Christopher Dawson: The Seven Stages of European Culture (Part II)

From Understanding Europe; published by Image Books, New York, 1960. By permission of Christina Scott, Literary Executor for the late Christopher Dawson.

3. The Formation of Western and Eastern Christendom

The formation of Western Christendom by the conversion of the barbarians and the transmission to them of the tradition of Mediterranean culture by the Church marks a new stage in the Western development and the birth of the new European society of nations. It was a slow process, since it was interrupted in the ninth century by a fresh wave of barbarian invasion from the north and the east and by the Moslem conquest of Spain and the Western Mediterranean, so that it was not completed until the Vikings of Scandinavia and the Magyars of Hungary had been converted and brought into the society of Christian Europe. But during these five or six centuries the foundations of a new Christian society were firmly laid by the co-operation between the Catholic Church and the barbarian kingdoms and by the missionary activity of the Irish and Anglo-Saxons monks, whose foundations were the centers of Christian culture and education in lands where no city had ever existed.

The focus of the new European development during these centuries was the Frankish kingdom, which included the greater part of France, Belgium and Western and Central Germany. This was the formative Centre towards which the living forces of Western culture converged and in which the first deliberate attempt was made to realize the social unity of Western Christendom. This unity was based on the alliance of the new Frankish dynasty of the Carolingians with the Papacy, an alliance which was consummated and consecrated by the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor at Rome on Christmas Day, A.D. 800. But it was primarily the work of the reforming party in the Church, as represented above all by Anglo-Saxon missionaries and scholars like St. Boniface and Alcuin. It was their ideals which inspired the new Carolingian legislation and the far-reaching programme for the revival and reform of learning, liturgy and script. All these activities were dominated by the conception of Christendom as an all-embracing unity which was both Church and state and in which the ruler had a sacred character as the anointed leader of the Christian people.

This conception survived the political collapse of the Carolingian Empire, which broke down under the stress of the Viking and Magyar invasions. It was inherited by the new society which grew up from its ruins; -the new Empire that was founded by the Saxon Kings of Germany in the tenth century, the feudal states that made up the Kingdom of France, and even by the the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of England which was founded by King Alfred and his successors. Medieval Christendom was in a real sense an extension and fulfillment of the Carolingian Empire and culture.

4. Mediaeval Christendom

During these formative centuries, Western Europe had remained a relatively backward area on the extreme frontier of the civilized world. It occupied less than a third of the European continent and was by no means the richest or the most civilized part. But in the eleventh century Western culture began to expand from its Carolingian nucleus in all directions, and during the next three or four centuries it transformed Europe from a barbarian hinterland into a Centre of world culture which equaled the older oriental civilizations in power and wealth and surpassed them in creative energy. These centuries saw the rise of the European city and the European state; they created a new art, a new poetry, a new philosophy, as well as a new social, cultural and religious institutions: the order of chivalry, the estates of parliament, the religious orders and the universities.

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