Outline of the History of Christian Europe to 1850
Stratford Caldecott


These are unrevised and incomplete Lecture Notes based on teaching undertaken at Plater College during 2000-2001. Accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Square brackets enclose my notes to myself, suggesting extra material that could be inserted at points in the class if time permitted. Since it is unlikely I will have a chance to revise these pages for publication in the foreseeable future, I decided to make them available in this form. My purpose was only to produce an interesting overview for beginners. If they encourage some readers towards a greater interest in European history, I will be delighted. [S.C.]

Around 1300 the German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk. As we will see, 1300 marks in some ways the beginnings of a separation of faith from culture that has profoundly shaped the modern world. It was in this year that the Italian poet Danté set his great imaginal journey from hell to heaven, through the circles of the Christian cosmos that still defined the location of the Christian soul. A mere six hundred years later, around 1900, G.K. Chesterton was able to write: Man has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address. So it seems we went out for a walk, we got lost, and after 600 years we have lost even our address. Our culture is homeless – a refugee culture. Maybe we can't go back, maybe there were good reasons for leaving 'home' in the first place, but we need to know what those reasons were, and to understand what we are missing, if we are to find what we went out looking for, all those centuries ago.


'Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried' (G.K. Chesterton). Is this true? Let us begin with a few reflections on the nature of a Christian civilization.

Conversion is what we call the process by which God reaches out and changes someone's life. In some cases this conversion may be sudden, and St Paul is the classic example. For others it may be a long, slow struggle. If it happens to us at all, it may happen many times, or once, or so imperceptibly that we hardly notice it has happened. None of us knows how long a life we have in front of us, in which to complete our journey and find our purpose in life, our vocation, our mission. God does not force this on anyone. Translated into social and historical terms, this means that the impact of Christianity on human history must also be a long, slow process. It is made up of the interwoven histories of millions of individual souls, some moving fast, some slow, some going forward, some back, some towards Christ, some away.

Clearly the coming of Christ had a huge impact on the world and on history. But although it could be said to have brought heaven in a sense down to earth (for example in the liturgy, and in the lives of the saints), it did not turn the world into heaven. It did not solve every social problem. Some problems it even made worse. Christ himself had said, 'I come not to bring peace, but a sword' – meaning that his coming would result in all kinds of social conflict, whether he wanted it to or not. Human nature remains a battlefield, and battles always bring out both the best and the worst in people. The history of Christendom is a history of human sin and corruption, as much as it is a history of grace and redemption. Gradually, of course, the principles of Christian ethics permeated society and changed laws and attitudes. But for every step forward there was at least half a step back. As a result, we can say that the fight that Christ waged on the Cross is, in a sense, still going on. It is still going on in the twentieth century; it is still going on right here in this city. It is going on inside every one of us.

The early Christian philosophers understood Christ to be nothing less than the Eternal Law of God incarnate, the Law become Person. And that Law was Love (1 John). Guided by the teachings of Christ and of St Paul they drew together the best of the heritage of the ancient world – the Stoic idea of natural law, the teachings of the Old Testament concerning the universal cosmic Wisdom of the Creator, the Greek philosophical notion of the Logos – and showed how every bit of it found its ultimate home in Christ, the true Logos or Word of the Father. The Old Testament Commandment to love God above all things and our neighbour as ourselves was summed up and confirmed by Christ (Matt. 22:40), but then transcended: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you (John 13:34-5).

In claiming to be the Son of God, Jesus Christ made himself the norm of morality, and turned a code of ethics into a path of spirituality, of personal growth and transformation. [Cf. H.U. von Balthasar, A Theology of History.] Outward behaviour would always be important, and hypocrisy a sin, but the Christian teaching emphasized above all the intentions and the purity of the heart. It is there that the Spirit of Christ had made his home through baptism, and it was there that a new and eternal life had begun. This eternal newness, like a spring of fresh water coming from the presence of Christ, is something that every generation of Christians has to rediscover for itself. Every Christian culture will fail and fall, but the Church renews herself like the Phoenix, and with her, a new civilization arises that is different from the old, yet inspired by the same truth.

'Why is it,' asks Christopher Dawson in his book Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 'that Europe alone among the civilizations of the world has been continually shaken and transformed by an energy of spiritual unrest that refuses to be content with the unchanging law of social tradition which rules the oriental cultures? It is because its religious ideal has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world. In the West the spiritual power has not been immobilized in a sacred social order like the Confucian state in China and the Indian caste system. It has acquired social freedom and autonomy and consequently its activity has not been confined to the religious sphere but has had far-reaching effects on every aspect of social and intellectual life.... Western civilization has been the great ferment of change in the world, because the changing of the world became an integral part of its cultural ideal' (pp.15-16).

This is the key point that I believe makes sense of European history. The social problems we are all aware of today are not quite the same as the social problems that have existed in other civilizations in world history. Of course, there is always a problem of poverty: 'The poor you have always with you.' Human nature being what it is, those who have much tend not to share it with those who have little. Sometimes the disparity between rich and poor is greater, sometimes less. Violence,'the last resort of the incompetent' (Isaac Asimov), along with many other human weaknesses, is also perennial. But today in addition to these we have an entirely new set of problems. These problems are to do with alienation, the breakdown of the family structure, and the pace of technological change. Social and technological change has been accelerating ever since Christ was born: gradually at first, but gaining momentum century by century. Once the peak of the early medieval civilization is past – in other words as soon as we get a couple of hundred years into the second millennium – this starts to become much more obvious. The point to note is that, at least according to Dawson, the reason for this acceleration is actually something to do with the nature of Christianity.

A number of historians (Duhem, Dawson, Jaki) have shown the link between Christian faith – belief in a wise and free Creator – and the birth of modern science. It seems likely that the conditions for such a development could not be fulfilled in a society where it was assumed the world had to be the way it is. But the fruits of science are both good and evil – because the human beings who do science, and who apply it in the form of technology, are both good and evil. As early as Friar Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century there was in Europe the idea 'of a total synthesis of scientific and philosophic knowledge which would enlarge the bounds of human life and give Christian civilization power to unite the world' (Dawson, 17). Ramon Lull, that great world traveller, missionary and sage of the same period, had a vision of a great wheel of symbols, a kind of diagram of reality that he called Ars Magna.

Today's scientists share the vision of these men, and they call it a 'Theory of Everything'. The desire for it is in part a kind of insatiable curiosity, a hunger for truth and understanding, which is a good thing and which in fact points to our need for God (who alone can ultimately fulfil it). But it is linked also – in us fallen human beings – to the desire to have power over everything – for to this way of thinking 'knowledge is power'. One crucial step was taken in the century after Bacon and Aquinas: Nominalism. If we can understand why this was so important we will begin to understand why the papal encyclical Fides et Ratio – which is about the need to reintegrate of philosophy and faith – could well turn out to be one of the most important of John Paul II's pontificate; of crucial significance for the future of Catholic social teaching, and even for the survival of life on earth.

Recommended reading
Rodger Charles, Christian Social Witness and Teaching
Christopher Howse, AD: 2000 Years of Christianity

Christian Beginnings

A rough outline of salvation history would describe how God took a particular people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and made with them a Covenant – or series of covenants [according to Scott Hahn] – by which they were to renounce all lesser Gods, and to be specially dedicated to him and faithful to his Law, in return for his special care and guidance. The story of that Covenant, and the struggle to keep it, is told in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. [The book of Exodus describes the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt around 1300 BC. It was at this time that Moses received the Ten Commandments and the Law. After they came into the Promised Land and carved out a place for themselves there, the tribes were ruled by God through a series of judges and then kings. King David ruled around 1000 BC. After growing infidelity to the Covenant, the kingdom was divided, scattered and subjected to other races. The monarchy came to an end in 587 BC, with the conquest of Jerusalem and the deportation to Babylon.]

The One God who had revealed himself to the Jews was unique among the deities of the surrounding cultures in being not the God of a locality, not even the God of one nation, but the God of creation, the source of order and justice throughout the cosmos. The Law he gave through the mediation of Moses was remarkable for the moral reciprocity it enjoined on the people, the degree of care it envisaged for the poor and disadvantaged, and even the wisdom with which land was to be developed for the good of all. This Law was the Jewish people's greatest treasure: the source of their holiness. Even their own kings – when they had them – were held accountable before it. [Story of King David and the Psalms – the Prayerbook of Israel.]

God is the Lord of Time, and he chose with the greatest care the moment to become incarnate: a moment that the Bible describes as 'the fullness of time'. In 63 BC Palestine had become subject to Rome, which maintained its rule through puppet kings like Herod, and afterwards through the High Priests and the Council of the Sanhedrin. Christ was born under the absolute rule of the Emperor Augustus. The Romans, like the Jews, had a emphasis on law. Mostly, however, Roman law was a matter not of elevated philosophical ideas or divine revelation, but simple political expediency. It was designed to promote social order and cohesion within a religiously and culturally pluralistic Empire. It worked very well, on the whole. It permitted a certain amount of cultural and religious diversity, as long as this did not clash with submission to Roman rule. With the elevation of the Emperor to 'divine' status, however, the stage was set for a clash with any religion – Jewish or Christian – that could not bow before a human idol.

[Stories of the martyrs. Cf. Newman's Callista.] To cut a long and colourful history short, after several periods of intense persecution, in which Christians were burnt like torches to light up the gardens of the Emperor or fed to the lions in front of vast crowds, the new Christian religion that had swept the Mediterranean like wildfire became the official cult of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Constantine, having adopted a policy of religious toleration in 313 became a Christian on his deathbed in 337. The Empire, however, internally divided by extremes of wealth and poverty, and economically unproductive – a civilization where infanticide, cruelty and sexual licence had reached almost twentieth-century proportions – was fast collapsing in chaos. Constantine had moved his capital East.

The West was soon overrun by the barbarians, many of whom had been brought in as auxiliaries to defend it. But as the Western Empire declined, the Church of the West flourished. Why was this? The reasons included the great attractiveness and novelty of Christian respect for individuals (who were regarded as equal in the eyes of God, whether slave or free, male or female). This respect manifested itself partly in great works of charity and hospitality, which created a vast network of hospices and hospitals across the Empire. Even the intellectual excitement of Christian theology, in which was resurrected all that was best in Greek and Roman thought, contributed to the flood of conversions. [Story of St Augustine. Originality of the Confessions as narrative of interiority opened to God. The City of God helped to shape the conception of Christendom.]

As the Church grew, it became a whole alternative society, organized around the bishops and the Eucharist. So it was that the Church simply, gradually, became Christendom. It inherited the mantle, and to some extent the trappings – the ceremonial, the courtly ritual, even the vestments – of the Imperium, adding to these its own moral authority. In 452 it was not an Emperor but a Pope (Leo the Great) who stood in the path of Attila the Hun as he marched on Rome, having already conquered most of Europe, and somehow, in the course of a brief conversation that history does not record, turned him back on his heels. Nor was Attila the only barbarian that Leo persuaded to leave Rome in peace. Under such men, the Papacy inherited the Western Empire, and under Gregory the Great (590-604) the Papacy became a major power in an emerging Europe where even the barbarians were fast turning Christian.

The Influence of the Monks

While the Western end of the Empire was overrun by successive waves of barbarians, the Eastern Empire was to survive another thousand years. Revived under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, it maintained a hold even over Italy until the middle of the eighth, and converted the Russians in the tenth. Out of this Eastern Empire, quite early on, came a vast cultural and civilizing force that was to transform the West even more, perhaps, than the political and social changes I have just been describing. I am referring to monasticism.

The earliest Christians, we are told, had 'all lived together and owned everything in common' (Acts 2:46). They put what they possessed into a common pool and shared it with those in need. This way of carrying on, however, became much harder as the Church grew and became a universal society. The Scriptures, after all, did not condemn private property altogether, although they were full of warnings about the dangers of wealth. (Those who were called to 'perfection' were required to sell all they had and give to the poor. But even those not so called must own possessions only with a view to the common good. The rich man's wealth had to be, in some way, put at the service of the poor.)

For many Christians, these developments involving property, and the close association of the Church with political authority after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine seemed like a compromise with worldly values. So you find, within two hundred years, especially in Egypt and Syria, large numbers of people taking the 'path of perfection': giving away their possessions and renouncing violence, to live a life of radical obedience to the will of God, a life dedicated to prayer and the actions inspired by prayer. Some of those who left the towns and villages to seek solitude and purification in the desert remained there as hermits, living on their own. Some of them formed communities called monasteries. [Talk about the Desert Fathers.]

In AD 370, St Basil, Bishop of Caesaria in Cappadocia, designed a Rule of life for these early monks to follow, and after the Council of Chalcedon (451) the new monasteries came increasingly under the supervision of the bishops. By now the idea of monasticism had begun to catch on in the West, thanks to the travels of John Cassian and then Patrick – the Apostle to the Irish – in the early fifth century. A century later, around AD 529, St Benedict of Nursia gave a distinctive form to this way of life with his own Rule, establishing the great monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy. (By chance, the first Benedictine Monastery was established at the very same time that Plato's Academy was being closed in the East.)

The Rule of St Benedict was, and still is, a very sane and balanced document. [Read extracts.] It rejected the extremes of asceticism, linked prayer to manual labour (ora et labora), enjoined hospitality and care of the poor, encouraged learning, and emphasized stability in one place. The monasteries were often built in wild rural areas, which through the patient labour of the monks became highly productive. As a result of all this, Benedict's monasteries were able to act as centres of civilization and charity in a time of social chaos, and often to preserve the ancient learning through times of ignorance. It was the monks – not forgetting the Celtic monks who were the spiritual children of St Patrick – who converted the barbarian invaders. In this way it was the monasteries that became the cradle of the new civilization. [Could read Dawson, The Making of Europe, pp. 155-63 on the Celtic monks. Also Walter Miller's sf novel A Canticle for Liebowitz, written in reparation for the bombing of Monte Cassino by a former American airman.]

When St Benedict was only 16 years old (in AD 496), the most important of the Germanic barbarian tribes rampaging around Western Europe, the Franks, became Christian under their king Clovis (thanks to the influence of his wife, Clotilda). Less than a century later, one of Benedict's monks became Pope Gregory, known as Gregory 'the Great' because, more than many others, he helped to change the face of Europe: among many other things, he was responsible for the extension of Catholicism to England. He is also associated with that kind of church music we know as Gregorian Chant. [Play some music?] In AD 732 – more than a hundred years after the death of Gregory – one of King Clovis's successors, Charles Martel, became the major political force in Europe by defeating the Muslims at Poitiers. As the barbarians as well as the Moslems continued to threaten the West, the Popes came to perceive the Frankish kings as the most reliable protectors of the Christian people. Finally, on Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne Emperor of (Western) Europe during Mass at St Peter's.

Charlemagne was a giant of a man in every sense: a seven-footer, massively built (though like many large men he had a surprisingly high-pitched voice). Under the soft Roman tunic he was persuaded to wear for his coronation he wore a chain-mail undervest. During 60 military campaigns he had never lost a battle. He had baptized whole nations at the point of the sword, and was the undisputed ruler of all of Europe between Spain and Hungary – an Empire rivalling that of the Romans in their heyday. On some of his campaigns he was accompanied by an elephant – no doubt quite a striking sight – which had been a present to him from Haroun-al-Raschid of Baghdad, the Caliph of the Thousand and One Nights. [Quote from Song of Roland?]

Charlemagne was also a man of deep faith, and had strong opinions in matters of theology. It is worth noting that it was he, not the Pope, who insisted on the insertion of the filioque clause into the Creed, which contributed so much to the growing tension between Eastern and Western Christianity. [Look also at the Frankish failure to 'receive' the teaching of the Seventh Ecumenical Council concerning icons.] This helps to explain why did the Pope offered him the imperial crown, more than 300 years after the last Western Emperor had been deposed, and at the risk of losing so much of his own authority. He saw it as a way to 'restore all things in Christ' – to Christianize society. This remarkable Christian conqueror offered the best opportunity since Constantine to integrate the spiritual and political order of Europe. The result was that Christendom now became a political reality as never before. But there was a price to be paid – and the split with the East was a part of that price. [Explore the negative side of this: as with the conversion of Constantine, Christianity was being imposed by force. See Balthasar, Tragedy Under Grace, p. 280. Refer to the same book when exploring the concept of chivalry later in these lectures.]

The fact that one of Charlemagne's closest advisers was an English monk – Alcuin of York – was also part of this strategy. Northern England was at that time the site of a remarkable flowering of monastic culture – heir both to the Benedictine influence that came from the south via Canterbury, and the Celtic monastic influence that came from the North via Iona and Northumbria from Ireland. Charlemagne fully intended to draw on the monasteries to rebuild Western civilization, and in fact he succeeded so well that the historians refer to this period as the Carolingian Renaissance. Although the new Empire he had created was again partially divided after 843, the system of laws he promulgated and above all the ideal of a Christian Europe ruled – under God – by Emperor and Pope together, rather than by one or the other alone, dominated the imagination of Western Europe for more than a thousand years – as did the French language, which (though the Franks were originally Germans) now became the language of civilization. Meanwhile, others took the lead and did something similar, though on a smaller scale. In England, King Alfred (d. 899), created the English nation, basing his law code on the Ten Commandments and (like Charlemagne) bringing wise men from the monasteries to teach his court. Even the Vikings were converted: it was they who established the dukedom of Normandy in France that was to play such a part in English affairs (to put it mildly) after 1066. [The Norman Conquest, the Bayeux Tapestry, etc.]

The Golden Age of Christendom?

The break-up of the Carolingian Empire in the mid-ninth century under the pressure of Magyar and Viking assault was a dark and chaotic interlude. It left the Church, too, deeply implicated and tainted. A period of intensive reform followed, before the Church could again assume the moral leadership of Europe in uneasy alliance with a new dynasty of Saxon Emperors. But then, for a brief, shining moment that lasted little more than two hundred years, the new civilization that we call Gothic (originally a term of abuse) was able to put forth its flowers and fruit. The population and the towns were exploding, trade and literacy were also on the rise. As it did so, local organizations and trade guilds grew up to maintain an elaborate system of protection for workers and their families. Meanwhile a new form of architecture arose: the brainchild of Abbot Suger, first seen in the church of St Denys in France, completed in 1144: said to be the first example of Gothic architecture. In 1040 some of the French bishops started a remarkable peace movement, known as the Peace of God or Truce of God: warfare was to be permitted only on 90 days of the year (no fighting from Wednesday evening to Monday morning, or on holy days), and protection guaranteed for priests, peasants, travellers and women. A series of reforming Popes reigned from 1046 to 1075 (especially Leo IX and Gregory VII, author of the 'Gregorian Reform' that purged the clergy of much immorality). The Benedictine Order was reformed once more by the Cistercians in 1098, and expanded rapidly under the leadership (from 1112) of one of the most famous and influential figures of the age, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). [Focus on the story of Abelard, Heloise and Bernard? Mysticism vs rationalism.]

This was the period when the first universities were born out of the monasteries and cathedral schools of Italy and France. It was the age of the great visionary Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. It was the period in which the Plantagenets ruled France and England (1154-1216), the time of the Crusades, of Richard the Lionheart, El Cid, Saladin and Robin Hood. By 1190 the legends of King Arthur, his knights of the Round Table and the Quest of the Holy Grail, partly under Cistercian influence, had became universally popular under Henry II and his great Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (mother of Richard the Lionheart, who was born right here in Oxford), because they expressed so well the ideals of the age. Some people say that this period saw the birth of the notion of romantic love in the West, under the influence of Islamic mysticism filtering in from Spain. Certainly it gave the idea an influential literary form. The tales of the troubadors inspired, among others, the young Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) with dreams of knightly service. He was to translate these dreams after the year 1205 into a new kind of religious order – a mendicant order sworn to the service not of Queen Guinevere, or Queen Eleanor, but of Lady Poverty. [Guest lecturer on St Francis and the Secular Order?]

Christopher Dawson, in Medieval Essays, writes of St Francis: 'The ideals of his fraternity were founded on those of romantic chivalry rather than those of Benedictine monasticism. It was to be an order of spiritual knighthood, dedicated to the service of the Cross and the love of Lady Poverty. The Friars were his 'Brethren of the Round Table', 'jongleurs of God', and they were to set forth like Knight Adventurers on the path of God, performing deeds of spiritual prowess, shrinking from no hardship or danger and finding their reward in the service of love. Thus the courtly ideals of courtesy, joy, generosity and romantic love found a new religious application of which the life of St Francis himself was the perfect manifestation...' (pp.179-80).

Economic development

We can trace a relatively smooth succession of economic stages through the Middle Ages. The first stage saw the change from slavery to serfdom on large estates; the second the development of full-scale feudalism; the third led to the formation of nation states.

1) In the later Roman Empire, both peasants and slaves increasingly became coloni on large estates or villas owned by a powerful upper class, who would offer them protection in return for the payment of taxes and so on. The same pattern was repeated in the early Middle Ages under the Frankish kings, especially Charlemagne, when the possession of lands (together with the peasants who happened to be working the land) was granted to the nobility in return for service. The peasants became 'serfs', and so bound in law to work for the local lord in return for his patronage and protection. They were not, however (at least not usually) 'slaves': many had their own plot of land, and lived under laws administered by the local manorial court.

2) Serfdom was the basis for the development of feudalism, the crucial added element in which was the evolution of the earlier barbarian warrior, under the influence of Christianity, into the armoured knight. (The word feudalism derives from the Latin feudum, meaning fief.) This class of knights was the backbone of the new nobility. The Frankish-German code of honour and personal fellowship became codified into an elaborate hierarchy of relationships of loyalty, defined by oath-taking and the grants of land and privileges. In many ways this code of chivalry was more effective in holding the fabric of society together than any written set of laws could ever have been. On the land, an emphasis on arable farming by means of crop rotation (the three-field system) led to the growth of communal or cooperative agriculture in and around the villages – villages sheltered by and economically supportive of the local castle.

3) The next stage in economic and social development was to be the gradual evolution of these feudal fiefs, which were entirely at the disposal of the nobility, into territorial states. This happened by a process of conquest, amalgamation, and the consolidation and extension of privileges among the nobility which had now become hereditary. The population explosion and the growth of long-distance trade caused the castles and villages of early medieval times to expand into walled cities by the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Outside the city walls, the peasant farmer of these times possessed a great measure of independence, being protected by the Church, by strong bonds of community and by local custom. The monasteries played their part too, both as employers and landowners, and as places of refuge for the poor.

Towns and guilds I mentioned the trade guilds. They were in fact one of the most important fruits of Christian inspiration. In the new towns of this period, according to Ernst Troeltsch (cited by Dawson, p. 162), 'a ground was prepared on which the higher qualities of medieval society could be purified from the crudity and violence of feudalism.... [With] its cathedrals and its intensive church life, its religious confraternities and gilds, its care for the spiritual and material welfare of its inhabitants and its educational and charitable institutions, as the highest point of the development of the medieval spirit.' Each city was partly governed by a system of craft and trade guilds, under the patronage of some popular saint. These controlled the quality, price and distribution of goods, as well as looking after the education, employment and social welfare of craftsmen. I can underline the significance of these guilds by quoting a piece written in The Chesterton Review by Russell Sparkes in November 1993. The guilds, he says, 'were the means whereby a society for two centuries was based on social justice and the ethical teaching of the Church. Second, as a consequence..., ordinary men had a level of prosperity that they did not see again for four centuries, until the post-1945 Welfare State and the rapid economic growth that followed.'

This principle of voluntary association under religious protection was the basis, in fact, for the new forms of municipal government that took shape all over Europe during this time, culminating in the commune, where the inhabitants got together and bound themselves by oath to keep the common peace and to defend common liberties. Italy in particular became in this way a land of city states. At various times the nobles – who continued their military feuding – were actually driven out of the cities altogether. Linked to the rise of the merchant classes (of whom Francis, of course, was a member), the city states were to be the basis for the next phase of civilization.

The decline of Christendom

Although I know how fragile, and much of the time physically uncomfortable, it must have been to live in the thirteenth century, I can't help thinking of it as in other ways a wonderful period in which to have lived. A 'new period of stability and coherence in the culture of Christendom seemed established' (Rodger Charles, p. 156). France and England were ruled by the 'saintly kings' St Louis IX and Henry III. The reconquest of Spain from the Moors led to the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle, which the Arabs had preserved and commented upon, generating an enormous intellectual ferment. The influence of St Francis contributed to the rise of a new (largely lay) spirituality – an emphasis on the humanity, and especially the suffering humanity, of Christ. Economic growth on the one hand, and intellectual ferment on the other, create the impression of a confident Christian civilization emerging on to the world stage. The long struggle with the barbarians who had swept away Classical civilization seemed at last to be over.

This is, however, something of an illusion. The new European civilization had already begun to betray the very Christianity that had inspired it. Or perhaps it had simply failed to transform completely the savage spirit of the barbarians – except in the brilliant minds and saintly figures who represent the brightest flowers of the period. While chivalry and all that might sound very romantic to us, reading about it in the picture books (as it did to St Francis, growing up in those times), it had institutionalized a kind of violence and a class system whose deficiencies and injustices were becoming all too apparent, especially to the new literate merchant classes. Those who followed Francis refused to bear arms or swear oaths of fealty: whole villages joined his Third Order at a time, undermining the network of loyalty on which the feudal system largely depended. Change was in the air.

The Crusades, preached and encouraged by the mystical St Bernard and by the same great Pope, Innocent III, who approved the Rule of St Francis in 1209, provided, no doubt, many occasions for heroism and inspired some beautiful songs, but at the same time they diverted Christian idealism into dark and dangerous paths. That process culminated in the vicious sack of Christian Constantinople by the Christian Crusaders in 1204 (an act of barbarism which deepened the Schism with the East) and the tragedy of the Children's Crusades in 1212. (Two young boys, Nicholas in Germany and Stephen in France, were so caught up by the idealism of it all that they inspired something like fifty thousand children to march unarmed across Europe with the idea of defeating the Muslims. Animals, birds, fishes and butterflies were believed to have marched with them. The children ended as slaves and prostitutes; some of them were shipwrecked.)

This was a time when whole cities could be put to the sword for believing the wrong religion. The same violence was increasingly applied to Christian heresies, which from the dawn of the thirteenth century were perceived as undermining the social order from within. An 'internal' Crusade was waged against the Cathars. In mid-century the Inquisition was established and the burnings began. The very moment of Christianity's triumph thus became the moment of its greatest betrayal. A Church Council in 1215 required that the Jews start to wear distinctive clothing, so that they could be readily identified. Anti-semitism, which had lain fairly dormant since Roman times (and which had been condemned by a Council in 1179), exploded again in the 1300s with the expulsion of the Jews from France and (in the next century) Spain. The great and balanced philosophical synthesis of St Thomas – which had been nourished by dialogue with the Jewish and Arabic philosophers – was swept away by the tide of Nominalism. A new generation of savage kings took the stage, of whom Philip IV, 'the Fair', of France was perhaps the first and most handsome example. Forced by Philip into conceding the secular taxation of the clergy, Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) was even kidnapped by the king's mercenaries, and before long (1305-76) the Papacy had moved to Avignon under the shadow of France. No sooner had St Catherine of Siena shamed the Popes into returning to Rome than two rival popes were elected (including 'John XXIII') and Europe was divided in an internal Schism that lasted until 1415.

Finally, on the physical and social level, few greater disasters can be imagined than those which descended on Christendom in the years 1300 to 1400 – almost like divine wrath for the failures of Christendom. First a minor Ice Age froze the Baltic solid (1303-8). Then the bad weather led to crop failures and famines (1315). On top of all that, the Black Death swept through Europe in the second half of the fourteenth century (1347-50) – as though to bring down the curtain on the Middle Ages once and for all, and clear the stage for the next great phase of history. The plague killed at least 20 million people in those three years, around a third of the population of Europe (the population did not begin to rise again until around 1450). Except for a privileged few, the rest were reduced to poverty, causing ever greater tension between the social classes (e.g. the Peasants' Revolt in England under Richard II, in 1381). This was also the time of the savage 'Hundred Years' War' between England and France – virtually a World War in medieval terms. Astronomers tell us that a supernova must have been visible from Europe in the fourteenth century, but no historical records seem to mention it. Perhaps people were too busy fighting and dying to watch the stars.

And yet, and yet... in human history everything bad is mixed with good. Even in this dark time, the years around 1400 saw a kind of last flowering of the medieval civilization right across Europe, with Geoffrey Chaucer in England, the painter Fra Angelico and the poet Petrarch in Italy, Van Eyck in the Netherlands, and in faraway Russia, the greatest of all Icon painters, Andrej Rublev. Christian humanism continued to evolve.

The 1300s and early 1400s were also one of the great ages of Christian mysticism. In Germany and the Low Countries we find Eckhart and Ruysbroeck, the Devotio Moderna of Geert Grote (d. 1384) and The Imitation of Christ (probably early 15th century). In England we find Richard Rolle (b. 1300), Julian of Norwich (d. 1416), The Cloud of Unknowing and Margery Kempe. Intense religious experience founded on the contemplative study of Scripture had overflowed from the monastic enclosure and was spreading through the lives of ordinary layfolk – many of whom could now read and write. Viewed by some as forerunners of the Reformation, or of the Renaissance for their contribution to vernacular culture, these mystics were indeed sometimes in tension with the ecclesiastical establishment, if only because (like Rolle) they sometimes felt impelled by the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel without possessing the authority to do so, or because (like Eckhart) they stretched human language in the attempt to express their experience. The love of Christ's humanity, and the experience of the indwelling Holy Spirit giving a foretaste of union with him, seem to be the common factor uniting all these mystics whose writings have come down to us.

The Gothic civilization was giving birth to a Renaissance. The 1400s would see economic recovery through trade, and an Age of Exploration that for better or worse would open the whole of the globe to European civilization.

Dawson on the Trecento (Thirteenth Century):

'Europe has seen no greater Christian hero than St Francis, no greater Christian philosopher than St Thomas, no greater poet than Dante, perhaps even no greater Christian ruler than St Louis' (Christopher Dawson, Medieval Essays, p. 183; cf. Formation, p. 280). According to Dominic Maganiello, writing in the Newsletter of the Christopher Dawson Center of Christian Culture (Ontario, Jan. 2000), Dawson believed that medieval Christendom is worthy of study because it offers 'the outstanding example of the application of faith to life' (Medieval Essays, p. 11). We can learn from its failures as well as its achievements. Medieval culture is alive for those who believe that 'the past and present are united in the one Body of the Church and that the Christians of the past are still present as witnesses and helpers in the life of the Church today' (Crisis, p. 113). 'Dante understood this truth very well,' Maganielo writes. 'In the midst of local and world crises that signalled the waning of the Middle Ages, he turned to the saints – Peter, James, John, Dominic, Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Bernard – to help him make a personal examination of conscience (cf. Paradiso). At the beginning of the Comedy the pilgrim-poet finds himself in the dark wood that leads to hell; gradually he learns that the whole of Western civilization finds itself there too. From the outset, then, Dante realizes that he must change himself before he can change the world. The divine agent of transformation alone can lead fallen humanity out of the darkness and into the light of paradise. Dante's recourse to the community of the Blessed corroborates a central insight of Dawson: "The relation between faith and life is completely relaized only in the life of a saint" (Crisis, p. 113). That is why Beatrice declares that the Church on earth has no son more "full of hope" than Dante (Par. XXV, 52-3).'

The Birth of the Modern World

It is very important for us to try to understand the reasons for the collapse of the medieval order, because this will enable us to grasp the nature of the modern world. Let me take up the story again from the Crusades. Having found it impossible to persuade the military classes of Western Europe to adopt more peaceable ways (I mentioned the Peace movement around AD 1000), the Church resorted to an alternative strategy, which seemed to be the only one open to it: namely to channel all that aggression against a common enemy. It started well enough – both in the East, with a successful First Crusade in 1096 (answering the appeal for help of the Byzantine Emperor the year before), and also in the South West of Europe. The Reconquista or Reconquest of Spain south of Santiago from the Moors (Toledo 1085) gave Western Europe access for the first time to many of the treasures of ancient philosophy, particularly in the form of Arabic transcriptions of Aristotle. For the next hundred years Christian, Jewish and Moslem scholars would collaborate on the translation and interpretation of these texts. It was the Friars, the new mendicant orders, both Franciscan and Dominican (who, thanks to the support of the Papacy, which had given them the task of combatting heresy, were now dominating the new Universities in Paris and later Oxford), who managed to achieve this synthesis of the new learning with the tradition coming from St Augustine and the Church Fathers.

(If you are not familiar with all this, one of the best books about the great age of Scholasticism is The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, by the French historian Etienne Gilson. It was this book that helped to convert Thomas Merton to Catholicism. You might also enjoy G.K. Chesterton's brilliant little book St Thomas Aquinas.) The Scholastic synthesis demonstrated a remarkable balance between faith and reason, between grace and nature. Theology is based on Revelation, but for St Thomas it also has to be in harmony with human reason, because there can be only one truth. In other words, his method is based not on a narrow dogmatism that only finds what it is looking for, but on a completely fearless search for truth using all the available methods of philosophy, including the ancient pagan philosophy, confident that – through prayer – it would eventually be possible to answer any objections to faith that might arise, and to reconcile any apparent clash between the teachings of the Church and the conclusions of human thought.

In the fourteenth century, however, the new emphasis on nature and on corporeal reality, on love and on the humanity of Christ, which was linked to the development both of lay spirituality and of science, began to be taken to rather extreme lengths by some of the Franciscans. This, I think, is a turning point for civilization: the point where the medieval world began to give way to the modern. In fact the new philosophy was quickly dubbed the via moderna or 'modern way', so evident was its radical difference from traditional thought. [See Louis Dupre, Passage to Modernity, Yale, 1993.]

The Impact of St Francis

An interesting case could be made for tracing the Renaissance and the civilization that followed it to the inspiration provided by St Francis of Assisi. Dante, Leonardo and Columbus were all Franciscans. This remarkable saint was a living paradox, as Chesterton brings out in his little biography. Francis was an ascetic who loved the world of nature, and by his asceticism – his life of voluntary penance – he somehow managed to purge the ancient paganism and made possible a new and innocent interest in the order of creation, which was subsequently reflected by his followers both in art and in science. But there is also a much more conscious spirtuality of human and divine suffering. After St Francis (the first known stigmatic in Christian history), the Crucifix in Western art begins to bleed. First Giotto (another Franciscan), and then the other great painters of Italy, begin to emphasize not the iconic tableau but the human drama of Christ and the saints, and to celebrate these is frescoes and altarpieces.

The trouble with the new 'Franciscan' attentiveness to nature is that innocence is not transmissible. Each person has to achieve purity for himself: it is not an achievement that can be passed on from one to another. Those who followed Francis, who walked the path he had cleared for them, were not all saints. The 'worst' is ever the corruption of the 'best', and the gifts of grace are a sword that impales those who prove unworthy. As St Paul taught, it was the gift of the Law that had created sin. In this way, the possibilities opened up by Franciscanism led both to great nobility of soul and to the extremes of decadence. Both tendencies are clearly visible in the Italian Renaissance. From Donatello to Michaelangelo you see a rediscovery of pagan classicism, but also a conscious attempt to transcend the classical, both in technical experise and in naturalism. There is something splendid, but at the same time unwholesome, about the new obsession with anatomical detail (which shades into eroticism), and also with the artists' self-confidence in their own genius (which shades into megalomania). The same story is repeated in architecture and in music. In the sciences, too, the ancients were soon to be transcended in a deliberate attempt to wrest the secrets of nature from her, with the help of the same mathematical techniques then being used to plan buildings and the perspective drawings. In fact, it is not hard to see the same mentality present in science as in the visual arts, as the emphasis shifted from the spiritual principles revealed in matter to its outward appearance and mechanical operation – from final causes to efficient causes.

It was in Oxford, with Franciscans such as Robert Grosseteste, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, and the 'spiritual Franciscans' such as Roger Bacon, that the mentality emerged that was truly to define the modern world. This came about in the period of intellectual turbulence following the rediscovery of Aristotle and his Arabic commentators (such as Averroes) via the new school of translators in Toledo. Working mainly in the University of Paris, and following the lead of his teacher Albertus Magnus, St Thomas Aquinas had succeeded, in a masterly way, in integrating the legacy of Plato with the new material from Aristotle – for example, defending free will against the unbalanced Averroism of such men as Siger of Brabant. Unfortunately, the Archbishop of Paris felt it necessary to wade into the argument with a stronger and much cruder condemnation of the new Aristotelian influences. This cast a temporary shadow even over Aquinas's solution. In the brief period between the Condemnations of 1277 and the canonization of Aquinas in 1323 the damage had been done. Franciscan scholars who had already begun to oppose the new Greek and Arabic influence (in the name of the Platonic tradition that had come partly through Augustine) were strengthened in their resolve. Whereas Aquinas had given primacy to the pure intellect over the will and heart, the Franciscans reversed this priority, and some of them developed an exaggerated anti-intellectualism that led them to deny the universal principles on which both the Aristotelian and the Platonic conception of philosophy had depended. For these 'modern' thinkers – the Nominalists – nothing could be real except individual things, to each of which we attach a conventional label or nomen such as 'man' or 'dog', 'wise' or 'faithful'.

From Louis Dupre, Passage to Modernity, p. 3:

'Only when the early humanist notion of human creativity came to form a combustive mixture with the negative conclusions of nominalist theology did it cause the cultural explosion that we refer to as modernity. Its impact shattered the organic unity of the Western view of the real. The earliest Ionian concept of physis had combined a physical (in the modern sense!) with an anthropic and a divine component. The classical Greek notion of kosmos (used by Plato and Aristotle), as well as the Roman natura, had preserved the idea of the real as an harmonious, all-inclusive whole. Its organic unity had been threatened by the Hebrew-Christian conception of a Creator who remained outside the cosmos. Yet, through his wisdom, support and grace, he continued to be present in this world. At the end of the Middle Ages, however, nominalist theology effectively removed God from creation. Ineffable in being and inscrutable in his designs, God withdrew from the original synthesis altogether. The divine became relgated to a supernatural sphere separate from nature, with which it retained no more than a causal, external link. This removal of transcendence fundamentally affected the conveyance of meaning. Whereas previously meaning had been established in the very act of creation by a wise God, it now fell upon the human mind to interpret a cosmos, the structure of which had ceased to be given as intelligible. Instead of being an integral part of the cosmos, the person became its source of meaning. Mental life separated from cosmic being: as meaning-giving "subject", the mind became the spiritual substratum of all reality. Only what it objectively constituted would count as real. Thus reality split into two separate spheres: that of the mind, which contained all intellectual determinations, and that of all other being, which received them.'

Christians had already come to the conclusion that the world is dependent for its existence on the love of God. Christian theologians like St Thomas did not believe it was an automatic 'emanation' from the eternal Ideas, as the Neoplatonists thought, but that it required God's will to bring it about from nothing. What happened now, with the development of 'Nominalism', was that this idea of 'contingency' began to be applied not merely to the existence of the world, but to very its nature and pattern. If God's will is in some sense arbitrary, and not governed internally by an eternal law or harmony of universal ideas and essences, the structure of the cosmos might well have been different than it is. In order to find out what pattern God has actually chosen to put into the world at its creation, you have not merely to contemplate but to observe it. There is an 'empirical' strand in Aristotle, for whom we can know only what we have encountered through the senses, but the Aristotelianism of the Middle Ages had become a purely deductive science. A truly inductive method for the investigation of nature in its detailed particularity can be said to have begun with the Oxford Franciscans. While Ockham himself was far from being an empirical scientist, those who came after him were increasingly prepared to look, and probe, and experiment, to find out what the world is made of and how it works. It was only a relatively small step from this to the idea that the natural order itself, mechanistically conceived, could be changed by man, and an alternative world created through technological means.

The development of science during the Renaissance period was, therefore, made possible in Europe partly by the new climate of thought created by Franciscanism, first in its attention to nature, and then in its sense of the world's radical dependence on God. But another ingredient was necessary, and that was the application of mathematics to the investigation of nature. Modern science owes as much to the sorcerers and alchemists of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries as it does to the theologians and philosophers, for it was they who had kept alive the mathematical speculation of the Pythagorean tradition, which became an indispensable tool in the hands of the new empiricists, during the coming centuries. The Renaissance Platonist, Pico della Mirandola, spoke for many when he expressed his view that, 'By numbers a way is had to the searching out and understanding of everything able to be known.' By applying mathematics to the design and analysis of his experiments, a scientist could probe beneath the surface of reality, and unlock the secrets of nature's power. This was what the magicians had always craved, and now at last science began to deliver the goods. As soon as it did, it became the dominant intellectual and cultural force on the planet. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said that when science becomes far enough advanced it is always indistinguishable from magic. And the more power it gives, the more convincing it appears: the ultimate proof of a scientific theory is that it works.

Roger Bacon (1214-94):

'This Oxford Franciscan attacked both the superstitions of the masses and the hostiity towards science of the Paris schoolmen. He called for the empirical investigation of nature and urged men to experiment, although he himself was unable to achieve very much in this field.... Bacon had his own vision of the technical world of the future: ships without oarsmen, sumbarines, "automobiles", aeroplanes, small magical gadgets for releasing oneself from prison, , magical fetters (for use on other people), and devices for walking on water.'
Friedrich Heer, The Medieval World, pp. 301-2

If taken too far, the idea of the world's dependence on God's will, deprived of the intelligibility that comes from universal ideas, might have led to the idea of an arbitrary and irrational cosmos. Far from being conducive to the development of science, this would have nipped it in the bud. (It certainly introduced into European tradition a persistent worry about how cause could be related to effect.) But the dangers of irrationalism were counterbalanced by the belief that God has ordered things mathematically. With the application of mathematics, 'universals' had in fact returned through the back door – now they were safely separated from theology. (It has been suggested that the mathematicization of nature appealed not only to the magicians but to the rising merchant classes, for whom counting and measuring was in any case a way of life.) There is, however, yet a third condition for the birth of modern science, and once again we can link it to the nature of Christianity. Without the drive to understand, to 'wrest' nature's secrets from her, there would have been no great intellectual inpetus towards the new discoveries of Galileo, Kepler and Newton. The motivation came from the same source as the drive to recapture the Holy Land and convert the Muslims: it was the 'holy impatience' (or perhaps unholy impatience) of Christendom. Christianity had introduced the idea that God had entered the world and given history a purpose and a direction: and not only a direction, but an imminent end. The drive to understand the world came from the drive to convert the world, in readiness for the Second Coming of Christ. Bacon, says Heer (p. 298), 'considered it better to confound unbelievers by wisdom and true learning than to conquer them in wars conducted by pugnacious illiterates whose successes could only be ephemeral. Military Crusades had failed and must be replaced by crusades of learning, to win over minds and souls.' The same energy, when deprived of a religious object by secularization, was turned to the physical conquest and mastery of the planet in the age of the great colonial powers.

The Protestant Reformation

It is clear that without a belief in natural universals to support an intrinsic harmony between the world and human intelligence, the delicate link between faith and reason must disintegrate. The new way of thought was a kind of attack on the ancient idea of divine wisdom, and ultimately on the medieval conception of beauty as that which unites truth with goodness. Faith started to seem, in a sense, arbitrary: an act of will rather than an act of the illuminated intelligence. Even God's moral laws, and his decision to save us from sin, were understood as an act of will on his part, with no particular reason or wisdom behind them ('voluntarism'). According to Ockham, God could even decide that murder was not a sin. I first realized how relevant this all is to our own time when I stood with a group of pilgrims in what is left of Auschwitz, in Poland, and I thought of the Nazis' decision to label all those Jews as 'animals' for the slaughter – and then I thought of the abortionists' decision to label the unborn child a 'foetus' or a 'clump of cells' – in order to make it easier to kill. For many modern philosophers, the human person does not exist: there is only a series of bodily and psychological states, of chemical processes, one after another. If we share this attitude, the line between a 'person' with value to society and a 'non-person' becomes somewhat arbitrary: it depends on politics, on social pressures, on whether I happen to want the child or not. The justification of genocide and of abortion can be traced back to the Nominalists, and until we get our philosophy sorted out the problem will never go away.

Up until the fourteenth century, Christian culture can be described as a series of renaissances or 'rebirths' that progressively integrated the achievements of the past (the Church Fathers, the Monks and finally the Scholastics). But now the work of synthesis started to unravel. It was Nominalism, for example, that prepared the ground for the rebellion of an obscure Augustinian monk called Martin Luther in the sixteenth century – a rebellion not yet against God, but against the Church. Luther, in line with much of the new thinking and against Catholicism, believed that 'there is no greater enemy of grace than Aristotle's ethics'; indeed, no philosophy whatever could be compatible with the Gospel. So he belonged with the shift in philosophy that I have been describing – or rather the shift against philosophy. Of course, many other factors were present that made the Reformation happen. By the time Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, the Church had been for some time sunk in one of its periods of decline. This time the Catholic reform movement would come with the Council of Trent in 1545-63: too late to save much of Western Europe from schism. (We call it the 'Counter-Reformation', in fact, because it came after the Reformation and was perceived as a response to Protestantism.)

The military Crusades against the 'common enemy' of Christian Europe had ended in failure and widespread demoralization by 1300 – a state of mind soon magnified by the natural disasters already mentioned. Is it therefore surprising that the energies of aggression now turned inward? Luther's protests against the corruption of the Church – which were partly coloured by an inadequate understanding of Catholic teaching and a very bad temper – would not have amounted to much unless many other factors had also been present. Religion had always been involved in politics, but now this became true in a new and intense way within Western Europe. The German (Habsburg) Emperor Charles V was trying to restore the medieval Catholic imperium yet again. But the princes of the provinces and the growing merchant classes (increasingly wealthy and well educated) were not interested. So it came about that some of the princes sided with Luther against the Emperor and the Pope – and, incidentally, against their own peasants (Luther obligingly wrote a tract called Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants). In 1555, at the Peace of Augsburg, Charles had to concede to the princes the right to choose between the Pope and Luther (cuius regio, eius religio). He abdicated altogether the year after. The Habsburg dynasty continued for a lot longer, but the idea of a universal Catholic empire had received a mortal blow, and the sovereignty of the princes fostered the rise of the new principle of political organization: the nation state.

Meanwhile Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland took a step further than Luther, who had left much of Catholic theology and liturgical practice intact while cutting away philosophy and the Pope. They wanted to do away with the Eucharist altogether, and establish a theocratic state based solely on the authority of Scripture, interpreted by themselves. This 'Reformed' religion began to spread rapidly with the Huguenots to France and the Low Countries, and to Scotland with John Knox. Thanks to Henry VIII's desire to secure the succession, England too was opened to Protestant and then Reformed influences, and Catholic religion and culture ruthlessly suppressed. [See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars and J.J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People] Because of our English genius for compromise, what we ended up with was an attempt to be neither one thing nor the other: namely the Church of England. We also ended up with Capitalism, because as we shall see, it was the Reformation that helped to prepare the social conditions for the new economic order.

Christopher Dawson writes of Protestantism that it 'eliminated the metaphysical element in the Christian tradition. It abolished asceticism and monasticism; it subordinated contemplation to action and intelligence to the will'. Luther's own religious experience, once he had 'abandoned the intellectual element in religion', was 'a dark and tormented sense of man's utter helplessness and of the otherness of the Divine Power'. He wrote: 'God is more terrible and frightful than the Devil, for he dealeth with us and bringeth us to ruin with power, smiteth us and hammereth us and payeth no heed to us. 'In His majesty He is a consuming fire.' For therefore can no man refrain; if he thinketh on God aright his heart in his body is stricken with terror.... Yea, as soon as he heareth God named he is filled with trepidation and fear.' (Cited by Dawson in Christianity and the New Age, 1985, p.60.) Now of course the danger of hellfire was not Luther's invention. It is mentioned by Jesus in the Gospels, and has often been used by Catholic preachers as well as Protestant ones. The difference is one of emphasis, and context. Luther's rhetoric marks a general loss of balance and sophistication in Christian teaching as a whole – a loss that is easy enough to understand, given the fact that he was making doctrine on the hoof, caught up in the midst of political turmoil.

All this weltering in religious emotion, this mysticism of darkness and guilt after a really terrible century, this inferno of accusations and counter-accusations, helps to explain why many people – and especially many intellectuals – were beginning to get fed up with the whole subject of religion. The fresh air of humanism had begun to blow through Europe. When Constantinople fell at last in 1453, much of the ancient learning that had been preserved there was transferred West – initially to Italy. It fed into a remarkable resurgence of culture from around 1500, which we call the Renaissance, patronized by a series of Popes and princes (the Borgias, the Medicis). The Franciscan emphasis on nature and on humanity – so evident in the new painting style of Giotto – was now re-mingled with those inspirations from ancient paganism, so that the figures carved or painted by Michelangelo already start to seem a bit less like saints and more like superheroes. Natural science, under the influence of Nominalism, had become separated from theology. The spread of printing, fostered by Protestantism (with its emphasis on the written word of Scripture individually interpreted), contributed to the development of a new literary culture. Discoveries in science and over the seas opened frontiers undreamt of before in human history.

The Age of Revolutions

For all these reasons, the reaction to the wars of religion (culminating in the 30 Year's War of 1618-48) took the form of a new kind of intellectuality: one increasingly divorced from religious faith. The 1600s and 1700s saw the dawning of what has been called 'The Age of Reason', or the Enlightenment. Parallel to this was another important movement, in part a natural reaction to it, in part an extension of the earlier preoccupation with individual genius, emotion and willpower. This was the movement we call Romanticism, and which we tend to associate with the elevation of feeling and imagination by poets such as William Blake and Coleridge in England, Goethe in Germany and the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778) in France. [The impact on Catholic theology and philosophy is described by Aidan Nichols OP in Catholic Thought Since the Enlightenment, Gracewing, 1998.]

This age of genius brought to an end one of the worst excesses into which the medieval culture had fallen: the burning of witches, which accounted for more than million deaths between 1484 and 1700. The Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation together gave birth to the Baroque culture which culminated in the glorious music of Bach, Handel and Mozart in the eighteenth century – music still redolent of religious faith and emotion, though increasingly detached from any formal religious context (except perhaps Freemasonry). Meanwhile the new empiricism led to a chain of scientific breakthroughs, prophesied by Friar Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, and then by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth, for whom Mother Nature is to be 'tortured' on the rack until she yields her secrets. The work of Galileo (d. 1642), Kepler (d. 1630), and Descartes (d. 1650) culminated in that of the man who was regarded as the supreme genius of his age: Sir Isaac Newton (d. 1727). ('God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.') Once again following the trail that had been opened up by William of Ockham, philosophers like Hobbes (d. 1679), Locke (d. 1704), Hume (d. 1776), Adam Smith (d. 1790), Kant (d. 1804) and finally Hegel (d. 1831) justified new political structures ranging all the way from the absolute state of Louis XIII and XIV – and other 'enlightened despots' of the period – to the great 'democratic experiment' of the United States. [Expand with Karl Stern, The Flight from Woman; William Blake, Goethe vs Newton, etc.]

The decadence of the absolutist ancien regime that had replaced feudalism in France resulted in the rebellion of the new middle class (the 'Third Estate') against the nobility, culminating in the French Revolution against Louis XVI in 1789-92. Thousands (mostly aristocrats) were killed on Dr Guillotine's remarkably efficient invention in a wave of bloodlust orchestrated by Robespierre. They called it the 'Red Mass', and vast crowds turned out to watch the heads of the aristocrats roll into the baskets. Others were massacred by volleys of gunfire, or sunk in the sea. Soon the violence turned against the clergy as well as the nobility. In 1794 he Revolutionary Commune abolished Christianity and established the 'Cult of Reason' as the official religion of France. An opera singer (some say a prostitute) was placed on the high altar of Notre Dame to represent the new Goddess. Robespierre rounded them all up and had them executed, only to try to establish in its place his own religion, the worship of the 'Supreme Being' based on the ideas of Rousseau, and the Terror continued. Before long the logic of Revolution had run its course, Robespierre's few remaining associates had turned on him, and he too ended his earthly life in the jaws of Madame Guillotine. [Expand with the help of Dawson, The Gods of Revolution.]

The French Revolution marks the beginning of full-blown modernity. Out of this bloody chaos came Napoleon, an officer of the Revolution and one-time follower of Rousseau and Robespierre, who before long had crowned himself Emperor of Europe in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and conquered most of the Continent. As Aidan Nichols puts it, Napoleon's armies helped to carry the ideology of the French Revolution to every part of Europe and beyond, so that it 'broke on the Catholic Church with the force of a cataclysm whose storm uprooted all familiar landmarks in a hitherto sacralized landscape' (Catholic Thought Since the Enlightenment, p. 23). Napoleon was not himself a religious believer. He was in fact the first 'post-Christian Caesar' the Church had met. Nevertheless, he viewed religion as the 'cement of social order', and was prepared to use it for his own purposes: he came to an agreement with the Church that left Catholicism still the official religion of France, but with Church lands still in the hands of the former revolutionaries, and the State having the power to choose the bishops. After Napoleon's final defeat in 1814, a great peace congress in Vienna had to redraw the map of Europe. A 'Holy Alliance' of Christian States on the Continent was formed to preserve the new status quo. But it was a fragile settlement, and changes were afoot that would soon blast it into oblivion.

Paul Johnson (The Sunday Telegraph, 26 December 1999):

In the 18th century, Rousseau had put forward the notion of the general will, to be embodied by an individual or a state, as an alternative to counting-heads democracy. This sinister concept first found expression in the French Revolution of 1789, leading to the Terror and Bonaparte's dictatorship. Rousseau's totalitarian theory of the state was refined first by Hegel, who used it to defend the idea of the almighty, pyramidal state, then by his follower Marx, who inverted the pyramid to create the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Either way it means rule by a highly organized few over a hapless multitude, by means of a Bonapartist invention, the modern secret police. Following the First World War, these ideas found expression in the fascist Italy of Mussolini, the Nazi Germany of Hitler, and the Communist Russia of Lenin and Stalin, followed in due course by Mao Zedong's gigantic People's Republic of China. All these men were intellectuals in the sense that they thought ideas more important than people. And all sought to impose their ideas by force. So it was the people who suffered, in unprecedented numbers. Hitler's theories cost 25 million lives, including 6 million Jews, two-thirds of the entire Ashkenazi-Jewish population of east central Europe. Stalin too waged wars against peoples as well as classes, transporting or exterminating awkward tribes and nations of the Soviet empire. A careful calculation by a group of French historians shows that the human bill of communism by the 1990s topped 100 million, including 60 million victims of Mao's policies in China.'

Those forces were in part economic. In England, the dissolution of the monasteries and the enclosure of common land during the Tudor period – which seems to have brought more wealth to the local gentry than to the crown that instigated it – had helped further to destroy the medieval tradition of communal agriculture and village life. It swelled the cities and increased the supply of capital available for investment in both equipment and trade. The religion of the Reformers encouraged diligence, frugality and the striving for profit as a sign of having been numbered among the elect. (It is paradoxical that a faith which stressed salvation through grace not work led to such an emphasis on work rather than grace.) The Enlightenment philosophy, which followed in the 18th century, added to this mixture of Protestant virtues an even greater emphasis on individual liberty. In this way the ideology and practice of 'free market liberalism' was born (laissez faire, laissez passer – see Rodger Charles, p. 288), on the back of an Industrial Revolution that had channelled the new science into a highly practical enterprise: no longer the conversion of pagans, but the making of money. To this ideology, and to the injustices it created, there arose two very different reponses: The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Rerum Novarum (1891).

By 1850, Britain was the leading industrial nation on earth: the only superpower. The British Empire covered nearly a third of the surface of the globe, including India, Australia, North America and much of Africa. The Industrial Revolution, which had started here, gave us a jump on the rest of the world – a jump we were quick to exploit. But the Industrialization of Britain, which created so much wealth for the investors and merchants, also caused immense social disruption. If you have read any novels by Charles Dickens [such as Oliver Twist], you will be vividly aware of the appalling conditions under which many people lived and worked. Driven from the countryside into the new urban ghettos and slums, to sell their labour to industrial masters, without the protection of the old guilds (and as yet without the Trades Unions that were to replace them), the poor came to be looked upon by the educated elite as almost a different and inferior race. These were the conditions that finally provoked the Church to develop her social teaching, which amounted to a critique of the new industrial capitalism [see elsewhere in the Christianity and Society section of this web-site for more on Catholic social teaching].


Who knows if, on balance, things are getting better or worse as time goes by? Perhaps our recent gains in appreciation of the human person, in scientific and medical knowledge, in gentleness and tolerance are offset by an increase in superficiality, self-indulgence and destructiveness. We might read the collapse of Christendom in two very different ways. On the one hand it represents the loss of a great possibility for human civilization. [Read from Chesterton, 'If Don John of Austria...' or A Short History of England on 'what if'?] On the other, the conception of human personality introduced by the Church seems to have forced the affirmation of rights that could not be achieved under the conditions of a closed society. Certainly the idea of 'progress' in the modern sense seems to have come from Judaism and Christianity. Its seed is the idea expressed by St Paul that in Christ had been revealed the secret 'hidden from all ages'; that the 'fullness of time' had come. We can even look back to the words of Christ himself: 'Something greater than Solomon is here.' No longer is history a mere story of decline from a Golden Age to Silver, Bronze and Iron. Mixed with the entropy of time was a new process, one of resurrection, of supernatural spring in the depths of winter. Henceforth the two processes would be at war in history, until the End.