EUROPE AND THE FAITH
by Hilaire Belloc
(1920, reprinted Rockford Illinois: Tan Books. 191pp, $21.00. ISBN: 0-89555-464-X. Available from Freedom Publishing)
"The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith ... The Church is Europe, and Europe is the Church" (p. 2).
From time to time a version of history prevalent since the so-called Enlightenment and popularised by historians such as Gibbon rears itself, namely that the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire was essentially a negative move as not only did it hasten the fall of the Roman Empire but was responsible for the loss of much classical learning and knowledge. And the Middle Ages were a backward period which ended with the Renaissance and the Reformation.
Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc challenges these assumptions in Europe and the Faith. It was written in 1920 in the wake of the Great War, which Belloc understood as a clash of civilisations: the countries of the former Roman Empire, Britain, France and Italy, against nations ruling land that was essentially outside the Empire's boundaries, namely Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Belloc's challenge to the Enlightenment view of history remains relevant today as we see various elements seeking to re-interpret European history to support their agenda. In this work, considered by many to be the foundational work of Belloc's interpretation of history, the author works from the premise that Catholic Christianity is in full continuity with the Christianity of the early Church and that the Christian faith adopted by the Roman Empire was that which Christ taught His disciples.
The adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire was not a cause for its decay. Instead, it not only gave it dynamism but was also instrumental in preserving elements of Roman culture and civilisation that were good. An essential aspect of the author's hypothesis is that the concept of the "fall" of the Roman Empire is misleading. He argues that it is perhaps more appropriate to think of it as a transformation.
Barbarian leaders who exercised power in local regions saw themselves for a number of decades as regents of the Byzantine emperor, as reflected in the coinage. Furthermore, they did not, by and large, replace the pre-existing Roman civilisation with theirs. Instead, they maintained essential elements of it, one obvious example being language: the Romance languages are derivatives of Latin, not of barbarian tongues.
In terms of language, the exception is England; however, in this instance Belloc notes that the language that predominated was that of the Anglo-Saxon tribes who adopted Christianity from Roman missionaries, rather than of the pre-existing Celtic tribes. Belloc acknowledges that learning and knowledge were preserved by comparatively few; however, these few were the monasteries who preserved the learning, motivated by the belief that elements of Roman civilisation were worth preserving.
Their transmission of learning made the flowering of knowledge in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance possible. During this period, Christendom's energy was focussed on defending itself from incursions by Muslims, then by Vikings. For Belloc, such was the fusion between Roman civilisation and the Faith that the division of Europe between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century essentially reflected the map of Europe at the height of the Roman Empire, with Catholic nations occupying the territory of the former Roman Empire.
The two exceptions to this were Ireland, which had never been a part of the Empire and Britain. In the case of Britain, Belloc argues that the Reformation was imposed on the British largely by elites.
Although written 90 years ago Europe and the Faith makes for interesting reading, particularly with the rise of a "post-Christian" Europe, and given the popular currency of the Enlightenment version of late Roman and Medieval History.
Michael E. Daniel is a secondary school teacher in Melbourne.