The Making of Europe: An
Introduction to the History of European Unity
by Christopher Dawson
(London: Sheed and Ward,
1932; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003; new
introduction and reprint)
We have waited a long time to
see the works of Christopher Dawson reappear. One of the joys of the new
millennium is to discover this expectation partially fulfilled. The reprints came
out after the biography written by his daughter Christina Scott: A Historian
and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson, 1889-1970 (Transaction Publishers, 1991).
Ignatius Press has given us The
Formation of Christendom and The
Dividing of Christendom as well as
the wonderful related
study of Bradley Birzer, Sanctifying the World: The
Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, originally published by Christendom Press in 2007.
The Catholic University of
America Press currently lists twelve titles: Progress and Religion, Medieval Essays, The Crisis in Western Education, Christianity and European Culture, The Judgment of the Nationswhich Patrick Allitt describes as “the most
anguished work he ever wrote” [Catholic Converts, 267]Enquiries into Religion and Culture,The Movement of World Revolution, and The Making of Europe as now again in print. Also from the CUA Press are two edited collections containing some of Dawson’s works, The Third Spring and Christianity and European Culture. European Culture contains The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (1960) and selections from The Making of Europe (1932), The Judgment of the Nations (1943), and Medieval Essays (1959). There was still until 2012 a void for his 1928 classic, The Age of the Gods, which Bernard Lonergan once said he had read several times. Religion and Culture is scheduled for 2013, the latest of CUA’s reprints.
Dawson had a fine British
education, thanks in part to his religion. However, Dawson never had a
university teaching position in Britain because he changed his religion in
1914. As a Catholic, he was refused when he applied for a post as professor at
the University of Leeds shortly after the 1932 publication of The Making of
Europe. The author of the new
introduction, Alexander Murray, sees some good here. It made Dawson a kind of
“historian prophet” who gained respect and an eager audience in the
English-speaking world outside the academic establishment. Dawson finished only
two of his planned major works, and The Making of Europe is one of them.
The Making of Europe treats the period between 300 BC and 1000 AD. Let us remember
that the Renaissance mentality saw no real good after the classical period
which effectively came to an end with the Emperor Constantine. The mood of the
Enlightenment was even more severe in accepting nothing good from the past when
it replaced “the myth of the golden age” with “the myth of progress”. Marxism pushed
this further taking the stance that “all history is the history of oppression”.
But Dawson brought light where there was darkness, and his work rejected the
concept of the Dark Ages. His thought was original when he saw the complex
history of Europe as more akin to the myth of the Phoenixsomething new and
vital arising from the ashes of the old when Christian Europe was born.
In just over 250 pages Dawson
shows how conflicting movements eventually coalesced into a vibrant medieval
unity. Roman institutions and learning, barbarian spirit and energy, contact
with the Eastboth the Byzantine State and Islam, and the fusion of church and
state in the Carolingian period, all had a role in the story. There had been
partial revival and partial reversal with Justinian and Charlemagne, but by the
eleventh century what we know as Western culture was in place, and it has
continued without interruption to the present.
Though The Making of
Europe dwells upon the past, it ends
with a warning about the present. Dawson says that the deeper spiritual needs
of man were met by the medieval synthesis which he has outlined in the manner
of a “meta-history”. But in the last four centuries this spiritual aspect has
been muted in favor of secular culture and material advantage. He warns that
this is not enough. Surely since 1932 his warning seems correct. The
fashionable Nihilism of our day does not satisfy, and Europe is poised either
to regain her lost soul or to lose it to alien forces.
[An earlier version of this review-essay appeared in The
Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 43.]