Are national cultures fashioned by their country's Golden Age?
Most of the great nations and cultural groups have had one or several golden ages in their history. For example, England's golden age is said to have been under the rule of Elisabeth I, at the time of Shakespeare, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. That of Britain as a whole was undeniably the 19th and early 20th century, when the British Empire extended its influence over nearly half of the world. Spain like to look back at the glorious days of the 16th and early 17th century. This also works for small countries. Belgium has never had a higher international prestige and a more thriving artistic period then from the late 19th to the early 20th century.
When thinking about that, it dawned on me that modern national cultures probably owe a lot to their respective golden ages. The Japanese like to dream about the old days of the Edo era (1603-1867) and imitate their ancestors and try to preserve the style and values of this perceived golden age.
The Brits started to speak with their characteristic posh accent in the 19th century. English sounded very different before that. But people are trying to fight for the survival of this idealised historical period, and the previous Elizabethan golden age when they want to sound old-fashioned ("are thou not..."), while blissfully forgetting the variations in accent and style in between (17th and 18th century) or before that. But it isn't just the way of speaking. What we now call 'traditional' British decoration, suits, wool jumpers, cricket-style sportswear, and so on, all date back to the Victorian or Edwardian golden age.
The so-called classical French style of architecture, furniture and decoration, still much in vogue among the wealthy, originated with Louis XIV and perfected itself until Louis XVI, the grandest period in French history. Why don't the French prefer more recent styles, like the Belle Epoque of the early 20th century, for instance, but are obsessed with that Bourbon style? That's because it is representative of the period of history that make people dream and wonder in amazement, a golden age. That's why French presidents, ministers or diplomats will have offices in good old classical 18th-century style, while their British counterparts will prefer something from the later Victorian period to impress their guests or symbolise the nation.
So just how much impact does a country's golden age have on its modern culture? And how many centuries can pass before people start forgetting? After all we still build Greco-Roman style edifices...
But why is it that European countries have so many golden ages? Or the real question would be, why have so many states managed to remain independent throughout European history? Why don't we speak of a broad European culture the way there is a unified Chinese, Indian or Arabic culture? How could small countries like the Netherlands, Portugal or Denmark each have golden ages, when no Chinese province really had a golden age independent from the rest of China?
How regional rivalries helped shape national cultures and identities
One amazing thing about European history is that no country ever managed to conquer the rest of Europe, to unify the continent and create a single empire, unlike what happened in China, India or the Middle East, where several empires controlled all their respective region, each more populous than the whole of Europe at the same period. While it is perfectly fine to speak of a European civilisation, but there has never been a European empire - not for want of trying, be it with the Romans, the French under Napoleon, or the Germans during WWII.
The Romans came the closest, lasted the longest (about 500 years), but never managed to conquer Ireland, Scotland, Germanic countries, nor Northeast Europe. Napoleon managed to get an ever bigger chunk of Europe under his control, but only for a few years, and the North was still missing.
One particularity of European history is that there almost always was one country dominating the rest of the continent culturally at one point or another without actually controlling other countries politically or militarily. However this never lasted more than a few centuries each time. It started with the Greeks, who developed the first great classical culture in Europe, with an influence reaching all along the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, from Spain to Ukraine. Then came the Romans in their footsteps, whose cultural influence is embodied by our daily use of their alphabet, calendar and even language (English now has more words from Latin than of Germanic origin). After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantines took the relay as the dominant power, although straddling Europe and West Asia.
From the late 700's, Charlemagne unified what is now France, the Benelux, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Northern Italy (as far as Rome), the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Catalonia, and founded in Frankish Empire in 800, which would evolve into the Holy Roman Empire, the designated successor of the Western Roman Empire. This period can be described as the Frankish Golden Age (or the Belgian Golden Age, as the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties had been Belgium-based since the late Roman period). Although France became an independent kingdom in 843, the Holy Roman Empire remained the default dominant power for the rest of the Middle Ages.
After that, everything is a succesion of regional influences, with one country or cultural group asserting its dominance over the rest of Europe, for a while, until the balance of power shifted to another country.
The 9th and 10th century saw the Viking invasions, which spawned two of the future great monarchies outside Scandinavia (Britain and Russia), and played an essential role in the development of modern democracy (the world's two first parliament were established by the Vikings in Iceland and on the Isle of Man, and the Danes and Normans influenced the English parliamentary system).
The Golden Ages of Northern Italy and Flanders took place from the late 13th century to the mid-16th century, and saw a flourishing of the arts of the Renaissance, especially painting and sculpture. Italian and Flemish masters inspired the rest of Europe artistically, and thanks to the wealth it brought upon them, also turned into the bankers of Europe. It's impossible to go to cities like Bruges, Ghent, Mantua, Florence or Siena and not be reminded of those few centuries that still capture people's imagination today and define the appearance of these cities.
Then came the advent of the Habsburgian Empire under Charles V (1519-1558), marking the start of Spain's Golden Age, in no small part thanks to the colonisation of the Americas, while extending the Golden Age of Flanders (Charles V was born in Ghent and lived most of his life in Brussels) and the northern half of Italy, still the richest and most developed part of Europe, and now also partly under Habsburgian rule.
England and France had very little political weight in European affairs until the mid-16th century. The English Golden Age got kickstarted with the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), an age of exploration (Drake, Raleigh), literature (Shakespeare, Marlowe) and science (Bacon, Harvey). The 17th century was mostly dominated by the French politically under Louis XIV, who in himself incarante the French Gold Age. Yet, during that time, the Dutch and the English continued their colonial expansions and led the way in the development of sciences, notably with the founding of the Royal Society in 1660. France asserted its political, cultural and scientific dominance in the 18th century, with Britain not far behind.
Most of the 19th century was duel between France and Britain, to the advantage of the latter, although French remained the dominant language, and Paris outshone London culturally (but not economically). Germany joined the game from the late 19th century, asserting its supremacy over mechanical sciences, technology and industry - a situation that persists to this day.
What we see is that Europe is like no other continent or region historically. Europeans don't seem to crave the stability of a (potentially tyranical) superstate, but prosper thanks to cultural and economic competition between relatively small countries and cultural groups. Contrarily to the historical empires of the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, Europeans aren't really interested in truly conquering and ruling each others, but more in showing off their cultural, economic or military superiority to one another. Even Napoleon's conquests were more a display of bravado and national pride than a real attempt to unify Europe. Napoleon might have disagreed, blinded by his ego, but there is no doubt that the French people didn't care much about ruling over Austrians, Spaniards or Russians. Show them we are then best (for now), then leave, seems to be the pattern in European history. This sense of national rivalries survives today among sports fans, especially in football.
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