Medieval Essays

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813210179
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Table of Contents


Introduction, by John F. Boyle....................vii
I. The Study of Christian Culture....................5
II. The Christian East and the Oriental Background of Christian Culture....................15
III. The Christian West and the Fall of the Empire....................28
IV. The Sociological Foundations of Medieval Christendom....................49
V. Church and State in the Middle Ages....................67
VI. The Theological Development of Medieval Culture....................84
VII. The Moslem West and the Oriental Background of Later Medieval Culture....................103
VIII. The Scientific Development of Medieval Culture....................118
IX. The Literary Development of Medieval Culture....................143
X. The Feudal Society and the Christian Epic....................160
XI. The Origins of the Romantic Tradition....................183
XII. The Vision of Piers Plowman....................206
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First Chapter


By Christopher Dawson

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 1954 Dominic Scott
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1017-9

Chapter One

The Study of Christian Culture

The following essays cover so wide a field in space and time that it may be difficult for the reader at first sight to grasp their connection with one another. True, they all deal with some aspect of "medieval" culture, but the word medieval is in itself unsatisfactory or insignificant. It was coined by post-Renaissance scholars to cover the gap between two periods of positive achievement which were regarded as the only ones worthy of the attention of the educated man-the classical civilization of Greece and Rome and the civilization of modern Europe. But this conception is the very opposite of that on which this book is based. What I am concerned with is not the interim period between two civilizations, but the study of Christian Culture-a culture which is not only worthy of study for its own sake, but is the source of the actual sociological unity which we call Europe.

If, as I believe, religion is the key of history and it is impossible to understand a culture unless we understand its religious roots, then the Middle Ages are not a kind of waiting room between two different worlds, but the age which made a new world, the world from which we come and to which in a sense we still belong.

But the concept of Christian culture is far wider than that of the Middle Ages, not only potentially and ideally but actually and historically. It is true that there have been many Christian cultures and there may be many more. Nevertheless the main stream of Christian culture is one and should be studied as an intelligible historical unity.

The present volume does not, of course, attempt to deal with this whole subject. It is limited to particular aspects of the formative process of Christian culture. Even so this formative process involves three distinct phases of evolution and three different cultural situations.

In the first place there is the situation of a new religion in an old culture. This was the situation of Christianity in the Roman Empire of which I write in the essay on "The Age of St. Augustine." This process of conflict and conversion produced the first phase of Christian culture-the society of the Christian Empire and the age of the Fathers. This form of Christian culture was preserved almost unchanged in the Byzantine world, while in the West it provided a kind of classical standard or ideal towards which later ages have looked back.

Secondly there is the situation in which the Church entered the barbarian world not only as the teacher of the Christian Faith but also as the bearer of a higher culture. This double impact of Christian culture on the barbarian world which had its own tradition of culture and its own social institutions produced a state of tension and conflict between two social traditions and two ideals of life which has had a profound influence on the development of Western culture. Indeed it has never been completely resolved, since with the coming of modern nationalism we have seen a conscious attempt to undo the medieval synthesis and to reassert the old pre-Christian national traditions in an idealized form.

In the third place we have the situation in which Christianity inspires a new movement of cultural creativity, in which the new life of the new peoples finds a new expression in consciously Christian forms. This is the medieval synthesis which is the characteristic achievement of the Middle Ages, in the narrower sense of the expression. It would, however, be more correct to describe it as the age of the Western Renaissance for it is essentially the birth of a new world culture. It is to this movement that most of these essays are devoted, since it is the decisive moment in the history of Western culture and since it is possible to study it at first hand in the new vernacular literatures which are its living voice.

Finally I have devoted an essay to the great rival cultures of Western Islam, the influence and importance of which have hitherto been so insufficiently recognized by the Western historians of medieval culture. It is sometimes said that the emphasizing of the Christian character of Western culture makes us blind to the value of other civilizations. I believe that the case is just the contrary. The more we understand Christendom, the more we shall understand Islam, and the more we underestimate the religious element in our own culture the less we shall appreciate the cultures of the non-European world.

At the present time it is exceptionally difficult to realize this affinity between the world cultures because we have become accustomed to think of them primarily in racial and geographical terms; we see Western civilization as the civilization of the white man against the civilization of Asiatics and coloured men. To some extent this was always so and it is easy to find signs of racial antipathy in the Western accounts of the Huns or the Mongols and in Moslem accounts of the Franks. Nevertheless the essential principle of the great world cultures of the past (with the partial exception of India and China) was to be found not in the community of race but in the bond of a common religious faith, or as Moslems and medieval Christians put it, in a common law. Both in the North and South, on the Baltic and in the Western Mediterranean, the frontiers of Christendom cut across the geographical and racial frontiers, so that the pagan Lithuanians and the Moslem Spaniards belonged to different cultural and spiritual worlds. While on the other hand, the Christians of Asia, however remote they might be in speech and behaviour, were felt to be in some sense fellow-citizens in the great society of Christendom.

This sense endured longer in the East than in the West. Armenian poets were still composing elegies on the destruction of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem when the descendants of the Crusaders themselves were destroying Christendom in the interests of power politics; while at the extreme limit of the Christian world, the little kingdom of Karthli still fought a lonely crusade against overwhelming odds and maintained the tradition of Christian chivalry down to the age of Voltaire. The existence of this culture which was to such a large extent common to East and West and of the great society of Christendom which was its bearer, is one of the main facts of world history which no historian can ignore without falsifying his whole understanding of the past. That it is so largely ignored or forgotten at the present day is one of the most serious faults in our present system of education. No doubt there are many reasons which explain though they do not excuse it.

A secularized society must inevitably be unfavourable to the study of Christian culture, since its own way of life and its beliefs and ideals are totally alien. We see this most clearly in the case of Communist society which is professedly anti-religious and regards the history of Christian culture as nothing but the story of an illusion which has led mankind down a blind alley for 1,700 years. And a similar attitude is also to be found in a less extreme form in the educational theory of democratic idealists like the late Professor Dewey, who believe that education is essentially an instrument for creating a common democratic mentality and that all study must be directed towards sharing the experience of contemporary democratic society and creating new democratic values.

But even before our society had undergone the extreme process of secularization in recent times, the study of Christian culture had never received the attention that it deserved. It was at once ignored and taken for granted; ignored by the Humanists who concentrated their attention on the study of classical antiquity, and taken for granted by the theologians whose energies were devoted to strictly ecclesiastical studies and paid little attention to the nontheological aspects of Christian culture. The Humanists may have been good Christians, and the theologians may have been good humanists, but between them they left vast fields of Christian culture and history uncultivated and disregarded.

The leaders of the Catholic revival in the early nineteenth century-men like Goerres and Ozanam and Montalembert-made a serious attempt to remedy this neglect and to promote the study and appreciation of Christian culture, but their efforts were too sporadic and too uncritical to be entirely successful. The age saw indeed a great renaissance of medieval studies but the ultimate beneficiary was not Christian culture but the modern cult of nationalism which has had such a vast influence on the whole development of modern education and modern historical studies.

It is generally agreed today that this influence has not been altogether wholesome. In its extreme forms, as in the nationalist ideology imposed on school and university by National Socialism, it has been one of the most destructive forces that have threatened the existence of Western culture. But even the milder forms of nationalist history, such as prevailed generally in Europe and America in the second half of the nineteenth century, were also unfavourable to the cause of civilization, inasmuch as they tended to widen the gulf that divides nation from nation and to minimize or ignore the elements that are common to Western culture as a whole.

Nevertheless it is useless to look for a remedy to the opposite ideology of Communism with its cosmopolitan ideals of world revolution and the international solidarity of the workers. For it produces just the same subordination of culture to politics and the same compulsory imposition of an exclusive party ideology on society which characterize the rival forms of totalitarianism. Whatever the faults of the old humanist culture, it was wider in sympathy, richer in values and more civilized in its social attitude than the new political faiths. Nevertheless it is hard to see how it can survive in the harsh climate of a world that is subject to the pressures of total war and mass propaganda. It was essentially the culture of a privileged class and of a society that possessed not only leisure, but a kind of moral security which did not depend on political freedom or material wealth but on universally accepted standards of personal honour and civilized behaviour.

From this point of view the world of Christian culture is nearer to our own than is the world of Humanism. The former was always at grips with the problem of barbarism. It had to face the external threat of alien and hostile cultures, while at the same time it was in conflict with barbaric elements within its own social environment which it had to control and transform. And in this work it could not rely on the existence of common standards of civilization or common moral values. It had to create its own moral order before it could achieve an ordered form of civilized existence.

The study of such a culture with its problems, its failures and its achievements, involves a much deeper level of human experience than either the self-centred and self-regarding political ideologies or the self-assured humanism of the Enlightenment. St. Augustine is a better guide for our age than Gibbon or Marx, but he is so remote from us and speaks such an alien tongue that we cannot learn what he has to teach unless we know something of the tradition of Christian culture as a whole. And this is not easy because, as I have said, the study of Christian culture has never hitherto been given a recognized place in university studies or in the curriculum of Western education.

But we cannot afford to neglect it any longer. Though Christians today may be only a minority, they are a very considerable minority, and they are quite strong enough to carry out a programme of Christian studies, if they wish to do so. What is needed, it seems to me, is a comprehensive course of studies which would deal with Christian culture in the same integrative and objective way in which the humanist educators dealt with Classical culture. For the Humanist was not merely a grammarian and a philologist, he studied the whole course of ancient civilization from Homer to Marcus Aurelius in all its manifestations-its languages and literatures, its history and institutions, its religion and philosophy, its architecture and art. From the point of view of the scientific specialist, the field of study was too wide; yet as a form of education it was by no means impracticable or ineffective, and has survived down to our own time in such forms as the school of Litterae Humaniores at Oxford. And it was, above all, its non-specialized character-the way in which it used the parallel studies of literature and philosophy and history to support and illuminate one another-that was the source of its educational success.

Now it is true that the field of Christian culture is even more extensive than that of Classical culture, since it involves a longer historical development and a larger number of vernacular languages. But this is largely compensated by the fact that every European people possesses its own approach to the common culture of Christendom through its literature and history. I have given a specimen of this approach in my essay on Piers Plowman, and every European literature provides similar opportunities.

Apart from this problem of the vernaculars, a comprehensive study of Christian culture is no more difficult than that of classical antiquity, and it offers the same educational advantages. Professor E. R. Curtius has shown in his book on European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages how our ignorance of the common language and literature of Western Christendom has vitiated our interpretation of the origins of our own literary traditions. And the same thing is true in other fields. It is difficult to separate the study of medieval political institutions from that of medieval political ideas, and we cannot understand the latter without a knowledge of medieval philosophy which is part of the central tradition of Christian culture. It is impossible to treat the various national traditions and national cultures as self-sufficient and self-explanatory entities, for they are all of them rooted in the common tradition of Christendom-a tradition which has its own history and its own laws of development. Thus behind all the divergencies and idiosyncracies of the national developments, we have the three great phases of the Christian culture itself which are organically related to one another.

First the growth of the Christian culture on the soil of the Graeco-Roman world which had been fertilized by the accumulated remains of so many older cultures. Secondly its transplantation to the virgin soil of the West, and finally its new flowering in the vernacular cultures of the European world.

Each of these phases has its own social and institutional history, its own form of education and learning and its own literature and art. But the continuity of the tradition as a whole is unbroken and even in the seventeenth century the thought of St. Augustine still exercises a living influence on the thought and life of the new peoples. Nor is this continuity confined to the higher levels of culture. Down to the age of the French Revolution, and sometimes even later, the Church remained the centre of the life of the common people, and even today we see in the case of survivals like the Passion Play of Oberammergau how the peasant no less-perhaps even more-than the scholar retained for ages a vital contact with the spiritual and artistic traditions of the Christian culture.

But what is the situation today when such survivals, in so far as they still exist, can be regarded as no more than picturesque archaisms? It is clear that contemporary culture can no longer be regarded as Christian, since it is probably the most completely secularized form of culture that has ever existed. Nevertheless the Christian religion still survives and there seems to be little likelihood that it will disappear. In fact it is more widely distributed than ever before. Nor is it confined to the more backward peoples or to the more uneducated sections of society, as was the case with the religions and religious cultures of the past when they were in a state of decline. Indeed today Christians take a more active part than they did two centuries ago in the higher cultural activities of society: in science, literature and art.


Excerpted from MEDIEVAL ESSAYS by Christopher Dawson Copyright © 1954 by Dominic Scott . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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