Vetera Novis Augere: nationalism, neo-Thomism and historiography in Quebec and Flanders 1900-1945
Swerts, Kasper Jan Jo
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This thesis compares and contrasts the historiography of Quebec and Flanders during the first half of the twentieth century. The main argument is that the philosophy of neo-Thomism was influential to the conceptualization and writing of history by prominent nationalist historians in both Quebec and Flanders during the period leading up to the Second World War. By extensively comparing the life and works of prominent nationalist historians that played an active role in the nationalist movements of Quebec and Flanders, it has been found that the Catholic University of Leuven was influential in the development of nationalist historiography in Quebec and Flanders during the first decades of the twentieth century. In this sense, this thesis argues that the nationalist historians of Quebec and Flanders be considered as part of a shared historiographical tradition that was influenced by the neo- Thomist philosophy which played an essential role at the Catholic University of Leuven during this period, and which can be traced back in the writings and practices of nationalist historians in both Quebec and Flanders. Out of this shared influence of the neo-Thomist philosophy then, this thesis argues for a reevaluation of the traditional portrayal of nationalist historiography in the first half of the twentieth century, and a reconsideration of the influence neo-Thomism has had on the conceptualization of nationalist history in Quebec and Flanders. It is argued that the nationalist historians of both Quebec and Flanders have traditionally been characterized as unscientific due to their convergence of science and politics, and portrayed the nation as deterministic, meaning that the nation’s essence and development was unaffected by the historical circumstances. By analysing the historical works of nationalist historians that either attended the Catholic University of Leuven, or were part of a network that was influenced by the writings of the neo-Thomists that taught at Leuven, this thesis will make three general arguments that will nuance this traditional portrayal of nationalist historiography during the first half of the twentieth century. First, it will be argued that the neo-Thomist emphasis on the interdependence of essential and existential characteristics nuances the essentialist portrayal of the nation. Using the case of neo- Thomist chemistry as a counterexample, it will be shown how nationalist historians in Quebec and Flanders ascribed an important role to the existentiality and historicity of the nation, and as such, compels us to reconsider the essentialist paradigm of nationalist historiography. Secondly, the neo- Thomist notion of science which legitimated the convergence of subjectivity and objectivity sheds new light on the practice and theory of what constituted scientific history in the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, it will be argued that Quebec and Flanders shared a similar theoretical concept of what constituted scientific history, but represented their historical works differently due to the differentiating political and academic context. Finally, the thesis will highlight how the notions of ambiguity and human freedom, which figured prominently in neo-Thomism, influenced the notion of teleology in Quebec and Flemish nationalist historiography, as is illustrated by the notion of coincidence in Flemish, and providence in Quebec historiography. In addition, using the cases of nationalist historians Lionel Groulx and Hendrik Elias, it will be argued that the different political contexts influenced the political actions of the two nationalist historians, which helps to shed new light on the motives of Flemish nationalist historians to collaborate during the Second World War. By comparing and contrasting the two cases then, this thesis is able to show how the neo- Thomist framework and crucial concepts were not only instrumental to the nationalist historiographies in Quebec and Flanders, but were also malleable to differing historical contexts, and, as such, provides new insight in the intricate relationship between religion, nationalism and historiography that underpinned nationalist historiography in Quebec and Flanders during the first half of the twentieth century.