This Oct. 3 marks the anniversary of the unification (or re-unification) of the separate countries of East and West Germany. This Oct. 30 marks the anniversary of the most recent attempt by the Parti Quebecois to secede from Canada by referendum.
The idea of the country, of states, is so universal it's hard to imagine them not existing.
Every scrap of land, barring Antarctica, is claimed by one country or another.
Some of those countries are so damaged by civil war or government collapse that they barely qualify as states at all. Does Syria or the Central African Republic really exist just because we can find them on maps?
For the vast majority of human history, countries and nations as we know them didn't exist.
We tend to project our modern ideas about nations into the past. We picture the Wessex of Alfred the Great and imagine it as basically modern England, but with fewer paved roads and One Direction concerts.
In fact, medieval Europe didn't really have nation-states at all. People didn't think of themselves as citizens of Wessex, or France, or Prussia. They identified themselves by their religion, by their village, by their language and culture, and by the person to whom they owed fealty.
In place of citizenship, feudalism had systems of personal oaths and obligations. Miserable, dirt-scratching peasants gave their oaths to the local landowner, who gave his to the nearest lord, who was a subject of a greater lord or duke, and so on up to the king. And it didn't necessarily stop there.
Kings might owe their allegiance to other kings, at least in part. What we might call an empire was often less a single entity than a big central blob directly controlled by an emperor, plus a bunch of fringe areas ruled by their own kings, chiefs, nabobs, lords, grand dukes, governors, and satraps, giving gifts, taxes, or military assistance to the emperor. But most people just worried about their local lords or village bigwigs.
Borders were more fluid. Villages and arable lands were known quantities and belonged to one king or another, but land was seldom mapped out accurately enough to say who owned what out in the woods or mountains.
There was nothing to prevent one person from holding multiple roles in a feudal structure. If the right people got married and/or died in the right order, a single individual could be, say, King of Scotland and England at the same time, or King of England and Elector of Hanover. Further, none of their possessions technically had to touch one another. Go and look at a map of Germany before Napoleon used gunpowder to smooth things out. There were hundreds of little principalities and micro-kingdoms. Parts of the India-Bangladesh border are like that to this day because the border tried to follow the boundaries of the old local petty kings, turning it into a crazy patchwork. Parts of Indian territory are inside Bangladeshi territory, which are themselves surrounded by India.
Even once governments grew stronger and started creating something like a modern state, with a bureaucracy, national symbols, and firm borders, the people took a long time to catch up. Feudalism might have been pretty cruddy, but at least you could point to a particular person as your local lord. Modern states depersonalized that, and it took a long time for the abstract concept of patriotism to catch on.
The next time you see a national flag, hear an anthem being sung, or look at those border lines on a map, remember that every single one of those things is barely older than the steam engine.
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