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A critical reappraisal of the concept of the 'Imagined Community' and the presumed sacred languages of the medieval period

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It is rare to find an analysis of nationalism that does not invoke Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, first published in 1983 and then reprinted in 1991. Although the term has caught the imagination of many researchers, the concept of the 'imagined community' is based on a number of questionable premises. The first problematic assertion is that prior to modernity the medieval period's sacred languages and scripts provided the basis for universal religious communities. The emergence of capitalism purportedly resulted in a radical break with the medieval past. Imagined national communities emerged with print-capitalism and the mass publication of texts in vernaculars. Anderson argues that: 'In a word, the fall of Latin exemplified a larger process in which the sacred communities integrated by old sacred languages were gradually fragmented, pluralised, and territorialised.' For Anderson, it was this process that led to the modern self-conceived nations. I do not question the importance of the printed word in consolidating languages and standardising their forms; however, the 'old sacred languages' that Anderson puts forward - Latin, Greek and Hebrew - were perhaps not as sacred as he presumes. Though Latin was arguably hegemonic in Western Europe in the latter Middle Ages, I will demonstrate that in the Eastern Orthodox world there is a long tradition of Biblical translation that dates back to the second century, and that Orthodoxy facilitated - if not encouraged - the rise of 'national' autocephalous Orthodox Churches. Whenever Orthodox missionaries encountered major language groups, new alphabets were invariably created in order to facilitate conversion. This was precisely the case with the Russian Orthodox Church. Through the analysis of a fourteenth-century account of the life of Stefan of Perm, who was later canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church, I will demonstrate that there was a clear sense of nationhood in this account, and that Church Slavonic did not become a sacred language until well into the modern period. Furthermore, I will argue that these old religious texts demonstrate the need to revise some of our assumptions concerning medieval history and the presumed modern nature of nationhood.

Keywords: Komi; Orthodoxy and nations: Old-Russian; Religion and nationhood; Russia; Russia medieval nationhood; ethnic minorities

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Northern British Columbia Prince George Canada

Publication date: 2004-03-01

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