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.
France and England went, in comparison, further than Spain in their unification. Spain and Portugal had had the advantage of unifying territories sharing a common language. North of the Pyrenees and acros the Channel, however, the situation was different. France in particular did not effectively exist until the 15th century after the wars of Louis XI. There, from a small feudal prince with little power, the king progressively extended his territory, from the Crusade against the Languedoc area, through Louis XI’s victory of the Duke of Anjou, to Francis I and Richelieus’ efforts. The absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV was seen by him as necessary to make the kingdom one. The Revolution continued this work and pushed it even further: national education to incorporate the citizens into the new Republic, the prohibition to speak one’s native regional language and the imposition of French served to create a new national consciousness. It is this new consciousness created through various means that distinguishes the modern nation-state from previous forms of government. The flag, the national anthem, a collective history, a particular destiny, and, sometimes, a common language, served to bring into the national sphere people who were previously separated by language, history, even territorial boundaries. The nation had become an ideology. This consciousness of being different from others would also lead to the exclusivism of the modern nation-state, with the creation of border posts, passeports, etc. A state for a people. Petrarch could finally have his dream realized. This new creation, however, would sow the seeds of a destructive nationalism and racism that was at the core of the two world wars.