We often assume that whatever we experience today is what all people have experienced for millennia. We take for granted that we have a government–one with a fixed set of largely agreed upon laws, a common language, a defined and defended border, a predominant religion (Christianity in some form), and shared cultural identity, history, and values (e.g. we are Americans and not British, Americans stand for freedom, we celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, we value good education, we want to own our own home, we want to help eliminate poverty, etc.).
In modern political science, a group of people who have those shared items have come together to form a Nation-State. Nations (various tribes of people) have existed since the dawn of time. And states, that is, governments, have existed just as long. But a Nation-State has all of the above mentioned characteristics, and this is actually a relatively new development in world history.
Many scholars date the beginning of the Nation-State from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. History is usually not so “neat and tidy”, but it is a convenient starting point. Long before that year, however, many pieces of the puzzle were placed to break up the old economies and governments and bring in this “new” geo-political concept.
Since the time of the first crusades (11th through the 13th centuries) the old feudal system of serfs tied to the lands of their local lords was breaking up. The crusades played a large role in depleting or bankrupting the old feudal system, and serfs began leaving their lands for the freedom of the town’s and larger cities. By the 14th century there was a growing and thriving middle class of merchants across Western Europe. As people were gaining in their freedom and wealth, they also began to question and see things in a new light.
Europeans felt the first stirrings of nationalism about this time. When Ferdinand and Isabella united their two kingdoms in 1492 to form the Kingdom of Spain, the people of the Iberian peninsula were no longer subjects of Castille or Arragon, but rather of Spain. They were Spaniards.
The French had finally united to drive out the English by 1453, and the French King in Paris was now governing over land that by and large resembles on a map modern France.
The various people in central Europe who all spoke German began to wonder, “why should I send my money and my allegiance to an Italian in Rome?” Nationalistic “pride” in being English or Dutch or Czech or German helped fuel a revolution…the Protestant Reformation…that eventually overthrew not only religious ideas about government, but also governments themselves and even re-drew the entire map of western and central Europe!