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Did nationalism predate nation states?
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Both nationalism and nation states were created by an awareness of geography

In the fifteenth century, with the development of widespread land and sea transport, people began to develop a stronger awareness of geography and where people existed, meaning nationalism and nation states developed as these oppositions were established.
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The European Renaissance: a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic “rebirth”, based on humanist classical ideas of education and travel, following the Middle Ages.

The Argument

Generally, before the fifteenth century, most people did not travel, or if they did, travelled only short distances within their own area. With the increased availability of means of travel (such as horses, ships and carts), people were more easily able to visit other places, see people with other cultures, and begin making maps which split these groups up into what can be called proto-nation states. Prior to this, many people had never met people whose culture or ethnicity differed from their own, so had no need for any feelings of nationalism, because there was no opposition or different group to compare ways of life with. Only when people became increasingly aware of these others, and split them into nation states, did nationalism also begin to develop as a concept, suggesting that nation states and nationalism developed together, at the same time, due to technological improvements.

Counter arguments

This argument is most applicable to the development of European nationalism and nation states, particularly England and France. Modern concepts of nationalism, for example in the USA, are demonstrably caused by the structures of modern nation states in opposition to others, whilst in other parts of the world, such as Asia and Africa, nationalism played a large role in the formations of societies and economies before even proto-nation states existed. This interpretation is too narrow to apply to all modern nation states and forms of nationalism.


Limited technology and literacy meant many people in the Middle Ages and before had little understanding of different cultures and places. When the Renaissance made travel and cultural exchange possible on a wider scale, people were forced to confront new ways of living and develop nations and nationalism in order to challenge them.


Before the fifteenth century, lack of travel technology meant most people never learned about other cultures or places, so had no need for an understanding of nationalism or nation states. When means of transport became available, people travelled and saw evidence of other cultures and places, meaning they split the world up into nation states, each with new nationalist identities, to understand them. Therefore, nation states and nationalism developed at the same time due to the European Renaissance.

Rejecting the premises

This ignores the fact that some different cultures lived in close proximity to each other, such as the Greek city states. This development of nationalism and nation states only applies in Europe, and does not necessarily explain nationalism and nation states around the world.


This page was last edited on Saturday, 27 Jun 2020 at 16:01 UTC