The Historical Evolution of Regionalizing Identities in Europe

by Nils Holger Petersen (Volume editor) Dick De Boer (Volume editor) Bas Spierings (Volume editor) Martin Van der Velde (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 352 Pages


This book adopts a multidisciplinary and novel approach to the historical evolution of identities in Europe – identities connected with regions as a multi-layered and processual key concept in dialogue and/or conflict with the emerging nation-state. In the book, historical disciplines meet with anthropology, human ge-ography and cultural studies to discuss how regional identities of various kinds were created, challenged and redefined; how they were experienced and expressed and to what extent they produced feelings of attachment.
Spatial, social, cultural and political manifestations of identities in Europe are historical phenomena. Their changes and forms help us understand the essential traits of European societies, in-cluding the development of differences and similarities, degrees of attachment and dynamics of physical and mental borders. Drawing on a wide range of sources – from historiography to in-terviews, hagiographical texts, images and songs – expressing evolving identities, this book presents an innovative approach to understanding identity formation in Europe.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • The Historical Evolution of Regionalizing Identities in Europe. Introduction (Dick E.H. de Boer, Nils Holger Petersen, Bas Spierings and Martin van der Velde)
  • Rescaling the European State (Michael Keating)
  • Part One Regions Compared
  • Creating Cohesion in Dynastic Conglomerates. Identities in Comparison: Medieval Bohemia and Denmark (Jana Fantysová-Matějková, Kurt Villads Jensen)
  • State Power vs Regional Autonomy in the 15th–16th Centuries and the Question of Birth or Renewal of Regional Identity in Silesia and Transylvania (Przemysław Wiszewski and Cosmin Popa-Gorjanu)
  • (Un)familiarity in Mobility Practices: Contemporary and Historic Experiences from Schleswig and Former Yugoslavia (Dorte Jagetic Andersen and Rene Ejbye Pedersen)
  • Part Two Construction, Identity and Cohesion of Regions
  • Identity, Perception and Cohesion of a Medieval Region: Catalonia (Flocel Sabaté)
  • The Power of Saints (Patronage and Miracles) in Defining Regional Cohesion and Identity (Gábor Klaniczay)
  • Region, Saints, and Images (Central Europe, Middle Ages and Early Modern Period): Developments, Variety, and Difference (Gerhard Jaritz and Kateřina Horníčková)
  • Confession in Times of Crisis. The Regional Characteristics of the Reformation in the Guelders-Lower Rhine Area during the 16th and Early 17th Century (Job Weststrate and Maarten Draper)
  • Regions in Crisis: The Volatility of Regional Identity in Face of Nationalization Projects. The Case of Schleswig (Martin Klatt)
  • Part Three Conclusive Observations
  • Europe of the Regions: Integration, Economic Development and Policies of Identity (Maarten Duijvendak)
  • Part Four Appendix
  • Questionnaire Cuius Regio
  • Series index

List of Contributors

Dorte Jagetic Andersen

University of Southern Denmark

Dick E.H. de Boer

University of Groningen

Maarten Draper

University of Groningen and European University Institute

Maarten Duijvendak

University of Groningen

Jana Fantysová-Matějková

Masaryk Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

Kateřina Horníčková

Central European University and University of Vienna

Gerhard Jaritz

Central European University and University of Vienna

Kurt Villads Jensen

Stockholm University

Michael Keating

University of Aberdeen ‒ University of Edinburgh

Gábor Klaniczay

Central European University

Martin Klatt

University of Southern Denmark

Rene Ejbye Pedersen

University of Southern Denmark

Nils Holger Petersen

University of Copenhagen

Cosmin Popa-Gorjanu

Universitatea “1 Decembrie 1918” Alba Iulia

Flocel Sabaté

Universitat de Lleida

Bas Spierings

Utrecht University

Martin van der Velde

Radboud University

Job Weststrate

Leiden University

Przemysław Wiszewski

University of Wrocław

Dick E.H. de Boer, Nils Holger Petersen, Bas Spierings and Martin van der Velde

The Historical Evolution of Regionalizing Identities in Europe. Introduction

1. Identities, Borders and Regions

This volume concerns the historical evolution of European collective identities as attached to, confronted with, or influenced by the dynamics of regions during various historical periods. It is based on approaches from the three collaborative projects of the EuroCORECODE interdisciplinary programme of the European Science Foundation, 2010–2014. A number of the contributions to this volume are based on presentations at the programme’s final conference “Changing Borders, Regions and Identities”, held in Arnhem, 2013. In the volume, scholars from various social and historical disciplines – history, anthropology, human geography and various cultural areas of scholarship – discuss identities connected with regions as pluriform processual social constructs. They focus on how regionalizing identities of various kinds have continuously been created, challenged, and redefined, how they were experienced and expressed, and to what extent they were connected to feelings of attachment and belonging.

Spatial, social, cultural and political foundations and manifestations of identities in Europe are historical phenomena. Their changes and forms can help us to understand essential traits of European societies in time and space, including the development of differences and similarities, degrees of attachment and belonging as well as the dynamics of physical and mental borders. By drawing on a wide range of sources – from traditional historiography to field observations and in-depth interviews, from devotional and hagiographical texts to pamphlets, including images and music as well as architecture – as expressions of evolving identities, ←9 | 10→ this edited volume aims to apply an innovative approach to understanding identity formation in Europe as an historical process and force. In order to emphasize the processes of collective groups constituted spatially, socially, culturally and politically, we use a generalized notion of region as a multi-layered and processual key concept which does not only regard spatially compact delimited areas, but also considers regions as social constructs including European entities delimited by political, religious or other kinds of practices and discourses.

What constitutes a generalized ‘region’ may be summarized under the notion of shared memories, which produce identity; these memories may include common approaches to life and history, also in cases where the ‘region’ may not be easily spatially circumscribed. During and since the Latin Middle Ages, for instance, monastic movements of various kinds which spread all over Western Europe exemplify such ‘regions’, with each their very particular and well-defined collective identity. Similarly, one may point to ethnic and religious subgroups in most European countries and areas in modern times as well as in previous centuries, and also to members of modern political parties.

2. Collective Identities and Cultural Memories

The idea of a ‘regional’ or ‘collective’ identity or ‘group identity’ is based on the notion of individual identity. It concerns how members of the region or group in question share fundamental markers of identity through their belonging to the region or group. This does not preclude that there may be fundamental differences individually, for instance in terms of how important the regional or group identity may be for the individual’s experience of his or her own identity. Jan and Aleida Assmann’s work on ‘cultural memory’ has established a solid foundation for understanding such collective processes of identity formation. When a person feels belonging to a region or group, he or she, to a larger or smaller degree, will assume some of the characteristics of that group, understanding these as forming a part of his or her individual identity. Thus, the collective ‘we’ identity – often opposed to and thereby also partly defined by a ‘them’ identity – is socially constructed whereas individual human identity may also be characterized ←10 | 11→ as a psychological phenomenon. As Assmann points out, societies do not have memories in the original meaning of the word:

Through the concept of the cultural memory we take a large step beyond the individual who – after all – alone has a memory in a proper sense. Neither the group nor the culture ‘has’ a memory in this sense. To speak in such terms would be a flagrant mystification. Persons continue to be the sole carriers of memory. What this is about is the question to what extent this individual memory is determined socially and culturally1.

Jürgen Straub has given a critical discussion of the notion of identity2. He distinguishes between two notions of collective identity, a normative and a reconstructive, dismissing the first and relating the second to Jan Assmann’s theoretical approach:

Whereas the first, with respect to the (putative) members of the collective, (merely) pretends or presents, directs or suggests, or even imposes, common features, a historical continuity and practical coherence ‘binding’ once and for all, the second type describes the subjects’ praxis as well as the self-understanding and world-understanding in order to arrive at a description of the collective identity in terms of a reconstructive and interpretative science of society and culture. Obviously both types are concerned with normative constructs of meaning and significance. Whereas we must call the first a normative prescription, the second one can be considered as a reconstructive transcription with phenomenological intentions3.

The main point emphasized by Straub, drawing on Assmann, is that collective identity does not exist in its own right, but only in terms of “identifications by the persons who make up this collective,” which they may “acquire, cancel, or abandon” at any moment4. There can be no ‘we’ identity, or ‘them’ identity for that matter, except as part of the self-image of ←11 | 12→ individual persons5. The communal aspects, which characterize or define the group in question, exist as features with which a group of people identify.

Such features may be ideologically delimited or understood, but they will also be historically based and legitimized, since they must point to what brought the group together, in what way it was constituted or defined, or, in the case of a spatially demarcated region, how that region was set apart from other regions. Such historical materials may consist of founding practices, events or documents, or be established through a common, long or short, written or orally remembered history. This history may be based on shared historico-social conditions concerning language, religion or (other) politico-economic factors, including tensions and conflicts with other collective groups, with whom they may also often be intertwined to a high extent, so that they may not easily be separated. Regional or collective identity and the collective memory of the group belong together as two sides of the same coin. Privileged narratives and artefacts, feasts in memory of particular historical events, what is taught privately as well as in schools, including also ethical and political values, appearing as canonical within the community or region, are thus expressive of the group’s or region’s cultural memory. Such features are basic to a collective identity, which, as emphasized, consists in its members’ adherence to them, their participation in them, and, on the whole, identification with them.

3. Personal Identities and Their Dynamics

Also the notion of personal identity involves problems, not least concerning stability. In his discussion, Straub points to the fundamental instability of modern existence.

The central question in the theoretical discourse about identity of interest here, what sort of a person one is and what sort of person one wants to be, has indispensable practical preconditions. One presupposition, in its particular quality and increasing prevalence, is a specifically modern experience, an experience namely, which suggests that identity is never established, and can never be ascertained once and for all, that ←12 | 13→ one never know for certain, who someone is, wants to be, could be. The question of identity around which all these theories circle is based on radicalised experiences of contingency, difference, and alterity, on the experience of reality as the temporalized and dynamised space of possibility in which radical doubt has become the kernel of a self-reflexive, self-critical thought6.

Straub discusses the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson’s famous and influential analysis of Martin Luther’s identity crisis as a young man, which led to his conversion to a monastic life (but a few years later to his confrontation with medieval Roman theology and thus onward to the Reformation). Referencing Charles Taylor, Straub convincingly claims that “Luther’s ‘crisis of faith’ never shook precisely the ‘meaning of life’, insofar as the ‘meaning of life’ was all too unquestionable for this Augustinian monk, as it was for his whole age”7. For Straub, thus, a modern notion of identity cannot be applied indiscriminately to pre-modern persons or in social contexts, which do not share the modern experience as he describes it.

In spite of this modern experience of doubt and uncertainty, identity, as Straub discusses it, concerns unity, self-sameness, self-evidence. It is about “qualitative descriptions” of “what sort of person one is and would like to be”:

The relevant features of a one’s relationship to self and world are those that are not just accidental for one’s being, but fundamental. Thus one may characterise oneself as a devout Christian or upright Communist, as a committed scholar or devoted parent, and let one’s actions be guided by this self-understanding. The qualitative concept of identity always relates to the framework or horizon that allows one a certain conduct of one’s life, provides the choices one makes or does not make with meaning and significance8.

Unity is considered also in a temporal perspective. Identity requires a certain kind of continuity, in spite of changing circumstances.

Unity should be conceived as the coherence of moral and aesthetic systems of maxims, which in the diachronical context of personal identity means primarily: as biographical continuity, thus also as continuity in one’s historical consciousness, through which one locates oneself in the history of the collective reference relevant ←13 | 14→ to one’s identity. Staying the same person then means, in this case: remaining the same even when conditions, and even one’s orientations, have, precisely, not remained the same9.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
Cultural Studies History of Catalonia History of the State Nationalism Political culture Social History
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 352 pp., 31 fig. b/w, 4 tables.

Biographical notes

Nils Holger Petersen (Volume editor) Dick De Boer (Volume editor) Bas Spierings (Volume editor) Martin Van der Velde (Volume editor)

The four editors were project leaders for 3 international collaborative projects constituting the EuroCORECODE programme of the European Science Foundation, 2011–2014. Dick E.H. De Boer was the architect of the EuroCORECODE programme and projectleader of Cuius regio comparing the historical development of nine regions of different size, geo-physical condition, socio-cultural composition, and political fate in medieval and early modern Europe. Nils Holger Petersen was the leader of CultSymbols focusing on the role of the devotion and veneration of saints as a vehicle to study collective identities, including also their receptions into the modern arts as expressions of group identities. Bas Spierings and Martin Van der Velde were the leaders of Unfamiliarity, studying changing European crossborder experiences, including how such experiences influence contemporary cross-border behaviour.


Title: The Historical Evolution of Regionalizing Identities in Europe
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354 pages