The Rise & Decline of Christendom in the West
Christopher Dawson’s Panoramic View of Christian Europe
by James Hitchcock
Few historians have allowed themselves to range over the entire panorama of history as boldly yet as carefully as did Christopher Dawson, and as a mature scholar he made a division of European history into seven distinct phases: Greece, Rome, the Formation of Christendom, the Middle Ages, the Age of Religious Division and Humanistic Culture, the Age of Revolution, and the Disintegration of Europe.1
Some of his earliest published works dealt with primitive or pre-historic societies prior to this seven-stage division. In his first book, The Age of the Gods,2 he showed his deep interest in archaeology and anthropology, unusual in a historian of that time, and used those disciplines to distinguish the phases of pre-history in both the Near Eastern cradle of civilization and in Europe.
In Europe the Glacial Age saw the appearance of identifiable human beings and their differentiation into races, as well as the invention of art, notably the famous cave paintings.3
In the Later Paleolithic Age, evidence of religion, which Dawson regarded as the heart of every culture, began to appear unmistakably. The Paleolithic religion of the hunter was tied to nature and to the fundamental realities of birth and death. Supernatural powers were everywhere, incarnate in animals and other natural beings.4
The Neolithic Age saw the emergence of a “peasant culture” of agriculture, which formed the basis of all later European societies. The peasants’ peaceful cultivation of the land provided the economic basis for warrior societies which attracted more attention from later scholars.5
The later Neolithic Age, when agriculture finally displaced food-gathering as the principal basis of the economy, saw in Eastern and perhaps Central Europe the worship of the Mother Goddess, the fertility deity, who could be both benign and cruel. Such worship for the first time exalted the role of priests as a dominant group in society.6
The Aegean culture, which reached its epitome on Crete, brought to Europe the achievements of the great Near Eastern civilizations.7 This was followed by the Mycenean culture on the mainland of Greece and the Megalithic cultures of Western Europe, of which Stonehenge is the best-known example. Here, as in Egypt, much of religion was centered on the cult of the dead.8
Barbarians, Religion & Art
Meanwhile the people who would later be called the barbarians were also settling in Europe, probably as immigrants from the Asian steppes. Warlike, they eventually destroyed the older civilizations of Europe, and their exaltation of the warrior class created a widening gulf between the aristocracy and the peasantry. The latter remained faithful to the old fertility goddesses, whose worship would survive into Christian times in the form of witchcraft.9
The Bronze Age marked the dominance of the Indo-European peoples and Europe’s passage from pre-history into history. The Celts began to migrate from southwestern Germany to populate much of Western Europe, the relatively high civilization of the Etruscans the only major exception to Indo-European dominance.10
Roughly simultaneously, the Mycenean culture of Greece first overthrew that of Crete, then was in turn conquered by the invading Achaeans, who established the “semi-barbarous” civilization chronicled by Homer. There was no longer room for priests, merchants, or citizens but only for kings and warriors, whose activity was inherently one of destruction.11
The Iron Age in Western Europe began primarily with the Etruscans, whose origins are obscure but from whom the Romans took important elements of their own civilization, especially the concept of the city-state.12
Dawson insisted that a view of primitive peoples as living solely by force was mistaken and that pre-historic peoples were profoundly in touch with the supernatural. Magic was an attempt to formalize and institutionalize primitive religious beliefs, as ratified in the transition from shaman to priest. Certain practices of agriculture and animal husbandry may actually have emerged from religious beliefs rather than the reverse.13
Thus, temples were the most enduring human constructions, and the earliest forms of social differentiation were of people set aside for religious functions. Communal ritual was crucial to the life of primitive societies, and all aspects of life were governed by religious sanctions. So, also, myths were essential to the life of each civilization. While deeply conservative in some ways, those cultures were also in their ways dynamic, as were the religions which undergirded them.14
Dawson thought the story of these pre-historic cultures showed that religion and art were more important than economics and might even be unrelated to economics. Thus, primitive man adapted to his physical environment less through technology than through religion, and practical goals were often sought through spiritual means, as in magic. Eventually, in the West, this evolved into the concept of cosmic order, which served as the basis of all subsequent speculation.15
The Greeks & the Cosmos
Dawson published nothing comprehensive or systematic about Greece and Rome, and his understanding of those civilizations must be pieced together from scattered writings.
The genius of Greek culture was its openness both to “orphic mysticism”—the otherworldliness characteristic of the great East Asian civilizations—and to a scientific approach to reality, a marriage which culminated in Plato.16 Western civilization began when the Greeks became conscious of their separation from the Asiatic world, a self-consciousness especially stimulated by the Persian War of the fifth century B.C. Among other achievements, the Greeks separated the state from culture, creating a dualism of the free city on the one hand and a common Hellenic culture on the other.17
Greek culture completed the sense of the fundamental order of the universe, which was present embryonically in other ancient civilizations. Again culminating in Plato, the Greeks discerned an unchanging higher order beyond the universe itself, but in Plato this became a “mysticism of intelligence” rather than the ascetic mysticism of the great Eastern religions. Thus, only among the Greeks did astrology and magic pass into philosophy and science. This had little in common with modern empiricism, since the Greeks sought to understand the cosmic whole and could find little room in their philosophy for the unique historical event, although Aristotle recognized human freedom.18
In the age of Pericles (the mid-fifth century) the entire Mediterranean world seemed ready to adopt Greek culture. But that culture was itself being torn apart by internal strife, a cultural disease illustrated by the Sophists, whose intellectual activities Dawson characterized as “rope-dancing.” Dawson thought that higher and more intellectually advanced civilizations may be more vulnerable to attack than simpler ones, and the decline of Hellenic culture in the fourth century, despite its superficial triumph throughout the Near East, was a kind of organic disease. Dawson had a lifelong antipathy to cities, and he identified as one of the causes of this disease Greece’s excessive concentration of culture in urban areas, leading to a widening gulf between city and country and the “barbarization” of rural culture.19
The Roman Genius
Some of Dawson’s earliest published works, written with a co-author, were interpretations of the early history of Rome. The religious key to understanding Roman civilization was its perennially weak and vague concept of the gods, which meant that ritual predominated over mythology, the civic religion at the center of Roman life being merely an expansion of the domestic cults.20 Rome’s power spread by conquest, especially through the “genius” of Julius Caesar, but Rome also acted as the conduit for Greek culture, itself originally non-European. Rome dragged the barbarian West out of its primitive isolation, and Caesar Augustus consciously championed Western over Eastern values in his conflict with Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Augustus’s triumph began a period of four centuries of Romanization of the West.21 (This judgment drew Dawson into a tart exchange with an Irish patriot who accused him of exalting tyrannical Romans and ignoring the glories of Celtic culture, adding that Dawson sounded like Benito Mussolini.22)
At its height the Roman Empire constituted a single culture, which was Hellenic. But its motives for expansion were selfish, a fact which ruined the Republic. Julius Caesar and his nephew Caesar Augustus returned, however, to an earlier tradition (presumably non-Roman) of enlightened monarchy, even as the democratic principle was also carried to its farthest extreme, which was the right of citizens to be fed and amused at public expense. Outward splendor was not matched by spiritual purpose, as Roman religion all but disappeared as a real force. A life of luxurious consumption was built on slave labor, as the citizen class was increasingly unwilling to bear children and barbarian soldiers came to control the machinery of state. The real Roman revolution was the military anarchy of the late third century, and Diocletian remodeled the imperial office along the lines of Oriental despotism.23
At heart Rome was now “lifeless,” in that strong human types, such as the barbarians, were alien to it, the once-austere Roman spirit was succumbing to the pursuit of profit and adventure, and Rome became a “predatory state” living by war and plunder, a condition not even Caesar Augustus could arrest. Once again, decline began with excessive urbanization, as the culture of the Empire was concentrated in a capital which was a burden on the backs of the entire people.24
But in its later stages, the Empire was not only dying but was proving itself open to outside influences crucial to later civilization.25 Its benign influence lived on in the European belief in the rule of law and in an ideal of transnational unity.26
The Rich Dark Ages
What was perhaps Dawson’s best-known and most widely read book, The Making of Europe, dealt with what modern people are in the habit of calling the Dark Ages. While acknowledging the material decline which followed the fall of Rome, he insisted that the centuries after about 400 were in fact among the most spiritually rich in Western history, when a new synthesis was being formed, which was nothing less than the definition of Europe itself. There was material loss but spiritual gain.27
Like all young civilizations, the Dark Ages received their initial unity from what went before—Greece and Rome. But the rejection of this earlier synthesis led both to cultural disintegration and to the birth of something new.28 While formally loyal to the Roman state, Christians claimed spiritual independence and appealed to those who were alienated from the materialism of the Empire, which the Church condemned. With the conversion of Constantine they were offered a new kind of universal citizenship, which was that of the Church itself, including the poor and even slaves. Bishops replaced magistrates, as Ambrose did at Milan, and offered a new model of public service, which included the defense of the poor and claims of moral independence from the state. When the state finally collapsed in the West, the bishops remained the true leaders of society and the preservers of the old order.
Although a society originally based on the family, Rome had come to favor the man without family ties, who could devote himself unreservedly to public life, a situation that led to prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, and a decline in population. Christianity reestablished the family as the basis of society. Altogether it promised a universal order of peace and justice, based on a sense of the common unity of mankind. The Church could not cure all the ills of the dying Empire, but it could offer hope and a basis for genuine renewal.29
Augustine & Christian History
In part responding to the belief that the abandonment of the old gods had led to the fall of the Empire, St. Augustine formulated the first Christian philosophy of history, which overcame the inherent pessimism of Greek historical ideas. Judaism, alone of the great ancient religions, could be called this-worldly, in the sense of seeking meaning within history itself. Of supreme importance was the belief that Jesus Christ himself was a historical figure.30
Augustine undertook to discover the divine pattern in history, an approach which was nonetheless rational in its understanding of causation. Ultimate meaning could be found only in eternity, but the kingdom of God was the culmination of history and had its beginning in the world. Augustine’s philosophy of history was a condemnation of the Empire as based on injustice, and Christians were called upon to choose whether or not to submit to the divine will manifesting itself historically. Christianizing the Greek idea of a universal rational order governing the universe, Augustine taught that God can bring good out of evil, so that even the earthly city has meaning, thus marking the end of the old literal Christian millenarianism. Preoccupied with mutability, Augustine became, in Dawson’s judgment, the first man to discover the meaning of time, which is measured by the soul—remembrance, present attention, future expectation.31
Thus, man is not the slave of time but its master and creator, as the past does not disappear but is incorporated into the present. Progress thus becomes possible, in the sense of developing human enlightenment concerning the divine purpose. The City of God is not the Church but is closely related to it. State was subordinated to church, and thus Augustine was responsible for the Western sense of a dynamic, as opposed to a static Byzantine, concept of Church. Thus, the Church deprived the state of its aura of divinity, something Dawson believed the Eastern Church was unable to do, and made possible the Western idea of the state as made up of free persons pursuing moral ends.32
As Augustine himself exemplified, the Church adapted classical culture and made it its own, so much so that, as Dawson pointed out, modern schoolboys were still studying classical texts, a cultural legacy surpassed in its endurance perhaps only by Chinese Confucianism. Appealing to basic human nature rather than to sophisticated minds, Christianity in one sense owed nothing to classical culture; the “golden mediocrity” of ancient scholars had nothing in common with the fanaticism of the martyrs. But the Church embraced this culture nonetheless, thus preventing European civilization from becoming exclusively religious, like certain civilizations of the East. Hellenism was a world civilization in search of a world religion, which it finally found in Christianity.33
The Barbarian Contribution
The barbarians were the material out of which the Church constructed the new synthesis, and when the Empire fell to them, the Church, having held itself aloof from that empire, was not implicated. The barbarians were not savages but a culture which was tribal as opposed to urban and national, its essence kinship, its natural virtues loyalty, love of freedom, and self-respect. The Celts were the most advanced of these, but only in Ireland did the Celtic culture permeate the whole society. Despite barbarian destructiveness, the culture which spread, beginning in the third century, included strong Roman elements. Material conditions declined, giving rise to a system which anticipated feudalism.34
The barbarians were at first only half-Christianized. But the conversion of the Frankish King Clovis in 493 signaled the possibility of medieval civilization, by its alliance of crown and church. The new barbarian kingdoms provided the sword, but everything else in the new society came from the Church, the violence of the barbarians held in check only, as in the sermons of Pope Gregory the Great, by the threat of God’s own superior wrath. Saints were not only moral exemplars but also supernatural powers whose cults incorporated pagan myths and legends. It was impossible, according to Dawson, to convey to the barbarians the high traditions of learned Christianity, and they were converted less by being taught new doctrines than by being introduced to new powers. The saint stood in dramatic contrast to the warrior, just as this world stood in stark contrast to the next. The Church began the centuries-long process of inculcating the barbarians with true Christian principles, in the midst of perpetual violence.35
Monasticism was of course the vital center of Dark Age Christianity in the West. Paradoxically, a new civilization was being built, amid the catastrophes of the age, by people like Gregory, who were successful precisely because they did not seek temporal power. In Ireland, which was the cultural leader of Europe for a time after about 600, monasteries rather than bishops ruled, with the monastic system the equivalent of tribal society. Meanwhile, St. Benedict completed the organization and socialization of monasticism—its assimilation to the Roman spirit—directly preparing the way for the monks’ paradoxical role as missionaries. Although sometimes defeated by the new wave of barbarian invasions, the monasteries remained virtually the sole oases of peace in a war-torn world and assumed a role of cultural leadership which was entirely foreign to their original conception. Gradually the Celtic monastic tradition was displaced by the more practical and less austere Benedictine spirit.36
Thus, to Dawson the most important figure of the Dark Ages was the monk St. Boniface, mainly remembered as the Apostle to the Germans, but in Dawson’s view a kind of genius who understood the principles of Roman order and wedded them to both the Church and the new barbarian kingdoms, an achievement which was the basis of the entire medieval order and justifies calling Boniface the founder of medieval civilization.37
The Emperor Charlemagne (c. 800) made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to incarnate these ideas in political and social form, a universal monarchy having both Roman and Christian roots. Charlemagne’s court also fostered a genuine cultural renaissance, the attempt to create a Christian culture. The experiment failed after his death, in part overwhelmed by a new wave of barbarian invasions, this time the Vikings. The Carolingian Empire was an “ambitious but premature” effort at realizing Western unity, directed by an emperor who was a political ruler but who also took responsibility for spiritual matters such as the celebration of the Liturgy. With the fall of the Empire this responsibility was again thrown back almost entirely on the monasteries.38
Division & Crusades
Dawson noted that the Dark Ages in the West coincided with the golden age of the Byzantine Empire in the Near East, which he saw as resembling Oriental monarchies more than Western, not least in its theocratic character, by which the emperor was both priest and king, in contrast to the Western Augustinian tradition of the two cities. But the religious split between East and West was still far from complete—in the eighth century the popes had not yet included the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed and followed the Eastern practice of using leavened bread in the Eucharist. There was, however, a major contrast between the strictly cloistered Eastern form of monasticism and the emergent forms of the West.39
It was the Islamic conquests in Eastern Europe which finally severed East from West and caused the complete triumph of Oriental culture in the East. Dawson described Islam as a “fighting puritanism” which provided its followers with a compellingly simple view of life and the motive to disseminate it, which made resistance almost futile. Thus, by the end of the Dark Ages, the West was thrown back upon itself, forced by political circumstances to develop its own distinctive civilization.40
Dawson believed that the Middle Ages should be called the ages of faith, not because the faith was then perfectly lived but because it was the only period of Western history when all aspects of life were consciously oriented towards Christian beliefs. But lacking a “uniform material culture,” it was also an age of contradictions—of cruelty and charity, beauty and squalor, spiritual vitality and material barbarism.41
Despite the dream of universal empire, the real political unity of the age came not from that, not even from the new territorial monarchies, but from feudalism, a reversion to barbarianism in its dominance by the military and its giving birth to a system again based on tribal loyalties. Feudal units such as Normandy were large enough to be self-sufficient yet small enough to be governed effectively, and they played a role somewhat like that of the Greek city-states. The Normans carried these institutions to various parts of Europe and even to the Holy Land. The rule of law had disappeared, and only personal loyalties replaced it.
Dawson thought that nothing could be farther from Christianity than this system based on a contempt for death and a spirit of revenge, but the new feudal knight, whom Dawson characterized as much like an American gangster, was also the Christian knight, as the Church set about Christianizing and humanizing institutions through the ideals of chivalry, a fusion of Christianity with the northern barbarian traditions. The knight became a consecrated person and, along with the priest and the peasant, one of the three social types necessary to society. The Peace of God, the Truce of God, and the Crusades sought to tame or redirect warlike impulses, the Crusades, in Dawson’s judgment, manifesting both the highest and the lowest in medieval civilization.42
Church over State
Since the imperial ideal effectively died with Charlemagne, and since the state was dependant on the Church both for its moral authority and for supplying educated men to serve as its officials, the Church in effect gained the upper hand over the state. At first empire and papacy slid downhill together, leading to the nadir of the papacy in the tenth century, as political power was fragmented in numerous ways. Both the papal and imperial ideals revived in the following century, with the notion of Christendom as a free people under both pope and emperor, even as the barbarian kingdoms themselves evolved into Christian monarchies.43
The Gregorian reform of the eleventh century made use of the monasteries partly as a way of compensating for bishops who were under the thumb of kings and feudal lords. The Church itself was a kingdom transcending national boundaries, and Dawson insisted that in some ways the state was viewed almost as a department of the Church, charged with the specific task of maintaining order. A “theocratic papacy” defeated the “theocratic empire.” From about 1075 to 1300, Europe in fact was a kind of theocracy under a dominant spiritual power, and the great struggle was not between church and state but between two ideas of universal order.44
The Middle Ages developed an implicit “theocratic constitutionalism,” in which political authority was in effect conferred by the Church and therefore the divine right of kings was balanced by conditions imposed by the Church, which amounted to a kind of constitutional monarchy. Civil Roman law revived in tandem with Canon Law, so that the Church became the great lawgiver and the papacy the first “state” to apply law to government.45
The revived urban life of the Middle Ages also owed much to the Church, since viable cities often grew where bishops had their sees. The new urban class had no defined place in the social order and therefore founded voluntary associations, such as guilds, under religious auspices. From this came the practice of self-government, the urban commune that was one of the Middle Ages’ greatest achievements. Religion flourished in the cities, as manifested in the great cathedrals and as especially fostered by the friars.46
The Scholastic Imprint
For Dawson the most important elements of a civilization were always spiritual and intellectual, and he regarded Scholasticism as the highest achievement of the Middle Ages. In the ancient world the powers of nature had first been divinized, then (in the otherworldly religions of the East) rejected. Now they were brought into focus as part of God’s creation in the great synthesis of faith and reason achieved in the thirteenth century. Because Christianity was based on history rather than on a static metaphysics, it had retained a humanism and respect for nature. St. Thomas Aquinas was the first Westerner to realize the full implications of this, in his break with Neoplatonism and his strong embrace of the Aristotelian worldview. This was a basic turning point in the history of Western thought, as the human mind ceased to be preoccupied with contemplation of the eternal.47
This turning point—not the Renaissance but the advent of Scholasticism—embraced the spirit of criticism and methodic doubt and led to the universities which were necessary conditions for intellectual progress. The West received its knowledge of Aristotle through the Arabs, and the universities of Italy and southern France were the true meeting place of East and West. Despite orthodox suspicions, Aristotelianism spread rapidly through the universities, its compatibility with Christianity vindicated by Aquinas and by Dante’s Divine Comedy, which showed all aspects of existence joined in an intelligible unity.
As the Franciscan and Dominican friars entered the university world, they too became principal instruments of this new culture, agents of a kind of intellectual revolution supported and even planned by the papacy, which favored both orders. The governing principle of the thirteenth century was the universal organization of life and thought according to a unifying spiritual principle.48
Scholasticism left a more indelible imprint on Western civilization than did any other intellectual movement, and virtually laid the foundation of modern science through its positing of a rational universe governed by divine order. In the thirteenth century the Western mind discovered the true scientific spirit. While the Scholastics were closer to the Greeks in spirit than they are to modern men, they were modern rather than Greek in positing an essential unity of matter and spirit. They also differed from the Greeks in that God was not an abstract principle but a Father, the cosmic process not an endless cycle but a spiritual drama.49
Aquinas could not be called representative of the Middle Ages because he was too original. Raised in southern Italy on the “strange borderland” where Greek and Muslim cultures met the West, he emancipated himself from the Arab tradition as represented by Averroës and recovered the true Greek intellectual spirit, rendering reason autonomous in its search for truth.
St. Bonaventure, for whom the distinction between faith and reason was far less clear, was more representative of medieval culture than was Aquinas, who brought to an end in the West the Oriental preoccupation with absolute transcendence. His weakness was perhaps his near-deification of Aristotle, making it difficult for later Catholic philosophers to depart from Aristotelian doctrines. But modern science was also made possible by the survival of the Platonic tradition with its respect for mathematics, which was lacking in Aquinas. The thirteenth-century Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, often taken for a religious skeptic, in fact gave priority to religion over philosophy and merely applied the method of empirical observation to the study of nature. He, too, revered Aristotle.50
Synthesis & Courtly Love
Scholasticism incorporated within itself everything important which had gone before and, despite the loss of the Greek language, revered the Greek Fathers, whereas the East thought it had little to learn from the West. But the two theological traditions developed differently, the East more speculative with its emphasis on the process of deification, the West more practical with its focus on grace and the sacraments as instruments of grace.
The greatest theological achievement of Scholasticism was to synthesize the Augustinian idea of grace as the power which moves the will and the Greek idea of grace as that which transforms reality. The West also developed its own mystical tradition which, despite the common view of Scholasticism as dry and abstract, included Scholastic varieties. But the most important religious development was the new devotion to the human Jesus, begun by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and brought to fruition by St. Francis of Assisi.51
The assimilation of Aristotelian thought permitted the movement from the older dualism of church and world to the new sense of a universal society embracing both, although Aquinas’s synthesis was actually a harmony of opposing forces held together by an act of faith. There was a vast difference between St. Paul’s concept of the Mystical Body of Christ and Aristotle’s notion of the state as a natural organism, but Aquinas was able to assimilate the two by defining the state as the external organ of the spiritual community, not as a sovereign end in itself.52
But, especially in the Mediterranean area, there were also important elements of medieval civilization which remained essentially outside the great synthesis. In the Arab society of Spain this was obvious, and, prior to Aquinas, the Arabic understanding of Aristotle threatened Christian orthodoxy. Dawson also traced to Arabic sources the “courtly love” tradition with its frank celebration of human, sometimes adulterous, love. In Provence and Languedoc there was an elaborate moral code which was not Christian, based on love and pleasure, the remote ancestor of almost all modern Western literature. At the court of St. Louis chivalry was entirely spiritual, whereas in other places, such as the court of Burgundy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it became essentially worldly. Dante alone was able to transcend the dichotomy.53
The courtly love tradition flourished in the regions of southern France, which were also the centers of the major deviant religious movement of the Middle Ages—the Cathari, whose creed Dawson judged to be not a Christian heresy but a rival religion, resting as it did on an extreme dualism of matter and spirit. The Albigensian Crusade of the early thirteenth century destroyed both the Cathari and the troubadour culture, although the latter spread to other parts of Europe.54
Dawson characterized the Middle Ages as the ages of faith, not in the sense of a complete acceptance of spiritual authority but in its commitment to the spiritual struggle. In no age did Christianity achieve such complete cultural expression as in the thirteenth century. The age was not devoid of evil, nor was the actual level of religious life necessarily higher than at other times. But in that century religion and culture were in close communion, and the highest cultural expressions were religious in nature, its most perfect embodiment being Francis of Assisi, who achieved a complete unity of soul and body, religion and life.55 The importance of the Middle Ages lay not in its external order but in the changes wrought in the Western soul, which, Dawson warned, could never be exterminated except by the destruction of man himself.56
Epitome & Decline
Of all the periods of European history, Dawson gave the least attention to the two centuries between Dante and Martin Luther. None of his books dealt exclusively with the period alternately called the Later Middle Ages or the Renaissance, which was simultaneously nationalistic and intensely religious.57 In terms of modernity, the Later Middle Ages appear to be the more important period, Dawson admitted. However, in terms of medieval values themselves, the later centuries marked a decline.58
Although he always insisted on the primacy of spiritual and intellectual factors in history, he never neglected the material basis of culture. However, concerning the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries he made only perfunctory observations about politics or economics, noting the devastation of the Black Death, the general economic decline of the fourteenth century, and the ways in which the papacy lost moral authority by being drawn into the morass of Italian politics, but, for example, saying nothing about the decline of feudalism.59
Intellectually, after the work of Roger Bacon had shown potential for a truly scientific understanding, Scholasticism degenerated into the sterile “logomachy” of the later disciples of John Duns Scotus, a decay which cast a retroactive pall over all medieval thought.60
Dawson believed that the medieval synthesis reached its epitome at the Council of Lyons under Gregory X in 1274, when Europe was as close to being unified as it would ever be. Immediately afterwards, however, that unity was irredeemably shattered by political rivalries in which the papacy itself was often a participant.61
Dawson identified William Langland’s poem “Piers the Ploughman” as the perfect expression of this decline, with its sense of ruin yet hope for rebirth, its anguished protests against the defeat of true Christianity by the spirit of hardened selfishness. A believer in the papacy, Langland deplored the failure of papal leadership and the pope’s growing encroachment on secular matters.62 Dante, too, was a devout Catholic who was a critic of the political ambitions of the papacy, his great poem the culminating achievement of the medieval synthesis.63
The fourteenth century remained a deeply religious age, its tragedy lying in the fact that the fruitful alliance between the papacy and the reforming movements, notably the friars, was now broken, a rupture which began when Philip IV of France, in the name of the emergent national state, defeated the universalist claims of Boniface VIII.64
Most of the popes of the thirteenth century had not been great spiritual reformers but able lawyers and statesmen preoccupied with questions of empire, a preoccupation which eventually lost the papacy spiritual prestige. In this respect Dante sided with the emperor against the pope, and his political writings also embodied the vision of the radical Spiritual Franciscans and the apocalyptic followers of Joachim of Flora rather than the balanced theories of Aquinas. A defeated papacy acquiesced in the victory of Philip IV, which marked the triumph of the temporal power over the spiritual.65
The Avignon papacy itself grew in efficiency and political skill, but as it did, it lost still more prestige, and religious reformers looked increasingly to the state to implement their vision, as William of Ockham, the most important thinker of the age, sided with emperor over pope. Church-state conflicts, as exemplified by Philip and Boniface, were now irreconcilable.66 Fifteenth-century Conciliarism was the last great reform movement before the Reformation, struggling to preserve medieval unity on some basis other than the papacy.67
Humanism & a Fragile Bridge
Dawson insistently recalled that a genuine humanism, in the sense of a love of the classics, had existed even in the Dark Ages and had flourished in, for example, the School of Chartres during the twelfth century.68 Thus, the significance of the late medieval movement dubbed the “Renaissance” lay less in its proclaimed retrieval of the past than in the way that past came to be understood.
The new humanism made its contribution to the unraveling of the medieval synthesis by reviving the ancient division between classical and barbarian cultures, with the former given complete preeminence over the latter, thus introducing for the first time a division between the larger society and the intellectual elite. Born in Italy, the Renaissance was opposed to Northern European, that is, barbarian culture, not in the name of religion but in the name of civilization.
Most of the humanists remained devout believers, but to the extent that the movement could be called secular in its rejection of asceticism, it was a view of life not as a journey towards a goal but as itself a “fine art.” At no time in history did artists so completely dominate culture. The role of the religious prophet was not rejected, but poets and artists were also divinized. (Paradoxically, the fourteenth-century reformer John Wyclif was a medieval man but opposed to Catholicism, while the Italian humanists were anti-medieval but authentically Catholic.69)
Although implicated in the secularization of Europe, the Renaissance was not itself irreligious—Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More were more typical of the movement than Niccolo Machiavelli.70 But in its way Renaissance humanism was revolutionary, not least because of the phenomenon of “civic humanism,” which was a culture of cities, in contrast to the wider culture of the High Middle Ages. It moved away from the Pauline idea of the organic body in which each part had its function to a religious valuing of the unique importance of each human person.
These new values were not secular but were, as the Renaissance conceived them, “natural.”
In contrast to Scholasticism, the new values were not held in conscious check by religion. There was no desire by these devout Christians actually to revive paganism, although their emphasis on education for citizenship did open something of a split between clergy and laity. But after the end of the Great Western Schism in 1417, the restored papacy at Rome itself ceased to be representative of the ideals of medieval culture and instead embraced the new humanism.71
Significantly, it was the king of France, not the Holy Roman Emperor, who defeated the papacy shortly after 1300, and Dawson identified the emergence of the national state as the key political development of the Later Middle Ages. Thus, the Italian Renaissance was a true national awakening, looking back to a glorious Roman past.72 Marsilius of Padua was not a humanist but an Aristotelian, but in the spirit of the times he returned completely to the Aristotelian idea of the state as a natural organism with no transcendent purpose, held together by the will of the law-giver. It was in its way a return to the ancient Greek polis, a lay view of the state in contrast to the medieval clerical view.
The humanist Machiavelli carried this to its farthest point, totally separating politics from ethics in order to provide Italian culture with an independent material basis, a movement leading to the practice of naked power politics.73 The Hussite heresy in Bohemia around 1400 marked the first time that the unity of Christendom was successfully broken by a religious movement along nationalist lines.74
Medieval man lived precariously between the abyss of hell and the soaring mysteries of heaven, with medieval culture a kind of fragile bridge thrown across the abyss. But in the fourteenth century the strains upon that bridge became too great, and it collapsed. Out of the ruins men began to build again, “with lower aims and more divided purposes.”75
The Reformation Divide: Authority
Dawson systematically addressed the Protestant Reformation only in one of his last books, The Dividing of Christendom (1961) where, somewhat surprising in view of the primacy he always gave to cultural over material values, he suggested that the sixteenth-century division owed less to theology than to politics and economics.76
Earlier he had made the judgment that, because the North had been at first excluded from the Renaissance, it could only assert its independence by remolding the Christian tradition itself. For the most part the Reformation took hold only in the lands which had not been part of the Roman Empire, and this new religious movement was a Nordic revolt against Latin traditions. From opposite sides the Italian Renaissance and the Reformation both destroyed the classical-barbarian synthesis achieved in the Carolingian age. Luther was a man of the Middle Ages but was in revolt against intellectualism (Scholasticism) and the whole Latin tradition, the representative, as Friederich Nietzsche claimed, of the rebellion of the simple against the complicated, a kind of spiritual Peasants’ Revolt. Paul was now taken without his Hellenism and Augustine without his Neoplatonism.77 Protestantism was an explosion of dynamic religious force against the entire medieval synthesis of pagan and Christian elements, an illustration of the principle that religion can both unite and divide cultures.78 The Reformers required an entirely new theory of history, since they cut themselves off from all the centuries since the early Church.79
The Reformation marked the final breach between the concept of reform and the concept of authority, as Catholics developed new ideas of reform and Protestants new ideas of authority.80
In common with most Catholic historians of his era, Dawson acknowledged abuses in the Church crying for reform, a need which in fact was almost universally acknowledged in the early sixteenth century. However, he saw the Reformation as having occurred primarily because the Catholic religious ideal was not compatible with new political conditions. Although there was nationalism on both the Protestant and Catholic sides, the Catholic Church stood as an obstacle to national unity, and there was much envy of its wealth and power. Luther may have been motivated by genuine religious concerns, but he was inevitably drawn into the political world. In the end, the German princes determined the forms which Lutheranism would take. The Lutheran princes’ successful defiance of the Emperor Charles V marked the end of the idea of empire, replaced now by a princely localism.81
Luther was, in Dawson’s terms, a kind of genius with titanic energy, and he “combined to an extraordinary degree the vernacular eloquence of the demagogue with the religious conviction of the prophet.” A man of deep faith, he was also violent and passionate, seeing certain things with a blinding intensity and other things not at all. His strength lay exactly in his subjectivity, locating sin not in the will, as did Catholicism, but in the passions. Hence, since no one is without passion, no one is sinless. Dawson judged Luther’s theology to be “psychologically false” in its insistence that human beings are not affected by good or bad acts. His doctrine of justification by faith alone tended towards antinomianism, the belief that Christians are free of the constraints of law.82
The pre-Reformation movement for reform in the North culminated in Erasmus, roughly Luther’s contemporary, who forged a synthesis between religious reform and Renaissance humanism. But he was finally unacceptable to the Protestants because he seemed to substitute morality for religion. His conflict with Luther destroyed relations between passionate and moderate reformers, with Luther espousing a new kind of dogmatism even more inflexible than the old. Catholics and Protestants shared the Augustinian tradition, but Luther interpreted it in an extreme way. However, the stark doctrines of Luther and John Calvin could not in the end prevail against the moderate reasonableness of Erasmus, and later Protestantism developed in an essentially Erasmian way.83
Whereas Luther destroyed the authority of the Church as such, Calvin upheld it, and Dawson estimated that Calvin’s clergy were far more effective “inquisitors” than those of the Catholic Church, because they were not bound by rules and procedures. After first seeming to move towards antinomianism, Protestantism, especially Calvinism, returned to holding people to strict moral standards. Unlike Luther, Calvin also acquiesced in the idea of meeting force with force, as Calvinists did in Scotland, France, and the Netherlands.84
Puritanism, an offshoot of Calvinism, was especially determined in its restoration of a stark Old Testament piety. Paradoxically, despite its denial of human free will, it produced activists, especially businessmen. But in the late seventeenth century the Puritan spirit, too, was defeated by secularization.85
Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich invented a distinctively urban form of religion, which was congregationalism.86 Dawson regarded the abolition of monasticism as the most important Protestant “reform,” in that it made the family in some ways the center of religion, hence made religion itself private and domestic.87 The Greeks, Aquinas, and even Luther had been hostile to the acquisitive bourgeois spirit, which Dawson judged to be contrary to a gospel spirit which is “open” rather than calculating and which recognizes no economic virtues.
This bourgeois spirit, which perhaps began in the cities of the Italian Renaissance, was able to triumph only when the Reformation had destroyed the power of the Church. Thus, in some ways the Catholic-Protestant conflict of the sixteenth century was between two different cultures, as exemplified by the revolt of the Netherlanders, who possessed the “mechanistic spirit of a clock,” against the passionate Spanish, who were economically stagnant. Had Philip II triumphed over the Protestants in the Netherlands and England, it would have marked also the triumph of a different kind of culture, which would have altered the subsequent course of European history.88
The English Reformation was the clearest example of the subordination of religious to political considerations. The only major Catholic uprising of Henry VIII’s reign, the Pilgrimage of Grace, was a protest against royal absolutism, with the rebels in effect holding a “parliament” of their own which was more representative of the nation than Henry VIII’s Reformation Parliament. But evolving public opinion in England made the Catholic restoration under Queen Mary unpopular, because of her persecution of Protestants, and Elizabeth I settled the religious issues by political means. However, despite its originally political character, Anglicanism was, in Dawson’s view, one of the most important chapters in the history of Christianity, producing an ecclesiastical form which spread all over the world and inspiring a number of great spiritual teachers, notably the seventeenth-century divines like Lancelot Andrewes.89
The beginning of the Reformation found the Catholic Church in a weakened condition. But the impulse to reform had begun before the advent of Protestantism, although the reforming impulse was not officially recognized until Paul III appointed leading reformers to the College of Cardinals, the beginning of a process which led to a remarkable spiritual recovery.90
Resurgence & the Baroque Imagination
In some ways the starting point of the Counter-Reformation was St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, with their powerful disciplining of the will. The strength of the newly formed Jesuit order was in a sense its absence of a past—its members had no corporate self-interest and were single-minded in the pursuit of their goals. Each new period of Christianity has been associated with a new kind of religious order, of which the Jesuits were the model in the sixteenth century, revolutionizing the monastic ideal by bringing it into the world.91
Especially under Jesuit leadership, the Church also began its greatest period of missionary activity, a phenomenon unmatched in the Protestantism of the time. Thereby, the Catholic Church attained a new level of universal awareness, and the early Jesuit missionaries developed a sense of the relativity of particular cultures.92
The Counter-Reformation also flourished in the form of Italian and Spanish mysticism. But, despite its hospitality to mysticism, Spanish culture in the sixteenth century appeared to be more active than contemplative, and its great contribution to the age was its moral dynamism, as manifested in the campaign to bring genuine spirituality to Catholics at large.
Baroque art, with its ecstatic religious passion, placed Renaissance humanism back on the religious path, forging a new alliance between humanism and a revived medieval Catholicism. While growing out of Renaissance styles, baroque art had in common with the Middle Ages the desire to transcend the limits of matter, the breaking of classical limits. Rooted in the monasteries, it was decidedly uneconomical, involving a reckless expenditure of money which Protestant culture eschewed. Baroque became a great international phenomenon, spreading to Latin America and Asia, but, absent from the Protestant North, it was insufficient to serve as a unifying basis of culture.
While acknowledging that in some ways the Protestant North was more intellectually vigorous than the Catholic South, Dawson nonetheless hailed the baroque as the triumph of the imagination, able to create a culture which was unified even at the popular level. By contrast, Protestant iconoclasm impoverished the imagination, destroying the liturgical basis of popular culture and attempting to Christianize that culture through exclusively rational means—the Bible and the sermon. While the baroque fostered religious ecstasy, bourgeois Protestant culture aimed at a “respectable standard average” of behavior. But in the end, the uneconomical character of the old baroque culture left it powerless to resist the new money power. A positive benefit from the weakening of the Empire after the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) was its reduction merely to “Austria,” a country with no historical identity, hence no nationalistic spirit. It became the center of the baroque culture and kept alive the ideal of a universal Catholic culture until the nineteenth century.93
Even in those countries which remained Catholic, the true Catholic spirit was often defeated. Thus, early in the sixteenth century Louis XII of France obtained from the pope by concession what Henry VIII would later take by his own fiat—control over the appointment of bishops. In practice, this royal patronage supported abuses in the Church, preventing reform until the next century. The seventeenth century saw the great flowering of reformed French Catholicism but also the Gallican movement, which undercut papal authority in favor of a quasi-independent French Church.
Charles V of Spain and the Empire was sincerely devout, and prior to his reign the Spanish Church was the first to be reformed. But the fabled Inquisition was more an instrument of the crown than of the Church. Nonetheless, the discovery of the New World, and the consequent assembling of the great Spanish overseas empire, caused the Spanish monarchs once again to think in universalistic terms. But in the end the alliance of the Counter-Reformation with Spain proved disastrous for the Catholic Church, as it came under the suspicion—in England and Japan, for example—of being an instrument of Spanish imperialism.94
In Italy there was some anti-papal feeling but little open dissent. The Counter-Reformation owed relatively little to political leaders and was effected mainly by great religious reformers like St. Charles Borromeo.95
A Long Demise
Religion never exerted greater influence in Europe than in the period 1560–1660, but it was now a source of division and strife rather than unity. In the late seventeenth century, governments at last committed themselves to a policy of religious toleration, shifting the state’s purpose from that of protecting the spiritual order to that of protecting property. But despite the religious differences, it remained in some ways a unified culture, at least among the elite, on the basis of the shared classical heritage. On that basis, late thinkers, such as Voltaire and Alexander Pope, would posit a kind of natural religion open to all rational people. A progressive exclusion from culture was the price Christianity had to pay for its disunity, as it came to be viewed as the cause of civic strife rather than the spiritual basis of society.96
In the late seventeenth century, following the brilliant flowering of French Catholicism earlier in the century, the court of Louis XIV was the center of the baroque and the classical cultures. But there were prominent bourgeois influences at the court, along with the centralized control of royal absolutism, and the court culture became a sterile rationalism. Baroque culture failed to provide a new synthesis, and religion steadily fell prey to rational criticism.97
Christopher Dawson is often thought of primarily as a medievalist. However, by far the largest body of his work dealt with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As much as he was a historian, he was perhaps even more a cultural critic searching for historical answers to the crises of modern times. He remained a relentless critic of industrialism, urbanism, and acquisitive capitalism—all the forms of materialism which he believed were at the root of modern disorders.98 To these he opposed the Catholic idea of a universal spiritual society99 and, without idealizing the Middle Ages, believed that this universal society had come closest to realization during the thirteenth century, its agonized death prolonged over four hundred years.
1. Understanding Europe (New York, 1952), 26.
2. (London, 1934; originally 1928).
3. Ibid., 1–18.
4. Ibid., 19–41.
5. Ibid., 43–62.
6. Ibid., 87–107.
7. Ibid., 167–190.
8. Ibid., 191–234.
9. Ibid., 259–286.
10. Ibid., 311–340.
11. Ibid., 343–361.
12. Ibid., 363–384.
13. Progress and Religion (Garden City, New York, 1952; originally 1929), 83–92; “Religion and Primitive Culture,” The Sociological Review, XVII, 2 (April 1925).
14. Religion and Culture (New York, 1958; originally 1948), 50–59.
15. Ibid., 131–146.
16. “Progress and Decay in Ancient and Modern Civilizations,” The Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (LaSalle, Illinois, 1978), 119–120. (The essay was originally published in 1924.)
17. Understanding Europe, 27–28.
18. Progress and Religion, 104–105, 115–120.
19. “Progress and Decay,” 59–60, 63–65.
20. Dawson and Alexander Farquharson, “The Beginnings of Rome,” The Sociological Review, XV, 2 (April 1923), 132–147; and “Rome: A Historical Survey,” ibid., XV, 4 (October 1923), 296–312.
21. The Making of Europe (New York, 1960; originally 1932).
22. The exchange, with Hugh de Blaccam, took place in G.K.’s Weekly over a period of several months in 1934.
23. Enquiries into Religion and Culture (New York, 1937; originally 1933), 200–213. (Original essay 1930.)
24. “Progress and Decay,” 57, 64–65; Making, 29–38.
25. “Oswald Spengler and the Life of Civilizations,” Dynamics, 381, 385. (Original essay 1922.)
26. Making, 39–41.
27. “Cycles,” 67–68; Enquiries, 200; Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York, 1950), 11; The Formation of Christendom (New York, 1967), 173.
28. “Cycles,” 67–68.
29. Enquiries, 207–219; Making, 54–58; “Edward Gibbon and the Fall of Rome,” Dynamics, 350–351 (original essay 1934); Formation, 122–128; Progress, 275–276.
30. Progress, 116–118, 122, 126.
31. Enquiries, 222–227, 240–251.
32. Ibid., 252–258.
33. Making, 58–72; Formation, 107–1l3, l20–121; Progress, 128–129; Religion and Rise, 17–26.
34. Making, 73–80.
35. Making, 81–98; Medieval Religion and Other Essays (London, 1934), 5–11; Medieval Christianity (London, 1935), 1–7; Religion and Rise, 28–35, 76–85; Formation, 157–165.
36. Making, 165, 171, 174–181; Religion and Rise 43–65; Formation, 132–135, 176.
37. Making, 185–186; Religion and Rise, 67–68; “St. Boniface and His Age,” The Month, new series, XI, 6 (June 1954), 325–332.
38. Making, 187–202; Religion and Rise, 69–71; Formation, 178–189.
39. Making, 99–112, 161–165; Medieval Essays, 17–29; Formation, 128–135.
40. Making, 127–135.
41. Progress, 135.
42. Religion and Rise, 167–180; Medieval Essays (Garden City, New York, 1959; originally 1954), 165–171; Formation, 190–200, 207–209.
43. Making, 219–238.
44. Medieval Religion, 21–27; Medieval Christianity, 9, 17–22; Religion and Rise, 143–162; Understanding, 33–34; Medieval Essays, 70–75, 81; Formation, 201–206.
45. Religion and Rise, 92–98, 161; Medieval Essays, 76–77; Formation, 211–212.
46. Religion and Rise, 193–205.
47. Progress, 138–141; Medieval Religion, 60–83.
48. Religion and Rise, 228–238; Formation, 229–246.
49. “Scholasticism and the Origins of the European Scientific Tradition,” Clergy Review, II (August 1931), 108–121.
50. “The Origins of the European Scientific Tradition: Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon,” Ibid. (September 1931); Formation, 246–250.
51. Medieval Religion, 34–48.
52. Religion and Rise, 210–212.
53. Medieval Essays (originally 1932); Medieval Religion, l07–1l8; Religion and Rise, l80–189.
54. Medieval Christianity, 23–26; Religion and Rise, 253–255.
55. Medieval Religion, 27–28, 50, 119.
56. Religion and Rise, 274.
57. The Dividing of Christendom (New York, 1961), 39.
58. Ibid., 39, 271.
59. Ibid., 29, 30, 41; Formation, 267–269.
60. Medieval Religion, 90–93; Religion and Rise, 230.
61. Formation, 166–168.
62. Medieval Essays, 213–235; Medieval Religion, 155–195.
63. Formation, 269–271; Religion and Culture, 201.
64. Medieval Essays, 237; Medieval Religion, 52, 56.
65. Religion and Rise, 261–263, 268.
66. Dividing, 25–29.
67. Medieval Christianity, 13; Dividing, 31.
68. Medieval Religion, 32, 41; Formation, 232; Religion and Rise, 223.
69. Progress, 35, 143 147; Medieval Christianity, 14; Religion and Culture, 4, 67.
70. Religion and Culture, 4–6.
71. Dividing, 39, 42–48.
72. Progress, 143.
73. Religion and Rise, 213–215; Dividing, 58.
74. Religion and Rise, 271–273, 279.
75. Dividing, 25–26.
76. Ibid., 13.
77. Progress, 144–146.
78. Religion and Culture, 202.
79. Medieval Religion, 280–281.
80. Dividing, 17–18.
81. Ibid., 64–69, 82, 91, 143.
82. Ibid., 70–74.
83. Ibid., 76–79.
84. Ibid., 109–114.
85. Ibid., 167–168, 171.
86. Ibid., 83.
87. Progress, 277.
88. Enquiries, 204–208.
89. Dividing, 96–105.
90. Ibid., 119–120.
91. Ibid., 20, 121–133.
92. Ibid., 174.
93. Ibid., 22, 156–162, 168–170; Enquiries, 209.
94. Dividing, 146–150.
95. Ibid., 154.
96. Progress, 150–152; Understanding, 35; Dividing, 17, 151.
97. Dividing, 180–183.
98. For example, The Modern Dilemma (London, 1933); Religion and the Modern State (New York, 1935); Beyond Politics (New York, 1939); The Judgment of the Nations (New York, 1942).
99. Formation, 283–298.
This paper was originally presented at a Christopher Dawson conference at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina in the spring of 2000.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“The Rise & Decline of Christendom in the West” first appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.