While the golden age of the nation-state was the 19th-early 20th centuries (the age of nationalism), the concept had in fact developed progressively since the middle ages, with the efforts in particular of the French and English kings to assert rule within their own realm. Nationalism and the concept of nation-state, however, did not develop uniformly across Europe.

One has in mind the melancholy sigh of Petrarch as he looked from the top of Mt. Ventoux toward Italy in the hope that the Italian-speaking cities would some day be united. But Petrarch’s dream would not materialize until the 19th century. The case of France and England and, to a lesser extent, Spain and Portugal, would develop in different directions. Spain and Portugal achieved stable borders by the 15th century, thus making these two kingdoms the first ‘nation-states’ in Europe. France and England would be stabilized and pacified by the 17th century. The characteristic common to all four is the strong government that effectively rules and is recognized over its territory. All–with the exception perhaps of Portugal–were born from the unification of smaller principalties, giving the new kingdom a greater power. It is not coincidental that the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to fund Colombus’ expedition after their final triumph over the Arabs. Yet, we wouldn’t be entirely justified to apply the word ‘nation-state’ as we conceive it today to Spain and Portugal at such an early time.