How did peoples of Early Modern Europe construct the identities of themselves and others?

Shakespeare’s famous comment on identity specifies that: “we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”[1] However, the issue of identity goes beyond the perception of oneself. Hence, the only way to create an identity “includes differentiating oneself from what one is not, identity politics is always […] a policy of the creation of difference.”[2] Thus, contrary to Shakespeare’s claim, identities are far from simple. This essay, aims to focus on the evolving and constructed identities of the subaltern, in contrast to the hegemonic norms, in three kingdoms: the Spanish empire, the Atlantic archipelago, and the Swedish Kingdom from circa 1500-1700.[3] Thus, this work will firstly focus upon the geographic nature of Europe, which helped to created a myriad of identities for those who live on the fringes. Secondly, therefore, it is important to explore the transformation in the role of the polity. For instance, At the “beginning of the sixteenth century, the state held no exclusive command of armed men, by the end of the eighteenth century, states maintain gigantic armed forces and, in the event of war, are able to mobilize their entire population” [4] Hence, in the early modern period we see a shift in the role of the state. Nevertheless, the third part of this essay will focus on how the extension of the state towards the frontier, engenders a variety of different identities in contrast to the prevailing norms. As such, it is then vital to focus upon humanism, order, land use and war, which helped to construct binary identities, bearing in mind Michael Foucault’s nations of power, “whereby the representation of truth engenders power complexes.”[5] However, owing to the short length of this essay, belief[6], as a hegemonic norm, will not be examined, in spite of the fact that “throughout Europe the emphasis on political or social order led to the persecution of Christians whose understanding of Christianity differed from those in power.”[7]

Europe has been endowed with a repertoire of physical features; its landforms, climate, geology and fauna have combined to produce an environment that is essential to an understanding of its development. [8] Nevertheless, Europe, which in itself was a relatively modern idea, was defined in contrast to other, ‘darker’ parts of the globe. This was expressed by Voltaire, in 1751, who described Europe as “a kind of great republic divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed. […] They all have the same principles of public law and politics unknown to other parts of the world.” [9] Thus, many Europeans have assumed that their continent was so magnificently endowed that it was designed by nature for world supremacy. This argument was echoed by Montesquieu who wrote, in 1748, that Europe was simply synonymous with progress. [10] This perception of  superiority reinforced by geography directly impacts upon the ways in which identities were created. For instance, Spain, the Atlantic archipelago and the Swedish kingdom, our examples, lie on the periphery of Europe, against what were perceived as unsafe, even ‘barbarous’ lands. Moreover, within these territories the ‘othered’ individuals lived in these marginalised territories, those closest to the borders. For example, in Spain, the moriscos tended to live in the mountainous regions in the south, close to North Africa and the Barbary Coast. Furthermore, the etymology of the term the Barbary Coast is crucial to understanding the Early Modern conception of the North African territories. The word, which was used by Shakespeare in the merchant of Venice in 1600, is deliberately similar to barbarity, barbarousness and barbarism, which were seen as synonymous with Africa. [11] Thus, the territories on the fringes of Europe were viewed with fear and scepticism, in contrast with enlightened and progressive civilisations of Europe. This is particularly noticeable when one traces the origins of the word civilisation, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means: “the action or process of becoming civilized.” [12] Moreover, this term appears to have been regularly used in the Early modern period. In 1767, for instance, a book entitled An Essay on the History of Civil Society included the phrase: “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species from rudeness to civilisation.” [13] Thus, this belief in a divine European kingdom, helped to create a multiplicity of different identities by the middle of the eighteenth century.

However, at this point it is useful to highlight the differing conceptions by which people in the early modern period would have understood territories, states and kingdoms, bearing in mind Michael Biggs’ observations:

Looking at any map or atlas, we see a world composed of states. The Earth’s surface is divided into distinct state territories. Each is demarcated by a linear boundary, an edge dividing one sovereignty from the next. The division is accentuated when each territory is blocked out in a separate colour from neighbouring states, implying that its interior is an homogeneous space, traversed evenly by state sovereignty. Our world is a jigsaw of territorial states, and we take this picture for granted. […] Familiar to us, such a depiction would have been utterly unknown to people at the time, who rarely used maps to represent geographical information and did not imagine states, or rather realms, as enclosed spaces. [14]

Thus, in order to understand how people in the early modern period understood and constructed their identities one must remember that the ‘state’ as we know it would not have existed. Instead, the cities were used as a way to civilise the landscape around them. Consequently, the city “itself was viewed as an important symbol of sophistication and civilisation,”[15] Thus, those who lived on the fringes of the state, farthest away from the metropol were viewed with the most suspicion. This trend had been the case since the Romans. For instance, Tacitus in his Germania is able to convey to his elite Roman audience just how barbarous and alien the Germans are by telling them, “it is well known that no German cities exist, indeed that they do not allow joined buildings amongst them.”[16] Thus, the identity of those on the fringes of the state was created in contrast to the ‘civilised civilisation’. However, one must not forget that the “periphery is defined only relative to an arbitrarily demarcated centre.”[17]

Thus, at the start of the sixteenth century, the crown had little, if any, control over these areas on the fringes of the kingdom. Thus, “the Early Modern period saw a revolution in the scale […] of government in Europe,” as rulers sought to extend their influence.[18] This is noticeable throughout all three kingdoms of Spain, Sweden and the Atlantic archipelago. James I of England, for instance, was purported to have said that “his will above all things, at his death, is to leave one worship to God, one kingdom entirely governed, one uniformity of laws”[19] Similarly, Phillip IV and his ministers worked towards “union and equality in the law, customs and forms of government between all the states and the monarchy.” [20] Moreover, our three territories are ruled by, what Elliot coined as, “composite monarchies” whose sovereignty went beyond a single territory.[21] Thus, there was an even greater attempt to codify the powers of the territory and create homogeneity.

Nevertheless, the best example of the extension of state power is illustrated by the Swedish Kingdom. At the start of the sixteenth century, the towns of Sweden were little more than overgrown villages; Stockholm, for instance, had a population of just six thousand.[22] Moreover, vast tracts of the Swedish realm, which stretched from the fertile central plains of Östergötland and Uppland as far as the Karelian Isthmus, were inhospitable.[23] Nevertheless, Gustav Vasa (1496-1560) set about drastically curtailing the powers of the Catholic Church, just as Henry VIII had done, , which owned approximately one fifth of the land compared to the one twentieth owned by the Crown. Thus, by 1539 a royal decree had subordinated the church to state control.[24] Moreover, the Lutheran reformation and the extension of the state bureaucracy allowed increasing numbers of people to map and explore the northern fringes of the state, in turn helping to identify what was and was not Swedish.

Thus, as the state extended its power towards the frontier, it also needed to retain authority and control over these peripheral areas. In order to do this, it was necessary for the state to subjugate other powers which were entrenched within society. Consequently, “if dynasties such as the Bourbons, the Hollenzollerns or the Tudors wanted to increase their control over the resources of their respective countries, they had to eliminate, or at least force back, the rival holders of autonomous power […] Their rivals were first of all other dynasties, that is, the families of higher rank nobility, and the church.” [25] In addition, the ways in which the state extended its tentacles was based upon value judgements and norms. Hence, as Rousseau observed:

“The holders of power in a state did not only develop their own interests, but also a           specific group consciousness based on common interest. Therefore, they are inclined to use           this power of the state which holds in it the interests of their own groups first of all. The   same collective egoism drives them to promote the growth of state power and the            development of state institutions. Of course, services are rendered for the common good but       only because this gives the holding power the air of legitimacy” [26]

Thus, the extension of the state’s power is value laden, meaning “some groups are dominated and abused by the workings of power”[27]

In the early modern period rulers, therefore, attempted to extend their power, and increase their authority over an area, within their kingdom.[28] This trend is, unsurprisingly, linked to an hegemonic norm which “gripped Europe”; humanism.[29] Humanism, focussed upon a return to the classical antiquity through a close study of Greek and Roman writings. It was based on the values of grammar, rhetoric, self-restraint and order.[30] This is perhaps best illustrated through the Leoni brothers’ sculpture (1551-1564) of Charles I of Spain who is depicted as a Roman legionary, standing on top of another figure, who is also Charles I. Although this work is often called ‘Charles I Conquering Heresy’, it is more likely that Charles is in fact protecting and guarding himself from the excesses, which humanists fear. Thus, the Leoni brothers have created a sculpture to portray the King as rational, restrained, ordered and dignified, qualities which were highly valued at the time. However, others in society did not follow this strict criterion of norms. Thus, a myriad of identities in all three kingdoms were created against this perceived ‘perfected model’ of human behaviour. This is particularly apparent in the way in which the subaltern dressed, which, especially to the Spanish, appeared unrestrained, flamboyant and provocative. This is evident when one examines a petition written by Francisco Nunez Muley, a morisco noble, who protested, in 1567, about increasingly draconian measures which limited the rights of his community:

The dress of our women is not Moorish but merely provincial, just as in Castile and in other          regions it is usual for the inhabitants to have distinctive headdress, skirts and hose. Who can    deny that our dress is very different from the apparel of Mors and Turks?[31]

In spite of these protests, the moriscos continued to be viewed with scepticism owing to their dress, language and culture, which appeared ‘unrestrained’ and  inherently Islamic.

Similarly, the Irish  were also viewed with fear owing to their style of dress. This is clear when one examines the engravings by Albrecht Durer, who depicted a group of Irish warriors and peasants in 1521. (See figure 1, in appendix, p14) Durer, who appears to be a fairly objective by-stander, does however highlight certain features, which, to the Early Modern man, would be deeply troubling. For instance, the men are seen to be wearing long, baggy clothes. The English, however, preferred people to dress, in relatively tight clothing, where one could not hide or conceal weapons. Thus, the Irish were branded as sneaky and dishonourable as they did not conform to this unspoken societal law. Moreover, the fashion of the times dictated that people should refrain from having long hair, or a beard, as this allows someone to judge whether they are friendly based on their facial expressions.  Hence, it became entrenched as a popular stereotype that the Irish were different, and these physical signs were used as a way to categorise the Irish identity.

Moreover, binary identities were also created against the norm for land use, farming. This had been the hegemonic norm since the middle ages and provided the occupation and identity for most rural communities.[32] Thus, the harvest was central to the concerns of ‘ordinary’ people.[33] Moreover, this type of land use was respected, and, crucially, taxable. In the Americas, for instance, the English were obsessive in regimenting land, consequently, allowing the land to be controlled more effectively. However, in Ireland, the English found people who did not follow the traditional conceptions of land use. In contrast to the English, most Irish clans were nomadic and therefore had no fixity of settlement, something which the English struggled to comprehend. This is particularly noticeable when one realises how often ownership and property were discussed and debated in the early modern period. John Locke, for example, believed “the same law[s] of nature […] give us property”, an idea which helped to justify colonialism but became synonymous with progress and order, two other hegemonic norms. [34] Thus, the Irish clan system was viewed with scepticism and mistrust owing to its difference from the norm. This is particularly noticeable when one explores twentieth century historical attempts to represent cartographically the land controlled by a Clan. (figure 2, in appendix, p14) This is an impossible task owing to the movement of the clan which tended to follow the cattle, irrespective of borders or geographical constraints. Nevertheless, this highlights how, in the twentieth century, we still find it difficult to comprehend the Irish clan system without using methods of depiction completely alien to those who lived at the time. Thus, even now we, as a society, find it difficult to understand things outside of the ‘norm’. Moreover, the English viewed this ‘alien’ and ‘foreign’ method of land use as abhorrent and inherently barbarous. For instance, John Derricke who was the writer and artist of a book entitled The Images of Ireland, with a Discoverie of Woodkerne, depicted an Irish feast. (figure 3, in appendix p15) The picture, which is labelled to draw attention to the most ‘hideous atrocities’ committed by the Irish, sneers at the habits of the Irish who cook outside and allow debauched acts of nudity at the dinner table. Furthermore, the image goes beyond these derisive and mocking depictions, suggesting that the Irish are naturally or inherently different. This is best illustrated through point A where two men are seen cutting open an animal for the feast. The word best used to describe that act would be butchery, what the Oxford English dictionary defines as “to slaughter […] in a brutal or indiscriminate manner”.[35] Thus, John Derricke, has drawn this picture in order to educate the nobility about the heinous acts of barbarity committed by the Irish. Thus, the Irish were ‘othered’ owing to the way in which they did not follow the norms surrounding land holding, something which the English saw as inherently ordered and therefore ‘right.’ Consequently, a dichotomy of identities was made in contrast to this hegemonic norm.

One of the best examples of an emerging norm in the Early modern period was the changing nature and character of war. Moreover, war was the father of all things to unite and build a state. In order to be able to wage war, one must expands the polity’s administration and taxation mainly in order to be able to wage war. [36] This trend becomes particularly evident when one realises that the “number of soldiers [in Europe] grew tenfold between 1500-1800, whereas the population numbers doubled” [37] In spite of this growth in the number of soldiers, there were definite norms which people were meant to abide by. This is particularly noticeable when one explores the etymology of the word nobility, or those who would fight in wars, one finds that nobility refers to a specific way of fighting whereby one has “the quality of […] high moral principles and ideals”.[38] The moriscos, and Irish were, therefore, seen to fight in a ‘dishonourable’ fashion. This is evident when one examines a painting of the rebellion of the moriscos at the castle of Pop in Valencia. The picture (see Figure 4, appendix p15) depicts the Spanish cavalry attempting to scale the steep mountainside towards the moriscos. However, the Spanish are marching in a regimented, ordered style, allowing the moriscos’ crude tactics to be deeply effective. Hence, although the Morsicos did not have traditional weapons, like those used by the Spanish; pushing rocks, stones, trees and themselves off the cliff was equally effective. Moreover, these tactics helped to add to the identities of the two groups.

However, in contrast to the other subaltern groups and almost ironically, the Saami people of northern Sweden were actually integrated into the army. This is mainly owing to the conscription system introduced (utskrivning) under Gustav Vasa, which was later perfected by Gustav Adolph. However, this was not owing to its pluralistic ideals and accepting nature, as we might understand it. It was actually owing to the ways in which others in Europe viewed the Saami. (see figure 5, p16 of appendix) Although little was known about the Saami people of the northern fringes of the Baltic state, their belief system was linked to witchcraft. Moreover, their cultures seemed alien to the culture of the state. Nevertheless, the myths  associated with them reinforced their usefulness to the state as soldiers. The bible, for example, had declared that from a “place in the far north” will unleash attacks and head towards Israel.[39] The importance of these words is difficult for us to comprehend but for many in the early modern period who witnessed the strength and power of the Swedish army, who fought in the Thirty Years War, the most religiously charged conflict in most people’s lives, the fear would have been tangible Thus, the ‘barbaric northerners’ were othered owing to the way in which they dressed and fought in wars, but ironically this was why they were integrated.

Consequently, the way in which early modern identities were understood was far from simple. In this essay we have found that Europe as a continent, is viewed as superior and the borders of this landmass are naturally viewed with the most suspicion. This is not, as one might think, a coincidence, instead it is owing to the way in which the ‘state’ operated in the early modern period. In contrast to our conception of the state with border controls, homogeneity and control, at the start of the sixteenth century the polity was weak. Hence, the monarchs set about ways in which to control and order their territories. This, as we have seen, was not carried out in a pluralistic fashion as we may understand it. The state and society, therefore, projected certain norms against which the ‘othered’ communities were viewed. The effect of this, so called, ‘civilising mission seems’ “to be to engender, sharpen, or heighten the consciousness of the peripheral people.”[40] One historian even argues that the “periphery peoples, while resenting the attempts to ‘civilise them’, nevertheless accept the general premise that they are less civilised or morally less worthy. Thus they develop a ‘stigmatised identity’, […] a sense of themselves as backward, uncivilised, dirty and stupid.”[41] this, is however, almost impossible to evaluate. It is however, possible to see, through the primary sources used that people were shocked by those that were found on the boundaries of our kingdoms. To the humanist, the moriscos possessed naturally unrestrained, colourful and flamboyant, qualities, which allowed the state to be prejudist against them. Equally, to the English, the Irish conception of land use was so unfamiliar that they were disregarded as disordered, barbaric hooligans. Moreover, the way in which these people from the fringes fought was astonishingly different to how a soldier was expected to fight. Thus the identities of the subaltern were created against the hegemonic norms created by society, in England and Spain. However, this was not completely the case with Sweden, where the Saami were othered owing to their nomadic tribe system, their dress and their culture, which was seen to resemble witchcraft. Yet, interestingly, Sweden used these barbaric northerners as soldiers in the Thirty Years War as a way of defining themselves.  Moreover, this is perhaps owing to the relative stage of ‘development’ of the three territories. Both Spain and England, for example, in spite of their best efforts failed to control the varied and heterogeneous kingdom; they had power, not influence. In contrast, Sweden’s huge bureaucracy created the best example of a state with both power and authority within its borders. However, these identities were almost definitely only available to a select few. For instance, if we refer back to John Derricke’s Images of Ireland, we see that one would have to be able to read in order to appreciate the ‘barbarity’ of the Irish. Hence, although, there were great changes between the two cultures, Spafford points out that: most people would have been unaware of the identities of those on the fringes of the state.[42] Finally, it is important to examine the way we understand identities ourselves. Michael Foucault argues that often in history it is difficult for someone in our times to comprehend the way in which people understood things in the past.[43] Nevertheless, on this particular issue it is possible to see correlations in the way that people in the early modern period constructed their identities. Thus, contrary to Foucault’s claims, some people in our society still hold very similar conceptions of the other, to those of the early modern man. This is particularly evident when one examines the rhetoric of the Bush administration following the September 11th attacks in 2001. George Bush’s autobiography, for example, is filled with comments which illustrate how incredibly simple the word is – how the globe can be divided into good and evil, right and wrong, order and disorder:

“On one side were decent people who wanted to live in dignity and peace. On the other were    extremists who sought to impose their radical views through violence and intimidation.”[44]

Thus, the similarity between the norms being established by the Americans in the twenty-first century and those by the Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth century is striking. Consequently one could argue, as Herbert Gans does, that our society craves a subject to label and subjugate as people crave the feeling of inclusion in a society.[45] In other words, as a society we both create and savour prejudice, in order to belong.

[1]Shakespeare, W. Hamlet Act 4 scene 5, line 43-44 in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Harper Collins, Glasgow, 1994) p1112

[2]Benhabib, S., (eds.) Democracy and Difference, contesting boundaries of the political (Princeton University Press, Chichester, 1996) p 3

[3]The Atlantic Archipelago refers to a group of islands off the north-west coast of Europe comprising England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and adjacent smaller islands.

[4]Biggs, M. “Putting The State on the Map: Cartography, Territory, and European State Formation” in Comparative Studies in Society and History. Vol. 41. No. 2 (April,. 1999), p374

[5]Danaher, G., Schirato, T., Webb, J., Understanding Foucault (Sage publication, London, 2005) pp63-65

[6]The word ‘belief’ is chosen over religion owing to the way in which religions are controlled and tend to be codified, beliefs are not.

[7]Weisner-Hanks, M. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010) p151

[8]Davies, N., Europe, A history (Pimplico, London, 1997) p47


[10]Voltaire, Le Siecle de Louis XIV, quoted by Denys Hay, Europe: The Emergence of an Idea (Edinburgh, 1957) p123 in Ibid.  p7

[11]“Barbary, n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see bibliography>.

[12]“civilization, n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see bibliography>

[13]Adam Ferguson An essay on the history of civil society 1767. in “civilization, n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see bibliography>

[14]Parker, G. Europe In Crisis (Blackwell, Oxford, 2001) p41

[15]Goodman, P., J., The Roman City and The Periphery, From Rome to Gaul (Routledge, Abingdon, 2010) p10

[16]Ibid. p10

[17]Handler, R. (eds.) Central sites, Peripheral Visions (University of Wisconsin Press, London, 2006) p3

[18]Ibid p41

[19]Ibid p30

[20]Ibid p30

[21]Parker, G. Europe In Crisis (Blackwell, Oxford, 2001) p29

[22]Kirby, D., Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period, The Baltic World 1492-1772. (Longman, London, 1993) p310

[23]Ibid p169

[24]Ibid p311

[25]Rienhard, W., (eds.) Power Elites and State buidling (OUP, Oxford, 1996)p7

[26]Ibid. p6

[27]Danaher, G., Schirato, T., Webb, J., Understanding Foucault (Sage publication, London, 2005) p74

[28]Anderson, M., Frontiers, Territory and State Formation in the Modern World (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1997)  p17

[29]Butters, H., “The Renaissance” in Kumin, B. (eds.) The European World 1500-1800 (Routledge, Bassingstoke, 2009)  p151

[30]Ibid p155

[31]Luis de Mármol Caravajal, Historia del Rebelión y castigo de los moriscos del Reino de Granada (Malaga 1600) in Biblioteca de autores españoles 21 (Madrid, 1852) abridged and translated by D. Goodman, and printed in D. Englander, D. Norman, R. O’Day and W.R. Owens (eds.), Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600 (Oxford 1990) pp.301-3.

[32]Hindle, S. “Rural Society” in Kumin, B. (eds.) The European World 1500-1800 (Routledge, Bassingstoke, 2009)  p45


[34]   Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pate- Nofter-Row, 1728) page 163

[35]“butcher, v.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see Bibliography>

[36]Rienhard, W., (eds.) Power Elites and State buidling (OUP, Oxford, 1996) p9

[37]Ribalta, P.,M., “The Impact of Central Institutions” in Ibid. p24

[38]“nobility, n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see Bibliography>

[39]Bible, Ezekiel , 38, 15-17.

[40]Harrell, S. (eds.) Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995) p 6

[41]Harrell, S. (eds.) Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995) p 6

[42]Spafford, M. Contrasting Communities, English Villages in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2000) p 352

[43]Danaher, G., Schirato, T., Webb, J., Understanding Foucault (Sage publication, London, 2005) p 97

[44]Bush, G.,W., Decision Points (Clays Ltd, St Ives, 2010) p232

[45]  Gans, H. “Deconstructing the Underclass: The term’s dangers as a planning concept” Journal of the Planning Association, Vol. 56, No. 3, p271


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