Colin Kidd. British Identities Before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. viii + 302 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-62403-9.
Reviewed by Myron C. Noonkester (Department of History, William Carey College)
Published on H-Albion (April, 2000)
British history may seem the first and last redoubt of an empirical approach to history, but historians of Britain have discovered their own versions of the multicultural and polysemic. The "New British History" resembles "New Labour" in one respect: it sustains interest through the vagaries of Blairite devolution in Scotland and Wales and the thought-provoking interruptions characteristic of northern Irish parley. Colin Kidd here augments his contribution to the enterprise of the moment.
His prior work, Subverting Scotland's Past (1993), sought to remove eighteenth century identity construction from a predictably nationalist milieu. In the stimulating British Identities, he revises and extends his scholarly project by examining roles played by ethnic identities in shaping pre-nationalist, pre-racialist, but not quite pre-imperialist British consciousness.
British Identities is structured in three parts covering, in turn, the contexts of ethnic theology, ethnic consciousness in the three kingdoms, and points of contact for ethnic identities. Kidd's introduction locates materialist, idealist and primordialist apprehensions of nationalism as well as essentialist and instrumentalist readings of its functions. Part I may be a revelation for those who never went to Sunday School or who have reflexively marginalized, if not ignored, the mythical, imaginative and downright false (Ossian, anyone?) elements that made up many early modern attempts at ethnological identification. European identities before nationalism were, according to Kidd, confessional and apologetic.
In a reading that early modern contemporaries would likely recognize as valid, the two chapters of Part I trace the role of a Noachic ethnic theology through European and British contexts. Yea, verily, saith Genesis Chapter Ten, Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham and Japhet[h], who were the fathers of the post-diluvian world that succeeded the confusion of tongues at the tower of Babel. What emerges from this evocation is a flawed and degenerate, but fundamentally connected, humanity.
Postponing the realization of Edward Said's "orientalism," early modern Europeans did not confront an African, American or Asian "other" but sought common Noachic features beneath the veneer of a subsequent (not antecedent) polytheism, a search extended from putatively Lost tribes of Israel in the Americas to the idol Fo as misremembered Noah in China. The richness of this approach, reminiscent of the Chinese catalog used by Foucault as a prefatory shock to rationalist sensibilities in The Order of Things, is seen in the explanation of the post-Diluvian origins of America: (a) Noah sailed there; (b) it was Atlantis; (c) its inhabitants were dislocated tribes described in one of the four deutero-canonical or apocryphal books of Esdras; (d) it was associated with the person or gold-laden place called Ophir as mentioned in I Kings and II Chronicles; (e) it was claimed by the Welsh king Madoc; and (f) its soil was incrementally invaded by Asians according to the Acostan thesis of a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska (pp. 14-5). There is a certain amount of half-playful genre-mimicry here with Kidd's later categorizations of varieties of constitutionalism (pp. 79-81) parodying the listing and genealogical mania of ethnological discourse.
If ethnic theology was often a secondary and contradictory concern, it was a representational bulwark of orthodoxy in church and state. Kidd rehabilitates, or exposes, euhemerism, the notion that polytheistic gods are immortalized versions of historical personages, as a Christian reductive technique. The Enlightenment, accordingly, redirected procedures of ethnic theology, deriving Christian saints from pagan deities. The ethnology that compromised enlightened conformability, however, was polygenesis, a notion of the multiplicity of human origins arising out of the heretical thesis of pre-Adamite human ancestry. Ethnic theology's impact on British identities was so considerable that polygenetic challenges could not sunder trinitarian community even in the fraught case of British India. Ethnic theology accommodated reason and naturalism, furthering the brilliant but nearly obsessive heterodoxies of William Whiston and Newton. It complemented stadial history and its Mosaic notions survived not only in the once-abused speculations of Bishop Warburton but also in that vanguard of civil-society thinking, the Scottish Enlightenment. The primary point of interaction between ethnic theology and British identities was in Gothicism as signified by Noachic, Trinitarian Druids, whose mythistorical shades inhabited Blake's Jerusalem. Celts and Saxons, meanwhile, remained connected by their Japhetan lineage, leaving the secularization of knowledge to introduce racialism into what was, literally, an Eden of ethnicities.
In Part II, Kidd reveals the demands made of ethnicity as an ideological prop. As Englishness shifted its attention from immemorialism to Saxonism, Saxonism remained problematized by its Romanism and the demands of the Anglican hierarchy for British origins of their "primitive church" as they imposed polemical restraints upon the ambitions of Catholics and Presbyterians. On the archipelagic scene, a contradiction-producing dilemma was similarly evident in attitudes of lowland Scots toward Gaeldom: they embraced its Dalriadic past as heritage while trying at the same time to extirpate the human Highlands remnants of that past. This inconsistent position, which arose from the need to dispel the Brut legend that accorded the Plantagenet monarchy claim to the whole island, also diverged from the attitude of the Scottish Kirk, whose Reformation encouraged a British yearning for institutional continuity rather than a Scottish insistence upon ethnocentric purity. Even Ireland, where adversarial "otherness" seems least doubtful, staged ideological conflicts within a realm of "imagined communities," which produced the anomalous spectacle of New English protestants appropriating the history of the Old English and the Celtic Church. Thus armed with "bogus identities" and committed to a pattern of "appropriation and denigration," "Janus-faced" New English became the "hobby-horsical" late eighteenth century Ascendancy (pp. 162, 168).
"Points of Contact" in Part III features the awareness that Celts and Saxons shared a common libertarian heritage as reflected in their relation to Noah's grandson Gomer, while the classical definition provided by Cluverius joined Celts and Goths in a common category readily contrasted with "Sarmatian" slavs. Nor, according to Kidd, was there a predictable cleavage between the Anglophone and Francophone worlds. Kidd is exquisitely modest and understated in challenging Linda Colley and Gerald Newman's notions of a Protestant, Francophobe mentality as the foundation of British nationalism. He prefers Gothicism, not as monolith, but as metaphorical resource, its conjuring of "hive" and "womb" providing commonalities that measured hostility and co-opted defenders of Gothic liberties, like the neo-Harringtonian republicans, who lamented the decline of feudal militias. Kidd's notion of concentric -- should one add, terraced, like a castle mound? --loyalties and not bifurcated ones is evocative and challenging. It minimizes the utility of contrasting Britons and a European "other," places limits on Francophobia and makes possible a "Gothick Asia," realized through the agency of the Scythians and celebrated in "Eurasian feudalism." The narrowing of a robust Gothicism into a Nordic Teutonism is thus seen to have been less a matter of race memory than a sin postponed.
If Gothicism created a de facto republic of Europe even among those not sufficiently lettered for canonization, it also helps to resolve the "British problem." Its allegiances brought together the British nation, helped the Anglo-Irish to identify with the English and Europe, provided a matrix for anglicizing America and steeled "radical whig Saxonist" frustration with colonial America's paltry provision of natural rights. The Scottish Enlightenment's rediscovery of a Gothic north Britain and its jettisoning of a Gaelic, Dalriadic past, meanwhile, promoted the experience of feudalism as liberation and enabled a pragmatic sharing of Anglo-Scottish law incipient since the eleventh century.
In a disarming conclusion, Kidd repairs damage that argumentation may have contributed to the nuances of his project. "Otherness," to be sure, is discarded or projected outside the period under consideration, but other conceits are modified or replaced. Ethnic difference becomes differentiation from a common stock, and regnalism is proposed as an alternative to ethnocentrism. Kidd concludes by suggesting that ethnic discourse was secondary because subordinate to claims of hierarchical Christianity and even that the very notion of identity may be anachronistic when applied to the early modern period. Such qualifications reinforce the impression that Kidd has, with shrewdness, verve, and discernment, located several realms of ethnic speculation within the empirical precincts of Anglophone historiography.
Recent scholarship encourages optimism that modern history-writing has survived the decrepitude of its erstwhile partner, the nation-state, which now appears as less of a Hegelian inevitability than an interruptive stage of the explain-all-of-the-moment, globalization. Kidd's achievement, meanwhile, suggests that the "New British History" has both arrived and been transcended by larger, if concentric, concerns. Does the logic of the "New British History" in the "wide-ranging" version promised on the jacket blurb of British Identities dictate consideration of a Long Reformation, a theme detectable in many works of late? Where does Kidd's refurbishing of the relation between ethnicity and nationhood leave imperialism, which sought to elide the two? Investigation of such merely ancillary questions as may occur will owe a great debt to Kidd's effortlessly brilliant research and readable prose, in which are preserved the empirical and discursive elements of the historical enterprise at its best.
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Myron C. Noonkester. Review of Kidd, Colin, British Identities Before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800.
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