On this day in 1429, Joan of Arc arrived at the Siege of Orléans and led the French to victory. This battle marked a turning point in the Hundred Years’ War. It was Joan’s first major military victory and the first major French success to follow the crushing defeat at Agincourt in 1415.

Several hundred years later, I accompanied my wife to a conference where I attended a panel on Joan of Arc. I thought the panelist who talked about historical cross-dressing was interesting, but far more interesting was the panelist whose thesis was that Joan had invented the concept of nationality.

Mises writes:

The concepts nation and nationality are relatively new in the sense in which we understand them. Of course, the word nation is very old; it derives from Latin and spread early into all modern languages. But another meaning was associated with it. Only since the second half of the eighteenth century did it gradually take on the significance that it has for us today, and not until the nineteenth century did this usage of the word become general.

But if this panelist’s thesis is correct, the modern notion of nationality started in 15th-century France. The claim is that, prior to Joan, the people did not think of themselves as French, but as Norman or Alsatian or Burgundian. There was no “France” per se, but simply this or that kingdom. People were loyal to their region and church, not to a king, and certainly not to a “nation” filled with people who didn’t look like them, didn’t sound like them, didn’t eat the same food or sing the same songs. If the local lord spoke an unrecognizable English instead of a barely recognizable “French” so what? At least they were being ruled by Catholics and not heathen warlords.

Joan changed the boundaries of us and them. They were in our land. We had to expel them.

I don’t know if the thesis is correct, but I found it to be a very interesting claim.

One problem I had with the panel was the overt sense of reverence for Saint Joan. When someone in the audience mentioned that French “far-right” politician Jean-Marie Le Pen invokes Joan for his anti-immigration policies specifically and for his National Front party in general, everyone seemed to share not just a moment of revulsion, but a sense that such claims were absurd. She was a saint and he a monster.

I made my usual mistake of ignoring connotation and general sentiment, and raised my hand to suggest that the comparison wasn’t ridiculous. If Joan of Arc is supposed to have invented nationality, why can’t we hold her responsible for nationalism? There are significant differences between armed invasion and unarmed immigration, but to me, the us-and-them of it sounded similar. We are French. They are not. Let us remove them from our national territory.

I wasn’t trying to suggest that Joan was a fascist or Le Pen a saint. I just thought that the nation-concept we were discussing was a double-edged sword, and should be acknowledged as such.

Apparently, I was alone in this perspective.

Maybe a year later, someone at the bank office where I used to work announced loudly that she was opposed to nationalism. I asked her what she thought of Mahatma Gandhi. She loved him, of course. I asked her if she realized he was a nationalist. “Oh, I think of nationalism as guns and flags and xenophobia,” she said.

Once upon a time, I kept a dictionary on my website — much like my BlackCrayon dictionary, but more eclectic. Here’s how I defined nationalism:


Nationalism is advocacy for the nation-state: the position that the nation and the state should be coextensive.

In the context of an empire, nationalism is a decentralist and pro-liberty philosophy. (Think of Indians under British rule.)

In the context of a federation, nationalism is centralizing and illiberal. (Think of American so-called Federalists — i.e., nationalists — in the late 18th century, or German nationalists in the 19th.)

Gandhi was a nationalist. So was Hitler. Joan of Arc and Alexander Hamilton were both nationalists. Their contexts give the term very different meanings.