THE CHURCH IN THE DARK AGES
by Henri Daniel-Rops
(Phoenix Press, London, 2001, 624pp, $39.95. Available from AD Books)
One of the great advantages of being immersed in history is to free ourselves from the parochialism of the present and in doing so to understand how many of the current theological and cultural debates mirror what has occurred in the past.
The re-publication of Henri Daniel-Rops' classic book The Church in the Dark Ages certainly helps in this task and presents the public with a work both scholarly and immensely readable.
Daniel-Rops was the nom de plume for the French historian Henri Petiot, author of many important works, and in 1955 the youngest member of the prestigious Academie Francais.
First published in Great Britain in 1959, and now by Phoenix Press in 2001, this book takes us on a journey into the turbulent times between the last years of the Roman Empire (about 400 AD) and the beginning of the classic period of the Middle Ages (about 1050 AD).
Along the way, this work helps us to understand that while these Dark Ages were traumatic and destructive, they were, as the English Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, had earlier noted in The Making of Europe, the very foundation of European and Western culture.
One of the great strengths of The Church in the Dark Ages is how it highlights that the Roman Empire's fall would enable the Church and the Papacy not only to endure but, in its interaction with the barbarian invaders, to fashion a new and vibrant Christian culture. The author manages to do this not just by some listing of dates and battles but by skilfully covering a number of key issues, all of which seem to resonate in our own time, such as the role of the Papacy, the interaction between Christianity and Islam, the importance of clear exposition of doctrine, the relationship between the Church and the state and the influence of the saints.
The beginning of the book, besides describing the last pitiful days of the once great Roman Empire, examines the great theological disputes raging at this time, which to the modern mind may not seem very important. However, it was this very emphasis on doctrinal certainty and on defining the truth in clear and unequivocal terms which enabled the Church to withstand the vicissitudes of the next centuries with a confidence about its mission.
We have only to examine the weakness and division that doctrinal confusion can produce in our own time, not only among Christian churches but within the Catholic Church itself, to realise the importance of the task. Interestingly, heresies such as Pelagianism, with its view that we can attain heaven on our own without the help of grace, seems very up-to-date.
Well and truly immersed in these debates was the towering figure of Augustine. This saint of grace, as he is sometimes known through his preaching and writings, had a powerful influence not only at the time but down through the ages to the present. His understanding of history and culture in works such as the The City of God enabled the Church not to be overwhelmed by the seemingly hopeless situation which surrounded it.
St Augustine highlights the pivotal role that the saints were to play in this era. Other towering figures included St Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, the later Augustine who helped convert the English, St Boniface, missionary to Germany, St Alcuin, who helped in the establishment of learning at the court of Charlemagne, and St Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.
The role of the popes highlights how the papacy, in particular, helped Europe survive, not only in immediate ways, such as when Pope Leo persuaded Attila the Hun from entering Rome, but in building a concept of society where spiritual and transcendental values had priority of place. Furthermore, a strong papacy meant that the Church survived, was not overwhelmed by the secular authorities, and able to provide unity and doctrinal certainty.
The other major factor in this expansion of the Church was the foundation of monasticism which, although an Eastern tradition, received a powerful new impetus in the rule of St Benedict, who managed skilfully to combine contemplation and action. Towards the end of the book the author again examines the reformed monasteries as promoted by the great abbey at Cluny which, together with a vigorous papacy, provided a new dawn for Europe.
The book, while dealing with these theological and ecclesiastical issues, expertly interweaves them within the whole social, political and economic milieu of the time, providing us with vivid portraits of such figures as the Frankish King Clovis and Charlemagne, crowned emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day 800.
Alongside the great conflicts surrounding the fall of the empire, the Viking invasions, and the rise of Islam in the seventh century, with its attempted conquest of Christian Europe, Daniel-Rops examines the Eastern or Byzantine half of the Roman Empire which continued for one thousand years and ultimately broke with Rome in 1054.
In spite of this book's title, this is not some chronicle of human misery, for while it does not resile in showing clearly the desperate and destructive nature of the times, it conveys powerfully the sense of hope and faith which would enable the Church and the society it was moulding to endure.
Michael Lynch is currently undertaking a PhD at Australian Catholic University (Brisbane).