Book Review: The Cult of the Nation in France

That France has constituted one of the basic conceptual models for the modern nation has been a long-enduring axiom of nationalism studies, yet historical inquiries into the origins of French nationalism have been surprisingly few. Whereas French "national identity" has received considerable attention from modernist historians since Eugen Weber’s germinal Peasants into Frenchmen (Stanford, 1976), these have typically emphasized the various themes of French identity to emerge during the Revolutionary interlude between 1789 and 1815 — centralization, grandeur, universal citizenship, etc. Rather than consider the Revolution to be the genesis of modern nationalism, David A. Bell’s The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800 examines French political discourse during the century preceding the Revolution and the gradual formation of a novel concept of France which would eventually find its most radical expression after 1789. In so doing, Bell interprets nationalism as uniquely modern, part of a general cultural transformation in eighteenth-century Europe, but gives primacy to historical experiences with the Reformation Wars and absolutism to explain the distinguishing attributes of the French example.

A principal aspect of Bell’s argument is expressed by starting his study in 1680. Much previous work on pre-Revolutionary France has located the first signs of dissolution in the ancien régime after 1700, during the concluding years of Louis XIV’s reign. For Bell, by contrast, the experience of seventeenth-century centralized state-building under the Sun King is the cradle of modern French nationalism. This is not, as others like Pierre Nora have contended, because of a continual and concerted state project of promoting national cohesiveness, but because the consolidated state forced local elites across French territory to turn their attention toward a national culture emanating from Paris. This, along with the proliferation of non-official print media and the expansion of the public sphere familiar to readers of Benedict Anderson and Jürgen Habermas, precipitated a national cultural outlook oriented toward the center of state power, Paris.

With the consolidated monarchy as the backdrop, Bell turns his attention to his primary body of evidence, the burgeoning quantities of political essays and discussions published in eighteenth-century Paris. Here Bell brings to the study of nationalism a technique common among historians of the Enlightenment for the past decade, that is, the creation of a coherent narrative depicting sweeping change in political attitudes out of a clambering mass of second- and third-rate printed texts all varied in their theme and agenda. The exercise succeeds in deciphering a general discursive shift in which French sovereignty was increasingly discussed in the terms of a people rather than a monarch, while emphasizing similarities with missionary pedagogical styles employed during the Catholic Reformation. The final challenge of the French nationalist project, overcoming linguistic diversity, was largely ignored until 1792, when the radical project of creating new revolutionary men through national education required a higher degree of cultural homogeneity. Foreshadowing subsequent discussions of the centrality of language in French identity, Bell isolates the radical phase of the Revolution as the moment when "the idea of French as a uniform national language, rather than just the language of an educated elite, acquired the powerful ideological charge which it has retained ever since."

The most compelling and original aspects of Bell’s work, however, have to do with the impact of experiences with outsiders. The first of these came with the Wars of Religion. Terrific memories of religious warfare persisted throughout the eighteenth century. These reinforced a growing commitment in European societies to recast social relations along secular ideals and to consider diversity among peoples rather than religious ideology to be the prime source of conflict. Bell also notes a singular hatred of England intensifying during the Seven Years’ War (1755-1763), noting examples in which English people were uniformly damned as barbarians while other national enmities, such as the war with Austria, remained directed toward monarchs and emperors. The underlying implication that French nationalism emerged in a sort of competitive symbiosis with a parallel British "chosen-people" complex makes a significant commentary on the global context of the origins of nationalism. Bell might have carried the idea further, exploring the role of empire in French nationalism in comparison with the British example, or at least explaining the former’s mysterious absence before the Revolution and Napoleon.

Bell’s singular emphasis on eighteenth-century political culture indicates a concern not to confuse nationalism with earlier processes of state-building, though neither is he a "modernist" in the mould of Hobsbawm or Gellner, for he clearly rejects the frequent assumption that industrialization and the French Revolution spawned the modern European nationalisms. The eighteenth-century French obsession with the nation reflected more concrete experiences of war and cultural extension on the one hand, and more deeply-rooted political and religious traditions on the other.