The question of how certain cultural characteristics come to be identified as those defining a nation, as well as how they come to exist in the first place, has inspired two scholarly debates: first the question of invention or preexistence of nations, and second whether nations and nationalism are linked with modernity. The first position with regard to the origins of the common cultural base is that national cultural characteristics exist and are a natural result of humans living in society. This is the position of the "perennialists," who argue that nations, whether natural or not, have existed as long as humans have lived in "society," as well as of many nationalists who seek to claim that their nations are "natural," having existed for many centuries. According to this position, the history of nations and nationalism can be found by tracing the evolution of the cultural characteristics that define each nation and their inscription on the human landscape over time. Even where the characteristics are considered to be symbolic or mythical, they are held to preexist consciousness of them by the members of the nation.
This debate is linked to, but not completely identical with, the question of the existence of nations in the premodern period. Historians such as Adrian Hastings argue that even if they have not "always" existed, nations have existed in Europe for several centuries, and their development is not directly linked to the arrival of modernity. Their arguments are based upon the certain existence and consciousness of large ethnic groupings, as well as the use of the word nation by these groups to describe themselves during the Middle Ages.
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