Where Did Nationalism Come From? An Historic Look at Pre-Modern Revolutionary Nationalism

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Where Did Nationalism Come From? An Historic Look at Pre-Modern Revolutionary Nationalism
Where Did Nationalism Come From? An Historic Look at Pre-Modern Revolutionary Nationalism

Nationalism is a phenomenon that has a long history prior to its present form in modern times. It has always been a model that puts national interests above all others. It has also opposed the unity of Christendom that put God and His law above all things.

Prior to the nationalist scourge, the political systems in Christian civilization were based on the subsidiary principle of “parceled out sovereignty.” This balanced position simultaneously favored a sound localism and a sound appreciation of universal ideals and institutions. This harmonious love of the country and all humanity was illuminated by the Catholic faith, founded on God’s grace and buttressed by the virtue of temperance.

The Decline of Christendom

This harmonious concept of a nation inserted into Christendom unfortunately collapsed at the time of the Renaissance. Thus began a process of moral decadence in which the love of the love of God waned and was gradually replaced by the sensual and proud love of self.

As described in Plinio Correa de Oliveira’s Revolution and Counter-Revolution, “the absolutism of legists, who adorned themselves with a conceited knowledge of Roman law, was favorably received by ambitious princes. And, all the while, in great and small alike, there was a fading of the will of yore to keep the royal power within its proper bounds as in the days of Saint Louis of France and Saint Ferdinand of Castile.”

The Absolutism of Philip the Fair

One ambitious king who disrespected the rights of the Church and his feudal subjects was King Philip the Fair of France, also known as The Iron King. Under the guise of the “defense of the realm,” he affirmed an absolutist misconception of what constituted the “national interest.” Thus, he transformed the First-born Daughter of the Church from a decentralized feudal country into a centralized State under the maxim “Rex est imperator in regno suo” (the king is an emperor in his own kingdom).

To finance his wars against England and Flanders, he imposed huge taxes and debased the currency by reducing its silver content, thereby impoverishing everyone. When Pope Boniface VIII raised his voice to defend the poor and the rights of the Church (the king taxed up to one-half the clergy’s annual income!), the French king convoked an assembly of bishops, noblemen and grand merchants to condemn the Pope.

The Outrage of Anagni

In response, Pope Boniface reaffirmed in the famous Bull Unam Sanctam, the Papacy’s supreme power in spiritual matters and its indirect power ratione peccati (by reason of sin) in temporal affairs. Philip the Fair sent the legist Guillaume de Nogaret as his emissary to imprison the Pope. In the quarrel that followed, one of those in the party slapped the Pontiff in his face.

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Some historians believe this episode – called the Outrage of Anagni – marked the end of the Middle Ages. By this act, Philip affirmed a “secularist” conception of the State that freed itself from the tutelage of the Church. He centralized his government by asking for emergency powers that extended well beyond its old limits and ended up disintegrating the parceled-out feudal power of the nobility.

In short, the French people were forced to make the same extraordinary sacrifices for the nation that in the past their ancestors had willingly done for the Church and the Crusades. This represented a first huge shift in the hierarchy of loyalties of Western man from Church to country.

Protestant Contribution to Nationalism

Following the decadence of the Middle Ages, the Protestant Revolution favored the rise of an emergent jingoistic nationalism. According to Yoram Hazoni, in his book, The Virtue of Nationalism, Luther’s “new call for freedom to interpret Scripture without the authority of the Catholic Church did not affect religious doctrine alone. … Protestantism embraced and quickly became tied with the unique national traditions of peoples chaffing against ideas and institutions that they regarded as foreign to them.”1

Organized along national lines, Protestantism signified the doom for the idea of an international, trans-territorial unified Christianity. This religious and psychological change struck the first blow that finally led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire that collapsed in 1806.

Alas, jingoist nationalism was not an exclusive creation of Protestant rulers, like Henry VIII, who created national churches of which they proclaimed themselves to be “supreme heads.”

The French Nationalism

French Catholic monarchs also entered into nationalist fray, even before the explosion of the Pseudo-Reformation. Charles VII of France, who Saint Joan of Arc enthroned, issued the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges “which asserted the supremacy of a council over the pope, and established the ‘liberties’ of the Gallican Church, restricting the rights of the pope and in many cases making his jurisdiction subject to the will of the king.”2

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In his fight against Emperor Charles V, King Francis I of France sealed a “sacrilegious union of the lily and the crescent” in 1536. Carl Jacob Burckhardt used this expression to describe Francis’ alliance with the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent. It was the first non-ideological alliance between a Christian and Muslim state to jointly attack another Christian state based on pure “national interest.” This Franco-Turkish alliance continued intermittently for more than two and a half centuries.

Richelieu, Architect of Royal Absolutism and Nationalism

Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII’s prime minister, later carried out a foreign policy based on a kind of Realpolitik that unashamedly placed France’s geopolitical interests above the highest interests of Christendom.

This cardinal smashed the Huguenots in France because they represented a threat to France’s internal unity during the Thirty Years War. However, he also financed Protestant armies and supported Protestant King Gustav Adolph of Sweden for the sole purpose of weakening the House of Hapsburg that reigned in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. This support for the Protestant armies reduced by one third the population living under the Empire. Thus, Catholicism was the greatest victim of his policy. Similar to King Philip the Fair, Cardinal Richelieu developed blunt and wide-ranging policies to centralize power, increase taxation, and control the nobility.

At the time, France was still largely a feudal society where the great noble families owned large estates, had their private armies and administered their district. Richelieu persuaded Louis XIII to appoint a powerful “intendant” or royal agent to every district. He further ordained that all castles and fortresses not situated on France’s frontiers be demolished. An expansion of the definition of treason or lèse-majesté was used to suppress resistance.  In short, Richelieu is viewed as the main architect of royal absolutism in France.

As Hilaire Belloc rightly points out in his biography of the cardinal, Richelieu’s main legacy was his policy that broke “Christendom into a mosaic of nationalities, erecting the worship of nationality into a religion to replace the ancient religion whereby Europe came to be.”3 Instead of advancing God’s interest on earth (which should be expected from a Catholic cardinal), Richelieu applied his “overpowering genius to the creation of the modern state, and, unwittingly to himself, to the ruin of the common unity of Christian life.” 4> Indeed, Belloc concludes, Richelieu created the “religion of nationalism.” 5

The Treaty of Westphalia

The unbiased Henry Kissinger characterized him as “the charting genius of a new concept of centralized statecraft and foreign policy based on the balance of power.” 6 Richelieu policies led to the Treaty of Westphalia, signed under his disciple and successor Cardinal Jules Mazarin.

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Indeed, the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and the Thirty Years’ War between the Holy Roman Empire and some 300 Protestant princes who ruled over small member states. However, the treaty advanced the cause of nationalism by recognizing the full territorial sovereignty of the Empire’s member states, freeing them from feudal entanglements and allowing the princes to negotiate among themselves and with foreign powers.

The treaty gave sovereign powers even to the point of forcing subjects to follow the religion of the ruler under the monstrous maxim cujus regio ejus religio  (religion follows the sovereign)

The Enlightenment and French Revolution

The culmination of this process of divinizing the nation took place during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. As David Bell writes in his book The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800, “the rise of the concepts of nation and patrie initially took place as Europeans came to perceive a radical separation between God and the world, searched for ways to discern and maintain terrestrial order in the face of God’s absence, and struggled to relegate religion to a newly defined private sphere of human endeavor, separate from politics.” [7]

The Enlightenment turned blind national patriotism into a privilege of the higher classes. The French Revolution made it a popular sentiment of the people: “A French patriot,” writes Geoffrey Best, “was a full-blown nationalist, setting his own nation above all other nations, and contemplating it with feelings bordering on adoration.” 7

This devotion to the country expressed itself in the mass drafting of soldiers to defend the newly-born French Republic: “The clarion call was nationalism and the obligation of every citizen to render service to the nation, a principle welcomed for its own sake by revolutionary militants, especially the leadership of the Paris sections and the Jacobin Club, where it immediately acquired far reaching ideological significance.”8

Contrary to the notion of the brotherhood among peoples within Christendom, the French Revolution was principle inspirer of modern xenophobia, as William Rogers Brubaker writes:

“It was in the xenophobic nationalism of its radical phase, not in the cosmopolitanism of its liberal phase, that the Revolution was genuinely revolutionary.

“Why this abrupt shift from xenophilia to xenophobia? I think it has to do with the logic of the nation-state. A nation-state is the nation’s state, the state of and for a particular, bounded, sovereign nation, to which foreigners, by definition, do not belong.

“The Revolution created a legal frontier and a ‘moral’ frontier between members of different nation-states. Abolishing moral and legal boundaries within the nation-state, it crystallized legal and moral boundaries and divisions between nation-states. Thus it engendered both the modern nation-state and modern nationalism.”9

Since the decadence of the Middle Ages until the French Revolution, nationalistic ideologies and policies were creations of progressive currents that opposed traditional political structures.

However, nationalist ideals changed with modern times. It became the point of opposition to the rationalistic and individualistic character of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. There appeared a traditionalist, right-wing version of nationalism that denied individual freedom and stressed community bonds and the subconscious.

The foundations, however, were laid by the absolutist policies that separated Christendom from its Christian roots.


  1. Basic Books, New York, 2018, p. 22.
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, v. Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges.
  3. Richelieu, Gates of Vienna Books, Norfolk Va., 2006, 17.
  4. Ibib. , 20.
  5. Ibib. , 20.
  6. World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, Random House, New York, 2014,  20.
  7. Geoffrey Best, The Permanent Revolution: The French Revolution and Its Legacy, 1789-1989, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1989, 38.
  8. Alan Forrest, “La patrie en danger: The French Revolution and the first levée en masse”, in Daniel Moran & Arthur Waldron (ed.) The People in Arms: Military Myth and National Mobilization Since the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, 13.
  9. “The French Revolution and the invention of citizenship,” in French Politics and Society, vol. 7, n. 3, Summer 1989.

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