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

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

I said in my last chapter that the Dark Ages might be compared to a long sleep of Europe: a sleep lasting from the fatigue of the old society in the fifth century to the spring and rising of the eleventh and twelfth. The metaphor is far too simple, of course, for that sleep was a sleep of war. In all those centuries Europe was desperately holding its own against the attack of all that desired to destroy it: refined and ardent Islam from the South, letterless barbarian pagans from the East and North. At any rate, from that sleep or that besieging Europe awoke or was relieved.
I said that three great forces, humanly speaking, worked this miracle; the personality of St. Gregory VII.; the brief appearance, by a happy accident, of the Norman State; and finally the Crusades.
The Normans of history, the true French Normans we know, are stirring a generation after the year 1000. St. Gregory filled that same generation. He was a young man when the Norman effort began. He died, full of an enormous achievement, in 1085. As much as one man could, he , the heir of Cluny, had re-made Europe. Immediately after his death there was heard the march of the Crusades. From these three the vigor of a fresh, young, renewed Europe proceeds.
Much might be added. The perpetual and successful chivalric charge against the Mohammedan in Spain illumined all that time and clarified it. Asia was pushed back from the Pyrenees, and through the passes of the Pyrenees perpetually cavalcaded the high adventurers of Christendom. The Basques–a strange and very strong small people–were the pivot of that reconquest, but the valley of the torrent of the Aragon was its channel. The life of St. Gregory is contemporaneous with that of El Cid Campeador. In the same year that St. Gregory died, Toledo, the sacred centre of Spain, was at last forced from the Mohammedans, and their Jewish allies, and firmly held. All Southern Europe was alive with the sword.
In that same moment romance appeared; the great songs: the greatest of them all, the Song of Roland; then was a ferment of the European mind, eager from its long repose, piercing into the undiscovered fields. That watching skepticism which flanks and follows the march of the Faith when the Faith is most vigorous had also begun to speak.
There was even some expansion beyond the boundaries eastward, so that something of the unfruitful Baltic Plain was reclaimed. Letters awoke and Philosophy. Soon the greatest of all human exponents, St. Thomas Aquinas, was to appear. The plastic arts leapt up: Color and Stone. Humor fully returned: general travel: vision. In general, the moment was one of expectation and of advance. It was spring.
For the purposes of these few pages I must confine the attention of my reader to those three tangible sources of the new Europe, which, as I have said, were the Normans, St. Gregory VII., and the Crusades.
Of the Norman race we may say that it resembled in history those mirĉ or new stars which flare out upon the darkness of the night sky for some few hours or weeks or years, and then are lost or merged in the infinity of things. He is indeed unhistorical who would pretend William the Conqueror, the organizer and maker of what we now call England, Robert the Wizard, the conquerors of Sicily, or any of the great Norman names that light Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, to be even partly Scandinavians. They were Gauls: short in stature, lucid in design, vigorous in stroke, positive in philosophy. They bore no outward relation to the soft and tall and sentimental North from which some few of their remote ancestry had drawn ancestral names.
But on the other hand, anyone who should pretend that this amazing and ephemeral phenomenon, the Norman, was merely Gallo-Roman, would commit an error: an error far less gross but still misleading. In speech, in manner, in accoutrement, in the very trick of riding the horse, in the cooking of food, in that most intimate part of man, his jests, the Norman was wholly and apparently a Gaul. In his body–hard, short, square, broad-shouldered, alert–the Norman was a Frenchman only. But no other part of Gaul then did what Normandy did: nor could any other French province show, as Normandy showed, immediate, organized and creative power, during the few years that the marvel lasted.
That marvel is capable of explanation and I will attempt to explain it. Those dull, blundering and murderous ravagings of the coasts of Christian Europe by the pirates of Scandinavia (few in number, futile in achievement) which we call in English history, "The Danish Invasions," were called upon the opposite coast of the Channel, "The Invasions of the Nordmanni" or "the Men of the North." They came from the Baltic and from Norway. They were part of the universal assault which the Dark Ages of Christendom had to sustain: part of a ceaseless pressure from without against civilization; and they were but a part of it. They were few, as pirates always must be. It was on the estuaries of a few continental rivers and in the British Isles that they counted most in the lives of Europeans.
Now among the estuaries of the great rivers was the estuary of the Seine. The Scandinavian pirates forced it again and again. At the end of the ninth century they had besieged Paris, which was then rapidly becoming the political centre of Gaul.
So much was there left of the Roman tradition in that last stronghold of the Roman Empire that the quieting of invading hordes by their settlement (by inter-marriage with and granting of land in, a fixed Roman province) was a policy still obvious to those who still called themselves "The Emperors" of the West.
In the year 911 this antique method, consecrated by centuries of tradition, produced its last example and the barbarian troublers from the sea were given a fixed limit of land wherein they might settle. The maritime province "Lugdunensis Secunda" /21/ was handed over to them for settlement, that is, they might not attempt a partition of the land outside its boundaries. On the analogy of all similar experiments we can be fairly certain of what happened, though there is no contemporary record of such domestic details in the case of Normandy.
The barbarians, few in number, coming into a fertile and thickly populated Roman province, only slightly affected its blood, but their leaders occupied waste land, planted themselves as heirs of existing childless lords, took to wife the heiresses of others; enfeoffed groups of small men; took a share of the revenue; helped to answer for military levy and general government. Their chief was responsible to the crown.
To the mass of the population the new arrangement would make no change; they were no longer slaves, but they were still serfs. Secure of their small farms, but still bound to work for their lord, it mattered little to them whether that lord of theirs had married his daughter to a pirate or had made a pirate his heir or his partner in the management of the estate. All the change the serf would notice from the settlement was that the harrying and the plundering of occasional barbarian raids had ceased.
In the governing class of perhaps some ten to twenty thousand families the difference would be very noticeable indeed. The pirate newcomers, though insignificant in number compared with the total population, were a very large fraction added to so small a body. The additional blood, though numerically a small proportion, permeated rapidly throughout the whole community. Scandinavian names and habits may have had at first some little effect upon the owner-class with which the Scandinavians first mingled; it soon disappeared. But, as had been the case centuries before in the earlier experiments of that sort, it was the barbarian chief and his hereditary descendants who took over the local government and "held it," as the phrase went, of the universal government of Gaul.
These "North-men," the new and striking addition to the province, the Gallo-Romans called, as we have seen "Nordmanni." The Roman province, within the limits of which they were strictly settled, the second Lyonnese, came to be called "Normannia." For a century the slight admixture of new blood worked in the general Gallo-Roman mass of the province and, numerically small though it was, influenced its character, or rather produced a new thing; just as in certain chemical combinations the small admixture of a new element transforms the whole. With the beginning of the eleventh century, as everything was springing into new life, when the great saint who, from the chair of Peter, was to restore the Church was already born, when the advance of the Pyreneans against Islam was beginning to strike its decisive conquering blows, there appeared, a sudden phenomenon, this new thing–French in speech and habit and disposition of body, yet just differentiated from the rest of Frenchmen– the Norman Race .
It possessed these characteristics–a great love of exact order, an alert military temper and a passion for reality which made its building even of ships (though it was not in the main seafaring) excellent, and of churches and of castles the most solid of its time.
All the Normans' characteristics (once the race was formed), led them to advance. They conquered England and organized it; they conquered and organized Sicily and Southern Italy; they made of Normandy itself the model state in a confused time; they surveyed land; they developed a regular tactic for mailed cavalry. Yet they endured for but a hundred years, and after that brief coruscation they are wholly merged again in the mass of European things!
You may take the first adventurous lords of the Cotentin in, say 1030, for the beginning of the Norman thing; you may take the Court of young Henry II. with his Southerners and his high culture in, say 1160, most certainly for the burial of it. During that little space of time the Norman had not only reintroduced exactitude in the government of men, he had also provided the sword of the new Papacy and he had furnished the framework of the crusading host. But before his adventure was done the French language and the writ of Rome ran from the Grampians to the Euphrates.
Of the Papacy and the Crusades I now speak.
St. Gregory VII., the second of the great re-creative forces of that time, was of the Tuscan peasantry, Etrurian in type, therefore Italian in speech, by name Hildebrand. Whether an historian understands his career or no is a very test of whether that historian understands the nature of Europe. For St. Gregory VII. imposed nothing upon Europe. He made nothing new. What he did was to stiffen the ideal with reality. He provoked a resurrection of the flesh. He made corporate the centralized Church and the West.
For instance; it was the ideal, the doctrine, the tradition, the major custom by far, that the clergy should be celibate. He enforced celibacy as universal discipline.
The awful majesty of the Papacy had been present in all men's minds as a vast political conception for centuries too long to recall; St. Gregory organized that monarchy, and gave it proper instruments of rule.
The Unity of the Church had been the constant image without which Christendom could not be; St. Gregory VII. at every point made that unity tangible and visible. The Protestant historians who, for the most part, see in the man a sporadic phenomenon, by such a misconception betray the source of their anĉmia and prove their intellectual nourishment to be unfed from the fountain of European life. St. Gregory VII. was not an inventor, but a renovator. He worked not upon, but in, his material; and his material was the nature of Europe: our nature.
Of the awful obstacles such workers must encounter all history speaks. They are at conflict not only with evil, but with inertia; and with local interest, with blurred vision and with restricted landscapes. Always they think themselves defeated, as did St. Gregory when he died. Always they prove themselves before posterity to have done much more than any other mold of man. Napoleon also was of this kind.
When St. Gregory was dead the Europe which he left was the monument of that triumph whose completion he had doubted and the fear of whose failure had put upon his dying lips the phrase: "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile."
Immediately after his death came the stupendous Gallic effort of the Crusades.
The Crusades were the second of the main armed eruptions of the Gauls. The first, centuries before, had been the Gallic invasion of Italy and Greece and the Mediterranean shores in the old Pagan time. The third, centuries later, was to be the wave of the Revolution and of Napoleon.
The preface to the Crusades appeared in those endless and already successful wars of Christendom against Asia upon the high plateaus of Spain. These had taught the enthusiasm and the method by which Asia, for so long at high tide flooding a beleaguered Europe, might be slowly repelled, and from these had proceeded the military science and the aptitude for strain which made possible the advance of two thousand miles upon the Holy Land. The consequences of this last and third factor in the re-awakening of Europe were so many that I can give but a list of them here.
The West, still primitive, discovered through the Crusades the intensive culture, the accumulated wealth, the fixed civilized traditions of the Greek Empire and of the town of Constantinople. It discovered also, in a vivid new experience, the East. The mere covering of so much land, the mere seeing of so many sights by a million men expanded and broke the walls of the mind of the Dark Ages. The Mediterranean came to be covered with Christian ships, and took its place again with fertile rapidity as the great highway of exchange.
Europe awoke. All architecture is transformed, and that quite new thing, the Gothic, arises. The conception of representative assembly, monastic in origin, fruitfully transferred to civilian soil, appears in the institutions of Christendom. The vernacular languages appear, and with them the beginnings of our literature: the Tuscan, the Castilian, the Langue d'Oc, the Northern French, somewhat later the English. Even the primitive tongues that had always kept their vitality from beyond recorded time, the Celtic and the German /22/ begin to take on new creative powers and to produce a new literature. That fundamental institution of Europe, the University, arises; first in Italy, immediately after in Paris–which last becomes the type and centre of the scheme.
The central civil governments begin to correspond to their natural limits, the English monarchy is fixed first, the French kingdom is coalescing, the Spanish regions will soon combine. The Middle Ages are born.
The flower of that capital experiment in the history of our race was the thirteenth century. Edward I. of England, St. Louis of France, Pope Innocent III., were the types of its governing manhood. Everywhere Europe was renewed; there were new white walls around the cities, new white Gothic churches in the towns, new castles on the hills, law codified, the classics rediscovered, the questions of philosophy sprung to activity and producing in their first vigor, as it were, the summit of expository power in St. Thomas, surely the strongest, the most virile, intellect which our European blood has given to the world.
Two notes mark the time for anyone who is acquainted with its building, its letters, and its wars: a note of youth, and a note of content. Europe was imagined to be at last achieved, and that ineradicable dream of a permanent and satisfactory society seemed to have taken on flesh and to have come to live forever among Christian men.
No such permanence and no such good is permitted to humanity; and the great experiment, as I have called it, was destined to fail.
While it flourished, all that is specially characteristic of our European descent and nature stood visibly present in the daily life, and in the large, as in the small, institutions, of Europe.
Our property in land and instruments was well divided among many or all; we produced the peasant; we maintained the independent craftsman; we founded coöperative industry. In arms that military type arose which lives upon the virtues proper to arms and detests the vices arms may breed. Above all, an intense and living appetite for truth, a perception of reality, invigorated these generations. They saw what was before them, they called things by their names. Never was political or social formula less divorced from fact, never was the mass of our civilization better welded–and in spite of all this the thing did not endure.
By the middle of the fourteenth century the decaying of the flower was tragically apparent. New elements of cruelty tolerated, of mere intrigue successful, of emptiness in philosophical phrase and of sophistry in philosophical argument, marked the turn of the tide. Not an institution of the thirteenth but the fourteenth debased it; the Papacy professional and a prisoner, the parliaments tending to oligarchy, the popular ideals dimmed in the minds of the rulers, the new and vigorous and democratic monastic orders already touched with mere wealth and beginning also to change–but these last can always, and do always, restore themselves.
Upon all this came the enormous incident of the Black Death. Here half the people, there a third, there again a quarter, died; from that additional blow the great experiment of the Middle Ages could not recover.
Men clung to their ideal for yet another hundred and fifty years. The vital forces it had developed still carried Europe from one material perfection to another; the art of government, the suggestion of letters, the technique of sculpture and of painting (here raised by a better vision, there degraded by a worse one), everywhere developed and grew manifold. But the supreme achievement of the thirteenth century was seen in the later fourteenth to be ephemeral, and in the fifteenth it was apparent that the attempt to found a simple and satisfied Europe had failed.
The full causes of that failure cannot be analyzed. One may say that science and history were too slight; that the material side of life was insufficient; that the full knowledge of the past which is necessary to permanence was lacking–or one may say that the ideal was too high for men. I, for my part, incline to believe that wills other than those of mortals were in combat for the soul of Europe, as they are in combat daily for the souls of individual men, and that in this spiritual battle, fought over our heads perpetually, some accident of the struggle turned it against us for a time. If that suggestion be fantastic (which no doubt it is), at any rate none other is complete.
With the end of the fifteenth century there was to come a supreme test and temptation. The fall of Constantinople and the release of Greek: the rediscovery of the Classic past: the Press: the new great voyages–India to the East, America to the West–had (in the one lifetime of a man /23/ between 1453 and 1515) suddenly brought Europe into a new, a magic, and a dangerous land.
To the provinces of Europe, shaken by an intellectual tempest of physical discovery, disturbed by an abrupt and undigested enlargement in the material world, in physical science, and in the knowledge of antiquity, was to be offered a fruit of which each might taste if it would, but the taste of which would lead, if it were acquired, to evils no citizen of Europe then dreamt of; to things which even the criminal intrigues and the cruel tyrants of the fifteenth century would have shuddered to contemplate, and to a disaster which very nearly overset our ship of history and very nearly lost us forever its cargo of letters, of philosophy, of the arts, and of all our other powers.
That disaster is commonly called "The Reformation." I do not pretend to analyze its material causes, for I doubt if any of its causes were wholly material. I rather take the shape of the event and show how the ancient and civilized boundaries of Europe stood firm, though shaken, under the tempest; how that tempest might have ravaged no more than those outlying parts newly incorporated–never sufficiently penetrated perhaps with the Faith and the proper habits of ordered men–the outer Germanies and Scandinavia.
The disaster would have been upon a scale not too considerable, and Europe might quickly have righted herself after the gust should be passed, had not one exception of capital amount marked the intensest crisis of the storm. That exception to the resistance offered by the rest of ancient Europe was the defection of Britain.
Conversely with this loss of an ancient province of the Empire, one nation, and one alone, of those which the Roman Empire had not bred, stood the strain and preserved the continuity of Christian tradition: that nation was Ireland.

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


/21/ The delimitation of this province dated from Diocletian. It was already six hundred years old, its later name of "Normandy" masked this essential fact that it was and is a Roman division, as for that matter are probably our English counties.

/22/ I mean, in neither of the groups of tongues as we first find them recorded, for by that time each–especially the German–was full of Southern words borrowed from the Empire; but the original stocks which survived side by side with this new vocabulary. For instance, our first knowledge of Teutonic dialect is of the eighth century (the so-called Early Gothic is a fraud) but even then quite half the words or more are truly German, apparently unaffected by the Imperial laws and speech.

/23/ The lifetime of one very great and famous man did cover it. Ferdinand, King of Aragon, the mighty Spaniard, the father of the noblest of English queens, was born the year before Constantinople fell. He died the year before Luther found himself swept to the head of a chaotic wave.