Saturday, June 11, 2016

Peasants and patriotism

It is sometimes useful to distinguish nationalism from patriotism.  Nationalism often carries overtones of aggression, exclusivity, and/or xenophobia that patriotism doesn't.  A 1971 article by Jacques Godechot embodies the distinction in its title: "Nation, patrie, nationalisme et patriotisme en France au XVIIIe siècle."  

Godechot is cited by Rogers Brubaker in Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (1992) for the argument that French nationalism, as opposed to patriotism, emerged only in 1792 with the revolutionary wars.  Before that, "nationalism existed neither as a 'blind and exclusive preference for all that belongs to the nation' nor as a 'demand in favor of subject nationalities.'" [1]  According to Godechot, "it is...absurd to speak of French nationalism during the first years of the Revolution; patriotism is an entirely different thing." [2]

Patriotism was certainly in evidence long before the Revolution.  I've lately been dipping into Jay Smith's 2011 book on 'the beast of the Gévaudan,' a notorious predatory animal (or animals) that ravaged a remote part of south-central France in the mid-1760s.[3]  In two separate episodes, two people -- a shepherd boy and a middle-aged woman -- stood up to the beast when it attacked rather than running away, thereby becoming not only local but national heroes.  The king, Louis XV, rewarded them monetarily, and the boy, theretofore illiterate, was given an education at state expense and went on to a successful military career (abbreviated prematurely by his death in 1785). 

Smith writes:
Their feats [i.e., the feats of the boy and the woman] were folded into a potent cultural initiative evident in many corners of French public life in the 1760s.  In the wake of a disheartening war [i.e., the Seven Years' War], many writers -- government propagandists, historians, educators, moralists, journalists, novelists, and pamphleteers -- worked to boost national morale and encourage new sentiments of national pride.  Their project grew out of the hardening conviction that even "subaltern heroes," or persons of inferior status, could rise to the level of patriotic paragon, and it reflected the belief that a French identity based on proud sentiments of honor should inspire "patriotic enthusiasm" throughout the "mass of the nation." [4]       


1. Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood, p.8, quoting Godechot, "Nation, patrie..." in Annales historiques de la Révolution française v. 206 (1971).

2. Godechot, "Nation, patrie...", p.498, as quoted in Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood, p.193 n.28. 

3. Jay M. Smith, Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast (2011).

4. Ibid., p.160 (endnote omitted).

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