Religion and Rise of Western Culture Paperback – 20 Dec 2001
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From the Inside Flap
An essential work of European history, this classic study sweeps from the fall of Rome to the dawn of the Renaissance as it shows how Christianity, its leaders, and its institutions changed the face of Western culture.
About the Author
Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was one of the century's great historians. The "Saturday Review of Literature "called him "unequaled as an historian of culture. Unless we read him, we are uninformed."
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Top Customer Reviews
He refers to one of the first vernacular early English narrative poems “Piers Plowman” by William Langland, following St Francis in its unity of daily religion and culture, not rejecting the church hierarchy, but at the same time showing a simpler direct Christian life, with the poem being written in the late 14th century at the dawn of a modern world that brought, towns, universities, science and the finally the humanistic Renaissance.
The prior period, from the fall of the Classical world. is usually described as the Dark Ages (at least in northern Europe) but Dawson quite persuasively shows that Europe actually developed a stability and unity around the concept of “Christendom”. Christianity wasn't “something else that was happening” it was the core of European life, in fact creating a stable base for later developments.
It's an interesting story with the author travelling from the 7th century Celtic monasteries of Iona and Lindisfarne to the proto-democratic town Communes of the 14th century (that still exist essentially unchanged in present day Switzerland).
He emphasises the point that, prior to its collapse, the Roman Empire was already Christian (the conversion of Constantine) with the barbarian tribes that occupied and settled ex-Imperial Europe finding in Christianity a higher morality, learning and culture than their own.Read more ›
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The author sees Christianity as a unique force in human development, a force that constantly overcomes any obstacles placed in its path, either on purpose or by the vagaries of history. In the case of "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture," those obstacles range from the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire to the mass migrations of the early medieval period to the rise of cities and organized commerce. Presiding over and infusing all of these changes is the Christian faith. The perception that Christianity is a static, ossified system locked in rigid dogma stretching back through the ages, Dawson easily proves, is totally and utterly false. Time and time again the Church and its many institutions--missionaries, monasteries, new and dynamic religious orders--continuously renewed both the Church and European society. Renewal and dynamism in Europe during the Middle Ages? Is this guy insane? There is a popular tendency, however erroneous, to view the "Middle Ages" or "Medieval Europe" as a time and place of sporadic intellectual and cultural development. We've all seen movies or heard stories involving denizens of the Middle Ages staggering around in filthy rags murdering each other in fits of barbaric rage. If you subscribe to that view, "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture" will knock your socks off and slap some sense into your head at the same time!
I know a bit more about early European history than the average person on the street, at least I hope I do, so the idea that the Middle Ages represented a period of vast change doesn't come as a surprise to me. What does amaze me is how MUCH was going on. Dawson's work is a veritable blizzard of names, places, and ideas. He moves from Rome to Augustine to Bede to Aquinas with an ease that boggles the mind. He discusses in great depth the rise of monasteries in Ireland, how these institutions kept knowledge alive during dark times, and how they received and then transmitted knowledge to other parts of Europe. Dawson discusses the development of the liturgy and the effect that ritual had on people. He talks about the rise of the universities at Bologna and Paris, and how Church law helped give birth to civil law. You want to know about guilds and the rise of cities as they pertain to the Catholic Church? It's here in mind-boggling detail. The author also finds time to emphasize the importance of Byzantium and the Orthodox Church and tie them to the main currents of Western Europe. He describes doctrinal debates, the relation of the Church to European monarchies, and roughly a billion other ideas I don't have the space to summarize here.
What I liked best about the book, and what sort of helped bring the themes Dawson tries to explicate in the narrative to the fore, concerns the numerous migrations and invasions throughout Europe from the fall of Rome to roughly the tenth century. The book shows how Christianity, despite suffering great material losses from many of these invasions, reestablished its institutions and brought these barbarians into the embrace of greater Europe. Sometimes this process involved total conversion, other times Christianity operated side by side with tribal customs and law codes (see Beowulf for evidence of how Christian themes took up position next to barbarian values), but in every case the Church eventually triumphed. Dawson's work underscores how a theology first articulated by a single man in Palestine eventually led to the creation of mankind's greatest achievements. Reading "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture" makes one wonder how the West can ever survive without the spiritual and transformative qualities derived from the Christian faith. It's tempting to argue that it cannot, at least not in any recognizable form. Dawson claims outright that the West will die without Christianity.
It's easy to see why the author feared for the future of European civilization. When he wrote his works on the relation between Christianity and Western Civilization, the horrors of the twentieth century were rearing their ugly heads. Two world wars of appalling barbarity coupled with the rise of harmful ideologies greatly concerned Christopher Dawson. He saw National Socialism and Communism as great "walling off" processes that cut off millions of people from their common Christian underpinnings by either distorting the message (National Socialism) or through attempts to displace Christianity completely (Communism). "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture" isn't an easy read, not by a long shot, but it's worth the time and effort. I would definitely read his other works.
Dawson started this book with a good assessment of Europe during the collapse of the Roman Empire. He devoted the first chapter to terrible economic, social, and political conditions that befell Europeans from c. 500-750 A.D. Yet, the Catholic Church tenaciously held on to what was of left of Western Civilization. Dawson vividly described the importance of the Irish Celtic monks and the Benedictine monks in both preserving learning and spread their learning via their missionary zeal. It was the Benedictines, started by St. Benedict (480-544), who, upon meeting their Irish Celtic counterparts taught the Irish practicality and gave Irish monasticism a more sensible and less rigorous rule (The Benedictine Rule). Dawson did not fail to notice the influence of the Benedictines when one of their own was selected Pope-Pope Gregory I 590-604)who is credited for not only learning and Catholic leadership. Readers who appreciate classic music should note that Pope Gregory supported the music of Gregorian Chant which was the beginning of Classical Music. Dawson was aware of this and included it in his book.
Dawson wrote a good chapter on the Catholic Church's assimiliation of the Nothern Barbarians. The conversion of Clovis (480-520) was historically important when one considers that Clovis' empire (basically modern France)was open to the Benedictines and the spread of knowledge and learning. The rise of the Franks under Charles Martel (717-742), Pepin (741-768), and espeically Charlemagne (768-814)was important to the Western Civilization, the spread of the Catholic Faith, and a renewal of the Catholic Faith. Chalremange's palace school at Aachen was a center for learned men and drew students and clergy where literacy and texts were developed that enhanced and preserved the learning of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The Benedictine Alcuin (730-804)and his scholars developed Latin texts and developed a uniform system of script called Bookhand which included upper and lower case letters and punctuation.
All of this almost came to an end during the separation of the Carolingian Empire and invastions by the Saracens, Magyars, and especially the Vikinngs. The Viking raids and then invasions almost destroyed Western Civilization. Their descruction of monastaries was almost a catastrophy. However, as Dawson metnioned if one monastery survived, it drew other monks who renewed the work of leearning and lived a disciplined of Chant, prayer, and teaching/learning. The Viking leaders who led lives of lawlessness and plunder had to have law and order to rule their newly conquered areas, and the literacy of the Catholic leaders and monks helped the Vikings with administration but more importantly civilized them as good Catholics.
What was lost with the collapse of the Carolingian Frankish Empire was gained in Germany. Europe and the Catholic Church were saved by Otto II's victory over the Magyars (the Hungarians) in 955 at the Battle of Lechfeld. The German rulers then had the power and recognized authority to nominate Popes and bishops. The Catholic authorities orginally accepted this arrangement to mute the influence and power of Italian/Roman nobility. However, this arrangement stopped when Pope Boniface VIII (1073-1085) excommunicated Henry IV (1056-1106)over the Investature Controversy (who would invest the German bishops-the Pope or German rulers). This GRADUALLY led to the Catholic Church's (the Universal Church)independence from secular rulers.
Dawson did not exclude the Byzantine Greek Church and Western Civilization. Dawson argued that the Byzantines were more interested in using their supposed enemies against each other which interferred with missionary work. Yet, some of the German rulers' imperialism also alienated many of the Slavic people some of whom became Catholic such as the Polish and Hungarians. Dawson also explained the religious and political differences between the Latin Catholic West and the Byzantine East. Some of these differences were made worse by the Crusaders taking control of Constantinople in 1204. Dawson saw the earlier Crusades as Catholic and European unity which was ruined by political rivalries.
Dawson also gave credit to the gradual urbanization of Medieval Europe. The Medieval guilds developed a sense of religious and civic pride that were acceptable to urban residents. The guildsmen developed a sense of honest business and economic "fair play" that mostly avoided economic and social conflict. Dawson was clear that the guilds also provided charity and help to those who needed it. The guildsmen organzied Passion Plays and held the Catholic Church in their midst as a center of both religious liturgy and social influence. The rise of the Medieval cities started to end serfdom and the feudal system.
Dawson also connectes the Medieval towns with the expansion of learning-the rise of the universities. The older cathedral schools and monastic schools were not developed to handle large numbers of students. The schools at Monte Casino, Italy and at Bec in France were outstanding institutions, but they could not handle the increased number of students. Dawson contrasted the University of Paris(c. 1200), with its focus on philosophy and theology, with the University of Bologna (c. 1158). The latter university focused on Roman and Canon Law which were connected. The University of Bologna was organized by the studemts as a secular institution. The University of Paris took pride as a center of Catholic philosophy and theology so much so that law studies were excluded. The students at Paris were at times undisciplined, impetuous, etc. They had little respect for tradition and the past. Yet, they could be serious students especially when Peter Abelard (1079-1142) taught there. He was considered a master of logic and dialectics.
Another well known scholar who taught at the University of Paris was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)whose synthesis of reason and faith is considered a work of genius. Dawson stated that rigid logic, careful debate, and reason not only had application to the study of philosophy and theology, but such emphasis on disciplined reason enhanced the study of science and mathematics. Men wanted to apply careful reason and disciplined learning to nature and the physical world which was assumed created by God who was The Unmoved Mover.
Dawson concluded this book with a section on vernacular literature. Dawson examined Langland's (c 1300s) PIERS THE PLOWMAN. This piece was written during the terrible Hundred Years War (1346-1453), the Black Death, the Shism in the Catholic Church (1377-1414), etc. These events were disasterous to Europe, the Catholic Faith, and culture. Yet, as Dawson stated from excerpts of vernacular literature, politcal instability, disease, economic situations, etc. are transitory while the Catholic Faith and Western Culture are permanent as long as Westen Civilization survives. This is a thoughtful book for anyone interested in the study of history.
Be that as it may, this is a marvelous book that shows the positive impact of Christianity on many aspects of human history, including the development of education through the university in the Middle Ages and into the Reformation. A very enlightening book packed full of interesting, valuable information.
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