by Hilaire Belloc. Annotation of text copyright (c)2006 David Trumbull and Patrick McNamara. All Rights Reserved.

Here Begins Chapter VI of Europe and the Faith being the continuation from Chapter V

So far we have traced the fortunes of the Roman Empire (that is of European civilization and of the Catholic Church with which that civilization was identified) from the origins both of the Church and of the Empire, to the turning point of the fifth century. We have seen the character of that turning point.
There was a gradual decline in the power of the central monarchy, an increasing use of auxiliary barbarian troops in the army upon which Roman society was founded, until at last (in the years from 400 to 500 A.D.) authority, though Roman in every detail of its form, gradually ceased to be exercised from Rome or Constantinople, but fell imperceptibly into the hands of a number of local governments. We have seen that the administration of these local governments usually devolved on the chief officers of the auxiliary barbarian troops, who were also, as a rule, their chieftains by some kind of inheritance.
We have seen that there was no considerable infiltration of barbarian blood, no "invasions" in our modern sense of the term–(or rather, no successful ones); no blotting out of civilization, still less any introduction of new institutions or ideas drawn from barbarism.
The coast regions of Eastern Britain (the strongest example of all, for there the change was most severe) were reconquered for civilization and for the Faith by the efforts of St. Augustine; Africa was recaptured for the direct rule of the Emperor: so was Italy and the South of Spain. At the end of the seventh century that which was in the future to be called Christendom (and which is nothing more than the Roman Empire continuing though transformed) is again reunited.
What followed was a whole series of generations in which the forms of civilization were set and crystallized in a few very simple, traditional and easily appreciated types. The whole standard of Europe was lowered to the level of its fundamentals, as it were. The primary arts upon which we depend for our food and drink, and raiment and shelter survived intact. The secondary arts reposing upon these, failed and disappeared almost in proportion to their distance from fundamental necessities of our race. History became no more than a simple chronicle. Letters, in the finer sense, almost ceased. Four hundred years more were to pass before Europe was to reawaken from this sort of sleep into which her spirit had retreated, and the passage from the full civilization of Rome through this period of simple and sometimes barbarous things, is properly called the Dark Ages.
It is of great importance for anyone who would comprehend the general story of Europe, to grasp the nature of those half-hidden centuries. They may be compared to a lake into which the activities of the old world flowed and stirred and then were still, and from which in good time the activities of the Middle Ages, properly so called, were again to flow.
Again one may compare the Dark Ages to the leafsoil of a forest. They are formed by the disintegration of an antique florescence. They are the bed from which new florescence shall spring.
It is a curious phenomenon to consider: this hibernation, or sleep: this rest of the stuff of Europe. It leads one to consider the flux and reflux of civilization as something much more comparable to a pulse than to a growth. It makes us remember that rhythm which is observed in all forms of energy. It makes us doubt that mere progress from simplicity to complexity which used to be affirmed as the main law of history.
The contemplation of the Dark Ages affords a powerful criticism of that superficial theory of social evolution which is among the intellectual plagues of our own generation. Much more is the story of Europe like the waking and the sleeping of a mature man, than like any indefinite increase in the aptitudes and powers of a growing body.
Though the prime characteristic of the Dark Ages is one of recollection, and though they are chiefly marked by this note of Europe sinking back into herself, very much more must be known of them before we have the truth, even in its most general form.
I will put in the form of a category or list the chief points which we must bear in mind.
In the first place the Dark Ages were a period of intense military action. Christendom was besieged from all around. It was held like a stronghold, and in those centuries of struggle its institutions were molded by military necessities: so that Christendom has ever since had about it the quality of a soldier. There was one unending series of attacks, Pagan and Mohammedan, from the North, from the East and from the South; attacks not comparable to the older raids of external hordes, eager only to enjoy civilization within the Empire, small in number and yet ready to accept the faith and customs of Europe. The barbarian incursions of the fifth and sixth centuries–at the end of the United Roman Empire–had been of this lesser kind. The mighty struggles of the eighth, ninth and especially the tenth centuries–of the Dark Ages–were a very different matter. Had the military institutions of Europe failed in that struggle, our civilization would have been wiped out; and indeed at one or two critical points, as in the middle of the eighth against the Mohammedan, and at the end of the ninth century against the northern pirates, all human judgment would have decided that Europe was doomed.
In point of fact, as we shall see in a moment, Europe was just barely saved. It was saved by the sword and by the intense Christian ideal which nerved the sword arm. But it was only just barely saved.
The first assault came from Islam.
A new intense and vividly anti-Christian thing arose in a moment, as it were, out of nothing, out of the hot sands to the East and spread like a fire. It consumed all the Levant. It arrived at the doors of the West. This was no mere rush of barbarism. The Mohammedan world was as cultured as our own in its first expansion. It maintained a higher and an increasing culture while ours declined; and its conquest, where it conquered us, was the conquest of something materially superior for the moment over the remaining arts and traditions of Christian Europe.
Just at the moment when Britain was finally won back to Europe, and when the unity of the West seemed to be recovered (though its life had fallen to so much lower a plane), we lost North Africa; it was swept from end to end in one tidal rush by that new force which aimed fiercely at our destruction. Immediately afterwards the first Mohammedan force crossed the Straits of Gibraltar; and in a few months after its landing the whole of the Spanish Peninsula, that strong Rock as it had seemed of ancient Roman culture, the hard Iberian land, crumbled. Politically, at least, and right up to the Pyrenees, Asia had it in its grip. In the mountain valleys alone, and especially in the tangle of highlands which occupies the northwestern corner of the Spanish square, individual communities of soldiers held out. From these the gradual reconquest of Spain by Christendom was to proceed, but for the moment they were crowded and penned upon the Asturian hills like men fighting against a wall.
Even Gaul was threatened: a Mohammedan host poured up into its very centre far beyond Poitiers: halfway to Tours. Luckily it was defeated; but Moslem garrisons continued to hold out in the Southern districts, in the northern fringes of the Pyrenees and along the shore line of the Narbonese and Provence.
Southern Italy was raided and partly occupied. The islands of the Mediterranean fell.
Against this sudden successful spring which had lopped off half of the West, the Dark Ages, and especially the French of the Dark Ages, spent a great part of their military energy. The knights of Northern Spain and the chiefs of the unconquered valleys recruited their forces perpetually from Gaul beyond the Pyrenees; and the northern valley of the Ebro, the high plains of Castile and Leon, were the training ground of European valor for three hundred years. The Basques were the unyielding basis of all the advance.
This Mohammedan swoop was the first and most disastrously successful of the three great assaults.
Next came the Scandinavian pirates.
Their descent was a purely barbaric thing, not numerous but (since pirates can destroy much with small numbers) for centuries unexhausted. They harried all the rivers and coasts of Britain, of Gaul, and of the Netherlands. They appeared in the Southern seas and their efforts seemed indefatigable. Britain especially (where the raiders bore the local name of "Danes") suffered from a ceaseless pillage, and these new enemies had no attraction to the Roman land save loot. They merely destroyed. They refused our religion. Had they succeeded they would not have mingled with us, but would have ended us.
Both in Northern Gaul and in Britain their chieftains acquired something of a foothold, but only after the perilous moment in which their armies were checked; they were tamed and constrained to accept the society they had attacked.
This critical moment when Europe seemed doomed was the last generation of the ninth century. France had been harried up to the gates of Paris. Britain was so raided that its last independent king, Alfred, was in hiding.
Both in Britain and Gaul Christendom triumphed and in the same generation.
Paris stood a successful siege, and the family which defended it was destined to become the royal family of all France at the inception of the Middle Ages. Alfred of Wessex in the same decade recovered South England. In both provinces of Christendom the situation was saved. The chiefs of the pirates were baptized; and though Northern barbarism remained a material menace for another hundred years, there was no further danger of our destruction.
Finally, less noticed by history, but quite as grievous, and needing a defence as gallant, was the pagan advance over the North German Plain and up the valley of the Danube.
All the frontier of Christendom upon this line from Augsburg and the Lech to the course of the Elbe and the North Sea, was but a line of fortresses and continual battlefields. It was but recently organized land. Until the generations before the year 800 there was no civilization beyond the Rhine save the upper Danube partially reclaimed, and a very scanty single extension up the valley of the Lower Main.
But Charlemagne, with vast Gallic armies, broke into the barbaric Germanies right up to the Elbe. He compelled them by arms to accept religion, letters and arts. He extended Europe to these new boundaries and organized them as a sort of rampart in the East: a thing the Roman Empire had not done. The Church was the cement of this new belt of defence–the imperfect population of which were evangelized from Ireland and Britain. It was an experiment, this creation of the Germanies by Western culture, this spiritual colonization of a March beyond the limits of the Empire. It did not completely succeed, as the Reformation proves; but it had at least the strength in the century after Charlemagne, its founder, to withstand the Eastern attack upon Christendom.
The attack was not racial. It was Pagan Slav, mixed with much that was left of Pagan German, even Mongol. Its character was the advance of the savage against the civilized man, and it remained a peril two generations longer than the peril which Gaul and Britain had staved off from the North.
This, then, is the first characteristic to be remembered of the Dark Ages: the violence of the physical struggle and the intense physical effort by which Europe was saved.
The second characteristic of the Dark Ages proceeds from this first military one: it may be called Feudalism.
Briefly it was this: the passing of actual government from the hands of the old Roman provincial centres of administration into the hands of each small local society and its lord. On such a basis there was a reconstruction of society from below: these local lords associating themselves under greater men, and these again holding together in great national groups under a national overlord.
In the violence of the struggle through which Christendom passed, town and village, valley and castle, had often to defend itself alone.
The great Roman landed estates, with their masses of dependents and slaves, under a lord or owner, had never disappeared. The descendants of these Roman, Gallic, British, owners formed the fighting class of the Dark Ages, and in this new function of theirs, perpetually lifted up to be the sole depositories of authority in some small imperiled countryside, they grew to be nearly independent units. For the purposes of cohesion that family which possessed most estates in a district tended to become the leader of it. Whole provinces were thus formed and grouped, and the vaguer sentiments of a larger unity expressed themselves by the choice of some one family, one of the most powerful in every county, who would be the overlord of all the other lords, great and small.
Side by side with this growth of local independence and of voluntary local groupings, went the transformation of the old imperial nominated offices into hereditary and personal things.
A count , for instance, was originally a "comes" or "companion" of the Emperor. The word dates from long before the break-up of the central authority of Rome. A count later was a great official: a local governor and judge–the Vice-Roy of a large district (a French county and English shire). His office was revocable, like other official appointments. He was appointed for a season, first at the Emperor's, later at the local King's discretion, to a particular local government. In the Dark Ages the count becomes hereditary. He thinks of his government as a possession which his son should rightly have after him. He bases his right to his government upon the possession of great estates within the area of that government. In a word, he comes to think of himself not as an official at all but as a feudal overlord , and all society (and the remaining shadow of central authority itself) agrees with him.
The second note, then, of the Dark Ages is the gradual transition of Christian society from a number of slave-owning, rich, landed proprietors, taxed and administered by a regular government, to a society of fighting nobles and their descendants, organized upon a basis of independence and in a hierarchy of lord and overlord, and supported no longer by slaves in the villages , but by half-free serfs or " villeins ."
Later an elaborate theory was constructed in order to rationalize this living and real thing. It was pretended–by a legal fiction–that the central King owned nearly all the land, that the great overlords "held" their land of him, the lesser lords "holding" theirs hereditarily of the overlords, and so forth. This idea of "holding" instead of "owning," though it gave an easy machinery for confiscation in time of rebellion, was legal theory only, and, so far as men's views of property went, a mere form. The reality was what I have described.
The third characteristic of the Dark Ages was the curious fixity of morals, of traditions, of the forms of religion, and of all that makes up social life.
We may presume that all civilization originally sprang from a soil in which custom was equally permanent.
We know that in the great civilizations of the East an enduring fixity of form is normal.
But in the general history of Europe, it has been otherwise. There has been a perpetual flux in the outward form of things, in architecture, in dress, and in the statement of philosophy as well (though not in its fundamentals).
In this mobile surface of European history the Dark Ages form a sort of island of changelessness. There is an absence of any great heresies in the West, and, save in one or two names, an absence of speculation. It was as though men had no time for any other activity but the ceaseless business of arms and of the defence of the West.
Consider the life of Charlemagne, who is the central figure of those centuries. It is spent almost entirely in the saddle. One season finds him upon the Elbe, the next upon the Pyrenees. One Easter he celebrates in Northern Gaul, another in Rome. The whole story is one of perpetual marching, and of blows parrying here, thrusting there, upon all the boundaries of isolated and besieged Christendom. He will attend to learning, but the ideal of learning is repetitive and conservative: its passion is to hold what was, not to create or expand. An anxious and sometimes desperate determination to preserve the memory of a great but half-forgotten past is the business of his court, which dissolves just before the worst of the Pagan assault; as it is the business of Alfred, who arises a century later, just after the worst assault has been finally repelled.
Religion during these centuries settled and consolidated, as it were. An enemy would say that it petrified, a friend that it was enormously strengthened by pressure. But whatever the metaphor chosen, the truth indicated will be this: that the Catholic Faith became between the years 600 and 1000 utterly one with Europe. The last vestiges of the antique and Pagan civilization of the Mediterranean were absorbed. A habit of certitude and of fixity even in the details of thought was formed in the European mind.
It is to be noted in this connection that geographically the centre of things had somewhat shifted. With the loss of Spain and of Northern Africa, the Mohammedan raiding of Southern Italy and the islands, the Mediterranean was no longer a vehicle of Western civilization, but the frontier of it. Rome itself might now be regarded as a frontier town. The eruption of the barbarians from the East along the Danube had singularly cut off the Latin West from Constantinople and from all the high culture of its Empire. Therefore, the centre of that which resisted in the West, the geographical nucleus of the island of Christendom, which was besieged all round, was France, and in particular Northern France. Northern Italy, the Germanies, the Pyrenees and the upper valley of the Ebro were essentially the marches of Gaul. Gaul was to preserve all that could be preserved of the material side of Europe, and also of the European spirit. And therefore the New World, when it arose, with its Gothic Architecture, its Parliaments, its Universities, and, in general, its spring of the Middle Ages, was to be a Gallic thing.
The fourth characteristic of the Dark Ages was a material one, and was that which would strike our eyes most immediately if we could transfer ourselves in time, and enjoy a physical impression of that world. This characteristic was derived from what I have just been saying. It was the material counterpart of the moral immobility or steadfastness of the time. It was this: that the external forms of things stood quite unchanged. The semi-circular arch, the short, stout pillar, occasionally (but rarely) the dome: these were everywhere the mark of architecture. There was no change nor any attempt at change. The arts were saved but not increased, and the whole of the work that men did with their hands stood fast in mere tradition. No new town arises. If one is mentioned (Oxford, for instance) for the first time in the Dark Ages, whether in Britain or in Gaul, one may fairly presume a Roman origin for it, even though there be no actual mention of it handed down from Roman times.
No new roads were laid. The old Roman military system of highways was kept up and repaired, though kept up and repaired with a declining vigor. The wheel of European life had settled to one slow rate of turning.
Not only were all these forms enduring, they were also few and simple. One type of public building and of church, one type of writing, everywhere recognizable, one type of agriculture, with very few products to differentiate it, alone remained.
The fifth characteristic of the Dark Ages is one apparently, but only apparently, contradictory of that immobile and fundamental character which I have just been describing. It is this: the Dark Ages were the point during which there very gradually germinated and came into outward existence things which still remain among us and help to differentiate our Christendom from the past of classical antiquity.
This is true of certain material things. The spur, the double bridle, the stirrup, the book in leaves distinct from the old roll–and very much else. It is true of the road system of Europe wherever that road system has departed from the old Roman scheme. It was in the Dark Ages with the gradual break-down of expensive causeways over marshes; with the gradual decline of certain centres; with bridges left unrepaired; culverts choked and making a morass against the dam of the roads, that you got the deflection of the great ways. In almost every broad river valley in England, where an old Roman road crosses the stream and its low-lying banks, you may see something which the Dark Ages left to us in our road system: you may see the modern road leaving the old Roman line and picking its way across the wet lands from one drier point to another, and rejoining the Roman line beyond. It is a thing you will see in almost anyone of our Strettons, Stanfords, Stamfords, Staffords, etc., which everywhere mark the crossing of a Roman road over a water course.
But much more than in material things the Dark Ages set a mold wherein the European mind grew. For instance, it was they that gave to us two forms of legend. The one something older than history, older than the Roman order, something Western reappearing with the release of the mind from the rigid accuracy of a high civilization; the other that legend which preserves historical truth under a guise of phantasy.
Of the first, the British story of Tristan is one example out of a thousand. Of the second, the legend of Constantine, which gradually and unconsciously developed into the famous Donation.
The Dark Ages gave us that wealth of story coloring and enlivening all our European life, and what is more, largely preserving historic truth; for nothing is more valuable to true history than legend. They also gave us our order in speech. Great hosts of words unknown to antiquity sprang up naturally among the people when the force of the classical centre failed. Some of them were words of the languages before the Roman armies came–cask, for instance, the old Iberian word. Some of them were the camp talk of the soldiers. Spade, for instance, and " épée ," the same piece of Greek slang, "the broad one," which has come to mean in French a sword; in English that with which we dig the earth. Masses of technical words in the old Roman laws turned into popular usage through that appetite the poor have for long official phrases: for instance, our English words wild , weald , wold , waste , gain , rider , rode , ledge , say , and a thousand others, all branch out from the lawyers' phrases of the later Roman Empire.
In this closed crucible of the Dark Ages crystallized also–by a process which we cannot watch, or of which we have but glimpses–that rich mass of jewels, the local customs of Europe, and even the local dress, which differentiates one place from another, when the communications of a high material civilization break down. In all this the Dark Ages are a comfort to the modern man, for he sees by their example that the process of increasing complexity reaches its term; that the strain of development is at last relieved; that humanity sooner or later returns upon itself; that there is an end in repose and that the repose is fruitful.
The last characteristic of the Dark Ages is that which has most engrossed, puzzled, and warped the judgment of non-Catholic historians when they have attempted a conspectus of European development; it was the segregation, the homogeneity of and the dominance of clerical organization. The hierarchy of the Church, its unity and its sense of discipline was the chief civil institution and the chief binding social force of the times. Side by side with it went the establishment of the monastic institution which everywhere took on a separate life of its own, preserved what could be preserved of arts and letters, drained the marshes and cleared the forests, and formed the ideal economic unit for such a period; almost the only economic unit in which capital could then be accumulated and preserved. The great order of St. Benedict formed a framework of living points upon which was stretched the moral life of Europe. The vast and increasing endowments of great and fixed religious houses formed the economic flywheel of those centuries. They were the granary and the storehouse. But for the monks, the fluctuations proceeding from raid and from decline would, in their violence, at some point or another, have snapped the chain of economic tradition, and we should all have fallen into barbarism.
Meanwhile the Catholic hierarchy as an institution–I have already called it by a violent metaphor, a civil institution–at any rate as a political institution–remained absolute above the social disintegration of the time.
All natural things were slowly growing up unchecked and disturbing the strict lines of the old centralized governmental order which men still remembered. In language Europe was a medley of infinitely varying local dialects.
Thousands upon thousands of local customs were coming to be separate laws in each separate village.
Legend, as I have said, was obscuring fixed history. The tribal basis from which we spring was thrusting its instincts back into the strict and rational Latin fabric of the State. Status was everywhere replacing contract, and habit replacing a reason for things. Above this medley the only absolute organization that could be was that of the Church. The Papacy was the one centre whose shifting could not even be imagined. The Latin tongue, in the late form in which the Church used it, was everywhere the same, and everywhere suited to rituals that differed but slightly from province to province when we contrast them with the millioned diversity of local habit and speech.
Whenever a high civilization was to re-arise out of the soil of the Dark Ages, it was certain first to show a full organization of the Church under some Pope of exceptional vigor, and next to show that Pope, or his successors in this tradition, at issue with new civil powers. Whenever central government should rise again and in whatever form, a conflict would begin between the new kings and the clerical organization which had so strengthened itself during the Dark Ages.
Now Europe, as we know, did awake from its long sleep. The eleventh century was the moment of its awakening. Three great forces–the personality of St. Gregory VII., the appearance (by a happy accident of slight cross breeding: a touch of Scandinavian blood added to the French race) of the Norman race, finally the Crusades–drew out of the darkness the enormous vigor of the early Middle Ages. They were to produce an intense and active civilization of their own; a civilization which was undoubtedly the highest and the best our race has known, conformable to the instincts of the European, fulfilling his nature, giving him that happiness which is the end of men.
As we also know, Europe on this great experiment of the Middle Ages, after four hundred years of high vitality, was rising to still greater heights when it suffered shipwreck.
With that disaster, the disaster of the Reformation, I shall deal later in this series.
In my next chapter I shall describe the inception of the Middle Ages, and show what they were before our promise in them was ruined.

Here Ends Chapter VI of Europe and the Faith; which continues in Chapter VII.