Nations, nationality, nationalism, history and historiography.

In a recent post on the Jesuit physicist Roger Boscovich I mentioned that he is claimed as a national scientific hero by Serbia, Croatia, Italy and France in the comments somebody also added Slovenia to the list. This type of dispute over the national origins of famous scientists is actually quite common with Nicolas Copernicus providing the most well known example with Germany and Poland having delivered a bitter dispute over his nationality for more than two hundred years. This dispute reach a high point in the early days of Wikipedia with the editing wars in the Copernicus articles in both the German and English language editions being prominently featured in the news media of the world, as evidence for the fact that the Wikipedia concept of open access editing could never function. Although the dispute died down some years ago, after the intervention of the powers that be, as a Wikipedia editor I still come across occasional attempts on Copernicus related articles to reignite the flames of nationalism.

Another bone of contention between the giant North European neighbours who face each other across the oft-disputed border along the Oder-Neisse line is the nationality of the 17th century astronomer Hevelius native of the City of Danzig or should that be Gdansk. A further example is one of my favourite 16th century mathematici Gemma Frisius who is described as Dutch, Belgian or German depending on who is doing the describing.

This problem is not restricted to European scientists with several prominent examples being found amongst the brilliant polymaths who were responsible for the Golden Age of Islamic Science between the 8th and 16th centuries CE with, for example, the nationalities and ethnicities of Abu Rayhan Biruni, Ibn al-Haytham and Ibn al-Khwarizmi all being hotly disputed often on the pages of the English Wikipedia.

This problem is actually the product of nationalism and extremely bad historiography. People wish to be able to add the names of great and famous scientists to the list of objects and people, which make their land, or better-said nation, more important than some imagined competitor. It’s like a giant game of nationalist poker I’ll see your Francis Bacon with my René Descartes and raise you a Pierre-Simon Laplace. I’ll see your Laplace with my Isaac Newton and raise you a David Hume, and so the game goes on. Given the importance of national prestige nobody is prepared to concede such a valuable trump as Copernicus to a neighbour and potential rival.

The problem with this form of rivalry is that it is based on an extreme form of presentism and a complete lack of historical awareness or actually a wilful ignorance of history. The people playing this game behave as if the national state that they are promoting against all comers has existed since time immemorial and that the current borders were always their borders and the peoples currently ensconced within those borders have always lived there; this is of course at best an illusion and very often a deliberate lie.

Let us examine some of the disputed cases outlined above. As was pointed out in the comments to my Boscovich post by tasha, Boscovich was born in Dubrovnik of an Italian mother and a Bosnian father at a time when Dubrovnik was the only city and centre of the small but independent Republic of Ragusa this makes him quite simply a Ragusan of mixed Italian-Bosnian ethnicity. All other claims on him for nationalist purposes are thus invalid with the small exception of France because he did, as I said in my post, become a nationalised French citizen.

Looking more closely at the origins of Copernicus we discover a similar but somewhat more complex situation. Copernicus was born and lived in what was highly disputed territory over which several wars were fought including one in which he himself played a not insignificant role as the Governor of the town of Allenstein (today Olsztyn). He was born of German speaking, but probably of Polish ethnicity, parents in the town of Thorn (today Torun), which at the time of his birth was an autonomous city under the sovereignty of the Polish Crown but not part of Poland. He lived nearly all of his life as a canon of the Bishopric of Frauenburg (today Frombork) the centre of the independent autonomous Prince Bishopric of Ermland or Warmia governed by the cathedral canons, which stood under the protection of the Polish Crown but at the same time was represented at the Prussian Tag, that is the ruling council of Prussia. Although born outside of Ermland it is probably most correct to call Copernicus an Ermlander.

Gemma Frisius was born in Dokkum and lived later in Groningen, both today in the Netherlands, but spent most of his life in Leuven, which is today in Belgium. Ethnically there is no doubt that he is a Frisian as his toponym clearly says. In his own lifetime all three of his places of residence were in the Spanish Netherlands; the country now called The Netherlands first coming into existence 26 years after his death and Belgium more than 200 years later. The claim that his was German is based on the fact that the Hapsburg rulers of The Spanish Netherlands in his lifetime were also the Holy Roman German Emperors, but although they ruled both areas The Spanish Netherlands were considered Hapsburg private property and not part of the German Empire so this claim is more than dubious.

I could go on but I have the feeling that the point I’m trying to make should be clear by now. The scientists in question were all born and lived in states that no longer exists of which there a great number in the world. To claim them as past citizen of modern states is an arrant piece of presentism fuelled by historiographically inappropriate nationalism. I see it as one of the functions of the historian of science to do the leg work and find out the correct political and geographical situation that dominated at the time of birth of his subject of study and to present and explain this when writing about him or her. Naturally it’s much easier to say that Copernicus was German or Polish depending on your prejudices but either statement is historically incorrect and should not be used by anybody claiming to be a historian.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

11 responses to “Nations, nationality, nationalism, history and historiography.

  1. Pingback: Nations, nationality, nationalism, history and historiography | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. You’re a frickin’ voice of reason in a sea of nationalist bullcrap.

  3. Jeb

    The counterpart from European ethnology is the dwarf throwing competition Germany and Italy had over the origins of a fairy story.

    An Italian academic perhaps unsurprisingly claimed Snow White for Italy and the head of the German tourist industry (which also makes the same claim) was not going down without a fight over the issue as such claims are a serious tourist draw and cash cow.

    Nationalisim leading to what was a very heated dispute over a fairy story does bring an ironic smile to my face when I think about it.

  4. He [Copernicus] was born of German speaking, but probably of Polish ethnicity, parents in the town of Thorn (today Torun)

    Ah, so he was a Thorn-y C as well!

  5. Jeb

    Ive been spending some time with Johannes Jonstonus and his “An History of the Wonderful Things of Nature.”

    His Scottish/ Polish with a dash of German ethnic background is really rather interesting; a product of the Baltic trade network. He is a part of the flow of knowledge and commerce.

    Not any flag waving from Scottish historians on him most of the research seems to be in Polish. Unfortunate, as it is good to draw things out in a wider European context rather than focus narrowly.

  6. Fascinating piece. I agree that many of these nationality disputes stem from a lack of knowledge of the history of various regions. Scientists born in Koenigsberg, for example, are designated either German, Russian/German, Russia, Prussian, East Prussian or even Polish depending on the context.

  7. Pingback: The June 2011 History Carnival: Eclectic World |

  8. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders #36: The ABCs of the History of Science « The Dispersal of Darwin

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