This is one Belloc’s most famous works, and should be read by students of Medieval history, though it is far too polemical to serve as ‘the’ text for the period.
To understand the book we should understand a bit about Belloc himself. Born of an English mother and a French father, Belloc moved easily in both societies but perhaps felt at home in neither. He served in the French army, but got his education in England. His strong and unwavering Catholicism definitely made him enemies, especially in England. He may have felt some alienation, but he loved good fights, and had no trouble finding them.
One must also glimpse the context of when he wrote this book for it to make sense. I have not read a lot of his histories but he seemed to me have an eternal hatred against 1) The prevailing Whig interpretation of history, which saw history as one long climb out of the darkness in the wake of Rome towards the glorious & inevitable light of Victorian English society, and 2) The then-current Darwin influenced racial interpretations of European history, which saw all things good in Europe, from its “energy,” to its representative governments coming from the all-holy Nordic-Teutonic racial stock. When he published this book W.W. I had done much to undermine the first premise, but tragically the second was still gaining steam (Belloc gets high marks for his early and strident criticism of Nazi ideology even before they came into power).
The book makes several different arguments, all around a central theme, that of the essential unity of Europe.
He first mentions that one cannot understand European history without understanding the importance of Christian belief and the theology and history of the Church. He takes as a type the example of the encounter between Henry II and St. Thomas Beckett. To one outside this understanding Beckett’s attempt to try and stop Henry II from having legal jurisdiction over priests seems obstructionist and archaic at best. Those inside see that Beckett may not have chosen the best issue to plant his flag, but he fought ultimately for the freedom and independence of the Church from the state. Without a free Church, no people can be free in a spiritual or political sense. If you miss this, you cannot make heads or tails of Beckett or Henry II.
Europe’s history begins, not with Rome’s fall, but from the Roman conquest of Gaul. Nearly every historian will claim that Europe grew from seeds planted by Rome. Belloc goes much further and argues for a great deal of continuity between the late Empire and the early Middle Ages. And this is no mere difference of degree, but of overall perspective and purpose. He argues that the pseudo-racial theory of hardy German barbarians sweeping down from the north to end Rome has no basis in fact whatsoever. In denying a cataclysmic end to Rome from without, we can find more Roman, and not barbarian influence, in the society that succeeded Rome, and thus more continuity in the European experience.
True, Rome incorporated barbarians into their army, and towards the end accelerated their progressivism and made many with barbarian ancestry high ranking officials and generals. Alaric of the famous 410 sack of Rome was one such man. He did not come to destroy Rome so much as claim his rightful place in it. The Battle of Adrianople in 378 stands as another such case. Many different types of Alaric’s throughout the waning phase of Rome fought each other, but for supremacy to rule what they held dear. None of them dreamt of destroying the empire’s unity, otherwise what would they rule over?
Radagaisus’ invasion, contemporary with Alaric’s turn on Rome, helps Belloc’s point as well. For here we have a large truly barbarian force decisively beaten by the Roman army at a time when Romans were supposed to be “soft” and “decadent.” Rome did not fall due to barbarian invasions.
This early section is the clearest and perhaps strongest of the book, but then I think he goes too far. Perhaps carried away by the fight and the truths he latches onto, he buys into the idea that we cannot really speak of a decisive “fall” of Rome at all. Instead we should envision and steady, gradual transition from one way of life to another, like easing into a hot-tub. His theory couldn’t have credence if it had no truth to it, and Belloc cites some linguistic and administrative evidence to back it up. But to my mind he goes too far, for a great deal of different evidence shows a large drop off in other kinds of measures of health and well-being, like travel, trade, navigation, writing, etc. We need not conclude that if Rome did not fall to barbarians, that it had no fall at all.
Belloc then moves on to discuss certain key aspects of the medieval church, specifically their fight against central authority. They sought spiritual unity, not political unity, for no man can serve two masters. He also points out that the Christianity developed in such a way to become to very essence of Europe. We might speak of Stoicism, but not Christism. Christianity for medievals formed not “a way of life,” but the essence of life, with the Church’s life inseparable from that of any individual.
Belloc never lived to see Vatican II, and that may have been a blessing. He was an old-school absolute Catholic in every respect, so he had no love for the Reformation, which he holds responsible for destroying the 1500 year unity of the continent.
First, his argument:
1. The medieval synthesis faced enormous challenges from within and without. From without, the Black Plague, the march of Islam, etc. all put enormous pressure upon society. From within, the natural waxing and waning of any civilization’s ethos was in a waning period, and thus medieval society found itself unable to deal with these challenges. Belloc writes, “The spiritual hunger of the time was not fed. [Society’s] extravagance was not exposed to solvent of laughter or the flame of sufficient indignation.”
Belloc admits that the 15th century had many problems, and many from different quarters talked of the need for reform.
2. But he believes that the Reformation had nothing particularly positive to offer. Protestantism had an essentially negative and narrowing character, as each sect picked its pet doctrines and blew them out of their natural proportion.
3. The Reformation would have petered out had it not been for England. Before England, nearly everywhere the Reformation took hold stool outside the old Roman empire (Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland), and thus outside the essential Roman unity of Europe, which the Reformation could not challenge. England’s defection not only meant that a powerful independent country could lend support to the cause, but most crucially, it broke the pattern of those within Rome’s ancient reach maintaining fidelity to unity, which gave legitimacy to the Reformation as a whole. Again, without this, he believes the Reformation would have gone the way of Arianism.
4. The Reformation sprang from some noble motives, but ended up severing the soul of Europe. In breaking the spiritual unity, they altered the place of the individual, with terrible results. Belloc writes,
The grand effect of the Reformation was isolation of the soul. This was its fruit. In the first place and underlying all, the isolation of the soul releases in society a furious new accession of force. The breakup of any stable system in physics, as in society, makes actual a prodigious reserve of potential energy.
This isolation produced a society that swayed from one desperate void-filling attempt to another. They went from
- Worship of absolute civil governments, which began in Protestant areas and found its way into France
- A desperate pursuit of knowledge (i.e. Scientific Revolution)
- A flight first to reason (Englightenment), then to emotion (Romanticism), which having exhausted itself, left us only to pursue money and material gain (unbridled capitalism in the Industrial Revolution, which Belloc regards as a great evil).
- Belloc has much to praise about the Renaissance, stating that the era continued much of the great things medievals started. But during the Renaissance many of the things Belloc deplores had their origin, like the banking empire of the Catholic (nominally?) D’Medici’s, or the exaltation of the political sphere in Machiavelli.
- Surely also the Church’s political maneuvering during the Middle Ages contributed to the problem of spiritual sterility in the 15th century. They played a tight game of fostering political disunity while trying to enhance overall spiritual unity. But this put them in the position of helping to create the monster that destroyed them, for in the end the political disunity they fostered became a tool for the Reformation to use to their advantage. It also made the Catholic Church part of the troubled system. Not standing outside it, they could offer no solution.
- He asserts that the Reformation had an almost exclusively negative character, but misses the positive aspects of some reformers, notably Luther. Clearly the Reformation also produced some great culture, Bach, Rembrandt, etc.
- To accept a Refomation = Bad, Renaissance = Good argument, one must believe in the basic continuity between the Medieval & Renaissance eras. But I think that more discontinuity presents itself, that the Renaissance began at least the aesthetic narrowing of Europe that the early Reformation built upon.
- To his great credit, Belloc admits the ultimate spiritual sterility of even the greatest Catholic humanist voices, like that of Erasmus. Whether justified or no, the Reformation filled a spiritual vacuum that the Catholic church could not fill in the state it was in.
- Finally, the Catholic church did its fair share of pushing Luther out of the fold. They helped create the Reformation. One could go farther and claim that the Reformation gave the Church a needed kick in the seat of their pants to get their own house in order. The Catholic revival of the mid-late 16th century (which produced such great witnesses as St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales, among others) might not have happened without the Reformation.
- Europe has recognized what Napoleon also saw, that every war in Europe had the quality of a civil war. So, kudos to them for seeing the problem.
- But — they look for a cure in all the wrong places. First, they have tried to impose unity in an administrative, “top-down” style where the people have little direct say in important policies. Such an approach is bound to fail.
- Second, they fail to recognize that from ca. 500 AD on, Europe had spiritual unity but never administrative and political unity. Thus, they try to give Europe what it never had at the expense of what held them together in the first place. Their focus almost exclusively on trade, currency, monetary policy, etc. shows their blindness to the true problems they face.
Belloc states in his famous conclusion to the book,
Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe.