Short and sweet: Read this book. It is available free through Project Gutenberg. It’s only a little over 100 pages – a long essay, really – in which the conventional presentations and meanings of many central European historical events as understood by those educated in the second half of the 20th century – me, for example – are convincingly challenged. Think you understand the Fall of Rome, the Dark Ages, the Saxon and Norman conquests of England and the Protestant Reformation? Even if you disagree with Belloc’s take, you’ll never think of them the same way again.(1)
His main premise: Europe is the Faith, the Faith is Europe. What he means – and here’s where conventionally educated Americans of the 21st century are likely to recoil – is that all those things, those institutions, habits of thought, habits, indeed, of soul, that make Christendom special and – hope you’re sitting down – superior to all other civilizations are features of the Church, of the Faith. What positives we see in Protestant and decayed nominally Catholic Europe are the embers of that fire that welded the lands of the Roman Empire into a Civilization, the greatest the world has ever known.(2) Belloc, being Catholic, understands greatness to necessarily include the welfare of the weak. He argues that the fracturing of the Faith and Europe lead to the peasants getting a much more raw deal.
Hillaire Belloc might be remembered today more for his friendship with Chesterton than any of his writings. Based on the small sample of his works I’ve read, there is a lot more of fire and less of that pervasive good cheer that characterizes Chesterton’s works. He sees and cries doom, and is ready to take up the sword to die defending the good, the beautiful and the true. It’s not that Chesterton is any less willing to defend the Truth that is a Person, it’s just that in his mind he sees banners, knights, and glory even in defeat – and that cheers him, and comes through in almost everything he writes.
Published in 1920 immediately after the first World War, Hillaire Belloc’s short Europe and the Faith is, most simply, a defense of Europe’s fundamental Catholicism. Such a defense necessarily must often take the form of a counterargument to the way history has been told or mis-told for the last 4 centuries. The long essay covers the period from Rome to the fall of England to Protestantism, with a concluding chapter describing how this history has shaped the choices faced in Belloc’s day.
While Belloc makes no effort to hide or soft-pedal his Catholicism, his most pointed criticisms are most often launched from his position as a scholar. One recurring theme is how it is always wrong to read history as if what happened next, and especially what is happening now, is inevitable, and that the past is to be understood as merely a preface without much meaning independent of those modern inevitabilities. Thus, the great Reformers must have intended to fragment the Faith (and thus fragment Europe) because that is what happened. Belloc points out that there is no contemporary evidence they thought anything of the kind. Rather, the Reformers imagined the uniform and united world in which they found themselves to be a sort of permanent state, not something made by men as the very broad and universal philosophy of the Catholic Church informed their lives.
He denies that Rome fell in the sense of being overrun and replaced by barbarians, and makes the point that the transition from central Imperial rule to decentralized rule under kings was a gradual and to a surprising extent superficial change. The procedures, organization, political assumptions, and most important the Catholic spirit remained Roman even as small numbers of already Romanized peoples – the barbarians of history – fought over who got to be the local king.
He goes into no detail here, but Lafferty’s description of Alaric comes to mind: he was a Roman general of largely Romanized Gothic troops, who, when he was crowned king of the Goths, became the first Catholic king ever so crowned. He followed in the footsteps of Stilicho, in many ways his model and teacher, another Romanized Catholic ‘barbarian’ general whose life was dedicated and spent to preserve the Catholic Roman Empire. Even as far back as the sacking of Rome in 410, the ideal of a Catholic Empire given the divine duty to preserve and promote the Faith had taken hold – and nothing that happened in the next few centuries changed that. Rome gradually became the feudal society ruled by kings, governed through a complex hierarchy of personal relationships and obligations, and animated by the Catholic faith.
He denies that England was invaded and conquered by Germanic tribes – Angles and Saxons – pointing to the complete lack of historical evidence that such a thing ever happened. Instead, he notes that historian, backfilling from their own biases about what they’d like to have happened, fill in a 150 year gap in the written record with an invasion that never took place. Belloc instead appeals to what we know about what was happening in the neighboring areas, what the people wrote before and after the gap, and how things proceeded after St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived and the writing of history resumed. He asserts that, just as in all of the rest of the Empire, auxiliary troops made up of barbarian recruits were settled in England prior to 410 AD, and remained behind after the Legions left. Then, constant piratical raids along the coasts and navigable rivers of England’s east coast drove the native populations westward, cutting them off from commerce and communication with the mainland and allowing for some settlements of the pirate peoples. But in no sense did these ‘invaders’ conquer – when St. Augustine arrived, he found Germanic pagan peoples in tiny kingdoms along the coasts and rivers, and more Celtic Catholic peoples inland. In one of those historical quirks, St. Augustine and his missionaries worked with the Germanic peoples they converted to re-evangelize the rest of Britain, leading to the oddity of Germanic languages coming to dominate, instead of Celtic or Latin.
And so on, through a number of other critical events. Belloc wants us to understand what Rome was, how it became Catholic, how it fought off would-be invaders throughout the Dark Ages, how it flowered in the Middle Ages, how it has persisted to this day, and what price we pay for rejecting it. He aims to provide a framework within which to understand the history of Europe and the world. There can hardly be a more noble and needed goal for a historian.
It also helps that Belloc includes philosophy in this discussion, both from an historical perspective, and by including basic metaphysical and epistemological considerations in the discussion:
There are three forms in which the human mind can hold the truth: The form of Science, which means that we accept a thing through demonstration, and therefore cannot admit the possibility of its opposite. The form of Opinion, which means that we accept a thing through probability, that is through a partial, but not complete demonstration, and therefore we do not deny the possibility of the opposite. The form of Faith, where we accept the thing without demonstration and yet deny the possibility of its opposite, as for instance, the faith of all men, not mad, in the existence of the universe about them, and of other human minds.
When acknowledged and defined Faith departs, it is clear that of the remaining two rivals, Opinion has no ground against Science. That which can be demonstrated holds all the field. Indeed, it is the mark of modern insufficiency that it can conceive of no other form of certitude save certitude through demonstration, and therefore does not, as a rule, appreciate even its own unproved first principles.
Well, this function of the isolated soul, inquiry and the necessity for demonstration for individual conviction through measurement and physical fixed knowledge, has occupied, as we all know, the three modern centuries. We all are equally familiar with its prodigious results. Not one of them has, as yet, added to human happiness: not one but has been increasingly misused to the misery of man. There is in the tragedy something comic also, which is the perpetual puzzlement of these the very authors of discovery, to find that, somehow or other, discovery alone does not create joy, and that, somehow or other, a great knowledge can be used ill, as anything else can be used ill. Also in their bewilderment, many turn to a yet further extension of physical science as promising, in some illogical way, relief.
There is much more worth discussing in this book, and resistance to the temptation to write a comparision of it to Lafferty’s Fall of Rome is only possible due to crushing time constraints at the moment. But do go read this if you wish for more knowledge of European history and a much needed antidote to modern critical theory style ‘history’.
- I am reminded of the aha! moment I had when discovering that Sir Francis Drake, never discussed without the ‘Sir’ here, is considered a bloodthirsty pirate in Latin America – because he was. Don’t remember where I finally read about his raids on coastal towns, a la Pirates of the Caribbean, but it wasn’t in any mandatory California History class. Here, if any mention of Drake’s piracy comes through, what we hear is how he spared the civilians. Very comforting for the soldiers charged with protecting the ships he plundered, I’m sure.
- After reading this, it’s hard not to see the EU as feeble dream inspired by the half-remembered unity of the 15th century. Feeble, because that primitive unity was won by the sword against foes external and internal, forged in fire and loved with passion. The EU, attempting to rise from the ashes of twice-burned Protestant Europe, is built more on fear than fire, and is as feeble as fear in the face of fire. A Europe which held Islam at bay for a thousand years and more with the sword has now convinced itself that no slaughter of the innocents is too great an offering to make for ‘peace’, which only means to the weakened European mind the avoidance of war at any cost.