Le Goff, Jacques: What Constitutes Europe

This long medieval period was also when Europe saw the appearance of popular folk culture, and this lingered on until the folkloric revival of the nineteenth century. Stories using the theme of the Angel and the Hermit were transmitted from a twelfth-century fable to Voltaire’s Zadig, and later also to storytellers of nineteenth-century Brittany. As we have seen, the Middle Ages constituted a period dominated by Christianity and the Church. To be sure, the first great turning point was to come in the sixteenth century when Christianity was split between Catholicism and Protestant­ism; moreover, the place and role of religion has certainly not remained unchanged in the various European countries. It does, nevertheless, seem fair to say that, in relation to religion, Europe by and large was to continue in the line of development the roots of which were already discernible in the Middle Ages, that is to say pursuing the establishment of a more or less clear separation between Church and State, with Christians rendering to Caesar whatever belonged to him. This, in contrast to Islam or Byzantine Chris­tianity, involved the rejection of theocracy, and the promotion of children, women and lay people, and of a balance between faith and reason. How­ever, up until the French Revolution all this was to remain more or less masked by the power and influence of the Roman Church; and, in fact, the power and influence of the reformed, Protestant Church had exactly the same effect. Clearly, in this respect there was no break introduced by the Renaissance. I would therefore suggest that we regard the end of the fifteenth century simply as an important pause in medieval history – not that that disqualifies us from raising the question of whether Europe was indeed born in the Middle Ages, as the title of this book implies.

What we have noted so far is the construction and flowering of the European Middle Ages. I think it reasonable to halt at this point of the fifteenth century, to take stock of the situation and see if we can find an answer to the above-mentioned question.

It seems to me that there are two fundamental aspects to the relations between Europe and History. The first is that of territory. History always takes place within a particular space, and a civilization is always elaborated and diffused within a territory. Essentially, the fifteenth century put the finishing touches to the medieval creation of a European space, a creation that began with the “great invasions” of the early Middle Ages. By the fifteenth century there were no longer any pagans, nor would there have been any Muslims had not the Turkish conquest got underway. That con­quest had a twofold and contradictory effect. On the one hand it posed a threat to Europe; but on the other, even if European resistance was not as strong as Pope Pius II would have hoped, given that a collective identity is generally constructed as much on the basis of opposition to “the other” as upon internal convergences, the Turkish threat was to turn out to contribute to the unification of Europe. Universities were now diffusing the same kind of knowledge across the board from the Mediterranean to the Baltic, just as humanism, once it had abandoned Latin for vernacular languages, was penetrating European culture everywhere, from Sweden to Sicily. Antwerp was the centre of a world-economy which, as Fernand Braudel has shown, for a long time still remained essentially European, before eventually mesh­ing with the entire world.

One uncertainty remained outstanding, although at the end of the fif­teenth century the issue may have seemed clearer. Where did the eastern frontier of Europe lie? First we should recognize that, even if the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was keenly felt by Europeans and particularly by its elite groups, it did not, as traditional history would have it, simply consti­tute the catastrophic end of a whole world, that of Byzantium. In the long term it also turned out to release European unity from a handicap. For although the Greek Orthodox religion is still observed in eastern Europe today, it is no longer linked to the double center of political and religious power that the Byzantine Empire used to constitute. In 1453 a potential obstacle to a future united Europe was, paradoxically enough, removed.

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