Rougemont, Denis de: On Several Centuries of “European” Silence

© The Macmillan Company, 1966

FROM THE MIDDLE of the eleventh century to the Renaissance, and especially during the early Middle Ages, texts on Europe are few and far between. And yet, it is precisely this period -the twelfth and thirteenth centuries- that is singled out in the titles of so many recent works as representing the moment of “the Birth,” “the Rise,” “the Formation,” or even “the Origins,” of Europe.1 Must we conclude that according to modern historians Europe attained its highest point in that very period in which our ancestors showed no awareness of Europe? Could it be that this period of exemplary unity was also the one in which the subject of this unity did not know that it existed? J. Calmette opens his book L’ Effondrement d’un Empire et la naissance d’ une Europe2 with this paradoxical statement: “Western Europe was born of the disintegration of her political unity?

Hundreds of essays and thick volumes deal with this subject. Let us try to simplify. Charlemagne’s Europe was a sacerdotal empire. The conflicts over Investiture claims put an end to its spiritual unity. Thus it declined once more to the level of a purely geographical unity. What mattered now, what was the subject of passionate interest, was the struggle for primacy between Empire and Papacy. The two parties based their claims on the one and common idea of Christendom. Early in the fourteenth century the appearance of a third internal party, threatening simultaneously the two others, changed the situation. Then the idea of Europe staged a dim re-emergence, as the new symbol of a unity that so far had been taken for granted. No more than the Pope did the Emperor intend to challenge it: he wanted merely to avail himself of it.

From the outside came another threat, which was also apt to awaken the consciousness of what, despite everything, remained common to Ghibellines and Guelphs.

Islam had separated the share of Japheth from those of Shem and Ham. Thus only two powers confronted each other, militarily and culturelly -Christendom and the Infidels. Virtually driven back to the territory of Europe, Christendom defined the most visible, deepest, and most keenly felt unity of all nations inhabiting this continent. But its internal dissensions and its separation from Byzantium left it powerless and vulnerable. The last crusade, that of St. Louis, had just ended in failure. Marco Polo’s recent rediscovery of China had added a new dimension to the known world. This situation could not fail to confront the European mind with two concrete problems: that of restoring peace among the Christian nations, and that of resuming the war against the Infidels. Most of the projects for pacification, and hence for the union of Europe, were thus linked organically -and this until the eighteenth century- to projects for the reconquest of the Holy Land, and later for a defensive coalition against the Turks.

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