’ terms in the middle ages) – for me it’s a political question: my impression is that this kind of view (modernist view, I mean), somewhat ironically, takes many of modern nationalism’s claims at face value (e.g. ‘the nation’ is a new type of state – radically different from ‘feudal/dynastic monarchy’, nation is horizontal, democratic, nation is about equal citizenship, etc., etc.).

So, I have spent quite a few years thinking about how we can make sense of medieval evidence in such a way that neither dismisses it as irrelevant nor ‘gives in’ in any way to any kind of essentialist, primordialist, methodologically nationalist nonsense. Not sure, I am fully happy with the results, but if you’re interested, I can send you the introduction to my thesis which tries to sort out this debate. Meanwhile, there is a very good recent book by Geraldine Heng on the invention of ‘race’ in the European Middle Ages, which in many ways pursues a similar project to what I’ve been trying to do, but focusing more on ‘race’ than on ‘nation’.5 Perhaps, this may be helpful. I hope Heng’s book will have some influence beyond medieval studies.

And to reply to your comment elsewhere – yes, indeed, it was largely in conversations with Russian nationalists that I discovered that quite a few of them actually like modernism (and even Anderson in particular!) a lot. First, I found that surprising, but then I thought that this makes some sense. These were of course ‘intellectuals’. It would be interesting to know if this kind of appropriation of modernism exists among nationalist ideologues elsewhere.

Mike Haynes: Many thanks I would love a copy of the thesis. At the moment, I am trying to put some numbers to the structural issues I am discussing. I am using the work of van Zanden who does neo-classical economic history but is still interesting.6  I am reading some medieval stuff in English but cannot get too sucked into it as other things to do in terms of later period. I am interested at the moment by impact of Walter Scott and music in St. Petersburg and court in 1820s and 1820s in terms of crystallising an idea of nation in Russia. I have some court memoirs in translation which are fascinating in terms of asides which show how quickly ideas moved – the paradox of the international opening spaces for the national.

One of the big things about Scottish nationalism today is its urban/ modern focus. Dressing up in invented kilts is for more for tourists. There is a similar element to Ireland. Better to be a Dublin focused Celtic tiger than in the countryside running around imagining links to a mythical past. So, in that sense, some similarity to Russian nationalism perhaps?

Ilya Afanasyev Yes, it is indeed very interesting how much various forms of international structures can enable ‘the national’. In some ways, we can see the same with medieval Church – a pan-European (and beyond) structure, it did spread ethnicising discourses throughout polities that were part of it. It was the same with medieval universities – another fairly international/interregional institution that was a hotbed for ‘national’ stereotypes and rhetorics. Anyhow, I am attaching the introduction to my thesis – with two banal caveats: a) it’s unpublished work and b) due to the constraints of the genre it of course contains lots of random technical stuff. But perhaps the general framework may be of some distant interest. Meanwhile, may I ask you what your project is about in general? It looks very interesting.

Mike HaynesThat is great – just opened it and I see you are engaging with the claims of the Welsh medieval historian R.R. Davies who I have devoted several hours to today.7 I thought it very poor but in a fascinating way. I see there is also Gillingham and some stuff I know but haven’t read as well as stuff I do not know.

Ilya Afanasyev: Yes, Davies and Gillingham actually form a rather curious pair of key scholars in this subfield: the latter parading some kind or hegemonic but ironic ‘Englishness’, the former – subaltern ‘Welshness’.

Mike Haynes:  My aim (see below) is with the attempt to create master narratives of nation, state etc that exist to an extent outside history (or crudely the feudalism-capitalism divide).  This does not mean that elements of these did not pre-date capitalism but it does mean that we cannot read them through a master narrative. I would argue that we need to understand how such elements as existed were reconstituted and built up from the late fifteenth century onwards as feudalism gave way to capitalism. Material conditions shifted to enable concepts to be developed and acquire an intensified significance and be generalised across large populations in a way that was not possible before. In one sense this aspect is not so different from Anderson but although print capitalism was involved so was a lot else. 

On the bigger question of what am I doing? Well, I am now more or less retired but spent my career at a low status UK university teaching lots of different things. I had no real opportunity to specialise. Russia for a long time was a key interest but there have been lots of other things too. [Many of my pieces are on Research Gate] I was asked to collect some published essays in a book for Brill with an introduction but I foolishly said no. Instead, I would write a book drawing it altogether. Sadly, I am way behind and finishing it is a long way ahead but I do hope to do so. And I am continually writing stuff – some of which gets published.

So what is the theme?  When it comes to Russia, I am a state capitalist. There was a genuine revolution in 1917 but it degenerates into state capitalism by first Five Year Plan. I have argued this in books and papers on Russia but my interest has always been much wider.

Most of the left think that state capitalism is a stupid idea – a special theory for a special place – Stalin’s Russia.

But, from the very start, the idea of state capitalism seemed to me to be a key element of capitalism (my master narrative) everywhere and this is what I am trying to write about. and to produce the historical scaffolding for.  But to do this I have to slice through key debates you are familiar with. So

  1. Can we analyse capitalism nationally or do we have to see it as a global system? If a global system – how do the national and the international relate to one another. Answer they are mutually constituted. 
  2. In particular is the inter-state system  part of capitalism or something that exists side by side with it.  Answer it is part of capitalism. (So Benedict Anderson is wrong here, for example.)
  3. What is the state – is it simply a supporter of capital or an active force? Answer it is an active force.
  4. What about free labour versus coercion? Answer those who reduce capitalism to free labour are wrong. I am a big Banaji fan. 
  5. How does economic competition relate to militarised force?  Such force is not separate from capitalist competition. 
  6. So how does war relate to capitalism? It is central to it. We can neither ignore it nor argue that it somehow occurs outside of capitalism.

I put these crudely but you will see the ambition and how this underpins some of the things I write or ask questions about – especially about early and late capitalism.   

Now, my problem is that I do not want to produce an abstract theory but a concrete historical analysis and a lot of the information is scattered.  I am trying to be strong empirically which I am finding very demanding – I feel very lonely on this mission! I keep hitting walls that I need to overcome or – just as often – get led down sideroads which take on a life of their own. I am sure as a historian you can appreciate this. My interest in the medieval issue is only the latest example. I wrote a critique of political Marxism and Tsarist Russia8 which really helped in lots of ways but it took almost a year which, with hindsight, was a bit stupid. 

During it, I discovered that, before 1914, Russia was exporting 4 billion eggs a year to the UK. I thought that is extraordinary and I spent several weeks researching this and then got stuck because I could not get hold of a contemporary book.

When I was employed, I had to move on. Now I want ‘to do stuff right’.  I hope that this doesn’t sound too stupid. I want to produce a manuscript that has a really powerful empirical dimension – like the Heng book and I am guessing your whole thesis has. Although I have written several books, I feel that I have only achieved the depth I now want in occasional pieces.

I do have to contain my concerns with the medieval period but it would be great to keep in touch as your interests seem wide too. 

Ilya Afanasyev: Many thanks for this detailed explanation of your project. This sounds really wonderful and extremely interesting. But, yes, I totally understand how difficult it is to assemble the necessary empirical data for this kind of investigation. In some ways, I’m facing a not so dissimilar problem: I’ve got quite interested in ‘dynasty’ – not as a paradigmatic premodern concept/institution (curiously, the word was barely used before the late eighteenth – early nineteenth centuries, and usually in a very different meaning from what we mean by it), but as, on the one hand, a modern conceptual invention (why suddenly ‘dynasty’ got such purchase as a historical and political concept from the nineteenth century onward?) and, on the other hand, as a specifically early-modern ‘political form’ – in fact innovative one and directly related to capitalism, ‘primitive accumulation’ and all of that.

But, while it’s easier to get data for the first – largely intellectual history/ideology question, I am still not sure how to go about sorting out evidence for the second – political economy/state-form question. I am very interested in the question of ‘state capitalism’ beyond the debate about the USSR. In fact, we had a little argument with a colleague and comrade about whether Peter I’s Russia, for example, should be conceptualised as ‘state capitalist’. Is this the kind of direction you’re going?

On the medieval aspect, yes, I got it that it’s really a side issue for your project, so would only briefly note that I see this slightly differently. My impression is that any state system is actually fairly effective in imposing some form of identification on the ‘territory’ and population it claims to control; to me this seems like a direct instrument of making both humans and non-human animals, land into something legible for exploitation, extraction, etc. In that sense I see capitalism and the ‘modern’ interstate-system of so-called nation states as an intensification of earlier dynamics rather than something completely unprecedented. And, more specifically, we do have quite a lot of evidence for this kind of ‘ethnicising’ language spreading on the ground before the fifteenth century – not least, exactly because people, including commoners, had to deal with state systems and their ideologies (to give just one excellent example based on the very interesting work of my colleague Eliza Hartrich, merchants in Irish towns controlled by the English crown in the late Middle Ages were trying to present themselves as ‘English’ in order to get urban citizenship because that gave them economic and social rights in both Ireland and in other lands controlled by English kings, especially ‘England’).  

Mike Haynes:Peter the Great and state capitalism – in theory yes, in practice not sure. State capitalism was a part of the rise of capitalism in the west. I am sure it is in Russia in the nineteenth century but the key issue is when does ‘capitalism’ come to be the determining factor. What I take from Banaji is that this is not an issue of the purity of form since forms are always impure but an empirical question of what determines what? 9 And this is another avenue (Petrine Russia) that I haven’t yet worked through I have a small library in my attic but it sadly does not include the translation of Tugan Baranovsky. So I need to know a lot more about serf ‘factories’ and mines etc.10

Ilya Afanasyev: Would you know why they needed all those eggs in the UK, by the way? I guess, it should be for some industrial purposes (some paint?), not for consumption? 11 Yes, see your point about the empirics of the regime initiated (or perhaps intensified) under Peter. I don’t know the details myself, unfortunately, but an important question to keep in mind.

Mike Haynes:   I am still working on my big project but the section on nation identity has had to more or less go. But I have come across an issue that I want to ask you about. I have just read about the idea of Angelcynn as a term to describe many of the local inhabitants in the late ‘Anglo-Saxon period’. I am reading people like Sarah Foot 1996 who want to make it the basis of English identity. So, for example,  she writes, ‘For the year 886 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that King Alfred had occupied London and that all the English people (all Angelcyn) who were not under the subjection of the Danes, submitted to him’.’12

I am struggling even more with this than later stuff. I wonder what your view is? They keep translating it as English or even England whilst acknowledging its meaning is more about kinship. This just seems to me to be a sleight of hand. Am I wrong?

Ilya Afanasyev: As for Angelcynn, I would say that translating it as ‘the English’ is not so misleading. Yes, ‘cynn’ refers to kin/family, but kinship metaphors are central to many ethnicising nomenclatures and meta-terms. Most relevantly to this case, we can look at the Latin vocabulary of ‘gens’ and ‘natio’ – both words are etymologically connected with ‘birth’, and ‘gens’ was often used to denote kinship groups, like lineages, families etc.; so perhaps whoever coined this term was simply thinking of how to say ‘gens Anglorum’ in Old English. So I guess I would not think that there is any sleight of hand as such if one claims that when tenth- and eleventh-century texts used the word ‘Angelcynn’ they meant something like ‘the English’.

Now, that said, I think there is still often a problem with the historiography that deals with these topics. I mean I haven’t reread this stuff for ages, since it’s a bit too early for (what used to be) my proper research focus, but I think some of these people seem too keen to jump towards all sorts of teleological and methodologically (if not politically) nationalist conclusions by writing about late Anglo-Saxon England as a ‘nation-state’ (or even – not uncommonly – ‘the first nation-state’).

Predictably, I think, one should not take this kind of ideologies expressed in medieval texts at face value and turn them into any kind of objectified reality. This is not to say that by definition ‘Englishness’ didn’t matter to anyone on the ground (quite likely it did). So, in my view, a leftist response to this default national orientation of the mainstream historiography shouldn’t be any kind of rigid rejection of the possibility of these categories mattering or even existing at all before so called ‘modernity’. Rather, we should be able to understand these phenomena as what they are (and were) – ideological claims, often but not exclusively emanating from ‘the state’ (albeit Anglo-Saxon England does seem to be a good example of ‘the Church’ being maybe even more central to the initial formation of an ethnicising discourse and of national categories, like ‘the English’). This is to say (at the risk of repeating myself in a convoluted manner), that I think that the weakness of the mainstream historiography is not so much in projecting anachronistic meanings onto the words used in sources (e.g. translating Angelcynn as ‘the English’), but in ignoring – unwittingly or not – any gap between these words as discourses/ideology and social reality as a whole, while being only too willing to turn the discourse/ideology of ethnicity/nationhood into the objective existence of ‘nation-state’ as a thing (a typical reification of course).

Doing that is not only politically problematic (naturalising nations, etc.), it’s also not good for research, since by equating ideology and reality one forecloses (or at least obstructs) the main/most important question: what was the effect of ideology? Did it matter on the ground? How? To whom? How it was reproduced? What did this ideology do from a materialist point of view? Etc., etc. Sorry, this may not be a very clear reply, but I hope you see what I mean – the real issue is not so much how one translates Angelcynn, but what one then does with this and other such terms.

Mike Haynes: You have given me a lot to think about as I try to formulate my ideas. The other day I was trying to explain to someone that the famous debate between E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson was partly about how to do history. Thompson wanted it to be rooted in ‘experience’ while Anderson insisted on theory.13 Thompson was not anti-theory but wanted it to be grounded in something and felt that Anderson did not do that. I want that grounding in my own work but when I move outside of the period and places that I am familiar with it becomes harder. This is why I have enjoyed your attempts to deepen my understanding of something that is unfamiliar to me. In the book I am working on I cannot do justice to these arguments about the period before 1800 let alone the medieval one but I hope that I can emulate the care with which you have considered the issues I have raised.




Image from anonymous (Queen Mary Master) – this file: scan dated 2009, uploaded (without identification of the source) 12 May 2010 by Ann Scott

Public Domain


  • 1. Mike Haynes has written widely on the history of modern global capitalism and Russia including Nikolai Bukharin and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, London: Croom helm, 1985; Russia Class and Power,1917-2000, London: Bookmarks and more recently Productivity, Newcastle: Agenda, 2020. He has co-edited with Jim Wolfreys, History and Revolution. Refuting Revisionism, London: Verso, 2007.
  • 2. Ilya Afanasyev specialises in medieval and early modern history. His PhD was on Nationcraft in Twelfth-Century England. University of Oxford, 2020. He has also published on the notion of ‘dynasty’ and its genealogy as a ‘modern’ political and historical concept: Ilya Afanasyev & Milinda Banerjee. ‘The Modern Invention of ‘Dynasty’: An Introduction’, Global Intellectual History (2020): 1-14.
  • 3. The argument put by Haynes here is a merging together of the arguments of Benedict Anderson about the links between national identity and print capitalism and the arguments of those like Ernest Gellner about the central role of the French Revolution and what he saw as modernity in general but which Haynes thinks is of as capitalist modernity. On the importance of Anderson see ‘Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: A Symposium’, Nations and Nationalism, vol. 22 no.4, 2016.
  • 4. John Gillingham and Ralph A. Gittings, Medieval Britain. A Very Short Introduction, London: OUP, 1984, p. 2.
  • 5. Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • 6. Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten Van Zanden. ‘Charting the ‘Rise of the West’: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, a long-term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries’, The Journal of Economic History 69.2 (2009): 409-445. Van Zanden is a leading historian of the Low Countries in fourteenth to eighteenth centuries.
  • 7. R.R. Davies, ‘Nations and National Identities in the Middle Ages: An Apologia’, La Revue belge d’Histoire contemporaine, 34 (2004), pp. 567–79;
  • 8. See;
  • 9. Jairus Banaji, Theory as history: Essays on modes of production and exploitation. Brill, 2010.
  • 10. Mikhail Ivanovich Tugan-Baranovsky, The Russian Factory in the Nineteenth Century, (translated by Arthur Levin), Homewood, Illinois: Richard D. Irwin, Inc. for the American Economic Association, 1970.
  • 11. [MH] The eggs appear to have been sold primarily for food. Some were consumed ‘fresh’ and others used in baking. What is fascinating to me is the connection between peasant producers and their hens and the global market.
  • 12. Sarah Foot, ‘The Making of Angelcynn: English identity before the Norman Conquest’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6 (1996): 25-49.
  • 13. E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London: Merlin Press, 1978; Arguments within English Marxism, London: Verso, 1980.